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Ben Hewitt , October 2nd, 2013 09:43

We catch up with former New Young Pony Club duo Tahita Bulmer and Andy Spence ahead of the release of their new self-titled album

All change please! Since releasing their daftly underrated second album The Optimist in 2010, there’s been one metamorphosis after another for the band formerly known as New Young Pony Club.

Following the departure of keyboard player Lou Hayter and drummer Sarah Jones (the former to focus on her Tomorrow’s World project; the latter to perform live with the likes of Bat For Lashes and Hot Chip, although she still contributed to recent studio sessions), singer Tahita Bulmer and producer/multi-instrumentalist Andy Spence are now operating as a duo under the shortened name NYPC, with their third self-titled album set for release on October 7. And where The Optimist was a guitar-heavy slice of lush disco melancholia, NYPC is a spikier, sparser electro-influenced beast; whereas, in 2010, Bulmer was in the throes of lost love and heartbreak, here she’s sounding similar to the bolshy smart-arse of debut LP Fantastic Playroom. We caught up with Tahita and Andy to see what’s what new in the state of NYPC…

I don’t know whether this album would be best described as a new era or a new start, but there’s obviously been a change in the band’s dynamic since The Optimist: it’s just the two of you now, the name’s been changed to NYPC. Why was that decision made?

Tahita Bulmer: It’s always been just the two of us, anyway, creatively speaking. Andy has been using the phrase "coming out of the closet" to describe it, and I think it’s a good one. When we started this band, we’d both been in dance outfits for a while, and at that time – the early 00s – a dance outfit basically meant some guy on a laptop, possibly a conga player, and a slightly startled looking vocalist. We didn’t want to do that. We’d come from bands ourselves – we’d both been in punk bands in our teenage years – and we wanted that same feel, which is why we brought the others in.

Andy Spence: But it became a bit cumbersome after a while; it became a bit awkward. It’s like, you know, "You’re not actually writing the songs…".

TB: And they all wanted to do their own things…

AS: Exactly. It just couldn’t carry on like that. And I think musically, we felt like we were evolving into something a little bit different from how the album was sounding, compared to the last one. We were changing into something else, something more electronic. It didn’t need that big band thing; ultimately, we can just be us with this.

How different was it being just the two of you in the studio? Was that liberating?

TB: Well, there’s no-one going "I don’t think you should go down that path" because they want to go down that path at some point; being territorial about genres, or sounds…

AS: I don’t know; I didn’t feel that [way] in previous albums. But we knew that there were five people in the band. So with drums, for example, with the second record, I knew Sarah didn’t just want to play four to the floor for a whole set – and that went for me as well. So there was an element of that [having to satisfy people], but not a huge amount. It was more that we felt, on this record, it was going to be something for us, of having a very clear vision of what it was going to be. I didn’t have that so much with The Optimist. With this one, I felt like we knew what we were aiming for. Part of that was understanding ourselves, and knowing what Ty was capable of with writing and singing, and knowing what I was capable of with my production.

Did you feel the same way, Tahita?

TB: To a certain extent. But I’m very ambitious, and I always feel that Andy’s a great producer, and I’m a great singer-songwriter, and you set yourself a boundary of knowing what you’re capable of and then try to go beyond it. But we had a great epiphany around the time we wrote 'Used To Be A Man', and knowing that a lot of the other songs we’d written didn’t belong on this record. There was a sense of "This is the third record of, what we hope, is going to be a long career". So it felt like we needed to set our stall out: that this is more the definitive sound of this band. It’s a redefining statement. We’re still very influenced by pop music and dance music, and trying to make stuff that’s intelligent and has longevity, but doesn’t necessarily pander towards what’s going on in the mainstream or the underground.

One of the first things you notice with ‘NYPC’ is how much sparser, and how much space there is, compared to The Optimist. And that seems to be a direct consequence of streamlining everything. But how would you say the new record moves on from Fantastic Playroom and The Optimist?

TB: I think Fantastic Playroom was an exercise in escapism for both of us. We’d been in projects we weren’t happy in, and we had this dream of the Promised Land where disco and punk would relate to each other in massive harmony, and life would be a massive party – even though we’re terribly angsty people who’d rather be at home.

That’s almost the appeal of NYPC though, right? It’s disco and dance for neurotic folk who’d rather sit at home, because the world scares them a bit.

AS: [laughs] Yeah. I’ve never heard it put like that, but that’s very much the essence of it.

TB: To go back to your earlier question, though: with The Optimist, we were totally burnt out from touring for such a long time, and there was a lot of stuff we needed to get off our chest. There was a lot of stuff that’d been said about us; that nu-rave hangover, which meant we wanted to prove we could write songs that you could busk…

AS: And there were other general criticisms, too…

TB: Yeah: that it was glib, or that it had no soul, and that was always the main thing we felt we did have. We’ve got heart, and we’ve got soul, even if it might come in this once-very-shiny, now slightly darker box. But we learnt a lot making The Optimist. We became better songwriters, and arguably better producers…

AS: What do you mean, arguably?

TB: Your production has leapt up a level from making The Optimist . AS: Yeah, that’s what I mean – it shouldn’t be ‘arguably’, it just has!

TB: That’s what I’m saying. So with this record, we wanted to marry the exuberance and positivity of the first album with the technical stuff we’d learned with The Optimist, and take everything that little bit further.

You mentioned criticisms there – what did people say that stung you in particular, or you found hard to shake?

AS: I think people associated us with a scene. And we had good-looking girls, who were also great musicians, in the band, too – I’ll never forget that interview you did with Q, for a feature about females in music, when the interviewer said…

TB: "Are you just doing this for the free clothes?" Wow. Er, no. He was obviously just a colossal wanker that felt really threatened by the fact all these women were encroaching on his muso territory. He was used to girls being decorative only.

The idea of glibness is interesting, though – because a song like 'Ice Cream' is very clever, but in an arch and witty way. And in that era – the sub-William Blake waftiness and all of that – it was probably overlooked somewhat.

TB: People had forgotten about cleverness. But there’s often a real sort of anti-education agenda in music and culture anyway. It’s all about emotion, and the intellect is degraded. You want to walk that line of being catchy and fun, and easy to grasp, but to also have depth and layers of meaning. You should be able to have both existing together at the same time.

Do you think that’s a problem with our attitude to pop music today, though? That people demand a separation of those things…

TB: [laughs] Like church and state?

A little bit: that people are open to experimentation, but only in a certain context. And some people have that lamentable idea of liking pop music 'ironically', of it being shimmery and sugary with no depth. And that type of pop music can be great, obviously, but it’s not the only acceptable form of pop music. A lot of great pop music isn’t like that at all.

AS: Yeah, it does feel like it’s a dying art. But I think there’s a place for it; we’ve always felt there’s a place to it, and ultimately, it’s all we know how to do. And although it’s not led us to many treasures or headlines slots and all that stuff, we just doggedly walk this path, because we don’t know where else to go.

I don’t think NYPC sounds particularly like Fantastic Playroom, but it does feel as if some of the core influences and ideas of that record are more prevalent this time round.

TB: I don’t know if I’d even say that; I’d say it’s more that we got back in touch with a sense of fun, and everything not seeming absolutely terrifying. It wasn’t terrifying to go into a studio and touch a keyboard on this record, because it didn’t feel like the entire universe was looking in the window saying, "What are you going to do now? Impress us."

AS: I remember when we were making Fantastic Playroom there was a statement on the wall which said, "If it’s not fun, then just stop". And we wanted that to come through in everything we did at the time, but again, that also meant we were dismissed…

TY:… it wasn’t us hanging around in leather jackets…

AS: Exactly: we were reacting against that po-faced rock thing. But if you try and do something else it’s immediately not taken seriously, and then you think you do have to get more serious. And that’s kind of what happened on The Optimist, and it didn’t feel entirely comfortable.

TB: It did for me. It came out of a particular psychological context, and it was right at the time, and I’m certainly not going to go back and say there was anything wrong with that album, because I think it’s a great record.

AS: No, and we had to react to what happened at that time. I’m not saying I regret that: I’m saying we allowed ourselves to be pushed into that a little bit, for whatever reasons, but when we were there, we made the best album we could. We couldn’t extrapolate from where we were with Fantastic Playroom.

The Optimist was a dark record, and it was very hard to not pick up on those threads of heartbreak and post-break-up anguish. NYPC feels like there’s a sense of fun back.

TB: Exactly. There’s still moments of heartbreak that came out of it, but I like to think they’re a bit more "fuck you", whereas on The Optimist it was coming from the depths of despair – apart from 'Overtime', which is a slight hangover from that time. There’s always hangovers. And even that is still "fuck you". But as a whole, lyrically speaking… I wouldn’t say it’s a tribute, but it does feel like me talking to a lot of the men who’ve been in my life. There’s a song about my father on there…

I’m guessing that’s 'Used To Be A Man'?

TB: [laughs] Yep – obviously, he loved that. That went down really well. But I think it’s interesting that this album retains a level of exuberance, while I’m wagging my finger at various men saying, "No no no no no".

AS: I’m still trying to work out which song is about me.

’Hard Knocks’ is the opening song on the album, and it feels like a bold place to start, in terms of it being a break from The Optimist: a clean, slightly harsh rattle-and-hum type of song. What was the inspiration behind it?

TB: Whenever you’re making records in London, you’re still going out and meeting your peers, be they musicians or actors or artists or whatever. I think it’s always quite… not endearing, but heartening to talk to other people in different disciplines to know that their angst about their art is the same as yours. 'Hard Knocks' is sort of about that. I met this actor who was really on the up, and everyone was going on about him and the situation around him. And I had a conversation with him, and he was actually quite negative about it. He said, "It’s not going to last, is it? It doesn’t last for anyone, but I still have to be positive, and it’s like the Sword Of Damocles hanging over my head – ultimately, they’re all going to figure out I’m a fake and that will be the end of this." It’s about that sense that even when the going is good, everyone has that foreboding feeling of when it’s going to end and what that’s going to mean.

I know that, when writing for this album, you felt you had two batches of songs: one set that was more similar to The Optimist, and then a set of more electronic-influenced tracks. Obviously you went for the latter in the end, but how did you make that decision?

AS: Yeah, there was a load of material that was tail-end of The Optimist that Ty, maybe, needed to still get off her chest. There was a different musical direction, and one that we could still go down at some point, but we realised they wouldn’t sit well together; that it would feel too schizophrenic as a record. We both felt 'Used To Be A Man' was the blueprint; we hadn’t ever achieved something as perfect as that in terms of our writing and production. We knew we could build a record around it.

Is that why it was important to have it on this record, even though you’d put it out some time ago?

AS: Yeah, and there were issues with that with our management – they disagreed with that idea, and said, "It’s got to be new, it’s got to be new". We’d had the same argument with Fantastic Playroom as well, because a lot of those songs have been out on 7" before, too. A lot of bands have discarded their early singles, but we believe in great records, and that song had to sit within the album for it all to make sense. We want to look at it from the perspective of 20 years down the line, and nobody will care whether it was out as a single – they’ll look at it as a body of work.

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