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Escape Velocity

Hypnotic Loops: An Interview With Ulrika Spacek
Suzie McCracken , February 4th, 2016 09:54

Two school friends realise they both write music, record an LP that recalls prime Television and Pavement in a house called KEN and play it at their Oysterland night. Suzie McCracken investigates this moniker mania

Photograph courtesy of Rudi Doombaar

This is Ulrika Spacek's first interview as Ulrika Spacek, and they take to it serenely. Seated around an off-kilter table in the backstage room of the Victoria pub in Dalston (they assure me the space has recently had a makeover, despite it looking painfully spartan), the two Rhys from Reading, both peek at me calmly from behind black locks.

We're here for the band's regular gig night, which this time involves the display of paintings by London-based Italian artist Jacopo Dal Bello. Various musicians are, at the time of our chat, running around between the fridge and the stage. It's the fourth incarnation of what they call Oysterland; currently a collection of disparate elements brought together by the boys, but, in time, hopefully a "steam train" of like-minded musicians and artists.

As their existence is new news to most, it seems like a good opportunity to let them tell me about their light bulb-moment style inception, and how it feels to be orchestrating a conceptual happening run on Red Stripe. They seem unfazed.

It turns out that the least remarkable part of their origin story is how they managed to write the album – when the two finally 'fessed up to having feelings about songwriting together, the tunes just poured out. "We work in the same pub on the arse-end of Dalston," says Rhys Edwards, sat next to his bandmate and school friend, Rhys Williams. "When I moved to Berlin for a while I said Rhys could have my room as a sublet, and my job. And then he came out to Berlin to visit, and I realised that he could write music as well."

The result is The Album Paranoia, due out on Tough Love. It's a record that at first sounds disgruntled but is ultimately psyched on being alive – songs like 'Porcelain' and 'Strawberry Glue' are submerged and gently swaying, while moments such as 'NK' muster a masticating drone. 'Beta Male' has a riff so fantastic and fist-punchingly pure in pleasure, you wonder how it wasn't a song already, and nods to Television, Pavement and Sonic Youth are all present.

They get that it works – and now that Tough Love has provided the seal of approval to their first effort, the two are already halfway through making their next. Perhaps this time it won't be entirely recorded in their living room, where they are watched by mannequins and old TVs collected from street corners. Or perhaps it will be. Either way, they'll learn to stop putting those kind of details in their press releases soon enough.

So you'd never tried to write music together before?

Rhys Edwards: Never. We listened to a lot of music together, having middle-class stoner afternoons. It was only when we were in Berlin that we said: "Let's do something."

What was different about Berlin? Were you extra high?

Rhys Williams: Yeah, basically.

RE: We came up with the name of the band that night too. We had a conversation about how if you go to a party, certain names have a ring to them. The name we laughed at was a mix between Ulrike Meinhof and Sissy Spacek. If you were to arrive at a party in possession of that name – it's hilarious, it's god-given.

What about the album title, The Album Paranoia – did you come up with that on the same night?

RE: Same trip, different night. We did it as a split-second decision, an instinct.

So do you think those decisions have coloured what you've done since?

RE: We had the artwork as well. It was a collage I did, so when we made the album it was on the wall. Not as an ornament that we were working towards – but it was just around. The thought of coming up with an artwork after making the album... I just can't see how that would ever work. So maybe it does frame it in some way.

So how long has this been going on?

RW: We started recording two summers ago.

RE: After we came back from Berlin there was a real, awkward stand-off. Then there was a night where we were both off and I heard some guitar through the walls, and I knocked the door. The first thing we wrote that night was 'I Don't Know', which is the opening song of the album. The first two tracks on the album are the first two tracks we wrote.

The record doesn't sound like two people working stuff out.

RE: We've always played music but we definitely knew when we started, from that first night, that it was going somewhere different. The bare bones of ten songs happened in three weeks. Then once we had that first demo, we were getting some emails from labels but we knew it was just me and Rhys and it was like, "Oh fuck." We had to get the band together as we had had no idea that that recording with my laptop and the one mic in the house would come to anything.

RW: It's probably why it was done so quickly, we just had no expectations.

RE: That is a wonderful way to make music, I think.

How did it feel to let friends and musicians fatten up the things you'd written?

RW: Most of it hasn't changed much.

RE: We basically put drums over the drum machine, which was very, very weird. We'd never do that again. But then also, we were too pigheaded to say "let's re-record". We have eight songs ready for the second album. We have the demos we've done at home and we have the band versions, and it's been very interesting to choose the bits we like from each.

I feel very behind – you're ready to move on already.

RE: It's nice. We've been into a lot of American music over the years and by the time you hear of a band that you fall in love with, you find out they've got two albums before that one. That's what we would love to be as well – by the time that someone finds out about us, they've completely missed this and have something to return to.

That's odd – to be working on something in the hope it will be a future past moment.

RE: We're just not waiting on anything.

What does your brain grasp around for when searching for the beginnings of a song?

RE: The way that we make sense of making songs is by using a hypnotic loop. You have to have space to think – even when you're recording you have to have time. Rather than eight bars, if you do sixteen then there's just so much more room for whatever you're doing over the top of it to go somewhere else. I think there's a kind of goofiness in our music which comes from the fact that we really don't know what we're doing. Especially the lead parts that Rhys does.

Can you tell me about KEN?

RE: This whole thing of where we live being an ex-art gallery called KEN – it's not a lie. But it's not the commune that people seem to think. I think in many years' time, we'll look back on the way young people in London have to live, and it is that kind of commune living. We live in a shared in a house where we talk about politics and make music and have parties.

Since you've known each other for so long, what are your shared gateway bands that you discovered as young teens?

RE: We weren't that close at 14, but at around that time I discovered Radiohead and then the door opened to everything else.

RW: Radiohead was also that for me. I think all of our band members would agree that was their band, their starting point.

RE: And then you find Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Neil Young.

So what's exciting you now?

RW: The last band I really fell in love with was Women.

RE: I would agree. And we like Parquet Courts. But it's hard to think of British bands.

Do you not feel there's a climate at home you can feed off, then?

RE: Well I can't think of a British band that I feel like we'd sit naturally with for a support tour or something. In America there is but... I would hope that the bands we have chosen for Oysterland though – we'd like to play with some of them again.

Tell me about your night, Oysterland.

RE: Callum, our drummer, said, "Let's put on our own night and pick the bands." We decided to display art simply because our friends do interesting stuff and it's very easy for a musician to get a gig but not so much for artists working in other mediums.

Do you feel part of a scene in East London?

RE: Not part of a scene... but, when you put your own night on, it does feel like you create your own little world. Would you say we were part of a scene?

RW: [laughs] No.

You're not constructing anything then?

RE: Ideally we would like to keep Oysterland going and if the band gets bigger, then, rather than doing a random gig in Paris, it would be great to have the confidence to do an Oysterland in Paris and bring a steam train of people we like. But it doesn't always work out like that.

The Album Paranoia is out on Tough Love Records tomorrow, when the band play the Stag's Head in London, before touring; for full details and tickets, head here