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Escape Velocity

Pillars Of Society: An Interview With Pale Blue Eyes
Patrick Clarke , February 17th, 2021 09:33

Rising Totnes trio Pale Blue Eyes talk to Patrick Clarke about self-sufficiency, their hometown's thriving DIY culture, and how The KLF's funeral business partners helped fund their debut single

“I think we feel pretty lucky to live in the area we live in,” says Matt Board over Zoom from Totnes in Devon, where he lives with his wife and bandmate Lucy. Locked down throughout 2020, a year that before the pandemic was shaping up to be a launching pad for their slinky psychedelic trio Pale Blue Eyes, they’ve had the luxury of their own makeshift studio, a control room and a recording room based out of Matt’s mother’s house, with an old analogue console that he restored over a couple of years. As a result, they were able to make the best of the vast expanses of newfound time that the pandemic provided. Not only did they have their debut album recorded, mixed and ready to go before coronavirus scuppered their plans, but they’re well underway on its follow-up.

“I would say that it’s at the expense of every other part of our life, we’ve not really bought any clothes for several years,” says Lucy of their studio. “But when you’re younger, you have a slightly naïve perception of what it’s gonna be to play in a band. Maybe we realised we needed to have other strings to our bow. We both have a particular interest in producing and recording so we kind of piled all our energy into that in parallel to writing tracks. We would work 70 hours at a festival doing absolute dogsbody work so we could buy our first console.”

“In this cultural landscape, without a massive amount of support available for artists, we’ve kind of made a life choice,” adds Matt. “When we first started playing music we spent an awful lot of money in studios, but I think you later realise that three days to make an EP is not enough time.”

Lucy had cut her teeth in the fertile scene of her native Sheffield, playing in a procession of punk and indie bands from the age of fourteen. Inevitably, she was eventually contacted on Myspace by DIY scene stalwart and man of a thousand bands Adrian Flanagan, who invited her to play drums with his project Kings Have Long Arms, and trumpet with another called The Chanteuse And The Crippled Claw. “It was a series of really crazy experiences that I had in my late teens, where I’d turn up to some rehearsal room in Sheffield, then we’d just go off somewhere to do a gig. I think we got a ferry to Dublin once. It was a time in my life when I was lapping up just how fun it was to be included. I mean Adrian’s bonkers, but he knows so much about music. He was quite an educator for me.” She went on to write a dissertation on Cabaret Voltaire.

Eventually she moved to Devon to study, and settled there “once the opportunity came up to play drums in a band with Matt.” It was a tossup, she recalls; Totnes’ bucolic charms are a world away from Sheffield’s metropolitan vibrance. “It’s not like we’ve got loads of venues that artists come to, it’s not really on the map.” But then again there’s more to the small market town than others of its ilk. For many au fait with Britain’s left-field music scene, Totnes is synonymous with Sea Change, one of the most vibrant small festivals in Britain. Organised by the Drift Record Shop (where Matt worked for a decade), it’s brought the likes of Gazelle Twin, Blanck Mass and Jambinai to the town’s makeshift gig venues. “I remember when British Sea Power played in the Civic Hall,” says Matt. “It was like nothing we’d ever had in Totnes before in our lifetime.”

Sea Change is also to thank for the formation of Pale Blue Eyes as the trio they are now. At its first edition in 2016 a 17-year-old Aubrey Simpson was there as the festival’s only official photographer, drenched in sweat as he sprinted from gig to gig in order to take it all in. “The feeling of being able to see bands I really liked and then sleep in my childhood bedroom was the most ridiculous thrill of my life!” he beams. It was there he first bumped into Matt and Lucy. “I started hanging out with them when they were in their previous band, followed them around taking pictures, and then eventually during one studio session I’d come for the jolly, just to hang out.”

That day, a session bassist was supposed to have arrived from London, but when they called him mid-morning he was still in bed. Aubrey stepped in on bass while they waited, but with the bassist a no-show ended up recording an entire EP’s worth of music. “I’d only been playing a couple of months, I’d never been in a studio, I’d never played with a drummer, but it suddenly all fell into place,” he says.

“To be honest it’s a pleasure playing with Aubrey, and from the minute he picked up his bass we were like, ‘This is working,’” says Lucy. “It’s quite a precious commodity actually. That instant chemistry is very hard to find.”

“We’ve played in loads of bands over the years, lots of things that have come and gone, and there’s almost always little niggles, or bits that weren’t quite right,” adds Matt. “It’s very rare to just be like, ‘Shall we just play music?’”

Pale Blue Eyes’ music doesn’t necessarily reflect their surroundings – “I wouldn’t say it’s the sound of the rolling hills of Devon and clotted cream fudge” – Lucy says, but such an environment does affect their ability to do what they do. On a basic level, cheaper living costs in Totnes than big cities mean the sacrifices required to live and build a studio space are less severe. More than that, however, they’re able to draw on a more unusual perk specific to Totnes. As well as Sea Change providing an annual beacon for underground arts, the town is home to an uncommonly high population of creative, DIY businesses.

Take Claire and Rupert Callender’s undertakers’ business The Green Funeral Company, for example, which offers alternative, eco-friendly funerals – and is currently collaborating with The KLF on their ambitious ‘People’s Pyramid’ in Liverpool. Pale Blue Eyes approached them, as well as other independent companies GroCycle, who teach people to start low tech mushroom farms, and the community-owned New Lion Brewery, in order to fund their debut 7” release, January’s ‘Motionless/Chelsea’. “There’s a lot of interesting DIY businesses based in Totnes, and they’re all old punks, so it wasn’t too difficult to find people who we thought would be a good fit with what we were doing. They’ve been amazingly supportive to fund the release, but also they’re all genuinely interesting people who do interesting things. I’d say stuff like that feeds into our music, they’re inspiring.”

To mix and master their first record, they employed one of Lucy’s old friends from her days in Sheffield, frequent Flanagan collaborator and All Seeing I musician Dean Honer, who stepped in after once again the band were let down by paying the industry. They used a grant from PRS to ensure he got paid. “We’d sent some stuff to be mixed by this guy, who took nine months to send us back one or two mixes we then didn’t like. Dean was the opposite, sending us a mix within a day of us sending them,” Lucy says. “Ever since then we’ve been sending him all our tracks. Whenever I’m in Sheffield visiting mum and dad, I’ll always text him to meet up.”

Honer’s now mixed enough tracks to make up a full record and more. At the outset of last year, the band were set to start releasing them, consolidating them with a run of shows. “We had a very loose plan to just play loads of gigs, maybe build a bit of a fanbase before we released anything.” Their last performance was at The Social in London, during those sketchy, purgatorial days pre-lockdown, before the pandemic put paid to their plans. Nevertheless, they’ve kept making the most of their home studio, and of Honer’s services. In the second lockdown he was like, ‘Send me some stuff to do I’m really bored.’ He’s started to mix a whole other batch of stuff. It’s kind of a weird one, we’re writing stuff now that ideally we would be sharing fairly immediately, but in our minds it’s also like this is a whole set of work that we’ve recorded after the first album which is also ready. It’s a weird situation really.”

Pale Blue Eyes’ plans going forward, much like everyone else’s, are sketchy at best, entirely dependent on what happens next with the pandemic. “We might pick a couple of tracks to release as a beer with a download code on it with The New Lion Brewery. That’s the short-term plan, but the long-term plan is just hopefully starting to gig again,” says Lucy. “Trying to release an album was always secondary to the idea of just playing gigs.” If nothing else, they’ve certainly got the songs.

Pale Blue Eyes' debut release 'Motionless/Chelsea' is available to purchase digitally and on 7" vinyl here