Ewe Two: Another Interview With Stealing Sheep

Liverpool-based trio Stealing Sheep tell John Freeman how the glistening electronic pop of second album, Not Real, was all about making their "Sheepiness easier to understand"

In 2012 I first interviewed Stealing Sheep for tQ at a restaurant in their hometown of Liverpool. While the trio chatted about their debut album, Into The Diamond Sun, I surreptitiously ate huge quantities of food in stealth mode.

The cuisine was Asian fusion – we shared a lemongrass panna cotta for dessert – and the blending of different styles seemed an apt choice by a band who described their early sound as "medieval-Kraut-folk". Into The Diamond Sun was sonically complex, inquisitive and brimming with charm. Back then the Stealing Sheep mantra was ‘more is more’, with Becky Hawley telling me "We wanted more and more and more. More people, more drums, and more harmonies – more everything."

Fast-forward three years and I’m in another Liverpool restaurant with Becky and her bandmates, Emily Lansley and Lucy Mercer. The place of choice is achingly on trend – all steel, exposed brickwork, sleek benches and a menu comprising of stylish but simple fayre. When we locate a table in a quiet section, we are informed the tables are reserved for a wake. Even the dead get a cool send-off in this part of Liverpool.

Again, the venue feels somewhat fitting; the new Stealing Sheep album, Not Real, is a very different beast to its predecessor. The medieval-Kraut-folk has gone and has been replaced by sharp electronica and a clean 80’s pop sensibility, which plots Grace Jones, Delia Derbyshire, Metronomy and, rather wonderfully, ‘Automatic’ by The Pointer Sisters as points of inspiration.

Stealing Sheep formed in 2010; Hawley (who attended the Paul McCartney-patronised Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts and treats me to a mightily impressive impersonation of the ex-Beatle) had a job in a Lark Lane shop and would order lunch from her future bandmates, who worked in the café upstairs. At the very first band meeting, each member wrote down a list of the music they liked, and then quickly realised their tastes were completely different – the concoction of electronica, psychedelia, folk and Kraut rock would flesh out the early Stealing Sheep sound.

The 2015 version of Stealing Sheep is about focus and clarity. The band talk about wanting their music to be "more understandable". And Not Real succeeds. On a reduced sonic palette (dominated by crisp synths and simple drum patterns), the album refines their trademark harmonies and smart ears for quirky melodies, without losing any of the playful charisma inherent to Stealing Sheep.

It would appear that less is, indeed, more.

Before we talk about the new songs, I wanted to ask about one of the many projects you undertook since your debut album was released. Last year you took part in the In Dreams: David Lynch Revisited show at the Barbican. How was the experience of reinterpreting Lynch’s music?

Becky Hawley: It was really fun. We have always found it really fun doing cover versions; it is quite freeing as there is already a sentiment that you can interpret. The songs we had with David had really lovely lyrics and were beautifully simple songs. We will be going on a European tour with David Lynch and his team, and will be doing some new songs for the tour.

Lucy Mercer: Some musicians are really good at recreating a song and communicating something other than what the original songwriter intended to get across. Our strength is to turn the song round and make it more ‘Sheepy’. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but others may think we have done something really interesting with the song.

I’d like to explore a little more about the concept of making a song ‘Sheepy’. The new album has a very different vibe to your first record. To my ear, it sounds ‘cleaner’ and more focussed but still very much like a Stealing Sheep record. Is that what you were aiming for?

Emily Lansley: Yes. We wanted to be clearer and more concise and have a ‘less is more’ mentality. I definitely didn’t want to use as much guitar; I wanted a different sound that wasn’t as guitar-led and dreamy as the first album. I want it to be more straightforward and less whimsical. We had been labelled as ‘folky’ – and I don’t think we are – so we kind of went in the opposite direction. I’ve since realised that I don’t listen to that kind of music. I listen to pop; and this album is a lot closer to the music I listen to a lot of time.

So, was there a sense that the new songs were a ‘reaction’ to being perceived as a folk band?

EL: We can’t really think about how people perceive us – that’s up to them. We are into lots of different music, but we were into the idea of perhaps finding a clearer sound. We wanted less paraphernalia.

LM: I think I have a different perspective on it. I love simple drum rhythms. In the past, I was obsessed with rudiments. I also wanted to learn lots of different styles – funk, jazz and Latin – but the time I have enjoyed playing drums the most is purely left-right, left-right with slight variations. Simplicity does it for me.

BH: Also, it was about the attitude we wanted for the sound. We wanted the sound to be punchier – and that started us thinking about what we wanted to get across and would dictate the amount of energy we would be throwing at it.

Why did you want the songs to be punchier?

BH: I think because we wanted to be braver with this record. I think that the best pop songs are the simplest way of saying something and it is incredibly hard to achieve that.

Why is it so hard?

BH: It is hard to keep your patience. If you are writing something and you are just using three notes and it is doing the job, it is sometimes difficult because you, as a musician, want to get something really fancy into the song. You have to be more patient and keep it simple – and there is a certain bravery in doing that. Also, it was about feeling brave to use clichés or things that you might deem as being cheesy. Usually, that’s the most fun part and there is a tendency to want to remove it – but that’s the part everyone goes away singing. So, we wanted to be braver about actually using those kinds of ideas.

EL: I listen to Madonna and Michael Jackson all the time and I have great memories of me and my mum dancing around the living room to their songs. It always seemed so simple, but even now when I listen to Madonna’s ‘Lucky Star’, for example, I am amazed by the musicianship. There has been a sense of liberation in making this type of music.

Is this about making accessible music? How much of the new sound is about wanting to appeal to a wider audience?

BH: I haven’t thought about it really, but I have heard people saying – like my Dad, for example – that the new album "still has all the Sheepiness, but it is easier to understand." I think that’s only a good thing as anyone can listen to the new album and hear what is going on. I think it is a good thing to be accessible, but I don’t think it is good to normalise to be accessible. The album is not tailored to be liked; it is about simplifying our ideas to make them more accessible to everyone. I think we try and be different with our ideas but hone and craft them so they work within their own context.

Into The Diamond Sun was bursting with eclectic reference points. How did you go about simplifying your ideas for Not Real?

BH: We have done a lot more editing of our ideas. There might have been a track with a load of sections and we will now think about from an outsider’s point of view, as to which are the important parts that really get the song somewhere – and then take out the parts we might like but don’t add significance to the story. That’s what we have started doing more – trying to look at the journey of the song and how each part is relevant. It’s about stripping it down to the necessary factors.

EL: It’s like writing an essay; you could condense all essays into a paragraph and that’s what we are trying to do with these songs.

I always think the writing the perfect pop song is like making the perfect cheese on toast – sounds easy but, in reality, could always be improved upon.

BH: If we are doing analogies, yeah, it is like training yourself to know which is the best cheese and which is the best toast. The first album was more of a stream of consciousness; it was just us playing and not even thinking whether it was good or bad, and then recording it and releasing it and not having any expectation of what it would be to anyone. Now, it is a different situation altogether, as we are thinking about how to challenge ourselves and make the best record we can make together. That is a very different dynamic from last time.

Lyrically, a lot of Not Real explores ideas behind the tension between perceived and actual realities. Why were the songs focussed around that concept?

EL: We’ve all been experiencing that we can all have very different ideas or interpretations of the same situation, even though we were all in the same room together and experienced the same thing. We have a different perception of what was going on. We liked that idea and wanted to explore it.

I can relate to that – the notion that your memories are only your perceived memories and that your brain sometimes mangles fact and fiction.

LM: I have memories of being a child and my sister, who is two years younger than me, will insist that something completely opposite happened to the memory I have. I have reversed it in my head.

BH: Also, we wanted to explore the notion that an idea only has any foundation if somebody believes in it. We thought about that; when we have written a song, how do we know it’s good? It was only when we believed it was good that it was ready to go out there.

You describe yourselves as ‘musicians and visual artists’. Again, from the new album artwork and videos, it feels as if your ‘image’ has evolved since the last record. How important is Stealing Sheep’s visual image?

BH: It is still all evolving as we haven’t got a definitive image. But it is something we are genuinely into – looking at the visual aesthetic and how we can make that complement the music. We want an immediate impression from the images that puts an identity out there and has a relationship to the music. There are bands like Toy and Temples who do have a digestible style that is easy to reference. You can tell they are a band when they walk into a room and you can hear their music from the way they look.

Is that something you are looking to aspire to?

BH: I think we are a bit more eclectic in our aesthetic and our music, and that in itself has become our style. That is not a detrimental comment to other bands because I really like bands where I can think ‘I could dress like that band today’ and I know exactly what I need to buy. I am sure people love that as it is easy to get into, but it is just not naturally what we are. But, I definitely want us to be more consistent with our ideas.

EL: It is almost going back to it being a tribal thing; when you were a punk band you had to look like a punk.

There could be a Stealing Sheep tribe.

BH: Yeah, but the Stealing Sheep tribe would be about everyone expressing their own identity and not conforming to an identity. I noticed that as a group we don’t like to conform to ideas. We like to try and do things our own way. I have been thinking about our name in that context. Stealing Sheep could be about the flock mentality of people doing the same thing, and then stealing people away from that and engaging them in the idea of doing what they want to do – to go in their own direction and feel more liberated.

That sounds like a very cool tribe.

BH: That is a cool tribe. With really good cheese on toast.

The album Not Real will be released on April 13 via Heavenly Recordings

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