It’s Just Metal And Wood: An Interview With Still House Plants

Still House Plants speak to Patrick Clarke about growing self-confidence, rethinking the limits of guitar, voice and drums, and taking a “major step forwards” on their third album if i don’t make it, i love u

Photo by Abby Thomas

The titles of Still House Plants’ last two albums point inwards. Their 2018 debut Long Play gestured towards the format of a record itself, and 2020’s Fast Edit towards the chopped-up, collage-like process with which that album was made. Those names spoke to the band’s interior, to the sparks that fly between the three musicians as they play together – the sounds of Jess Hickie-Kallenbach’s voice, Finlay Clark’s guitar and David Kennedy’s drums each probing and provoking one another, sometimes butting heads, sometimes dovetailing into churning grooves.

Their new album, however, is called if i don’t make it, i love u. It’s a stark contrast, an emotional and melodramatic outward statement to juxtapose the introversion of its predecessors. Where on those two albums, the band chose monochrome artwork, this time there’s a burst of black and burnt orange on the cover – an abstracted ‘3’ (this being the threesome’s third album) that also takes the form of a heart. The informal way the title is written is intentional, and designed to recall a text message someone might actually send, says Hickie-Kallenbach as tQ speak to the band over Zoom. “What I like about it is the multitudes that it holds – it could be a horrifically massive statement, and it’s also what you would send your mate if you couldn’t make it to the pub later on. It’s a simple statement, but there’s a breadth of feeling. It’s soothing, and its generous, and it’s also verbal. It’s sayable.”

“It does, in some ways, feel like an evolution,” says Kennedy. In terms of palette the band’s sound hasn’t changed all that much. The drums are still explorative and inquisitive, the guitar still chiming and raw, Hickie-Kallenbach’s voice still shapeshifting yet soulful. And yet the album feels like a major step forwards. “There’s been a simple shift, but something that feels like it could be quite fundamental,” Kennedy says. “To me it sounds warmer, a lot more rounded.”

Where exactly this warmth comes from is hard to pin down given both the band’s continued use of the same spartan instrumentation, and their commitment to letting things evolve intuitively when they write. “I’m just allowing things to come out as naturally as possible. Allowing things to be as they’re supposed to be,” says Clark of their approach to the guitar. “It’s blurry, we don’t finish songs and go ‘that’s the record,’” says Hickie-Kallenbach, when I ask how they know when things are ‘finished’. The album might boast a burst of colour on the cover, but it’s still fuzzy around the edges. Sometimes I get the impression that it’s fuzzy for Still House Plants, too, who often speak about the music they make as if it were an independent entity that appears in the space between them when they play, to be understood as its observers rather than its creators. That said, Hickie-Kallenbach does cite a newfound sense of vulnerability to her lyrics. “I think in the past, I’ve allowed things to be more hidden. I’m still not totally transparent, but I do feel like I’ve shared things that felt very honest, real and vulnerable this time.” They’re still guarded when it comes to the specifics, but it’s not hard to detect notes of self-consciousness and a fractured inner monologue from their performance. “Wish I was called Makita / Like, I just want my friends to get me / I just want to be seen right” she sings on the album’s opener ‘M M M’.

The paradox of conveying self-doubt in one’s art is that it is articulated more effectively when expressed from a position of self-assuredness, a state where one has the ability to properly articulate feelings; and to draw attention to this paradox might feel uncomfortable. “I think that spending your life fronting is much more damaging than just being real about how you feel, and the closeness there is between feeling good and feeling bad. Pretending that they’re so far apart is foolish. Allowing the greyer, more silvery sort of blurriness, that’s where I was trying to come from,” Hickie-Kallenbach says. “I think there was less of that imposter thing, and some clarity on my part. I was engaging more with my experience moving through the world. We’re lucky to have been doing this for a while, we’ve played lots of places, and it’s very easy to shy away from the joy of inviting people in. I think for a long time I was too self-conscious to share that space honestly.”

Kennedy, too, experienced a newfound sense of assurance as he embarked upon if i don’t make it. “The year we wrote the record was actually the first time that I felt like I was really coming to terms with my instrument. I was like, ‘I actually really like playing the drums!’ where before it was more complicated, more like a battle going on,” he says. Having started playing percussion as a child, giving up in his teens once electronic music took over his affections, and only returning when Still House Plants formed when the trio were at university together in Glasgow, “I’d had a bit of a complex around [playing],” Kennedy continues. “I wasn’t too bothered about being technical, but I was very critical of myself.” This newfound uptick in confidence was partly down to circumstance. “It did coincide with getting a full drum kit for the first time since I was a kid,” he points out. It was gratifying to realise he was proficient enough to tune his new instrument, which in turn helped him internalise the fact that he’s by now an accomplished player.

Still House Plants’ ever-increasing command over their respective instruments is thanks in no small part to their writing process, which is relentlessly progressive. Their songs originate, says Hickie-Kallenbach, “from a band member finding something. It could be a noise, it could be a pace, or it could be that Fin plays a chord and their ring hits something and it makes a sparkly noise and we’re all like ‘Oh, that’s really nice.’ Then, we’ll try and keep playing that bit over and over and over again. We usually rehearse for about four hours, chugging away at one thing, stopping and chatting for a bit, getting back to it and just keeping going.”

From October 2020 the trio were also all based in the same city for the first time since their debut. Whereas before they would cram as many rehearsals as possible into the weeks where they were all together, now they were able to keep up a regular routine. Lockdown provided them additional time, and the generosity of Café OTO who had let them use their project space since a 2019 residency, gave them ample room to be, as Hickie-Kallenbach puts it, “quite dogged” about their work. Once they have a ‘thing’ to keep focussing on, she explains, it’s not so much a process of polishing as it is a relentless push forwards. “Polish is beautiful, but as a term it’s too straightforward. I feel like we go on a bit more of a journey with everything we write. There are moments of tension, where one of us will be like, ‘It’s rubbish’, but even though we hit these little potholes, we don’t give up.” The band’s music continues to progress through their gigs, too; a run of shows in the US in the first half of 2023 were also important when it came to “firming up the shape,” as she puts it. “The way things change can be really subtle, the speed of something, someone playing louder or quiet than usual, the monitor being shit so we can’t hear if we’re at the same place. All these slippery bits are part of the timeline.”

A Still House Plants composition could arguably keep evolving forever, were they not to enter the studio. “It’s interesting to think about what the album would have sounded like had we recorded it six months before or six months after we did,” says Clark. A recording of any particular song, and by extension each live performance, is really just a one-off snapshot of an organic thing, frozen in a form it took only at that precise moment. Even when writing lyrics, Hickie-Kallenbach says, “so much of it is mood or place dependent.” It meant that if i don’t make it naturally took on some qualities of Lockdown Studios in east London where they recorded. It was, in fact, the final thing ever made there before it shut down permanently. “There was a real feeling of ‘We have to make it good!’ I feel like that seeps into the title as well,” says Kennedy.

Studio sessions were not used as an excuse to hit pause and take stock. “We approach recording with the same intensity, the same strength of intuition,” says Hickie-Kallenbach. They played with layers, techniques and equipment, running instruments through a Lesley cabinet speaker, vocals through cheap DJ software, and at one point sidechaining Kennedy’s snare drum to the guitar. Growing confidence, again, became evident. “Even compared to the last record I felt like I understood way more about what I wanted [from the studio]. What all this stuff does, and I was able to break it all down,” says Kennedy. They’d love, says Clark, to get the opportunity to drill down in the studio as much as they were able to in rehearsal. “Clock watching sessions can really push you, but at some point I’d love to really, really take our time.”

The organic being that is Still House Plants’ sound has not mutated; it consists of a simple and sparse palette of guitar, drums and voice. And yet, through the relentless process that went into if i don’t make it the band continue to find increasing possibilities within those boundaries, so much so that their music now has the potential to recentre a listener’s expectations of what those instruments are at all. “It’s natural to think that the voice sits at the front, the drums drive, and the guitar is like the bricks, but we move all that around quite a lot,” Hickie-Kallenbach says. The drums on if i don’t make it often take on a melodic quality. Repeated, looped and fragmented, vocals become like a pummelling beat. “It’s important to remember,” says Clark of their guitar, “that it’s just metal and wood. Not to get too caught up in what a guitar is ‘supposed’ to do.”

It’s the result in part, of Kennedy and Hickie-Kallenbach’s love of electronic music before the band’s formation, a realm where the roles of traditional instruments are more often deconstructed. “Growing up listening to loads of house and garage and grime with my older brothers, things that are looped and weird timewise, floaty and strange, that influences the way I sing, find weird patterns and self-sample,” says the latter. And yet, the band remain committed to the physicality of their setup: three musicians at their instruments, looking at one another and responding to subtle – perhaps subconscious – cues. “There’s no counting, it’s not numerical or time based,” says Hickie-Kallenbach. “We look at each other and we know how to get to the next bit. It’s communicated and shared in a way that’s more external than a metric count.” What’s remarkable about if i don’t make it, i love u, then, is the extent to which the listener is newly welcomed in to that indefinable and wordless creative expanse. “When we played live [in the past] people have said it’s intense because of how much we stare at each other, that it feels very introverted,” Hickie-Kallenbach continues. “But this time we’re offering more.”

Still House Plants’ new album if i don’t make it, i love u is released on April 12 via Bison Records. The band tour the UK and Europe next month – find tickets here

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today