Daylight Come: An Interview With Teeth Of The Sea

Suzie McCracken talks to the London quartet about new album Highly Deadly Black Tarantula, finding their gaze tightened and their enthusiasm reignited since 2013’s multivalent Master

All photographs courtesy of Al Overdrive

The two most-used words during this interview with Teeth Of The Sea are ‘austere’ and ‘confident’ – which is a pretty succinct description of Highly Deadly Black Tarantula, the band’s fourth album in nine years. The record casts aside the technicolour explosions of 2013’s Master, and instead haunts and hunts, chasing the listener through rooms full of disorientating shapes, with purrs and snarls drifting up through the floorboards. It’s assertive and succinct: a beast that pursues its prey with its heart-rate lowered until the time to lurch out arrives.

Highly Deadly Black Tarantula takes you to a dark place, presenting a spectre that flickers between biological and psychological depending on what time of the day you listen. Which is why it’s a bit jarring when you discover how convivial a bunch the band are – they surprise even someone who has read the transcripts of their previous pint-fuelled encounters with this publication. It helps that they are in high spirits when we meet on the day of the album’s release – pleased that the stream on the Guardian has been met with positivity, and that they can send the link to their mums knowing they’ll understand it’s a big deal.

They’re also excited for the opportunity to speak together about the album for the first time in a space that’s familiar to them. Firstly, we’re in Clapton (they now all live about five minutes from North London’s least-lovely roundabout), but they’re also chomping at the bit to be interviewed and to perform conversationally with, and for, each other. An excuse to reflect on what made the construction of this album different from what Mat describes as the “trilogy” of the previous records is welcomed. They also enjoy a bit of mutual skin-pinching: yes it all is going pretty well, isn’t it?

And much like the respect they say characterises their studio sessions, they interweave each other carefully as they talk. Even when the discussion turns to the four opening minutes of ‘Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey’ – the track starts with continuous, repetitive drumming and I think it’s safe to say that Jimmy is still unconvinced – they are careful with each other without ever donning kid gloves. They also make jokes about 80s BBC presenters that are mercifully cut from this piece. Their excitement to get out on tour and to spend a celebratory lap of the country with each other is totally palpable, and indeed, well-deserved. But the most exciting thing to learn is that HDBT has proved a revelation for them in terms of understanding what constraints make them productive, and it’s clear that another record, or at least cinematic project, won’t be far behind this one.

Why did you originally want to do this interview in an owl sanctuary?

Mike Bourne: Well it was because of the song ‘Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey’ on Highly Deadly Black Tarantula.

Sam Barton: We were looking for something vaguely themed and the tarantula house at London Zoo was out because Mat is scared of tarantulas.

Mat Colegate: It’s not that I don’t like spiders, I can beat them in single combat. It’s when they take those photos of them and their faces are really up close.

MB: So we’re in the pub instead.

Jimmy Martin: Which is our natural habitat.

MC: Can you drink in an owl sanctuary?

I imagine it’s like Dollywood.

MC: Can you not drink in Dollywood?

Nah, it’s in a dry county.

MB: Fucking hell. I’m ripping up my tickets.

Have you done thematic interviews before?

SB: No, we haven’t. We really wanted to do an urban commando thing.

JM: But there was absolutely no way that was every going to happen.

MC: I don’t wear shorts for anything.

SB: Unfortunately we chose a title that describes something of which one of our members is piss-terrified of.

How did you end up with the title?

JM: Well, we were drunk in Belgium.

SB: We were having a bit of a sing-song at the end of the night.

JM: And what should come on but the Harry Belafonte version of the Banana Boat song, ‘Day-o’.

MB: We were absolutely jubilant: we were hugging, shouting, and singing the line "highly deadly black tarantula" over and over again, until the owner of the club burst into the room-

MC: -in a towel-

MB: and shouted that we would never play the venue again. [comedy Belgian accent] "You will never play this town again! What the fuck are you doing?" This is absolutely true.

SB: Absolutely. Then the clincher was that we’d got the line wrong. It’s actually "hide the deadly black tarantula". When you’ve got something wrong you’ve got to go with it.

MB: It also worked very well because it was ridiculous. It’s a misheard line from a silly song, but it also sounds quite sinister and it bridges the gap between the horrible and the absurd. Which is kind of what we do as a band.

JM: I think it worked well in the context of the whole presentation of the album – the sleeve is quite austere. So we didn’t want to call it anything that could be pretentious sounding.

Tell me about the artwork. It is very beautiful and austere, as you said.

MC: And very different. I think that the first three albums felt quite a lot like a trilogy and the idea was always to do something different with this album musically. Less big. It just seemed to make sense that we’d change the cover. And we all were struck by the image. You also don’t necessarily have to understand why it resonates, just that it does.

SB: We’ve always done that in a way – take certain strong ideas that aren’t necessarily connected and throw them together and see what happens.

JM: There was definitely a feeling between us that Master was very involved, there was an awful lot going on. It was almost too many ideas and we wanted to strip everything down.

MB: It’s quite strange, all the reviews of Highly Deadly Black Tarantula we’ve had so far have described it as really widescreen and cinematic. And it’s not something we’ve turned away from, but we kind of thought we didn’t want to make these huge, long, bombastic songs – we wanted to strip them down and make them a bit more direct. I don’t think it sounds like that to me; it sounds like a dark, enclosed, industrial-sounding thing.

SB: Stern I guess. Monochrome. Less technicolour.

It made me think about Stalker a bit.

MC: Mike and I debate Stalker on a monthly basis. That’s interesting as well though, because it’s a very widescreen, massive movie but it’s a movie that’s focused relentlessly on a singular point. It doesn’t feel the need to make itself big by travelling all over the place or being particularly baroque. I think that’s a great comparison.

I can’t work out, from how you’re speaking, whether you feel like the album presents a culmination of your time together or not.

JM: I think plenty of what we do sounds like a reaction to what we did before. So I don’t think we’ll ever feel like we’re culminating, really. We wanted it to be spontaneous. Apart from one track which was written for a project we did last year – the last track, ‘Love Theme For 1984’ [which was part of their soundtrack for Nineteen Eighty-Four] – everything else was written this year.

SB: We booked the studio time before we’d really written anything as a means to force us to get stuff done.

MC: Booking a studio before you’re entirely ready forces you to make stuff work.

MB: And it was great that we had the confidence to do that. There was no: "We might try this." It was: "I’m going to try this because I think it’s going to work; I’m confident it’s going to work.” And it did work. There was maybe one thing that one person tried that we discarded. Every other overdub or little idea made it onto the record.

SB: I take issue with that. I tried something and I got told it sounded like ‘Club Tropicana’. Also I think because it was the third project that we’d done in that studio with Ben [Phillips] who’d mixed it for us and we got to the point where we’ve got a great working relationship with him.

JM: [Lightship 95 studio] is a lovely space. It’s probably not the most interesting thing to talk about, but it can’t be underestimated.

You have a lovely self-confidence about it all.

JM: We trust each other’s instincts. There’s certain things that I wasn’t sure about that the rest of the band were really keen on where I was prepared to trust them.

MB: We’re all very comfortable saying, "No, I don’t think it’s going to work". Cause we’re quite polite people generally. We don’t like confrontation a great deal, but we’re quite happy in a band situation to do so.

You make very impolite records.

SB: That’s what my mum always says! We’re also all incredibly British in the sense that even if we were getting something cathartic out of it on an individual level we’d never talk about it as a band.

MC: I think I’d be being disingenuous if I didn’t say there was something quite profound that I’m getting out of doing it. But when we put it together we don’t sit around thinking about what the tracks are expressing for us.

JM: In terms of the end result, when it comes to the ‘Love Theme For 1984’ track, I remember when we were originally performing it [at CERN] I was welling up, which is something I’ve never had with any kind of music I’ve played before.

MB: You know it’s funny you should say that because I had the same thing listening to it after we recorded it. We spoke amongst ourselves about how pleased we were with that particular track. It doesn’t do anything now for me of course, it leaves me completely cold.

[Band laughs]

So it just had to go on the record then, despite originating from a different project?

JM: I certainly felt that it was too good not to be included and I also think it works as a good counterpoint to the rest of the record.

MC: I always like it when aggressive albums end with gentle tracks. Liars are really good at ending albums like that. Everyone always says “cinematic”, but it is like that kind of end-credits thing. You need something that gives you the feels on the way out.

MB: In terms of how the record flows from start to finish, ‘Love Theme For 1984’ is quite a beautiful track, but what it represents and what it came from is still really grim. I’m not sure if I should be saying this but at the end of that particular track and thus the end of the album, the very last sound on there is very depressing indeed.

MC: Someone will spot it, don’t say!

I’ve found that some of the sounds from the record have been haunting me. A dog on the train was panting at the exact tempo of the drums that are the first four minutes of ‘Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey’.

MC: I love it when stuff like that happens. One of the great things about that track – and believe me I know that not everybody likes it –

JM: – including members of the band –

MC: – is that when you have a space that has that much attention but doesn’t do anything, you start looking for external stimulus to try and make it fit together.

SB: There’s quite a lot of little shifts going on there though – it’s classic minimalism where you’ve got to listen to it really close.

JM: I like how ‘fuck you’ it is. That’s perhaps my favourite thing about it.

MB: One of the best records, if not the best record I’ve heard this year, was Having Never Written A Note For Percussion by Rrose, where it’s two sides of vinyl, half an hour each side, and it’s just a gong being played for half an hour.

SB: Mat and I both took part in a Man Forever show at Cafe Oto. It was seven snare drummers all playing at different speeds – it was just so immersive. That thing of just slipping into something whereby you lose all sense of time.

MB: [said with grandeur] Much like when I played with Boredoms earlier this year.

SB: Ah yes!

MB: Two and a half hours of solid drumming. Amazing. Transcendental. In so much pain – my back and my neck. But so happy. Literally floating above the Barbican.

MC: And the idea of treating sound more sculpturally as well. Hopefully the idea is that you get that feeling of being able to walk around it and see it from lots of different angles.

JM: I’ve always liked it when people do something really bloody-minded on records. Bands like $hit & $hine who have that track ‘Practicing To Be A Doctor’ which is half an hour long and one riff. Then there’s an amazing record by a band called Corrupted which is 22 minutes of ambient piano and then this incredible riff kicks in and it feels like the end of the world.

Is HDBT constructed against casual consumption then?

JM: Not at all. ‘Animal Manservant’ is kind of like a pop song. I know that sounds stupid. But it has verses and choruses.

MB: We like Steve Reich and Terry Riley as much as we like Iron Maiden or Miles Davis. And that all gets chucked in the pot. It’s never that we’re trying to make something particularly difficult to listen to.

JM: We had a really long period when we were trying to make Master where we were doing a lot of jamming and it wasn’t really going anywhere and we all got a bit dispirited by it. Whereas this album felt like it was a lot more fruitful.

It sounds like Master was maybe a bit more of a burden than I thought.

MB: We were just less focused, we didn’t have our shit together.

SB: It’s very often very prosaic, external factors like not having a decent studio. It really eats into –

JM: – your self confidence, and all sorts of other things. But I also think there’s been a really big boost in confidence for the band as we’ve done some amazing things in the last two years – getting to tour Europe, playing in CERN, going to Portugal for Milhoes De Festa… We were pinching ourselves.

SB: It’s the closest we’ve been to being a rock band. It does give you confidence, especially when you start off thinking they haven’t realised who they’ve booked.

MB: Now we’re eager, because the gap between Your Mercury and Master was quite large, and then the gap between Master and Highly Deadly has been less, it’d be nice to write some more tunes. It’s certainly invigorated me. I want to get back into the studio and make another record. Something different.

SB: Slightly Deadly Black Tarantula.

MC: Maybe a collaboration with Richard Pinhas as well. That could be on the cards after Raw Power last year.

MB: Maybe if we put it in print we’ll make that happen.

I’m so psyched for all of you, you all seem to pleased about what you’ve been doing.

[They all laugh and nod]

SB: I think my feeling is that why the fuck do people do this if they don’t enjoy it? You need to derive some pleasure. We’re all late thirties, early forties. It would be fucking ridiculous to be a band at our age if you weren’t a) getting on with who you were doing with it and b) didn’t derive a huge amount of enjoyment from it.

Highly Deadly Black Tarantula is out now on Rocket Recordings. Teeth of the Sea will play London Fields Brewery on Thursday 12 November before touring the rest of the UK

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