Spectres release their second album ‘Condition’ on March 10. The follow-up to their acclaimed 2015 debut, ‘Dying’, it was recorded by Dominic Mitchison in the band’s adopted home city of Bristol and mastered by Frank Arkwright (Mogwai, 65daysofstatic) at Abbey Road in London.
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It’s louder and more abrasive than their debut, but also a real progression. It sounds huge and adds a genuinely innovative and confrontational edge, partly inspired by last year’s remix album, ‘Dead’, which saw everyone from Factory Floor to Richard Fearless instructed to “kill” the songs from ‘Dying’.
“There were discussions about experimenting with electronics, but the idea soon petered out when we realised we still wanted to experiment with guitars,” reveals singer and guitarist Joe Hatt. It’s true that a track such as ‘End Waltz’ has a relentlessly pounding, almost techno structure, in contrast to the kinetosis-inducing dirge of ‘Dissolve’ – the first single from the album which appeared as an edible tablet download with a suitably stomach-churning video late last year.
Elsewhere the almost restrained (by Spectres’ standards) white noise and wordplay of ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ and the sprawling ‘Colour Me Out’ are counterbalanced by brutal assaults such as ‘Neck’ and ‘Welcoming The Flowers’, which keeps threatening to drown itself in its own roiling diamond sea.
“On this album we became even less interested in actually playing guitar,” explains Hatt, “which meant that we got more into experimenting with the sounds we could get out of them when brutalising them and letting the feedback do the talking.”
Spectres were formed in Barnstaple, North Devon in 2011. After moving to Bristol a couple years later they self-released a few EPs and singles on their own Howling Owl label, before joining forces with Sonic Cathedral for 2015’s ‘Dying’, their incendiary debut that they promised would “snap people out of their comfort zones. We want our noise to smack the spoon out of their mouths that is feeding them the warm diarrhoea that is served by start-up PR companies”. The resulting largely positive coverage everywhere from NME to Drowned In Sound, The Times and the Guardian to BBC Radio 1 – not to mention people fleeing their gigs, hands pressed tightly over bleeding ears – would suggest they went some way to achieving this aim.
“We’ve managed to get way further than we ever should have considering the music – and enemies – we make,” admits singer and guitarist Joe Hatt, “so now it’s just a question of enjoying things until the van finally breaks down and we can’t afford to get it fixed again. We’ve all somehow still got the same jobs as two years ago, we still rehearse and record in the same spaces, we write music in the exact same way, so even though things have grown in terms of gigs and our audience, we are still the same horrible lot. Lack of success will never change us.”
In contrast to the seriousness of their music, the band have also become notorious for their relentless sending up of the music industry – their alternative James Bond theme for ‘Spectre’, which fooled one Evening Standard journalist into thinking Sam Smith had been listening to some Sonic Youth; their feather ruffling Record Store Day Is Dying campaign; the video for ‘This Purgatory’ in which they killed Fearne Cotton, Nick Grimshaw, Reggie Yates and Scott Mills – seemingly with John Peel’s approval – while recording a Radio 1 Live Lounge appearance; and most recently they shared a spoof Spotify ad that went viral.
“There are a lot of people who vocally hate us because of some of our ‘pranks’,” reveals Hatt, “but there’s always a lot more to them than merely trying to score cheap notoriety. Everything we do is a reaction to being part of a music industry that depresses us greatly, but also an industry we feel as though we should be part of on merit… even though we know it doesn’t work that way 99% of the time. We’ve met plenty of people at gigs who discovered us through the James Bond single, or just recently had people contacting us saying they’d listened to our music after seeing the fake Spotify advert we shared, which is great. If people think making fans by harnessing the band’s inner personality through campaigns against the music industry is more cynical than just paying someone who doesn’t care about your band to try and get reviews, then they can just shut up. We know we’re never going to be making a living off this, so we may as well try and have some fun with it rather than just keep our heads down and pander.”
But what future is there for a band as vital and visceral as Spectres in this post-truth world where making a living from music is seemingly a thing of the past unless you get a big fat BPI grant like Slaves; where you get more shares on Facebook for a meme poking fun at Spotify’s royalty rates than a genuinely thought-provoking and challenging video, like the one they made for ‘Dissolve’ last year?
“Just existing is enough for us at this point,” says Hatt, resignedly. “We’ve always known we will never have mass appeal, so merely being an entity is fine. We have friends moving into houses that are being bought for them by their parents out of panic because they see the market imploding and their kids’ futures doing the same thing. None of us will ever own a house, but if we write good songs we may get to travel around and stay in houses owned by other people and that’s all we want to achieve, really: a free Airbnb.”
After two years of playing live shows all over Europe in support of ‘Dying’ and its postmortem, ‘Dead’ – including memorably stepping into the slot vacated by Björk at La Route du Rock a couple years ago – the band had intended to decamp somewhere remote to write the follow-up. “We were going to bury our phones, burn our laptops and just write music for a week, come back and record it,” says Hatt. “But we didn’t get a chance to do this as all of our holidays from work were used up by us gigging more than we were used to. The romantic idea of the writing holiday soon just disintegrated into panic when we suddenly realised we were recording the album in a month and we only had about four songs.”
That they managed to produce a record as good as ‘Condition’ is a minor miracle, then, especially as the overriding themes and concept of the album, right across the songs and the stunning artwork, seem even more coherent and considered than the first album. But what exactly is the condition that the title refers to?
“I’ve always been interested in the human condition in terms of how we are programmed emotionally and either try to adhere or break away from that,” explains Hatt. “How we condition ourselves to try and blend in or get through the day, whether that be blocking things out, or drinking it all in, or in many cases both. The title came to me when we were mixing the first record and, from then on, it just stuck. It was about another year before I started writing lyrics for ‘Condition’, but it was good having that starting point forming and sprawling in my head for that amount of time as there was already a mood set. This all fed into the artwork quite heavily, too, where the idea was to try and present both the introvert and extrovert within us. We have worked with Stephanie Third [who did the ‘Dying’ front cover] again and she produced a set of tranimal-inspired photographs in which we wanted to depict human emotions bulbing out of a body in a vulgar mess, just like they do, but represented physically. The front cover of the vinyl version came about from me being a huge fan of the artist Laurie Lax’s ‘Comic Boom Boom’ series. The first time I saw them I thought that it would be an exciting idea to try and work with her on something similar for the future, and when the time was right we began working out ways of how to link her process to the themes and moods of the album.”
And Spectres’ mood has never really changed: “The same things drive us now as they did before because they’re so deep-rooted,” concludes Hatt. “Making noise that can’t help but make people forget and remember everything at the same time, and total disdain towards a world where we kind of need to exist.”