To describe Gymnast’s music as graceful would be incredibly clichéd, but it would also be true. Built from equal parts innovation and intuition, their studio work captures highly staged, texturally rich moments replete with an electricity and originality they modestly describe simply as ‘alt-pop’. There are many touchstones one could reference, but little advance warning prepares you for the first listen. The Manchester duo’s music falls between electronic and organic worlds, combining warm male-female vocals and the grounding swell of a cello with trip-hop beats and hypnotic synths. Put simply, Cathy Wilcock and Chris Lyon make beautiful music together.
Possibly the biggest achievement considering how fastidiously orchestrated the pieces are is that they succeed in touching both the thinks and the feels – there’s little here that feels brittle, overwrought or clinical. Catching up before gig #425 with friends Shield Patterns and Cambridge’s own Gaze is Ghost, we talk to Gymnast about translating their work into the live arena – often very unique arenas, as their history demonstrates – and the progress of their debut LP.
Slate are very excited to see Chris and Cathy’s project make an appearance in Cambridge, and equally excited to see where their musical adventures lead them next. We hope you’ll take a listen and get excited too.
Hi guys, where the hell are you in the world and what’s the view from your closest window?
Manchester. Strangeways prison ventilation tower.
Dark… So, for those new to Gymnast, how would you describe your music?
It depends who these new people are, to be honest. Generally we keep it simple and say ‘alt-pop’. Being more elaborate, I think we’re somewhere in the alt-pop, trip-hop, indie, electronic universe.
Am I right in thinking that the name and iconic logo is a reference to the band’s interest in movement?
Nope, sorry Wes! The logo is taken from the poster for the Leningrad Dance Festival 1936 – we found this in Prague when we weren’t even in a band together. As soon as I saw it I thought it would be a great logo for a band called ‘Gymnast’. The next step was forming a band, calling it Gymnast and writing some songs.
One of the most interesting shows you’ve played is the skyscraper session with Sofar Sounds – how did you make their acquaintance?
Yes, that was a really special one for us. Total admiration for what Sofar are doing and how they’re doing it.
I think we just introduced ourselves after one of their other gigs (which was in a corridor), next thing we knew we were going up in the lift.
Any live highlights you can think of that might be more accessible to those afraid of heights?
It’s the weird ones which are the best… An ice cream parlour in Crouch End, inside a shark’s mouth in the middle of the Olympic park, a workers’ co-operative in Leeds.
Your debut EP was up for a bit, now it has vacated the internet. How is the new material progressing and what can listeners expect?
Yes, we killed it. The new stuff is almost done. Listeners can expect a bit more of a groove in places, a bigger sound, more space, more confidence. We’ve also learned a lot more about production and hopefully people will pick up on that.
What’s the relationship between the way you perform live and how you go about producing studio material?
It’s a difficult one. For a lot of the bands we know, most of their song-writing comes out of jamming sessions. When the songs are ready for recording, they are trying to find ways they can ‘capture’ their live sound in the studio. For us, that whole value-system is turned on its head. What we’re doing is building songs as studio projects in a very intentional way – there is nothing spontaneous about the way we write, it’s always kind of deliberate and cerebral (as opposed to emotional). Similarly, or because of this (or in service of this) we record very methodically over long periods of time. You can argue all day about whether that results in ‘contrived’ art but, to answer the question: what it means for us is that the ‘ideal versions’ of our songs have never been (and could never be) performed in real time. As a result, when we play live, we’re inevitably going to disappoint ourselves. Recently, we’ve tried to take a new approach to live shows and we’ve been enjoying how interesting live environments can bring out different things in what we’re doing. That’s why shows like Sofar were so rewarding, and why we’re looking forward to playing at Leper Chapel so much.
Cello and electronics don’t often go together. Did it take you some time to find a way of blending the two?
Yes, although it takes us a long time to do anything! From the start our main challenge has been learning how to use electronics well. We’d only ever written for more standard acoustic/electric guitar bands before. The issue was less blending the cello or any particular instrument with electronics, and more about figuring out how to allow our song-writing sensibility to combine with the electronic production in a coherent way. It was really slow at the start. For a lot of our songs it was a case of trying things out, thinking they were working really well, then coming back to them and realising that they weren’t working at all. A couple of our songs nearly went in the bin, including our forthcoming single ‘Geneva’. We’ve got to the point now where we’re happy with how things are sounding and we’re ready to put everything together on an album.
You’ve played quite a few shows with Shield Patterns recently. How did the two groups meet?
It was Rich who got in touch with us and then we met Claire at a gig.
We’ve done a few shows together in Manchester and a bit of travelling as well. We just met and got on like a house on fire. I think our music is both similar enough and different enough to make sense on the same bill. At one of these shows we’ll whip out a dodgy unrehearsed cover-collaboration and probably never speak to each other again.
Manchester seems like it has a really vibrant scene at the moment. Do you have a top 5 list of labels or artists you think should be more widely known?
Yes, there’s a lot going on. Top five are:
And finally, what are your ambitions for the coming year?
To run riot around the UK. Perform in interesting places to interesting people. Sell some records. And get to work on LP2.
Thanks for talking to us today!