October’s stellar live music line up in Cambridge kick starts with the sweet sounds of experimental folk trio Stealing Sheep, who bring their delicate harmonies, hypnotic beats and spiralling guitars to The Portland Arms on October 1st.
Stealing Sheep’s acclaimed 2012 debut, ‘Into the Diamond Sun’, morphed their individual styles to create a ‘medieval-kraut-folk’ inspired sound. They were described as an unanticipated ‘pagan pop revival’ and since its release have toured as guests of Postal Service and Alt-J, opened for St.Vincent in Paris, performed the songs of David Lynch at the Barbican and collaborated with the Radiophonic Workshop on an original soundtrack to the cult 70’s science fiction film ‘La Planete Sauvage’.
This year has seen the Liverpudlian trio release their second LP, ‘Not Real’ which they recorded and produced themselves. The unifying theme of the new album is the interplay of fact and fiction; the edge of dreams and limits of reality. These visions are grounded by bright melodies and insistent beats and unified by vocal harmonies; sometimes metronomic and chant-like, sometimes choral and pop. In anticipation for their Cambridge show (info and tickets here) we caught up with Stealing Sheep…
Your new LP ‘Not Real’ came out earlier this year, how have you found its reception?
Amazing! We’re so happy that people are enjoying the new stuff that we’ve created. A lot of the energy went into it. It was really hard to imagine what we wanted from the songs and then try and realise the ideas fully… and when we had completed the album we weren’t sure if people on the outside would see where we were coming from but the reaction was incredible and it’s given us a lot of self belief and encouragement for our work and it’s making our ideas stronger, regardless of how abstract or off kilter the ideas are!
‘Into the Diamond Sun’ seems to have really hit upon something, judging by the attention it’s received. Did the sudden increase in popularity changed what being in a band feels like?
None of us had expected the reaction the first album received. We had just started working with a record label (Heavenly Recordings), so we knew our reach would change and that we would get a bit more attention from the media (in comparison to past music projects that we had been involved in). But we were shocked that it was catching on with people and very proud that even without conforming to current trends and styles, our music still stood out and spoke to people. That helped us form our continuing ethos of being proud of our differences and strengthened our approach to making tunes as weird and wonderful as we wanted them to be. It’s very exciting to hear what journalists say as we know they are listening to music every day, so when they can hear references in the music and production ideas and know how to sum them up, it’s really interesting!
Is album number 2 as scary or hard to produce as they say it is?
It was really hard, we all went through a lot of internal negotiation during the process of writing, quite a lot of self doubt too, because there’s no instant feedback or gratification throughout the whole process, we only had ourselves to bounce off for over a year and we weren’t really playing live that whole time. There was a lot of identity struggle but all these things contributed to the outcome in a positive way. In some ways we all became quite philosophical and that’s where these questions of reality and purpose came from, eventually creating the ‘Not Real’ title and theme.
How did your approach to the new record change from your debut?
We had to create a completely new way of working (one that is still far from perfect!) The first album came together really fast, we didn’t even think about it, we were just like “right..we have a gig tomorrow, we need some more songs!” and then we just smashed out more tunes because we had too and we definitely didn’t care or think about what people thought or whether we even thought they were good. It was just like going from A to B but now tit’s more like going from A to Z, there’s a million of pit stops in between that need figuring out. We’ve all become quite dedicated to the art of songwriting and now fully appreciate how hard it is to write a simple message and convey it well through music. We listen to music all the time, analyze it and break it down, always enjoying it in an intuitive way too but also thinking about why we like it? Is it nostalgia..something from our individual memory that makes us like it or it something more universal that everyone can connect too? It’s almost like we’re on a big research project now and we’re working on each song in a completely different way.
On the new album you’ve tuned percussion, programmed beats, trigger samples and worked with effected synths, how much did the new album develop or test your technical music abilities?
It tested us a lot because we made the album and then worked backwards from that to play it live. That’s why all of our hands are occupied the whole time we’re playing live, we had to get 6 synths on the go and seriously learn how to multitask! We also had to learn how to record and produce the sound we wanted in the album and live. We think this is one of the positive outcomes to have been limited financially, we had to learn all the skills ourselves, but we have those forever and we’re proud of what we have achieved!
Which track on the album was the hardest to finish and why?
‘She’ was really hard, we worked on it for months, there’s a weird tempo change in it and we struggled to structure the song, it came together more when we had recorded it. Not real was finished in pretty much a day, it’s strange how difficult one song could be, some times it’s really obvious what a song should do, it’s like it’s already written and you’re just following it and letting it lead the way and then other times it’s like there’s a brick wall and you haveto smash it down before seeing the other side! Lucy said once.. “it’s like getting blood from a stone” and I completely agree.
Which new tracks do you most enjoy playing live?
They all have their own vibe but ‘Greed’ just feels epic. It’s got a lot of dynamics and it’s got a moody drone intro that seems to hypnotise us and the audience, then for me…it’s because I do a synth solo! It’s never the same and that spontaneity is a great feeling, even though sometimes it’s a really bad solo, it ‘s like it has a life of it’s own and I never know where it’s gonna go and when it’s bad it only shows me how good it can be when I do get it right!
The album feels like you concentrated on developing the sonic aesthetic of your music more, what inspired this?
At the beginning we decided that the new messages we wanted to put across were boldness and artistic bravery, we had quite a floaty whimsical atmosphere around us with the first album and we wanted to shake that off a bit and show that we know what we’re doing and we mean it! This meant everything needed consideration, the sound of the music and each part needed to be defined and if it was wishy washy or unnecessary, we needed to be strict and sack it off so that we stayed true to this new perception we wanted to give. The sounds and bands that felt like they were pulling this image off all had this angular 80’s feeling, quite serious and kruat-y but also ironic and humorous undercurrents, so we listened to a lot of this kind of thing to influence our production.
The 50s exotica influence on the new record, how and where did this idea come from?
We love the concept of this genre, dreaming up a fantastical landscape and creating the sound of it. Finding a musical scale that lures you into an exotic dream! We all listen to this kind of music the most, more than contemporary pop and other genres, there’s just something more magical about it! We like the orchestral drums and that all the percussion sounds like a jam of loads of people vibing, either by a voodoo volcano or round a camp fire.. it’s also romantic with the strings and everything..not sure why…it’s just great!
The ‘medieval-Kraut-folk’ of your debut is gone and replaced by more electronica and pop, how did this come about? And was there any apprehension going in this direction?
The first stuff was all a bit of an accident in a lot of ways, it was a stream of our consciousness flowing out without debate or order. The new stuff is just the result of us considering it and knowing more what we wanted from the style and a more accurate portrayal of our songs. It’s more intended and in our control. We still satisfy the fluidity that is found in writing in the way we used to, whenever we compose soundtrack based music, it’s always more like this, unquestioned and left to it’s own devices, but for our album and future albums, we try to tame the beast!
You’ve said previously that you wanted your music to be “”more understandable” why do you feel this way?
We want it to be accessible to a lot of people. Not that we are loosing our ideals and conforming, we are very not to passive music listening, but we do want to find the most universal structure to put our music through, and we want to recognize exactly what we say with each musical choice so that it is all intended. It’s just about communicating a message in the best and most simple and direct way.
How important was it that you self-produced the new album?
This was a semi-accident, we had planned to work with a producer and there were a lot of people involved helping us, consulting with us, people that we respected the opinion of, but we had recorded the demos and by doing them just ended up completing them on our own, we had so much drive for production, it just seemed integral to the songs, it was their identity, each song had it’s own world to convey and we needed to dress them appropriately, it couldn’t leave us and be finished by someone else (although we did try) we just kept coming back to our own approaches, maybe we were just stubborn, it would be good to be open to change and try getting another human bounce board for future stuff!
The visual representation of your music is something you’re obviously heavily involved with, it feels like with ‘Not Real’ your visual image has evolved too, how important is Stealing Sheep’s visual image?
It’s as important as the music! It’s all about the messages we’re putting out, so both of them are as powerful on the senses. It’s quite obvious that if you put radically different soundtracks to a horror film, it could become funny, or sad, it changes the way you interpret it and so.. we feel like this was a huge influential factor to how our music would be received.
Hypothetically you’re going to DJ a disco for us, what is your go to dancefloor filler?
‘Automatic’ by The Pointer Sisters for an old classic that gets people vibing. Todd terje’s Inspector Norse for a more on trend but incredibly sticky dance filler.