Interview by Jon Langford
It’s been one year since the release of Until The Ribbon Breaks critically acclaimed debut EP A Taste of Silver. In the subsequent twelve months the Welsh trio have been almost constantly on the road, only pit stopping to work on their inaugural full-length record A Lesson Unlearnt (out January 20). The album delivers more of the same industrial soundscapes of Silver; celestial synths spread over drum machines, brooding guitars and dark, breathy vocals.
First Touch caught up with the band (Peter Lawrie Winfield (vocals, guitar), James Gordon (keys), Elliot Wall (drums)) during their recent press tour of New York City to chat music, lost family heirlooms and bodily injections in unpleasant places.
FT: Let’s begin with the story of the band name. How did it come about?
Pete: We had already made some of the music, but it had no name and we didn’t really even know what we wanted to do with it. I played some demos to a friend and he noted that it kind of jumped from genre to genre and asked if that was intentional. I explained that it was and that I wanted it to feel like when we used to make mix tape cassettes for friends. Then my friend said something like, “Oh yeah, those cassettes, we’d play them until the ribbon broke.”
FT: You began your musical life as a folky singer/songwriter back in the late 2000s. How did the transition to the more electronic sound of Until The Ribbon Breaks happen? Was it a natural evolution or a conscious decision?
Pete: The first music I ever made, when I was 15 or 16, was very simple hip-hop beats, but my parents were fans of great singer/songwriters like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan so I always loved both genres. The first music I did properly, I suppose, was singer/songwriter stuff, but still on the side I was always making hip-hop beats. So for the first time with this project I’m combining both.
FT: You mentioned Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, which other artists did the band grow up listening to?
James: My dad was really into Dire Straits, but there was always a lot of pop around too. Things like Prince and Michael Jackson.
Elliot: I grew up drumming to Michael Jackson on the dashboard of my dad’s car. Literally beating it to the point where I ruined the dash.
FT: Pete, I read somewhere that both of your parents are classical musicians. What instruments do they play?
Pete: My dad plays the cor anglais, which is like a big oboe, and my mum plays the oboe.
FT: Do you play the oboe?
Pete: No, I hate it [Laughs]. It was the sound I woke up to every day, so it’s like somebody else saying that they now play the alarm clock. To me, the oboe sounds like someone’s strangling a duck to death. My mum still plays for a living, so even now when I stay with her, I wake up to the sound of her practicing. I hate it.
FT: The oboe runs in the family, though. Didn’t your grandfather play on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”?
Pete: That’s right, he did.
FT: Any good Beatles stories you can share?
Pete: It’s not really a story, but apparently it’s very rare to have a signed photo of each of The Beatles from one particular era. So my grandfather, after playing in the session, had gotten a signed photo from each of them and he gave one of them to my dad’s sister, my aunt, and she sold it on eBay and it caused a massive family drama because everybody was like, “What the fuck? Now the other three aren’t worth as much because they’re not part of a complete collection!” It was supposed to be a family heirloom.
FT: Let’s talk about your debut album A Lesson Unlearnt. Where was it made?
Pete: It was conceived in Wales, but a lot of it was made in Norfolk with Rollo Armstrong. Some of it was made in New York, some of it was made in San Francisco and it was finished in L.A.
FT: Talk me through the band’s writing process. Does everybody contribute?
James: We all chip in. Pete’s exclusively the lyrics man, that’s what his background is and what he’s great at. I come in from more of a production point of view, writing and building the music. And Elliot is extremely useful in the studio because he has a very objective viewpoint.
Elliot: Yeah, I come in and say whether something’s shit or not.
James: Sometimes we’ll be working away at something specific, just fine-tuning a detail for days and days, and Elliot just walks in and goes, “That’s shit, boys.” [Laughs.]
FT: A lot of your lyrics, Pete, observe how society these days is detached from the real world because of technology. Is this something that disturbs you?
Pete: What I really hope doesn’t come across is that I’m being preachy, because I’m exactly the same. It’s more of an observational thing. I’m just surprised and confused that this is where we’re at as a society. I’m disappointed. You know, we have all this technology, and this is how we’ve chosen to use it.
FT: I’m with you, and I’m glad somebody’s taking a stand against the machines.
Pete: Yeah, you know you ride on the subway and you look around and everybody’s attention is on a mini computer.
FT: We all got along just fine before smart phones…
James: Yeah, back when we were kids you had to turn up on time at the place you said you were going to be, whereas now you don’t have to.
Elliot: At a restaurant the other night I saw a two-year-old sat with an iPad all night, as if the parents were saying, “There’s the iPad, now shut up.”
Pete: I was having dinner at a restaurant in L.A. recently and there was a whole family at the next table and the father had headphones on and an iPad and he was programming beats during the entire meal!
FT: You studied film at university, Pete. What are some of your favorite film scores?
Pete: My favorite all time film score is American Beauty. And I also love all of Hans Zimmer’s scores.
James: I like all Danny Elfman’s stuff, the original Batman score in particular. And John Williams, obviously.
FT: Any Spinal Tap moments on tour that you can share?
Elliot: That’s a good question and I wish I had a good answer.
Pete: Elliot’s missed the bus a few times.
FT: So you have to make your own way to the next city, Elliot?
Elliot: Yeah, that happens sometimes. [Laughs all around.] You know, alcohol gets involved and then…
Pete: I suppose my Spinal Tap moment was when we were playing a show with Delorean in L.A. and I had to have steroids injected up my bum. I had severe flu.
FT: What’s next for the band after the London Grammar tour in January? Will you be doing SXSW?
Elliot: Yeah, hopefully we’ll be doing SXSW. We played a lot of shows there last year. I actually had the same terrible flu when we were there that Pete was just talking about. I remember trying to get in the shower, shaking, and going, “Pete, I don’t think I can get my trousers off.”
Pete: I just remembered that we had a pretty big Tap moment at SXSW. James had set his gear up and somebody decided to rig the dry ice machine right next to it and as soon as we went on they just started blasting it at him to the point where he couldn’t play his keys because he couldn’t see them. I just kept hearing all these wrong notes and I looked over and I couldn’t see him!
James: There are two types of smoke machine. One that’s water-based and one that’s oil-based and I’ve discovered that you don’t want the one that’s oil-based pointing at a keyboard because if it is then you can’t fucking play it. I ended up kicking the smoke machine off the side of the stage in the end.
FT: What could we expect to find on Until The Ribbon Break’s rider?
Elliot: We’re pretty boring, really.
James: We like nuts, fruit and vodka.
Elliot: I always specifically ask for a pack of Haribo Tangfastics, which they never get me because I don’t think you can get them in the States. I’d love to get endorsed by them though. The weird thing is we don’t ask for beer because none of us drink it. But we’re Welsh so we’ll just take whatever’s there really.
FT: As you know, we’re a football publication, so are you guys football fans?
James: Not really. I’m from Exeter and they’re shit.
Pete: I support Cardiff City who are also shit.
James: I think the last football match I watched was the one when Gareth Southgate missed a penalty for England in Euro 96. [Laughs all around.] That’s stuck with me. I have Polish heritage so I always want to see the Poles do well, but they keep fucking up too.
Elliot: I’m into baseball now.
Pete: Are you fuck into baseball.
Elliot: I go to baseball loads!
Pete: Can you print that that’s bollocks, please?
Elliot: That’s not bollocks.
Pete: How many times have you been to baseball?
Elliot: Four times.
FT: Which team do you go and watch?
Elliot: The Dodgers.
James: Who’s your favorite player?
Elliot: I don’t know. He’s not a player, he’s a batter.
James: Give me one rule of baseball.
Elliot: I don’t know any rules, but I can tell you that it’s quite dangerous. [Laughs all around.]
*Interview ends with a 10-minute discussion about the world’s deadliest sports (and it turns out baseball isn’t one of them).
Until The Ribbon Breaks debut album A Lesson Unlearnt is out on January 20, 2015. Catch them on tour in the U.S. with London Grammar January/February 2015.