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The Popdose Interview: A Silent Film

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Spencer Walker, Karl Bareham, Robert Stevenson and Ali Hussain.

“All right, Chicago,” says Robert Stevenson, “let’s make this magic.” By this time in A Silent Film’s February 15 performance at Lincoln Hall, the group’s front man is about to lead the near-capacity crowd through a singalong to “Harbor Lights,” a track from their 2012 release Sand & Snow. And by this time, he has them more or less eating out of his hand. He’s locked eyes with nearly everyone in the room, joked with them, cajoled them, done everything short of floating over the stage like Peter Pan to bring the audience together in this moment. Now he has them primed to sing a simple, catchy five-note riff on command, and they do, again and again, led each time by an eager gesture from Stevenson, pinned down at a sequencer in one corner of the stage but commanding the entire room nevertheless. And damned if it isn’t a little magical, all those people singing together on a song they know, with no one more pleased about it than the beaming lead singer himself.

A Silent Film — consisting of singer and principle writer Stevenson, drummer Spencer Walker, guitarist Karl Bareham and bassist Ali Hussain — is an Oxford quartet that makes richly layered, catchy, often danceable songs with a welcome emotional depth. Their debut album, The City That Sleeps, featured the breakout single “You Will Leave a Mark” and came out in the U.S. in 2010; Sand & Snow followed last year, an inspired sophomore effort that combined meticulous studio craftsmanship with even more confident and capable songwriting. They’re one or two high-profile appearances away from getting really big. When that happens, they may start playing rooms too big for even Stevenson to bring together under the warm glow of his charisma and joie de vivre — assuming he doesn’t just teach himself how to fly.

I met Spencer Walker before the show for a chat (Stevenson had planned to join us but had to beg off in order to sort out a problem with the band’s illuminated backdrop), accompanied by my wife and Silent Film über-fan Cece Otto.

Dan Wiencek: Tell me about where you came from. Were you students at Oxford or did you already live there? What’s the music scene there and how did it inspire you?

Spencer Walker: Robert and I were at school from the age of 13 together in Oxford, so we were playing together from the age of 14 — it’s far too long, I’m not actually gonna tell you how long, because it’s very, very disturbing. (Laughter)

As far as the scene goes, all I would say is that it’s an unbelievable scene to grow up in, incredibly ambitious. You’ve got Radiohead and Supergrass and Ride and these sort of grandfathers of the scene still there, and you’re seeing them around town the whole time, and you can’t help but be influenced by them. It’s not a “rock star” scene, and Radiohead are such a good example of guys who love what they do, and they’ve never, ever done the whole fame/celebrity shit. So you genuinely will go and sit down next to them in a restaurant or in a pub, and everyone leaves them alone — it’s cool, it’s like that’s the done thing. So you grow up with this unbelievable example to aspire to.

And the music that comes out of Oxford, it’s strong at the moment, there’s a lot of bands coming out of there. Foals, obviously, is a really big recent band to come out of Oxford. It’s all varied and it’s not a rock town or a metal town, it’s just generally a weird town. And everyone tries to do something a little different. I wouldn’t say that there are any other bands that sound like us there. I wouldn’t say that there are any other bands that sound like Foals there. Obviously, no one sounds like Radiohead. A lot of people wanted to sound like Radiohead.

DW: Good luck with that.

SW: Yeah. That’s actually a great lesson … We toured with the band OneRepublic. We’re good friends with them now; they’re just good people. But I remember Ryan, the singer, saying to Robert on the first show we ever played with them, talking about songwriting, saying “The breakthrough for me was when I realized I wasn’t going to be in Radiohead, and then I started writing songs for myself, rather than writing songs for Thom Yorke.” And he said that’s when he started selling millions and millions of singles, so … this is good advice. It’s a great lesson to learn, and it’s a hard lesson to learn when you come from Oxford.

DW: So when you went to do Sand & Snow, you produced yourselves. So what led to that decision?

Robert Stevenson, Lincoln Hall, Chicago, February 15, 2013

Robert Stevenson, Lincoln Hall, Chicago, February 15, 2013

SW: We’d had a producer [Sam Williams] on the first record, which was amazing, and it was something that we needed to be able to basically take a very disparate sound and all the songs were very disparate sounding, and we needed a producer-funnel to basically put them through, so that what came out the other end sounded like one band. And that experience was invaluable. And then when we came to the second record, we’d spent a year touring, and I think we felt that we had made a lot of steps significantly in how we wanted to arrange music and how we wanted the next record to sound. Robert is a producer anyway. Karl and Robert both have engineered for a long time, so we had a lot of in-house knowledge. It was always going to be a slightly … (laughs) I don’t know if it was an arrogant decision. But we just felt we knew what we wanted to do with our record and we wanted to see if we could do it ourselves. So we thought, why not?

DW: You’ve talked about recording the album outdoors, letting the sounds of nature onto the tracks. Tell me about that a bit.

SW: That was all part of the whole experience of recording in Arizona. When we first went to the desert, we found it incredibly inspiring. I’m sure people have different reactions to it, but for us, obviously, it’s the polar opposite of growing up in Oxford. When you first see a cactus in real life, that’s actually quite a big deal. I don’t want to sound too naïve here, but we actually stopped the car and got out and took pictures. (Laughter) They are way bigger than you think. So the whole experience of the desert, it was like an alien landscape, and we thought, why not record here? With that in mind, elements came in. Robert definitely did some takes outside; whether they made it on the record or not I don’t know, but it was a good experiment. I know that we definitely tried to record a rattlesnake’s tail.

DW: You found a rattlesnake?

SW: No, the guys where we were living (laughs) … sorry. It was an unbelievable experience for us. We had rattlesnakes outside the house, trying to get in, we had scorpions in the house trying to kill us. We had javelinas, these angry little pigs that run around. And we had a tarantula living under our barbecue.

Cece Otto: I’ve heard that they kind of creep from out of nowhere.

SW: They do, and they’re really nice and friendly! (Laughter) First time we saw it, it was [recoils]. Yeah. Turns out, really friendly, you can have it on your arm. We learned a lot, and it’s a world away from here, let alone England. So we had a friend who was a pool cleaner — we met some very interesting characters down in Cave Creek, Arizona — and he had been cleaning someone’s pool, found a rattlesnake … did what needed to be done, chopped off the rattle, thought we might like it for our album. We’re like, “Thanks, James!” (Laughter) Anyway, it turns out, it’s actually very hard to record, so it didn’t make it on. I still have it … probably shouldn’t have taken it over to England, I’m not sure if I’m going to get done now by the authorities. Yeah, maybe the next record.

DW: You’ve said that Sand & Snow was really influenced by America, and your thoughts and ideas about it, and I wonder if you can just talk a bit about that. Is there a specific way that you could say that it informed the music that you ended up making?

SW: There’s no question that Sand & Snow is an album heavily influenced by our experiences traveling round America. We wrote the first album and we wanted to make a really Oxford album. It’s a mindset we were in at the time. We recorded it in Oxford, it was written in Oxford, the producer was Sam Williams, who was an Oxford guy who had produced Supergrass, who were on Oxford band; it was mastered in Oxford. That was it — we wanted to do something from our home. And we knew that whatever happened, the next album would be informed by what had happened between the two. You got basically your whole life to write your first album, and then the next album …

DW: … and six months to write your second.

SW: Yeah, and for us, the key experience was being out here, and doing it. And that year, we really just immersed ourselves. So we had the touring experience, going around the whole country and seeing everything and then we had the second experience, which was living in this alien environment.

DW: Another thing I’ve heard you say now and then is that you “learned a lot” between the first and second records. Can you articulate some of what that is?

CO: Or is it like some Vegas thing? “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”?

SW: What was key for us — and it’s weird you say Vegas — (laughs) but I think being able to come out here, where we didn’t really know anyone, gave us a sense of freedom in performance that maybe we’d always been holding back in Europe. I don’t really know why; it’s not like we had a problem performing.

What I do know is that from the moment we came out to America, our show changed. And it became so much more interactive, it became so much more full-on, and actually the turning point was a four-day residency in Vegas. We were put in a position where we were playing two shows a night for four nights in the Cosmo. But that puts you in a position which we’d never been in before. You had to basically say, “Right, we’re gonna somehow play two hours a night to a Vegas crowd, and we’re gonna make it work.” The first hour-long show was awful, and we all walked off stage just like, “This is gonna be bad.” (Laughs) And we got incredibly drunk. And there was an hour between sets, and we went back on at midnight. We never had done that before. I think something clicked and we just unleashed. I’m sure, like, technically it wasn’t the best performance. But something happened, and I feel like everyone let loose a little bit. That’s not to say we now perform blind drunk! (Laughs) We don’t. But doing that once, something cut loose …

CO: Certain filters and things …

SW: Yeah, just dropped away. And ever since then … I feel very fortunate to be in a band where we have a front man like Robert. He’s not only an amazing songwriter and singer, but it’s just so much fun being on stage. I just have fun playing and watching him, obviously, he’s compelling.

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DW: I had a question for him, and since he’s not here maybe you can try to field this. He does seem to make that effort to really connect individually with everybody. Did that come out of that experience in Vegas like you’re talking about?

SW: Yeah, I don’t want to overemphasize Vegas (laughs), but I think that he genuinely feels that he wants every single person to be having fun, and he has spoken about the fact that if he sees someone who looks like they’re not having fun, he will focus on that person until they are having fun. We like people dancing at shows. We like people smiling and having fun and singing. It’s a genuine desire for people to have fun. And we want to entertain; none of us want to be in that band that’s just like jamming out their songs looking at their feet.

CO: Each song’s probably different, but does the music appear first or the lyrics appear first?

SW: There’s no template for us when we write. Robert writes all the lyrics, so often if a song comes from him, it will come with lyrics, and I actually can’t tell you whether the song or the music comes first, because he’ll come with maybe the chords, or a structure or a melody or a something and the lyrics.

CO: I know in other interviews you had mentioned you have a collective process …

SW: Yeah, and a good example is “Danny, Dakota” on the new album. The string and the synth riff came from Ali, and it was a time when actually Ali, Karl and I were in Arizona and Robert was in the UK for a couple of weeks. And Ali had this thing written, and we’re like, OK, this is great, and so I kind of put the drums to it, Karl put some guitar to it, and then we put some bass to it and we sent it to Robert. And Robert came back two days later, and he was like, “I think I’ve finished this one.” And he’d basically arranged it, written all the lyrics, and he wrote those lyrics in a day, sent it back and we were just like, “Yeah, all right — that’s on the album. Done, move on, next.” So it can work in any different way.

CO: There are some bands that when you hear it, you can tell, oh the lyrics were written first, versus the music. And there’s a nice seamless quality with Sand & Snow that I really appreciate.

SW: Robert’s the lyricist, I’m not gonna speak for him, but I will say it’s definitely something we take really seriously. He’s never written a lyric that doesn’t mean something to him, at any point. I don’t think we’ll ever be that band. It would be very easy for us to be, but I don’t think we’ll ever be that band.