In early February, London four-piece CYMBALS released their album Age of Fracture on Tough Love. Their most fully realized statement to date, it marks a turn toward cleaner production and more deliberately hook-filled songwriting. By contrast, the lyrical content has a darker tone, displaying an overarching concern with alienation, disconnect, and the need for honest communication.
On a Saturday in March, I met up with the band at Piano’s, a venue in downtown Manhattan, where they were set to play their first official U.S. tour date later that night. But our conversation encountered a few obstacles: the band arrived a half hour later than we were scheduled to meet, and when they arrived with about twenty minutes to spare before their scheduled soundcheck, keyboardist Dan Simons was notably missing from the group. “We kind of separated last night,” shrugged drummer Neil Gillespie.
As Cleverly got things organized with the venue, Gillespie, bassist Luke Carson, and I searched out a quiet spot to talk, eventually settling in a relatively secluded hallway. The foursome are used to working in unconventional surroundings, having recorded most of The Age of Fracture on the Lightship, a repurposed boat that now functions as a floating studio on the Thames in East London. The rough recordings from those sessions were then re-mixed with the help of producer Oli Horton, who works under the name Dreamtrak, creating new versions of the songs that the band then worked to recreate in the rehearsal space. “I didn’t even ask the question of, ‘Can we do this live or not?’ Or, ‘Is this us?’” Gillespie said. “We just went with it.”
Age of Fracture is the band’s first album with Gillespie and Carson—although they’ve all been friends for years, the two having attended CYMBALS’ first show in London. Cleverly describes the two as having been “Like family, since the start,” and our conversation supported that comparison, as Carson and Cleverly often spoke over one another and eagerly finished each other’s thoughts. When we parted ways so the band could sound check, there was still no sign of Simons.
Luke, in another interview you described synthpop as “a dirty word.” What did you mean by that?
Carson: I think I did say that, yea. I normally associate synth pop with being super cheesy, really awful nostalgic music. I just think that when a lot of bands discover synthesizers, they think that they’re a really good pop band all of a sudden, because they’ve got access to all of these sweet tones. I like a lot of synth pop music, like OMD and stuff, and I like synthesizers, and I like pop music, but I don’t want people to think the synthesizer means we’re a nostalgic band. It’s just an instrument.
So if you had to come up with a genre, for your music, what would you choose?
Carson: That is the most difficult question you can ever ask a band.
Cleverly: It’s so hard because by saying some words, you exclude so much. We just write what we write, whatever’s right for the song, and I think this album has a lot of different stuff on it.
Carson: It kind of is quite synth-poppy though, isn’t it?
How long ago did you record the album?
Carson: Summer of 2012, we did most of it. That was when we started tracking it, so it’s been a while
Cleverly: It was recorded in different bits, in different places. The actual drum tracking was done on the Lightboat in London.
I’m assuming that none of you get seasick.
Carson: I do get a little bit seasick, actually. It’s tough at times when the tide’s coming in and it really gets going. I feel more sorry for Neil because he’s trying to keep time, and the whole boat’s moving around.
Gillespie: Studios are often really generic spaces, so to do it on the boat was really great. It was like a lighthouse, an Acme water tower kind of thing that used to have a big bulb in it, and a place for the batteries. That’s all been ripped out now.
Carson: You can go up on the deck and sit out in the sun for a while. It’s really nice. A lot of cool London bands also record there, and they always talk about this amazing cafe next door, like “Oh, it’s so cool,” and it’s awful. It’s the worst place in the world. Really bad coffee, really bad food.
Cleverly: It’s an American style dinner, but terrible.
Carson: And you’re in the Docklands, so you’ve got nowhere else to go if you want a cup of coffee.
Have you been to any American diners here?
Cleverly: Yea, they’re good!
Carson: I came more to eat than play music. I’m a big fan of deli food, those cheap delis on the corner serving sandwiches.
Gillespie: I went to Katz’s [Delicatessen] last year, and had French toast. It was awful.
Well, you’re supposed to get the pastrami at Katz’s.
Cleverly: Is there a movie thing to do with Katz’s?
Gillespie: The orgasm thing, from When Harry Met Sally. When I was there, I saw two cops sitting in there eating these huge things of pastrami. It was the most New York-y thing ever.
Do you feel working with Dreamtrak has changed your sound dramatically?
Carson: He helped us figure out where we wanted to go. He’s very, very good at gently saying “no, that’s not gonna work.” When you’re younger in a band, when you go into a studio they tell you what to do. Whereas Dreamtrak would say, “This is what you want to do? Okay, let’s try it.” He’s not some guy screaming in your face. We would consider him to be a bit of a fifth member. He’s a smart guy, and he likes the same stuff as us, but also stuff that we would never listen to. He’s into a lot of Eurodance and things like that.
So you don’t really listen to dance music?
Carson: One thing we can all agree on is house music. But he’s more into the euro trance side of things, and we wouldn’t ever go that far.
Can you speak about the significance of Daniel T. Rodgers’ Age of Fracture?
Cleverly: The album title is borrowed from it, so for that to be okay I had to be in touch with [Rodgers]. I emailed him and we had a little dialogue about it. I sent him some music. He’s a total dude. He’s a Princeton historian, and he’s won loads of awards.
The book’s incredible. It’s one of those things that really makes you look outside of yourself, and see some of the reasons why you think certain things. The way of thinking now is all local. There are no grand themes anymore. When I thought back through the songs, a lot of them are about the limits of language, and how it doesn’t help us in relationships. I read this quote the other day, I think it was Flaubert, who said something like, “it’s actually very difficult to express anything at all.”
So the title came about after all the material was written and recorded?
Gillespie: It was pretty last-minute actually, it was called something else for a while. Our really good friend Robin [Hulme], who’s a fabric and pattern designer for Liberty, did the artwork, and that fit in well with the title as well. It’s very fragmented and broken up, and different shapes represent different songs. He’s a fabric designer, so he normally designs things for print on material as opposed to card.
Do you feel you have to study up on the book now that you’re supporting this album title?
Carson: I reckon I could bluff it.
Cleverly: It’s not like the songs are trying to be versions of the book, they’re reactions. But I think it’s really important not to overthink it, because actually it’s just a cool set of words.
Gillespie: I don’t feel like CYMBALS is a campaign for it. It just kind of resonated with Jack. [to Jack] Maybe if you were reading a different book at the time, this album could have had a different title.
You recently released a video for the song “Erosion,” which incorporates viral videos like “David After Dentist.” What was the idea behind that?
Cleverly: The idea is roughly about a person being eroded by all this kind of stuff, and how a brain can be overwhelmed. It’s too much, all of those things online just hitting you all the time.
Are you anti- viral video?
Carson: No, I love viral videos. Just in a limited amount.
Did you help choose what went in there?
Cleverly: That was Matthew Reed, the director, and our manager Stephen, who’s a really great friend. Stephen’s very close to what we’re trying to do as a band artistically. It’s a collaborative, cooperative relationship.
Carson: I didn’t know what all the videos were. I was like, what’s that, what’s happening to me? I knew the OK Go one, and I knew “Leave Britney Alone.” The cat stuff, I was like, why is that here? I don’t get it. I need to spend more time online.
The first track on the album is called “Winter of ‘98”. What happened in winter of ‘98?
Carson: For me, that was the first time I ever joined a band. That’s not what the song is about, but that was the first time. I also probably had my first kiss about then. I don’t know, maybe it’s about the Winter Olympics.
Gillespie: You’ll have to ask Jack.
Carson: He’ll probably say it’s just cool words [laughs.]
The songs on the new album are noticeably longer than what CYMBALS have recorded in the past.
Gillespie: There’s a few songs that were unfinished before we recorded them, and we thought, if we find a groove that we like, we’ll just keep playing it.
Carson: We love old DFA stuff like The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, and they’ve got songs that are really long, just rocking out, playing a groove that people are dancing to. So I think that’s kind of the spirit we were in when we were writing these songs. We’re not trying to write three minute songs, that’d be too much pressure.