Hate (Mantra/Beggars Banquet)
An interview with Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock
by Tim Den
Hate will probably go down as my Album of the Year (alongside Idlewild). I was hooked the moment opener “The Light Before We Land” blossomed into my aural peripheral: An angelic choir waking from its slumber, announcing its arrival just as the spirit of Beethoven is invoked via distortionized orchestration and explosive percussion. Then… the smoke clears and a plaintive melody flows into view like a spectre dressed in understated elegance, seductively leading you by the collar across the threshold. It’s a whole new world on the other side as you gaze at the morphing scenery around you: Harmonies sticking together like glue-on-glue, mournful serenades washing through your every pore.
And that’s just the first song… Imagine my utter bewilderment when the rest of the album never failed its opener. Not once. Through the “Sgt. Pepper…”-ish “All You Need Is Hate,” the euphoric “The Drowning Years,” the redemptive “Child Killers,” and the transcendental falsettos of “Coalman,” Hate is 100% spine-tingling thrills and no fills. How long has it been since the last perfect album? Memory fails me. In the presence of The Delgados‘ latest masterpiece, all I am is a knot of soul-stirred, brain-erupted servant. The entire experience of Hate can almost be summed up by the track “Woke From Dreaming.” As waves of blissful melody wash over you again and again, just as you’re about to asphyxiate from its drowning glory, the tide recedes and you realize that not only has it spent all your strength, but it’s carried you to a whole different shore.
You play with a nine (sometimes ten) piece band (violin[s], viola, cello, keyboard, flute/ sampler, plus the regular four-piece “rock” ensemble): How are you still so tight live?
Alun: The people on stage with us – like Alan (cellist) and Charlie (violinist) – are a core of musicians who’ve been working with us since ’98. Actually, Alan’s been with us since ’96. There are a lot of cello parts on the first record (Domestiques). That was all Alan. When we play, it’s not so much intuition, we’ve just been playing an awful lot together. It gets easier. We just did a European tour with Doves before we came over here, and we’ve done 30+ shows here now.
How do you write the orchestration? Do you envision the embellishments as you’re writing? Do the players come in during recording?
Alun: We used our live pianist (Lewis) in the studio. The flutist on the record went to primary school with me and Stewart (Henderson; bassist). She’s a music teacher now, so she couldn’t tour. Alan and Charlie are both on the album.
Emma: At the end of the day, a song has its basis in the melody, the chords, and the rhythm. And those are the only things I think about when I’m writing. Because if you don’t have those foundations, you can never make up for them with “atmosphere” or “sounds.” When I write, it’s judged purely on if the melody – the basis – moves me. I never think about the arrangements until I know I have something worth keeping. And because arranging isn’t my strong point, it’s then usually brought to the whole band.
Alun: Usually Emma and I write songs and the band decides what kind of beat and what kind of instruments to use. Paul (Savage; drummer) and Stewart are really good at knowing how to layer things. There were a lot of songs where guitars weren’t working, so we had to write it on piano. But we’re shite at the piano, so in the studio, we got Lewis to play it properly. Basically, it’s thinking “what does this song need?” with every song.
In your bio, it mentions that you provided (controversial artist) Joe Coleman’s exhibition with a live instrumental performance, which in turn inspired a newfound collaboration process within the band. How were you able to write instrumental songs when – as you said – the vocal melody is the focus point?
Alun: That was such a great experience. It was almost like his art was the vocal. It was very liberating, because you could forget about the singing and forget about the lyrics. It was the first time where we all sat down and wrote songs together in the studio. It was difficult, but I really enjoyed it. I mean, I like vocals, but it was great trying to express ourselves purely musically.
Any of the instrumental pieces end up as songs on Hate?
Emma: “Never Look at the Sun” was a big part of the exhibition. “Child Killers,” too.
Alun: “Coalman,” which is a bonus track on the U.S. version.
Emma: It was surprisingly difficult to take something instrumental and put a (vocal) melody to it. There was already so much melody in the music. There were a few pieces we thought were going to be straightforward, but as soon as we tried writing vocals for them, we realized there was no space. So some of the guitar lines were turned into vocal melodies, some we had to write everything fresh. The thing about songwriting is that it’s just a process of elimination. You come up with ideas and ideas and ideas, discard most them and keep what does it for you. It’s almost like the songs write themselves, to a certain extent, because all you have to decide is “do I like that? Would I want to hear it again?” You just keep trying ideas and waiting for something that really moves you.
Some bands, as they progress with their careers, end up writing stuff that’s a lot more about the atmospherics than the songs themselves. That’s when they lose some of their appeal, to a certain extent. For us, it’s always about getting that hook, that memorable melody.
I find that a lot of bands definitely put vocals last instead of first…
Alun: We (The Delgados’ owned and operated label, Chemikal Underground, who helped launch Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Bis, Arab Strap, etc.) get a lot of demos sent to us, and there are so many that grab your attention when it starts – great piano part, drums that sound amazing – then the vocals come in and you’re like “oh Jeeeeeeesus.” I think vocals are the last thing you have to get right, but the most important. I’m not just saying that because Emma and I sing: I genuinely believe it. The first thing that grabs you with music is often the voice. If the vocals are dull and uninteresting… there’s nothing to the song.
Emma: I swear, all you need to do is appreciate music in its simplest form, which is the relationship between the notes. That’s all it is. It has nothing to do with style. I think “styles” are important, but music in its most basic form… if you start with a positive and memorable melody, it could easily become a jazz classic or hip hop classic. It’s just amazing how “style” redefines the song itself. Pat Benatar wrote fucking some classics! (laughs)
Alun: Some of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard – forget about the fashion – fuckin’ Bee Gees, man. They had beautiful songs.
Emma: It’s true. There are absolutely fantastic songs in my record collection, half of which I would never even mention in conversation. Sometimes I try to listen to the British radio with a very open mind: “Come on, let’s listen to the Top 10 and work out why this is where it is. Surely it can’t all be bad.” Which reminds me: Posh Spice’s album selling less than 10,000 copies proves that it takes more than fame to sell.
But of course, there are albums out there that are unfortunately so incredibly bland. The only reason it might be selling is maybe cuz it’s following up something that at least had potential. The first Britney Spears single was a really fucking great song, but it was followed by subpar stuff. But I do stand by this: If you look at the Top 10, most #1s make it there for a reason. It’s almost always the clear winner.
Alun: It might be different in the States cuz – although the British charts are shite – it’s probably not as poor as the U.S.
In the States – a country totally schizophrenic in its ethnic, geographic, economic, and religious make-up – you have to shoot for the lowest common denominator to be #1. How else are you going to be able to please everyone across the board? Certainly not with actual craftsmanship like bands from your city: Idlewild, Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, The Reindeer Section…
Alun: Yeah, Glasgow’s great. There are a lot of great bands from Scotland, but there’s a lot of shite as well. We never think of Glasgow as being a special place, cuz we’ll go out and see a band whose singer wants to be Eminem.
How do you feel about Travis? Some Scots think they’re traitors for moving to London…
Alun: They’re not my favorite band, but Fran can write very, very good melodies. My only problem with Travis is from a production point of view. I’d love to hear Travis work with a slightly-to-the-left producer. It’s an unpopular thing to say in Scotland, but Travis do write great melodies!
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