Beyond the Neighbourhood (Astralwerks)
An interview with keyboardist Tim Wanstall
By Tim Den
Britpop favorites Athlete‘s sophomore full-length, Tourist, was one of those unexpected albums that completely knocked me on my ass. I hadn’t heard of the band prior to the release and wasn’t really in the mood for more Britpop weepery (it was the height of Coldplaymania, after all), but somehow, the persistent choruses and addictive melodies turned me into a believer. So much so, in fact, that I eventually bought a purple tee after catching the band live and wore it for a year straight. As you can imagine, I was looking forward to Beyond the Neighbourhood.
Much like its predecessor, Beyond the Nighbourhood took a few spins to sink in. Not because I was once again tired of Britpop – quite the opposite, actually, since I had been eagerly awaiting Athlete’s next record – but because of two deeper reasons. One, the band chose to record the album themselves, resulting in a collection that – although nowhere near lo-fi – comes off as a bit sonically homogenized. Without a big name producer/engineer/studio to accentuate certain occasions or polish whatever needed the polishing, Beyond the Neighbourhood‘s songs sound (again, purely sonically) as if they were painted by a singular broad stroke. The guitars, bass, drums, keys, and electronic flourishes stick to their one frequency and never change characteristics, despite the fact that certain songs could’ve benefited from different mics or recording techniques. Listening to the album the first time through, it becomes hard to tell the songs apart: The homogeny is that thick. But that’s okay, right? As long as the songs are good, with repeated listens, I’d eventually look past the cosmetic faults, eh?
Eventually, yes. But not before a second reason stood in my way: The mood. Athough guitarist/vocalist Joel Pott thinks Tourist was “a moody bastard” and Beyond the Neighbourhood a much more upbeat affair, he couldn’t be farther from the truth. The likes of “The Outsiders,” “Flying Over Bus Stops,” “Best Not to Think About It,” and “This is What I Sound Like” showcase Athlete at their most tranquil and mellow, not to mention brooding. Heck, the record opens with a mercurial electronic intro! If anyone was looking for Vehicles & Animals‘ giddy vibe, they’d be mistaken to look here. Thankfully, I prefer my Britpop mopey instead of happy and cheesy (ahem, U2/Oasis/Kaiser Chiefs), but the overly dour tone on top of the one-colored production made the first few listens kinda tough.
But this is Athlete, after all. At the end of my cycle of acquaintance with Beyond the Neighbourhood, I was once again reminded of why I love this band: The songs. The sonic deficiencies you learn to embrace as part of the album’s charm, you grow to love the downbeat theme and the strange comfort it gives you, and then you hear how wonderful the tunes are. First single “Hurricane” exudes positivity and radiates like a summer sun, while definite standout “Second Hand Stores” explodes like The Life And Times covering, well, Athlete. “Tokyo” and “It’s Not Your Fault” aren’t far behind, either, both welcoming you with great singalongs and thrusting beats. Though they aren’t as everlasting as, say, Tourist’s “Wires” or “Twenty Four Hours,” they do a good job of satisfying your anthemic hunger.
If Beyond the Neighbourhood doesn’t immediately win you over, give it time: I promise that you will eventually be persuaded.
How’s life on the road?
Well, our tour bus broke down, so we’re on the side of the road right now trying to figure out if we can get it working again or find another way to get the gear to the club tonight. I think we’ll be able to make it. (laughs) Carey (Willets, bass/backup vocals) has been very sick for the past few days – running high temperatures. We took him to the hospital earlier. He’s going to be resting. Our keyboard tech is gonna fill-in for tonight. Other than all that, (laughs) we’re doing great!
Yikes! Uh, hopefully the U.S. tour has been good otherwise?
Yeah, it’s been two years since we’ve toured here, and it’s definitely nice to be back. We just finished up a UK tour, so we’re going from playing 1500 capacity venues to 300, 500 people a night, which is actually cool, because it takes us back to the days when we just started. Plus, I think our American fans appreciate being able to be crammed in a room and seeing the band in a more personal setting.
And the receptions have been good, I hope?
Yeah. The record’s only been out for a few months, but it seems like people know it already. Especially the first single, “Hurricane.” We’re hoping to come back again in April and really concentrate on touring the States with this record.
In the bio for Beyond the Neighbourhood, Joel (Pott, guitarist/vocalist) calls Tourist a “moody bastard” while saying that the new one is much more upbeat. I think that Beyond the Neighbourhood is actually even less upbeat than Tourist. What do you think?
I think that, melodically and structurally, yeah: There are some very mellow, quiet songs. But at the same time, there’s a kind of, I don’t know, angular characteristic to them as well. And I think Joel had the lyrics in mind when he made that comment, because Tourist was a much more self-indulgent album (lyrically) than Beyond the Neighbourhood. Around the time that we made Tourist, we were still very new to the world of being a fairly successful band with tours and promos and life on the road attached to us. We dealt with it the only way we knew how, which is to write about it. Tourist was us writing about ourselves, figuring out how to live and maintain relationships. We’re very grateful, of course, for being able to do what we love, but at the same time, two of us have kids, and all of us were away from home for such extended periods of time… So yeah, it was a very “all about ourselves,” self-indulgent period. But with this new one, we’ve grown accustomed to being in Athlete and are able to go outside and write about the world around us. It’s more about life in general instead of just our lives.
Which is sort of the opposite with how you approached recording: You traded in big studios and engineers for self-reliance. Do any of you have a background in audio engineering?
No, none of us have any sort of formal training, but we’ve always been demoing (like every other band) and asking engineers/producers questions while working on records. A lot of what we demoed, even as far back as Vehicles & Animals, have ended up on the finished records. On Beyond the Neighbourhood, there are quite a few pieces of sounds that were from demos. We just sort of watched, learned, studied, and started buying gear after getting some recommendations. Getting the drum sound was obviously the hardest and most important part, but Carl and Steve (Roberts, drums) did their homework and worked really hard on it. They’re the two guys who really get into the technical aspect of recording, while Joel and I sit on the couch and just say, “Hey, that doesn’t sound right!” (laughs)
I know that doing it ourselves means that we lose a bit of the studio shine, but the important thing to us is that it sounds like a band playing together in a room. You really get that live feel when you listen to it.
And you also got some help from your new, live second guitarist Jonny Pilcher (of Weevil), no?
Yeah! We’ve known Jonny for a long time. Weevil remixed one of our songs a while back, and I must say it’s probably the best remix we’ve ever received. (laughs) We respect his knowledge a lot, so every week or two we’d have him in the practice space or studio to check out the progress and have his input. It was really nice to have a pair of fresh ears.
How did you guys decide to have him join you onstage?
Well, parts of Beyond the Neighbourhood have more guitars than we’ve ever used, and since Jonny was pretty much there when we were writing, it just made sense. He’s a good guitarist who also knows his way around electronics. We like to keep it in the family.
Do you think that, come next album, he’ll join as a full-time member?
Um, I don’t know. I know that Weevil is sort of no more, but they have a finished album to still put out, and that he’s got a new project with a female singer that he’s gonna put out himself. So he’s really busy, and the rest of us have an unspoken rule that everything we do is put into Athlete. Maybe having freedom for both parties would be a good thing. (laughs) But who knows? It’s too early to start thinking about the next album. He’s agreed to do all the live dates so far, though.