Words by Ed King / Pics By Richard Lambert
Outlander will be supporting Mutes at The Sunflower Lounge on Saturday 22nd June – for direct gig information, including venue details and links to online ticket sales, click here.
“It’s more thematic than anything really; a lot of the themes are about hopelessness and loss… all the big ones. But the narrative we tried to apply to it was very much a local one. We’re very keen on our music existing within a context, and that context being Birmingham.”
Back in April, Outlander released The Valium Machine – the latest in a line of post rock shoegaze, spawned from their rehearsal lock up in the backstreets of Hockley. Or from the rooftops of Hockley, depending on whether it’s time for work, rest or play.
Out on the Birmingham independent label FOMA (home of Mutes, Repeat of Last Week and Hoopla Blue) some called The Valium Machine an album and some called it an EP. But considering each track on Outlander’s latest record stretches between five and nearly fourteen minutes, the words ‘long’ and ‘extended’ all seem a little moot.
Birmingham’s answer to Explosions in the Sky are unperturbed: “I guess it must feel right to us, to play longer songs,” explains Joe House – one Outlander’s two guitarists. “We’ve never been able to come out with something that’s in the three to five minute area. But as the years are coming and going, we’re trying new things; we try and add new elements.”
The “most noticeable” of which on The Valium Machine are vocals. But no Whitney Huston sustained high note, or even Leonard Cohen gravel fed lament – more an ethereal cry through the rising waves and walls of sound that define this genre. “We’ve definitely taken influence from bands like Hum,” continues House, “that are more on that space rock kind of tip. It’s been nice to experiment with something more… I suppose it is more conventional, in a sense. In terms of the song structures, maybe not the length.”
Conventional is not the word I’d immediately run too, which is no bad thing. But is there ever a desire to be more… radio friendly? “‘Sinking’ off the new record (The Valium Machine) is, I think, the closest we come to something that makes sense on the radio. But even that’s like nine minutes long…” Free Radio will have to hunt elsewhere for their playlist.
“I’d heard Ian (Grant – guitar/vocals) doing bits in rehearsals,” continues House, “but we didn’t apply vocals to the songs until we got into the studio.” Sam Bloor’s Lower Lane studios, in Stoke-on-Trent, are the home from home where Outlander have recorded all but their debut release. “I’d read the lyrics and I knew more or less where the they were going to be, like the chorus in ‘Sinking’. But I didn’t hear it until we were in Sam’s studio, about a week in by that point. Sam and I sat there listening to Ian doing the takes and straight away we thought this is a new dimension – we’ve become fairly competent at doing these lengthy instrumental tracks, but then you apply the vocals… I didn’t think we could sound like that, but I’m really pleased that we do.”
Evolution is a tricky thing, just ask the Dodo. Or any vertebrate fish. But as House states “one thing I’d hate is if every record came out the same… that’s Outlander again doing the same thing they always do,” change is set to be an inevitable challenge. And that can be hard enough amongst artists themselves. But what about their audience, what was The Valium Machine’s reception like when it grew legs and crawled ashore?
“Muted,” is House’s immediate and impressively honest reply, “but that’s always the way with us – we’re trying to do something quite niche, so it doesn’t tend to explode on the Internet.” Ouch, cries the ego. Well, mine would. But despite the kudos of having “a couple of interested parties in America and Germany,” wouldn’t Outlander want a bit more support from the home crowd?
“Not really, it’s one of those things. In Birmingham there is a scene for a lot of different niches of indie, but we don’t really fall into any of them. Not particularly well. What we’re doing is more on the shoegaze post rock side of thing, and there isn’t a lot of that – it’s more psych and garage… which is fine. I suppose we don’t really go too well on a bill with that sort of thing. But we don’t feel aggrieved about it – we just do our own thing and hopefully, eventually people pick up on it… which I think is slowly happening.”
God bless FOMA, who are backing a few of the Midlands’ more talented waif and strays – and who threw the “really nice and intimate” album launch party for The Valium Machine back in April. “There were a couple of other shows on the same night in Birmingham,” tells House, “so it was a quieter event. It ended up being about 30 people, but 30 really close friends and family. The Hoopla guys are always amazing. Mutes… James is always doing amazing stuff, incredible musicians. I love Muthers as a venue too, there’s a real community of more outside the line artists rehears there. It was a really nice vibe, a good atmosphere – we got to play for a bit longer than usual as well. As you can image, playing ten minute songs… most support sets we get to play two or three songs at most.”
Having programmed a few gigs over the years, I can sympathise with the issues around support slot times. And whilst The Valium Machine is a worthy way to spend 45mins, it doesn’t feel like an album that should be broken up into more set list sized pieces – not too often, at least. The packet says swallow whole, further compounded by the fact “the middle three tracks… were one song that we divided up into a song with three movements – which then became three separate tracks. But in concept it was one piece of music.”
Plus, there’s a significant side to The Valium Machine that is more visual than audio, with local photographer, Richard Lambert, being brought in to help deliver the album’s aesthetics. A series of photographs accompany the physical album, “helping to tell the story (of the album) and figuring out that narrative in general. I actually first spoke to him (Lambert) about the last record, but it wasn’t the ideal time.” I am reminded of the cover photograph on Outlander’s previous release, ‘Downtime’, which features children playing amidst a partially knocked down housing estate in Ladywood, “…you see the kids in the main shot, that are playing despite the ruins around them. I just thought it was a really beautiful shot.”
So, which came first – did your environment effect the sound of The Valium Machine from the start, or was the egg hatched way before Lambert and his camera got a phone call? “The thing with Birmingham is that it wears itself on its sleeve,” explains House, “you walk through Digbeth and see all the old warehouses. Then you walk through Hockley… Our sound is quite doomy, quite heavy – in places anyway. And we’ve always been influenced by the harshness of the very functional utilitarian architecture around us, like the brutalism that you can still see everywhere in Birmingham. The city’s got a really distinct vibe, cut halfway between something that’s being invested in and is a shopping metropolis – very modern in places – but that’s set on a backdrop of functional utilitarian spaces that have started to decay and stand as relics to a time gone by. You can see as things sort of change and money comes in, old buildings get knock down to make way for these new futuristic things. It’s just a really odd place. It’s quite unique in that sense, which is an influence on us.”
The word that sprung to my mind, when I first heard The Valium Machine and flicked through the black and white images that accompany the album, was ‘dystopian’ – a cordial nightmare, somewhere between a Terry Gilliam film and a Raymond Briggs picture book. And I’m a born and raised Brummie. And perhaps more of a cynic.
But Outlander’s eyes are seemingly much more optimistic in their vision, with House assuring me, “We’re all regular people, we like to have a laugh. I wouldn’t say that any of us are particularly miserable.” Plus, the fourpiece (three from Birmingham and one from neighbouring Stourbridge) clearly have love at the heart of the second city – especially when it comes to their creative hotspot in Hockley.
“We all really like the Jewellery Quarter and Hockley,” explains House, “because of the red bricks, it always looks like it’s had a long day in the sun. And it’s uphill – I always look at Digbeth as a bit dingy and in the shadow of the city, where as Hockley is a bit above it, in a sense. It’s more open. And even though there’s some definite urban decay, and some very big horrible looking flats, I always find it quite an uplifting vibe.” A feeling many people will recognise, as the north side of Great Charles Street Queensway continues to be a hub for burgeoning independent businesses and creatives with a penchant for city centre living. And perhaps a bit more money.
And whilst The Valium Machine is an homage not just to Birmingham, but to the “Birmingham Metropolitan Area, the Black Country, Wolves… it’s all part of the same vibe. In the bigger picture there’s no point distinguishing between those areas,” – it does leave a warm fuzzy feeling to imagine it being born from the skylines of Hockley.
As House surmises, “when we started practicing there that’s when the influence started creeping in – we spent a lot of time on the roof of our lock up complex just looking at it (the surrounding city). It’s an interesting place; it’s quite an impressive thing to look at.”
Outlander released The Valium Machine on 19th April 2019 – out via FOMA. For more on Outlander, including links to The Valium Machine, visit www.outlandertheband.bandcamp.com
Outlander are also supporting Mutes at The Sunflower Lounge on Saturday 22nd June – alongside Magik Mountain and Exhailers. For direct gig info, including venue details and online ticket sales, visit www.thesunflowerlounge.com/event/mutes-magick-mountain-outlander-exhailers
For more from FOMA, including links to all Outlander material on the label, visit www.wearefoma.bandcamp.com
For more on The Sunflower Lounge, including full event listings and links to online ticket sales, visit www.thesunflowerlounge.com
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