Hidden away at the end of a cobbled side street in Wakefield city centre is The Hop. A real ale and music venue all under one roof, inside you’ll find not only a selection of fine ales from the renowned local Ossett Brewery, but an intimate live music room in which you can get up close and personal with your new favourite bands.
It’s slightly off the beaten track of Wakefield’s infamous “Westgate Run”, but that’s well and good, as just a week away from the release of their debut LP, Death Cap At Anglezarke, Then Thickens are playing on this fresh spring evening as part of a line up that includes The Spills, The Ainsley Band and Nine Black Alps. The fact that the clubbers lining the paths of the city centre aren’t likely to be heading this way any time soon, means that Skin Back Alley has the perfect opportunity to catch up with the band in the tour van ahead of their set.
Death Cap At Anglezarke is a gem of a record. One that tugs at your heart strings with it’s intimate storytelling style, whilst at the same time making you want to pogo, shake and thrash your limbs to it’s fuzzed-up walls of alternative – and yet melody-centric – rock. As such, we’re more than a little keen to find out more about where it came from.
“What sort of interview do you want to do?” asks Jon-Lee Martin, chief-songwriter and the axis around which the band formed. “Basically, if you want it to make sense, then just chat to me. If you want it to be full-on, then let’s chat to everybody!”
Skin Back Alley decides to go full-on.
Skin Back Alley: For people who don’t know much about Then Thickens, can you tell us how you came together as a band?
Jon-Lee Martin: It was pretty easy really. I had a bunch of recordings done already and I wanted to put together a larger band. I tried it two or three times and I never really liked it. In the end for me it was pretty cool. I picked four or five musicians who were all doing something that I liked in whatever they were doing – with the exception of Tom who had never done anything before. I just asked them all to come and play and that was how it came together. In the meantime, Bob left for a while and went to do his own thing, but he’s back in the fold now.
SBA: Your press releases make mention of band members’ previous work in KONG and Rolo Tomassi. Do you find that helpful, because it seems to me that Then Thickens have a very different approach and a very different sound?
JLM: I’ve been asked that before and it’s definitely not helpful. All that it’s done for us…. I mean some contacts have obviously remained, but Hatch Records are a different thing now, and we are a different thing. The connection between Brew Records and KONG is quite obvious, but press for us is a new kind of thing. No, I don’t think the references have helped us. Maybe it got us some support slots, but the other bands have only invited us because they liked us now, not because they liked my old bands.
SBA: You’ve been playing a handful of dates around the UK recently. What’s the reception been like?
JLM: We’ve not played many dates as a band yet, but to be honest it always goes well. We played London recently and that was really, really good. It was brilliant. It was totally packed out and really nice. A lot of people knew the songs as well, which was good. I suppose they catch on quicker down there! We always really enjoy our own gigs, but just recently we’ve been on a few support slots where – to be frank – there have been fuck-all people there. We call them ‘posh practices’! But it’s always an honour to play and we’re always firing and fit.
SBA: Thinking about the sonics of the album, in press and recent reviews I keep hearing Weezer being mentioned. Does that bother you, or do you not mind?
JLM: No, we love that! Especially the Blue record as well because it was their first one. Our record was very quick for us to make and we didn’t have the options of overdubbing and re-doing things. It just had to be as it was. The album actually sounds so good because it was saved by Rob Whiteley. And we recorded it on a Neve desk through Neve channels, so it’s got that classic sound to it I suppose. But yeah, we fucking love Weezer! Nothing past Pinkerton though!
SBA: Well, even Pinkerton gets a bad rap, doesn’t it, but I really like it.
JLM: It does! But I love it as well. It’s one of my favourite records.
SBA: There’s that alternative rock sound to your music then – the guitars are fuzzed up and the electronics occasionally verge on the dissonant. But you don’t shy away from big melodies. The songs are chock full of them.
JLM: Totally. The thing is that they all started off as demos that were just a guitar and whatever I could fill them out with. I didn’t have a rock band. So it’s amplified now. It’s like ‘Woah! There’s melodies all over the place!” That’s what’s brilliant about having these other people play them, because they pick them out. I can’t even remember what I’m watching on telly once the adverts come on, but now it feels like I can plug in to these five people. It’s just wicked.
SBA: Tell me if I’m wide of the mark, but it seems to me as well that there’s an almost pastoral, folk quality to some of the music?
Helen Thorpe: We get the folk comments quite a bit, don’t we.
JLM: Yeah, a guy in my street asked me if I was a “folker” as I was sat out the front of my house playing my Gretsch. “What style of music do you play? Are you folk!?”
HT: I think it’s more because of the lyrics than anything. I don’t really think that we sound folky, but there’s a storytelling in the lyrics and I think people associate us in that way.
SBA: I read an interview that you did a while back, Jon, where you were compared to Nick Drake. But I suppose that was referencing your earlier version of these songs?
JLM: Well, I’ve never ever listened to him. I don’t own a Nick Drake record. But from what I know and am aware of, that’s still a very good comparison!
SBA: There is a storytelling element in the lyrics, but there are also a lot of references to nature. There’s fields, mushrooms, wasps, the conker tree…
JLM: The conker tree! I’m glad you pointed that out, man. That’s one of my favourite lines of anything I’ve ever written, just because I managed to squeeze in the conker tree!
SBA: Was it a bet to shoehorn it in?!
JLM: No! Actually one of my good friends wrote a brilliant song, and it was something like “I must be getting old, ‘cos I seem to be having a lot more difficulty, climbing up the conker tree.” I just thought it was the best thing ever, so it was really just me saying “I’ll nick a bit of that.” I suppose on this record it’s all very local. I’m just writing about where I am and what I know, and remembering things that were happening. I look at it as a little film, almost.
SBA: Did Anglezarke as a place feed into the album? It’s talked about as a fairly desolate place; sparsely populated moorland, reservoirs, quarries.
JLM: That’s exactly what it is. It’s ten minutes away from where a couple of us live and you can very quickly be around absolutely nobody. You can go and trip your tits out and not worry about bumping into anybody, or you can just go out there and light a campfire!
SBA: Part of the pastoral feel of the album has to do with the cover photography too. When I was asking about the band’s origins, I was hoping you were going to say you all lived in a grungy commune in upstate New York and you all came together in a forest.
JLM: That would be the dream, wouldn’t it! We don’t go around pretending to be druids or anything like that, but I love to be outside. I mean, I write ninety percent of my music outside. I’ve got a tree in my garden and I sit under that tree and it’s just cool.
Sean Doherty: You said to me about how the album cover reminds you of Anglezarke a little bit.
JLM: Yeah, totally. Even though it’s on the other side of the world. It’s Vancouver that, though the photographer’s from New York. She’s a properly bling photographer, man. She’s photographed Kanye West and crazy shit like that, but she was just into what we were doing and let us use some of her images.
SBA: How did you make the connection with Jody Rogac?
JLM: Just by being cheeky! You’ve just got to ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
SBA: Thinking about the lyrics again, there seems to be a lot of dark emotion going on, but also a sense of fragile hope. “I decide to restart my heart,“ “The truth started coming back in style,” “Let the sun come out of the clouds of doubt.” There’s a sense of coming out of the other side of something.
JLM: Yeah, it could be. But the songs were kind of put together at random for the record. They were put together as a live set first, really. There wasn’t really much lineage to the choices of the songs. What has inherently happened is that we worked on them together for so long that we became attuned to each other, and then only as an afterthought do they lend themselves to a story. It was only when we were putting the running order together that it became clear.
I mean, I’ve never written my lyrics down. Sean actually wrote them all down. It was only then when I read them that I thought “This will help.” But I suppose you can explore and fill in gaps from the album of demos. It’s got 23 different tracks that we developed. But we wrote a few new ones for the album. “Any Other Thing,” “Death Cap,” “Matthew.” So there are new songs that we wrote together as a band, too.
SBA: So if there’s a theme there, it’s more serendipitous than conscious?
JLM: Yeah. I think we maybe picked a lot of the melancholy stuff that we’d done before. The first song we wrote for the band was “Death Cap.” That was hopefully going to be the theme of the album as a band, but we got the offer to go in to the studio very quickly. We were very naïve when we went in to record. But we’re evidently pretty damn good together because it sounds great!
Charlie Hartley: Yeah, it was what? Two gigs? Three gigs that we’d played before we went in to record? It wasn’t very many was it?
JLM: Yeah, we hadn’t been together very long at all. I mean, the recording is quite old now though.
SD: Yeah, it was like five months after we got together that we recorded.
HT: I remember still being quite scared of performing and recording in front of other people.
JLM: We were really lucky to have that though, I think. Not many bands get that opportunity to document something so brittle. So we were very lucky really. Now, the next record will piss all over it, though. It’s inevitably going to sound a hundred times better!
Bobby: But good records often have that about them. The interesting thing about this record is that we didn’t really know each other. I mean, we knew each other personally through knocking about in bands and that. It was weird going in to record. But the vibe of the place and the feeling of these six musicians getting together just added to the mystical thing that all good albums have to have. It’s something you can’t buy and things like that make a great record.
SBA: Did the recording process go smoothly for you then?
JLM: For the band, yeah. But for me, no! It fucked my head up for a year, ‘cause I couldn’t get it finished. I was going all over the place to mix it. I had this recording and I tried to mix it but that wasn’t working out. Then a friend built a studio and tried mixing. In the end, we had to send our recording to a university lab to be converted, to eventually be sent to Rob Whiteley, who should be credited for making the record brilliant.
Bobby: He’s a genius.
JLM: He is. He’s such a clever guy. The only two records I’ve ever put out, he’s stuck his finger in. He definitely made it sound fantastic.
SBA: It was The Spirit in Manchester where you recorded it?
JLM: Yeah, at The Spirit, and then mixed it at Rob’s studio, Whitewood Studios in Liverpool.
SBA: So what does success mean for Then Thickens? What would you like to happen once the record has been released?
SD: To be able to play music all the time. That’s the best bit about it.
Bobby: It’s a big question, that. What do you value? What does success mean? You could be playing the M.E.N. Arena every night and still be miserable. I wouldn’t value that or see that as successful. So I think success is about doing alright by your own gigs and making sure you keep a tight bond as a band, sort of thing. That’s success.
JLM: I’ve seen it happen as well, to close friends. They make their money and do all that stuff, and I’ve seen some of them be happy and some of them be miserable and flake out. But that’s definitely not on my agenda. In many ways I was trying to get away from this shit. I mean, you don’t get paid. It’s not necessarily something you can think of as a ‘career.’ But I’d forgotten how much of an honour it is to do this, and to do it with people who love it as much as you do.
It’s super rare, man. You might as well just pick six lottery numbers. It’s probably harder picking six random people and putting them together, hoping that it will work out and that they’ll do it no matter what. That’s our success already. Finding that.
SBA: How did you come to music? Have you always been around it? Grown up with it?
JLM: I think each of us in their own way definitely has. That’s something we all have in common.
SD: Yeah, we’ve all always been in bands, and Grifter (Thomas Griffin) has always done his electronic music.
JLM: Yeah, Tom has always been around bands. Other bands I was in, he would roadie for us and travel round Europe with us and stuff, so he saw all that side of it as well which was pretty cool.
SBA: You’ve had some credible and high profile patronage so far. BBC 6 Music, Radio 1. Has that been good? Has it made you nervous? Has it helped, do you think?
JLM: It’s definitely not made anybody nervous. All we see it as is a little Facebook chat to each other. “Oh! We’ve been on the radio again!” “Oh wicked, we all missed it!”
HT: And they all get our name and songs wrong every time. We’ve had “Them Chickens,” “Restart Your Head,” “Tiny Feet,” “Reset Your Heart”……
JLM: Yeah, and “Death Camp”, which is something different altogether!
SBA: So what’s next on the band’s schedule? A few more dates to play yet?
HT: Yeah, we’ve got Live At Leeds next week.
CH: Yup, Live At Leeds and then Hebden Bridge.
JLM: Other than that, we’ve wrote our next record. I mean, we were struggling for a little while to finish certain things, but I think it was that Bobby wasn’t writing with us. I think that hindered us for a little while. But now he’s back we can finish and he can finish his own bits, so we’ll go and finish the record.
SBA: Have you been recording back in Manchester again?
JLM: No, we’re going to do it all in Liverpool with Rob Whiteley this time. We’re all going to get Beatles haircuts.
Bobby: Yeah, and carry around cereal boxes of cocaine, Fleetwood Mac style!
And with that revelation, everyone’s attention turns to the slightly inebriated Scotsman staring at us as we chat in the van.
“Are you one of the bands?” he drawls. “What style of music do you play? I’d like to think that you’d be doing something different like Frank Zappa did in the 60’s, ya know? But seeing as you’re all wearing plaid shirts, I doubt it! You’ll all be like Sons Of Leon or something.”
Sons. Kings. It doesn’t really matter. Then Thickens are just an hour away from a vital set of peerless, alternative – and fiercely single-minded – rock and roll. With a bit of luck and a following wind, they’ll be indie-rock squires before the year is out.
Look out for our live review and album review, coming this week.