Steampunk Cafe, Glasgow
Text by Gordon Johnstone, photography by Declan Malone.
I met Nicky McManus and David Madden of There Will Be Fireworks at the Steampunk Cafe in Glasgow on the 18th of January 2014. It is now the 4th of March 2014 and I am finally sitting down to document the meeting. This complete lapse in professionalism is down to three major factors:
Firstly, as I alluded to in the introduction to Issue II of The Grind, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to balance the demands of The Grind and my Real Life. This is not likely to change any time soon, but I will try my best to get these kinds of interviews out much quicker than before.
Secondly, this particular meeting was the first interview I had ever conducted and I decided to record the experience on my laptop in order to afford myself freedom to take more whimsical notes. Unfortunately, as perhaps I should have predicted, not long into the interview the music in the bar leapt in volume and completely drowned the recording out. This made the writing of this piece much more difficult than it should have been. I live and learn.
Lastly, there seemed no great rush. There Will Be Fireworks work at a glacial pace; one that is reflected in the careful precision of their second album The Dark, Dark Bright (the name of which is taken from the first single ‘Youngblood’). I felt it best to linger over the album and digest it appropriately, as one would a meal 5 years in the making. With these reasons (or excuses, depending on how you look at it) in mind, we can begin.
The band’s eponymous debut album, while critically acclaimed, was a meandering affair that occasionally lapsed into the kind of post-rock cliches that create an overarching lack of urgency in a record. The same cannot be said for The Dark, Dark Bright, presumably due to the manner in which it was recorded. The band is divided geographically, with Adam Ketterer (drums), Gibran Farrah (guitar), and Stuart Dobbie (piano, keyboards), residing in London, and Nicholas McManus (guitar and vocals) and David Madden (bass) living in Glasgow. Rehearsals and recording sessions could be months apart and there was little to no gigging in the 5 years between the first and second records, a marked difference from the run up to the first. “The first album was almost recorded live”, Nicky says over an imported beer, “whereas this one was recorded the way we wanted and the live set was figured out later”. There Will Be Fireworks are a passionate, but sensible, band. Music is a hobby, not a career, and they’re happy to take their time over each album and let it develop during the long intermissions between recording. This approach suits McManus, at least. “I prefer the recording process to playing live. I like not being limited to what we can fit on stage or take on tour. Music doesn’t always have to be about standing in a sweaty room getting drunk”.
Madden explained the evolution of the second album; “The second album was almost finished right after we released the first one, but for one reason and another we waited to release it. Over time it changed and evolved into what it is now.
We didn’t want to record it in some prefab recording studio, we wanted to be somewhere with some history and character”. As with the first album, The Dark, Dark Bright was recorded at the Old Mill Studios in Strathaven, a place with a musical patina second to none, by Marshall Craigmyle. Craigmyle is emigrating to California this year, leaving the band wondering how to proceed. “We’ve recorded both our albums with Craig, he’s watched us mature as a band…I don’t know who else will put up with our shit…”
When asked about the lyrics on the album McManus suddenly looks sheepish. “This is going to sound really wanky, but we’re quite a literary band”, McManus says into his drink. “We take the lyrics as seriously as the music”. He cites Edwin Morgan and Conor Oberst as influences on his writing, both of which are apparent in the album. The lyrics weave narratives of heavy nights out, difficult decisions, forlorn longing and misery, while the music flows from overblown melodrama to subtle strings. McManus’s voice, which has a range as wide as their music, seamlessly slips from barely audible murmurs to screeching threnodies in the space of half a song. One of the highlights of the album comes in the second track, ‘Rivers’, where the final, violent syllable of McManus’s line “You should clasp your hands and pray you brought the pain/If you love me lightly I’d love you the same/in time” melts into high-pitched tremolo guitar to create the illusion that he has been swallowed whole by the enormous climax of the song. The vocals are at their most tender when the slight Scottish lilt of McManus’ accent becomes apparent, giving the album a sense of place that both grounds it and makes it more accessible as a whole.
The Dark, Dark Bright engages the listener from the outset. The opening monologue and howling vocals of ‘And Our Hearts Did Beat’, leaking into the steady thumping of ‘River’, the quiet intensity of ‘Roots’, and the cataclysmic finale of ‘Youngblood’, show There Will Be Fireworks at their very best; succinct and impactful. However, the latter half of the album feels less direct. The classical guitar on ‘Lay Me Down’ and the piano melodies of ‘Elder and Oak’ are both undoubtedly beautiful, but the songs themselves lack direction and end up feeling predictable. Sometimes the lyrics, while heartfelt, verge on the bombastic, especially when carried on the shoulders of the band’s tendencies towards melodrama. This is most apparent on ‘South Street’, where the crashing drums and strained vocals sound more akin U2 on their 60th anniversary tour than a young band in their prime. These moments are not prolific on the album, by any manner of means. The melodrama and bombast are what make There Will Be Fireworks exciting to listen to, but it can be an exhausting experience if taken in one sitting.
When asked about their plans for the future, McManus and Madden stayed coy. “We’re planning some shows over the summer, maybe some festivals, maybe Germany if we can sort it out” Madden said. When asked about the next album, and whether or not we can expect to wait until 2018 to hear it, McManus said “There’ll be less noodling this time. We’ll plan the album in advance instead of writing it in the studio. Maybe it won’t take 5 years for the next one”. The Dark, Dark Bright feels like a firm statement of intent. While not perfect, it contains moments of sheer glory and uplifting indulgence that are impossible not to get carried away with. More than that, they don’t seem wanky at all.