By BRUCE DENNILL
Emotional, aggressive, angular. Three words, three tracks, one EP. English duo Scatterchild build on the confidence gained from their previous record with songs that showcase all the band’s strengths. Jay Plent’s soaring vocals and agitated guitar lines jut against the power of George Addison-Atkinson’s tireless drumming. Parallel Lines is a record that is at one moment deeply fearful, the next snarling with swagger. The band expanded their sound for this EP further with the help of Oystercatcher‘s Tom Chapman and Sylvette’s Ashley Garrod: two bass powerhouses. Parallel Lines was recorded at White Lion Studios, Essex, after the band impressed judges at Cambridge Band Competition. Jay Plent chats about the band’s music.
“Influence” is a loaded, often misunderstood concept. An artist may sound similar to another but have no knowledge of them, or be a super-fan of someone whose output is completely different to their own. Who or what was the artist, album, song, era or scene that initially mapped out the road to you becoming a musician?
That’s a really interesting turn on that question. I think that your path and your influences will experience sea changes throughout your life. Thinking about it, there’s a lot of artists that caused those shifts in mapping for me. When I was a kid, starting to learn guitar, figuring out how to write songs and be in bands, Linkin Park were my heroes. I watched all their behind-the-scenes studio videos, I was in the fan club, and I distinctly remember hearing What I’ve Done and thinking, “Wow, that’s the sound I wanna make with my guitar,” that kinda fat, clear but dirty sound. Rick Rubin’s production also set a certain standard of audio production work for me. And Linkin Park used such a variety of samples, drums, rap, singing, and screaming; it was a real Pandora’s Box of different ideas all kinda mashed together in a cinematic way, and that was a big influence on how I started learning about producing and arranging music.
Has that changed over the years? If so, how and why, and what are you currently exploring?
Nowadays, I’m not really into Linkin Park, and I found music later such as The Strokes and Kendrick Lemar that both, in their own ways, opened the doors to different kinds of music and with them, new ideas and inspiration. But I have to credit Linkin Park for being the first band to really grab hold of my imagination. My paths and influences change all the time. The Strokes and Kendrick sort of shaped the kind of music I wanted to make because in both of their genres they redefined or repackaged a lot of staples and norms and presented it in a fresh, revitalising way. With The Strokes, they burst through that New York scene and paved the way for so many bands, and for me personally they did the simplest thing in the world, which introduced me to the idea of two guitars playing something other than just chords (rhythm) and riffs (lead). Valensi and Hammond Jr do both simultaneously, and their parts are always knotty and fluid. It changed the way I thought about writing for guitar. And as for Casablancas’ lyrics, I still think he can stand above most lead singers of his time and even today. His work is always evocative but never too pretentious. He really encouraged me to consider how oblique you want to write and how that lends itself more to certain songs than others. That obliqueness as a lyrical choice comes up a bit in this new EP actually, because there’s a fair bit of repetition that takes on different meanings depending on the context on songs like Parallel Lines. I think, to be fair, some of the bands I was in later really helped me shape how I want to write lyrics too, I was in a band with a fantastic keyboard player who helped me get more complicated and personal with my lyrics – I think it took the pressure off me, having always been the “band leader” person, knowing that someone else was putting crazy good instrumental stuff underneath me to walk on. In terms of what I’m currently exploring, there’s an act called Lewis Del Mar that I’m currently rediscovering. They put out a new double A side recently that tapped into the feeling I got when I first heard their stuff. It’s got me excited. It’s like a blend of folk and electronic music, very left field but still catchy pop music? I do a lot of writing about music in my local scene too, and that’s given me a lot of inspiration over the years, and even in the middle of a pandemic, the way the community has come together still does!
Name one song you wish you’d written, or, if you’re not a writer, one you’d like to be known as the definitive interpreter of. What makes that song so important?
It’s a hard thing, because I think whoever writes a song is integral to that song’s success or not success. I don’t know if I could think of a song I wish I’d written… I mean, there are tracks by Radiohead I suppose, but I get too hypothetical with these sorts of questions and think “But if they hadn’t written it then it wouldn’t sound like them and then it intrinsically wouldn’t be the same song – argh what timeline is this? Am I dead?” With Radiohead, their album In Rainbows is one of my favourites of all time, and I’ve wanted to write an album that cohesive and that fantastic from top to bottom. Also it just has such a vibe and a feel – it’s one of those albums I’d listen to on long car journeys at night, and it lends such an atmosphere to any given moment. I’ve always wanted to write an album for the night, for those quiet moments when we’re alone with our thoughts in the dark. Um, crunch time…I dunno. Maybe Party In The USA by Miley Cyrus? I think Jessie J wrote that song for her, and I remember reading somewhere that the royalties from that paid for her rent for somewhere between three months and three years, I don’t remember. That sounds like a really shallow answer now I say it, but at the same time, not needing a day job and living off your music is kinda the dream, right?
In production and arrangement terms, what are facets of your music and the music you love most by others that you feel are crucially important in terms of creating the mood you’re after or supporting the message of your song?
Wow again, that’s an involved question, I’m loving this! I so rarely get to dig into this stuff in interviews. I think for me you can boil down a good arrangement to it having a sense of excitement, of tension. It should be the kind of thing where you put on a pair of headphones and you feel that energy spread throughout your body, where the line between where your ears begin and the music ends blurs. That can be done in a variety of ways. As soon as I get that kind of instinctive guttural reaction to something I’m working on, that’s when I know I’m on the right lines. I’ve always loved music that’s a tad dramatic and cinematic. Good scores are the gold standard because they have a job to do, of audio storytelling that bolsters and reinforces what you’re seeing onscreen. I think that there’s a purposefulness to that, that I really try to think about with Scatterchild – what’s the point of this instrument being there, what gap is it filling? It’s kinda why I wanted to get Ashley (Sylvette) and Tom (Oystercatcher) involved in the songs, because there needed to be a fresh perspective lent. Whether that’s a motif or a certain pitch, or just colour. I’ve also always written music as part of a group, trying to have a theme or idea that links everything together in some way, and I think that there are plenty of records that do the same thing and are beloved for that reason, because they’re an expansive message rather than it being a message limited to a single song. When there’s nuance and different interpretations of the same idea, that’s when things get interesting; it’s one of the reasons I studied English Literature, actually.
Which aspects of your music do you prioritise? For you, would you rather have that your lyrics, your melodies, or your vocals or instrumental work are the are the most memorable parts of your songs?
To me, the two most important things in any given song are the vocals and drums, because the vocals are what people sing along to and the drums are what will make people move. And when I say that, for both, I kinda mean all aspects within that. I write lyrics pretty quickly. Well maybe ‘quickly’ is the wrong word. What I mean is, I don’t do a huge amount of revisions to lyrics. On a good day I’ll usually have a pretty clear idea from the off. Then, with performing lyrics, my vocals are something I spend a lot of time on. I don’t think people give singers enough credit. The voice is the most versatile instrument we have. There’s a million ways you can deliver a line, and I tend to run through every option for that delivery before I settle on a lead vocal. I mean, in Target No 9, for example, the vocals can alternate between being shouty at the start of a line and then up close and hushed at the end of the line. That distinction was created by using yelled backing vocals, and it took ages to get that balance right without it feeling jarring and unnatural, but it was important to me to get that right, because I wanted the track to feel like an argument with yourself. The song’s about an assassin justifying their profession, for context. George, our drummer, is super technical. What’s good about working with him is he’ll take my ideas and flesh them out into something that grooves. He’s not a “stick another drum fill in” kind of player; he’s all about what serves the song and the way it moves. I think with this new EP, the drums are at the forefront a lot more than with our last record The Candidate EP. They’re doing a lot more work, because the songs are far more aggressive and emotional, so it was important to get them dead-on, and have them be the right blend of unpredictable but solid. None of this is to say that guitars and synths and samples and that aren’t also vital to our sound and a lot of others too… They are, but you can get away with a lot if you’ve got a tight beat and strong vocals. I mean take Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’ as an example. Arrangement-wise, that song is nothing – there’s barely anything there – but the beat slaps, her vocals and that hook she sings are so captivating and sung with so much personality that it doesn’t matter. A good analogy that my Dad told me is that a good song is like a good photograph; certain stuff has to be out of focus in order to emphasise the best stuff, which is in focus.
What’s your favourite piece of gear?
I’m not much of a gear guy really – I’m not a super technical person. I’ve been using the same guitar I bought when I was learning at 14, a Yamaha Pacifica 604 from the year I was born, and I’ve never played anything better! It is a fantastic instrument to be fair, and it’s so old now that the neck has been worn down by the contours of my hands, so it’s like an extension of my body at this point. I’ve customised it a bunch – there’s a new pick-up and it’s been rewired a couple times, given a different scratch plate and so on. I’m primarily a guitarist and a lot of my songs start there, so I guess my pedalboard is pretty essential too. Actually yeah, there’s a pedal I have, a Digitech EX7 Expression Factory. They don’t make it anymore. It’s a bulky thing with its own independent power supply, but it has seven different built-in effects with separate seven distortions, and an expression pedal for using as a wah, a pitch shift and a volume pedal. There’s a sound built into it, and I don’t know what it’s called but it effectively turns your guitar into a big watery synth, and I use that constantly on songs of ours like After Hours, Parallel Lines and Icarus. It’s a really crazy pedal – I think I’d be pretty gutted if I lost that!
What is the story behind Parallel Lines – the genesis of the EP, the people involved, the muse behind its creation?
It’s three tracks that we recorded at White Lion Studios in Essex. We won a band competition and got a day’s free studio time, so we were grateful for that, being able to lay down some tracks we’d been working on fervently for a few months. The goal was to develop some of the more dramatic elements we worked on with The Candidate EP, flesh out a more aggressive angular sound that would be intense live, but still carry some of the emotional weight of the writing. I also wanted it to be more collaborative, which is why we got Ash and Tom involved. The songs are about the impact other people’s lives have on our own. The title track, Parallel Lines, conceptualises this as life being like a line that you follow, and everyone else is on their own line, and sometimes they come together. But the character in the song is on a parallel line to someone they care about, and parallel lines never join; they continue onwards forever, never touching. That realisation that people who once were part of your life can become wholly separate, even if you don’t want them to be, is a hard pill to swallow. When I was writing that, I was missing a dear friend who had vanished from my life, and trying to figure out a way to reach out; to ‘join hands on a parallel line’; and link our lives in some tangential way again. Icarus and Target No 9 aren’t about the same thing, but they do touch on the impact of choices others make on us. Target No 9, as I mentioned is about an assassin’s inner monologue, and Icarus is about fear for the future and all the feelings stirred up by an old flame. It’s an EP that’s special to us because it develops our sound in a way we wanted to go, and it builds off the lessons we’ve learned so far as a band while also trying new territory, although it has been a weird route getting here. We wanted to tour and do some gigs to celebrate this EP, but with the coronavirus everything’s up in the air. That being said, we’re glad it’s out, and at least now everybody’s craving new music to listen to in lockdown, so that works for us too! It’s also why I’ve been making weird, glitchy homemade videos to promote the songs. It’s a set of restrictions that we didn’t think we’d get applied that have made for some cool creative stuff.