Hiss in the Song Soup
Interview Feature with Matt Evans of KEYS
+ Exclusive Album Stream
Listen to “Home Schooling” Ahead Of Release August 21st Via Libertino
Interview By Simon Gore
Beyond the realms of anachronism lies timelessness; a somewhat uncharted territory, desired by many, although accessed by few. The multi-genre spanning Cardiff 5-piece, KEYS, have earned their way into those lucky few with their latest release, Home Schooling. It is a charming infusion of mystic, lo-fi glory and progressive, contemporary craft. With song writing references evident of 60’s music alongside contemporary stylistic motifs original to their established, signature sound.
The album’s diverse instrumentation displays a contrasting assemblage of opportunistic innovation. The wobbly lead organ and introverted acoustic guitar of Cargoes gives a Tarantino-esq take on the works of Ennio Moricone, whilst the smooth, rich guitars and live, natural rhythm section are closer to the early works of Krautrock icons, Can.
The layered vocals display a distinction to the lighter side of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club throughout. The track, Your Name Across My Heart gives more of a hint towards an early Strokes sound, with Julian Casablancas style vocals and vibrato’d surf guitars.
It’s rare a record can be so dynamically referential yet so remarkably original at the same time.
The chance production has given it a character of its own that would not have been achieved had the band recorded it in a professional studio, as originally intended – a character that many would disapprove of, but it’s this level of opportunistic artistry that defines true artists from mere practitioners.
I caught up with KEYS frontman, Matt Evans; my friend and my former lecturer on his way back from a creative retreat where he and KEYS drummer, Davey Newington, had been working on even more new material.
SG: So where have you been?
ME: We went to Duffryn, just outside Cardiff. We hired a B&B, myself and Davey, the drummer from the band and laid down some new songs. We got about 7 down, with a very lo fi set up. Hopefully we can get another album out within the year, which will be like, 3 albums out in 2 years.
SG: That’s crazy. Your last one came out in November 2019?
ME: That’s right, yeah.
SG: It’s a very quick turn over for an album.
ME: Well, yeah. The thing is though, it was such a long wait. For, Bring Me the Head of Jerry Garcia, we actually recorded 3 or 4 years earlier and it was just sitting on the shelf. We had a label but they went under. We were kind of looking for a label, no one was interested, so we were going to release it ourselves, then all of a sudden, Libertino were like, “Hello”. They came and saved the day, really. So, in that 3 or 4 years, I wasn’t sitting on my arse, I was teaching you and in any spare moment I had, I was always writing. So, we had this backlog of songs and now it looks like we’re really prolific. But it’s put us in a really good position, I think.
SG: For years, if something was like 2 months old and I hadn’t made a song out of it, I’d scrap it.
ME: I don’t tend to archive, you know. I’ll record ideas for memory purposes, but I don’t really go back that far in my vaults. The Home Schooling stuff was all written in lockdown or just before. But I’m not precious about it. I’m not working continuously on one song until it’s done and moving onto the next. It’s like spinning plates, I’ll have at least half a dozen things going on at the same time and then, you know, sooner or later, they finish themselves, or you have to make a concerted effort to say, “let’s nail this one now”. So I’ve always got a soup of songs.
It’s great to go to a place with Davey, who’s a brilliant drummer. Together we can conserve and commit to our song writing. A lot of it is about committing to things. He worst thing is a blank canvas where anything goes. You’ve got to put parameters on things. Even for you. You’re an avant garde composer, I bet freedom is so integral to everything you do, but without parameters it’s nothing, is it?
SG: One thing I’ve learned about myself in recent years especially is that concept is key. I really struggle to work without a concept. I can’t pick up a guitar and just start jamming. There has to be a project or an album or a commission that I’m writing for. But I think we both agree that momentum is also key?
ME: I think so, it’s really interesting you should say that. If you look at that point about having a concept, I find it’s really helpful to collaborate. To share the songs with Davey in their infancy, because we can then band the influences – say it sounds a bit like Emmit Rhodes, an early 70’s lo fi songwriter. Or Ram, the early Paul McCartney album. Liam Hayes, we’re really into that guy too. He’s just released a beautiful album called Mirage Garage, all done on 4 track. So having these references, they can help inform creative decisions. It gives you something to aim for, otherwise you can get a bit lost in direction.
We all have so many ideas. Ideas are not expensive. The commitment to the idea is the tough thing sometimes. Home Schooling is the one we’ve just finished and we’re proud of. I’m so surprised by it.
Davey and I have been talking whilst on this retreat, it’s just opened up where we can go with our next album – we’ll continue this DIY, lo fi thing. We’re going to abandon the model of a band arrangement in a slick studio. We feel like we’re onto something with this method, as the way it’s been received so far is great.
SG: Did you intend to record this as an album, or were you just recording individual songs for reference?
ME: We were just recording songs as therapy. I’m a firm believer in being creative. It helps me, it helps my mental health, it keeps me sane. I’ve done it since I was a kid, I have to do it, it’s what I do. It was just a way of getting through lockdown. When I sent the 4-track recordings to Gruff from Libertino, he said, “I love them as they are, let’s make it an album”. So, it was like, fucking hell, OK, right… At that point we realised it actually could be an album. So, at that point I wrote the track, Home Schooling, and it became a fun thing then. But it all came from a simple act of just putting music down in anyway we could.
SG: On your facebook feed, you mentioned, about one of the new singles, “may it help you as much as it helped us”, can I ask a bit more about what’s behind that?
ME: It helped us. It helped me. It put a smile on my face. It was nice to get back to that child-like joy of just finding sounds and making music. Hopefully it can help the listener as well, maybe as a distraction from lockdown life. I think that became the intention with it. The idea was to release it as a stopgap; an interim thing before we get back to ‘proper’ recording, but I think we have all resonated with its form. I think this production style is where we should be going now – it’s become a gift to us.
SG: It’s like you’ve found your groove with it, even though you never intended it to be that way.
ME: I think you just have to be open to that and respective and not be so fixed on what you think things should be. Just respond to what you’ve got. It feels like we’ve found our groove. We were trying to make the music we wanted to hear – for us, we feel that locally, no one was doing this. Lo-fi music is the music we love, so we thought, ‘let’s make it’. It was also out of necessity in the sense that there wasn’t a slick studio.
SG: That’s what I like about the lo-fi world – it asks more questions than it answers – it’s instant mystery. When I heard Home Schooling, the first thing that jumped out at me was, “why does it sound like this?” It makes you think how it was recorded, where it was recorded. I think these are lost qualities in the digital world. But your intention for this album was for you to go to a slick studio though?
ME: Yeah, we were going to go to Giant Wafer, but that was probably with a different set of songs – more traditional band arrangements. Now after these songs have come straight out of the left field, we have thought about rearranging the previous songs in a more lo fi and intimate way, now we know they don’t have to be so slick.
SG: I take it due to lockdown restrictions, you didn’t use a guest engineer or producer?
ME: It was just done with me and Davey mainly. We did them in my house – a lot of it in my bedroom. It’s literally bedroom recording. We did the drums in various places – downstairs or in the garage. We tried to adhere to some sort of social distancing. We could only record between the hours of 12 and 4, because then it gets too loud for the kids. We had to work with the restrictions. There was no simple and fast way of doing it, really.
SG: Was it a creative decision to incorporate electric drums into Key’s music now?
ME: On Leave Your Mind Behind and Home Schooling we used a drum machine. Pressure Cooker was done with an Ableton beat. It was a technique that a friend of mine suggested. He’s been doing this thing with Ableton where you sync the program with your guitar tremolo, so we were just playing about with that. It was total sonic exploration. There was no agenda with this technique in the same way that there was no agenda to put this into a coherent album. So, it seems more coherent than it is, but it’s not. Its form was totally unplanned.
SG: What tape did you use? Only because I’m a tape snob.
ME: Type II chrome. I did as minimal bouncing as possible. Much of it had 2 instruments recorded to one track simultaneously as we wanted to utilise the 4-track as much as possible and to work within its limitations. I kept it as first generation as I could. I read on some 4-track forums that Type II chrome was the best, but some of the forums have had no activity for 20 years, nearly. But it’s interesting how the dynamic and expectation of the tape world has shifted. They were trying to combat hiss and lo fi character then. You could get away with using Ferric tape for multi-tracking now as the expectation of the technology has shifted.
SG: I thought it was a first world problem that I had invented due to over thinking things, but it’s clearly not. Vibration is not yet an obsolete format. The electro-magnetic world still works, so, of course tape quality is going to make a difference today like it did 20, or 60 years ago.
ME: I agree, but at the same time, once you digitise it, that’s when the discipline needs to kick in. We decided not to clean things up too much and so a couple of tracks like Cold Hands and Cargo, we could have easily added a de-hisser, but it’s like no. People don’t have hiss now, it’s not a thing.
SG: Even in the digital world there is still a noise floor, it’s just you usually can’t hear it.
ME: Exactly, yeah, but I like the way the hiss eats up all the high frequencies. It’s pleasing to my ear. It’s natural. I like how all the room sound is kind of stuffed out. It makes the sounds thicker and more intimate.
SG: Intimate is definitely the key word for it. Drums always sound great to tape, especially when they are tracked hot. That’s no mystery. But the real stand out thing for me, on this album, is the guitar sound. What did you use and how did you record it?
ME: I’ve got a 30w Roland Cube. I saw Ariel Pink using one for vocals once, so I thought, “I’ll get me one of them”. You can pick them up for quite cheap really. I think I paid forty quid for it. Basically, because I’ve got children, I couldn’t crank the guitar loud. The cube has a “recording out” function, basically a post pre-amp DI out. That went straight into the 4-track. So, the guitar was all recorded in headphones. It breaks up on the tape and slams it and thins it out and makes it sound awesome.
SG: That’s incredible. I spend hours and hours and hours perfecting mic placement and I would not have guessed in a million years that that was a DI recording from an amp.
ME: If we’d gone into this thinking that we were tracking songs for an album, there’s no way I would have approached it in this way, or achieved these results. The thought wouldn’t have even entered my mind. But because we were just recording for the joy of it, and just seeing what it sounded like, I had to do it via this method because the kids were in bed. When we listened back, we found it sounded really cool. It’s because it has 2 lots of pre amps, in the Cube and the Tascam 4-track, which is basically a fuzz pedal in a simple circuit. So, you drive it twice, then once it hits the tape it has all this colouration.
SG: I’m so impressed with it. It’s a really impressive album. I can tell it’s really well written and one thing you touched on earlier was some of the people you have been listening to. The first reference that jumped out at me was the Beach Boys. Obviously, I know The Beatles have been a big inspiration for you, but is there any more recent influences you’ve picked up who have made a mark on this music?
ME: Yeah, Ariel Pink is my biggest inspiration for this album, in the way that he’s recorded on cassette. John Maus as well, the American composer. You should check out his album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves – it’s incredible. It’s like Gregorian, 80’s synth pop. He’s like a modern-day Frank Zappa. They both used Yamaha and Tascam cassette machines too. I really wanted to do my version of that.
But in terms of older stuff, The Beach Boys, Big Star’s first album, The Byrds, lots of bands that begin with the letter B, really. Badfinger as well. They’re a Swansea band. It’s a tragic story, really. Pete Ham was the principle songwriter for Badfinger. He had a really soulful, melancholy about his writing when he was at his best. I was trying to tap into that Swansea soul thing too.
SG: What’s next then? It’s kind of difficult to plan a release party when there’s a global pandemic going on.
ME: Exactly. This album’s a strange one. It wouldn’t have been done without lockdown. So we’ve got lockdown to thank for it. But yeah, we’ll just do a digital release with it and hopefully we can gig some of the songs. Again, it was never the intention to gig any of these songs – they’re weren’t written with that in mind.
But who knows what’s going to happen? We’re just going to keep writing and not wait for anything. You know, we’ll just keep releasing stuff in the ways that we can and recording in the ways that we can. Lockdown has been a nightmare – I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but we’ve got to find positives, somehow, to get through this, because we don’t know how long it’s going to last. We don’t know if it’s ever going to go away, so we have to find positives in it.
The first month was really difficult for me. I had a hard time with it. I’m a bit of a loner really and I didn’t have any time to be on my own. I was constantly with my children, and with my wife working from home, I didn’t have any time for anything else. It was really hard. But music helped. It really did help.
Words: Simon Gore
Tracklisting: KEYS – ‘Home Schooling’
01. This Side Of Luv
03. The Strain
04. Cold Hands
06. Trick Of The Light
07. Your Name Across My Heart
08. Leave Your Mind Behind
09. Home Schooling
10. Pressure Cooker
‘Home Schooling’ Out August 21st on Libertino Records.
After that in-depth look into this outstanding record and ahead of the official release this Friday, 21st August- we are delighted to share with you ‘Home Schooling‘ streaming in its entirety below.
Keys have created a release which is easily one of the most profound and imperative records of our time.