Interview: Sweet Williams
Ahead of the release of Sweet Williams’ new album Please Let Me Sleep On Your Tonight, we talk to Thomas House. Greg Neate interviews.
“I got in trouble with my Mum for that song,” confesses Thomas House, blushing beneath his beard. “We were just going off on our first tour and loading the van,” recalls the singer and guitarist of Brighton band, Sweet Williams. “I then got a text from my sister saying; ‘Mum’s really cross with you! She thinks that song on your record is horrible!’”
The 30-something, multi-band veteran may have convinced himself that Mum and Dad – a dissonant instrumental on Sweet Williams’ first album Bliss – was nothing less than ‘A beautiful song!’ Alas, it seems that the women in his family know him all too well; ‘Yeah, that’s what I told Mum you’d say!’ replied his equally unmoved sister.
As it happens, a song with “open chords in the wrong positions so the open strings make a horrible sound against a pretty chord,” maybe the least of his family’s concerns. On a sunny Sunday afternoon while drinking bottles of ale in the flat that he shares with his fiancé, I asked if there was an association between Sweet Williams’ name and that of his previous band, the similarly evocative Charlottefield? Indeed there is, though it’s not a shared interest in horticulture.
“The names both come from things to do with my family or my extended family,” House explains. “Field is my grandmother’s great aunt and Williams is my mother’s maiden name”. Perhaps his mother’s suspicion towards her son’s expressive creativity isn’t really such a surprise.
What’s not unexpected is the domestic scene inside House’s home. Within the third floor flat off Brighton’s Seven Dials, much of the open plan kitchen / lounge is occupied by guitars and amplifiers, shelves packed with vinyl records and a couch positioned directly in front of banks of sound equipment stacked underneath east facing windows. Typical of House’s ear for sound is the lack of visible screens on display and the prominence of a dual tape deck for manufacturing cassette-only releases on his Endless Records label.
Before our interview begins, House plays me an unmastered tape of the recently completed recordings for Sweet Williams’ second album, Please Let Me Sleep on Your Tonight. Six years on from the sparse and mostly solo Bliss, Sweet Williams has become established as a four piece band with an impressive collective identity as witnessed at their increasingly packed and attentive shows in Brighton. While many in the audience remain loyal from House’s Charlottefield days, adding to the collective excitement is the anticipation for their long-awaited album as a band.
Enter Please Let Me… that not only captures the compelling nature of Sweet Williams’ live shows but distinguishes them further from House’s former band. While such referencing might be distracting and even disrespectful, House has been increasingly at ease with his past as demonstrated at his occasional solo – sometimes billed as ‘T House’ – shows where he plays songs by both bands. Thus, as Sweet Williams’ story starts where Charlottefield’s ends, it’s right to acknowledge both of Brighton’s most original bands of recent decades.
Like Sweet Williams, Charlottefield were a raw quartet whose focus on stage was further emphasised by some members facing away from the audience. While the influence of earnest, American hardcore wasn’t denied in their jagged guitars or the howls of House’s barefoot delivered vocals, what undoubtedly made them unique was the jazz-inflected rhythms and hypnotic fills of drummer, Ashley Marlowe. In Brighton they were rightly revered and when their 2005 album, How Long Are You Staying, was released, so taken was the American magazine, Skyscraper, that it urged its readers; ‘Give a fuck: right now, in Britain, few bands are making music as volatile and vitally inventive as Charlottefield… No band is bridging division between common perceptions of post and punk rock with such skill and respect.’
Five years earlier, such potential could hardly have been suspected of these young men from the faded Sussex coastal town of Hastings. Still it’s rare to have such an auspicious debut gig as opening for Brian McMahon’s The For Carnation as happened at the Forum in Royal Tunbridge Wells. What the ex-Slint singer made of his support that night is unknown but of greater significance for Charlottefield was that their future drummer, Marlowe – then living in the less attractive neighbouring town of Tonbridge – was among the crowd then. Meanwhile, Tunbridge Wells would remain significant for the band, not only as a stop on the train line that they relied on for rehearsals, but for the mutual support from local bands Cove and Joeyfat, the latter whom House once joined and whose Unlabel records released How Long Are You Staying on vinyl.
By the time Brighton-based Fat Cat records picked up the album for wider release, Charlottefield’s members had each relocated to their new label’s seaside city. Post-millennium Brighton may have been better known for its Big Beat clubs, but in the mid-2000s it was also where Charlottefield connected with a collective of fellow noiseniks that included perennial musical contrarians, I’m Being Good and future tour-mates Cat on Form, who featured a pre-Blood Red Shoes, Steve Ansell.
When their second and definitive album, What Are Friends For, was released in 2007 on a label with an impressive roster of international acts, House must have fancied their prospects. However, if he was disappointed that they would break up a year later without animosity, House shows rare humility. “I thought we had it good,” he reflects. “We had some nice reviews. John Peel played us; that was cool. People came out and liked it. I thought we did alright.”
Still no matter how reasonable your perspective, when something integral to your life ends, how does one move on? While a post-Charlottefield project without Marlowe would have always been different, House admits to taking an intentionally contrasting approach with Bliss. “It was deliberately slower with a lot of space in it,” he explains. “It became even more extreme with that record as I thought it was the only chance that I would get. I’m not a very good drummer but I knew where I wanted the beats and space to be; to get some texture for the guitars to ring out with no fill-ins. That informed why it was slower and sparser.”
On listening back to Charlottefield’s less refined recordings, particularly the posthumous, Make It Easy on Yourself, House can be heard moving towards a slower, more contemplative pace. While this change in emphasis arguably mirrors that between McMahon’s two influential bands, House’s more downtempo songs and vocals actually have more in common with the fragile, lo-fi terrain explored by English contemporaries Hood and Crescent. Indeed such a perspective was also present on What Are Friends For, where on Broken Bell, House laments being “loose on the railway line” – even if I had previously assumed that his existential angst was concerned with train-delaying ‘leaves’!
After Charlottefield, House also had to address just what was in a name. “I would have preferred to have continued with the name but I didn’t feel like I could,” he recalls. “I had already played solo [shows] as Blue House, so I decided to turn that into a band and then if somebody quit, I don’t have to scrap all the old songs.” However, for some fierce observers, such self-referencing called into question his motives. “It’s a band! You shouldn’t call it that!” he laughs, paraphrasing comments made at the time. “It’s kind of taboo,” he explains. “It’s not very punk rock to say; ‘I’m doing this as my thing. I am doing this with other people but [this is my music].’”
Not that any doubt over his integrity could be considered credible. In addition to Sweet Williams, House wields a mean and meandering bass with slow behemoths, Sloath; plays second guitar in Spanish post-rock band, Picore, and over the past ten years has collaborated in numerous projects in Brighton including a trio of bands (Reds, Plummets and Bad Belly) with Australian guitarist, Sam Collins. And then there’s the dozens of local shows that he’s promoted and sound engineered, as well as Endless Records, his former record store in Brighton’s North Laine that lives on as a mail-order business.
With the release of Please Let Me… due for joint release by Faux Discx and Gringo records on 23 September, it’s fair to say that all of House’s experience as a songwriter, musician and collaborator has culminated in his most complete work to date. However, he himself would be the first to insist that crediting one individual alone would woefully overlook the contributions of his Sweet Williams bandmates.
As with Charlottefield, House’s songs are transformed by another charismatic drummer, the mightily brooding Tom Barnes, who also drums with his fellow ‘Tom’ in Sloath, and the aforementioned, I’m Being Good. Similarly committed to two other Brighton bands (Van Couer and Twenty-One Crows), Andy Thomas plays bass with a precision that’s matched by the angle of his downturned baseball cap. Meanwhile what House’s former partner, Sarah Dobson (ex-Ox Scapula), lacks for a ‘Thomas’ in her name, she flourishes with guitar parts plucked from the amplifiers that she often leans into. The result is an album that doesn’t hang about with vocals starting within seconds as bass and drums interlock within oscillating time signatures that drive the album forward.
On The Deer Song, House starts, “It’s dark already out. You’re the only one with stripes” against a menacing soundtrack that ends just as quickly. Ghost Waves is the closest to channelling Charlottefield’s spirit that kicks off with a loud, dynamic rhythm that then shifts towards spiralling loops of guitars. Ex-Circus features a haunting, level-crossing warning that signals trouble (with echoes of the railroad blues of Penthouse, the 1990s band that the album’s producer, Tim Cedar drummed with before he turned his guitars up to to 11 in Part Chimp) as House sneers like a beaten punch-drunk boxer who won’t quit alone. Listeners left feeling woozy may relate to Sweet Williams’ live sound engineer, Simon Kaye, who admits to his knees giving way more than once during the song.
The album’s centrepiece, Come Swimming, takes a slower, more measured tone but is no less unsettling. Is House encouraging us to take a shared paddle or do his whispered commands suggest something else? Such uncertainty is emphasised by chords that are out of sync with the beat, as if there are two different rhythms, a phenomenon I first noticed when hearing the song played solo.
“That might just me being really sloppy,” House deadpans before describing what might just be his ultimate ambition. “There are these steady bars [in Come Swimming] but in between the bars, there’s a distortion of the speed of the song because there are beats missing or beats added. If you take a standard four-beat ‘kick and snare’ drum pattern, with the kick on the one and the snare on the three; there is this constant forward-back, forward-back motion in a beat.
“When I’m sitting at home playing the guitar, I get into that sort of feeling but if I come up with something [new], it switches that forward and back thing around. It means dropping or adding a beat, so it ends up like you’re playing in 9/4. That’s what I really like. I find that kind of play in the rhythm and the pattern really entrancing. If I could purify it, that would feel like the most natural thing!”
Please Let Me Sleep on Your Tonight by Sweet Williams is released jointly by Faux Discx and Gringo Records on 23 September 2016. Digital download available on Bandcamp.
Sweet Williams and Thomas House solo play live:
- 29 September – Bottlecraft in Hanley, Stoke on Trent (solo show)
- 30 September – Manchester TBC (solo show)
- 1 October – Jackson’s corner Reading (solo show)
- 23 October – Quadrant Brighton (band show)
All words and images by Greg Neate / neatephotos.com.