The Narrows – In conversation
New Manchester band THE NARROWS have great tunes and plenty to say about Manchester, politics, the music industry and the challenges facing new bands in 2011 – and how they’re going to make an album in their bedroom that doesn’t sound like it’s been made in a bedroom, so long as their chickens don’t get in the way”Â¦
At the end of January, an unknown three-piece band called The Narrows were invited at the last minute to fill a cancellation spot way down the bottom of the bill at Friends Of Mine’s Manchester all-dayer: there weren’t many people watching them, but pretty much everyone who was came away very impressed. I’m not usually lost for words when faced with a new band, but this was something else and in the end I went for the “say what you see/hear” angle and described “deeply strange baroque pop, planet-sized orchestral synths, techno-inspired bleeps, swathes of post-trip-hop atmospherics, a kitchen sink’s worth of samples and electronic percussion, an oddly early-80s vocal and what can only be described as a sort of mutant electric ukulele baby guitar type thing”. Since then they’ve become anything but unknown around the Manchester music scene: released a single, been featured in the Evening News and on local radio and confirmed their slot at the main Friends Of Mine festival in May. Time to go and pick their brains a bit, then.
I arrive in Retro Bar to find Adam Hynes (guitars / production) and Phil Drinkwater (vocals, lyrics, keyboards – other guitarist David Battle can’t make it) laughing their heads off. The subject of this hilarity is an interview in the day’s paper with recently reanimated boy-band and British Eurovision hopes (god help us) Blue, where one of them had claimed, without irony, that he tends to get the “mums and disabled kids” end of the fanbase. You have to be so careful what you say in interviews, don’t you? Good job then that my normally trusty Minidisk player decides to throw a wobbler and fails to record the bit where two thirds of The Narrows admit they spent half the afternoon listening to Michael Jackson’s “HIStory” when they should have been working on their album. Or the bit where they both stop talking to enjoy Russian faux-lesbian popsters TATU’s “Not Gonna Get Us” which has appeared on Retro’s delightfully random video-jukebox. Oops, sorry lads. We then end up chatting for about five minutes about UB40 and how the hell such a great band degenerated into a pop-reggae-lite covers machine. As you do. As you may have guessed, The Narrows aren’t one of these desperately cool bands, and have no desire to be. They’re way too intelligent and strange (musically, that is) for that. Eventually I decide I’d better actually ask some questions”Â¦
You seemed to appear from nowhere at the start of this year with a fully-formed and very individual sound, is this something you’d been brewing for a while?
Phil: We all used to be in a band together when we were teenagers, went our different ways then me and Dave got together and did some stuff, sent it through to Adam to see what he could do to it and when we listened to it we thought “this is pretty fucking all right actually”. So we got together and decided to focus on an EP not even thinking about being a live band – so we then spent a while trying to figure out how to do it live. September I think was the first gig. Not many people knew about the EP outside of our own circle of friends but we got a couple of nice reviews and that was a kind of vindication, so we thought maybe we should try and make a go of it
Adam: I’m trying to think when you gave me those demos, must have been two years ago…
Phil: So it’s been a while for us, but for everyone else it just seemed like… “Hello!”
It seems to me to be a very creative time for music in Manchester right now, as good as any I can remember ”â and you grew up round here too, what do you think?
Adam: The stuff from Manchester that people talk about the most these days seems to be the more interesting, less guitar-D-A-G kind of stuff, there’s a move away from that which is nice, a big move towards electronica and more progressive sounds”Â¦
Phil: There’s always that thing that’s a little pet hate of ours that somehow if you’re in a meat’n’veg kind of band somehow that’s more “authentic”, all that “we’re bringing Rock back” – we say fuck that, what we’re doing is authentic as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t have to be rhythm guitar / lead guitar / bass and drums and all that “we’re a proper rock’n’roll band”, I just think that’s ridiclulous.
Adam: I think the term “proper rock’n’roll” is a disgrace; it’s like, what, you’re bringing back The Stooges? Are you as good as The Stooges? No? You don’t know what you’re talking about…
Phil: I think it’s nice that Manchester as a place is moving away from that as its staple diet, it seems to be embracing more of the future… people seem to be thinking a lot more outside the box, it’s not all just about Joy Division and The Smiths”Â¦
Adam: It’s about saying there’s other stuff, other ways to think about music.
Phil: I don’t think of Manchester as being that any more, I think of Manchester as being bands like Day For Airstrikes, Mount Fabric, Borland, From The Kites Of San Quentin, people doing things that don’t necessarily have a sense of place – it’s not like you can tell they’re from Manchester. And VeÃÂ, especially, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like VeÃÂ – we’re in awe of him, he’s an absolute genius… frighteningly talented.
Adam: I was doing a gig with another band and he came on after us, I was just sat there going “fucks sake, he’s amazing”Â”Â¦ really nice bloke as well.
And you really don’t sound like anyone else around ”â High Voltage magazine described your sound as “like Delphic run through a dark ambient wringer, or Johnny Greenwood playing session on a Portishead record”Â and ManchesterMusic said “a bewildering progressive melee”Â ”â where did it come from?
Phil: It’s a mixture of purposefully wanting to say something and do something different, but not out of a contrived sense, just that we knew what we wanted to do didn’t really fit in anywhere so we wanted to push things in the opposite direction to everything that was happening in Manchester. There’s a few kind of overlaps in a Venn diagram sort of way but in general we don’t belong to a particular scene or movement or type of music… we’re very unfashionable men! It can be a hindrance in certain cases, like trying to get good support slots because promoters like to put bands on that sound alike, which is a bit bizarre… and because we’re not part of some hipster scene you can get ignored sometimes
Adam: It’s not like everyone’s going to dig it anyway – you can’t work like that. One of the good things in Manchester is if you want to fly your own flag you can, there’s always somebody who’s willing to listen.
And what exactly is that mutant electric ukulele baby guitar type thing?
Adam: It’s just a four string electric mandolin, but because it’s so small a lot of people like to tune it to ukulele type tunings. I saw Warren Ellis with one, from The Bad Seeds, and I went “I want one of them” – and it makes a horrible, horrible sound (laughs)… but a great sound!
You’ve got some interesting lyrics, too, they seem to be about things, there’s quite a bit of politics in there”Â¦ back in the 80s it seemed every band had political songs: rock bands, mainstream bands, jangly indie bands, the lot, but it seems to have become really uncool to write openly and specifically about politics these days”Â¦
Phil: First and foremost our lyrics are specific, there’s an active drive to not make them general – and to write about things that actually fucking matter to people, none of this “I love you and she loves me”, fuck that. We’ve written songs about politics because everyone kind of knows we’re being fucked… we’re also writing about things like conspiracy theories, about 9/11, about 60s America and the politics there and using it as a metaphor to explore tha paranoia and anxiety of this time that we’re living in.
And with the latest single “Initials MM”Â you’ve even made a proper video”Â¦
Phil: The idea was to do a kind of audio-visual experience, not just to throw a single out there in a vague and general way – we wanted to make it so people could download photography, lyrics, give some indications of what was going on – and we did the remixes as well, we got VeÃÂ to do one which is very dark and strange, all stripped down and minimalist, took it down to its bare essentials.
Adam: You don’t want to be a Myspace band, just with three songs up on your page…
Phil: No, we want to do it properly, and this to us is doing it properly.
So you’re making an album at the moment, are you doing this all yourselves as well?
Phil: Right now we’re in a home-made studio which is Adam’s bedroom, but this weekend we’re converting a little room at the back of my house into a makeshift studio – and hoping that the chickens I buy on Friday don’t get in the way of recording… we don’t have the money to go into a studio but what we’ve got…
Adam: It does the job – I’d like to have an extra three grand to spend on it though!
Phil: So the album will be 100% bedroom! But it won’t sound like it’s been made in a bedroom. We’ve had a couple of little indie labels asking about it which is nice as then we’d maybe be able to do a little run on vinyl. We’ll see. but we still don’t know what we’re fucking doing, we just make it up as we go along”Â¦
Adam: Speak for yourself mate!
Phil: I think what’s good is that because there’s a massive crisis in terms of how the music industry is working, and it obviously needs to re-evaluate itself pretty quickly, there’s access to stuff we wouldn’t have had in the past – being able to release a single, I imagine years ago wouldn’t have been an option unless you had some backing behind you – but now we can be as creative as we want and there’s a platform for us. And there’s a load of fucking great music coming out at the moment.
It’s great the way everyone’s doing a lot of grass roots stuff, but sooner or later it’s just going to get to the point where there is no money in music whatsoever and it worries me a bit because not everyone can just go out at the end of a full day’s work and make music, I guess you guys are all working?
Phil: Yeah and it’s really difficult, we”ve got a fucking album to write, we’ve got gigs to try and organise and then you’ve got the whole business side of things, trying to get people to listen to you, trying to get labels and bloggers and other people aware of your presence and it becomes a huge thing that you literally can’t physically do – and it is worrying that there might not be that money there to support people to do it
It used to be that if you get a record deal, even an indie record deal, that you’d be able to take time out from day jobs for at least long enough to make the album, but that’s not happening any more”Â¦
Phil : I know a lot of people are talking about grass roots and DIY and it’s fucking great, don’t get me wrong, but it still needs to be an industry, still needs to be a viable option for people so they can just get the time to actually explore different things.
Adam: If people want good music, then the people making music need time to make it, and you can’t always do that if you’re working 9 to 5 every day.
Certainly a lot of the period of extreme creativity that happened in the early 80s was people who were fired up by punk but on the practical side they were able to do that because at that point in time you could pretty much sign on for as long as you wanted, you could get grants…
Phil: That’s why UB40 were called UB40 isn’t it! You can’t do that now. Don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is what it is, just makes it a tiny bit more difficult that once you’ve done all the hard work and a label comes along and says right we can work with it, you can’t just go “right, there’s my resignation, I’m gonna do this now”. It might harm creativity or people trying to push themselves artistically as well, and that’s a bit frightening.
Adam: You’ve just got to get your head down and figure out a way to navigate through the mess…
Right now The Narrows seem to be making a pretty good job of this. They don’t know exactly when they’ll be able to get the album out ”â Phil (“the optimist”Â) reckons maybe September while Adam just hopes it will be this year some time. They reckon their dream gig would be “on the Moon”Â or, slightly more sensibly, at Gorton Monastery “in pitch darkness, but everyone has one candle”Â. And I’m left with the rather positive feeling that if any band can “navigate through the mess”Â then The Narrows have the tunes, the drive and the imagination to do it.
The Narrows will be supporting PVT at Manchester Ruby Lounge on 10th May (along with From The Kites Of San Quentin), then supporting EAR PWR at Night & Day on the 12th and playing Friends of Mine Festival on Saturday 21st.