Manchester’s most haunting and idiosyncratic band are gearing up to release their debut album Architecture. Louder Than War’s Dave Beech caught up with them ahead of its release.
Manchester, as far as cities go, has always been in a state of flux. From the boom of the industrial revolution, to its post-war decline, the slum clearances that pushed Mancunians out to the city’s periphery while expanding its boundaries, to the rejuvenation of the 1990s onwards following the IRA bombing.
The result is a city with both a bleak and individual history, its glories backboned by an undercurrent of struggle and desperation. Even now, with redevelopment seeing the worst areas of the city centre gentrified, areas of the wider borough are struggling more than ever. It’s this juxtaposition, something which has defined Manchester since the industrial revolution, that has given birth to the city’s cultural heritage, and its ability in giving rise to bands and acts across the artistic spectrum.
This is where IST IST come in.
Currently gearing up to release their debut album, IST IST’S own brand of stark, brutalist post-punk couldn’t have come from anywhere other than Manchester. An uncompromising combination of powerhouse percussion, towering wall of guitars and Adam Houghton’s baritone vocal delivery serves to create something unparalleled within the city. And while the addition of synth in recent years has afforded them a melodic depth previously unseen, the darkness and desolation of their earlier releases remain steadfast.
We caught up with bassist Andy Keating ahead of the album’s release in a bid to scratch beneath the surface of one of Manchester’s most enigmatic bands.
Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. How are things with you given the current situation?
Things aren’t quite panning out the way we intended but everybody is in the same boat so we’ve just sucked it up and carried on in the best way we can given the circumstances.
IST IST have always been a band that do things their own way, with little outside influence from the wider industry. How have you found this has benefitted the band?
Some of that is by choice some of that is just the way it’s panned out. For a long time we’ve had a clear vision for the band and where we see it going. So far we’ve been vindicated in our approach and in the decisions we’ve made because each release and tour gets steadily bigger; we’ve sold out of all copies of all our previous releases and on our next tour the venues are the biggest we’ve played in each city. We’ve made bold decisions along the way. I don’t see any other bands around us having the balls to release bootleg recordings of their live shows, but those limited edition discs we sold in the early days funded our EPs which in turn funded our album. I’m not convinced any external influence or influencer would have backed our decision to do that.
Conversely are there ways in which it’s hindered you?
Before answering I feel as though I should clarify that we’ve always been more than happy to hand over the keys to the kingdom, it just had to be at the right time and to people we trust to represent our best interests. We’ve never received much radio support besides BBC Radio 6 which we’re very grateful for, never had streaming platform playlist support, very rarely get festival slots and have only very recently started working with management, so maybe we missed a trick not being involved with a wider team earlier, but then again until recently it wasn’t the right time to do that and we’re genuinely happy with where we are so I suppose it’s somewhat of a moot point. The management team we’re working with now are DIY in their approach and have built their business from the ground up so in that respect we’re similar. There’s a familiar ethos and it’s not like we’ve gone and signed to a vast talent roster where we’d get buried under hundreds of other artists.
You’re gearing up to release your debut album Architecture which feels like it’s been a long time in the making. How was the process for you guys?
We’ve always put a premium on the album as a format. We had an album’s worth of songs from the time we started playing live in 2015, but that doesn’t mean we had an album. You see a lot of bands releasing albums within 18 months of formation; that’s their prerogative and some bands progress at different rates but we wanted the album to be a cover to cover experience and until last year we didn’t believe we truly had the right songs to provide that.
We wanted our debut to be cohesive and a genuine body of work. We released eleven tracks over the course of two EPs and they were almost mini albums in that they were cohesive and coherent, but even at that point we didn’t feel as though we had the album. When you’ve played together for as long as we have, you have that intuition across several levels and without really discussing it at length we just knew we had the album. That was in early 2019, so throughout the spring and summer we honed the songs, decided on the track listing and then went in to record it in October.
Is there anything you’d go back and do differently in terms of the writing or recording process?
I don’t think so. Over the course of recording the two EPs and the live double EP we honed the process between ourselves and our long-time producer Whalley. We’ve never mentioned it but the core guitar, bass and drum takes were actually all tracked live together on this album and the additional guitars, keys and vocals were recorded afterwards. After the ‘Sessions’ live EP we felt there was a visceral energy in the songs which the previous EPs maybe lacked, so we decided to track as much of the album as possible live. People can sometimes be under the impression that live tracking results in rough, ready and raw output but that’s not strictly true. You’re still playing to a metronome, the amps and drum kit are mic’d up exactly the same way as usual and are in separate rooms, but there’s just an energy and feel that it brings which we loved.
We were also much more hands-on in the mixing and production stage. We used to have Whalley send his mixes across online, we’d listen, collate our notes and send back the amendments we wanted until we were happy. That can be a drawn out process because even conveying exactly what you want can be difficult when you’re not in the same room. This time the five of us spent evenings and weekends together mixing the tracks. I think the benefits of producing this way is evident when listening to the record. We also had Greg Calbi from Sterling Sound in New Jersey master it. He’s won Grammies, mastered Graceland by Paul Simon, Young Americans by Bowie, Born to Run by Springsteen, every Interpol record and the last few National and Arcade Fire records. The uplift in quality and clarity when we received the masters back floored us.
You’re releasing each tack from the album individually, what’s the thinking behind this?
No-one else was doing anything like it and it was something different to a three and done sort of approach to an album promotional campaign where bands release a few singles, drop the album then go out and tour it. Yes that’s tried and tested but it’s our debut album, we only get the opportunity once so why not get creative with it? Releasing it this way gave us the scope to announce the album a bit earlier than we would have done otherwise and have a solid, consistent build-up to it. People have responded well to it and doing it this way keeps the interest there all the way up until release day.
A lot has changed since the early days of the band, both personally (marriages/kids etc) and globally (Brexit/Trump). Has this changed your approach to song writing at all?
We’ve always been an apolitical band, at least outwardly, so the way the world is in terms of Brexit, Trump et al hasn’t affected the way we go about our music and our song writing process. We discuss politics frequently as a band but we don’t have any intention to become an overtly political band.
Marriages and children however, yes that influences the song writing. Especially the lyrics. ‘Spinning Rooms’ was introspective and essentially a crisis record. ‘Everything Is Different Now’ revolved around coming of age and the baton in life being passed. ‘Architecture’ is a consolidation and gets into the inner workings of life. The ‘Architecture’ referenced is the architecture of the mind as opposed to buildings and structures. Whilst it isn’t a concept album in any sense, mental health and mental wellbeing is much more talked about than ever before which is most welcome. Writing and releasing music about emotional turmoil and redemption might have been received much differently in years gone by when people just wanted macho rockstars. We didn’t plan from the outset for the records to map a journey but such is life and such is the influence of life on music.
The band’s imagery has always been bleak and brutalist, almost dystopian, matching perfectly with the music. Does it run deeper simply aesthetic decisions? Is there a narrative link between lyricism and imagery?
We’ve never literally linked the lyrics with imagery, we’ve always just wanted to have an aesthetic which seems appropriate to us. We’ve trialled various styles and approaches to artwork, photography and videos but we always seem to keep coming back to the black and white, minimalist approach. That just seems to work for us.
Corona Virus has obviously hit the music industry hard. How have you found promoting a forthcoming album amidst the current climate?
Fortunately for us the album promotion and campaign was well under way by the time the virus and the implications of it became serious in the UK. Our pre-sale numbers were and are solid and whilst they’ve taken a slight nosedive over the past few weeks like everything else has, the track-by-track release hasn’t seen any drop off in success. If we were to release the album tomorrow we’d still be happy with the promotional campaign but there’s still more to come.
Similarly, like many bands you’ve had a tour postponed as a result of the current situation, are you doing anything in the way of livestreams or online gigs over the course of the lockdown?
We’re looking into it. Things seem to be changing every day so making plans for anything more than a couple of days ahead is a challenge and if we were to live stream a show, we’d want it to be well-executed and not one of us streaming it from a mobile phone from a bedroom or rehearsal space. That isn’t very us. If we can make it work and do a good job of it whilst putting health and safety first we will do but we don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.
Going back to the DIY thing, many of the types of venues you came up and indeed still play are going to be struggling during and maybe after the whole thing blows over. Is there anything you would recommend people doing in order to help their local club/venue?
Supporting the independent and DIY venues should have been on people’s agendas even before the virus but once they re-open people should get out to shows as much as their lives and bank balances permit. Live venues and creative spaces have been closing down at an alarming rate regardless and there’s a very real chance we’ll lose a majority of them by the end of the year if the support isn’t there once they re-open.
If there are opportunities outside of the tour dates to play some indie venues and support them by getting good crowds through their door we’ll do what we can. We wouldn’t want much besides our costs covered and the rest can go to the venue to help get them back on their feet.
Obviously, your tour has been postponed until Autumn, but what can we expect from you over the coming months following the album’s release?
We’re still intending on releasing videos to accompany each song from the album, so that will continue after the 1st May release date. We wanted each track to have their day in the sun, so that hasn’t changed. Situation permitting, if we can get an intimate and belated album launch show in before the tour commences, we will do, but let’s see how things stand in a couple of months. Hopefully everyone will be enjoying listening to the album and then before we know it it’ll be time to start building up to tour.
Finally, any words of wisdom you want to leave our readers with?
Perception is the new reality.