It can’t be easy for bands to change direction when you seem to have hit a winning formula but that’s exactly what The Rails have done on their third album ‘Cancel the Sun’.
Kami Thompson is part of the legendary folk-rock dynasty headed by her dad Richard, and her husband James Walbourne has been playing guitar for loads of bands, including Son Volt and The Pogues. So perhaps it’s not that surprising the duo’s previous albums were more than a little folk-tinged, but the new one has a much broader musical palette, and definitely a harder edge to the writing.
“It’s funny our first album was lighter, so it’s tough to make that transition, we’ve done it in steps and degrees in the last three records, and we’ll maybe do some metal for the next one,” laughs James.
“The record we did, the ‘Other People’ album, was a step in that direction, but we wanted something that was a true reflection of ourselves. It is harder-edged and reflects the music we listen to a little more.”
Even though the album does contain the single, Mossy Well, which has a folk feel, and the dreamy Dictator has a deep baroque feel to it, Kami agrees their bigger sound is part of a natural progression for a band still firmly rooted in the English tradition, often citing The Kinks as their benchmark.
“I think it is definitely not as much of a folky record but if anything is just more English just in a modern way, muses Kami. “All the influences were always there with us but when we were making a folk record we obviously narrowed it down to that.
“I think we let ourselves have free rein this time without pigeon-holing anything, so we just felt liberated to do what we wanted to do.”
Another big difference on this record is that Kami and James started to write songs together. It is always tricky for any writing partnership – you only have to ask Morrissey and Marr – but when you are married it can add an extra layer of tension.
“Something had to give as it wasn’t really working how we were doing it before, it was a bit competitive, and a bit tit for tat,” says Kami. “You can’t really see the wood for the trees, and you need someone to go that’s a terrible idea.
“The main split is probably that I wrote the lion’s share of the lyrics, and James probably wrote more tunes than me. If I’m writing is it is invariably going to be a bit darker, I’m a grumpy cow.”
That darkness has crept into Kami’s lyrics which focus much more on the big issues of our time, including the global climate crisis. On Save The Planet she puts forward the provocative idea that only mankind’s mass suicide can save our planet from inevitable destruction.
“I think that song was just meant as a thought prompter, and you look around as people are labouring away at one tiny point at how this is all going to work out, in reality, everybody would have to take 18 steps back and make huge, huge life changes,” puts forward the defiant lyricist.
“We just wanted to make people think, and it’s obviously a slightly absurdly statement, but it would fucking solve the problem. I’m playing devil’s advocate, I’m obviously saying something absurd, but come on, give me how are you going to make it work?”
The Rails have previously been hands-on in the studio, but this time they recognised they needed to take a step back and get an experienced hand on the faders. They put in a call into legendary Britpop producer Stephen Street, who has worked with Blur and The Smiths, not expecting him to say yes, but he agreed to join them in Damon Albarn’s studio.
“I think the guitar should always be fucking loud in the mix and on a lot of records it is never loud enough,” asserts James as only a guitarist can. “It was great to have Stephen Street producing the record as he is all about guitars, so it worked.
“He’s very hands-on, but we handed the reins over to Stephen as we wanted to someone to produce for a change as we’ve had quite a lot to do with the production in the past. On this particular record, we wanted to get that Stephen Street sound, that thing that he does, and we trusted him every step of the way.”
As well as his day job James remains in demand as a guitarist currently playing with The Pretenders as well as helping write their forthcoming album. He must have picked something along the way sharing the stage with Chrissie Hynde who as well as being a top guitarist in her own right is a master of creating classic pop songs.
“We’ve just signed off on the next Pretenders record, and weirdly we’ve just done it with Stephen Street. It has rubbed off in more ways than just songwriting really as the first gig I ever had with them I realised ‘oh fuck, you’ve got to step up and be a guitar player’, and you can’t hide away as it is ‘oh, fuck here we go.’
“We talk endlessly about songwriting, what’s great in music and bands. It’s become a big part of my life and Kami’s, and it has rubbed off on what makes a great pop song.”
The other big difference is before doing this record James decided to stop drinking, and he has seen the positive impact of that decision on his work both in the studio and on the road.
“I had a really good run of getting it away with it and you find yourself still awake at midday the next day in the pub with Shane MacGowan, which is great fun in your 20s.
“You know, it hindered the work for me, and I would say this record, and the writing of The Pretenders album, are down to giving it up as it is the biggest thing I have ever done really. It is a totally different lifestyle as it catches up with you eventually, but now I get things done.”
The Rails are on tour from Sunday 20 October, including a date at Hebden Bridge Trades Club (www.thetradesclub.com) on Thursday 24 November. For details of the full tour go to www.therailsofficial.com
Interview by Paul Clarke, you can see my author profile here: