Pumpin' the Brakes

by Ryan S. Henriquez


These guys are not taking advantage of the Bowery Ballroom dressing room amenities.

A trough full of icy cold bottled beers sits in the corner by the entryway, untouched. A row of Heineken stacked neatly below a row of Amstel Light below a row of Corona, all on a bed of ice and looking downright delicious. Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian never even make a move towards them.

Instead, they’re excitedly printing the screenplay for the short film a friend has asked them to score when they return to England next week following the conclusion of this American tour. Besides, they need to be sharp. Unlike in Europe where they often tour with a full band, tonight’s performance is just the duo, their guitars, and one accompanying keyboard player.

“Guerilla tactics,” Knights jokes. “We spent all our [touring] money in Europe—and so we’re paying for these shows ourselves and we really can’t afford full band productions. But it feels great to be doing this in America right now, because we’re still relatively unknown here. We’re doing these friendly, warm, intimate shows right now, but we know next time we’re gonna come back with a full band and attempt to blow people away. They’ll expect this delicacy and instead we’ll absolutely rock them.”

Tonight, Turin Brakes are wrapping up a two-week acoustic stint in the States, which falls on the heels of months of touring on both sides of the ocean, including over 20 European festivals and support for David Gray on his Summer 2003 US tour. After NYC tonight and Philadelphia tomorrow, they return to their UK home for a few shows before shipping off to Australia for more even dates. All in all, an exhausting schedule, but there’s no rest for the weary. “We haven’t had a proper vacation in four years,” laments Knights. “Maybe two weeks at the end of an album campaign to rejuvenate, but even then the label is still ringing you up.”

Ah, the label. A sore subject at the moment, because Source/Astralwerks recently insisted on a third commercial release of the Brakes’ second record, Ether Song. Originally released in March 2003, the album cracked the UK Top 10 the week of its release, fueled largely by the success of the single “Pain Killer”, which reached the Top 5 on the UK song charts. Still, the label’s expectations were not met, and so they have tried to add consumer value to the album by re-releasing it twice, each time with a slew of new bonus material. This latest incarnation includes a new single, “5 Mile (These Are the Days)”, some live tracks, and a bonus video.

Especially with the current struggles of the music business against increased piracy and lagging sales, Turin Brakes understand the label’s motives, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. “This tactic was just a step over the line for us,” chides Knights. “The more I think about it, the more I hate it. I think you should have enough confidence in what you’re doing to just make it and put it out. And if it doesn’t sell a million, it doesn’t sell a million. If you look at our website you can tell there’s been a lot more cynicism from our fans as well.”

While regretful of succumbing to the label’s publicity machine, the Brakes are learning from their mistakes. Explains Knights, “we know that when this situation comes up again, instead of buckling under the pressure, we’ll just say ‘absolutely not’ and accept that maybe we’re not the next Coldplay, but neither do we want to be.”

The label may have different ideas, of course. In the wake of the unexpected success of their critically acclaimed self-produced debut, The Optimist LP (2001), which garnered them a U.K. Mercury Music Prize nomination (England’s biggest pop music award), expectations were high, but the band felt lost. “We didn’t know what the hell the label wanted for us,” said Knights.

Enter Tony Hoffer, L.A.-based über-producer of albums such as Beck’s Midnight Vultures and labelmate Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend. Hoffer’s production leans towards the electronically bombastic, which seemed like an unlikely choice for a band that has been often classified, perhaps too rigorously, as melancholic acoustic folk-rockers. Some skeptics worried that, in securing Hoffer’s services, the Brakes may have “gone Hollywood”, unnecessarily polishing their already-pure sound with the gleam and glam of the Sugar Town music machine. While the Brakes admit to having shared these reservations, they claim Hoffer’s involvement actually revealed itself as a Godsend.

“It was Jesus coming down and saving us,” admits Knights. “From the beginning, [Tony Hoffer] had this affinity with us; an empathy for us. Here was this shining light—this person of absolute authority and we could say ‘You decide. Please tell us what to do.’ So he did.”

The Brakes submitted 30 demo tracks, and gave Hoffer absolute authority over which ones would end up on the album. Ceding control of such a monumental decision as song selection wasn’t easy, but ultimately it was just what the Brakes needed to facilitate their creativity.

“Making Ether Song was a hell of a lot more fun than making The Optimist LP,” explains Knights. “That doesn’t mean the album is better or worse; it just felt more energetic, less cumbersome. We could just play. We’d come from never letting anyone tell us what to do [on The Optimist LP] and so it was a release for once to be told what to do. We completed the album in two weeks flat because we were sucked in. It was the most intensely creative and amazing time of our lives.”

The result is a much more progressive, robust sound, where one’s focus is drawn in equal measures to the Brakes’ signature nerve-striking lyrical eloquence sung by Knights’ starkly beautiful voice, as to the wisps of multi-layered musical atmosphere surrounding these core elements. While most critics agree it worked on Ether Song, fans shouldn’t necessarily expect more far-reaching, spacey “astral werks”.

“The whole point of being progressive is so you can come to a conclusion,” clarifies Knights. “If you’re progressive for the sake of progression, after awhile it becomes meaningless. You just keep going, going, going, until you expand your language to the point where it becomes complete abstract and don’t arrive anywhere, and you’ve betrayed what it was that was completely special about you in the first place.”

Paridjanian adds that, underneath the layers of production, Ether Song‘s tracks are still vintage Turin Brakes. “We start with something pure, simple and beautiful—and we slowly build up this language until something connects and happens. We want to give people a reason to get to the end of a song. There has to be something that you’re waiting for, even though you may know it’s coming. That’s the most natural way for us to write.”

Spending time in Los Angeles to record Ether Song gave Turin Brakes a keen view into the fab faux surreal construct that is the Hollywood music matrix. “L.A. is like a beautiful dream,” muses Knights. “I couldn’t stand it at first, or I couldn’t understand it. You could be swimming in a pool, look up in the sky and see a hummingbird, a WWII bomber, a helicopter chase; and all the while the palm trees and lemon trees sway in the breeze. It’s crazy, but after a while I came to love it.”

But Paridjanian admits they feel more comfortable and can relate to New York better. “New York is so European, we feel like we can be ourselves here and blend into life a lot easier. It’s got lots of people living in a small space so it’s got the energy of London.”

Though they agree they enjoy East and West coasts equally (“we’ve fallen in love with both of them actually”), they are anxious to return home to England following tomorrow’s show in Philly. Not for any respite, mind you. In the ten days between arriving home and resuming their tour, the Brakes intend to score their friend’s film, and also begin crafting their next album, what they hope will be their magnum opus.

“I want to make the album that defines us,” proclaims Knights. “The kind of record people refer to when they refer to your band.”

Of course making one’s defining album can be a daunting task. “It inspires fear, but only to the extent we won’t reach it,” explains Knights. “We’ve been developing this sound and we want to turn out something really solid…something very ‘Turin Brakes.’ An answer to the questions, if you will. A conclusion.”

Knights clarifies that they have no intention of calling it quits after they record the next album, but he did explain that they have some vastly new directions to which they might like to explore sometime in the future. “We have an awful lot of influences that go way out of the sphere of just acoustic music. If we made an album that defines us, we could go anywhere after that. It might be nice to open things up and not be about just singer-songwriting,” says Knights.

Will they employ another producer from the Hollywood hit-maker or produce this album themselves?

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to work out right now,” explains Paridjanian. “The record company will probably want us to use an established producer, yet we know that we work best when we can produce ourselves. We need to find a balance somehow between the two interests on this next record. We don’t want to jump back in bed with a total stranger.”

This fear of consorting with strangers is likely fueled by the deep history shared by Knights and Paridjanian, and the realization that this history has bred something special which outside influences might threaten or taint. The pair grew up together in South London, and sang in the school choir (once for the Queen herself). Shortly thereafter, the pre-teen duo began jamming together. Such a connection has fused the two as halves of one musical brain, often completing each other’s sentences and phrases, in interviews, on stage, and while crafting songs. Knights explains that playing music with Paridjanian is as natural as breathing, and hopes that they’re playing together 40 years from now, albeit perhaps not in the manner one might expect. “If we are playing together 40 years from now, I hope it’s just as happy, fat, old jazz musicians. Monday nights, in some jazz pub, and we’re fat and happy—not skinny and freaked out and trying to sell a million albums. As long as we don’t give a monkey’s about any of that—I’ll be happy.”

Inconspicuous jazz musicians over revered rock legends? Not surprising, from a band more interested in making the music than in making the scene. Labels beware.

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