“It's totally fucked.” Dan shrugs, and laughs warmly. No, fear not shoegaze fans, he's not talking about his band, The Modern Painters, or their second album The Space Between Us, due out early next year on Club AC30, but of his favourite pedal, an 80s Rocktek chorus. “It's really noisy, really analogue, and when it fails- as it does frequently- it fails in ways that are quite interesting musically, or easily exploitable. On a low setting, it's a nice warm texture, on high it's like Ulrich Schnauss in a box.”
On the face of it, this is about par for the course. We've already discussed his taste in literature, Hohfeld's analysis of rights, and the pros and cons of having a home studio that faces a slightly eerie graveyard. Even in the sun, the tarnished and lopsided stones provide a sinister backdrop to our conversation, clashing with the major-key melody lines he plays me on a synth-harpsichord to demonstrate his new favourite sound. Having already road-tested most of the material for The Space Between Us, the band laid down drums earlier this year at SSR, and now the painstaking process of “creating” the songs must begin. Unusually for a guitar band the Modern Painters mainly opt for recording straight into their computer recording set-up, and save for a clutch of pedals leave their live equipment in the basement downstairs. With a perfectionist's eye for detail Dan is now overseeing the finishing touches to the record.
“There's a difficulty in speaking from my own point of view when obviously there's four other people in the band” explains Dan, when asked about the new album, “but I think with this record in particular I'm trying to use the lyrics to 'say' something for the first time. I guess my key early influences was the Cocteau Twins, where everything's quite vague. On the first record, the lyrics were written by kind of a reductive process, where you start out by singing gibberish, and allow yourself to be led into subconsciously creating words, singing whatever comes naturally and then refining it.”
Their first album, Love Songs for the Chemical Generation, was a more hedonistic affair, with the sprawling 'Off Your Face Again' at its core. He reflects that it “was about a time in my life about ten years ago when I was going out clubbing and doing a lot of drugs. It was quite a nostalgic album in some ways...” This wistfulness is gone now, however. When he says that “I'm just trying to write about things that actually mean something to me”, he means it, and candidly will explain that the lyrical impetus is the breakup of both a long-term, and a subsequent relationship. When I make the obvious joke, he laughs and agrees that in a way, this is his Siamese Dream.
Instrumentally, the album is coming from a very different place; notably, all members of the band have contributed to the songwriting process, with basslines turned on their head into vocal melodies marking the inclusion of every Painter. Dan's time with Engineers has affected their vocal arrangements (as apparently has the most recent Coldplay record), and Oisin's involvement as bassist in the psychedelic Air Cav has brought with it new inflections into their band dynamics. Dan elaborates, “with this album for a while we thought we should try and do something really different with the sound, but the point is to continue working the way you always have, and then allow whatever natural influences you've been subjected to to sort of shape that. It means you start out creating an album pretty much the same way you did the last one, but at some point in the process you realise the sounds you're making are completely different.”
Having had a degree of success with their self-released début, the band opted to sign with Club AC30 for their second, a situation that Dan is clearly delighted by. Describing some of the promotional and manufacturing hiccups associated with their first record (“the discs arrived on the first night of the tour, a Thursday, and we had to be in London to give them to Rough Trade and do the 'launch' on the Monday”), he's adamant that “when it comes to AC30, I think the main reason is that they seem to me one of two or three labels that I know of that are genuinely about the music and don't really care about much else.” I ask him how he feels about trading away his control over these areas, about leaving its reception up to the work of others, and he quickly retorts that promotion and sales in the digital age are completely different beasts to the past:
“I don't think there's any direct correlation, you know; the week we had the Neil Halstead gig where Nat [Cramp, owner of Sonic Cathedral] announced the Sonic Cathedral single... that week we had a feature in the MEN, and the Guardian, and were in the 'What's on the NME Stereo'. We had the Neil Halstead show and another good support slot and yet that was the only week in the whole of 2008 that we didn't have a single friend request on Myspace, and we didn't sell anything. Any other week, we might sell two CDs or get fifty friend requests, we got fuck all. I became convinced at that point that it doesn't translate to sales in the way people normally think... anything AC30 can do will be a vast improvement on the situation we had during the time we were self-releasing, and I'll always be incredibly grateful for that opportunity.”
All this talk of AC30 and the newer shoegaze bands prompted another question- since the original scene was before his time, just how did Dan get into this style of music anyway? “It was a bit of a convoluted process, really. I was into ambient as a teenager, and through the Harold Budd collaboration with the Cocteau Twins I finally made the connection to that type of music. Tracing things back, I always responded to sounds that were really ethereal; I remember one time when I was in Exeter aged about eleven or twelve, there was a guy busking on the street with an electric mandolin, and what I now realise was lots of delay or chorus, and I just remember being absolutely entranced. When I heard the Cocteau Twins, it was pretty close to that sound I'd wanted to hear again, for so long. But I was so out of touch with indie music that I thought the Cocteau Twins was 'normal', and I'd do things like put it on at parties. People absolutely hated it! From that, I was recommended the early Verve, and that led to Slowdive... but I came to shoegaze ridiculously late, all things considered; during my second year at uni, so that was 2001!”
Not naming any names, we then moved onto the objective merits of various types of post-rock and shoegaze, and in particular the often-heard criticism that 'it all sounds the same'. Dan pauses, and then surprisingly agrees, qualifying; “one of the reasons why there's so many terrible shoegaze and post-rock bands I think is because people are mimicking the sounds from the past without realising that ultimately there has to be a song there as well. The reason My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive made such an impact at the time was because people hadn't heard sounds like that before. Well, now people have heard those sounds for twenty or twenty-five years, so to make it interesting and bring it up-to-date, you've got to pull those sounds and textures into a more conventional song context.”
Even though he spends a good deal of his compositional efforts on things like “the flow of chords”, as discussed earlier, the general theme of “creating” a song in the studio still pervades talk of the new record, which from what I've heard today is if anything more dense than their first. Dan explains, saying that whilst his approach is one of a songwriter, “the tradition I came out of was ambient music, reading books about the way Brian Eno worked. Building tracks from scratch in the studio was his invention, I suppose, and he advocated it as a strong philosophical-artistic position. Growing up, my school was fifteen miles away from where I lived, so I didn't really socialise with people at weekends. What I actually spent my time doing was teaching myself how to use a four-track and working with effects pedals, making strange ambient pieces. In a basic way, I learned how the studio worked, and that you could get good results from that. I like working in a rich acoustic environment; one of the things I like about this room is that it has its own reverb, a window, birdsong outside... we can record when we're inspired, rather than when we have to. Even if the quality of the recording isn't as good, the quality of the performance makes up for that, and I see it as part of that Daniel Lanois tradition of record production.”
After that, more of a manifesto than an explicit discussion of the new album, it was time to close on what had been a thoroughly enjoyable if exhausting conversation. What then, I asked, did Dan love enough about music to continue?
“Long pause. [laughs] I could do a whole lecture about that, y'know? On a basic level, when it's done well it provides an opportunity to articulate emotions that we maybe not just recognize but didn't realise we had within ourselves, in the same way that sometimes you read a book and the author expresses a sentiment that you've always felt on some level, but have never been able to put into words. I think music does that in a much more effective and poignant way. As somebody who's been, at different points in my life, quite a troubled person, I don't think I could have ended up quite as chilled and relaxed without all this wonderful music to calm me down.”