Published on September 9th, 2016 | by Stevie Lennox0
R51 – No Chill EP Premiere & Interview
R51 are amongst the hardest working bands on the island right now; they’re taking this seriously. Falling broadly into a nu-gaze sound without ever losing sight of their carefully crafted & thoughtful pop sensibility, they’re a five piece with all the right components. In the studio, they’re all about pop perfection and live, it’s a padded mallet of sound.
They’re led by the power coupling of frontwoman Mel Shannon’s soaring vocals – also band photographer & craftsperson – and lyricist & guitar wizard Jonny Woods – who records & produces everything in their studio – with the punk edge coming from Belfast’s most energetic drummer, Matty Killen – who doubles as the videographer – bassist Anton Hughes, backbone of their live show – and electronic, guitar & textural maestro Aaron Black. So, it’s fair to say they’re a self-sufficient bunch, having been the only truly independent band to play the Ulster Hall for Across The Line’s 30th Anniversary show just this Monday, as well as the Reading & Leeds Festivals last year.
Having been around in various guises for around a decade under the R51 banner, they released their debut EP, and first release with their current lineup for Pillow Talk last year. Stevie Lennox sat down with Jonny, Mel & Aaron for a chat and track-by-track rundown to accompany the premiere of their new EP, No Chill, out on Monday and available to order on Bandcamp. As Pillow Talk was to early singles ‘Slowhound’ & ‘Boxkite’, No Chill sounds like the logical pression for the band in being lyrically and musically a more focused and astute iteration of what they had been before.
How has the EP come to be?
Jonny: Most of it was knocking about during Pillow Talk, so it was actually really old, but we didn’t really begin recording it and arranging it until January this year, and I just couldn’t write lyrics. I had a really bad block and couldn’t do anything. We were constantly working and always recording and writing, but everything I did I hated, so I binned it. There was a lot of undo & delete happening for about 6 months, so a lot of songs were instrumental up until February or March. But ‘Elephant’ was the first one I finished and was pleased with, so it was kind of the one that sums up the EP the best.
Do you know what caused your writer’s block?
Jonny: I can’t really explain it. I don’t usually have overriding concepts; lots of things in your life fuel what you write about. The most important things to you one day are different the next day, especially when you’re dealing with a lot more shit in your head. So your brain’s just not able to focus, and I couldn’t just think of a concept I liked. None of my ideas felt important enough or ‘part of me’ enough to be part of a song. So, by the end of writing a song I’d be like “What does this mean to me? It means fuck all, fucking delete it. I’m not letting people hear something that means nothing.” You know, it has to be important.
When I was going through the worst of it, a mate sent me a quote from Leonard Cohen along the lines of: “Do you enjoy writing songs? Fuck no. I hate it, because you write a really nice chord progression and you spend the rest of your life fucking crawling around the living room in your underwear trying to find the words for it.” It’s horrible, it’s a horrible experience, but it’s the only thing I’m convinced I can do. But when I have gotten there in the end, it’s like I have actually accomplished something. People who climb mountains, y’know…it’s hardly the same, but it is, you know what I mean?
So ultimately, it’s a thin line between caring too much and caring too little?
Jonny: Even right up until the mastering we were trying to find a problem with a word Mel just hated, and it was right up until it was nearly post-master before we ended up fixing it. When I listen to it again after all these months of working on that EP, I go “Yeah, the whole time I was singing about not caring and the whole time it was because I cared far too much about this record, which is why I was a mess for 6 months, and I know I’ll probably be like that on every record I do, I know I will. But for sure, Elephant’s a gentle reminder of that, and people actually kind of like it, which is the big part about it. I mean, as a song personally it was a big deal to me, but it seems to be that some other people think it was a big deal too, in a way. So that meant it was like “Ok, chill”. Just trying to not overthink it’s the hardest thing.
That said, I have to constantly be aware “you write songs”, all the time I’m thinking: “oh, that could be a lyric, that could be a lyric” and you think of a nice set of words, and you go “there it is”. It’s the moment where you both remember to remember that you need to write lyrics, and you remember or realise that’s a good lyric, and when you connect those 2 together, that’s amazing. The other day I was walking down the street, a thing popped into my head and it really affected me and it was very sensitive or important to me and I at that moment remembered I was working on a new song, and “Shit! Shit!”
When you start overthinking it, your life just gets shit. You should care less about things, that 100%, that’s what it is. I think it’s a healthy thing to abstract yourself from reality. “Nothing to do with me, man. That’s your shit, nothing to do with me.” I think all the coolest stuff we’ve ever done has been accidental. It just occurred. Well, it feels accidental, I’m sure lots of things happened to make it be what it is, but it always just seems to happen, the song just becomes a thing. And when you start singing over your riff that you wrote with your mates, you sort of come up with this other melody because your brain does something weird when your right hand’s doing another thing, and then it…happens.
It sounds like you like the idea of the suffering artist – do you torture the band for your art?
Aaron: No, but he constantly thinks he’s torturing us. The amount of apologies that have just been completely unnecessary over the course of the EP has been ridiculous
Mel: “I’m wasting your time everyone, go away. I’m so sorry.”
Jonny: Fuckin’ ‘ell. Yes. There you go, there’s your answer. I don’t really like suffering.
Mel: We don’t enjoy seeing you suffer.
Jonny: But I really like the end result of sticking it in people’s faces with this really cool thing that we’ve done, or think we do anyway. I’m convinced we have never been better live, ever. We are finally getting to that real, so it’s one of those few ones that makes it totally worthwhile going through the nightmare of making things fit together right, because you go out and fucking stick it in people’s faces, like “Fuck, look at this song!”
So, eventually things came together and you’re writing at speed again. What triggered that? Have you got a got a usual creative process?
Jonny: Elephant triggered it. We finished the vocals for it that night and I was like “Holy shit, I think I’m getting better”, then wrote Flesh shortly after, and everything else started coming, and so we released it. It felt like we hadn’t released anything in forever so it was nice to get something out. Aaron’s idea was that we push really hard and just keep working, and Dave [mentor] just said if you’re feeling it, just keep going, so we’re working on 2 tracks loosely while we’re releasing this one. The other stuff we just want to do it quicker than before and release it in January. We’re working on a riff at the minute that we all love. When it comes to writing it, it’s just a load of us in a room writing riffs. Very rarely does someone come in with a riff, it just happens in the room between each other.
Aaron: Even if that happens though, it’s never really a song until we’re all in one place at one time. You go in expecting one thing and something entirely new comes out.
Jonny: And then of course, it’s nothing until Mel’s on it, absolutely nothing in comparison. We did a cover of Damien Rice for Across The Line’s Anniversary at the Ulster Hall, and we had all worked on the instrumental of it for ages and were all thinking “This is sort of alright but it’s kinda shit and all” and then she starting singing on it, and I remember Matty, me and Anton just looking at each other, just like “This is actually a song now!” and I remember specifically, Matty’s mouth hanging open and he started hitting the drums even harder. It’s only 50% when it’s instrumental. If you talked to 16 year old me I’d argue with that, but definitely it’s nothing without concise lyrics.
The system we have is that we jam as a band, we generally record everything live then at the end, we ask ourselves “is this good enough to be an actual song?” and then we’ll riff out a few times and sing through a PA and I’ll come up with some shit melodies, and then eventually when we come to actually record vocals, Mel will hack them apart. So like, if I have a bunch of things that I’ve written down, I’ll know by the look of Mel’s face when I show her the lyric that that’s a shit lyric, or she will say “that’s not very good”, so fundamentally, Mel would heavily edit the 100 words down to 10, then of course then I will go mental over those 10.
With as much pressure as you put on yourself, you obviously have a greater goal in mind. How do you see your own music, and is there an endgoal in sight?
Jonny: We would like to justifiably go out and do 50/60 gigs over the course of a short period of time and everybody gets the picture of just “this is what we can do all the time”. Live is our thing, and even if you don’t love the record or anything, we’d think that if you saw it live, you’d probably enjoy it. I wish I could do a Cheap Trick. I think a perfect life is actually me trying to do a Cheap Trick.
Cheap Trick are a very important band to me because on record, they had pretty minor success with pretty pastiche pop songs by any standards, but Live At Budokan, they turn into this band who are heavy, playing big guitar riffs, and when I heard Live At Budokan as a kid I was a teenager and just went “Fuck that”. But as an adult, listening back to it made me realise that Cheap Trick weren’t just some pop band from the 70’s going into the 80’s, these guys were actually going out and playing tighter than anyone I’ve ever heard, and really well, and what happened was they released Live At Budokan and I Want You To Want Me‘s live version became the more successful version over the recorded one, so their live version became this popular thing. You have to give them a reason to come out and see you, like. You don’t want to play it exactly the same – you want to give them a purpose to go out and see you because they don’t know what they’re there for.
There’s also that glass ceiling in Belfast where you can only play that same venue x amount of times, so we’re trying to do as many live gigs as possible across the planet. So that’s the next step, really. We hope that if we go out and tour a lot, people will come. Y’know, as huge and as crazy as Dave Grohl is, there was an interview Matty sent me a while ago where someone asked him: “What advice do you have for a bunch of guys in a garage writing songs?” and he said “Just fucking go out and play live and be good at it. Don’t worry about management, merch, booking, any of those people. Just go out and play live and it’ll come. When they see you live and they understand what the picture is, they’ll get it. Just don’t worry about anything else and you beat the shit out of your kit, and you come off and you go “I was really good at that, and people said it was really good” and the rest of it will follow regardless of what genre you’re in or how many dudes are on the stage with synths. Matty sent that to me and I was like: “Fuck man, I know.” Going out and playing is the thing. All the business stuff is so not the thing.
In terms of recording, a record or a song is just a snapshot or picture of where you are, so if anything, it’s trying to create a good snapshot of where you are, and worth people going out of their way to just give it the 3 minutes that it is, and what happens after that you have no real right to have an opinion on because it’s up to everyone else. As much as you’d love to be the conceited artist and say that it changes everybody’s lives and you want to change the world with it, it’s not fair because so does every other artist want to do that. So really, when you create something, you just hope that the 3 minutes that it takes is worth that to people, and you can survive continually doing that as much as you can before you croak.
Stream R51’s No Chill EP
A song that was a head-clearing moment. Written about apathy and how caring too much about stuff is a cause for unhappiness for us so letting go of stuff a little is important, it was the realisation I personally needed to write again after a creative block. I don’t function particularly well if I care about things, because when I care, I have a worse time being alive than just trying not to care about them. I think if I care less about things it helps me get by a bit better, so it’s like my function.
And so, as a band, even when we’re hanging out with each other, is “nobody has any world view about anything particularly important” – do we? We all just like hanging out with each other and being assholes, so we just be assholes with each other. There are 2 tracks on here which contain the best lyrics I’ve ever written. ‘Elephant’ is one, as hammy as occasionally it can be and as laid-on-thick as it can be, what I think, you know?
2. A Perfect Life
Played live on the record, it was a few riffs that were kicking about for a while as home demos in various guises. It was a very quickly put together when everyone was together, and our first couple of times playing it live, it went down fabulously so we decided to record it live, and dub vocals after.
Aaron and I tend to get excited about noises that come from little boxes, and this one came about from a combination of a noisy little effects box and the desire to write something a little old-school. It’s a song about feeling like you’re as hopeless as a kid and a little evil at at once.
Jonny: This was always going to be an instrumental track that Matty & I had put together which Aaron had put some nice floaty guitars on top of, and it was always going to be an instrumental because it was hard enough getting everything else written by the time I was getting over the block I had. Then whenever I did have it, I was like “This deserves lyrics”, and right at the same time, my parents had their wedding anniversary, and my present to them was supposed to be – from everybody else – to give them a copy of their old, mouldy 1986 VHS across onto DVD, which I fucked up and didn’t do on time, typically.
But then, as I was doing it, I had to fight and fight to get the fucker to work, and it kept being black & white or having a screwed-up framerate – it didn’t look right. So, eventually, I got it working, and it came in full colour on my TV in my flat. It was just this full colour, my parents at my age, and it was trippy as fuck. And that’s what the lyrics are about: my parents, and I look like my mum, so it’s really weird seeing 25-30 years ago, version of me, totally having no clue about life just like me.
Mel: In a dress.
Jonny: In a dress.
A song about being extremely hungover and doing it to yourself over and over again. Recorded live, it’s really just R51 having fun in a room with some mics.
The studio version of a song that is monstrously big live. Was fundamentally from chords written by Aaron and sent to the band from a mobile phone recording. We got really excited about it and recorded a real lush, delicate studio version. After a few weeks of adapting it live we ended up with a big monster of a track that we play to close our set, which is also recorded but we chose to include this “chill” version of it for the NO CHILL EP. Incidentally, it was written around the time of Elephant, when I sort of thought I was getting a little better.
Physical copies of No Chill – limited to a run of 100 – will be available here.