East India Youth Headlined the Walled Garden Stage at Green Man 2014, Saturday night.
Ever since I saw East India Youth, or William Doyle as his Mum calls him, support Wild Beasts in Bristol’s 02 Academy earlier this year, the inclination to interview him was fortified very sturdily in my head. Having seen the hype about his album Total Strife Forever in gushing reviews on respected fountains of musical knowledge such as Drowned in Sound & The Quietus, I’d listened to some of his work, notably the cathartic house influenced euphoria of ‘Heaven, Too Long’ without ever fully throwing myself into experiencing the album. More fool me, because witnessing it live committed the breadth and ambition of TSF to my mind and I’ve been utterly hooked ever since. In just a 30 minute set, the density of musical ideas was almost baffling. It is really rare to have so many moments of musical revelation, of exhiliration at such well thought out creative brilliance unfolding – on what is ostensibly a debut. Despite being packed with a variety of genres, emotional tones and working at several paces, there are thematic arcs which emerge.
Amongst the droney, almost industrial electronic sounds, neo-classicist motifs build the album into more than the sum of its parts, locating the human amongst the digital noise. It’s what makes the standout moments so transcendent – when Doyle sings “find new love, dripping down your soul” in the harmonic chorus of ‘Dripping Down’, it is so vital as the albums moments of lyrical and musical clarity are beautifully momentary – set against extended, almost overwhelming musical motifs. Aiming to work out what brought about such a brilliant record, I asked Will for his thoughts on the records influences, his approach to playing it live and what’s next.
Q: Just for anyone who doesn’t know, could you say about the circumstances that led to you making Total Strife Forever and how it fed into the feel of the album?
My life was at a crossroads. I’d decided it was the end of my previous band that I’d spent 3 years being involved with and I had a massive backlog of more electronic inclined stuff that I felt more emotionally invested in. Everything was in a huge state of flux around me at this time, both positively and negatively, and the music I was making was a definite reaction to this. Bringing what I had on my hard drive together, stuff I’d been recording for 2 years, and realising that I nearly had a whole album already was a huge revelation and brought with it a great sense of achievement. TOTAL STRIFE FOREVER, to me, feels like it explores both the anguish of the time it was made in but also the feeling of freedom and empowerment of having made it.
Q: For people going to Green Man who’ve maybe not heard the whole album, can you explain the influences and sound behind the more ‘neo-classical/electro’ stuff that forms much of it?
It’s quite a stylistically scatty album. It doesn’t sit in one place for too long. I suppose because it took about 3 years to make that it ended up being that way. There are more instrumental tracks than there are vocals which might be a jarring mix for some people. The album moves through minimalist and neo-classical, to techno, krautrock, synth-pop.
Q: Even though there’s a lot of ideas and genres on TSF, they do seem to tie together somehow – Aside from the Total Strife Forever songs, was there any overall theme or idea that emerged as you were making the album?
I don’t really know if there was. There’s a certain atmosphere in my mind when I look back on the album, but I think that’s all been retrospectively formed. I guess there’s certain emotions that come through on the whole thing, a feeling of isolation, but also euphoria crops up quite a bit too. It wasn’t my intention to make a concept album or anything, but there was a certain degree of work put into the sequencing of the tracks to make sure there was some thread to hang onto in light of all the erratic shifts going on over the course of it.
Q: I was really pleased when I saw you reference Age of Adz as one of your favourite albums – is there something similar in the full-on almost overwhelming nature of the music and emotion on that record that you wanted to invest in TSF in your own way?
Absolutely. It was a huge influence on the album. It’s one of the most intensely emotional albums I’ve heard in recent years. I loved the almost ridiculous grandiosity of the arrangements. I definitely wanted that to be something that came across in the sound of my album. The way I always thought about it was that sometimes your emotions are these imperceptibly massive things to you, but really, in the grand scheme of everything and everyone around you, you and and your emotions are so small. That dichotomy is something I feel like is explored on Age of Adz, and a few other albums like it. This little voice versus this huge feeling.
Q: What did you mean when you said you had to work against your instinct whilst making the album – was that to get yourself in the right songwriting headspace to get down ideas?
I’d just been so used to being ‘a songwriter’ for a few years leading up to this that I’d started to develop conventions that I would rest upon and that I would use to take lazy routes out of creative problems. One of the main examples of working against my instinct was the removal of vocals or the need to sing over every shred of music made. That simple subtraction created entirely more emotional results both in the lack of singing but also the carefully selected moments where it was necessary.
Q: Was it similar when you started to perform it live – did it seem like a natural thing to perform it for you?
Christ, no. I had to rethink everything I knew about performing. It’s been a really interesting challenge developing the live show and my approach to performing this. I think I’ve worked out how to play TOTAL STRIFE FOREVER live now. It’s going to be time to move on and redesign the entire thing again next year. I’m happy with the almost austere look of everything on stage at the moment, but I’m starting to feel shackled by my table I play on. Standing behind it was a defence mechanism when I started EIY, but I’m longing to be free of it now that my confidence has grown.
Q: Has playing more headline sets and festival sets to bigger crowds allowed you to develop the show as you wanted – in terms of sound and visuals?
You learn what makes people tick I suppose. But actually it’s been the support slots that have allowed me to really know how it works. Playing to someone else’s audience is always harder and if you manage to make a connection with someone who has never heard or seen you before then it is those moments that you should analyse. What draws the stranger or the neutral person in? What turns them away?
Q:It was interesting when you said you may just turn your keyboard off and wander over to see Mercury Rev at Green Man, because TSF and Deserter Songs are two albums I’d love to see performed in full. I was listening to Deserter Songs Instrumental versions and it actually made me think instrumental and especially electronic albums often work better when bands play albums in full, which I guess is closer to what you do live. Is showing the album as a whole important when you play live and were there any moments seeing people play live that influenced how you chose to?
If you see your album as a whole body of work in itself and not just a collection of songs that make up a whole, then I think it’s important that you preserve that the best you can. I play my album in a different order live because I’m aware that the dynamics of a live show are wildly different to listening at home with your headphones on. Having said that, I’ve seen very few, if any ‘play your album through’ shows that I’ve been impressed with. The Flaming Lips playing ‘The Soft Bulletin’ was something I was really looking forward to, but it was a massive disappointment. They should have played it start to finish without much talking in between. Wayne Coyne jabbering on in between each song is not how I listen to that album and it ruined the flow of something that I think is near perfect. So in a weird way, I suppose that show influenced me in a strange way. I try to shut the fuck up and get on with it. There’s plenty of time to talk and reflect afterwards but while the show is going on, I want to create an atmosphere and space that I will try to keep unbroken for the duration. It’s a shame I’m going to miss Mercury Rev as they’re playing at the same time as me. I’d be really interested to see how they handle that one. It’s a beautiful album.
Q: How is new stuff coming together – has it been harder to get in a singular mindset as I imagine you might’ve been when making TSF?
I’ve had less accumulative time to make the next album but weirdly I’m nearly finished with it. I think after I’d finished the mastering of TSF and it was a sealed deal, a finished packaged, then the flood gates opened and I was straight into sifting through my massive bank of ideas that I’d been making since I finished the initial tracking and mixing of TSF. I won’t say too much about what I’m working on now but I’m very excited for it. If it all goes to plan it’s going to provide another great year for me.
Q: It’s a generic question I know, but been as there’s a particularly strong lineup at Green Man this year, is there anyone you’re looking forward to seeing (Mercury Rev sadness aside)?
I Break Horses. I really love their last album that came out this year and I don’t think it got the due attention it deserved. Would love to see how they play it live. Caribou. I only saw Caribou for the first time this year, after years of being a fan. It was absolutely mind blowing so there’s no way I’m going to miss that. I might try to watch The War on Drugs if I’m not needed backstage before my set. ‘Under The Pressure’ is one of my favourite songs of the year so it’d be nice to see that in the setting of Green Man. That’s all off the top of my head but I’m really excited for the whole experience generally. It’s one of only two festivals I’m camping at this year (Beacons was the other. 10/10 for that one) so I’m going to make sure I see as much as possible.