Interview: I Am Kloot
Published on November 5th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
I Am Kloot front man John Bramwell is not just a great songwriter but also a great interviewee, as Rocksucker found out when we were lucky enough to get to speak to him just before the release of 2010’s sublime Sky at Night LP. Ask a serious question and you’ll get a thoughtful, illuminating reply; ask a more frivolous question and the conversation is likely to be frequently punctuated by an infectious cackle every bit as rasping as his ‘Cheshire Lennon’ singing voice.
The band’s sixth studio album Let It All In, to be released on 21st January, is quite simply defined as yet another wonderful I Am Kloot record, its only blemish being that it won’t be out in time to radiate its warming, glowing properties throughout the darkest depths of winter. It’s as sophisticated, luxurious and utterly human as we’ve come to expect from this three-piece, so we were honoured to once again get the chance to pick Bramwell’s brains…at least once he’d spent the morning out on the bikes with his daughter, and once we had established that we are not, as he thought we were, called Rockfucker…(mind you, ‘Rocksucker’ would have been written as such in old English)…
How was the bike ride?
(Laughs) How rock and roll of me! Hungover? Drug overdose? No, just out on the bikes with my daughter. Yeah it was great, she’s just kind of learning, really.
How did you spend Halloween?
Made some heads out of turnips, hollowed them out and put fireworks in them, in what was a highly irresponsible fireworks display. Also made a rum punch with a West Indian rum.
Were the turnip head firework mounts borne of your own ingenuity, or had you seen it somewhere else?
The pumpkin is an Americanism, you see, and I’m not accepting it. Turnips are what we should be using: they’re far harder to work with, mind you, but they do look a lot scarier because they’re all gnarly, purply and yellowy. We’re not having any of this pumpkin or ‘trick or treating’ nonsense around our daughter, and nor when she grows up is she going to a fucking ‘prom’ either! (Laughs)
Mercury Prize tonight! Who would you like to see scoop the gong? I’m guessing Richard Hawley…
I was just speaking to Richard recently, some very funny stories he was telling me. I’m also good mates with The Maccabees; in fact Felix [White, guitarist] sent me some stuff recently, some instrumental stuff we were going to do for a film, but that’s not happening now so we’re thinking of turning it into something else between us. We [I Am Kloot] have just finished recording our LP, obviously, so this’ll keep me busy over Christmas. I hope that it’s alright to mention that…yeah, it should be alright. (Laughs)
Onto your new album, which is typically wonderful…
Oh, thank you.
…it strikes me so far as having more in common with the first few albums than with Sky at Night, back to sounding like just the three of you again, albeit with some orchestral bells and whistles. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
It most certainly was. I think we’ve just returned to our natural progression, really. In a way, Sky at Night was a bit of a sidestep; a one-off, single-themed, late-night, romantic LP. The songs on Sky at Night built up over a number of years until there was a kind of collection of them, so that one LP is very gentle and orchestrated. There are some moments on Let It All In where I think, “My god, this could actually be on Natural History.” “Mouth on Me”, which funnily enough is a song about me singing about my younger self, sounds like a younger us doing it. It’s a big favourite of mine in rehearsals at the minute.
“I was young and I had a mouth on me”: were you a bit of a lippy kid, as it were?
I was a bit of a wisecracker, I suppose, but it’s to do with not fitting in, really, which is what the song is about. It’s about having craic on the park bench and all that, but adopting a kind of character to fit in when you’re 15.
“The guy on the bus who’s not quite one of us…”?
Yeah, exactly! Him!
On a brief side note, “To the Brink” is probably my favourite drinking song of the last decade, maybe longer. Best since The Divine Comedy’s “A Drinking Song” from 1994, anyway.
Well, we will be doing it on these upcoming gigs and on the tour next year. “To the Brink” is definitely staying in the live set.
When we last spoke, you said that you noticed the thread running through the songs on Sky at Night after you’d written them. Have you had similar with Let It All In?
You know, we’ve worked really hard on this, and this week was the first rehearsals of everything, all the extra musicians in the same room and everything to get ready for these gigs that are coming up, so I don’t think I’ve had enough of a chance yet to sit back from Let It All In to know that. We finished mastering it and since then I’ve not listened to it, so I’ll have to wait until I can put it on and not know the running order, things like that, just let it…
Let it all in?
Ooohhh! You’re on fire, man! I can’t believe I thought you were called Rockfucker. Please put it in the interview!
It’s already in. So, were all the songs on Let It All In written since Sky at Night, or do some of them date back further?
“Masquerade” and “Some Better Day” I’ve had knocking about for a couple of years; well, the first verse and the melody on “Some Better Day”, but I wasn’t happy with the original lyrics I came up with for it, and when that happens I often get stuck. I go for a rewrite, and I always find that difficult, because it’s difficult to get your original thoughts out of your head.
I put myself in a bit of a cul-de-sac for a while with that, then a couple of months ago I was driving along in the car one day and it all suddenly clicked into place, and now they’re my favourite lyrics on the LP. That was around the same time as Sky at Night, so it’s from that batch of songs in a way.
As for “Masquerade”, I actually started coming up with the melody for the verse on that when I was about 18, I just had (der der ders brief snatch of ascending melody which, in isolation from its musical context ,sounds like the start of the Eastenders theme), and that was it! (Laughs) It didn’t have the (der der ders the descending part): that occurred to me sometime in 2011. I really love the middle eight on that song, and that’s something that Pete [Jobson, bass] and I really worked on in a ‘sat down and hammered it out’ kind of way.
The melodies on both of those are very instant for people, I think, and it was important to get things like the middle eight and the lyrics right on them, because they’re so catchy in a way that you’ve got to put some ‘edge’ in songs like that, I always feel, so that’s what happens with the middle eight on “Masquerade” and lyrically on “Some Better Day”.
You say “Masquerade” started life when you were 18. Would that have been around the time you recorded You, Me and the Alarm Clock?
Yeah, it was around then. I have a cassette copy of me putting random lyrics to that melody, the (der ders the ascending line again). I used to sing a different melody after that which I was never happy with, and it actually came about because my mate who kind of taught me to play guitar was showing me open guitar tunings; I changed the tuning on my guitar, and the next time I picked it up I’d forgotten that I’d done this, tried to play something else and it came out with that [the ascending melody line], which is just a simple scale actually.
I’m looking forward to playing it live. We’re not going to release it as a single because it’s just too single-ish, in a way, but it’s one of those songs that people hear and go, “Wow, what’s that?” You only need to hear it the once.
What brought on the recent reissue of You, Me and the Alarm Clock, and how do you feel about it all these years later?
It was me, I instigated it; we pressed up two thousand copies, and I wanted people to hear it. The Guardian did an article about three years ago called “The 10 Best Albums You’ve Never Heard” and listed it in there, so since that article people have been asking. It’s not been a big release or anything, just been made available, and it was important to do it at a time when we weren’t doing any Kloot gigs or records. I’m not about to be doing something on my own so it was good to release it. It’s what, twenty-eight years old or something? I dunno.
Would you be able to articulate how you’ve honed your craft since then, or how your approach to songwriting may have changed over the years?
I always had the melody, the words and often the chords coming to me all in one go, or I’d sit down and work out the guitar parts – that was when I was in my teens – but the chief thing is how Andy, Pete and I play together now. I can play any kind of thing and we lock into a kind of Klootish way of doing it almost straight away. When we first started playing as the three of us, we could tell there was definitely something there that we could do that we’d not been able to do with other people before musically, and now it’s really second nature for us so we’re able to concentrate on a lot of different aspects of the performance of the songs, the dynamics between power and gentleness, what you can do with those two parameters.
That has also gone into my head when I’m writing, in a way, so I’m writing not necessarily with the band in mind, but the band have affected me so that what I write is already Kloot-filtered. I think I’m very much wearing my influences on my sleeve on You, Me and the Alarm Clock – you can hear Aztec Camera and Roddy Frame, Billy Bragg and The Smiths in there – and I wrote a lot of those songs when I was 15/16.
How did you come up with the string and brass arrangements on Let It All In?
They come from guitar riffs. On “These Days of Mine”, the (imitates twiddly string part), and the string kind of electric guitar solo on “Hold Back the Night”, you know (enthusiastically imitates that one too), that was on guitar too. Pete really did that, along with Guy [Garvey, front man of Elbow]. We’ve been using strings since the second LP, actually, and I’ve just always worked them out as guitar parts initially. So then you have either the cello or the violin playing the same line as the guitar, and the rest of the quartet is usually playing one harmony underneath, and a second and third harmony on top, so it’s basically chordal harmonies over melodies that were initially come up with on guitar. I think people think it is just strings there but we thought we mixed it in a way that was kind of like “there’s electric guitar there with it, can you get it?”. It’s kind of fizzy strings.
I think we’ll probably just be using guitars for the live shows, because I think what’s what we need to do after all that lushness on Sky at Night. We need to be quite direct, which can be just as beautiful, and then of course it turns really quite edgy and powerful, so we’ll be doing that.
I was browsing the I Am Kloot forum on your website, and there’s some speculation on there that you scrapped a load of material before completing Let It All In, which seems to have been arrived at due to the timings of various quotes about how the album was coming along. Is there anything to this?
Yeah, I saw that. The main holdup was Moolah Rouge, where we recorded Play Moolah Rouge, Gods and Monsters and most of Sky at Night, they actually went into liquidation while we were there at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. The sessions got curtailed by that, so we tried a studio in Blackburn, and although it was a great studio we were just doing too much travelling. The great thing about Moolah Rouge for us was that we could rehearse there, and when we had something new – and this is what happened with “Hold Back the Night”, which I think is why it sounds so great fresh – we could just go there and record it straight away.
That was the beauty of Moolah Rouge: we could literally pop down the corridor and ask if we could have the studio for two hours, and that kind of luxury is obviously really helpful. The studio in Blackburn was great but we hadn’t settled in there properly, we got a bit lost, so then it was just a question of waiting for Airtight Studios in Chorlton to become available, because that’s the other place we’ve used in the past, but they were really booked up at the time because nobody was anticipating Moolah Rouge going into liquidation.
While we waited for it to become available, I wrote three or four other songs that I really liked: this is when I wrote “These Days are Mine”, and when I finished “Masquerade” as well. If there’s a delay then we do tend to come up with other stuff, and I wouldn’t say the stuff we did up in Blackburn will be scrapped; it just wasn’t right, we got on a bit of a downer with it and we had all the new material. You’re always kind of more ‘up’ when you’re trying newer stuff.
So you intend to resurrect the Blackburn stuff at some point?
Yeah. There are usually two or three songs on an LP that were begun during the previous LP, but we didn’t quite nail it, or there’s something not quite right.
I was wondering if that was the case with “Even the Stars”, for obvious reasons.
Yeah, we’ve been playing that for a number of years and have tried recording it in many different ways; I think we’ve finally found one that works in a Kloot way. There are some more exciting live versions of it that we’ve done, but when we tried recording it previously it didn’t work. Yeah, I forgot about “Even the Stars”; it must be three years old or so. I think we’ve gigged it twice and tried it out constantly, because we’ve always loved the song but have never been able to get it right for audio. I think we have now, though. I think it’s quite haunting.
A couple of more frivolous questions for you now, stemming from our previous chat. Have you started using the Edirol voice recorder that Guy Garvey gave you?
(Laughs) It was stolen, and I remember telling Guy about it, but I can’t remember the circumstances now. However, I have now got to grips with an Apple Mac which I now do all my demos on very easily. It’s quite handy. The Edirol’s been surpassed!
How was your solo set at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival?
I loved it. Phil Jones, the director of it, put me on for one of my first ever gigs, supporting John Cooper Clarke when I was about 17. It was great, we had a great turnout in St Ann’s Square; I was a bit worried as it got a bit thin during the afternoon, but apparently we had about fifteen hundred people there. When we tour now with I Am Kloot is is quite a full-on thing – we go out for eight months of the year, and that’s what we’ll be doing very soon – so it is nice for me and important for me to do these things. I’ve been keeping my hand in with a gig every month or so: I’ve been up to Hebden Bridge, I’ve been over to Ipswich, out-of-the-way kind of places, and finished off with the Food and Drink Festival.
I enjoyed it; I mean, I had a lot of free food, and a lot of free rum from the Liars Club. (Laughs) I had a car crash on the way there, actually! We were in a traffic jam on the M6 and got hit by this guy going very, very fast, which wrote our car off. So it was a little bit weird when we got there, but a couple of rums and we were alright.
If there’s ever a time to be spoiled with free food and drink, it’s after a car crash.
Yeah, we had a really great night, even though the car had gone!
Back to the subject of touring: does it get more wearying the more you to it, or do you learn how to cope with it better each time?
Cor, we’re raring to go, can’t wait to get in the van! It’s been the longest time that we’ve not toured in our twelve years, ’cause normally we’d tour every year. The thing that buggers you up is that there’s no way you’ll be able to get to sleep just after a gig, so you’re up pretty late and inevitably you’re going to be drinking because normally – touch wood – it’s a buoyant atmosphere and everybody’s in a great mood.
Travelling six or seven hours every day is actually more tiring than you’d imagine, because you’re just sat down, but weirdly it does take it out of you. It’s probably just the late nights, isn’t it? And not having a normal day at home at any time. (Laughs) But I’m not complaining in any way! When I get back I just sit down, read and don’t talk very much for a couple of days, and then I’m alright.
This is what we set out to do. I think that the real great communication that music can make is at a gig, but I’m weirdly still miles out of step with what people think about people who are in bands; for me, the record is the way of introducing your music to people, but the gig is the actual thing.
Your songs lend themselves to a communal experience, too: ‘everyman’ singalongs but not in an Oasis/Embrace kind of way, more candlelit and intimate than that, more refined. It’s got that drunken romanticism that everyone wants to get swept up in, sing along to…
…and disappear for two hours, yeah. I know I do! (Laughs)
Last time, we spoke about about celebrity I Am Kloot fans and you mentioned a newsreader whose name you couldn’t remember. Could you name him now?
Erm…thinning hair…got a bit of a widow’s peak…there’s a great outtake of him pulling a really strange face because he didn’t know he was on camera…
Was he commenting on Ann Robinson?
Yeah, that’s it! There’s another one, too: the cricketer Graeme Swann was on Steve Lamacq’s Round Table recently, and he’s a big fan. We won the Round Table thing quite massively, actually, completely dominantly. Jarvis Cocker said that the song should be the new James Bond theme (laughs), and Tony Christie was a big fan of it, but Graeme Swann was going on about Sky at Night. If he can find the time and wants to do it, [the actor] John Simm will be in our next video as he’s a fan. There’s a guy from Teachers too…erm…
(Checks Wikipedia) Andrew Lincoln?
Andrew Lincoln. We played Shepherd’s Bush Empire a few years back, it was a great gig; I went to the guest area loo afterwards and Andrew Lincoln was there at the urinal, absolutely leathered, as was John Simm next to him. Andrew Lincoln turned to me and said (enthusiastically), “It was great, wasn’t it? The songs, brilliant! I loved it!” Then he walked out. The gig had only finished ten minutes before, but he was so fucking wankered he didn’t recognise me! (Laughs)
(Returning to an earlier question, having had time to mull it over) I think the theme going through the album…this is why it’s called Let It All In: the music feels very ‘clear’ on this record, the way we’ve produced it as well, there’s a kind of clarity to it. It is a gentle…it’s like, you know, a lot of things have happened; let it all in, the good, the bad. This is why the line “the future keeps on coming” recurs: it’s in three songs, I think, definitely in “These Days Are Mine” and “Hold Back the Night”. It’s kind of an embracing of the future.
Those are the first two singles, as well. I keep thinking, “When is someone going to say something about there being the same lyric in both songs?” One is a slightly fearful look into the future, the other one is very optimistic with the same lyric. Often when I write songs around the same time as each other, the lyrics can cross over, and I’ve decided that’s not such a bad thing, quite good even, having a theme every now and again.
John Bramwell, thank you.