Love this band! Or hate them. Whatever. They’re not gonna beg it
At the top of the Wikipedia entry for prog-rock, there’s a sign in a box. “The neutrality of this article is disputed“, it says. Underneath, there are two further signs in boxes, one asking for a few more citations, the other suggesting, in a beautiful stroke of unintended irony, that the Wikipedia entry for prog rock might itself might be a bit rambling and self-indulgent: “This article needs copy-editing for style, cohesion and tone”, says the notice. It may as well say, “Be warned: this way lies breathless, fanboy enthusiasts who’ve played all the King Crimson LPs backwards to check for secret messages” because, like the best Wiki pages, it’s a joyous mess – full of passion, vagueness, unsolicited opinion and bickering.
But roll back the edits a few dozen times and it gets better. Some punk (probably an actual punk) has replaced the entire entry with the simple but effective, “Prog rock is pompous, pretentious, overblown bollocks played by effeet [sic] southern wankers with mullets.” And in the edit before that, under the section about neo-prog, someone has made mention of some new band called Youthmovies.
While it’s unlikely that our vandal’s actions were triggered directly by Youthmovies’ appearance on the page, it’s quite believable that a group like this could prompt a riot among the more solemn prog-rock communities: while ostensibly prog – long songs, ever-changing time and key signatures – Youthmovies make a point of eschewing proggy muso-elitism.
“None of us listen to our stuff and think, ‘wow, that’s really complicated – people are going to get a real cerebral kick out of that one’,” explains lead singer Andrew Mears, almost apologetically. “There’s really not a massive amount that’s intentional about what we do. I guess it’s just a predisposition – none of us have any musical training, so we just play what comes most naturally.”
And in the five years since the band formed “from a lack of anything else to do”, what has come naturally is a series of mini-albums that guitarist Al English describes as “statements of intent with as many ideas crammed in as possible” – the most recent gloriously entitled ‘Hurrah! Another Year, Surely This One Will Be Better Than the Last; The Inexorable March of Progress Will Lead Us All to Happiness’ – and, last month, a full-length LP, ‘Good Nature’, which English describes as “the sound of us drawing stuff out, being more simplistic, with the space to get everything just right”.
However, if there’s one thing ‘Good Nature’ ain’t, it’s simplistic. In fact, on first listen, it’s chaos. Mantras and drones, mood swings and slogans, euphoria, depression, anger and terror – all often simultaneously – combine to make a teenager’s bedroom of a record, where stuff is all over the floor, spilling out of drawers and pinned to the wall, as instantly navigable by its creator as it is hectic to its observer. And at 61 minutes, you need a stern constitution to survive it in one sitting, something which doesn’t seem to bother Mears. “None of us really think about length of albums. If it feels right to play a song for eight minutes, I don’t see why we shouldn’t.”
For the player, maybe. For the Youthmovies listener, however, what’s required is an element of blind trust that all this pissing about with song structure isn’t just a great big joke. The first test of faith is the album’s opening four minutes: nothing but pure, swirling drones, with not a hint of a song on the horizon. As far as debut albums go, it’s a pretty fuck-you beginning. “We’re not chest-poking or anything,” insists Andrew. “We just like drones, we tried some out, and it ended up as the first track on the album – it’s no more convoluted than that.”
But Al admits he likes the idea of the confrontation. “People perceive us as these po-faced, pretentious kids, and so it’s funny to us to start a record with four minutes of drones that they’ll bitch and moan about.” He shrugs his shoulders. “People can skip it if they don’t like it.”
However, people would do well to leave the skip button alone, because with repeated plays, as a complete record, considerable magic appears within ‘Good Nature’s’ mayhem and little by little the fog lifts until – whisper it, prog fans – something of a concept emerges.
I suggest to Andrew that the whole album seems to be about finding beauty in the decay of living things, from teenage relationships to an asthma sufferer’s lungs. “Yeah,” he hmmms. “The album’s pretty much just girls and apocalypse. But there’s no deliberate concept. It’s supposed to be quite playful, not too earnest.”
While this may be the intention, in reality, ‘Good Nature’ is about as playful as it is simplistic: surrounded by such complex music, themes of degeneration and loss become pretty serious stuff.
“If people want to take it seriously and get something from it, then great,” Andrew insists. “And if ‘playful’ is singing about going to McDonalds, wearing the same jeans every day and being hard-up, that’s not us. Our lives are difficult enough as it is – I don’t want to sing about it. I want to run away from it, I want to escape from it. This is our escapism.”
Escapism is important. As Andrew points out, humdrum life in Youthmovies is pretty crap: the charts aren’t exactly crying out for eight-minute epics in 5/4 time, and money, needless to say, is not abundant. “We don’t make a living”, states Andrew, matter-of-factly. “We come back from tour more broke than we started, but that’s fine”.
“And anyway,” he continues, “even if we did try a pop record to make some cash, people would still be like ‘oh, it’s really difficult’, and we’d be just like ‘oh, really?’ That always seems to be the way.”
In fact, the band outlook is modest, pragmatic and very un-prog. “If our future means getting odd jobs and the band working around that, then that’s the deal,” explains Al. “We’ll always be making records. In the end, it’s not difficult to do, it’s just a case of finding the time.”
And what of the next record? “Well, we wanted to do more on this one”, says Andrew, “but we ran out of time. Maybe the next one should be a nice fat double-LP”.
Very prog, I suggest. Al interjects with a sly grin: “Actually the next one is the ‘pop’ album, supposedly, so that, you know, we can sell out – pay the rent, eat, clothe ourselves, glamorous stuff like that,” he jokes. “Good point”, adds Andrew. “For the next album, we really should just bend over and take it.”
Of course, they’ll never do anything of the sort – Youthmovies just aren’t programmed that way, and their dogmatically outsider status is precisely their appeal. When I ask Andrew whether it annoys him that I often skip the middle track on ‘Good Nature’, he’s bullish: “You can do whatever the fuck you want! This record is for us!” And it so clearly is – they don’t need you one jot. But a band making records this densely satisfying doesn’t come along very often, and Youthmovies could well be an investment you might not want to miss.
Youthmovies’ favourite youth movies:
The Jerk (Carl Reiner, 1979)
Andrew: It’s just a really great, heart-warming film. Steve Martin plays this orphan who’s raised by a black family and he doesn’t understand why he’s white. He goes to the big city because he’s discovered some really square music that he really responds to and he makes his millions by inventing a clasp that stops your glasses slipping down your nose.
Moonwalker (Jerry Kramer, Jim Blashfield, 1988)
Al: Jacko at his best. We were quite excited when we were in Utrecht the other night and the guy we were staying with got a crate of beer and put Moonwalker on. Pretty perfect.
Bring It On (Peyton Reed, 2000)
Andrew: We’re all big fans of this. It’s a complete feast for your eyes. It’s a cheerleading thing with Kirsten Dunst, and they do all these fucking ridiculous routines. I generally don’t like her but Bring It On is
Originally published in issue 1 (vol. 2) of Loud And Quiet. May 2008