audiobooks: this is awkward

The art-pop weirdos and their creepy, catchy bangers are back – and it all started when Evangeline Ling rocked up at David Wrench's studio, unannounced, in her pyjamas

It’s hard enough to call someone you’ve met at a party when you want to sleep with them; when you just want to be mates, a vast majority of us do the right thing and forget it ever happened. I’ve met people at weddings I’d take a bullet for by the speeches, only to be unsure that they knew my name the following day. Not Evangeline Ling, who met David Wrench at a party in 2018. The next morning, she turned up at his studio unannounced. A producer and mixer of Frank Ocean, David Byrne and The xx, Wrench was typically busy, and so Ling amused herself playing with a modular synth. When he heard what she was up to, he joined in and they started making music together. The day after that, Ling was back, in her pyjamas, having travelled from her home in south west London to Wrench’s studio in the east, too excited to bother getting dressed. “I guess you could call it a creative bond,” she says. 

It’s a story that perfectly sums up not only the two members of audiobooks but their music, too. 

Ling and awkwardness are lifelong accomplices. “It’s where my humour’s at,” she says. “Anything awkward gets me laughing, and sometimes I’ll purposefully draw up that awkward vibe knowingly, because I’m just enjoying it.” It’s how you get to meeting someone at a party and arriving on their doorstep the following day. But it’s also how you write a song like ‘Grandma Jimmy’, where a sleazy pensioner drives her sons-in-law to the beach on a quest to photograph them in their Speedos. Uncomfortable situations (and unsavoury characters) are what make audiobooks songs audiobooks songs, and Ling’s lyrics intensely, mischievously and brilliantly her own. They’re completely surreal, too, like a young woman travelling an hour across town in her pyjamas.      

Wrench is Ling’s enabler, and in more ways than one. A veteran musician and producer, he has the studio, the gear and the chops to make all of audiobooks’ music, and for it to be as varied and psychedelic as it is. But more important than that, he’s on the same spontaneous page as Ling. He opened the door to her in the first place, and once she was inside he encouraged the pair of them to play with the type of freedom that no one ever actually does. He says: “It was like, if it feels good, just don’t question it too much.”  

For their 2018 debut album, Now! (in a minute), they ran with the idea, aggressively sticking to a first-take rule and improvising much of the finished record. It ended up a weird and wild listen; hilarious, unique and a constant riddle; a collection of easy-to-dance-to pop songs and hard-to-explain spoken word odysseys, with a couple of spacey numbers thrown in that were too long to be considered interludes. There was ’80s synth-pop indebted to the Human League, an autotuned lounge/R&B track that featured the line “eating mussels, staring at your muscles”, Italo disco, dub, industrial and two songs about periods. It was crackers. And even when it didn’t completely work, its inherent weirdness remained its brilliance. 

“It captured a moment,” says Wrench when I ask him and Ling how they feel about the album now. “It was such a different process. I listened to it about a year ago for one of Tim’s [Burgess] listening parties, and thought, ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as I remember it being.’”

“It was very honest, I think,” says Ling. “Everything we said in interviews before was completely the truth. Things were first takes: my lyrics were just what came out in the moment. 

“I sometimes look back at that record and think, woah, I can’t believe we had the balls to go with that option! We went with whatever was happening…” Ling gasps for air for laughing, not for the last time. “… and I look back at those things we were saying yes to, and we were nuts! My lyrics in ‘Dance Your Life Away’, where I’m shouting about getting my legs waxed…” She howls at the thought of the song – a free-wheeling Moroccan bazaar jam that has her growing more and more hysterical as it noodles on. If she’s enthusiastic at the point of “Dyson Dyson Dyson Dyson Dyson hoovers in her hotel / Henry Hoover / Oh move over / Move over Henry Hoover”, she’s unhinged by her screams of, “We’re gonna go get our legs waxed / And our armpits waxed / And our vaginas waxed / YEAH!”. It’s the clearest example of her improvising her lyrics and the pair of them having too much fun to think twice. And this became one of the album’s singles.

Ling calls it their “primary school”, and notes how strange and vulnerable the situation was, “to form a friendship where the thing that you do when you hang out is make music.” Wrench says he didn’t want to be in a band at the time and kept suggesting how all of this could be Ling’s solo project; how she could take it on the road with a group of other players. But no, she wasn’t having it. “And that was a whole different trip,” she blurts, “– how people reacted to us live! We didn’t understand how we looked live. It’s quite extreme; me with my dark hair, and he’s got this white hair. We didn’t orchestrate it, obviously, because it was quite…” Once again, she runs out of air. 

When we asked audiobooks if they had any ideas of where they’d like to be photographed for this cover story, an email came back that said: “Would an alpaca farm in Norwich be out of the question? Or astroturf?” An alpaca farm in Norwich was absolutely not out of the question, but eventually a lot more Covid-impossible than a deserted Crystal Palace athletics stadium in south London. 

I met Ling and Wrench nearby for dinner, who both greeted me like an old friend. Later, we walked to the stadium, where the video for their new single, ‘The Doll’, was partly shot, and where Wrench had visited from Wales as a boy in the ’80s with his father (a weightlifter turned track teacher) to watch Daley Thompson compete. Aged eight, Ling had run here herself, in a disastrous 200-metre sprint, a few steps into which she tripped over. She picked herself up just in time to watch the other kids running across the finishing line. Then she started a long walk after them – it’s a story she enjoys telling as much as Wrench and I enjoy hearing it. 

“Well, I never in a million years expected I’d be back here doing a photo shoot,” she laughs as we step onto the track. “In heels!” And definitely not with audiobooks – a project that both of its creators predominantly consider an accident. “I was living in the moment when I was with David and just going with the flow,” she says. “I didn’t for one minute think it would progress into a serious thing, just that I was going to learn a lot from this guy, and, y’know, he’s got all the gear!”

Painting was Ling’s thing, and “is still the goal in my head,” she says. When she met Wrench, she had just started a degree in fine art at Goldsmiths, and today she works as an artist’s assistant, to painter Alastair Mackinven. The cover of audiobooks’ new album, Astro Tough, has been painted by Ling too, in the style of hangover TV hero Bob Ross and his ‘happy little trees’. The record’s vinyl package will come with a further ten works – one for each song – in case anyone mistakes Ling for a straight-up singer from now on. The same applies to her successful modelling career, which has seen her follow in the footsteps of her elder sister, Bip Ling, since 2014. 

And yet something compels Ling to explore the possibilities (and frivolities) of music. When she first knocked on Wrench’s door, she was already in one unconventional band, no wave group Gentle Stranger. They remain a deeply experimental outfit today, yet Ling still longed for fewer rules and more freedom; to be able to scream we’re going to get our vaginas waxed. “All the ideas I wanted to do [in the band] before, David was just like, ‘Yeah, yeah, just go with it.’” 

She started writing short stories documenting her dreams, only to grow frustrated by how boring they were. “I got so cross about it this other side of my brain said, ‘you know what, Evangeline, you can write whatever you like.’” 

Her stories became her lyrics. Strange stories. Seedy stories. Absurd stories. Funny stories. Definitely funny stories. It’s a brave band that uses humour as much as audiobooks do, and it helps that they don’t take themselves too seriously. (“If I was an animal I’d be an alpaca,” Ling tells me when I ask my burning question, “so I had this fantasy of putting me next to one on the cover of a magazine to show the resemblance. They’re slightly goony and awkward, and I feel this is me.”)  

“But it’s a fine line,” says Wrench, “and we have to continually question if we’re stepping over that line. Maybe there’ll be a track where we write a lyric and we’re rolling around laughing, but then three or four listens in, you realise it doesn’t stand up for very long.”

You could call it good, honest, grubby fun – for the everyday grottiness that coats a majority of Ling’s tales. Especially the ones that are preoccupied with sex, like Astro Tough’s toe-curling peak, ‘Blue Tits’, which starts with the verse: “Heaven / When I’m on the sand, I don’t see sand, I see many tits / When I’m on the cloud, I don’t see clouds, I see tits / When I’m on a boat, I don’t see the sea, I see blue tits / When I’m on the plane, I don’t see people, I see tits / When I’m on the cloud, I see clouds again, but this time they’re bigger, bigger, bigger… tits.” Wrench is a one-man Doors, and Ling a Jim Morrison who no longer believes in metaphors. Morphing into Art Brut’s Eddie Argos, she goes on to disgust herself: “I saw you / Grabbing her mighty bum, near your thumb / And you want to finger her / Urgh / Yuck.”  

“You know those thoughts of, shall I go there? Shall I say that thought that’s just come through my head, or should I keep it back because it’s rude and uncomfortable? I’ve always been someone to verbally process that thought, and I’ve gone there,” she says. “It’s put me in lots of bad situations, socially, but in music it’s got a power to it.”

“You can see it in the audience, because we play that song live quite a lot,” says Wrench. “I can see it – people are thinking, ‘what the fuck is she on about?’, and then they’ll be like, ‘urgh!’, and then they’ll start laughing. It’s quite weird. And by the end they’re on board.” 

‘Blue Tits’ is even too much for its lyricist most of the time. “That’s the one song on the record I have to skip by,” says Ling, “because I’m not necessarily ready to go there, mentally. I can’t even handle it myself.”

Perhaps no one really wants to hear their own voice yelp: “Come on baby, give it to me! / Give it to me raw!”

What’s incredible about Astro Tough isn’t that it’s better than Now! (in a minute), but that it’s better whilst being equally strange and free. Unlike the group’s debut, it wasn’t improvised; they did stop to think twice, and this is the record they’ve gone with, with a title that came from Ling mispronouncing “astroturf”. I get the feeling that in a few years, when they’re asked what they think of it, they’ll be even more surprised at their guts in 2021. 

The tracks on their first album could be neatly labelled either song or story, but their new record makes a point of combining the two. Previously, opening track ‘The Doll’ would have lived out its days as an audiobooks spoken word number with minimal backing, only there to heighten the unease of Ling helping a little girl search for her lost doll. On Astro Tough, though, Wrench lays down some low-end techno that gallops towards Ling’s disembodied chorus chant of “So hard to let (you) go”, and at points overtakes it. What starts out as another surreal, melancholy saga ends up a sunset banger of real-life gravitas. 

“As a whole, it’s quite heavy, this record,” says Wrench. “I know there are moments when it’s quite obtuse, but the overall feeling is something heavy. If there’s a laugh, it’s usually followed by something with a bit more weight.”

A case in point is ‘Trouble in Business Class’, which again makes use of Ling speaking her dejected verses and softly singing a simple, short chorus – this time a blur of “I’m losing you” and “I’m using you”, neither of which are particularly nice, even if they should be expected from a slow exploration into the wipe-clean world of corporate air travel at London’s City Airport. “I smell like a rich man / Dior Homme to be specific,” deadpans Ling at one point, only to later channel the ghost of Bill Sykes and remind us that the neighbouring Olympic Park and surrounding area was once full of plague pits. It just feels like bad news, which is the same for ‘He Called Me Bambi’ – the track Wrench and Ling are most proud of on the album. It’s their take on one of Ling’s favourite songs – ‘Planet Caravan’ by Black Sabbath. You can hear it, too; a song that seems directionless whilst clearly trudging forward in a continual straight line. Ling’s troubled vocals are more audible than Ozzy Osbourne’s, but they slosh around too, and are no easier to make sense of. Wrench’s acoustic guitar strum is zombie-like and relentless, while his drums tumble at the end of every bar. Yeah, I don’t know what, but something bad is on its way. At least the wait is thrilling.        

“I feel like ‘Planet Caravan’ had come and soaked into both me and David,” says Ling. “When you connect sincerely with a feeling and then try to do something that contains that feeling, you’re never going to try to copy it, because it’s come in somewhere into your soul. We were just trying to tap into the space, because if you just try to copy something, you’re not connecting with the feeling of it.”

“I don’t like songs where everything is so literal,” says Wrench. “As long as everything is pulling towards the mood of the song, it doesn’t have to be literal. Not every line needs to drive the narrative, some can just paint pictures.”  

He eagerly points to “Lobsters licking your legs in the outer space” (from ‘He Called Me Bambi’) as the perfect example, although Astro Tough is a goldmine for this stuff, where your favourite riddle of a phrase is likely to change on every other listen. 

“That’s why I like Bob Dylan,” says Ling, who gets bored listening to almost all other lyricists. “In ‘Isis’ when he sings, ‘And the world’s biggest necklace / As we rode through the canyons in the devilish cold’, you think, wow. He’s just singing stuff and going for it. He carries this confidence that’s so bold it stops being about the words on the paper.” 

Audiobooks are similar in that regard. Ling’s fantastical lyrics bear repeating and printing in articles like this one, but until you hear the way she delivers them – from spoilt brat scoff to ghostly warble – you’ll never really understand what all the fuss is about.   

When I first heard ‘Friends in The Bubble Bath’ (from Now! (in a minute)) I was convinced that audiobooks could easily write a straight-up, big-hook pop album if they ever wanted to. They were already close, deploying all the euphoric synth stings of the Pet Shop Boys at the height of their powers. They just chose to fill that perfect song with lyrics about not wanting to sleep with you, actually; Ling just wanted to share a bubble bath, y’know, as friends. 

Almost before I can finish asking them if there’s anything to my hunch, Wrench says: “I’m not sure we could. [Now! (in a minute)] was us trying to make a conventional pop record, and we were so wide of the mark. Radio hated those songs. The feedback was basically, ‘No chance!’”  

For all the descriptors within easy reach – their being hilarious, weird, intense, absurd, and so on – it’s easy to forget about audiobooks’ sincerity. Underneath it all, it’s perhaps their most defining trait, lost in the freedom of how Wrench and Ling operate. 

There is nothing at all ironic in what we do,” says Wrench, “although everyone has their own definition of what is ironic. Humour and fun is as much a part of life as sadness. I think it’s very telling when people dismiss fun and humour in music, or have to classify it as ‘ironic’ in order to appreciate it.

“Also, juxtaposing humour and wry observation with more heavy subject matter is very much part of the vocabulary of folk music,” he says. “It’s an ancient tradition.”

Ling agrees. “But I am not anti-irony either,” she says. “Sincerity and irony aren’t opposites. There is irony in a literal sense in some of the lyrics on the record.”

Radio might not go for Astro Tough either, but for the rest of us there’s a world of musical influences to discover as we pore over Ling’s lyrics. Wrench has mined modern techno, Brazilian music, dub, reggae and, on a bossy stomp fittingly called ‘Driven By Beef’, Captain Beefheart. 

When audiobooks wanted a kosmische banger to play live they came up with ‘Black Lipstick’. It’s the record’s third track that depicts a different stage of a night out. The first is the wild ‘LaLaLa It’s The Good Life’ (the ‘getting ready’ song about ordering Uber XLs). The second is a glistening disco track called ‘First Moves’, where Ling anxiously attempts to navigate the evolving social rules of pulling in a nightclub. It’s the first audiobooks song where she fully sings the whole thing in a breathy high register, and it’s a highlight for it. 

The album ends on audiobooks’ most unexpected move of all, where they make light work of late Beatles balladry on a song called ‘Farmer’. It’s a beautiful, uncharacteristically simple piano song about the important things in life. It’s so different to everything that’s ever gone before it’s impossible to say whether it’s their best track yet. But it is. Probably. 

Think of it as another thing to consider in the world of audiobooks. Or don’t. If there’s one thing Wrench and Ling have taught us, it’s that sometimes the most joy comes from thinking less. As Wrench would say: “If it feels good, just don’t question it too much.”