Over the past 10 years, metal band Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs have transcended their cult status while proudly sticking to their playbook of heavy doom rock. Playing tour guides to Dominic Haley in their hometown of Newcastle, the band discuss how they became one of the UK’s most loved touring bands, the places that made them, and new, extra dark album Land of Sleeper
“Well, this is it!” exclaims Matt Baty, rocking back on his heels and throwing his arms wide like a Victorian engineer. It’s a grey December afternoon in Newcastle and we’re standing in front of a massive pile of red brick surrounded by a non-descript blue fence. “I’ll admit, it doesn’t look like much now,” laughs the Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs singer, “but this used to be the Star and Shadow, where we played our first gig.”
To the casual observer, we look like a group of men standing and staring at a mound of rubble, but this is, in fact, the second spot of a whistle-stop tour of the places of Pigs’ early years. The band have always been proud of their roots in Newcastle, but it’s only when we walk around the spots that formed the group’s early ecosystem that it becomes clear that when they speak about their hometown, they’re speaking about a very specific area. So far the walk between the bar where they hung out between practices, their first practice studios in the Biscuit Rooms and the site of the band’s first show has taken us all of about ten minutes, but the band have managed to pack in a lot of history nevertheless. From the story about how the thud of the gargantuan metal riffs ended up ruining a cocktail party that was simultaneously happening in their studios, to pointing out a nondescript piece of fence where a cop caught drummer Ewan McKenzie throwing a pizza crust and told him to ‘feed the rats’, it feels like every stretch of the Ouseburn river has a Pigs war story it could tell.
For now, though, we’re here. Six men stood in front of a building site listening as Baty regales us with the story of the show that started it all. Their first gig, back in 2012, was as the first support for Swedish psych band GOAT, on a bill that also included arthouse noise outfit BEAUTY PAGEANT. At the time, Pigs was a side project of sorts, with the various members more committed to playing in Ommadon, Blown Out and Khuunt; dark, emotionally brutal noise bands. According to the band’s retelling, they only played one song that lasted 15 minutes and most of the crowd didn’t pay that much attention.
In retrospect, it was a pretty momentous event for Pigs, and I ask the group if they ever thought they’d be where they are a decade later. Baty looks thoughtful for a second and then answers: “Y’know, I don’t think there was anything behind Pigs beyond being able to play this kind of place. For me, this was always more about seeing what we could do.” He continues: “I can remember in those early days thinking, ‘Imagine if we got to play with GOAT one day? Or play Supersonic festival. We’d have Gnod come through town, and we’d all think wouldn’t it be amazing to play a gig with Gnod? That was it, really. Somehow, we’ve managed to ping-pong our way into doing all these things that are on most bands’ bucket lists.”
“The name is kind of a prime example of that,” agrees guitarist Adam Ian Sykes. “I mean, if we’d ever wanted to do any of this seriously, we wouldn’t have called ourselves Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. I mean, have you ever tried typing that out on a computer?”
While we’re talking about a pile of rubble, guitarist and producer Sam Grant is facing the opposite direction and is attempting to peer inside the building across the street. He rattles the door a couple of times but it remains defiantly locked. It is the middle of a Thursday afternoon, after all. Giving a collective shrug, we move off down the street but the sound of a key being turned in a lock stops us dead in our tracks. The door is now open, and a bearded, ponytailed man is standing at the entrance.
“Howee, lads. Do you want to come in?”
To call Little Buildings an intimate venue might actually be overstating it. Its website claims that its live room can manage 50-60 people, and now that we’re standing in the main room I’m struggling to see how; there’s barely enough room to place a sofa, let alone put on a gig. Somehow, though, a stage and full backline has been squeezed underneath the far wall, and in the opposite corner a sound booth has been tucked into a nook by the door. Gathered in the centre of the room, the members of Pigs look around like they’re viewing a gothic Cathedral while Allan Scorer, the owner, points out features like a proud homeowner.
It’s a place that holds a special place for Pigs, too. In a former incarnation, this warehouse- turned-venue was Grant’s original studio, Blank, and it was here that the band recorded their early singles and first two albums, 2017’s Feed the Rats and 2018’s King of Cowards. The band eagerly explore their former home, reacquainting themselves with spaces that once felt familiar. Explaining how the room we’re stood in used to be the studio, with all the recording equipment kept upstairs, the band make their way to the floor above to discover that their former office has been turned into a bar. Surveying the room, McKenzie lets out a sigh. “It’s weird being back here – it was basically our second home…”
Getting this brief glimpse into the spaces that birthed Pigs actually explains a lot about those early days of the band. Splitting their time between here and the Biscuit Rooms where they had the run of their own unit, the band had space to write, rehearse and develop organically, without the pressure of booked-by-the-hour practices or snatched studio time. It’s probably the reason why in those early days Pigs’ music was more free-form than it is today. Their 2017 debut album Feed the Rats, an intense blast of Sabbath-style noise, for example, clocks in at over 40 minutes across just three tracks. “We wrote using the toilet paper method,” explains Grant when I ask about how the band used their spaces in the early days. Pointing at the walls, he continues: “At the beginning, the idea was to create one massive song, where we could get on stage, play for 35 minutes and be done, with no stopping, banter or anything like that. We wanted these massive, sprawling songs that had a set of refrains that we’d keep coming back to, almost like a classical record. We didn’t have any structured songs per se – we just wrote riffs on bits of paper, stuck them on the wall and pointed to them when we wanted to go back to them. It was just a really good way to build a reference system.”
Saying our goodbyes to the building’s current occupant, we file outside to continue the tour. Heading down the hill towards a collection of industrial units and garages, the road cuts left and rises uphill, leading to a sudden rush of green space. The open terrain means that the group begins to split up. Moving ahead, bassist John-Michael Joseph Hedley and Sykes are caught up dealing with some admin that is vexing the various members. With new album Land of Sleeper out in February, Pigs are due to fly to the States and are currently in the process of trying to sort out visas. It’s clearly a rolling headache that everyone is struggling with. “It’s just so bloody complicated,” says Hedley at one point. “It’s almost making me not want to go.”
Baty, Grant and drummer Ewan McKenzie hang back, and our discussion turns to the evolution of the bands. It’s a cliché that the output of most rock bands tends to get more and more flabby over time, but Pigs have taken their songs to the gym. A decade since the band emerged, unusually for a psychedelic band, their music has gotten more primitive over time. Starting with one short song amongst all the cosmic jams on Feed the Rats, the band have relentlessly edited their songwriting, so much so that most modern Pigs tracks are relatively taut, with their 2020 album Viscerals and upcoming album Land of Sleeper filled with songs that get the job done efficiently, the band’s aggressive slices of intensity having become their calling card. Grant is almost dismissive when I bring it up in conversation. “It was fully by accident, really,” he shrugs.
“We were really keen on signing with Rocket, and they were dead keen on putting the first couple of records out,” says McKenzie. “The only problem was that there was no track shorter than, like, eight minutes, so the first thing they asked us for was a shorter track or an edit that they could use for promo.” He laughs. “You can’t just cut a three-minute song out of a larger one, so we went back and wrote that ‘Sweet Relief’ track [featured on Feed the Rats]. I remember getting that riff and thinking, ‘Right, this is going to be our three-minute banger.”
“I was super resistant at first,” says Baty. “I can remember being really put out, all ‘But… that’s not us, that’s not what we do’, but in actual fact, it was a move that opened a lot of doors for us. Thing is, pretty soon, it was getting on the radio. I was like, ‘Holy fuck, how are we on the radio?’”
Pigs’ music – invariably rooted in heavy metal, doom metal and noise rock – could never be described as radio-friendly, yet the radio has actually been one of the key factors behind the band’s success. Early appearances on Shaun Keaveny’s BBC 6 Music breakfast show led to live sessions, which led to more gigs, which led to festival appearances. The band managed to find a small nationwide audience and built gradually from there, playing their heavy music in an accessible way. Inhabiting a corner of music that is often known for over-serious personalities and an inflated sense of Am-Dram theatrics, there is something uniquely down to earth about Pigs. Their work is dark but weirdly funny. Their presentation style is mystic yet oddly relatable. It’s heavy metal without all of the associated baggage. They’re basically saying, ‘This is metal, and yes, you’re allowed to enjoy it.’
Putting this theory to the band, Baty flashes a grin like a kid whose hand has been caught in the biscuit tin. “I think that mostly comes from me as a frontman,” he admits eventually. “In-between songs, I kind of feel like I’m bringing the energy right down, so to begin with, I’d just talk normally rather than doing the whole ‘How the fuck are you doing? Are you ready to BLEEED’ thing, and, actually, it works really nicely. In the mid-sized venues and the smaller venues, it kind of removes this barrier between you and the crowd. On the occasional times we’ve played larger venues, it does feel a bit weird, though, like muttering into the mic feels completely inadequate. I suppose if we ever eventually do a stadium tour, I’ll probably have to go full Freddy Mercury: you know – ‘Waay-OO, Keeeegan!’”
Emerging onto a main road, we navigate a small, grassy verge and hop over a low fence to reach our final destination. Once inside, the difference between the old and new Blank Studios is startling. All mahogany, high-end kit and comfortable, modern surroundings. Grant is keen to show me around, so as the bulk of the band heads off to make a cup of tea, he leads me into the main studio and talks me through his handy work. As it turns out, putting together a studio doesn’t just mean finding all the equipment and finding a space to put it in; Grant has built this place from scratch. Doing my best Kevin McCloud impression, I listen as he explains how he’s meticulously constructed the walls to maximise the acoustics, and worked closely with a local electrician to ensure that the amplifiers work just right. When I ask him if he had any previous building experience, he just puffs. It’s truly impressive.
As we speak, Sykes joins us and idly presses the keys of an organ that has been slid up against one wall. “That’s Liam Fender’s – Sam’s brother,” says Grant. “He records here loads: he’s dead canny and really nice.”
“Oh yeah, does his music sound like his brother’s?” asks Sykes, barely looking up from noodling on his guitar.
Catching up with the rest of the band, we reassemble in the kitchen. Stood around while the kettle boils, Baty draws my attention to a poster for Pigs’ new tour. “We’re getting a lot of grief at the moment because we’re mostly playing smaller places; like Lincoln, Portsmouth and Newport. People from Manchester have been giving us a bit of a kicking because we’re not coming to their town.”
Until a few weeks prior to my visit, Pigs had been holed up here putting the finishing touches on Land of Sleeper. The band’s fourth album and the first since McKenzie rejoined the band (he left after the band’s debut album in 2017), it’s a record that has seemed to solidify the two warring parts of the group’s collective nature. Sounding like a band who are comfortable in their skin, it’s an album that finds a balance between the trademark Sabbath-like intensity of the live show and their experimental, free-form approach to songwriting – their most complete sounding album yet.
Continuing our conversation as we move across the hall and into a blue carpeted control room, I’m surprised to find out that comfort and clarity is the last thing the band want in their process. “To me, this album has been reassuring to me because it shows that we’re not falling into a ‘paint by numbers’ approach to making music,” explains Grant. “It probably won’t do us any favours, as this is more of a dark, headphones listen than a party banger album, but it’s also empowering as a band. It’s actually pretty mint to think that we’ve found that heart of what Pigs is, and that heart is still growing.”
“It’s like The Blob, to be honest,” deadpans Hedley in agreement, referring to the 1988 horror classic. “The Blob absorbs everything.”
Land of Sleeper has been one of the most relaxed recording experiences for the band so far. Written over a week-long retreat in Wales and recorded in the comfortable surrounds of Blank, it’s probably the least pressured Pigs have ever been. Somehow though, the album has turned out dark. It’s not just the intense doom of previous album Viscerals, but a weird, almost creeping, horror movie style of darkness. “The press release for the album starts with the Nightmare On Elm Street 3 quote for a reason,” says Baty, noting that while Land of Sleeper is not a concept album, dreams and sleep are references throughout. “There’re also recurring references to cycles,” he adds, “both beginning and ending – birth and regeneration, death and decay.”
Pigs have never been a political band and have never set out to reflect the state of the nation, but psychologically it’s impossible to cut yourself off completely from world events. The reality is that in some ways, the turmoil of the last couple of years has probably manifested itself in this record.
“You see, I’m not totally sold on that,” explains Sykes, as we discuss the reasons for the band’s darker sound. “I think after such a comfortable experience recording the thing, we subconsciously wanted to make sure that the doom was still in there. I can remember being in Wales and being worried that this is going to turn out too nice. I was literally having anxiety about not having anxiety, if that makes sense.
“I also struggled with that,” nods Baty. “The recording process, it was going so fucking well, everyone was completely nailing it, we were going ahead of schedule, and the atmosphere was so relaxed. It sounded great. And that was worrying me. I was like, well, where’s the spanner in the works here? I was freaking out because of the complete lack of anxiety – it was absolutely insane. I was worried that we were being complacent and it was only until I got my turn to do the vocals that I remember a very distinct moment where I was like, Fuck. Like, I’m back. I’m doing this, and I think I can do this. Dare I say, I’m actually good at this.”
It’s weird to think that a band who sound as well-drilled as Pigs are still on a learning curve. Admitting that they seldom listen back to their older work, the group are still keen to point out their strong sense of progression from album to album and how much they still have to learn as a band. The various members talk excitedly about the other projects they work on, from Rubber Oh, Grant’s upbeat, wonky pop outfit, to the sweeping electronica found on McKenzie’s solo project, Dextro, the group are unafraid to travel off down all sorts of creative avenues and musical alleyways. Richard Dawson is also an important touchpoint for the band, with Grant and Baty working closely with the local folk singer. Holding a position between mate, inspirational figure and pace-setter for the band, Grant explains the odd sense of synchronisation the group share with him. “Before [Pigs second album] King of Cowards, I’d just finished Peasant with Richard, and before Viscerals we’d finished 2020, and before Land of Sleeper we’d just finished The Ruby Chord,” he tells me. “To me, it’s always a humbling experience when you get to watch someone that’s as fucking good as that do what they do. You feel like a child, and in a lot of ways that’s a very healthy place to be.”
That final statement strikes me as a bit strange. If there has been one theme that’s surfaced over our afternoon together, it’s that whenever Pigs take a second to look back, they almost seem uncomfortable with what they’ve accomplished. After all, this is a band who have released three, soon to be four, critically acclaimed records, feature high up on the bills at festivals and sell out gigs regularly, yet there still seems to be some reluctance to accept that they’re successful. “Personally, it gets worse the more pressure we’re under,” groans Sykes when I ask where this imposter syndrome might be coming from. “The tight deadlines, the more people we have to play for, the worse it is. I’m like, ‘I can’t play guitar, but here I am, so here I go..’”
“Sometimes I reckon I hide behind it,” says Grant. “I honestly don’t think I’m all that as a musician and I’m using imposter syndrome to convince myself that I am. Working in a studio, man, every fucking day I get artists coming through and I’m constantly blown away by the talent of some people. I’m just like, man. And I’m also under no illusions because I can record myself and hear myself and just have it in a speaker, whether it’s vocals or guitar or whatever, and hold it against that. I know that, personally, my strengths lie in production. But as a musician, I’m not pulling all the tricks in the book.”
Thinking for a second, Baty has a more philosophical take. “Part of this attitude fuels us in a way, especially in a live setting, because you’re kind of full of these thoughts of inadequacy, you know that you’ve got to go onto the stage and you’ve got to do everything. Just release absolutely every grain of energy that you have to make that fulfilling experience for yourself and for everyone. Watching most gigs, we’re almost crawling off the stage because of how much we’ve exerted. It’s cliché to say it, but everything is left on the stage. There is no more. We don’t do encores, and for a reason. It is all there.”
“It keeps you hungry – in a good way,” adds Sykes. “When it comes to music, I always overshoot. I always want to do something out of the box and then worry for the next two months that I can never play it again. That’s where the energy comes from. It’s like I am never fully prepared. I can’t play what I’ve written half of the time. And it’s that excitement that keeps me in a lot of time”
Our short tour has come to an end and we return our cups and head back out onto the street to find, in our absence, that night has fallen and people are making their way home from work. As the band say their goodbyes and organise their next meet-up, the sound of an a-board being scraped into the street pulls my attention to a pub down the road. “You know what? We filmed our first video in that pub,” says McKenzie, who’s seen the same thing. “We needed to get something done quickly and we just went in there and asked. They were like, ‘No problem; when do you want to do it?’
“That’s the great thing about Newcastle, people want each other to do well. There’s so little bitterness; so little competitiveness. I think the reason why we’ve all stayed here is that, ultimately, it’s a pretty supportive place. People just want to see you do well.”
Terror’s Pillow – Live at Blank Studios
Launching our new limited edition flex disc series, Loud And Quiet subscribers receive an exclusive live session version of new Land of Sleepers song ‘Terror’s Pillow’ with their copy of the magazine this month, recorded at Blank Studios. Sam Grant talks us through the song, and this special version of it, below:
“I was really excited about this waltzy, almost classical feel it had going on, and was constantly trying to push that element more in the writing and production, hopefully giving it a less conventional rock/metal vibe. I like to think it has the air of an unreleased bonus track from Holst’s The Planets – though this is more an homage to the massive asteroid currently winging its way to Earth. Doing it as a live session also gave us the opportunity to really pull the tempo on it as well, giving it an alternative mood to the album version. The nature of the track really suits both approaches, but for differing reasons. This live version, in being slower, gets to be something a little more weighty and crushing – a bit more menacing. So I’m really pleased this one gets to exist too.”
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