That tricky first record...
Brooklyn, New York, is home from home for Veronica Falls. Drummer Patrick Doyle lived here for just five months in 2008, but in that time he made enough friends to be mistaken for Mayor Bloomberg. He “wanted to escape Glasgow for a bit” and before long so too did Roxanne Clifford. She joined Patrick in Williamsburg for what she describes as “an extended holiday”, cycling over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan’s Lower East Side every day, only to cycle straight back again. “I didn’t have anywhere to go, I was just trying to get fit,” she says in her broad Manchester accent as we trundle over the jumbo structure and New York’s endless conga line of vehicles do the same.
Guitarist James Hoare has never lived here, but he’s not short of hands to shake in the local bars and clubs either. And the same goes for Marion Herbain, who met Patrick and Roxanne in Glasgow and learned bass especially to be in this band with her friends.
When I’m introduced to James and Patrick at the first of their two New York shows it’s as “the only person in the room you don’t already know”. It might not even be an exaggeration. “It was bad for my health, living here,” says Patrick. “I was just getting wasted every single night.”
It’s easy to see how they’ve done it – become New York’s favourite outta-towners. Their music – made up of his’n’her (and his) three-part harmonies, fantastic tales of the macabre, girl group drums and the warts’n’all stylings of early lo-fi bands like Beat Happening – is far greater than that played by most of the garage bands that surround them. They trade in clean guitars and enviably doe-eyed melodies, rather than forgiving reverb and scuzzy distortion. Everyone else is singing about catching a wave; Veronica Falls pine for the deceased (‘Found Love In A Graveyard’) and cherubly coo about suicide (‘Beachy Head’). Personally, it’s even harder to dislike them.
During our two photo shoots – the second of which takes place early morning, before a five hour drive to Boston, where the band will begin a nationwide tour with The Drums – Veronica Falls willingly ‘play the pop group’ where so many shy away, automatically bored of the camera’s gaze. Roxanne has every reason to be fed up, having picked up an eye infection on the plane from California that cost her five hours in A+E yesterday. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she jokes, which climaxed with her right eye being frozen. Three hours later she was onstage at Brooklyn DIY venue Glasslands. When the infection spreads to her other eye two days later she tells me so with a dignified shrug. New York City is fast. There’s no time to mope.
Before the band’s second show, at Manhattan’s Pianos club, we take a couple of hours to take some pictures, play with sidewalk trash (“I’ll get in the trolley,” says Marion, unprompted), get told off by a psychic (only in New York) and catch the eye of countless passers-by, one of which screeches his mountain bike to a halt to see what the hell is going on.
“Is this a band then?”
“What are they called?”
“Oh yeah, I know them… Are they any good?”
You’d think, with this being the home of Saturday Night Live, Letterman and Broadway that New Yorkers wouldn’t even notice four people having their photograph taken in rush hour, but they do. Here, people like to talk, or shout, which is one of the topics of discussion at dinner, in a French bistro called Pink Pony, which, Roxanne says, “has not the best food but a nice atmosphere.”
“Those guys talking to us in the street, I like that about here,” says Patrick. “I like it when you enter a shop and someone says, ‘hi, how are you?’. Strangers talk to you a lot on the subway here too, and I always felt that that made me feel safer when I lived here. If someone did that in London you’d be like, ‘I’m fine. Why are you asking?’.”
“You can be in a bar in New York and turn to someone and say, ‘hey’, and it’s not weird,” adds James. “You’re not hitting on them, you can just say hey. If someone speaks to you in England they’re a crazy person.
I find people in London, within music, are bit closed off,” he continues. “Like, I’ve been going out to gigs in London for years, and I see the same people all the time, and it’s not like I have anything against them, but I don’t speak to them. I can’t imagine that happening here.”
“When we were in Minneapolis, this guy gave us a hamburger for free!” Patrick exclaims. “He was like, ‘I ordered two but I’m probably not going to eat this one’.”
James: “Now, if that was in London you’d think, he’s put this down his trousers.”
“Let’s not be too down on Britain,” says Roxanne. “I prefer living in London to New York.”
Patrick agrees. London is better for his health.
“We were really lucky when we moved here,” says Roxanne, “in that we met this really nice group of friends who are all really supportive and are doing really interesting things.”
“Everybody is very supportive of each other here,” nods James. “They all play in bands with each other and release each other’s records. In London things are bit more disjointed. So many good bands come out of Brooklyn and I think that whole supportive community must help a lot. It means that you’ve got a free-er attitude to working with people.”
Roxanne: “I think it’s similar to Glasgow in a way – that was what I most liked about Glasgow when I moved there: everybody knew each other and everybody was doing stuff.”
Brooklyn’s indie fertility comes from a simple more-is-more work ethic, reckons Patrick, who says: “I think people here are more willing to start more projects; they don’t put all of their eggs in one basket. Like, some friends of ours play in two or three bands.”
“There’s something a bit more genuine about that as well,” notes James, “playing in bands for the sake of playing, rather than forming a band in order for it to become a job. It does seem that in London sometimes people can be a bit more calculated, starting bands and having all of these ideas about what they want to do before they’ve written a song.”
Of course, that does go on here too, and to a greater extent since the wider success of MGMT, Yeasayer, Animal Collective, TV On The Radio, and so on, but James is right about the overall creative drive of the city – Brooklyn is the centre of Planet Indie; for most bands here there’s no need to be recognised outside of the party. And of course by them not caring if the world’s looking, we can’t help but stare. British musicians like Dev Hynes and Kele Okereke have even moved here. Natasha Khan tried. Tom Vek’s considered it.
It’s in keeping with New York’s all or nothing philosophy, where the bloke on the subway is either asking how you are or pushing you in the back. In the street, pedestrians shout at cars that aren’t moving fast enough, while flyer guys knock on your window, hand you a leaflet and politely deliver their sales pitch. New York exists on polar opposites, much like the lyrics of Veronica Falls. When I ask Roxanne if her songs have any recurring themes she plainly answers: “Love and death. Extreme emotions.”
It’s a foolish question, really. One listen to the band’s debut album and that much is clear. ‘Found Love In A Graveyard’ says it all. And ‘Misery’. And ‘Bad Feeling’. And ‘Wedding Day’, about watching your loved one marry someone they don’t like as much they like you. And ‘The Fountain’, which if full of all kinds of doom. Having now met Veronica Falls, I’ve got to say, I was expecting them to be a far more dour bunch.
“[The lyrics] are not really meant to be taken at face value, to be totally honest,” says Roxanne. “They’re tongue-in-cheek. Like how Daniel Johnson and Roky Erickson wrote lyrics that are so far fetched, it is more about the imagery and storytelling. If you take it literally then more fool you.”
At the start of 2011, Veronica Falls reported to us the progress of their debut album. It was without a label, but it was complete. It had been recorded in the shadows of the Yorkshire Moors, in a residential studio that the band couldn’t really leave because they were snowed in.
In January, Marion remembered the experience simply as “intense”, while Roxanne told us that it was “like being at boarding school 20 years late”. James said: “Apart from the actual joys of recording, very little excitement was experienced until visitors from London arrived.” Patrick didn’t say anything.
Eight months later, at Pink Pony, with the release of ‘Veronica Falls’ a week away via the fitting Bella Union label, the drummer says: “You always imagine that when you finish making an album you’re going to want to go out and drink champagne and celebrate, but when we finished ours I wanted to kill myself.”
The rest of the band felt the same, and it wasn’t because the thrill of being in the studio was over; a sudden return to London and normality with a bump. Veronica Falls hated their own record.
Roxanne casually announces that they made their debut album twice over, halfway through discussing the band’s 60s influences and the aesthetics of bands like Young Marble Giants and Beat Happening (“stark and simple, childlike but really sinister”).
“Yeah, after we recorded our album for the second time…” she says and pauses. “Do you know that we did that?”
“Well, yeah, we did. At first we did it in a residential studio and we kind of just went about it in the wrong way. We did it all properly, recording all of our parts separately. It was something that we tried because we thought it might work for us, but it didn’t, so we scrapped it.”
Remixed, three tracks from the band’s original album have made it onto the ‘Veronica Falls’ that you can now buy in shops, but, really, everything about the sessions in Castleford was wrong for a band wanting to capture their live energy on record.
“Part of the thing that was so shit about the one up north was that it was a brand new studio and a very uninspiring place as well,” explains Patrick, “whereas Smokehouse [the studio in Wapping, London, where the band rerecorded ‘Veronica Falls’ in three days], we only spent a little time there but it’s full of old amplifiers and just looked like…”
“…It just had a bit of history,” says James. “The Chairworks [in Castleford] was clinical, like a hospital, and they had a photographer who took photos of the bands and there were pictures of N-Dubz everywhere.”
“There was just a really bad vibe about it,” says Roxanne.
“Literally, you’d walk in and there’d be pictures of N-Dubz in frames everywhere!” says James again.
Roxanne says: “It was the antithesis of what we’re about”, while Patrick compares it to “like recording in Ikea.”
“And we knew it,” continues Roxanne. “As soon as we stepped foot in the door we knew it, but we thought, well, we’ve arranged this so we’ve got to give it a try. And then after that we thought, right, we’ve got to do the complete opposite of that, and then I watched that ‘Definitely Maybe’ documentary about how they made that, and, wow, that record sounds so good, and they ended up putting their amps in the same room, facing each other and playing really loud, so we just did that.”
Certainly something had to be done because the band couldn’t even think about releasing the record they’d first left the studio with. The “joys of recording” that James reported ended up not being too joyous at all.
“It was because it was so extreme,” says Roxanne. “If we hadn’t recorded it in a way that was so alien to us we would have been able to stand by it and say, well, this is us. It’s not that we’re perfectionists or anything, it was just so wrong.”
“So all over Christmas we were sat with this record, which we knew none of us were happy with,” says Patrick, “and we were getting pretty scared that we were going to have to release it. I mean, I couldn’t even listen to it!”
“It’s a testament to our manager, Mark,” says James, “because we spent a lot of money on it and he was instantly like, ‘Fine. Do it again’.” (Just before the band take to the stage at Pianos, Mark (Bowen) tells me how it’s the only time the band have requested a meeting with him. “They said, ‘Can we come in to talk about something?’,” he remembers, “And they came in and said, ‘We don’t like it,’ and I said, ‘Great! Neither do I. You’re an exciting band so go and make an exciting record.’”)
‘Veronica Falls’ certainly is an exciting record, relentlessly charging forward and played on guitars with hands that blur with speed, stopping occasionally for a waltz (‘Stephen’) and some whimsy (‘Veronica Falls’). But it’s also a testament to the band that they had the nerve to reject their first attempt.
“Well, you’d go through phases where you’d try to convince yourself it was good,” admits Patrick.
“We had a progress meeting where Mark came up and we all sat and listened to the record so far,” says James. “I remember that was the moment that I was like, fuck, this is really not good, but everyone else was still pretending it was. Inside, deep down, I really didn’t like it, because it was so against what I like, and it freaked me out. I thought that was going to be it.”
“It didn’t have that sleezy sound that it has now,” explains Roxanne, “where everything was driving together.”
James: “It sounded clinical and charmless. [Our producer] would have us working for hours on vocals and one small thing. You want to just record something quickly and capture the moment. For me, it’s not really honest, that kind of producing.”
Roxanne: “In an ideal world you’d write a song and it’d come out the next month, but of course that can never happen.”
The band clearly haven’t forgotten the horrors of Castleford, or the session’s darkest hour when, as Marion remembers, they would “have to walk across courtyard in the snow at three in the morning to listen to some more tracks that we knew we weren’t going to release.” But Roxanne is adamant that it wasn’t a complete waste of time.
“I feel like that was a really important part of making the album,” she says, “because we learned so much from that, and we really finished off the songs, so when I think of the finished album I think it was all essential. We knew exactly how we wanted it after that – they were kinda like really expensive demos.”
After we settle up at Pink Pony, Roxanne – now with the flu accompanying her eye infection – quietly retreats to the band’s van to sleep before their stage time. She still refuses to mope or make a fuss; she just slips off. The rest of Veronica Falls begin shaking hands again, Pianos just as full as Glasslands the night before, the bill made up of more friends in more bands.
Again, they put in a show that flies about the place, tambourines crashing and vocal harmonies on point. And now, thanks to Veronica Falls’s own volition, we can take that home with us.
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