With the third excellent EP ‘Toll Of The Wound’ from the Edinburgh based ‘slow bludgeoning’ entity that is Of Spire & Throne out on Broken Limbs, we were keen to see what made this lot so interesting and what kept them doing what they do so uniquely and well. We caught guitarist and vocalist Ali Lauder and he gave us an insight into the inspiration and the perspiration of life in the underground. And Queen. Read on!
AN: Hi there Ali. Thanks for giving your time to share a few words with us, we really appreciate it.
Just for a bit of background, can you tell us how you, Matt and Graham met/got together to form Of Spire & Throne (plus previous members Steven Duffus and Nick Herd)? Was there an original idea or was it more a ‘kick it around and see what happens’ kind of thing? Do you have a common background, musical or otherwise?
ALI: Steve and I have known each other since we were kids and started messing around making music when we were about 15. After a few years of finding our way we ended up drawn to doom and sludge and what was to become Of Spire & Throne. The closest thing we had to our first solid line-up was Steve on guitar, me on guitar and vocals and an old drummer who knew Nick. She brought him along to practice to play bass and that’s when we started to really push forward with the songs. Things didn’t work out with that drummer and she left, so Nick asked Graham to play as he knew him through the local noise and experimental scene.
Things took off from 2009 onwards. We played some gigs and recorded our demo until Nick couldn’t commit to the band anymore, so he left in 2010. I knew Matt through a record shop I work in on Saturdays and despite having never been in a band or played bass before, he said he’d be up for trying out. This line-up continued and we got some more gigs under our belt. We recorded The Trial of Failure (2011), Vagary (2012) and did our first mini tour before I had to ask Steve to leave in April 2013. It’s just been the three of us since then.
AN: How does the writing work in the band? What’s the dynamic; benevolent dictatorship or peoples’ collective? Solid basic structures brought into the rehearsal space or just ideas to thrash out? How exactly do you go about writing a song as long as Vagary for instance and still keep it vital?
ALI: The dynamic has changed since we switched to a three-piece. It used to be that Steve and I would work on songs together and get at least two-thirds written before bringing them to the practice room. Now I’m bringing more stuff to Matt and Graham in a basic state which means they can get involved with writing from the beginning. Matt has started to bring more complete stuff to practice and for the first time we’ve been working on things that I didn’t start. No matter how long the song is we just take our time, continually make changes, and we rely on the feel being right. It can take a long time until we’re satisfied that a song is ready to be played live or recorded, and even then we keep tweaking things.
AN: With your latest EP, Toll Of The Wound, the progression in the music seems to be about adding textures to the sound, something which way too many sludge bands ignore. It’s not just about the careful use of keyboards but also the excellent variation in drum technique and vocals. Has this been a conscious step or the natural growth of musicians learning about each other? You recently lost a guitarist too but have not replaced him; what bearing has this had on your sound and approach if any?
ALI: I’m not sure how much of the progression was conscious in the sense that we didn’t set out to achieve anything in particular with Toll of the Wound. We just wrote the songs, had a few ideas for things which might work when recording them, and then just tried to make them sound as good as possible. It took us a while to get some parts right, experimenting and editing, as a lot of the textures you describe were quite spontaneous. We tend to experiment a lot when recording. The tuba was the only thing I knew I wanted to use and I’d planned that a long time in advance, but we messed with it a lot before settling on the finished sound.
Losing Steve was extremely difficult and along with technical problems and failed recording sessions, was part of why it took us so long to get Toll of the Wound finished. He and I have been friends for years, but sadly he kept letting us down and as I saw it, I had no choice but to ask him to leave. As a three-piece we’ve had to strip down the songs while we’ve all had to push our playing to fill out the sound. I’m getting hold of some effects pedals and a second amp to hopefully get a fuller, more dynamic live sound. We still have the same freedom when recording but we have to approach things a little differently to balance what we can do live and what works on record.
AN: There is, to me, a visual aspect to Of Spire & Throne that reaches deep into the music. From your early decision to get that superb logo designed, through the excellent packaging on the Trial Of Failure and Vagary EPs to the actual music that seems almost architectural to me, describing constructed spaces but then filling them with human issues and emotions. How do you see the visual and the musical fitting together? Does this feed into the lyrics?
And speaking of architecture, I have often wondered if the name Of Spire & Throne was from the city of Edinburgh’s architecture? If so is the city both physically and emotionally a big influence?
ALI: I hope that the visuals, the music and the lyrics all feed into each other, and I work at bringing them together in a cohesive way, but you can get too wrapped up in trying to explain and direct everything. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you control it or even understand it yourself. You have to just go with what feels right. Architectural imagery appeals because, for me, it suggests a lot of things; vision, conflict, human struggle, preservation and commemoration – all things that tie in with the themes of the lyrics.
Our name actually came about in the first instance due to a couple of things which had stuck with me from books and the fact that I thought it sounded cool, which is surely the most important thing! I like the imagery of the structures and the suggestion of conflict, which works for us as a general theme. It didn’t come from local architecture and I don’t think the city has much of a direct influence on our music, but then that’s something which is difficult to know for sure I suppose.
AN: Where do lyrics stand in the importance of things? I have read a few and they seem to tie into the band’s tagline of “The spirit and the self, via riffs, space and slow bludgeoning.. ” and very much turned inwards. Fair? Unfair? Are you the kind of person who carries around a notebook everywhere or more a ‘put aside specific time and work then’ type?
ALI: Well firstly, that tagline was originally meant as a joke. I think I came up with it for a band description on Myspace and liked the ridiculousness of trying to reveal some lofty abstract through a bunch of indeterminate noise. However, it kind of stuck so we’ve kept using it. Mostly because ‘slow bludgeoning’ sounds cool!
Lyrics are extremely important to me and you’re right that they’re mostly introspective. Through the lyrics and the music I can engage with a lot of things that weigh on my mind. I don’t find solutions, but in a way, it’s somewhere to put these things and create a sort of monument to whatever it is. I try to combine metaphor, narrative and words that just come to me and seem to fit. It’s difficult to understand let alone explain! I get ideas sporadically and I set time aside to write, but the majority of my time is spent editing and rewriting, finding the right words. I would describe it as trying to find a sort of balance between the lyrics, the vocals and the music.
AN: As a band you have a fine grasp of the effect of dynamics in music. As well as the aforementioned bludgeon you also use the power of quiet or even silence. Now I have a strange relationship with silence, having a degree of constant tinnitus, but the concept of it becomes all the more intriguing to me because of that. What does silence mean to you?
ALI: I like the Aldous Huxley quote about music being second only to silence as a means to express the inexpressible, but silence can be an important part of music as a source of anticipation, respite or even panic. It’s a powerful thing if it’s used well. It’s important for us as a band to explore dynamics to avoid the trap of a one-dimensional sound. Whether we have or not depends on who you ask!
AN: And while we’re on the abstract: Why slow?
ALI: There’s something formidable about slow – a sense of weight and size and power. At the same time there’s a sense of immersion, of taking an experience or feeling and dragging it out. I like that combination.
AN: How does the situation of being unsigned sit with you? Nice freedom to shop around for outlets for your releases or frustration at the slow pace this means you have to approach recording at (although a demo and three EPs in under four years is pretty impressive anyway)? How did the Broken Limbs release come about: There’s a fair distance between label and band.
ALI: The underground is self-reliant, and with the help of the community a band like us can record, tour, create merch and promote what we do ourselves with almost complete control. It’s not easy, but that’s why the underground is so special and that’s why it survives. Being signed can help with promotion, distribution and recording costs, but I don’t see being unsigned as a barrier to what we do. As far as I see it, the main difference between one level and the next is perception; being signed legitimises a band to some people.
I’m not sure how Broken Limbs heard about us or what the story was, but Pete (label head honcho) got in touch with me one day, we knocked some emails back and forth and then we worked something out. Through those emails and a spot of googling it didn’t take long to figure out that they’re a great label with the right attitude and they work hard. I’m really pleased that Toll of the Wound is a BLR release. I reckon they’re on the same page as us.
AN: Does it annoy you in moments of honesty when you see generic and uninspired sludge/doom being signed and releasing albums within a couple of years of forming or are you content to simply look to your own business and enjoy the great bands you are getting to play live with rather than worrying about sub-par bands?
ALI: No. I simply don’t care about bands like that. I care about building on what we do and bringing along good people who care about it in the same way that we do. Take it or leave it, but if you’re in it for the long haul, so are we. I’m more bothered by underground bands being dicks (not that I’ve come across a lot of that, thankfully!). We should all be helping each other out, with no delusion about the reality of what it is that we do.
AN: Shamefully still not having seen you live, how do you approach live shows? I’m thinking particularly of the keyboards and now also working as a three piece.
You also seem to be getting out and about a bit more over the last year. Was that a change in circumstances or conscious effort?
ALI: Our core set-up is now one guitar, bass, drums and vocals. That means some parts and some songs are cut out completely from live sets, but I like the idea of two different ways to experience what we do, and I don’t see them as having to be in conflict with each other. It would be great to play older songs like Vagary or instrumentals like Ruin or Tower of Glass live, but we’d need to get some friends in to help.
Getting out and about is most definitely a conscious effort. I feel like I’m always bothering folk for gigs. If we’ve been getting out to some new places of late it’s because I booked it myself or I finally managed to wear someone down. I’m hoping that the release of Toll of the Wound will mean things become easier in that respect.
AN: How hard is it for a band like yourselves to try and get one of the earlier slots on a festival these days? We hear a lot about ‘over saturation’ of festivals from the punters but not much from the bands.
ALI: The only experience of festivals we have is a couple of now-defunct local efforts when we were just starting out. We don’t seek festivals out because the way I see it, if you’re worth it to a festival they’ll come to you.
AN: Do you get out to gigs as punters much? If so what have you got lined up to see this year?
ALI: Yeah we do. Graham is still heavily involved in the local noise and experimental scenes and is always up to something, while Matt is checking out everything from black metal to the Wildhearts. I’ve had a great year of gigs so far, having been to Roadburn, Uncle Acid, Church of Misery and Windhand while I’ve got Acid King, Incantation, Nile and Earth all to look forward to.
AN: I was really intrigued by the mix tape you put together for The Ritual webzine (http://theritualmag.com/2014/05/20/exclusive-sonic-abuse-vol-i-of-spire-throne/). Besides the slow and the bludgeoning as might be expected, there is a lot of stuff in there that surprises momentarily until you start thinking about it (Magazine, Iggy Pop, Scott Walker). And of course Queen who seem to crop up relentlessly in the oddest of lists. The darkness of outlook seems to attract you there, but I was also wondering how the almost skeletal sound and edge of the new wave/punk stuff influences you and the sludgy sound of the band? And what was hardest; picking the tracks or worrying about the potential raised eyebrows?
(And while you’re at it, can you explain the attraction of Queen to a non-musician who stopped listening to them after Sheer Heart Attack? I am clearly missing something important!)
ALI: I first got into new wave/post-punk stuff because of the unique sounds and dark atmospheres. These bands were pushing forward into new territory, and there’s a great sense of adventure and ‘realness’ to the music. I think the sparseness translates well to what we do. A song like Tower of Glass for example is about letting the sounds fill the space.
The hardest thing about curating the mixtape was choosing the tracks – I could have picked twice as many! I went for songs and artists with a direct influence on my writing for OS&T, regardless of the style of music. If you’re afraid to like other kinds of music then you’re missing out. Metal doesn’t have a monopoly on heaviness. I just hope that people enjoyed the tunes and were turned on to some stuff they hadn’t checked out before.
I’ll try to keep this short! Queen is without doubt the most misappropriated, misrepresented and misunderstood band in rock! OK, they have more than their fair share of terrible songs and the surviving members have done more to piss all over their legacy than any other band in existence, but all you need to do is listen to Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack – the best albums they ever produced and both released during the same year, 1974! They’re full of great songs. As a band they were skilled, diverse, driven and totally unique. Some people said they were insincere, but they didn’t dig deep enough – but different strokes, y’know?
AN: What’s the plan for the rest of 2014?
ALI: Gigs, getting Toll of the Wound out on vinyl, mini tours around the UK and working hard on our first album which we’ll be recording in late November.
AN: Any parting words?
ALI: A huge thanks to you for a fun interview Gizmo, we appreciate all of your support! A huge thanks also to everyone out there for who listens to and supports us, we hope to see some of you at a gig soon!
AN. Thanks again for being willing to wade through the questions for us. Good luck with everything and I hope to get to see you live soon.
My sincere thanks to Ali for his enthusiasm and time with this. Here’s to the debut full length from the guys and as much stage time as they can handle. Toll Of The Wound is out now on Broken Limbs: Get it and put yourself in the hands of one of the most fascinating sludge/doom bands around.
Interview by Gizmo