INTERVIEW: THE FERNWEH

“I don’t want to spend all day on Facebook. I really don’t. The creativity of this generation’s fashion allowed us to make this album, but we didn’t want to self-release it. I still believe in labels. I still believe in fanzines and stuff like that.”

Jamie Backhouse, Ned Crowther, and Austin “Oz” Murphy at length about the long gestation that produced The Fernweh, what that name actually means, the pros of Soviet-styled social media, how a $5 app helped enhance their record, and the importance of the human element in music. Oh yeah, and why the next album might be New Wave … and take 15 years to finish. 

 

The Fernweh’s debut is finally upon us and while there is some muffled consideration on just how long it took to make it from the songwriter’s fingertips to our turntables (estimates range between two and ten years—depending on when you count the real start date), debating the length of gestation isn’t really important. The fact of the matter is it makes its arrival on November 30, and you can preorder it on vinyl or CD now (or hereor here).

Jamie Backhouse and Austin “Oz” Murphy of Liverpool spent time in the ‘00s as part of Edgar Jones’ backing group, the Joneses, and then as part of Candie Payne’s backing group, where they were joined on bass by Ned Crowther, who joined shortly after the disbanding of the 747s (their lone LP, Zampanois well worth a search on your browser and a listen). Backhouse and Crowther then went onto work with Alessi’s Ark, while Murphy spent time in the ranks of the Zutons and other outfits before the three reteamed in Liverpool lofts and rooms to slowly but surely put together The Fernweh.

The three principal members of the band took time to talk about the band’s formation and how it produced one of the finest sounding albums of the year.

PS: I know this music has been sitting around for awhile, so I’m glad to see that it’s going to see the light of day. But I also know that the idea of this band dates back more than just a couple of years. Can you tell me how this whole thing came together?

Jamie Backhouse: It was at Glastonbury during a Candie Payne show we did. I’d only known Ned probably a matter of days, but immediately we were forming a band. We spoke about music in the same way.

Ned Crowther: I love American music, but there’s this other side where I’ve always had an interest in British psychedelia, British folk music, and Jamie and I really connected on that level. At the time, it was before the folk revival—the Mumford and Sons-type thing—we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to bring some of that back?” To write in a very British folk style, but keep it rock and not twee with ukuleles and such. A few artists have been doing that in America for awhile – Devendra Banhart, Fleet Foxes. We just wanted to do a British version of that.

Backhouse: That band never happened. Every time we’d meet, we’d always say, “We’ve got to make that band happen.” It almost became a bit of a running joke. Four years go by, we’d meet up. “Oh yeah, we should still do that band.” There was kind of a sense it wasn’t going to happen, which felt like a bit of a shame. Myself and Ozzy got a bit sick of sessions—we were driving to rehearsals, and the music was fine, but we were just thinking, “You know what? I just want to play my own stuff.” I mentioned to him I’d been writing quite a lot and recording and Ozzy said, “Yeah, me too.” So we started to get together and come up with ideas.

Austin “Oz” Murphy: Life was catching up with us and it was a matter of: “We better do something before it’s too late.”

Crowther: I think we were often frustrated by the session life, where you’re very much at the mercy of changing whims and changing schedules. You’ve got no real creative outlet—you just do what you’re told. If you’re lucky, you get paid for it.

Murphy: Jamie and myself started playing in my loft trying to get some stuff together. We had a couple of bits. The first thing we got together in a demo form was “The Liar”—Jamie had this kind of folk guitar riff, but it didn’t have that bass behind it. We got a beat going behind it and a bit of synthesizer. He put down the guitar solo and I put down the bass, and then we thought, “This is quite interesting now.”

Backhouse: Ozzy and I realized that these ideas were just becoming songs. Three, four minutes and verse/chorus structures. They needed words, so we thought, “Well let’s get someone in to write with us who can sing.” The first person we thought of was Ned, which was quite a strange choice because he lives 300 miles away. [Laughter]

Murphy: We’d kind of lost touch with Ned after the Candie Payne thing, but we were always kind of thinking, “Do you think Ned will be into doing stuff? Is he busy?”

Backhouse: I don’t even think Ned fronted a band as a singer before, and I don’t know that I’d heard him sing prior to that. But I had a strong sense—and Ozzy did too—that Ned would be just a great fit.

 

PS: What effect did being separated by hundreds of miles have on the creative process?

Backhouse: The first thing we did was “Is This Man Bothering You?” Ned had a lyrical concept and it just fit straightaway. From there on, he’d come up every two months and we’d have a manic weekend of “Gotta finish a song! Gotta record a song!” Every session was just magic. He’d go away back home and we’d work on it in our own little sort of insular way. It was two processes, really: These mad weekends of intense creative group energy and then two months of me taking it away to do mixing and editing. Ozzy would whack a sax part down here and there.

Crowther: It was a really wonderful process. I would come up, we’d write or record a song, go away and live with it for a bit.

Murphy: A lot of the record was done over email. We never would’ve got it done otherwise, but it’s quite a hard way to work. The songs were all written as they were being recorded. Ned wrote all the lyrics with little tweaks from us—“Change this,” “Lose that verse,” etc.

Backhouse: We were never like the Beatles going, “This is the song—record it, finish it.” These things were growing over a period of three or four years. It was quite a weird creative process, but we had a sense early on we could come up with something quite special.

Crowther: When you make an album and there’s no expectations, you can say exactly what you want. It’s empowering.

 

PS: How long was the music around before Ned started adding lyrics to them?

Backhouse: Lots of the songs I brought in I’d tried with different writers. I’d tried the backing chords and picking for “Next Time Around,” “The Liar” and “New Brighton Sigh” with other writers and they didn’t quite work. I think it’s because I’m not a wordy person and I’m not a singer, so for me, it’s all about the initial feel of the music and where it comes from. “Fernweh” translates to trying to get to a specific place rather than general wanderlust. I think when I write, that initial feel takes me to a specific place. If I’m writing with someone who’s going to try to put words into that place, it has to fit. Whenever I tried to bring these ideas to other people, it was incongruous. The joy of working with Ned is that I’ll play him something and the first thing he gives me back is just, “Yes, that’s it.” That place I had in mind was specific but quite abstract. Ned has made that place accessible to people. He puts people into it. He has context and a story, whereas when I tried to write with other people it just has not fit. That’s why I held the ideas back so long. I thought, “Well, they’re quite special to me, so they have to be right when I do something with them.” Myself and Rob Stringer wrote the melody and chords to what became “New Brighton Sigh.” We gave it to Candie [Payne], who wrote a lovely thing with it, but we didn’t do anything at the time. Like lots of songs, it went by the by. I told her she should keep it cos it’s a nice piece of music, but I gave it to Ned and he went straight in there with this thing about this lovely old seaside town in the Wirral called New Brighton. As soon as he showed me what he was thinking lyrically, I said, “That is it. That’s perfect.” It was like it had always been like that. I just know that piece of music now as “New Brighton Sigh,” which is all you want from the songwriting process, I suppose.

 

PS: It’s interesting to me that for being such a “homemade” album, it really has a warm and beautiful sound. I know a few people have made the comment that some of the songs could fit right into Odessey and Oracle or The Village Green Preservation Society. Technology can turn anyone’s bedroom into a studio now, but how did you manage to get this sound?  

Murphy: Basically, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. [Laughter] We kind of knew what we didn’t want it to sound like—we didn’t want it to sound as if it’d been done on a computer, but we didn’t really know the tricks of Logic and how to chop things up and loop stuff. We’d just record takes and use the computer as a glorified tape recorder. I suppose if you were doing that in a studio, they’d say, “No, do it again,” until it was perfectly in time, you know? But we’d allow these little imperfections to come through, which added to the whole feel. I think that’s a bit of a problem with modern music—it’s too perfect in a lot of ways. It loses the human element. We had no choice but to have the human element. We didn’t know how to get rid of it.

Backhouse: If you open up “Next Time Around,” there’s three drum kits, five guitars, seven mellotrons—you’ve got so much control when you’re recording. You can spend five hours on a reverb sound, and it gets to be an obsession.

Murphy: What we did struggle with were acoustic guitars. We found it really hard to go direct into the computer. My idea of an acoustic guitar sound is like the Stones’ records from the early-to-mid 1970s. I don’t know how they recorded it—probably just a mic going into the desk. I think Jamie actually recorded onto four-track tapes and then onto the computer. But arriving at the overall sound of this record was really being naïve about the software and gung ho about recording techniques. Not being too precious and just going for it.

Crowther: One of the good things about the total collapse of the music industry is that you can do what you want. It’s less prescriptive because there aren’t any rules anymore. It makes it hard to get paid, but on the creative side, it’s really free. All those conventions about you go into a studio and you do it this way and that way have gone out the window. I was reading about how they did the drums on the last Gorillaz record, which is a $5 app called FunkBox. It’s a great sounding app we used on our record, but you’re making these big albums with a very simple, cheap app that’s available to all. It’s a technological punk revolution in some ways.

Murphy: FunkBox is amazing. I think I just heavily treated it with effects and distortion. That went on “The Liar,” and probably some percussion bits somewhere else. Apart from that, it was all live drums mostly recorded in my loft, maybe a weekend over in Jamie’s house doing vocals and saxes and trumpets. The only time we went into a studio was my cousin’s amazing studio in Hackney called Sausage Studios. That’s where we recorded the violins. The production was mostly a mix between me and Jamie. Ned would come up for a weekend, we’d do a song, and Jamie would be at the controls. He’d get fed up. I’d get my laptop out and work on another song ‘til I got fed up. [Laughter] We’d take it home and spend hours tweaking it.

Crowther: When you see these bands who are styled as very retro and it’s “Every little thing was all analog,” it’s just fetish nonsense to me. You have to use technology to your advantage. We know what we like. If I say to Jamie, “The guitars have to sound ‘Bagpuss’,” we have that shared generational and cultural context to know exactly what we’re talking about at that given moment. I could say, “That’s gotta sound New Morning, not Street Legal.” I think finding a sound is about knowing what you want more than anything else. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a little bit of wherewithal, but it’s trial and error.

Backhouse: The hardest thing is knowing when to stop. The album has sat on a Mac as a bunch of files for the last four years. I spent close to three hours a day just opening it up and playing with it. It’s addictive and I’ve become quite obsessive about it. But at the same time, look, you need an endpoint somewhere. We keep thinking, “Right, it’s finished. Leave it alone.” Then only a few weeks ago, we had a song called “Where Did the Sea Go,” and Ned says, “What do you think about adding a Russian spoken word intro?” I was going, “No!” But then straight after that, I’d be playing with the reverb panning on the same track. We just can’t leave it alone.

 

 

PS: It’s a different kind of music world now, where anyone can put their music up online—whether it’s just to show their friends or try to make a bit of money. You guys worked on these songs for so long and it seems like a very personal project where it would’ve been easy to just put it up on Soundcloud or something and leave it at that, so what does it mean for this record to be picked up by Skeleton Key?

Backhouse: I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but there was always something magical about releasing something—even down to the physical aspect of just having a cover and something to look at. The money’s not the reward, it’s the physical outcome to what you’ve done. Anybody can put an album out online, but to release something physically and do it through a good label as well is a great outcome. We kind of went into this thinking, “Let’s just make the best album we can and whatever happens happens.” To get it released by a really good label run by people who really are music fans is something we’re all happy with.

Crowther: On one hand, my time in the 747s was the dregs of that ‘00s era where you had A&R guys running around London in taxis on expense accounts. It was bonkers. The waste was silly. “Let’s go to L.A. to do the record!” In that era, everyone went to L.A. to do the record. It was real madness. But at the same time, MySpace came out, and I loved the first version of MySpace because it was like a Soviet-era social media. Everyone had four songs. There was no variation. I thought that was brilliant. It was like communist social media—everyone gets the same. But I think because of the generation we’re from, if I buy a book of poetry, I want Faber & Faber or someone to have published it. I want someone to have been there with quality control. I’m of the generation of great indie labels. I went to see Soundgarden in the early 1990s and got them to sign a 7-inch of “Rusty Cage” in person in a tiny little independent shop. I’m of that generation where Sub Pop meant good quality. I don’t want to spend all day on Facebook. I really don’t. The creativity of this generation’s fashion allowed us to make this album, but we didn’t want to self-release it. I still believe in labels. I still believe in fanzines and stuff like that.

Murphy: We’ve always had connections with the Coral and various Coral-related family going back years. Neville Skelly runs the day to day stuff with Skeleton Key—he’s cousin of James and Ian, and he’s a great singer in his own right. He’s always kind of around on the scene in Liverpool and I think through Paul Molloy, who’s in the Coral now and who was in the Zutons when I was doing that, our songs made their way through and they expressed a liking for it. It’s quite a bit of an honor to be approached by them. I love loads of stuff on their label—Edgar, Serpent Power, Nick Power. So Neville got in touch and said, “Can we do something?” And we were like, “Yeah, definitely.”

 

PS: Given that these songs built up over such a long period of time and got so much of your personal investment, was there any difficulty in surrendering them to a label and getting some outside notes about what worked or what might need to be cut?  

Crowther: I think you have to have a bit of humility and understand that when you’ve made a piece of work and spent so much time with it, your perspective on it isn’t entirely without bias. A good editor or a good label will come along and say, “You know what? That nine-minute bass solo is a little self-indulgent,” and that might not be the time to go, “What do you mean, man? That’s expression!” You accept it with humility and you say, “You probably got a point there. I’ll cut the nine-minute fuzz bass solo.” If Skeleton Key are like, “Maybe that’s not the single?” we listen. In the end, it’s been really positive. We’ve trimmed the fat a little bit. We’ve tightened songs up instead of dropping them. Maybe cut two long choruses here and there. It’s been a positive thing.

Murphy: Everyone has their own emotional attachment to different songs on the album. It would cause a few eruptions if we started taking things off at this point.

Backhouse: The thing is that when you hear something on the radio, it doesn’t just belong to the three of us anymore. Two new members have joined for the live shows and people have heard it. It’s not just ours anymore. It belongs to everyone that knows about it.

 

PS: You guys are going to be on the road a lot more to promote the record, but after that, then what? Is the Fernweh a one off thing or will there be more to hear from the band?

Backhouse: I still think there’s a lot of individual things going on in the band—not in a “last chance saloon” way—but there’s a lot of meaning in this record in terms of just finally getting it done. If someone you like asks you to play guitar for them, you never want to say never, but we all have babies now and the time we do have, most of it has gone into this. We all do the odd bit of session things—Ozzy did the Stairs reunion, Ned still does the odd bit, but this is what I’m focusing on and I’d like to do more.

Crowther: Jamie has a very, very interesting musical vocabulary and Ozzy’s incredibly talented and can play just about anything—we’ve all probably got an opinionated perspective on how we see things creatively, but I’d love to do a record that’s totally different next—maybe step out of the thinking space for awhile and more into a groove/good feeling and party space. That could be interesting.

Murphy: I think we’re going to plow into the next album. Everyone’s got some bits—same scenario as last time, so we’ll do it the same way. Home style recording, under our own steam. We’ll be ready to speak to you about in about 15 years’ time. [Laughter]

See the Fernweh’s answers to our “Five Questions” here

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