Now Jim may well be found “in the kitchen at parties” (bedroom, more like!) – but Tim Burgess is now the self-proclaimed Twitter DJ to end all Twitter DJ’s. Since pretty much the beginning of lockdown he has held “listening parties” on Twitter. The concept being, we all join up online and listen to an album together all simultaneously and tweet along with our thoughts on the tracks and sounds, etc.
It is a thing that Simple Minds International on Facebook have been doing for some time. And when lockdown started, I did my bit by being “DJ”/host of a couple of the SMI Playbacks, though the majority have been held by SMI page creator and admin extraordinaire, Gordon Machray, with another helper who may wish not to be named on here and myself helping latterly.
Back to Tim’s parties on Twitter. On Monday one of the albums up for listening to was Warm Digits’ Flight Of Ideas. Anyone who has visited this blog in recent months will know how I feel about this dynamic duo of men. Other than Simple Minds, Warm Digits are just about my favourite band in the world – and certainly, along with Ruts DC and The Stranglers, an absolute favourite live act. And mercifully one of the acts I got to see live in 2020 before Corona caused chaos.
I wasn’t feeling well on Monday night, so I unfortunately missed tuning in and joining along but amazingly, you are able to watch and listen via a replay. Not as much fun as taking part live, but still a way to enjoy what was missed.
For almost a decade now, Warm Digits have been producing great music. First forming and producing live improv jam sessions together in the mid-2000s, the key duo of Steve Jefferis and Andrew Hodson will soon be celebrating the 10th anniversary of debut album release, Keep Warm, in 2021. Two other albums followed. The conceptual Interchange, released in 2013, was an experimental album that was also released with a film inspired by photography and illustrations drawn from the Tyne and Wear Archives, of the 1970s’ biggest civil engineering project on Tyneside – the construction of Metro. In 2017, they released Wireless World, with new lyrical elements adding an extra layer to their already signature sound, with guest vocal appearances by Peter Brewis of Field Music and Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, among others. The album was widely lauded.
And now a new album is due for release on April 3rd, 2020. Singles released so far from the album include The View From Nowhere – featuring song-writing and vocal input from Scots musician Emma Pollock, Fools Tomorrow – featuring Maximo Park’s Paul Smith on vocal duties, and the gorgeous Everyone Nervous – featuring the wonderful Rozi Plain on vocals.
On the back of the album’s imminent release, I had the opportunity to interview Steve Jefferis to discuss the album and other probing questions. A transcript follows.
So, the first question I have is that you seem to be writing more songs with lyrics now and has it been a natural progression to do that?
To an extent, yes. The difference this time is that we knew from the start that we wanted to do vocal songs. And that people just seem to like them, really, and I guess they do make it [the music] more accessible generally. So, we had that in mind this time whereas with Wireless World it evolved a bit strangely that record. We actually completed it as a completely instrumental album. We had been thinking about doing vocals for a long time and a few people whose opinions we kind of respected and cared about thought we should think seriously about doing it. Others could hear that those songs could maybe kind of benefit from vocals. So we thought, well, “we’ll give it a go.” And that’s why that record took years and years to complete because we’d finished it, but then we went back, started talking to vocalists and then had to re-edit the songs to incorporate the vocals and then it ended up the record it was. This time having felt that the vocal idea went quite well on Wireless World we thought, well, “what can we do next?” So when we were writing the songs we were much more mindful that the vocalists would come in on this and so we wrote up to a point and went to the vocalists at an earlier stage. There was a lot more to-ing and fro-ing between us and the vocalists this time around.
There is also a track on the album that has a vocal that isn’t done by a guest vocalist. It is actually me singing. It is mentioned on the album’s sleeve notes that I am singing vocals on the album. I’m quite nervous about it and not sure if I really want it known that it’s me. How it came about was, when we were looking for vocalists for the tracks, I did guide vocals just to say this is what we have in mind for the melody, etc. Andy heard those and said “you know you can hold a tune, Steve, do you want to think about singing?” and I really didn’t want to. We had done the title track, Flight Of Ideas, as an instrumental but it didn’t really seem to work as an instrumental piece. So we thought maybe we should end up singing on this and that’s what we ended up doing. And I think it has come out okay.
Well you kind of did answer the second question I had as a consequence and talking about this. What I was going to ask was when you started out, did you see yourselves as a purely instrumental band?
When we started, it was all improvised. We’d play live with a synth bassline on a loop and then Andy would play and I would play improv on the guitar and after a while we’d get bored and start off another bassline, so it was all completely improvised and then at the point when Andy moved away from Newcastle we thought, we’re not sure this band is going to survive so let’s go into a studio and just record some of the improvisation and that worked quite well and that then turned into the album [Keep Warm], edited down from those improv jams. Tracks like Weapons Destruction, for example, were made up on the spot around the bassline and then edited down. So there has been two evolutions of Warm Digits, really. One is the evolution of very early improvisation to something much more song based, which is one of the big things that’s happened over the last two albums, and then the evolution from pure instrumental to vocal.
I think the label would be quite happy if we’d have given them an album with 10 vocal tracks.
Yeah. They really love it. You know, they’ve got their eye on things that are going to hook people in or catch peoples’ ear on the radio and although I am very happy that people like the vocal tracks I am also feeling having part of the past two albums as instrumentals feels important as it is still an integral part of the band.
That’s what really hooked me in with you guys was that you are – or were – an instrumental led band. To me it feels the emphasis on instrumentals in rock and pop music has been lost in recent times.
Yes, I agree. For instance, when you saw us Glasgow I think we did three instrumental tracks and three vocal tracks in the set, and that felt like a good mix…that it’s not “Oh, they’re doing an instrumental now to sort of pad everything out”, that actually this is the kind of band we are and the vocals are special guests.
So when you’re writing the songs with lyrics on them, are those ideas for the lyrics happening first or is it a musical piece first before it’s being worked on lyrically?
It is, absolutely [the latter]. If not finished instrumentals then at least coherent songs in their own right before any lyrics evolve.
Do you ever have any title ideas? Like is there something like just words that seem to develop a track or is it all just musically driven?
The titles are right at the heart of everything actually. That’s a good question. When we were purely instrumental all instrumental bands have the problem of “what on earth are we going to call that song?”, because there are no lyrics to take a line from. That was one of the things that got us thinking about concepts for the records. Not for the first album, but for Interchange and for Wireless World, we started working with an idea of what the album could loosely be about and then just thinking of song titles. We both have a background in electronic music, you know like Warp Records, electronica and one of things that those bands often do is to have completely nonsense song titles that are like, you know, a kind of glitchy computer malfunction type. We wanted to get away from that as we felt that would seem a bit of a cop out, so let’s give these proper titles even if they are not vocal tracks. Then what happened from there with Wireless World is we had all the song titles for the instrumentals and the vocalists took the titles and used that as inspiration for the lyrics they wrote. And that was…not in all the cases but in quite a lot of cases. It was a case on this record as well, like The View From Nowhere had a title from the start. We listen out for phrases and ideas that have a ring to them and keep on a list as potential front runners.
That was the next question I was going to ask about, was your collaboration with Emma Pollock on The view From Nowhere. Was Emma involved in the writing of the lyrics?
Yes, that’s right. It is mixed on this record. Some of the lyrics are ours but that one she wrote the entirety of the lyrics. We fed her the title and the kind of idea that was in our minds originally for that…the short conceptual idea of what it could be about and she took that and wrote words around that. There was a bit of back and forth. She did a demo and we suggested a tinkering to a couple of the lines but yeah, that’s all her work. I’m really pleased with how that one came out lyrically. I’ve always been a fan of her work and she has this way of writing these lyrics that are very elusive in a sense that…you can get a sense of what they’re about but they are quite hard to pin down the actual meaning. And that is true of…well, I hope it is true of that song. That is why I am so pleased with it as she did exactly what I was hoping she would do with it.
This is going to sound a really pedantic question, in retrospect. The bass on Replication…do you play the bass parts?
Yes. And that is one of the other things that has evolved over time. It used to all just be synth bass but since we wrote End Times [a track on the Wireless World album] which had that really funky bassline on it, and it just seemed to work, there has been more bass guitar on the songs. I think that song did originally have a synth bass on it as well. How that came about was…that was one of the ones where it was written in the style in which we always used to write, which is to have a synth loop going and just play along with it and you play for a while and then something eventually jumps out and you think “oh, yeah, that could work”.
You’re a father to two young children. So how do you manage the work/life balance?
Oh, God! Well…we kind of don’t in that I don’t think we do it particularly successfully. I spend a lot of my time quite tired and quite stressed because they’re the priorty. I have a day job as well. And so there’s that and the travelling and then the band. I mean…I suppose the answer is it just kind of fits in the gaps, really. And with a lot of support and understanding from my wife who’s enabling it to happen.
There can be advantages to it in the sense that, like, with this record we just needed to get it done because we had so little time. So it can help you to focus a bit because, you know, I’ve got a little bit of time on a Wednesday during the day when I’m not at work to do music whereas 10 years ago I would have probably just noodled around and maybe have come up with something useful but mostly have done nothing productive at all.
And the way technology is these days, you can record from home. You don’t need to be in a studio to record. Andy and I don’t need to be in a studio together to work on things. There are still advantages to being in a studio. You’re working with an engineer and things. But the freedom you have to work at your own time and pace and the quality of home recording now is…well. Andy is more of the technically-minded one, really. He does the production, the mixing and mastering and everything that makes it sound like a proper record. And he tidies up all my mistakes. He makes sure everything is recorded properly. So Andy and I do it all from home.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with in future recordings? If so, who would be your dream collaborator?
I mean, I’ll take this question as to mean vocal collaboration? Well, we have done a music collaboration before with Field Music [a BBC Radio session that happened in January, 2012, between both bands that was produced as a 10” vinyl record]. But I think me and Andy are so…we’ve just got our way of working together musically that just works. I’m thinking about vocals… Well, do you know what? For this album we did sit down and write a long list of who is on our dream vocal collaborator’s list, knowing that from the off most of them we wouldn’t stand a chance of getting but the one at the time of my list was Sufjan Stevens. He’s an amazing singer-songwriter. He’s been nominated for an Oscar [for Best Original Song for Mystery Of Love in the film Call Me By Your Name in 2018]. He made two albums about two American states. I suppose you’d say he’s folk rock? He just has a beautiful voice and writes very emotional songs that just make you cry. He made an album called The Age Of Adz. It’s much more electronic. I think it’s a beautiful album. So, yes. I would definitely die happy if we were ever able to get him.
One of the other ones on my dream list would be…one of my favourite bands growing up was Wire – they’re a British post punk band who are still going. Again the vocalist, Colin Newman, has an incredible emotional voice – and we’ve done a cover version of one of his songs – which is actually an instrumental. But I consider them [Wire] and him [Newman] a big influence on us. So that would be my other dream collaboration were it to have the chance to happen.
Okay, this one kind of leads on again from what we’ve just discussed. These questions are blending in very well! I love the description of your sound in the press release for Flight Of Ideas – “ If Can met Chemical Brothers in a fireworks factory.” It mentions musical influences like Steve Reich, could you expand on the musical influences that you have?
Okay, sure. Well, the simplest thing to say is one of the things our previous manger used to describe us is – if My Bloody Valentine played Krautrock. Which is not far off the original idea of the band. We both come from backgrounds in more pure electronic music. We used to play laptop electronica and that is how Andy and I started collaborating. Quite quickly we discovered that it was really hard to make that kind of music exciting live because you’re just standing on stage with a laptop, essentially. Andy had always drummed but he just hadn’t been drumming on our collaborations and so he just started drumming along in rehearsals and it sounded amazing. So we thought “oh, this is good!” and eventually I picked up the guitar. But there had always been this electronic undercurrent to it.
So I suppose the three influences mainly are the classic electronic music, like Kraftwerk, then through to techno and acid house grooves and more contemporary electronic music like the kind of Warp Records type electronica and then cosmic disco and Scandinavian stuff like Lindstrom were the big electronic influences.
The second lot of influences come from Krautrock – particularly Neu! Can, up to a point, and Kraftwerk – that kind of rhythm seemed to just work really well really quickly when we started playing and it’s a lot of fun to play and feel you can – particurlarly when we’re improvising – you can just play that rhythm for hours and find new things to discover in it.
And the the third set of influences comes from guitar led music, in particular shoe-gazing, so – for Andy as well – but for me, in particular, I’ve always been a massive fan of bands like My Bloody Valentine and the noisier of the shoe-gazing bands. There’s an American band called Medicine who are absolute favourites of mine. And so those blends of influences felt like quite a new thing to do when we started out, blending the sounds of electronic music with Kraurock and shoe-gazing guitar over it. I think Andy has probably got a wider set of influences than me so if he were here I think he might be talking a bit more about jazz. There’s certainly a big sort of jazz element in his drumming, although generally the rhythms are more Krautrock or Indy sounding but the way he plays is quite improvisational, really, so he would probably have that in there.
Off the back of the electronic influences there’s also the more minimalist and classical end as well, we mentioned Steve Reich earlier, that has a looping, repeating electronic motif on it. That wave of American minimalist guys, really. I’m worried I’ve missed out who Andy would say, but you’ll have to do with my version of names and influences.
The next question is what would be your ‘go to’ album on a good day?
Okay. Now I find this really difficult to answer you see because…
Or, conversely, the album of solace for you on a bad day? So the yin and yang of what would be an uplifting one and what would be your wallowing one, I guess?
Erm…I’ll take the – I dunno what this means but – the solace one comes much more readily to mind. I might mention Richard Dawson, actually. A singer and guitarist from Newcastle. He put out a record called Nothing Important, which – particularly the title track – is incredibly emotionally powerful and very sad but kind of compelling. I’m not sure if I draw solace from it but it is something I would go to if I’m not feeling great. Or the other might be a favourite record of mine and Andy’s which is Music Has The Right To Children by Boards Of Canada. There’s real melancholy in there…which is not always easy to do in a record but it also has an eerie quality to it. I think it’s great.
The uplifting stuff would be kind of…indy pop. The Pastels – the Glasgow band. But I can’t think of one particular album off the top of my head right now. We might have to come back to this one.
So, getting back to the album itself, to me, Fools Tomorrow and False Positive in particular, those two tracks seem to be the more obvious move away from the usual sort of Krautrock motorik led sound and have more of the funk element to them. So where has….if you can articulate it…where do you feel this more funk based sound has come from?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean Fools Tomorrow was Andy’s song and that came from the rhythm. I think what it came from was he was just playing around with drum loops and he layered on two loops and came up with this thundering rhythm that that song’s got and it just worked quite quickly because it’s like “Ooh, we haven’t had one like this before”, but that rhythm’s amazing. So that song came from Andy playing around with drum loops and finding something that really worked as a groove. False Positive is one of mine and I think it came from finding a bit of confidence on Wireless World with the more disco-y tracks – End Times and The Rumble And The Tremor – and just being interested to see if we really turned this up a notch and made it really funky what would that be like? So False Positive has got this kind of ridiculous 80s synth on it, slightly cheesy and I tried it and I thought “oh, God, can we get away with it?”
It was FAB live! I really loved you guys performing it live at Saint Luke’s. It really worked.
Oh, that’s good to hear because I think I enjoy it but I think it’s one of the ones, partly because I think…so, one of the other things that comes from this album is they [the songs] were written in the studio solo. So False Positive, for example, I sent to Andy fairly complete but not fully formed and so one of the things with the track is that the groove hasn’t grown out of him playing drums on it. When we started to play it live, it was like “oh, god, how do I play this” and it wasn’t feeling natural to him at first. But as we’ve continued to play it live, it seems to be working really well. So it’s good to get that feedback that it works because between the two of us we were thinking “oh, does the feel right when we play it live?”, we weren’t too sure.
So, yeah. It basically emerged from me thinking if we tried to turn up the funkiness from the kind of songs we were doing on the last album what would that sound like and that’s what came out. Also with it being our 4th album in, there is quite a bit on there that is recognisably us, but there’s also things where we’ve tried to stretch things a bit or push the edges of what we’ve done before by experimenting a little bit. So that is part of the idea as well, like, what rhythm hadn’t we tried before that could work within the palette of sounds that we’re familiar with.
I have two questions left. Well, I think they’re two. I can see that there maybe questions within questions, potentially.
I have to say the tracks (for me), I’m Okay You’re Okay, and Everyone Nervous, as well as that bridge break in Fools Tomorrow – they’re the really emotional pieces for me.
So the question from that is, what do you hope people get from listening to your music? And would you hope that there would be visceral feelings that come from that? Do you hope there’s an emotional impact for people?
Yeah, yeah. That’s a really good question. I think both, really. The visceral one is probably the first thing. Largely because the band emerged out of that we want to do something that’s safe live and that people really enjoy to see, so that impact was the first thing we went for, But, you know you’ve got to have a bit of rage as well. I am very pleased that there are emotional elements too. If it is sparked off even just by a chord change, something like that…if it just makes you want to sigh or something like that. I have always felt that element of music is very compelling. There are songs where we try to put those elements in – I’m Okay You’re Okay is probably the one I think we’ve done it most successfully on. That was a difficult song to get right. It’s been kicking around for years. And it used to be a disco song. Andy wrote the song but got fed up with it but I really loved the emotional feeling of the chord sequences and thought “I’m not going to give this up, we’re going to try and make it work” and so we redid it as a Krautrock song and had this synth melody on the top of it.
It is the melody that does it. Its’s the thing that gives the song it’s emotional impact.
Thank you. I hear a yearning quality to it. And it is a lot quieter song than we normally do so that feels good to have that bit of space.
Final question (questions!) and I’m worried this might seem some kind of loaded question.
How important is the idea of commercial success for you? At a point we are at the moment where, you know, people are exposed to music more than ever before. Do you think that there is less importance attached to music in younger generations? Does it concern you? Or do you think it’s just a cyclical phase?
I mean, as far commercial potential goes it’s not overly important to us at all. What does feel important is that it’s got a platform for people to be able hear it. So it’s just brilliant that Memphis Industries picked up on the last record and wanted to do it because that opens the door to radio and festivals and bigger gigs that never would have happened otherwise. You know, we’re quite happy kind of being a Newcastle band with a decent following locally and not much else. But it feels great to have a platform. I mean, but you know… I’m not sure we would get on well with a big kind of bump in popularity because then it would feel that the stakes go up.
Going back to your question earlier about how we juggle it alongside other commitments, I mean that would be what makes me anxious because it’s like if the expectations go up about touring or whatever, then that’s hard on a personal level. I mean, I hope it doesn’t sound like a cop out. It’s lovely that people get the chance to hear it but beyond that, we are not particurlay ambitious about [success] on a commercial level.
Part of the question was about generational differences. I’ve got no idea what music culture is like for teenagers these days, but I do feel nostalgic for how it was when I was growing up which revolved around the weekly music papers of the UK – the NME and the like – and the the new bands you’d discover and go and see live.
I think when I was younger the scarcity of music in the sense that…I mean you had the radio and that…but you had to buy it, really, if you wanted to listen to it repeatedly. And so I think it was that scarcity that drove your curiosity. And so I don’t know how that works now because we’ve all got infinite music at our fingertips now. So I don’t know whether that plays a part in why it seems younger folk place less importance on it.
I do see younger people around who are passionate about music and attached to particular bands, so I think it’s still happening but is perhaps less of a unifying culture than it was in the past.
The current single from the album – the sublime Everyone Nervous.
The follow up to 2017’s Wireless World sees the Newcastle duo expand on the lyrics and guest vocalists and they take the funk up a notch too! A fantastic trip into the topical point of how not every idea we have is the right idea and should be executed blindingly.
Following is my track-by-track thoughts on the new album.
Track one – Frames And Cages: Bang up-to-date but with undertones of Eastern mysticism and the soft wave of the signature Warm Digits sound. Pulsing rhythms through it. Love the ending. A strong album opener.
Track two – Feel The Panic (feat. The Lovely Eggs): First time I listened to it I felt it should have been the lead single, just my opinion. Great catchy lyrics. “Are you infallible? Or just gullible?” Andy’s drumming is a highlight on this. Great guitar licks from Steve as well. They bring out such a big sound for a duo. This track could currently not be any more topical!
Track three – The View From Nowhere (feat. Emma Pollock): A bit more of a laidback groove from the guys this track. Again, great lyrics. Great guitar licks from Steve.
Track four – I’m Okay, You’re Okay: The melody! I love this track. I actually find it very emotional. It’s reminiscent of something off Autobahn for me – just….the emotional impact of it. Gorgeous electronica. But also very organic. A very signature Warm Digits track for me.
Track five – Fools Tomorrow (feat. Paul Smith): Wow! What a track! The funk weaving through and Paul Smith’s voice works ssooo well with the sound. And the beat break around the three minute mark in the song? Divine! Again, tracks on this album are becoming incredibly topical.
Track six – Replication: Again, the melody that starts the track just pulls you in and then Andy drums like an animal. Great bass work and then manic but gorgeous waves of melody and riffs. Something pentatonic with the beat at times. Then another gorgeous beat break around the three minute mark. The bass on this is sublime!
Track seven – Shake The Wheels Off (feat. The Orielles): More funk coming along, but perhaps toned down a little compared to others. Great electronics on it and fab hooks and riffs going on in it. Again very catchy. “A real bone-shaker”, as the song says.
Track eight – Everyone Nervous (feat. Rozi Plain): Beautiful electronics and Andy’s drumming on it is fab. Great guitar reverbs towards the end of the track as well. Rozi Plain’s voice is so wonderful emotive. I find this a wonderfully soft and emotional piece. It actually gives me those goosebump chills of electricity when I play it.
Track nine – False Positive: TURN UP THE FUNK! Wow! Was blown away by this when they performed it at St Luke’s in Glasgow back in February. Great synth melody over the top too. Something you can really just funk out to. Might actually be my fave track on the whole album. If not then…it’s really up there!
Track ten – Flight Of Ideas: These guys really are the modern masters of the looped groove for me. I just love absolutely everything they produce. And – hidden singing sensation on the track – the one and only Steve Jefferis!
A cohesive collection of songs. A maturing of sound, I feel. A little less emphasis on the more motorik sound they had. They have certainly increased the funk ratio and the influences of the electronica that the band originally sprouted from has returned somewhat, but also matured.
Standout tracks for me are: Fools Tomorrow, Replication, Everyone Nervous and False Positive.
A very solid 4.5 stars out of five.
Flight Of Ideas is released on April 3rd, 2020, on the Memphis Industries label and can be pre-ordered online at the Warm Digits store. Click the LINK HERE for details.