We met Philip Selway and Adrian Utley before their show at the Georgian Theatre in Stockton-on-tees – their fourth this year – to discuss Philip’s new record, Strange Dance, and also to look back on his solo career and their musical relationship. [Versión en español]
Previously, we also spoke to Stewart Geddes, the artist in charge of the artwork for the record.
How do you feel so far in this first part of your tour?
It’s been really good! The first week was all about Independent Venue Week and it’s such a wonderful event to be part of. Nationwide, there’s over 300 venues celebrating what independent venues offer. It’s a really lucky place to start this next stage.
Thinking back to when Radiohead were playing in independent venues and looking back to what we got out of that process I realised we got a chance to play every night in supporting and nurturing places – on the whole – and that’s what I’m finding at the moment. For me it’s getting back to the front of the stage again, which I haven’t done in quite a bit, so it’s kind of finding my way back into that. It’s lovely to see when the music lands and you connect with the people, but it’s also just as it was in the early days with Radiohead.
Because of the scale of the record [Strange Dance], there was no way we could replicate that in this environment, so we also had to rethink the arrangements – Adrian and Quinta are playing with me, and they played very important roles on the record – and also the amazing Chris Vatalaro – who played with me in some of the Rambert Dance Company shows in the past, reimagining the works of Merce Cunningham. It’s going back to the heart of the record really … we had to rethink a lot of the arrangements. This week has been about that mainly and also getting my head around the technical things: I got three guitars there, keyboards, I’m playing bass… there’s a lot of shifting around and wires to trip over. I’m finding my way around that.
What do you feel has been the greatest learning in your solo career?
The greatest experience in that has been the amazing musical collaborations I’ve been able to build up in that time, which I think really informed how I wanted to make Strange Dance. It’s kind of like over a decade’s work, which started with Quinta – we’ve been working together for a long time [since 2011’s Running Blind]. I like building up those musical relations … it’s what we did in Radiohead, and there’s something, a richness that comes from that.
And for me it’s been a really good contrast to being in Radiohead as well – we played together almost exclusively for such a long time, and to be able to step out of that and find these kind of other aspects of your musicality is really important. And I’ve been so lucky with the people who’ve agreed to work with me.
What’s next for Strange Dance?
For singles, I’d like to do a quartet of pieces [the first two being “Check for Signs of Life” and “Picking up Pieces”]. If it goes according to plan, there’ll be a video for “Strange Dance”, and for “The Heart of it All”, I think. There is a lovely narrative thread throughout it.
I love what’s happening with the videos, but we’re halfway through it at the moment.
We also had the chance to speak with Adrian Utley, who explained how he became a part of Strange Dance.
“He [Philip[ asked me, basically … really out of the blue. We’d done some work with Quinta [and himself] for Rambert, and that’s how we started working together – I enjoyed it; it was very different from this.”
“When we were doing this in Italy, we talked about writing and projects and he mentioned he had started to write a new album; I didn’t get asked there and then, but we were there from the very embryonic start of it – acoustic guitar demos, and piano, and very rudimentary sketches. But he wasn’t stuck on those – we could do what we wanted, and things grew out of that. We [Quinta and me] went from a sideways angle, an unconventional way – I guess that’s why he asked me and Quinta to do it. I’m always looking for different ways of making sounds – whether it is with the guitar or with synths.”
Strange Dance – track by track guide
Philip took us through his new record and picked up his highlights of each song, and a key piece of lyrics.
This was the very first track I started working on; the basis of it came out of my home studio, so there’s a lot of synth textures at the beginning, some of the sounds going through, the piano is in there. I had the scale of it in mind and it started to come to life [with the rest of the people in the studio] .. Adrian played a sweeping line in the Moog. The real feature of the song for me is the string and brass arrangement, because it certainly gave this really high ceiling to everything. The reference we drew on was something like John Barry. The arrangement was the last thing that we added to the track and it really brightened up the track.
Key lyrics: “Their unbearable lies will make fools of us all”.
What Keeps You Awake at Night
With every song in the record, I went into the studio with the basic structures in place, just enough to know they worked as songs that could be guitar, piano and a vocal. Then, the attitude in the studio was like “all of that can come out”, and that was the starting point.
This song was very different in its original form – an acoustic guitar song. What underpins the track is the motifs on the Rhodes, and the combination with Valentina Magaletti’s tuned percussion. It has a feeling of a Steve Reich song. It created this bed, which everything else weaves in and out of.
key lyrics: “as the world around falls apart, leave a light on in the dark”.
Check for Signs of Life
The key element I think is the string arrangement. I think the song goes through a lot of modulation points and I think that string arrangement pulls everything together, and gives that ceiling to everything.
Also, Valentina’s drums are a highlight; it’s just incredible… wonderful textures there, lovely movement throughout and hits great peaks and points.
key lyrics: “hope lies between the lines”
Picking up Pieces
We recorded my guitar as a series of tape loops, and after we finished, Marta left the tapes outside, deliberately, for about 2 weeks; the degradation process gave the recording some texture, and we built everything else around that. So I think her treatment of the guitar is a very element to this track.
key lyrics: “watching you falter, watching you wait for your life to begin”.
The Other Side
The highlight of this song has to be Laura’s string arrangement. Going into that one, I had two references: Mark Holis solo album and “Into my Arms” by Nick Cave… I was trying to keep that song quite sparse, keep the space but the strings bring harmonic variation and this sense of warmth that make the song feel like it’s wrapping around you; also, the strings bring a lovely lift, a wonderful dynamic through it. The sounds spiral and grow tall, and there’s also a very crescent vocal in it – which is what I wanted to do with all the vocals really; kind of “hit you there”, a bit like bed-talk.
This one kind of epitomises the wavelength I wanted to achieve with the record; these larger soundscapes that can wrap around you.
key lyrics: “what are you gonna do when I meet you on the other side, deny it all an carry on like nothing ever changed”.
Valentina’s drum patterns completely opened up the potential in that track; it had been a piano ballad before – which was pretty – but Valentina’s drumming gave that space, that scope for everybody else to build this weird and wonderful orchestration on it. I think one of the key elements in it was Hannah Peel did: this wandering, semi operatic, part ethereal vocal part which started to move after, out of the original tonality. It then kind of fed into it and created a space where brass could go. It just ended up with all these elements, which can feel very disparate but somehow they just knitted together; I’m really proud of how that one turned out because it’s got very much it’s own life.
key lyrics: “I’m all-out, a hollowed brittle fool”.
Make it Go Away
I spent ages with that one in my home studio, trying to learn how to record it on my acoustic guitar. In someway, it was like the first time I did this; I was actually trying get some sort of quality out of an acoustic guitar, just me and figuring my way through it; that was so satisfying to get out, to work an usable sound – which is on the record. That song keys around the acoustic guitar and that was the first real complete demo I did, which then became a track, where I thought “that’s good, that’s actually going somewhere”.
key lyrics: “well, this doesn’t work, it’s a pale imitation”.
The Heart of It All
The highlight for this song has to be the strings again; that wave of strings which take off at the end. Laura Moody repurposed arrangements that the London Contemporary Orchestra had played and it was just incredible to listen to that in the studio; the sound is very large sound. Another special element to it is a part that Hannah added to over that section.
key lyrics: “what happened? you’re in pieces”
It’s a song that started off in a very different way. If you go down through the layers in the recordings, eventually you come down to my original take on it – there’s a guitar on there, which is very pretty, just like a Nick Drake kind of thing. And there’s a version in there that can work between that and what Valentina did. But the real highlight has to be the combination of Adrian and Quinta
Once we got to the studio, they were like “that’s nice [the original] but let’s see what we can do”. We worked around the guitar at the time, which was lovely, but we saw there was another potential way there; they set on these drone sounds between them. After that, we still have the melody going through, but we had to change the harmony around that and kind of pedal around this drone, and all the textures that they’d managed to weave in and out of that drone; I think that’s what really defines that song.
key lyrics: “I have made a promise to myself that I would bend to you and no one else”.
There’ll Be Better Days
When you listen to the track, there’s a smaller element in some way – as you’ve got these lovely orchestrations in there again, Valentina’s percussion underneath with these rasping textures and stuff – but [the highlight is] what Quinta did with a Yamaha keyboard – an old one, where you can sample the voice. She sang these little motifs that appear at the start of the coda, and that [the hightlight] for me – this kind of wistful part that she wrote; there’s a lovely texture in there and that kind of set the tone of the piece for me, which is lovely.
key lyrics: “there’ll be better days”