Catching Up With The Monsters

It’s been 2 years since your first album, Ground. What have you been up to?

We started recording the follow up to Ground, “Lie” in May 2015 but we had a lot of distractions. We put a lot of time into rehearsing our live show, made three music videos and also recorded two non-album tracks for different projects.

Two of the music videos were for tracks from Ground. For ‘The Engagement’ we recut footage from an old ‘swords-and-sandals’ gladiator movie now in the public domain which was a lot of fun. For ‘Sea Stories’ we were more ambitious and filmed original footage – in typically freezing and wet English weather – which was less fun. But we’re very proud of the outcome. It’s also the first video to feature the band. We filmed it in some woods on the outskirts of London and around the Kent coast.

We were invited to play at a small arts festival in Kent too, hosted in a medieval church, so we took the opportunity to record a live performance of the track ‘Drawing’ with that stunning backdrop. ‘Drawing’ is a song based on a poem by the late South African writer Ingrid Jonker who committed suicide in the mid 60s. We were invited to submit a track based on her work along with 30 or so other artists for an album called Die Kind Is Nog Jonger (“The Child Is Even Younger”). We couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so took some time out to write and record this song, which we love.

What was the response to that?

The compilation album was very warmly received and featured many artists we were very proud to be played alongside. We were thrilled when the music critic for a major Cape Town daily newspaper, Die Burger, named ‘Drawing’ as a “standout track”.

And the other non-album track?

We recorded a song ‘After Charlie’ as a response to the attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, which targeted Jewish people. We donated the proceeds to a UK charity which fights anti-semitism.

How did the live shows go?

We don’t play live as much as we’d like to. It’s a combination of the shrinking live music scene and the fact that we focus more on recording. But as a band you have to put yourself out there, so we’ve played a few special shows. Just after Ground came out we were involved in a show to raise money for Medicins Sans Frontiers. Brett and David were in the house band dubbed “The Half Decents” and Chris was doing the sound engineering, so it made sense to twist Dean’s arm into coming along to play the first set as The Sighs of Monsters. It was a great show with The Half Decents and raised several thousand Pounds for MSF.

It’s the sort of show we like doing too, so we pitched in to play two shows for Oxjam, which raises money for Oxfam’s relief programme.

We also did a live on-air acoustic set for Croydon Radio which was a lot of fun. Dean and Brett played acoustic guitars, Chris brought his congas and tambourine and David swapped his keyboards for an accordion and concertina. The result was very ‘different’ versions of some album tracks. I think we put it up on our Facebook page.

Another highlight for us was supporting a very eccentric German folk/roots artist who calls himself the “Dad Horse Experience” at The Bird’s nest in Deptford. We’re now fans of DHE. Check out his mad music on Soundcloud!

How did you approach making Lie?

Well, we decided to take our time about it. We approached it with the same structural ethos we used with Ground, that is that it would be a ‘classic’ album format – around 45 minutes long, and split into two (virtual) halves, and that it would have, not so much a theme, but an emotional arc. We recorded more songs than we needed but then agonised over which ones fitted together to form a satisfying listening experience. The selection changed at least once, and we tweaked the running order several times.

During the recording process, we scrapped a few versions of songs and started again. Most songs start with a rough demo by the writer, but they don’t become TSOM songs until we’ve put our collective heads together. Dean is meticulous about vocals and will never let anything slide. We’ll do take after take until he’s happy, and on occasion we’ll go back to it months later because he’s lived with it and feels he can do better or that he’d like to try a different approach.

Is there such a thing as “over-production”?

Of course there is, but we’re very careful. Our mission is not to get everything ‘perfect’, but to make everything ‘deliberate’. We don’t let mistakes through if we can help it, but we do let accidents happen. If an accident happens and an unplanned part or mistake sounds great or adds to the artistic effect we want, we leave it. In fact, we may even deliberately repeat it when we arrange the song for playing live. A good part of the recording process is having the creative space to be fearless.

What do you mean by that?

Well, we’re all introverts and I guess because of that we have no real egos or desire for competition. Artistically this is a real advantage, because we don’t mind trying things without fear of failure. In recording we don’t have the same assigned roles we have when we perform, for example, and this can sometimes have unpredictable results, some of which are magical. On ‘Superman In The Silence’, for instance, we wanted to create a feeling in the vocals of a drunk holding forth about his sorrows to a barman. Dean decided the best way to achieve this was to sing it drunk, so the normally very sober Mr Sobers had a few shots of neat scotch and sang his heart out. A heroic sacrifice of sobriety for art, but the result was both subtle and astounding.

The same applies to our lyrics. Many of our songs are deeply personal and deal with some raw issues quite honestly, but we feel safe enough with each other to really give everything to bringing these songs to life. With TSOM, it’s the real deal or nothing. No compromises.

So what’s next?

We’re now doing our best to promote the album. Obviously times have changed and where you once might have been putting out flyers and posters, you’re now organising digital distribution and working social media. It’s harder than you think, so give us a hand and share our posts and tell your friends about the album.

We also are about to start rehearsals to work out live arrangements of these songs. When we’re in the studio, we’re very focused on making the best record possible, but that often leaves us with several challenges when creating a version we can play in front of an audience. We are very much looking forward to playing these songs for people.


Meet the Monsters

We meet the London-based band The Sighs of Monsters (l-r Brett Lock, Dean Sobers & Chris Houston) and fling some questions in their direction about the band and their new album, Ground.

When did you form?

We formed in the late summer of 2013. Brett and Chris had been building up their home studio for another musical project, and when that ended Brett turned to his file of unrecorded or unsatisfactorily recorded songs from his previous bands. The trouble was, neither of them was a singer so they needed to find one who could do justice to the deeply personal lyrics. They met Dean through a mutual friend and were impressed by his collection of recordings called “Picking At Scabs” which suggested a kindred spirit. When the three of us got together the chemistry was immediate.

How do you describe your music?

It’s the obvious question, but there is no obvious answer. We suppose the easy answer is ‘art rock’, but in truth we do what we think the song needs. Three quarters of a century into rock ‘n’ roll, the musical vocabulary is so huge that restricting oneself to a particular style seems pointless and needless. The ‘The Sighs of Monsters’ sound comes from the way we play and the personality of Dean’s voice, but we don’t mind pulling in elements of folk, jazz, punk, ska, avant garde, or straight-down-the line rock. There comes a point in the life of a song where it is almost able to tell you what it needs. The trick is to listen.

Who are your musical influences?

We feel we’re more influenced by an artist than by their art. What we mean is that the way an artist approaches making art is often more instructivefrom a creator’s point of viewthan the resulting art. We like artists and bands who are thoughtful about the process of writing music, crafting songs and making albums. We’ve established that we all like Neil Young and we all like Grunge (Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, in particular). Dean really likes Sparks, Brett will listen to anything by the Velvet Underground alumni, while Chris enjoys Krautrock and Electronica. But the main thing is to keep an open mind: Dixieland Jazz and Country & Western have lots to offer, as do Death Metal and Hip Hop.

How did you approach recording ‘Ground’?

We started recording with no fixed agenda. This is the freedom that having the run of a home studio affords you. We recorded far more tracks than appear on the album, but there came a point where this group of songs started feeling like they belonged together and formed a satisfying whole, so we focused our attention on finishing them first. We knew from the start that we wanted to create an album that felt like one of those classic albums we grew up with. The ‘album’ as an artistic statement has lost a lot of ground over the last decade because iTunes culture has emphasised random individual tracks compiled into personal playlists. We wanted to create something for the type of music fan that enjoys sitting back and listening to an album as a cohesive work: someone with patience and who remembers why they loved music.

What were the practical considerations in pursuing this ‘classic album’ objective?

Well, the chief thing was to acknowledge what shape and form albums took. We’ve mentioned the damage that single-track downloading has done to the art form, but of course the other technological development eroding it was the CD format itself, allowing almost 80 minutes of music per disc. Bands felt they needed to use this space, but they really shouldn’t have. People seem hard-wired with an attention span of about 45 minutes, so we were determined the album would not exceed that. In the end it came in at just over 42 minutes. There’s an imagined break in the middle too, which is perfect for pausing to pour another drink.

Were all the songs previously written?

Oh, no. Though the original impulse was to record songs we’d all had lying around, the more we played together, the more we realised we had something special. The creative energy this produced got us all writing again, so some older songs were rewritten from the ground up and several more are completely new. Having said that, while fans of our respective previous bands might recognise a line here or a hook there, even those ingredients have been cooked up in a new way.

You’re quite vague about who plays what in the band.

We are, but for good reason. While we naturally have our strengths on particular instruments when playing live, in the studio setting we’re more relaxed and experimental about who plays what. While we generally play everything ourselves, Brett Collings, an old band mate of Brett’s did some drums for us and our friend David Toube contributed a guitar part on one track. On Rosemary Parts I & II, we hired a session player called Ian East, who was fantastic, to do the saxophone parts.

Some of your percussion sounds are quite inventive.

We compensated for not having a full time drummer by creating percussion parts by sampling anything from toys and kitchen implements to antique drums we found in a junk shop. These we treated digitally in various ways and constructed parts through editing and altering these sounds. It was very much a case of using the studio as an instrument, as we’ve said before.

Are you more of a studio band then?

Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that we use the studio as a creative environment and craft our songs with a cavalier disregard for how we’ll perform them on stage. We feel this is an acknowledgement that popular music’s “great leap forward” was achieved when The Beatles stopped worrying about writing songs for two guitars, bass and drums and settled in to Abbey Road. In the US, of course, the Beach Boys had a similar epiphany when Brian Wilson stopped touring and instead used the studio as a creative tool in itself. That said, nothing beats the rush of performing for people, so we’re now working hard on live arrangements of the songs.

So The Beatles are a template then?

Haha. No. Brett is a huge fan while Dean remains indifferent, but it is funny you ask because our drummer friend reviewed an early cut of the album and remarked that it had that “Beatles thing” with the songwriting. Now obviously we’re not so delusional as to think we ought to be compared to The Beatles, but what he meant is that Dean generally writes Macca-style third person narrative songs while Brett’s are more Lennony first-person confessional. Meanwhile Chris is ready to throw in a Harrisonesque curveball. This was a lucky accident, but fitted perfectly with our mission to create something approximating a record from the golden age of ‘the album’.

Has working in your own studio made a difference?

Oh undoubtedly! The thing is, the way records are made has changed considerably because of the shift in the culture of musical consumption, both the challenges and opportunities of the Internet, and the current crisis in the music business, andmost importantlythe new technology. It is quite literally possible these days to have as much power in your spare bedroom as they had during the heyday of Abbey Road or The Hit Factory. Almost everything is software-based these days meaning not only is it affordable but it doesn’t disturb the neighbours.

And you have access 24/7

Exactly. We think that this is the way albums will be made in the future. We all have other jobs because the reality is few can afford to pay the rent as a gigging musician these days. So it is important both that we have studio access when and as we need it and that we’re not paying by the hour. Increasingly new music is being made by self-starting enthusiasts who invest in the gear and put in the time at every opportunity to produce a ‘labour of love’. Frankly, this is the only way great music can now be created. The margins are so tight as the industry is squeezed that the ‘formal sector’ is dominated by narrow commercial interests designed to be easily consumed and disposed of, or by long-established artists who made it under the old regime and still have the resources to keep going as normal. But for emerging artists, this is the way forward if you want the creative space and freedom to work on something not destined to be a ringtone. And, once you have these tools, working is a joy.

Have you started thinking about a follow-up to ‘Ground’?

Yes indeed, but we’ve had to restrain ourselves. We had so much energy coming off this album that we have practically planned the next two! But we know the immediate task is to promote this album and to get the live show together, so we have to calm down a little on that score. We look forward to resuming work on new material in the Spring next year. Until then, we’ll just be doing our best to make sure we can persuade as many people as possible to listen to Ground, because we really believe it is something special.

Let’s hope it finds its audience!

Thank you! It is hard to know what to do with it given the state the music industry is in at the moment. Artists are increasingly at sea, left to do their own public relations and marketing. This opens up a lot of opportunities that might not previously have been there when almighty record companies were the ultimate gate keepers, but at the same time marketing and PR isn’t necessarily what artists do best. Sometimes we feel like small time crooks who, through a twist of fate, have stumbled upon the haul of the centuryÖ but have no idea how to fence it. We’d love nothing more than someone stepping in and offering to take it off our hands!

Ground by The Sighs of Monsters is out now on CD and Download.