There is something oddly fitting about meeting Oxford four-piece Glass Animals in the disorientating docklands area of East London, wandering through a jungle of dystopian modern art, with cranes and scaffolding towering overhead and the O2 arena in the distance. Behind a seemingly abandoned diner the band emerge from a red boat. It’s an appropriate location because the music Glass Animals make has a futuristic, delicate sense of the urban about it; an experimental take on the slow, sparse yet pretty Timbaland-end of pop and R&B. And yet there is a tangible innocence to their output too — debut album ZABA, out earlier this year, takes its title from William Steig’s children’s book The Zabajaba Jungle. That title-inspiration seems reflected in the sometimes sticky, tropical sounds and the fascinatingly surreal and exotic feel to many of front man Dave Bayley’s lyrics.
On the lithe, entrancing ‘Gooey’ he croons in sultry yet childlike sentiments, bringing to mind an idea of dwindling infant naivety: “Right my little pooh bear, wanna take a chance? / Wanna sip this smooth air, kick it in the sand / I’d say I told you so but you just gonna cry / you just wanna know those peanut butter vibes”. In the promotion of ZABA the band also made references to Joseph Conrad’s modernist masterpiece Heart of Darkness, and it all seems to suggest an exploratory theme on the record of initial purity, slowly corroded by the corruption of mankind.
“I think it kind of draws from Heart of Darkness and, you know, African Queen – a classic film – and Mosquito Coast,” Bayley conceded. “Just people going off into places they know nothing about and seeing what’s there, and that’s kind of what it was like with this record.”
“We were existing in this world we didn’t know,” agreed drummer Joe Seaward when considering the experience of recording their debut. “I think there was an element of just finding stuff out all the time, all day everyday experiencing new stuff.”
This reference to new experiences led into a discussion of the band’s progression from early recordings in “an old horse stable in the middle of the forest” in Oxford (known simply as “the shed”) and the move into the London studio of multi-award winning production behemoth Paul Epworth (who has previously produced and written music for the likes of Adele, Primal Scream and Coldplay): “It was like levelling-up in Mario,” quipped Seaward.
“It was like being a child again,” said Bayley, returning to that earlier theme. “We didn’t really know that much about what we were doing; it was the first album we’d made and we were in this new studio in London with all this new, fancy equipment and we were just kind of running around, pushing things and twiddling knobs til we got sounds that we liked… We were just curious: ‘What does this do? What happens if I plug this into this?’”.
Bayley, who acted as producer on ZABA (under the guidance of “mentor” Paul Epworth), throughout the interview shows an enthused proclivity towards the technical side of things, whether that be talking animatedly about the sounds they are creating on the boat (it turns out they are recording a session on there) or indeed helping us get optimum quality when recording the interview in spite of a gust of wind. It was Bayley who founded Glass Animals, after insomnia-ridden nights as a medical student in South London during which he would spend his time making music inspired by the bass-heavy scene of his surroundings. He then asked his closest friends Drew MacFarlane, Edmund Irwin-Singer and Seaward to join his band. The four had grown up together, spending their teenage years on madcap adventures from Oxford to London to catch tiny artists discovered on MySpace. Seaward, MacFarlane and Irwin-Singer added their own touches to the music, but the final product of ZABA was perhaps ultimately only realised with the guidance of Epworth.
“He really cared,” said Seaward of their time working with one of the busiest producers in the world. “He’d stick his head around the door and sit with us for half an hour and just make us think about what we were doing in a way that we wouldn’t have done otherwise. He would question why we were doing things — make us question ourselves and then leave. You know, he’d smash apart a song and make us think, ‘Well, why are we doing this?’ and then he’d leave and let us put it back together. Which is really helpful when you have someone whose musical mind you trust coming in from the outside.”
This notion of how outsiders might perceive their music leads to a discussion of the recent proclamation from rising star FKA Twigs that she resents being categorised as “alternative R&B”, and that her music does not fit easily under any genre label. At one point in the conversation Seaward referred to making a pop song — is that the genre that Glass Animals ultimately classify themselves as, or do they too reject being lumped into perhaps irrelevant categorisation?
“It’s impossible for us to say what genre we fall into,” Bayley began, “Just because we’re close to it, so we can’t really hear it for what it is.”
“It’s like describing your own personality,” agreed Seaward, before continuing, “but I don’t have a problem with people putting music into categories, it’s just a way of making things easier — especially in an age where everyone is, you know, relatively lazy — when you have Spotify or iTunes or whatever, it’s an easy way of finding other music that you might like.”
Both do concede that genre is very subjective anyway, saying they’ve had some very strange comparisons in their time. This is perhaps not surprising, given the variety of different styles touched upon in their music — beyond pop and R&B there are warm brushes of dance, jazz, psychedelic, hip-hop and even vague nods to hymnal sounds. Indeed, the twinkling early single ‘Black Mambo’ had the seductive, trippy B-side ‘Woozy’, which features Chicago MC Jean Deaux, and the band are liaising on further exciting hip-hop projects — potentially including their own rap songs. “We’re working on it,” Bayley laughed, when asked if any of Glass Animals could rap, adding jovially, “The next album’s gonna be just four people rapping. Think Goldie Lookin’ Chain.”
When asked what they are listening to at the moment, however, Goldie Lookin’ Chain don’t quite make the cut, and they instead referenced the likes of Taylor McFerrin, their soon-to-be support act Rome Fortune, Biggie, Kanye and the “great team” of Missy Elliott and Timbaland.
Glass Animals’ music is not quite in the same school as Missy and Timbaland though, nor is it particularly comparable to your average experimental indie pop band. “If you’re trying to make music, just trusting your gut instinct is the best thing you can possibly do, I think,” Bayley said at the end of our conversation, and this instinctive creative process might well explain their luscious, inscrutable soundscapes. Instead of dwelling on what exactly it is, ZABA allows its audience to take an immersive journey — one that allows for completely new insights and joys with every listen, making it hard to pin down exactly what it is that’s so wonderful about it. And with their love of those feral, mysterious, exploratory tales, one has to suspect that this is exactly the way that Glass Animals want it. Not held back by any expectations of a specific sound but instead bound by their own instinct, there is much in the way of exciting possibility with each new record they release. Somehow a Glass Animals a capella ode to Goldie Lookin’ Chain doesn’t seem the strangest idea in the world — though, all the same, more releases in the vein of ZABA might be somewhat preferable.
Photo by Rory Malone w/assistance from Rob Malone.
Interview originally for tn2 Magazine.