Interview: Wave Machines

Opening with sweeping strings and a rhythmical incantation, it’s clear from the outset that Pollen marks a maturation for Liverpool art-poppers, Wave Machines. In the three years since their début Wave If You’re There, the band have clearly been busy developing their sound, broadening their scope. If you needed further proof, the album even features a song about the tragic death of the Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe. Not your average electro-indie lyrical fodder.

“We needed to move on to keep ourselves interested,” frontman Tim Bruzon explains. “We knew we wanted to be less obviously pop. We knew if we were going to do the ‘pop’ thing then we would be competing with big-hitting pop acts that would probably be doing it better than we could. We felt we would be better placed moving into a different direction that was less crowded.”

There is a pragmatism that underpins much of what Tim and the band do: they work hard because they want to be good at what they do; they want to be good because they want to survive in a difficult industry. Yet it wasn’t a sense of practicality alone that drove their decision to move away from a crowded scene, it was about finding a sound that better defined them.

“We got a bit bored of being compared to Hot Chip, and this band and that band – we tried to find something that was more us.”

Pollen‘s shifting textures make sense in this context. It is an album of Wave Machines trying new things, expressing themselves more freely. Admittedly, these more complex compositions take a little work, this is not the easily digestible dancefloor-friendly pop of old. Instead we have sophisticated synthpop and moody 80s-leaning New Romantic fayre with more than a foppish head toss towards Japan and the rich productions of Talk Talk.

It’s no surprise then that the band teamed up again with Lexxx, this time as producer. Having worked with the likes of Bjork and Arcade Fire, Lexxx has experience with helping ambitious artists achieve their goals. With Wave Machines, it transpires that Lexxx played a pivotal role not in shaping the album’s sound but as somebody the band trusted to objectively appraise their new material.

“We were working on our own right up to almost the finished album. It was then a real relief to have someone else on board to bounce off… another opinion that we trusted that wasn’t as close to the product,” Tim states. “Some songs he didn’t do so much on, others he got stuck in and ripped them apart.”

The Prince-esque strut of lead single Ill Fit aside, this is an album devoid of overt poppiness. The majority of Pollen is rooted in dark-hearted disco, all brooding synths and haunting melodies. There’s a hint of the Pet Shop Boys on Blood Will Roll, but weighing in at nearly six minutes and never once escaping the claustrophobic confines of its eerie tones, it’s not pop per se. And similarly, Home, with its refrain of: “And I’m longing for the quiet of the unknown. For somewhere I can call home” – is not going to inspire any shape-throwing displays of hedonistic abandon.

Pollen’s maturity is not confined to musicality, Tim’s lyrics have developed too. He uses his unique falsetto to pitch some abstruse but interesting verses. Sitting In A Chair, Blinking, a title that reads like a line from E.E Cummings, is typically considered and literary. Ever modest, Tim denies any lofty poetic ambitions:

“I have sounds and tones that I like to stay around when I’m writing lyrics. I’m not into the idea of throwing words down for the sake of it and just leaving them there. I do tend to work quite hard so there is stuff people can get out of it. It’s like everything we do, we want it to be good. And the way to get things good is to work hard.”

Nowhere is this ethos more apparent than on title-track Pollen where Tim uses Anthony Gormley’s Another Place, the cast-iron sculptures that stretch along Crosby Beach looking out to sea, as a way of exploring the death of the 21 Chinese cockle-pickers at Morecambe Bay in 2004. The lyrics explore themes of isolation, loneliness and ultimately death. Tim explains the song’s origins:

“ It was one of the beaches we’d walk along. And seeing these iron life-size figures stuck in the sand, along this massive beach all rusty and gnarly-looking as they got weathered and older, got me thinking about the fragility of these people that had died. It was a story we heard a while back and stayed with us.”

The subject matter of the track again serves as an indicator of increased sophistication, but musically it evidences a maturing sonic palette. There are elements of folk: a slow drone, dredging, with the ebb and flow of tides.

By exploring darker lyrical themes and turning their back on more obvious pop tropes, there is a danger that Wave Machines may alienate some fans, especially in the live environment. What makes for engaging headphones listening and contemplative bedroom shuffling does not always transition to a gig.

“It’s been a challenge getting it to work live,” Tim admits. “We’re working with our soundman to get it to translate well on stage. Obviously, there are quite a lot of textures going on with some songs but the more we play them, the better it gets.”

So, as Wave Machines take their sparser, more atmospheric sound on the road it is without trepidation. Quite the opposite. Having moved away from the competitive pop genre to explore more diverse musical pastures and lyrical themes, it’s now time for them to step out once more into the unknown. Tim relishes the prospect, eager to take to the stage this spring and summer:

“We’re playing as much as we can. We’ve done the album and this is what happens next. We get down in front of people and make a big noise and hope they like it. That’s our best shot of spreading the word.”

Words: Tom Spooner