Organic wasn’t the first word that sprang to mind when I thought of Widnes. Without ever having been there, my assessment was made by what I saw through a speeding train window: a bleak industrial town; a cultural no man’s land between Manchester & Liverpool. However, organic is the byword for BALTIC FLEET’s second album Towers:
due out at the end of summer, it reflects the growth of ideas into songs, in 40 bewitching minutes. It’s a word the man behind Baltic Fleet, Paul Fleming, uses a lot. “It all happened organically – I bought a new piano from a guy in Widnes, and the resonance of the sounds it created led me in a certain direction.” Towers channels some of the greats of electronic music such as Kraftwerk and Neu!, with a nod to North Western forebears such as Joy Division and OMD, to create a sonic patchwork of synths and pedals, guitars and drums, hope and foreboding.
After writing his self-titled debut on the hop amid the whirlwind of a world tour as keyboardist with Echo & The Bunnymen, Fleming came back home for the follow-up, predominantly recorded in a small studio overlooking the towers of the famous Fiddlers Ferry power station – which appears on the cover: “The first album was like a sound diary – recording guitars during soundchecks, in hotel rooms, even taking advantage of the mics set up for radio sessions. A lot of the mixing was actually done on the tour bus, on the move. This album feels a lot more personal – I was able to spend a lot more time composing, crafting each individual sound and effect until they were right.”
A different process, but one that turned out to be no less arduous, even without the distractions of a life on the road: “The first album was actually easier, as I was always surrounded by music. Making this record at home took a lot longer than I’d anticipated, mainly because life gets in the way.” Coming back to his roots wasn’t a tough decision: “I wanted to retain the DIY ethic that I had when I started out making records in my bedroom. Some of the songs from my first album were finished here, so it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to just carry on in this creative space”.
The surroundings began to subconsciously seep into the songs – Midnight Train was inspired by an actual train that interrupted peaceful slumbers as it passed through the town at exactly midnight every night. The titular Towers have always cast an imposing shadow: “As kids growing up and getting into bands, these cold, grey factories were a symbol of negativity. The desire to escape is what drove me on into music, and took me around the world. This album is more about embracing it; knowing where I’m from and appreciating it.”
The range of emotions the album provides is an indicator of Fleming’s state of mind over the three years it took to create. Shards of light amid the darkness reflect the happiness of a new young family, as well as the surprisingly beautiful countryside surrounding the gloomy skyline. Summery guitars chime throughout single Engage, and opening track Towers‘ simple piano is soaked in optimism.
However, there were some very tough times to be navigated, with the skittering poignancy of Winds of the 84 Winter acting as catharsis to heal the pain of a devastating bereavement: “I’d written a melody on piano a long time before, but thought it was rubbish and put it to one side. I heard it again and decided to try it through a digital delay, and this beautiful sound came out. Making that song became a really important part of the grieving process, and allowed me to move on. I see it as the pinnacle of the album.”
It was a song that nearly had a singer. Although the first Baltic Fleet album is entirely instrumental, Fleming has no hard and fast rule; he’s always kept an open mind regarding the use of vocals: “I thought about adding a vocal – I could hear someone like Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen doing something interesting with it. A few of the songs nearly had vocals – I did some work with Kelley Stoltz, a singer on Sub Pop records, and a couple of others, but in the end it didn’t feel right.”
The consequence of an instrumental album is that it often ignites the imagination of the listener, without being tied down to a specific lyric-driven narrative. With Towers that feeling is enhanced by movement. There’s a real kinetic energy that runs throughout, even if the tempo varies from March of the Saxon’s ominous prowl to the perpetual icy funk of Headless Heroes of the Acropolis. Perfect for a journey from Lime Street to Oxford Road, along the North West musical mainline.
Fleming is gearing up for another journey himself, as he plans to take these songs on the road: “I’ve got a band together, and we’ve been rehearsing for a while now. I get excited by the idea of experimenting with sounds within the framework of the songs. We played some new tracks at a few festivals last year, and I’ll be looking to do the same this year, along with a few low-key shows in the build-up to the album’s release.” Hopefully we’ll get to enjoy Baltic Fleet on our own doorstep, although a certain local establishment has made Fleming slightly wary: “I love playing in Liverpool, only I’m a bit worried people might think I’m connected to the pub!”
Once the album is released I think everyone will be able to tell the difference. The ten songs that make up Towers were nearly four years in the making, and Fleming is excited to have them finally finished and ready to unleash on the world: “I’m hoping to sell more records, but the most important thing for me is to build a career. I wouldn’t want to have one massive album then fall away completely. Baltic Fleet was never a bid for stardom.”
Towers is out in July on Blow up! Records.