Four years ago Bido Lito! spoke to BY THE SEA for the first time, and encountered a band with not only oodles of tunes but oodles of promise too, yet they were afraid of their own shadows. It seems pretty fucking obvious to say that a lot can happen in four years, but By The Sea may well be the living embodiment of this old cliché. The By The Sea that pulses and twinkles through new album Endless Days, Crystal Sky (their follow-up to 2012’s self-titled debut record) is virtually unrecognisable to that band who we described as “the grandchildren of The Byrds playing Townes Van Zandt songs” back in our second issue. The summery shimmers have been replaced by brooding melodramas, all Depeche Mode synths and Johnny Marr Chorus pedal guitar noodling. Endless Days, Crystal Sky is a record that brims with conviction, and this newfound swagger suits them well. So what changed?
Where we were curious four years ago about where they came from, now we want to know where By The Sea are going with this new album, and what it took to get there. So we sat down with them and tried to pick apart the building blocks of Endless Days, Crystal Sky, and find out how they pieced it all together. Halfway through the interview vocalist and guitarist Liam Power stops to reflect on the direction the conversation has taken. “This is like some kind of a monster therapy session! We all needed to get this out, I think – we’ll be here for hours!”
By The Sea on… the gestation period of Endless Days, Crystal Sky
Joe Edwards (Keys, Synths): We recorded it last summer, then obviously the mixing was done from then. The week that the first album came out [in November 2012] we had Endless Days already there, as well as some other demos. And then we had it all done within about six months – written and demoed.
Liam Power (Guitars, Vocals): It wasn’t the fact that we wanted to rush and do a second album, it was more due to how long we’d sat on the tunes for the first album for. We had Endless Days, and then we thought ‘Can we do this, is it that much of a jump?’ And by the time we were five tunes into the second album we thought that it wasn’t that much of a jump. It still sounds like us. It all just got a bit synthy.
By The Sea on… a more synthetic approach
JE: That’s probably mainly me! (laughs) That wasn’t really intentional though.
LP: I was kind of conscious to get more synths in… We lost our other guitarist [Steven Campbell] and so that meant there was loads more room in the arrangement for the synths, and we’d kind of always wanted that.
Daniel O’Connell (Bass): It was more of a practical thing though because we were demoing it [this album]. We never demoed the first album at all. I think the first album’s songs are like sketches. For this one we sat down and wrote it as we were demoing it, and we did most of it in Joe’s garage.
LP: It’s more like a necessity because it lays the base down for the tune. You can get such a stronger foundation of a tune if you do the keys first: you haven’t got that thing where you have a straight bassline that follows the chords. There’s more room to manoeuvre. The whole sound was basically built around Joe’s Selma drum machine.
JE: Yeh, drum machines and synths, and then layers on top of that. It was Endless Days where we first started it, went in and were like ‘ah let’s just try this New Order beat’, and then we had a mini-Korg lying about. Without really thinking ‘let’s go synth’ it kind of came from that and we heard how good it was and that we could actually do it. It’s like a different way of writing really, compared to the first record – and it’ll probably be different again for the next one. When you write in the practice room you only ever hear it while you’re playing it. And then you record it, and that’s how it is. Whereas with this way [of recording] you change it as you’re going along… There’s a lot more space in this record.
LP: I think that, because the synths are there, we didn’t have to fill the space with wanky guitar lines over and over. The guitars are a bit more sparse now.
DO’C: What were we to begin with? First we were a folky sea shanty band. Then we were shoegaze. And we were jangly Byrds for a while. And now we’re 80s synth lords, apparently!
By The Sea on… the studio
Andy Royden (Drums): All the pre-production [for Endless Days, Crystal Sky] was already there because we’d demoed it.
DO’C: Yeh, it wasn’t like we started again from scratch in the studio. We took it in and the framework was already there.
JE: We pretty much used a lot of the keyboard sounds off the demos for the record, and some bass as well. It was kind of already there, and then we just made it a bit better when we went in the studio, with guitar parts and vocals. Obviously Bill [Ryder-Jones, producer] sprinkled a bit of magic on there.
LP: Bill helped with the arrangements of some tunes. We had too many layers though still: Bill helped by suggesting us to leave parts out and stuff. There was a little bit of pressure with being in Parr Street. We couldn’t go in and dilly-dally around – Bill totally managed that. He’d tell us to ‘go in and get this done today’. I don’t think we could have figured that out ourselves. We’d probably have spent so much more time on tunes.
JE: It’s just good to have outside ears, and someone whose opinion is different from ours, us who’ve lived with the tunes for so long. Equally, you can disagree with him and he will listen to you. It’s not like he’s always right! Even though he often is. But yeh, we work well together, I think: it’s a two-way thing.
LP: We’re speaking about this like it’s Pet Sounds, when it’s more like Chumbawumba’s first album! (laughs) I think we’ll always be a better studio band than we are a live band though. We’ve played some good gigs and stuff, but I think the studio is where we all wanna be. It’s not as intense.
DO’C: Yeh, I’d go with that, deffo.
JE: I do love the studio – but then I do love the spotlight too, ha! (laughs) We just wanna make good records, mainly.
By The Sea on… self-releasing
LP: I think we could have put it out on a label, but there would have been a lot of waiting round and it wouldn’t be coming out when we want it to. It’s half the problem with some bands, they’re too precious. And then they end up missing the boat.
JE: It was kind of the plan originally to use our label – War Room Records – for other stuff, but then it kind of made sense to release this album ourselves as well. It was more important for it to be out, and this seemed the quickest way of doing it – even though it has taken ages. And there will be other stuff to come on the label too. Tear Talk’s EP is done, that’ll come out next. And then hopefully Minnietonka [who has provided backing vocals on At Your Window and Another Way] as well, but Bill’s kind of looking after that. And then we’ll see. Loads of disco white labels, I hope!
DO’C: We set up the label originally to work with Tear Talk; it was never the plan to be doing the By The Sea album. Because we have got a publishing deal with Domino, initially we thought we’d be going with an indie label for the second record. But we just kind of got passed around a little bit and we thought ‘mmm…’. In the end we struck a deal where we own the master rights to the album. So we were like ‘Why would we give this to another label where someone else can potentially profit off it when we can just put it out ourselves?’ And we’ve had enough money from it all to get good press and radio plugging out of it. So, even though we’re bringing it out on our own label, it’s not like we’re going to be dubbing cassettes in Joe’s garage. We go through Tri-Tone and PIAS for the distribution, so it’s pretty much like any other label. You can’t be sitting around waiting for a mythical three-album deal. That’s what a lot of bands will do, and it’ll just never happen.
And with a final sigh from guitarist Mark Jackson our therapy session comes to an end. In their transition from folky upstarts By The Sea have shown a willingness to be elastic with their approach, ultimately to the benefit of their new wholesome sound. And they’re already itching to get back in the studio and work on album number three. If you’re looking for any parallels, Pet Sounds was the Beach Boys’ eleventh studio album, so By The Sea may still have a few years of experimenting in the studio ahead of them before they reach their peak. And you can bet there’ll be a few more therapy sessions along the way.
Endless Days. Crystal Sky is out now on War Room Records.