Scattered across different cities in the UK, Capac have overcome geographic differences – as well as the regular artistic ones you would expect – to release their first full-length LP titled Sea Freeze. Dave Tate catches up with the shape-shifting quartet to pin down the process behind recording the album.
For many musicians the catalogue of difficult situations that befall them are seen to be just an inextricable part of being in a band. Running out of money, breaking equipment, injuries and unresponsive crowds are just a small selection of the obstacles that bands are expected to encounter and, ideally, overcome. But if you were to ask anyone who’s been in a band which is the biggest of all of these struggles, I can assure you that there’s usually only one answer. Overcoming crippling self-doubt, creative droughts and getting people to listen to what you’re doing are all nothing compared to the perennial struggle of getting four people in a room for long enough to spark some magic. How, then, does a band spread across four cities cope? Well, for a start, they change the way they work.
Despite the not inconsiderable distance between them (the quartet are based variously in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and London), CAPAC are a band who utilise technology to bridge the physical space between them: a cyberspace version of The Postal Service if you will. The idiosyncratic writing style Capac have developed over this long-distance relationship has enabled them to explore new methods and styles for writing, yielding a glacially electronic sound that is as unique as the process by which it was made. By bouncing tracks between themselves, each band member – Stuart Cook, Kate Smith, Matt Parker and Gary Salomon – is afforded the opportunity to add to the song in whichever way they see fit. Songs mutate across the wires, and often the files they receive back are in turns unexpected and inspiring.
Capac have undergone a catalogue of changes since they formed in Liverpool almost six years ago. Different names, different members and different cities have all been part of the mix, and only now have they found their niche in the incredibly fertile world of ambient electronica. “As an entity Capac has been around for a while,” Stuart explains to me down the wire, “but I think this iteration of it is the first time it’s felt like it’s what we want it to be.” From their first EP, Pastels – released in 2010 – the band have slowly developed not only their sound but their approach to writing. At the time they released the critically-acclaimed first EP, the members were all living under the same roof, writing and rehearsing together: what you might call a conventional set-up. Fast forward to today and they have a different set of contributors who are spread across the country, which inherently calls for an unconventional approach. An unconventional approach which produced two EPs in 2014 (Nested, and its iterative sibling Nested – The Other Branch), and at last a full-length LP titled Sea Freeze, which is set for release this month. “Writing the album at a distance has been really… different,” says Stuart. “Difficult at times but worthwhile. We all have ideas or feelings for a track and we keep sending them back and forth. It’s almost like Chinese whispers in a way. By the time it gets back to me it’s a different beast.”
A good example of this process in action is found on the album track Nine3Nine. “On that track we had this really beautiful tremolo guitar melody written by Kate,” says Stuart, “but as the song evolved we ended up taking it out and it went on to become the basis for the next track on the album. It’s a good example of where we take something, rip it apart and it becomes something else. You can have an idea, then someone else can come in and turn it into something else.” Working in this way has completely altered the dynamics of the group when it comes to writing. No longer does each member fill a specific role: instead, each member is given the freedom to evolve and mutate the songs as they see fit. “It’s really great to have the time to develop ideas by yourself and mull things over. Working on things remotely really accentuates the individual’s input into the track.”
Writing in this way means that the songs exist within their own feedback loop. By allowing the songs to grow outwards from wherever they like – as opposed to a more traditional linear writing style – they twist and turn as they’re written. They begin to influence themselves, and there’s no better evidence for this than the album’s title track. Inspired by the idea of a catastrophic meteorological event, the track slowly revealed itself in the constant email back and forth between the four, as Stuart explains: “We came up with the track at the time when there were reports of the sea freezing over and we had this working title, Sea Freeze. When Kate heard this she starting writing the lyrics with this idea in mind. Hearing the lyrics in turn led us to adding these icy textures to the track.”
This is songwriting by mutation, inter-band collaboration of an entirely different form. While fully embracing the elasticity of this method, Capac kept an event horizon on the possibilities of Sea Freeze by sticking to a few core ideas during the writing process. Prompted in part by Oblique Strategies – Brian Eno’s deck of cards containing aphorisms to encourage lateral thinking – the band kept in mind certain ideas or beliefs when writing. One of these was a commitment to working “off grid”. Inspired by the unpredictability of drone and ambient music, the band wanted to ensure they avoided becoming too obvious. “We wanted to make sure we moved away from anything that was sixteen-bar structured or formulaic. It makes it a much more interesting listen if you’re not sure what’s going to happen next,” Stuart explains.
“An album should be more than a collection of songs,” Stuart continues, as if to counterbalance this point. “Sea Freeze aims to present itself as a cohesive work, exploring related ideas across the album instead of any one song. We were really keen to tell a story in the sense of an album: not necessarily a narrative, but through recurring motifs and ideas.” The album deals with themes of loss, paranoia and isolation, and is presided over by the spectre of global warming. These themes are present not only in the lyrical content of the songs, but interwoven into their structures, production and sonic palette. The arrangements, constantly shifting structures and glacial pads all heighten these ideas of uncertainty, isolation and loss. Throughout Sea Freeze’s ten tracks, the choice of sounds is deliberately cold and unforgiving.
Ahead of the album’s launch, the band have been exploring ways of performing in a bid to work out what the Capac live show is. After much assessment and refining, their on-stage operation is now much closer to a traditional band model. While there is inevitably a heavy use of electronics, the fusion with live instrumentation helps the band maintain an unpredictability within their performances. Instead of relying on sequenced patterns or loops, songs are allowed to flow in whichever direction feels right for that performance, shifting and riding the wave. “If you’re going to play something live, you want that human touch,” says Stuart. “Something that makes it worth a live show.” Projectionist and videomaker Michael James Lewis is part of this vision, making him the fifth part of Capac’s live dimension. Lewis has worked extensively with the band to develop the live output of their sound to the point where their shows become a sensory experience, capable of overwhelming audiences.
For Stuart, this marriage of the live and processed world is the ultimate endpoint of Capac’s laborious creative process, making all the to-ing and fro-ing worthwhile. “We want to create something special. We want it to be an experience.”
Words: Dave Tate
Illustration: Hannah Cassidy / hannahcassidycreative.tumblr.com
Sea Freeze is released on 4th May on This Is It Forever Records.