LOVED ONES are back – tell your friends. They never really went away, of course, but they’ve got a sleek new sound, a new drummer, and a stonking new album on which to show them all off. That Harness – the band’s new LP released on even newer imprint Blood Records – is well worth making a noise about shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Loved Ones have been specialists in creating moody alt. pop since their first incarnation in 2011, then just a stop-gap project of vocalist Nik Glover after Seal Cub Clubbing Club disbanded.
Since teaming up with electronics/synth whizz Rich Hurst under the banner of Loved Ones, Glover has been able to steer the band’s efforts towards the fertile ground where their yearning introspection meshes deftly with electronic-infused pop. The emotional heft of the Loved Ones sound comes from the gorgeous melodies of Ben Shooter, whose classically-trained piano work adds a depth to the band’s sound that underpins Glover’s probing lyrics.
So far so normal, for fans of the band’s first album The Merry Monarch anyway. What marks Harness out as a sign of real progress is the refined mood that permeates it, a suite of tracks all cut from the same cloth rather than just a collection of really good songs. The addition of Dan Taylor on drums – the band’s first full-time drummer – came quite late on in the process, and is a definite boon to the record’s consistent tone. Lead singles End Of An Error and Without Face are classic Loved Ones guitar pop gems, wedded to crisp drum beats and swirling textures. The instrumental Dagger and gorgeous Monitors really show off the interplay between Shooter’s piano and Hurst’s creativity (on strings and synths respectively), referencing some of the recent soundtrack work the band have indulged in.
On the morning of the new LP’s launch show at Leaf, I caught up with frontman Nik Glover, briefly interrupting him while weeding his garden. The work-life balance that comes with being in a band was surprisingly high on the agenda. “We’re doing a short tour in autumn. No festivals this year, too much of a hassle!” Glover replies when I ask him what the summer holds. “We’re very much a loose band, we’ll just do things here and there. [I’ve] Never been a fan of touring at the best of times.”
So, talk us through what’s changed since 2013’s The Merry Monarch?
We’ve had a couple more kids – six kids between the four of us now. We’re still working full time, but we’ve spent two years putting the album [Harness] together. We’re a bit more experienced, a bit older. We wanted to make something not… not more ‘accessible’, but the music’s smoothed out. I wanted to make the darks darker and the lights lighter. I think we’ve managed that.
Being in a band is time consuming. With a family and work, why keep going back into band practice?
We never treat it as work. It’s kind of a holiday from all that. We’ve spent two years practising so much we now feel we can just meet up and play. The four of us are committed to making music. In young bands, maybe two out of the four guys just wanna get pissed as soon as possible but we’re older, take it a bit more seriously.
Listening to the new album, it’s noticeable the songs are shorter but seem to go further (The Merry Monarch had only three songs under four and a half minutes. On Harness, all but two hover around the fabled three-and-a-half-minute mark). Did you use the break as an opportunity for reinvention or does the new record just reflect where you currently are as musicians?
It’s a reflection of the recording process. The first album came together over two years in West Kirkby, demoing it at home that whole time. By the time we finished, we released [recordings] that sounded so different from how we were playing them live.
There are some major differences in sound, drums and vocals to the fore.
It all feels much more professional this time. We started recording over in West Kirkby, then Peter Shilton from Merseyside Arts Foundation helped get us into Parr Street [Studios]. [Previous album] Merry Monarch was always meant to be lo-fi, using the same mics for everything, but we had access to so much more equipment in Parr Street this time. There’s this unbelievable baby grand piano, and Ben [Shooter] just got to let loose on it. Then there were all these different types of microphone. That’s probably why the sound is fuller, the vocals are stronger. Much more stuff to play around with.
What were you listening to when writing/recording Harness?
Nothing specifically. Same as usual really: a lot of off-kilter hip hop, a lot of beats. Monitors off the new album, that’s my first time rapping – rapping UK style. Oh! And Saint Etienne. I’ve never been a fan, but I got fond of the aesthetic. There’s something about copying the sound of a band you don’t necessarily like, trying to make a song in the same way. Anything else is all fairly obvious, what you can hear in the album. A lot of pop albums that maybe don’t get listened to so much recently, Paul McCartney solo stuff.
How did you get into soundtracking?
The first soundtracking we did was for Roger Hill’s late-night show PMS on BBC Radio Merseyside, a long radio play, an abridged version of a 1930s book called Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Then the BBC did a WWI film called Our World War, using innovative filming techniques using drone tech, showing the Great War in a new way, and we soundtracked that too. There’s a short sci-fi film we’ve done the soundtrack to, Pulsar, directed by Aurora Fearnley. It’s coming out in late June. It has kind of a similar feel [to Harness] but with traditional sci-fi sounds. Just had the final cut through on that so we’re working on our part and improving it.
Does working on soundtracks differ much from your day-to-day band work?
It’s a really nice way to work, and different to working normally as a band. Usually it’s me saying ‘Can we try it like this?’, so to have someone else directing, an external influence, is fun.
Later on, I’m able to catch the band showcasing this newfound approach. The upper room in Leaf has strings of lights suspended from the ceiling, in a sequence of Crayola red, yellow, green, and blue. They help to make the darks darker and the lights lighter; an apt descriptor for Loved Ones’ music. It has a kind of wholesome, reassuring feeling like memories of the regular fixtures of childhood, be it Neil Buchanan saying, “Go on, give it a go” or hearing the ice cream van coming up your street. It’s there in the enunciation of set opener Without Face: “With a pound in my pocket and a pint in my hand/I can almost appreciate/Almost appreciate your side/With a pain in my shoulder and a pen in my hand/ I can almost appreciate/Almost appreciate your side.”
The place the band now inhabit is much more assured: they sound comfortable in their own skin, devoid of the transatlantic yearning so often taken for granted in pop music. It’s also why Glover’s rapping on Monitors lands perfectly. It doesn’t sound audacious, nor try to be anything it isn’t – these are words that didn’t need enhancing with melody. Meaning and rhythm will do.
Fresh cuts like Suzanne Vega and One Big Kiss sit comfortably alongside older material like Paper Crown, which is delivered almost at double speed. There’s that eclectic influence again – how often do bands align their tempi like a DJ might? And it’s all beefed up, and it can’t just be down to the right gear. It comes with the territory of a confident band who know what they want from their music.
After the show, I ask the ivory-tickling Shooter the same question I asked Nik: Why keep up the workload of a band when there’s a family at home and a job at work? “I could say something really cheesy in response, but no. I’ll just say: for the love.” He drags out the last word until it’s cut short by the laugh of someone relieved, proud to show off two years of work to a loooving audience.
Once they were very young. Now they are four, all performing with the inner peace of men in possession of tidy gardens. They finish where they came in, with older-than-oldie Wild Palms. A gulf has reappeared in front of the stage, but now people are slow dancing in it. Looks like Loved Ones have earned their name.
Harness is out now on Blood Records.