A quiet midweek evening in one of the city centre’s venerable watering holes to meet up with MONO SIDEBOARDS and you would expect the sound of glasses being polished to be considered loud in the post-Xmas/NYE lull. Unfortunately, someone in this particular establishment obviously didn’t get the memo as the handful of patrons present are being subjected to ear-splittingly loud jukebox renditions of the Foo Fighters. In fitting contrast, the present band grimacing at Dave Grohl’s bellowing are the polar opposite to the ultra-slick, we’re-having-to-compete-with-David-Guetta-here approach to most alternative rock these days.
The predominantly Wirral-based quintet issued their sterling debut LP The Pains Of Being Frank Lamb in November 2015 to sizeable acclaim, building on the impressive debut 45 For Laura, For The Morning. Featuring a collection of alternately mellow/haunted pastoral indie rock, the disc was constructed over months of careful layering and solo recording.
Sounding akin to a piece of vintage music equipment, the group’s moniker was taken from a lyric in The Beatles’ Come Together: ‘He got Ono sideboard/He one spinal cracker’. “Everything in that song could be a potential band name,” guitarist/vocalist Gib explains. As the LP bears out, the band’s principal influences come from the modern classic region of Americana in Midlake, Bon Iver, The National and Grandaddy, counterbalanced with this side of the Pond’s likes of Laura Marling, Lanterns On The Lake and The Smiths. However, “If you asked us five, you’d get five different opinions,” guitarist/vocalist Dave suggests when asked who the band have been listening to recently. “If you talked to us all for an hour you’d probably never come across the same thing,” drummer James nods as the volume from the sound system mercifully subsides.
Despite the LP giving the feel of being “sat in” with the band as though you were watching a rehearsal, the album was put together over scores of sessions. “None of it was recorded live. These lot didn’t see each other for about six months!” Dave explains, referring to the LP’s lengthy gestation. “For the first six months [we pieced it together] in Elevator on Dale St, not in the studio but our rehearsal room. When we heard it was shutting down we upped sticks and recorded the second half of it at our rehearsal room on the Wirral.” “It took about 18 months, not intentionally,” bassist Darren elaborates on the pains of the recording process. “We heard Grandaddy and it sounded really DIY, which prompted us to record it all ourselves. We thought we’d record the album straight rather than making it all sound polished,” Dave explains.
More than anything, …Frank Lamb’s opus was created to provide a snapshot of how the group sounded at that time. “It wasn’t recorded for any other reason except that we hadn’t recorded any music up to that point,” Dave shrugs, before continuing: “We bought Pro Tools to do it on, the really basic one, and it was only right at the very end we worked out how to use it! It took ages to work out. We were still learning how to use it when we were mixing and mastering the final songs. We’ve done it in the past where we’ve paid to go to a studio for a couple of days and you come out with a couple of songs, and nine times out of 10 the only fun part is when you listen to it and say, ‘What shall we add on top?’ We’d record a song, put it in Dropbox so that we could all listen to it, come back in six weeks, add more bits on top and form songs. Some would take six weeks, some would take six months.”
Working this way provided scores of alternative routes the tracks could take. “They’d grow in different directions, you’d record and think it’s gonna be a certain way, then Dave would say, ‘I’ve done weird thing with the hi-hat’, and that would complete it,” says Gib.
“We wanted the LP to flow, that’s definitely something we liked about The Sophtware Slump [career-high Grandaddy LP from 2000]: there’s a theme running through it,” Gib explains. “Maybe the instrumentation did a lot of that,” Dave states, thinking out loud about the album’s uniform atmosphere. “We’ve not got a lot of money, so we’ve not got the pedals; we’ve only got a cheap keyboard, so we went for what sounds good on those instruments.” “I only backed it up in October,” Dave recalls of the long-suffering laptop the album was recorded on. “We’d been recording for a year and two months, and I bought a portable hard drive and I kept putting it off, and eventually I copied it all across, which was a massive relief.”
“We spent a few years trying to sound really polished and it got to the stage where if you’ve not got a budget you can’t sound really polished, so make yourself sound different and unique,” Dave says of the album’s unvarnished appeal. “That was the best thing about the response to …Laura: when it got reviewed and people really liked it; the best thing about it was that people didn’t realise that we’d recorded it by ourselves.” One of the album’s highlights, the track’s mid-section audio snippet, was inspired by Public Service Broadcasting, with a clip from the climax of 1970s noir classic Chinatown being utilised. “There’s no message behind it,” Matt states, the sample being added in place of a jettisoned guitar solo.
Rivalling the single for best track elsewhere on the LP is the gorgeously downbeat, Low-esque Sun In Our Eyes and glacial opening cut The Orchard. The conclusion of the set, Good Night Frank And Good Luck, features audio of US newscaster Edward R. Murrow discussing the Reds Under the Bed-era Cold War paranoia of the House of Un-American Activities, a theme explored by R.E.M. on 1987 gem Exhuming McCarthy.
Something that has managed to wrong-foot several reviewers, meanwhile, has been the titular figure of Frank Lamb himself. “We were gonna be called Frank Lamb and the Mono Sideboards,” Gib explains of the name. An everyman figure reminiscent of the character studies in The River and Nebraska-era Springsteen, some writers seem confused as to whether Mr. Lamb was an actual member of the band; he isn’t, but exists as a conduit for the vaguely melancholic personal emotions alluded to in the songs.
Following their successful live splashdown playing the LP launch and last year’s Threshold Festival, more gigs are next on the horizon for the five-piece. With a succession of friends helping out on vocals and additional instrumentation – including the diaphanous vocals of Australian-born singer Kylee Beencke – the band’s album launch last November at 81 Renshaw was partly a process of introducing the album’s various players to one another. “We met at 11am and everyone who was recorded on it was in the room – all these people who don’t know each other,” keys player Matt recalls.
While the quintet are steadily building a buzz around them at present, they are clearly unconcerned about any kind of upward career progression or fretting over where they’ll be a year from now. “You can do that thing where you record an album: you put it out there, try and promote it and you try and get signed. We can’t be arsed with that, life’s too short!” Dave says to an outburst of laughter. “There’s no grand plan.” And judging by the strength of their debut LP, the present band don’t require one.
The Pains of Being Frank Lamb is available now from monosideboards.bandcamp.com.
The photo shoot for this feature took place at Hobo Kiosk on Bridgewater Street. Thanks to Delia and Tristan at Hobo Kiosk for their hospitality!