Stealing Sheep are at work. Today is the day they are filming the video for new single Deadlock in front of the green screen in their new studio home at Vessel, and we’ve been invited in to see behind the scenes on the process (which seems to mainly be about trying not to laugh while lip-syncing to the track). Having toiled hard over the past eighteen months to produce their latest album, Not Real, this is the fun part that adds yet another colourful dimension to an already cerebral record. It’s a bit of a laugh watching the trio chop and change between outfits and brash make-up styles, even if it is occasionally a little chore-like for the band, but they approach it with a business-like cheeriness. Under the direction of Cardiff-born filmmaker Ewan Jones Morris – who’s previously produced videos for Gulp and Cate Le Bon – Becky Hawley, Emily Lansley and Lucy Mercer are steadily creating the next visual chapter of their Not Real world, and there’s only so much room for frivolity.
“Visual themes of illusions and surrealism: they’re the things that we’ve been feeding on for the past year and a half, and [the title] Not Real sums it up a lot,” Becky explains when we catch up with them properly later on, the crisp afternoon sunlight shining on three musicians in the bloom of a creative purple patch. The artificial surrealism that the video dials in to is the unifying theme of their new record, which sees them taking a considerable step forward from their 2012 debut Into The Diamond Sun. Not Real is a discourse on the interplay of fact and fiction, investigated using the aid of 80s-style synths and Stealing Sheep’s own distinct brand of weirdo pop. As a whole, it’s a dynamic and always evolving piece, with all manner of textures snaking in between the primitive rhythms and chant-like harmonies. It’s also less of a niche concern than Into The Diamond Sun, and the band are content with its more overt pop stylings. “I think we wanted to not be so whimsical and folky and dreamy,” says Emily. “I mean, I still like that – but it’s just more defined now.”
“You have to go somewhere with it; you can’t remain in that world you were initially in,” says Becky, picking up the thread. “Giving ourselves more space mentally was important to us as well, to help bring out all the individual personalities. It was creating impact through creating more space,” to which Lucy adds: “sometimes to make [a song] more powerful you’ve got to take something out, to let it speak.”
The record has its roots in MelloMello’s now defunct creative hive, where the three cultivated a space that was more like a mad musical menagerie than a conventional studio. In amongst the instruments, mannequins, racks of clothes and ice dragons scattered about the room, Becky, Emily and Lucy wrote and demoed the tracks that became Not Real. Becky explains that this work became the basis for all the sounds you hear on the album. “We ended up retrospectively producing the record ourselves, because we did the demos and they organically transformed into the real deal. So it’s kind of self-produced, but it wasn’t intended to be!” Although they did get by with a little help from some friends – Joe Wills assisted on some production in his home studio, and Sam Crombie also helped in a consultancy capacity, doing a bit of mixing and co-producing – it was this initial batch of sounds that won out, even after a bit of tinkering. “We got loads of interesting live performances in the demo process and I think that was based on this quite aloof approach that you have when you’re demoing,” say Becky. “You’re not trying to perfect something at the time, you’re just doing it. And that… naivety, almost, was characterful. That was what we wanted to keep.” The carefree original performances captured in the demoing process adds a sprinkling of freshness to its base of inorganic sounds, and also a humanness that prevents the whole thing from getting too robotic.
“I think there’s a bit of robotics stuff though that was intentional,” Becky adds to this. “We do like listening to quite mechanical pop music – Kraftwerk and the more krauty, electronic stuff. That ‘not real’ element was intended, or something that we found that we liked.”
Though ‘not real’ is a strong conceptual thread that runs through it – the idea of distorting reality, or skewing your notion of perception – Not Real is most definitely not a concept album. “I think it summarises the whole record and loads of the themes that are in it lyrically, and also the way that we’ve produced it,” Becky tells me, adding “it’s retrospective, I think. You’ve got a collected and informed piece of work and then afterwards [you] look at it and think ‘what are the threads in it, what’s the core of it?’, instead of trying to create them in the beginning. This way it gives you three different directions and personalities.” At this, Emily chips in to give a bit of clarity to what the idea of ‘not real’ means to the band. “I think there are so many personal reasons for us all for it being Not Real. All three of us have different perceptions of what reality is or what everything means. Everyone’s different, and their reality is theirs.” This three-way perspective is something that becomes apparent after listening to the album a few times; you begin to hear that there’s not just one voice speaking to us but three individual ones. This could be construed as offering a fractured message, but it in fact makes for a far more compelling one, dispersing the message through the prism of three fascinating artistic minds.
The record sounds more complicated in arrangement than Into The Diamond Sun; the tracks on Not Real are much better structured in their simplicity, most notably the title track Not Real and latest single Greed. This pared-back approach gives the album expanses of spacey elements, in which the Sheepiness can work. Lucy believes that this structure makes the whole a much calmer affair. “I think it’s definitely more direct. That’s a conscious thing that we wanted to do, just to let each our voices actually speak, and to be more direct with what we were trying to communicate as well.”
Where Into The Diamond Sun was characterised by an overt fantastical approach, the references to the mystical on this record are more oblique. On Not Real, the band’s inherent – and frankly endearing – weirdness comes through in the secondary or tertiary levels of the songs this time, rather parading up front in cloaked whimsy. They play with the weirdness in more intelligent ways, within the inorganic sounds and metronomic patterns of percussion. In bendy synth parts and guitar parts on Apparition and Sunk you can hear them toying with both their new-found and characteristic audio signatures.
This undercurrent of exotic oddness is something that Becky believes is a cornerstone of the new album’s theme. “We got on an exotica train at one point, which definitely informed some of the sounds that we’ve used. I supposed that’s based on ‘not real’ as well. Exotica music was born in the 50s, in that post-war period when people needed their spirits lifted. They were thinking of these magic lands and inventing worlds and tropical paradises. I guess we were listening to that kind of music and it was informing Not Real.” This doesn’t sound a million miles away from the underlying themes on Into The Diamond Sun, and Emily explains that it was something they refined when crafting the new songs. “You realise that maybe that was just a bit too conceptual, and not that accessible in some ways. You think ‘hang on, we’re going down this route here’, and see that you need to get back on to actually writing songs, and doing that well.”
Given the success of their first album – which saw them credited with instigating a “medieval pagan pop revival” and pegged as folky hippies – I wonder if they felt pressure from anywhere to produce something slightly different on this second record, or to move the whole Stealing Sheep thing on.
“I certainly felt some pressure from myself to be… generally better!” admits Lucy. “I wanted to improve my drumming technique in some way, and my songwriting skills. I felt challenged by the industry as well – I wasn’t sure what it wanted from me. And I wasn’t sure how to apply myself to it. But now I realise that none of that matters! [laughs] You can only give what you’ve got. Now I feel like we’ve done a really good record and it’s what we wanted to do.” Again Becky picks up the thread and offers her own view outside pressures to create. “This is our artistic intention, but it’s also a career. That industry reflection does hit you when you’re writing, thinking if what you’re doing will be accepted by people. I listen to music and I listen out for authenticity – if that’s what I’m looking for from music then we should stick to our guns and be like that too.”
Stealing Sheep could never be accused of selling out or taking the easy road, and the fact that they’re continuing with their outlandish Mythopoeia nights shows that they’re not leaving their past behind entirely. In 2014 they took the Mythopoeia extravaganza to End Of The Road festival, and this year the band are doing it at Festival No. 6. But its, and Stealing Sheep’s, unofficial home is The Kazimier, and it seems fitting that they’ll be giving it one final send-off in the club’s penultimate show in December. Becky: “It’s such a massive part of our history and our inspiration that it’s quite relevant that we do something like that.”
Photographer Maya Deren said that the function of art is to create an experience – that is, constructing a form of reality for people to slip inside. Stealing Sheep are uncannily adept at doing this with the musical tableaux they create. What Not Real shows is that they can do so in different musical guises, while still allowing their work to ask real questions about our perceptions of life. That they do so with such style is just the cherry on top of a very large and freaky cake.
Words: Christopher Torpey / @CATorp
Photography: Nata Moraru / facebook.com/NataMoraruPhoto
Not Real is out now on Heavenly Records.