The project of singer/songwriter Chris McIntosh, SILENT SLEEP have unveiled their highly accomplished debut album Walk Me to the Sea; ten tracks of sumptuously arranged baroque pop spiked with compellingly downbeat and caustic lyrics. Awash with brass, strings and percussion, the band’s highly detailed orch-pop sound is brought to life onstage by eight musicians, led by Chris on vocals and acoustic guitar. A veteran of Liverpool’s music scene, piloting the much-admired 28 Costumes for most of the 2000s, when the band splintered in early 2010, Chris relocated to Berlin to gain a fresh perspective on music, and life.
“The band had stopped and I realised throughout my whole adult life I’d just done that band and I hadn’t really done anything else. I wanted to do something different,” Chris explains, sat in the neo-classical finery of The Vines. “The idea of living away in a city where nobody knows you, I just took that opportunity since I had no ties here. I didn’t move to Berlin to write an album or anything like that [but] when I was there I had a lot of time on my hands and I only had my acoustic guitar. Inevitably I started writing singer-songwriter type songs which I’d not really done before.”
Berlin’s fertile music scene meant ample opportunity to road-test material in front of receptive audiences. “As I started writing these songs I started booking myself little gigs in cafés and in basements. Tiny gigs with twenty people sat down, and loads of candles. The great thing about Berlin is that I think it’s really easy to get an alcohol licence and it’s very cheap to rent places so bars just shoot up,” Chris enthuses. Despite this, however, the singer found some aspects of the city wanting. “When I was moving, everybody was telling me how great a city it is for music and ‘You’re gonna meet so many musicians’ and after about a year I was like ‘Where are all these crazy musicians?’ Everyone’s really cool in Berlin and it was kind of intimidating, being on your own. Some of them were like offensively cool,” Chris laughs, “and we were on totally different wavelengths.”
Due to his new modus operandi, Chris began to mentally sketch out the arrangements for each track after creating the basic chord structure and vocal melody. “I had a lot of time to let the songs grow and think in my head how I’d like them to sound if I had whatever instruments I wanted to at hand,” Chris explains. “When I came home I wanted to record all these songs as an album and try and realise how they sounded in my head.”
Moving back home meant that Chris also had the huge plus of being able to take advantage of the near-spooky six degrees of separation that exists between Liverpool musicians. “I put on Facebook just as I was about to record the album, ‘Does anybody know a trumpet player and a violin player?’ and everyone replied ‘John Gibbons’, then someone else said ‘Elaine Sykes plays violin’, so they were the first two people I emailed.” With the tracks written and the players assembled, Chris chose Pledge Music to raise funds for the sessions. The money was raised within six weeks – half the allocated time – and then the band were free to record the tracks in Whitewood Studios, with go-to-guy du jour Rob Whitley as producer, whom Chris had earmarked for the project from its conception.
The arrangements on the record, with melody lines weaving their way dextrously across the tracks is one of Silent Sleep’s hallmark elements. “A lot of it was planned meticulously and a lot of it was made up on the spot,” Chris explains. “For me, that’s the most enjoyable bit of songwriting, piecing it all together, being spontaneous.” Housed in a handsome record sleeve, (“The only brief I gave the artist Fiona Osborne was that I wanted it to look like the front cover of an old photo album”), the LP is only available in a limited edition run of 250 vinyl copies.
Set against the lush instrumentation, as titles Liked Me After All and We’ve Fallen Out Again starkly demonstrate, Silent Sleep’s lyrics err towards the personal. “All the lyrics are pretty autobiographical,” Chris states. “I’m no good at writing fantastical lyrics. I can only go from what’s in my journal.” Another effect of Chris’s move back to Merseyside was to influence his lyrics to reflect his present environment as On The Steps Of The Bombed Out Church, Black Tide and Walk Me To The Sea amply prove.
Citing David Gedge, the leader of indie icons The Wedding Present, as his biggest lyrical influence, Chris selects Arcade Fire and Eels for providing musical inspiration. Similar to the two North American acts, who prefer festival halls over arenas and academy’s live, Silent Sleep aim to create music on the biggest canvas possible. “I’d love to play The Royal Albert Hall or do a tour of Philharmonic Hall style venues,” Chris nods. “It’ll only be eight musicians as opposed to 20. I’ll keep that for the bigger occasions.”
Indeed, Silent Sleep’s recent performance at The Black-E has become one of the most lauded shows by a local artist in months. Having already won the audience over with a commanding performance, a spontaneous decision by the songwriter to go off-script pushed the gig up a level.
“As soon as I saw that domed entrance [at The Black-E], my first thought was ‘That would be amazing to play in’,’’ Chris grins. “To be honest, it was only when I heard the nightmare stories about a show there the night before with the sound going on and off, I thought ‘If that starts happening to us I’ll get everyone up there. Everything went fine but then I thought ‘I’ll do it for the last one’. I wasn’t gonna do it [but] the gig seemed to be going well and people were into it and I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it.’ We had the choir at the top of stairs with us.”
Completely unamplified but benefitting from the natural acoustics, the resultant YouTube footage captures the moment for posterity. The song in question, On The Steps Of The Bombed Out Church, is released towards the end of the month as Silent Sleep’s next single with, as Chris puts it, a launch party “in a fairly predictable venue” to mark the occasion.
On The Steps Of The Bombed Out Church is out now