It seems damned apropos that a song called “Wake Up Call” occupies space on Nothing But Thieves’ debut full-length album: since presenting themselves, Conor Mason (vox, guitar), Joe Langridge-Brown (guitar), James Price (drums), Dominic Craik (guitar), and Philip Blake (bass) have been a refreshing combination of a genre-fluid rock band. Airs of soul, grunge and even dance co-mingle and are processed to fashion something dynamic. They’re London-by-way-of Southend, Essex and their self-titled opus is 12-16 songs deep (standard issue vs. deluxe) of broad spectrum musical puzzle pieces; meticulously expansive tracks that volley between opulently sprawling and ethereal (but just shy of tediously tricked out) rock shamelessly striving for an arena near you. Now if that reads like a dig, it’s not: there’s beauty in Nothing But Thieves’ ambition, not to mention quite the aural winning formula. In advance of the album (already out in the UK with February 5, 2016 set as its U.S. release date) singles like “Ban All The Music,” “Trip Switch” and songs “Graveyard Whistling,” “Itch” and “Emergency” (from the Graveyard Whistling EP) were lyrically sound, lusciously gratifying appetizers, but they also upped the expectations for a full record that would not collapse under the weight of it’s own hefty, yet promising sound. We’re calling it by saying Nothing But Thieves have succeeded with an album that sounds full-bodied and red-blooded with an innate and edgy sophistication. These guys know how to write a song.
As a whole, Nothing But Thieves descends from the grandiosity and majestic walls of sound erected by a Zeppelin laced Muse countered by the genteel elegance of Conor’s high flying, plaint vocals. We think they’re onto something and we’re into it. Because we’re into it, we had questions. From somewhere across the pond, Conor and Joe had some answers.
High Voltage: How young is everyone?
Conor: We range from 22 to 26. Currently the average age is 24.
High Voltage: So a little alternative rock band from Essex signs to a big record label: Why RCA instead of, let’s say, Def Jam (besides the fact that Def Jam is a Hip Hop/R&B label)? What was so attractive about RCA compared to other labels interested in you?
Conor: Because Def Jam is a Hip/R&B label and we’re a rock band. RCA understand and trust us, they get the vision. If you have that relationship with your label then you’re good.
High Voltage: Now we’ve heard the album in full and I have to say that there were a few surprises (none of which were bad) such as the record’s distinct soulful backbone. What’s most striking is the breadth of sounds and dynamics that have been woven throughout the album: from the blitzkrieg of “Painkiller” to the bluesy “Tempt You” to the heart-wrecking “Lover, Please Stay.” As a whole, the record sounds big, bombastic and imaginative but not overly grandiose or noisy – created by musical mad scientists who still manage to exercise tasteful restraint. Julian Emery is on board: Who else did you work with on the album and how did you manage to accomplish this sound?
Conor: We’re very particular with our sound. We spent years learning how to write but then found ourselves experimenting with live arrangements, sonics and programming to create the sound you hear on the album. Our close friends Julian Emery and Jim Irvin have had input throughout the album process and have helped push the boundaries/challenge us.
High Voltage: The standard album version contains 12 songs, while the deluxe version has four bonus tracks for a 16-song album. That’s a lot of music! How many songs were in serious consideration for this record and how did you decide which ones made the cut?
Conor: We started with over 40 songs/ideas but found ourselves whittling them down in quite a natural way. We’re all on the same page when it comes to our music, so it was very clear to us what should stay and what should go.
High Voltage: However you do or don’t musically describe yourselves, your sound being so expansive it’s clear that you are more than “just” a rock band. Comparisons to or alignments with some very notable and well-established bands/artists have become the norm (Muse, Jeff Buckley, etc.). When people write or talk about you as a band, when it comes to describing or trying to summarize the music, are there some characterizations that you appreciate hearing more than others?
Conor: It’s amazing to be compared to artists you’ve grown up listening to or that inspire us. We spent so long trying not to be pigeon-holed that it becomes frustrating when people ask us what genre we are. Genres are restricting by their very nature which is the complete antithesis of the blueprint for our band.
High Voltage: Joe, we know that you’re the lyricist of the band: How do Nothing But Thieves songs typically get written, or is there no such a thing as a “typically written” Nothing But Thieves song?
Joe: We try to not be too formulaic. I’m not sure we’re good enough to have a formula! Some songs start with a lyric, others with a drum loop or just a voice recording; I have about a million of them on my phone. Should listen to those at some point, really…
High Voltage: Back in April you played It’s A School Night at Bardot in Los Angeles. We remember that day not-so-fondly because we had a show conflict and couldn’t make it; we were at the Troubadour for Zane Carney. Bardot is a very unusual venue; how was that show?
Conor: It was great. First show in LA and the room was packed. We had a really good reception and seemed to really engage with the crowd which always makes for a good show.
High Voltage: Touring the album begins in the UK where you’ve already quite the solid fan base and a number of the October and November shows have already sold out. Obviously this means folks like you over there. So what are Nothing But Thieves shows like on your home turf?
Conor: Yeah, we’ve sold out the entire UK run now, which is pretty fucking nuts. Yeah it’s good, everyone’s very proud of you for being British I guess; there’s tea, crumpets and bad teeth flying everywhere at a Nothing But Thieves show.
High Voltage: Have any of your shows ever gotten out of hand – in a good or bad way?
Conor: I’ve definitely knocked myself out by crowd surfing before. Dumb ass move.
High Voltage: Do you remember your first gig as Nothing But Thieves? When? Where? How it went?
Conor: Ooooh, this was in London at the Bull & Gate; we played shit but had a bigger crowd then the main act who, coincidentally, hated us for that reason. Haha.
High Voltage: In 2016 you’ll be returning to the states for some proper touring with us: We’re looking forward to that as it’s going to be the “getting to know you” phase of our musical relationship. Any specific plans or goals for the stateside tour? Are there any cities that you are especially looking forward to?
Conor: Like you said really getting to know the US crowds, very fucking excited. Everyone has a different reception to our music in each country. I like seeing the nuances. New York and LA again, obviously. Texas and Tennnessee too!
High Voltage: South By Southwest in Austin, TX is always a good time and is literally High Voltage’s happy place. Please tell us that you’ll be attending SXSW in 2016. Even if you have to lie, tell me you’ll be there.
Conor: WE’RE VERY MUCH TRYING TO BE THERE. I need it in my life.
High Voltage: Very glad to hear that. Now those six weeks that you spent in the U.S. in 2012 often gets referenced as something of a turning point in your development as a band, as musicians. Now a more juvenile mind would probably convert five English guys running amuck in the U.S. into “mayhem with the possibility of jail time.” To clear up any misconceptions like that, what happened during those six weeks that made such a difference?
Conor: Jail time: that’s how we met the rest of the band and got the name, of course. Bar the bad food and avoiding the soap in the showers, we just experienced how to write a song, came back and wrote the EP!
High Voltage: As a band you’re not even five years old yet, but over the past two years or so you’ve racked up some quality time on the festival circuit. A festival being an entirely different animal than a “regular” show, how do you rate the experience of playing festivals compared to regular shows?
Conor: Ah it’s a insatiable experience, the high you get from the roar of 5,000 people is like nothing else. Love the gig, booze, people you hang with. The best time.
High Voltage: Conor, I think it’s really fascinating to hear about when or how a singer realized or “figured out” that they could truly sing. Was there a particular moment like that for you?
Conor: Yeah, ironically as I answer this I’m listening to AC/DC’s High Voltage album which is the album that made me want to be a singer. Bon Scott is my man. I was about 10, I guess, and just continued to strengthen my voice for the years to come. I still know I’m not as good as I could be, gotta keep going!
High Voltage: Let’s talk “day jobs” which most everyone has had: What were your worst jobs?
Conor: Joe was a pizza delivery guy (pepperoni Joe), Dom taught guitar at an all-girls school, Phil was a carer, Price cleaned toilets and I was a laser arena party host. Fun times.
High Voltage: How do you guys entertain yourselves while you’re on the road?
Conor: Conversations or Bukowski and endless games of chess. Nah, it’s all films, loud music and beer. Gotta keep it real!
High Voltage: Anyone who is a professional musician is, obviously, a music fan (or at least I hope they are!). I have a handful of musician friends – the majority of whom still engage music at the fan level – but there are a few who are so into their own music that there’s no room for anyone else’s. With being a full time band, has that affected your ability to simply BE music fans? To go to shows just to hear something that you love, to discover new music, etc.?
Conor: Absolutely not! We still find new music daily that we love. I think it’s important to be aware of the market and also be ahead of the game, as well. We love listening to new bands.
High Voltage: What’s some of the best or favorite music you’ve all been listening to lately? Anything that you’d recommend that we dig into?
Conor: Slaves, Everything Everything’s new album and Wolf Alice.
High Voltage: Finally, how has 2015 treated you? What have been some highlights and where does Nothing But Thieves go from here?
Conor: It’s one of those things you only realise when an interviewer asks you, looking back retrospectively it’s been insane. Playing with Muse had to be one of the biggest highlights. 40,000 people, nothing has beaten that. Our goal from here is to match it, again, but with our own crowd. Who knows!
High Voltage: I’m really looking forward to when you come back to Los Angeles, but when you do can you please consult my calendar and me so that we can make sure that there’s no show conflict? Because if Foo Fighters, Soundgarden or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are playing…just saying…
Conor: I shall be coming with you if any of those play.