Q&A with Life Without Buildings

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:38

    When I first heard UK band Life Without Buildings' full-length debut, Any Other City (Tugboat Records), I was struck by the sense that here was something different. Sure, there were traces of the same late-70s/early-80s pop and punk outfits that are now (again) all the rage?Joy Division, Gang of Four, Liliput, even a darker, down-tempo X-Ray Spex?but instead of outright homage/imitation LWB seemed to have fashioned these sounds into something convincingly fresh and individual. They mostly sounded like themselves.

    Built around singer Sue Tompkins' breathy, stuttering vocals, Life Without Buildings' songs are melodic and moody, stripped down yet rhythmically propulsive. They've got an arty quality to them?particularly when it comes to those vocals?yet remain downright catchy, even groovy in a "Tainted Love" sort of way (though their setup doesn't include synths). The band is currently negotiating for a U.S. distributor for Any Other City; the album is available as an import at various stores around New York.

    I interviewed Sue and LWB guitarist Robert Johnston via e-mail?though it should probably be mentioned that Sue responded from an Internet cafe she called "funny surroundings," and apologizes for the brevity of her answers.

    I understand that you all met in art school?is that correct? Had you played music before? What did you listen to when you were younger? Robert: I was at the Glasgow School of Art around the same time as Sue and [drummer] Will but didn't really know them very well until later, when we all were involved in the scene which centered around Transmission Gallery here. Chris went to art school elsewhere, but moved here and ended up hanging around the same scene. I had played the guitar since I was quite young and been in a couple of abortive bands, but was basically a fan of music more than a player... I had a lot of the same musical tastes as Will, which is what inspired us to start a band. Drunken conversations about the Go-Betweens and that kind of thing. I was really into the Red House Painters, Nick Drake, that kind of stuff.

    Sue: I'm a bit wide in my musical tastes. I did play cello once a long time ago, though I never practiced. When I was younger I listened only to the radio.

    I find you being compared to Television, PiL, the Raincoats...personally I hear some of the Fall. What do you think about these type of comparisons? Are they spot on? Annoying? R: Umm... I think early on when we started being asked who our influences were we made the mistake of mentioning a lot of late-70s/early-80s punk/new wave stuff, which certainly is an influence but not the only one, and that got us pigeonholed as slightly retro. We were really anxious not to be perceived as an "art band" so we tried to give people a handle on us which was a bit more rock 'n' roll, talking about Patti Smith and stuff. But the truth is that we were as influenced by things like Aerial M and Sonic Youth as by all the 70s stuff. Vocally, well, Sue had never really heard Patti Smith or the Slits before she joined the band?she was coming from a completely individual angle which had a lot more to do with writing than singing. And I've actually still never heard the Raincoats. The only time it annoys me is when people make really lazy comparisons based on Sue's vocals (Bjork, Altered Images, etc., which we clearly aren't anything like). I think the Fall is a good comparison, though I think we're more concerned with melody.

    S: I've not really heard the Fall, but I saw Mark E. Smith do a song about a telephone on the Old Grey Whistle Test with Coldcut and I thought he was pretty great, really.

    You've been a band for a relatively short time. How did you get started? Can you comment on your radio appearances, tours, getting signed to a prominent label [an imprint of Rough Trade]? R: Our first gig was the result of pressure to do a gig basically, and we had no songs and actually no singer when we were asked to do it. I think we treated it as something to galvanize us into working a bit harder because until then we had really just been messing about in our bedrooms. I think we had two rehearsals with Sue before we did it. We were offered the chance to make a record after that gig, which was kind of surprising to us, and that started off our career as, I suppose you could say, pop ingenues. Things took off quite quickly because Radio 1 over here picked up on "New Town" [their first single]; from then on we were doing a lot of interviews and whatnot, which felt strange because at that time we only had about three songs written.

    It's only quite recently, I think, we've started to feel like a "proper" band and even then I'm not too sure I like everything about how that feels. I actually think we're a really good, exciting live band, so that's the upside. The downside is maybe having to think a bit harder about what kind of music we want to write, what directions we can take, how we can sort of push things forward. We really don't want to be a kind of indie-pop band, which I think is how some people see us.

    S: I enjoy things like the radio appearances. It all feels a bit bizarre sometimes, but quite liberating.

    What would you say your best gig has been so far? And your worst? R: The best has probably been one we did recently in Athens, Greece, where we played to about 650 people... Everything else was kind of a comedown after that. Gigs in London are always good, we sold out our last one there. We have plenty of "worst gig" experiences?Aberdeen is reliably dire.

    S: I think our best gig so far maybe was our most recent London gig at the Barfly on Charing Cross Rd. I think I liked it because it was boiling onstage and a bit rough and loose and all the things I like. The worst, oh there's been some weird ones, definitely. I think Frome [a town in Wessex]...

    Are any of you still doing art? How do you see the relationship or lack of one between art and music? To me you don't seem quite what people might expect from folks coming out of art school... R: Sue is probably the most artistically active, but we all still participate in the art scene to some degree?writing, doing design work or whatever, and socially. Imagewise I think we're kind of constrained by the people we are?we're all around 30 and would feel pretty stupid with pink hair or whatever. We don't photograph well is what I'm trying to say, although I think Sue has very much her own style. I'm glad you don't think we come across as "arty" or whatever (you're in a minority though?we've been called "pretentious dweebs" in print over here).

    What are your immediate goals, both career- and music-wise? R: Well, we want to write more material at the moment, that's number one. Career-wise, the only goal is just to be able to keep at it. To just get as much fun out of this as we can while it lasts, to travel and play and meet like-minded people. I'd really like for the record to do reasonably well in the States, so we can tour there. In terms of our immediate plans, we'll be touring Australia and then Europe in the winter.

    S: I think I'm not ambitious enough so I find that question hard.