Something Else writes about The Speed of Sounds’ Museum of Tomorrow: Released by Big Stir Records, this 13-track collection centers on science-fiction concepts, where the past meets the future, the future meets the past, the present is questionable, and the line is blurred between fantasy and reality.
Sweet Sweet Music spoke to John Armstrong about a notebook for storing snatches of phrases, connected songs, an 8/10 review in Vive Le Rock, and misquoting JFK.
What was the moment you knew you were on to something?
There have been several with this album; among the biggest were:
After adding the keyboard linking parts between the tracks, the first listen through to the whole thing as a single piece and hearing the vinyl test pressing.
“Oh yes! That is EXACTLY what it is meant to sound like.” is a very good thought to have.
How did this record come together?
I write in batches; I have a notebook for storing snatches of phrases and titles while the ideas brew subconsciously and are ready to pour out when I get mental space and time. The lyrics are an essential part of The Speed Of Sound songs, so they are always the starting point. The music comes afterward to match the feel of the words. I think most people do it the other way around, but I’ve tried it, and that doesn’t work for me.
I knew there were many connected songs brewing, and from the very beginning of the batch, I knew this would be a thematically connected album. I also knew it would be released on vinyl, so I was very conscious of the physical time constraints which forced each piece to be tight and compact, purely to get it to fit with so many songs.
While the songs are taking shape internally, I was also thinking of the album as a whole; its dynamic feel and overall architectural shape, plus how we would link it all together – which in itself tied in the title. So rather than just a set of songs, Museum Of Tomorrow was conceived as a single piece, the only gap being to flip it over onto the other side. I like albums.
The meaning of success has changed over the years. What would success look like for the new record?
In ‘normal’ recognized measurable terms, Museum Of Tomorrow already is a success; in that, we’ve been largely ignored or misunderstood for over thirty years and Museum Of Tomorrow went straight in with an 8/10 review in Vive Le Rock a full three weeks before release.
In simpler, broader terms, as with the music itself, I take a longer view on it and still be making new music 32 years from the first release and enjoying doing it is success.
How great is the urge to stay creative? To keep writing songs and lyrics?
It is big. I don’t think there is such a thing as writers’ block, but there is ‘not being in the right place.’ I find that to write new stuff, you’ve got to have no distractions and uncluttered headspace. When that lines up, they pour out. I know there’s plenty more in there, and the process of getting them out and knocking the right bits off the raw block to get at the shapes hidden in there is fascinating and a lot of pleasure, despite also being pretty damn hard work.
The process itself: experimenting with the sounds and textures of songs is very fulfilling. Most music never gets recorded at all, so the feeling of having piloted through the creative process and ‘landed’ a new album and preparing for release is addictively exciting.
As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?
No. It is not comfortable, but to misquote JFK: “We don’t do these things because they are comfortable.” I find it way more interesting to write something that means something personally than go with Moon/June rhymes about nothing. It is all very serious subject matter and pretty dark thematically, but the music is uplifting and optimistic.
Gloomy, but we’re not a bunch of misery-guts about it. There is a natural playfulness there that hopefully is engaging. Not exactly a sugar coating and not exactly by way of protective body armor. Music should involve emotional experience, so that is what we do if/when other people connect; that is fabulous.
You can pick three co-writers to write new songs with. Who? … and Why?
Anna Calvi, Kate Bush, and Joni Mitchell. All three of them are explorers making their own rules and setting their standards. Each have their own Sound™, and each is very different. The idea of trying new stuff is exciting, and all three of those personal soundscapes are directions I would like to travel.
What’s the gig you will never forget? And why?
We’ve played many gigs, and they were all different and memorable, but probably the most unique was playing in the drawing-room of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. It was a tiny intimate gig with so much history in the house and in that particular room. It felt like time travel and playing a gig in 1854. That was the first time we played Charlotte in public – which was only written about a week earlier, a song about fellow novelist Charlotte Bronte suffering an anxiety attack brought on by a doorbell ringing while she was visiting Mrs. Gaskell and hiding behind a curtain until the other guest had gone. It was Ms. Bronte’s 200th Birthday, and both hers and Mrs. Gaskell’s portraits were watching us from the wall next to the curtained window Charlotte had hidden in. It felt like she was there. Cool. But also very spooky.
Lyrics are too often taken for granted. What is the line of text, or are the lines of text that you hope listeners will remember? And why?
Yes, most people probably don’t listen to lyrics other than a chorus hook, or, if they do listen, they probably mishear them anyway, which is a shame because there are an awful lot of good lyrics out there despite the general cultural dumbing-down we’ve had and the vocabulary contraction.
With Museum Of Tomorrow, the first line of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ is etched into the vinyl near the run-off groove: “We were offered Star Trek but they fed us Soylent Green.” It announces the whole album and sums up the way the 21st Century has been ‘a bit disappointing’* (*British Understatement) compared to what we were told we’d have 40-50 years ago.
There is meaning in all of the songs, plenty to dig for and carry away. We have been called a ‘thinking person’s band’ quite a few times. The vinyl issue has a printed 16-page booklet with the album lyrics in it, and that is also a PDF with the download (and the album streaming also includes the lyrics now), so there is more opportunity to hear them as they are. However, as soon as you release a song into the wild, even the people that listen to the lyrics will hear it in the context of their own experience, and it will mean something different to them.
Is recording a record easier than getting it heard nowadays?
It is possible to record an entire album and add an orchestral score all from a computer keyboard in your bedroom. Getting people to listen to it is hard. The internet is a blizzard of information blowing straight in your face, so naturally, people shut their eyes.
Countless people are shouting, “Hey, listen to my band.” It is challenging to be found amongst all that, even if people are actively looking for you. I also have a radio show (Tuning Up on Mad Wasp Radio), and the amount of submissions I get is enormous; it simply isn’t possible to listen to all of it. Time is a limited resource, and if people choose to spend it listening to you, that is an immense gift. Independent music physically IS that metaphorical/metaphysical tree falling when no one is there to hear it.
Cassettes are back. Which 5 five songs would make your first mixtape?
Only five? Whoa. That’s hard. Am I allowed to say listen to all the Tuning Up shows on Mixcloud? There’s close to nine continuous days (and nights) worth of mixtape on there!
Recording music. What’s all the fun about?
Pushing buttons! AND sliding sliders! Recording is about exploring what you can do with the sound you’ve got and deciding when you have got enough of it. Thinking of new ways of doing things while trying to keep it as spontaneous as possible, planning things out in advance, and watching them all come together. It is sculpting shapes and structures from thin air. It is magical.
Playing music in front of a crowd. What’s all the fun about?
Live performance is where music comes alive. I’m an improviser, and in a live situation, that is pure excitement. The Speed Of Sound has never played the same set twice; there is always something different. We have a back catalog that is far too big to fit into a single gig, and although we are better at playing our own stuff than other people’s music, we do occasionally play a cover live too. Music has to evolve to stay alive. You can’t play something the same way for 30+ years; it has to stay fresh.
You can’t control the way people ‘hear’ your music. But if you could make them aware of certain aspects, you think, set your songs apart. What would they be?
We make pretty forceful crunchy music, but it floats at the same time. To get the most out of ANY music, you have to meet it halfway to start with. Our music is not background music; it is immersive. Dive in with an open mind and let it grab you. Relax into it.
They expect ‘the roaring 20s v2.0’. What kind of party are you looking for?
I like the long game, so it is a slow-burning fuse for me. I want to keep going, doing what the rest of the band and I are doing for as long as possible. Music is my drug of choice. So the so-called ‘glamorous’ matter/anti-matter type annihilation that people see as the Rock’n’Roll-Life-Style isn’t a choice I’d go for. However, for me, wherever there is a guitar, that IS a party.