More Kicks – Punch Drunk (Q&A)

Punch Drunk’ is the second album from London-based trio More Kicks on Dirtnap Records (USA) and Stardumb Records (EU), and it’s easily one of the best Power Pop records of the year. Everything is right; the melodies are powerful, the hooks sharp, the lyrics effective, and the performance outstanding.

James Sullivan explains that there was no grand master plan behind this masterpiece.

I like to believe that there was a moment during the creative creation of Punch Drunk when you must have thought, ‘Okay, we’re that good. This is the new level.’. Or don’t things like that happen?

Thanks! That’s a very nice thing to say. But sadly, I don’t think I had that thought at any time. I knew I liked the songs but the distance between me writing a little song in my bedroom and the three of us actually recording the ‘finished’ version is really quite large. Not in time, necessarily, but if you heard my crappy demos, you’d see how hard it is for me to imagine how it will all sound in the end. So many variables are involved in how the songs evolve to the point when they’re released into the world, so it’s hard to have the bigger picture in mind.

I will say that I was always excited to hear what Kris and Paolo would bring to the songs. And then, once we’d rehearsed and changed things, I was always excited to hear how it would be once we’d recorded. And then, once we’d recorded, I was always excited to hear how it would be after we’d mixed it, and after we’d mastered it, and then how it worked in combination with the other tunes on the album. But, yeah, that all feels a VERY long way away at the start of the process.

You just never know. There have been times where we’ve been in the practice space playing a song that we think is great, and we work really hard to make it as good as it can be… but then, in the end, with a bit of objectivity, we decide it’s not good enough – and then it’s gone, and we move on. I can never really tell which songs that will happen with.

The world has changed since the release of your 2019 debut. Has that affected the way you produced the new record?

It stopped us from touring and playing live, a very large part of how songs evolved. We had to practice much more and in a much more focused way to get to the point when they felt ready to record. Playing a new song in a gig is equivalent to playing it for probably ten practices. Things sounding good is much quicker when you can try things out on stage.

The recording process was more or less the same though. We recorded it on tape at the same studio as the first album. Playing live in a room and recording on to 2″ tape. Just trying to get a good take that captured some kind of energy, even if some of the playing wasn’t perfect. There are a couple of extremely dodgy guitar takes on the album but in context with the rest of the instruments it works so that’s more important than any kind of perfection in technique.

I love recording on tape. It’s not for everyone but I like that there’s nowhere to hide. To me, the record sounds alive. I can hear moments of hesitation, or how the bass slips under the kick drum at points, or how the vocal struggles to keep up with the tempo in other places. It sounds exactly like us playing and I love that.

When I try to interpret Punch Drunk, I hear a multitude of different styles that you bring together in a natural way. Was that a goal in itself, or did it come naturally?

Pretty naturally, I would say. Although I was really determined to make this record as extreme as possible. That might sound strange because it sounds like a poppy rock and roll album. But the loud bits are louder, the quiet bits quieter. I didn’t want any two songs to be similar in any way – either in chords or in atmosphere. There were a couple of good ones that didn’t make it on to the record because it felt like we had that base covered already. “We already have the mid-tempo, harmonized chorus, doomed love song covered – let’s put the slow, existential nursery rhyme drum machine song on instead.”

Clearly, much thought has gone into the lyrics and how they are sung. It remains a challenge to get people to really listen?

Again, thanks! There actually wasn’t much thought into how they are sung. It’s just about capturing a good take. I usually sing the song twice and use the second one. I really like using full vocal takes instead of cutting anything up – it’s more fun to record and as long as you can sing in tune, it almost always results in a more compelling take. It’s fun to hear a singer struggling for breath occasionally.

I do tend to write lyrics quite quickly as well. I often write backward – starting with the chorus. I think at this point, I know when I’m on to something good and I can edit myself quite well. I have an ego about many things but I have no ego about dropping lyrics or ideas for lyrical themes that aren’t working. I can tell when is working and then I try to do it as quickly as possible to capture that thought.

But yeah it’s a challenge to get people to listen, haha! I guess we’re playing the long game here.

When did you know that this record was going to be very special?

Well, I’m glad that you think that. I wasn’t sure if we had pulled it off until it was totally finished and mixed. Having an objective view is almost impossible until you’re out of it. We had three days to record and then we mixed in 1.5 days. During those days, there was no sense of it being good or bad or anything – it was just about making the thing as good as we could in that moment. Then once it’s done and you can actually listen with something approaching fresh ears, you might start to think: ‘Okay, we did it and I like it.”

Again, that’s the beauty of recording and mixing on tape. You have to make decisions in that second, in that room. And then that’s it. You have to trust your instinct.

Terminal Love is my favorite. Can you share a bit about how that song came about?

I like that one too. It was written just after the first album came out. So it’s an old-new song, kind of. I wrote it in my old flat one evening just before Christmas. I didn’t realize it, but the relationship I was in at the time was about to end. It’s weird to think that because I was literally writing a song called ‘Terminal Love’ so clearly, my subconscious knew it was about to end, but my consciousness hadn’t faced up to it yet.

It’s a simple song in structure. I like starting and ending with the ringing, open chords but having that concise section in the middle. The lyrics are sometimes petty and bitter, sometimes just a bit wistful and romantic. It feels like one person having a conversation with themselves and not agreeing.

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