INTERVIEW: Backstage with Asylums

There’s something about The Lexington that makes my phone implode. It played up when I interviewed Youth Club here earlier in the year, and now it’s telling me I’ve dialed “an incorrect number” as I’m trying to call Asylums’ frontman Luke. It’s definitely incorrect, but I keep re-dialing anyway, looking frantically at the bar to see if he’s around.

Fortunately, someone recognises the panic/annoyance in my face and asks if I’m here to interview the band before going off to find them. I’m only kept waiting for a few minutes, but in that time I think about the scissor-kicking, hair flicking and crowd surfing I witnessed when I saw Asylums in action for the first time at Village Green Festival this year. I’m excited to see it all again, and even more excited that it’s on the night before they release their debut album, Killer Brain Waves.

I’m taken upstairs and backstage where Luke and guitarist Jazz are waiting. Bassist Michael joins us too, and we sit down alongside some immaculately lined up guitars. It’s so much easier to interview a band when a) they’re super nice people, and b) their music’s so exciting, it’s the first thing you purchase on payday. We chat for around half an hour, and when they appear on stage an hour later they play a knockout set, opening with ‘Second Class Sex’ and tearing through singles ‘Missing Person’ and ‘Joy In a Small Wage’.

Whilst some musicians get jaded after being involved in so many different projects, the Asylums guys couldn’t be more enthusiastic and most importantly; kind about it all. There’s not a single complaint throughout the interview (well, apart from the bit about seagulls), which is admirable when collectively they’ve sacrificed a healthy sleeping pattern, an unknown amount of pennies, and dramatically upped their caffeine intake to make their superb debut album.

One word that keeps cropping up is “community”. Through the Cool Thing Records label the band have created new connections and reinvigorated existing friendships. I’ve known them for ten minutes, but I  feel like I could walk in to one of their Cool Thing Club Nights and feel at ease among friendly, like-minded people.  Or perhaps I’m just feeling brave because I’ve sipped the free beer Luke offered me, and it’s hit me because I ate a sparrow-sized dinner before arriving at the venue…

 

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Hello Asylums! You’re about to play an X-Posure (Radio X) headline show at The Lexington. Are you apprehensive? Excited? What’s your ritual in the final moments before you go on stage?

Luke: One ritual that’s cropped up over recent months is our photographer Kana has got a speaker system built in to his coat, and he normally plays us Whitney Houston songs before we go on. At Village Green Festival a few weeks ago, he was playing Michael Jackson and he’d learned all of the appropriate dances for each song; so we just watch him do that and that takes the edge off!

Michael: We have put war-paint on before, so we might do that again.

Luke: There’s also a lot of hugging and “I love you man!”as well.

Jazz: Lots of hand-rubbing and stuff…

Michael: And you do loads of lunges as well.

Well, your shows are quite energetic so that’s probably a good thing!

Luke: Backstage here is like our ‘OCD ritual hub’ (laughs)

I noticed it’s extremely tidy back here. You’ve done well guys.

 

Tomorrow (29th of July), you release your debut album, Killer Brain Waves. On a scale of 1 to “I’m so excited I might explode” – how are you feeling about the release?

Michael: We are really excited. The thing about this project is we’ve worked really hard on every aspect of it. Traditionally, when bands release something a lot of other people get involved, but we’ve done pretty much everything ourselves. We’ve collaborated with certain people, but most of it’s done with the skills that we’ve got. Limitation is sometimes one of the best things you can have.

We are all really proud of it (Luke & Jazz agree), so it’ll mean a little bit more to us than it maybe would to other bands who don’t do that.  We’re excited, but we’re quite calm about it as well. We’re not expecting it to be number one in the charts or anything like that, but the fact that it’s out and is going to be in the shops means an awful lot to us. Not only as a band, but as a label as well.

Jazz: I mean, the fact that the album’s sitting out there now on vinyl at the merch stand is surreal. To comprehend that we actually did it, that it’s a physical object that sums up everything we’ve put in to it over the last three years  is great.

Luke: I was trying to explain it to a friend a couple of weeks ago. It’s quite emotional, I’m prone to being a bit emotional anyway, but I get emotional about it because when we started the project – without being a bit ridiculous about it – we weren’t all in a great spot in our lives really, and it’s helped us come together to make positive things happen. Not just for the four of us, but for all of the associated people that we’re working with.

From Kana who does our photography, to working on the artwork with my Dad. Through seeing it come to fruition, to see this artefact – it just feels like there’s just so many people who we love who’ve contributed towards it, so it doesn’t just feel like a win musically, it feels like a win as a community. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.

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That’s a really cool achievement. Can you each tell me your favourite track from the new album?

Michael: ‘Slacker Shopper’ is my favourite, it’s the last track on the album. There’s something slightly different about that track energy-wise, I think it’s the fact that Henry our drummer’s like a Duracell bunny in it (Luke laughs). He does all the backing vocals normally and I sort of join in every now and then, but this track’s the only one where I turn round and he can’t physically do both because there’s so much energy to it, and it’s the one that I feel, especially live, that I can get in to.

There’s this pose that I do…not that you can see it (laughs as he assumes the position), but my knee goes down and it’s almost on the floor, and I can’t help doing it. Also, it’s more to my taste, what I listen to as a music fan. I listen to a lot of post-punk and it’s more ‘out there’. If you had Asylums’ poppier stuff here, (gestures towards one end of a scale) and then the more ‘out there’ stuff down there (gestures towards other), it’s more extreme. Sorry, I’ve gone on for ages here (laughs)…

No need to apologise! How about you Jazz?

Jazz: I think mine would be the opposite to ‘Slacker Shopper’, mine is ‘Monosyllabic Saliva’ which is probably one of the more darker tunes on the record, but it’s my favourite to play live. It’s one that me and Luke collaborated quite heavily on and we a put a lot of work in to it, so I’m really proud of that, and how it came out.

Luke:  Yeah that was one where there was kind of no demo, we sort of worked on it in our bedrooms and found stuff to make it work. I think for me it’s probably ‘Joy In a Small Wage’. I know it’s an obvious choice, and I don’t think it’s better than any of the other songs, but for me it was probably the first thing I recorded on my eight track on my own; and I thought “that sounds like something new that I haven’t done before”. I started working with Mike towards the end of 2013 before we had a band, and we just started working on the bass line for the chorus and it just sort of found itself.

I remember working on an art installation in my flat and Kana came round to shoot it, again before we had a band, and we were just trying to find aesthetic ideas and things like that, so I put the demo on and he was like “What’s this? This sounds cool…”, so now when I hear it, it reminds me of that time and the beginning of everything, and of how far I’ve come.

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Good choices (like I’m an authority?). Luke, you’re one of the founders of Cool Thing Records and all of Asylum’s music has been released on the label. You’ve spoken to Gigslutz about this before, but what inspired you to start the label, and what would you say is your biggest achievement with it to date?

Luke: Definitely making it to this point and releasing an album, we didn’t know if it would be possible financially or if there would be demand. As a label and as a band the Radio 1 Introducing playlisting was a really big thing for us last year, on Tuesday (2nd August) BBC6 Music are making Killer Brain Waves their ‘Album of the Day’, and I think they’re gonna play tracks on every show all day, and when we found out last week we were just like “Fuck, how have we done that!?” (laughs).

I think ‘DIY’ sometimes implies that you don’t participate whatsoever with the record industry, but we’re DIY in the sense that we finance everything ourselves  internally, we don’t ask people for money and we make it work with what we have, but we do engage with the music industry and I think that’s ok to do that. You just go in with eyes wide open and you do it on your own terms.

We work with a really lovely radio-plugger Reese who is not part of the London radio-pluggers scene, he’s from Bolton and he’s a musician himself so he really ‘gets’ music and he has a heart of gold. He’s been with us since the beginning, so I think that’s probably one of the biggest achievements career-wise.

Jazz: Yeah, and also I’d say our Cool Thing Records club nights that we put on in Southend. Every single one has progressed each time and it’s grown, and we’ve seen the audience get bigger each time and we get to put bands on that we love…

I saw recently you had FREAK (Cool Thing Records associate who recently supported Fidlar at Brixton Academy) at one of the club nights at The Railway recently…

Luke: Yeah that’s right, he’s coming down tonight actually.

Michael: I think our club nights are like checkpoints almost. We look at the local scene and ideally we want Southend to be the hub, we want it to be really vibrant and just this pulsating bucket of maggots (the band laugh), which we’re the head of, you know?

There’s a lot of talent in Southend and it gets a bit overlooked because it’s the poor, crappy, runt younger brother of Brighton. But it has got a scene and I think we could build it up and make it better. For me I’m really proud of the label, because we’re all doing it on our own terms and that’s important. If we can do it, anyone can do it.

Luke: Yeah definitely. The first Cool Thing Records night we did we sold out. It was a only a 70 people capacity, and we purposely chose a small venue because we didn’t know what to expect. The last club night we did was packed out and there were a lot of people who we didn’t know, and it wasn’t an older crowd it was a young crowd. One girl actually got chucked out for being too pissed and now she’s in one of the band’s that we’re working with (laughs) which is crazy.

It felt positive because we felt like we’d showed everyone that it’s possible to do it without sitting on benches for years waiting to be waved in by a record label, whether it’s with us or with someone else.  It doesn’t have to be with Cool Thing, it could be your own label or however you want to do it. I know when I started in music older musicians showed me the ropes and stuff, and basically just passed it on.

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That’s a good ethic. So you’ve been together since 2014, and in that time you’ve played loads of gigs and festivals. Do you have any standout memories?

Jazz: Walking on stage at Shepherds Bush Empire was like a real dream come true moment personally. That was in December last year when we were supporting Ash. It’s a venue I’ve been to a lot as a kid to see bands, so it was quite a sentimental one for me. It felt surreal, but it was a special gig.

Luke: Then the balcony fell down a few days later (laughs)

Well, you obviously brought the house down guys!

Luke: I’ve got quite fond memories of a recent gig actually. I really enjoyed Camden Rocks this year. They’ve made a real effort with that festival and taken it to the next level. We didn’t know what to expect, we had a little bit of downtime around Christmas and it was booked around then, so we didn’t know if we’d get a good slot or whatever, but when we got there it was rammed and I spent a whole song crowd-surfing and jumping back and forth throughout the set, it was absolute pandemonium. I was just like “Woahh…this has gone somewhere new” (laughs) and it was pretty exciting stuff.

Also, Village Green  Festival [in Southend] this year was special. We were playing with loads of local bands and we know the people that put the festival on and it’s Arts Council funded, all for the community, there’s even a day set aside for schools and kids to come down and stuff. When we walked on stage in front of 10,000 people it was mega.

Michael: Well, to be honest…

Luke: Grillfest?

Michael: (laughs) Yeah, that was my stag-do. I was on the main stage eating hotdogs in a competition. I didn’t win. (laughs)

For me, I think it’s meeting a lot of people who I respect. I’m a massive fan of Killing Joke, and we got to play with Ash, and big  bands you know? Like The Enemy and stuff…

Luke: I remember during sound check with Ash you started playing the bass to ‘Sabotage’ by Beastie Boys, and Tim Wheeler  came over and was like “how do you play that?” and Mike was teaching him how to play it, and we were like “Nice..” (laughs). It was just so cool.

Michael: Yeah, I mean you remember being a kid and watching Jools Holland or something like that and seeing Ash playing ‘Goldfinger’ and loving that song and loving the band, and then suddenly you’re there supporting them. I was watching the football with Tim and Mark Hamilton, I was sitting in the middle watching football on their laptop within minutes of meeting them, just having a beer and watching the football. It makes you feel like you’re a part of things, you know? And I’d say don’t ever feel like an outsider, you are part of it and you are making it happen. The guys in Ash are just normal people like everyone else.

Luke: That’s the thing that comes across with all the bands we’ve played with really, they’re just good people. I think in this game you’ve really got to want to play music these days because it’s such a ball-buster trying to make money from it, that you’ve got to really want to play and enjoy writing because it’s so rewarding. One of the first tours we went out on was with The Vaselines and we were like “Holy fuck, how cool is this?” (laughs). Then when they played ‘Molly’s Lips’…

Jazz: That was like a dream.

It sounds like one. You’ve mentioned your photographer Kana who captures photos and videos of your live performances. What is it about his style that you like, and why do you think it fits so well with your sound?

Jazz: He’s original and authentic and I feel like he captures the moment, rather than just a standard live shot. You can see the expressions in our face so clearly, which are things we might not see in that moment when we’re on stage.

Luke: It’s not just a document of what happened, in my personal opinion I think he always captures something in the eyes or the eyes of others, and there’s a bit of emotion in there even in the most chaotic scene and you can tell what it means to the subject. Not just in the stuff he’s shot for us, but in his other work too.

Michael: I think he’s got this in-built front. Some photographers might think “Oh, I can’t go there” but Kana’s not frightened to go where other photographers think they can’t, even if he gets told to fuck off (laughs).

Luke: When we’ve been on stage before I’ve actually seen him being carried out of venues by his arms and legs shouting “Help!” (laughs).

Michael: He’s always getting bollocked for getting in the way. (laughs)

He’s such a punk!

Luke: (laughs) He really is, we’ve been friends since we were 18. I feel like his photography has soared, and soared, and soared in the last few years because he’s out there doing it all the time. He’s shooting with us and other bands and it’s given him access to some cool situations which have brought it out of him even more, and I think he’s loving that and I’m loving seeing it happen for him too.

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On your social media, you describe your musical genre as “Nostalgia Pollution” – who came up with that, and why do you think it fits your sound so well?

Luke: To be honest it was just some arbitrary shit we put on Facebook (laughs)

I suppose it fills in the ‘genre’ gap…

Michael: I thought we changed it to ‘Seaside Sewage’? (laughs)

Luke: I definitely think that when we started there was a lot of reunion stuff going on, and I thought “are we against Nostalgia Pollution, or are we Nostalgia Pollution?”. I didn’t really know the answer, so I put it on Facebook (laughs) and it sounds pretty cool (laughs).

We’ve mentioned that you’re from Southend.  What’s your favourite, and least favourite thing about the town?

Michael: My favourite thing is that you think you’re by the sea, but then you realise it’s actually just a little stream, or a ditch really, we’re actually on a ditch (laughs). But it’s great you know? My girlfriend used to live in London and I love being here, but I couldn’t live in London. It’s too claustrophobic for me.

Jazz: For me it’s probably the sense of community and the music heritage, Dr Feelgood and other great bands like that.

Luke: I like the fact that because it’s a small town, you tend to know everyone who’s involved in the creative arts because there’s only a handful of places that they all congregate. You know you can go out to The Railway pub and you’ll bump in to four or five people who are up to stuff. One of our friends Sadie is putting on a play in Edinburgh Festival this year, another friend went out on tour with White Stripes, and we know people in other bands. Because it’s so small you know everyone, and the sense of community is really nice.

I bloody hate the seagulls though. They’re big bastards, they look like they’re on steroids (laughs).

Finally, what does the rest of the year have in store for Asylums? More gigs? Side projects? A holiday?

Luke: We’ve got a UK tour coming up in October, and we’re playing The Forum twice in September and we’ll also be at Bestival.

I’m going to Bestival this year too!

Luke: What’s the theme this year? Seagulls? (laughs)

Future Invaders, something like that?

Luke: We’re also working on a project where Mike sings called BAIT which we’ll be putting out next year. We’re swapping roles so I’ll be playing a bit of bass and he’ll be lead singer.

We’re also working with a group of girls called Petty Phase who want to put a record out, we’re just going to try and grow the label. We’re working on another Asylums record too, so as Killer Brain Waves comes to its natural end we’ll start sharing that one. We are back in the studio next Friday actually!

Massive thanks to Luke, Jazz & Michael for taking the time to answer my questions, and for the free bottle of beer that I forgot to take with me on the way out.

Catch the band live on the following dates:

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Photo credits: Kana Waiwaiku

Kate Crudgington
@KCBobCut

Kate Crudgington

Kate Crudgington

Assistant Editor for Gigslutz (2015-2017) Co-Founder, Co-Host & Features Editor for @getinherears