For Peepholes, music is as much a discourse as it is a creative release. You mightn’t think so if you actually listened to their lyrics. Because tunnelling through the unceasing forward motion of cyclic synth-lines and a thrillingly coarse rhythm, drummer Katia Barrett’s Amazonian howl reveals some highly ambiguous, sometimes totally mundane subject matter. From sleeping in the shower to broken key chains, it might be difficult to identify the intentions of the band and while you might be tempted to dream up all sorts of existential metaphors from their words, it’s best you don’t. Because in their latest release and first album since forming around 2007, The Overspill –out on Upset the Rhythm, November 26 –Peepholes’ focus is more on form and aesthetic than any explicit personal or political motive. And that’s even with the suspiciously analytical words of ‘Conversation’ (“hustler, gaylord, his law, conversation”) that come across less as an incidental word scramble and more dejected free association, made all the more meaningful through its repetition.
Whatever your interpretation, though, there’s no denying that Peepholes are an ever-evolving organism. Naturally progressing from a tight Brighton-based friendship to an intercity creative relationship -split between the coastal city and South London -Barrett and synth operator Nick Carlisle are good-natured and self-deprecating with a hint of world-worn cynicism. They occasionally sabotage their live shows with complicated set ups and songs that don’t translate from record; eschewing fully formed ideas in favour of spontaneity. Weirdly, it’s an anti-formula that seems to work as they generate a primal, bodily cadence that will often inexplicably vacillate towards an actual melody. There’s the spontaneous chorus-verse-chorus pop structure to lead single, ‘Conversation’, a strikingly dance-friendly groove to the standout title-track and the exquisitely frenzied poly rhythms of ‘Lion’.
So after recording their previous Caligula with Throbbing Gristle producer Sherry Ostapovich, Peepholes have stripped back again with The Overspill. Recorded themselves at local DIY venue Power Lunches over a couple of days, through a four-track and with one of Carlisle’s new iPhone Apps featuring heavily, they’ve cast everything they’ve got into a vortex of ideas and emotions in search of that elusive, unnamed target. That’s when it becomes clear that this is a band that is as much about process as it is product, probably more.
aqnb: You were producing Caligula for a couple months after it was recorded and you expressed regret at sacrificing so much time on it. This time you’ve spent six months onThe Overspill How did that happen?
Nick Carlisle: Haha, yeah. Actually it was probably longer than six months. The basis of all the tracks on The Overspill, bar ‘Lion’ and the title track, were recorded in one day at Power Lunches rehearsal space in London, mostly as much longer improvisations. I was using an old cassette 4-track, just to record the drums and Kat’s vocal – the sound from my keyboards would bleed onto Kat’s vocal track a little as a guide for later. So then the next months were spent editing down the pieces and overdubbing the keyboards properly with some more vocals and percussion on the computer.
One thing that did delay things was that I didn’t have a sound card when I initially wanted to get each individual track from the four-track to the computer. I had to record them in separately only to find that the tape mechanism speed was fluctuating, so once they were all arranged in Logic on the computer the kick drum/snare/toms/vocal tracks were all drifting out of sync with each other – I probably spent weeks trying to get them back in sync with each other before I gave in and bought a sound card and started again. So yeah, I’m hoping the next one will be quicker!
aqnb: Was there anyone else involved in the recording at Power Lunches? Did you take anything away from Sherry Ostapovitch when mic-ing up the room?
NC: No, it was just me and Kat. Me with my four-track. It was really great working with Sherry and it taught us a hell of a lot about mic placement and production and stuff, and I think Caligula turned out really well because of her input. But I think that after we finished it, Kat and I decided that we would return to a simpler approach. I’m not sure that such an involved way of working is necessarily the best way for us – although, of course, this album has ended up taking longer! The first line of ‘Pinnacles’ “This time it’s easy” seems to kind of reflect our mood going into making The Overspill.
But yeah, I couldn’t really use a lot of Sherry’s mic placement methods at the initial recording stage because we were very limited again by our equipment, limited to only three tracks of the four for Kat’s drums.
aqnb: Your focus has always been on formalism and aesthetics, rather than concept. You, Nick, have expressed an appreciation for noise music. Is there an element of that style’s focus on physicality, its visceral nature that you strive to achieve with Peepholes?
NC: I suppose so. I think that maybe, within the formalism and aesthetics, I still want the music to have some sort of visceral emotional quality. Although obviously not as expressed through narrative lyrics, it’s enough to let the music do that. And although The Overspill is much less noisy than Caligula I’d hope it still has its powerful moments.
I think, though, that the focus on form rather than concept comes from the way we work; by improvising the material as opposed to sitting down with a pen and paper and writing a song about geese or something. Also, I think we’ve maybe been conscious of trying to make as big a sound as possible, as there are only the two of us on stage with no pre-recorded stuff backing us up.
aqnb: Is it difficult to reconcile that with the restriction of a vinyl release, the stasis of a recording?
NC: It can work both ways. We had a track on our Kingdom record a couple of years ago called ‘Carnivore’. We still play it live now but I’d be very surprised if we can ever bring it to as powerful a climax live as it is on the record. The basis of that track was recorded on my iPhone so Kat and I are playing so loud at the end that we’re completely saturating the little mic, with the result that it sounds like buildings collapsing.
aqnb: I saw you both supporting Silver Apples and you did incredibly well. Have you been rehearsing more? Is there more structure now in how you approach your live sets?
Katia Barrett: Thanks! At our core I think we’re quite a volatile band, in terms of our performance. We are very much at the mercy of the crowd on the night. There’s a certain amount of structure to our sets but there are a few songs that have a purposefully unlearned element which can work itself out well, or completely collapse.. So you got us on a good night.
NC: We played our biggest show a few months ago supporting John Maus at the Scala and thankfully it went well for us, in terms of the sound and our playing. So the crowd was cheering us on which was really nice – but then you know you played the same set a week before to 30 people who maybe weren’t so interested. It can sometimes be quite difficult for us to learn a song that was put together from an edited improvisation. We still have trouble playing ‘AH AH AH’ and ‘Marimba’ live, for some reason. I can never get my head around which bit is supposed to come next.
aqnb: You still did, however, approach the performance with the same easy going attitude. Do you think the root of why you make music is incompatible with the idea of the ‘professional musician’?
KB: Yes, definitely! When we started Peepholes it was built on a sort of democratic riot [grrrl] ethos. I couldn’t play drums but that was never the point. I think me and Nick found a good balance, in the sense that he was a proficient musician and I wasn’t. I think feeling like an outsider to the professional music world has always stuck with me, even though things have changed quite a bit.
NC: We make a lot of awkward decisions that don’t do us any favours, in terms of building an audience or whatever. Kat in particular is always keen to move on with our live set, to the point that by the time the last few records came out we’d already stopped playing those songs, so our shows weren’t really plugging the record. ‘Ladder’ is probably still our most well-known song because of Dan Nixon‘s video but we stopped playing that song live about three years ago. We didn’t get around to making a video for ‘Tunnels’. That would probably have helped that song a lot. I suppose its just the thing of always wanting to keep the band moving forward on our own terms. And that in itself can be incompatible with some of the things expected from a professional musician, like playing songs to death and pandering to people’s taste.
aqnb: I ask because I saw the album is streaming on Dazed Digital and I know your music is as much a lifestyle as an art form. Do you think, in positioning yourselves as conscious outsiders, you’d be compromising yourselves by pursuing a wider audience through more conventional channels?
NC: No, not at all. In the case of Dazed streaming the album, I want as many people as possible to hear it. I’d say it would definitely be nice to have a wider audience. We’d inevitably get to play in Europe more often, maybe the US etc, and so we’d be able to comfortably pay for rehearsal time, making videos etc., all that would be great. It’s when you start making a record for your audience that the trouble starts. Or you’re playing so many shows in the year that it becomes drudgery. We’ve so far managed to do everything on our own terms, with the help of some great people along the way. And so when you’ve made something you’re excited by I guess you want it to find everyone else on the planet who might also like it. Even if there are only 39 of them.
KB: We aren’t outsider purists by any means and if someone wants to host our album then that’s great. I don’t think it really jars with any ethos we have about making music. I only have a loose integrity when it comes to various outlets for our music. I wouldn’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot from the offset. Ultimately, its nice if we can get a few more people to our shows and some publicity at the same time.
aqnb: I just say that because I’m thinking of ‘We Don’t Like Anyone’ and also your loose visual aesthetic. There’s not much evidence of a band interested in self-branding…
NC: If branding is making a recognisable marketable product then that goes against our attempt to keep changing and evolving. I like the idea of making music that’s so bad no one would ever want to use it in an advert but then everything gets swallowed up eventually.
aqnb: You’re playing around and experimenting with more electronic sounds, Nick. Has the aim always been to develop your sonic palette?
NC: I think with us, again, it’s more about the fact that there are only two of us; not like six minds all contributing different ideas. So to keep things fresh and keep the ideas flowing, we think it’s important to try and introduce new equipment and new ways of working from time to time. Around the time of the Lair record we were just using drums and my Pro One synth that’s monophonic, so it was a good challenge to try and get songs out of that set up. But then I think I exhausted that a bit after a year or two and started using the Fairlight app on my iPhone, played through a keyboard because Kat wanted some particular sounds. But it’s as much about restricting your palette too, otherwise you end up with hundreds of different sounds. The record doesn’t sound cohesive and at shows it takes about five minutes to set up each song before you can play it. We’re meeting at the weekend to start the next stuff and we’ll be changing things around again for that.
aqnb: Some of those elements are quite in vogue on the global underground. I’m thinking about the Fairlight Pipes in ‘Marimba’ and the then Twin Peaks-ish (for lack of a better point of reference) keys in ‘The Overspill’. They remind me of contemporary electronic musicians like Fatima Al Qadiri or Daniel Lopatin… Are you paying attention to those types of artists?
KB: Yeah, I’m definitely paying attention to a lot of electronic music that’s going on. I would say the engulfing of genres and hybridisation that seems to be going on is really exciting. At times it can feel a bit gimmicky but unapologetically so!
NC: I’m quite insular in that I’d say, in the context of making music for Peepholes, my biggest influence is Kat. Although it’s mostly me that’s bringing the music to the band, it’s absolutely shaped and guided by her rhythms, suggestions and improvised vocals.
aqnb: Peepholes seems to thrive on ambiguity, and you’ve mentioned that what’s most exciting about the music you make is its explorative nature. Are you coming any closer to finding your answers? If you did, would that mean the band wouldn’t exist?
NC: Well, I think instead of it being about finding answers its more like, ‘are we in danger of exhausting the supply of ideas?’ And when it feels like we are, that’s when we change things around a bit again for ourselves, by buying a new piece of equipment or whatever. There’ll always be a certain amount of outside influence too and since music is always evolving, there’s no reason to think we’ll ever reach the end. We might fall off on the way, of course.
aqnb: There are some distinct pop melodies surfacing throughout the record. Were they arrived at by accident during your rehearsals or have you started actually ‘writing’ songs?
NC: Kat has always been great at improvising vocal melodies, I think that’s always been there with us but maybe my keyboards are a bit more melodic throughout this time. I was using the Korg Monotron on Caligula and all you can get out of that is a kind of whiny Sooty and Sweep blitzkrieg. We ditched that for this record. But, no: no songwriting at all from either of us before rehearsal. It just all spontaneously appeared when we started playing! ‘The Overspill’ title-track I suppose was an improvisation that kind of got rewritten after the event. Kat worked on that for quite some time, getting a vocal that was very different from the original, so I suppose that was a bit of songwriting.
aqnb: Are you afraid of pop music? Is part of the reason you make what you make because you feel apprehensive of doing it any other way?
KB: I wouldn’t say we’re afraid of making pop music, just that we’re not interested in honing that particular skill. Making crafted pop music is a real science and I think our strength might lie somewhere else. It wouldn’t lend itself to writing out-and-out pop songs. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want pop elements to be introduced into songs. I love when a hooky keyboard part interrupts unexpectedly. I prefer a song that has a rhythm or a mood that latches onto you over time, without you even realising, rather than a pop song you grow tired of.
NC: ‘Conversation’ on the new album is quite poppy, it even has a verse-chorus-verse structure. But then at the other end of the scale there’s ‘Living In Qatar’ which is 15-minutes long and has that end sequence that cycles ’round forever. That was a feeling I wanted to get that I couldn’t ever have gotten from the three-minute pop formula.
aqnb: Lastly, I remember you, Nick, saying context is important to music; that it’s not just about the sound but why people made it. Why do you do it?
NC: When I said that, I think I was talking about the danger of doing a band that was so indebted to the past that it seemed completely detached from the present. There are loads of bands like that, all wandering around like Austin Powers in their own resurrected eras. The music and the clothes are ‘right’ but it doesn’t really cut it. For example, it was probably very different going to see Throbbing Gristle do ‘Last Exit’ in 1976 than it would be today. The lyrics of that song are pretty much the stuff of any comedy panel show these days, so they couldn’t really have as much, if any, shock value. Times have changed!
In many ways people can be making music without having to know why they’re doing it but really they’re in some way responding to or reflecting the world around them at the time. That’s the context I was referring to. So yeah, aside from the fact that it excites me to make music I actually like, I’m not sure I know why I’m doing it. But in continually moving forward with the band, I hope we’re giving something to the current musical conversation and not just flogging a dead horse.