"Pushing Creative Boundaries" An Interview With Newton Faulkner

“Hand Built By Robots” caught people unawares when it was released in 2007. It was anthemic without being boisterous or bombastic as Newton Faulkner took his songs (and a stripped back organic version of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’) and ran with them. He quickly became a staple of live shows and festivals due to his talent, charm and virtuoso acoustic guitar playing. His dreadlocks may be shorter and tidier but Newton Is back with the follow up to 2017’s “Hit The Ground Running”. With “Interference (Of Light)” due to be released this Summer we caught up with Newton to see how he dealt with lockdown, how the new album was shaped and why he wasn’t able to just sit and eat crisps when the drums were being recorded this time.

3S&O – Hi Newton, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I really like the new album “Interference (Of Light)”, its got really nice cool poppy feel to it, quite upbeat. Was a result of like lockdown, almost like trying to react against it?

Newton Faulkner (NF) - Yeah, I think I wrote it for coming out of lockdown. I realised that whatever was happening is going to be relatively finite and there will be an end at some point. A lot of it was written before lockdown had started as well and it was all recorded during lockdown. Yeah, it was very much focusing on the how it was going to feel coming out of it the other side as opposed writing about being in it because I just figured that was as soon as it had finished it was just wasn't going to be very relatable.

3S&O - There's been a few albums recently that are very influenced by lockdown like the new Nick Cave record and a few other guys like Tensheds, where it's very oppressive sounding, quite downbeat.

NF - Everyone without exception has struggled, it's been so complicated to get your head around. And each bit of the process has been completely different for me. The first lockdown I did absolutely nothing, basically just stared out the window. That second lockdown, I saw it coming and was, like, okay, it's definitely going to happen again. I'm just going to get on with stuff because I can't just sit and stare out the window anymore. I'm gonna get there. We were getting things done.

3S&O - The album this time around, it's a lot less acoustic to what we're used to from you. Was it to start to challenge yourself?

NF - No, not entirely. I think production wise over the course of all the records that I've made, I've kind of learned different things from each one. With the Best Of (in 2019) it was actually working on the covers where I probably learned more than I did with everything else I've made. I didn't have that kind of preconception of how I wanted it to sound. With the covers I was kind of working on the arrangements and a part of me thought they might just all be completely acoustic. Then I thought “Actually, I can kind of hear other things coming in”.

It massively affected how I approached this whole record, because I just did whatever felt right. And at no point was I like “I can't do that, because it's not what people expect me to do.” ‘Sinking Sand’ is much kind of heavier, it's really riff based in a way that I’ve never really done before but it feels right for that song. I mean, it's one of the heaviest things I've ever worked on, but it's also got quite a few secret banjos and mandolins. I've used banjo loads on this record. Just little things, it's got such a nice tone. It just does its job and sits in such an interesting place frequency wise.

3S&O - There's quite a lot of influences on here. Its riff based at times, there's some Brazilian percussion and in places it's quite funky. Were you thinking “Yeah, I'm just going to add whatever I want to this, as long as that works?”

NF - It was very much whatever feels right feels right, actually getting the ideas to a point where they worked. I think with all of the records, I've always just thrown loads of stuff at them. I can't do it in a very short time, which is what I've had to deal with on a lot of albums. It would be like “we need the whole thing finished by the end of next week otherwise we can't release it on that day. And that means the only other time to release it is then and then it clashes with this release.” I've done records probably faster than anyone else, I did a whole record in five weeks once. What happens when you work in that way is that if an idea doesn't work quickly it's kind of thrown on the back burner. Whereas with this process, if I knew it could work, then I would just keep going until it did. And sometimes that was literally four months of working on the same track every single day. Then something clicks and I knew I could get it to this point. The other thing is it gave me a huge amount of time to really work on the individual parts in a much more kind of in depth, detailed way which I think led to it being kind of experimental and covering a lot more ground.

3S&O - You’ve said that with “Interference (Of Light)”you really want to challenge yourself vocally with the album and that comes across because the harmonies, they’re just so well layered throughout the record.

NF - Yeah, that is one of my favourite things to do in the entire universe. It doesn't need to be absolutely perfect. It's kind of this whole other vocal arranging discipline thing, it's fascinating and endlessly fun. You can really kind of just go for it and I have for the ones that are on the record. It's just so much fun. I mean, I did have an amazing time and a horrendous time making this.

One of the things is actually the title of the album came in quite early. What that meant is it’s kind of the science behind the interference of light thing, when light hits a bubble or hits oil. It's these very vivid colours in small areas appearing and disappearing, and that did affect how I approach them because I was like all the artwork can be kind of vivid colours kind of subtly appearing and disappearing. And that's just an interesting concept to dig in.

There are tracks where I really haven't used much guitar at all. Then there’s interludes, which is why I felt you can have these quite starkly different genres from each other appearing as well. ‘Sinking Sand’ sounds heavy, but then after that, the intro to the next song is a bunch of computer game noises that I was playing with (the intros will only appear on the cd version of the album when it’s released).

For the songs it wasn't about being caught up in trying to make the most of the things I'm good at. Sometimes I might get to doing fiddly guitars, really like fiddly. And if it doesn't have a fiddly bit, then I'd try to crowbar in things. It's like “the vocal for this is good but it doesn't make the most of my range. So let's just push my range a bit” but it wasn't what was right for the song. It was kind of trying to use the song as a vehicle for me to do the things I was best at doing. Whereas on this album, it's very much like the songs are the most important thing.

3S&O - It’s almost like your equivalent of a punk album where you're reacting against the previous albums, like “this is what I've done before, now to try something a little different.”

NF - There's definitely elements of that. I'm always aware of wanting to grow and develop. I do think that production wise I am unbelievably happy with this. I was working on stuff and there were things where we were making things up where I knew how I wanted it to sound. I knew I couldn't get anyone to come in and help me do it so I just had to learn. I learned so many weird trick things, especially with the drums. When we were first talking about the drums for ‘World Away’ we were going to have to get a drummer and we're going to need a studio. We're going to need all this stuff. And then I listened to some of the other tracks and I thought I might be able to do this one. I don't even really have a drum kit, the drum kit that I have is my son’s. My son is 10 and he got it a few years ago.

It’s not a studio that's made for drums. It's not got a big room, it doesn't have a separate live room, and I don't have headphone mixer things, we just had a long cable. First of all it was getting that to kind of make sense. And then there was getting to be able to play it. I've not played loads of drums. So I'm like, “Okay, why is my foot early on that? What's that noise? Where is that even coming from, is that the metal in my wrist?” Weird little things where I'm trying to work out how to set up, how to actually play the part right. And then once I've got that then it was like okay, how do I need to mic this up? And then when the mics are in the right place I need to get the gain structure right for every mic. It's such a technical process. Normally I would have had an engineer there or I would have been working with a producer and an engineer. With a drummer in the studio what I'm doing is basically eating crisps.

But instead, I'm kind of dripping with sweat, tied up in cables in this tiny room with loads of equipment. There's a certain energy that it kind of brings those tracks. One of my favourite tracks to put together was one of the last ones we did, the last track on the album. I was playing drums on that, it was just an absolute joy. So fun, like all the little bells and stuff, which I had to do like multiple takes, and it took a while. But by that time, we've done all the other technical stuff, so I could really focus on just playing. But I'm really happy with the drum sounds.

3S&O - I think that because it's not your usual instrument you're doing little things that a normal drummer would be doing.

NF - Absolutely! I know nothing about drum fills from a technical perspective so it's whatever felt right. And I did hundreds as well, going mental and then sifting through them. But that felt good.

It's that level of kind of detail ended up going into to everything. So obviously, with playing acoustic guitar and singing, I've done enough of it, I don't really think about the setup for that. Even electric guitar amps, I haven't spent that much time with them so I feel like I've probably learned how amps work really on this record. I didn't use them enough to really get deep into how it actually worked and how I wanted it to sound.

3S&O - I remember seeing you, I think it was the first big headline tour you did for “Hand Built By Robots” and I remember standing watching you play one of the songs from one of your earlier EP’s and you were strumming, tapping, sliding, detuning the string and then going back. I just stood there going what would even possess you to start doing something like that? Apart from trying make your life as difficult as possible. So how did you create that, that kind of challenge for yourself?

NF - I think I just kept adding new little elements. It's kind of like the tunings, you end up in a certain place. I've got a few tunings that I use a lot. Then for certain songs, I get to a point where I really want a sound but I can't so why don't I just tune that down? And then I'll just rely on the first bit, or just avoid that string up until that point. It’s kind of that being a malleable thing. The acoustic playing isn't massively prevalent on the album itself but it will be a huge part of it live because I'll be trying to recreate kind of five or six parts of the production at the same time. It'll suddenly come back into its own, probably in an even more extreme place, because I'll be recreating stuff that isn't just guitar.

3S&O - Yeah, I was thinking how you were going to do that. You've got a socially distanced tour over the summer and then you've got the main one in October time.

NF - I've got pretty extensive mapped out plans for how that how that all will work. And I'm actually talking to a lot of people that make equipment about what I'm going to need to do. It’s gonna be interesting. I was multitasking (on previous tours) in a way that I'd never done before. So I was hitting like a stick while playing guitar, using MIDI triggers, a kick drum at one foot and playing bass with the other. What I’ve realised looking back at that now is that as complicated as it was I was very pleased with the arrangements. I thought the arrangements were really like solid and fun. You can't be “Oh, sorry. You can't do that.” And performing, all your brain is doing is just physically getting it done. You're not getting into the point of really communicating the ideas which is the main point of music really. So I think having done that previously I actually want to kind of park that. I do like that idea in terms of filming things for social media could be really fun, because you can actually visually zoom in on each bit. When you do it live, you're just like “I have no idea what's going on anymore” because it's just loads of things going on. So what I want to do is take all the instruments I played, because I spent ages getting bass parts right and drum parts and all the piano parts and all the little weird synthy stuff, and I want to kind of bring that into the live show. I'm really excited about it, it's gonna be a challenge to get it to work. But if it can work in the way that I want it to it should mean I can actually perform. Especially, vocally, I'll be able to focus on singing when I'm singing and not be distracted by trying to do 10 other things.

3S&O - It's going to make for some interesting 90 minute sets.

NF - Definitely. I also want to I use loads of little drum machines as well. And I love the idea of doing that. Why? Something like loads of little blinky light push button things just running at the same time. More like manipulating stuff like that, in a live setting, I think is really fun

I think it's a mixture of that and the kind of multi instrumental stuff. The first thing I’d do is sit down, lay down something and then play to that and then that's a nice visual. But then I think what's possibly more fun, would be the kind of crowd participation stuff where I've stacked the crowd on top of themselves. Then I've got multiple things harmonising with them and I'm playing and singing with them. It just takes it that that one step further. But yeah, it's gonna be interesting, I'm having stuff specially made, I'm going all in.

3S&O - Nine Inch Nails at one point with one of their shows that had this big back screen that the drummer came up at one point and he kind of created a drum pattern just by touching various things on it that acted almost like a backdrop to everything going on and then they just layered over the top of it. It's almost like you're creating something that but with what will one man band.

NF - If the album goes well enough I can completely go to town but I'm kind of operating from a point of I don't have infinite money. It’s not going to be at the level giant spaceships, but musically can really step it up a notch with the things I've already got. I'm just trying to add just add more colours again.

We would like to thank Newton Faulkner for taking the time to talk to us and also to Ian Cheek for arranging the interview.

“Interference (Of Light)” is released on 20th August through Battenberg Records. Please visit www.newtonfaulkner.com to order your copy or check out Newton’s tour dates.

Interview - Scott Hamilton

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