Interview: Dry the River

Multi instrumentalist Matthew Taylor chats about the band's new album Alarms in the Heart with Erick Mertz

Interview: Dry the River London based alt. folk quartet Dry the River issued impressive second Alarms in the Heart last month (review) the follow up to their critically acclaimed 2012 debut Shallow Bed. Erick Mertz chatted to guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Matthew Taylor about the album, touching on it’s writing, recording and the band’s hopes for its impact.

Bearded: Give our readers a sense of how much where you recorded Alarms In The Heart affected the end result.

Matthew: We made the majority of the record in Iceland, and working there definitely had a bearing on the music we made. It's a record that would not sound the same if we'd done it elsewhere.

I'm beginning to appreciate how much your environment can affect what you create. Not just aesthetically, or in terms of the physical environment, but also logistically, and in terms of what people and equipment and facilities you have at your disposal. It makes a huge difference.

It was obviously amazing to be surrounded by glaciers and mountains as far as the eye can see in Iceland, and to be able to take long walks in the gorgeous wilderness at a moment's notice… That helps creativity a lot. But we were also very lucky in that we could go into a studio and use all of Sigur Ros's equipment! Old synths, great vintage amps, and amazing cavernous spaces to create cool sounds…

If we'd have just loaded a van with our own gear and gone to the English countryside (as we did later), the record as a whole would have a different vibe I think.

Iceland is pretty hot right now for music. What were your impressions of the country and art/music culture?

For such a tiny population, it’s amazing what comes out of the country creatively. Bjork and Sigur Ros are obvious examples of amazing artists with massive success, but being there for a longer period of time, it was amazing to see how deep the artistic ambition runs through the communities.

We recorded for a while in a place called Mosfellsbær, a community of visual artists, musicians, sculptors, craftsmen, set back in the mountains. It was an incredibly inspiring place. I was watching a documentary the other day, 'When Bjork Met David Attenborough' and she talked about how the long periods of solitude and expanses of nothingness in Iceland allow you to be more uninhibited and exploratory, perhaps more so than you can in other places. We definitely saw that while we were there.

And people are drawn there from outside. John Grant lives there now. Ben Frost works a lot there. It’s a really organic and rich place to be if you're an artist.

Talk about a few of the key influences on Alarms In The Heart from an inside music perspective as well as outside

Musical influences are strange with us. We listen to very different things individually, but it means creating our own music isn't too often held back by falling into stylistic traps. We weren't collectively listening to particular artists at the time of writing. Just continuing on our own paths of listening to everyone and everything. Singer songwriters, ambient and drone records, country and classic rock albums, it’s a weird melting pot!

There's always been a quiet appreciation in the band for minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and more contemporary guys like Nils Frahm and Valgeir Sigurdsson. We were lucky enough to get Valgeir to arrange and record strings and brass on three of the songs on the record, and watching that happen in front of our eyes was very cool. Its great to work with people who have different skill sets musically, who can do things you simply cannot do yourself. It feels like your creating something that's more than the sum of it's parts.

The album is filled with a lot of uncertainty, unrequited moments, a real bushel of loves lost and found. Where were you guys at with this material?

Lyrically, Peter could tell you better than I can - but uncertainty is definitely something that runs through the record. We called it Alarms in the Heart - reference to the pangs of anxiety that certain unexpected events can give you. Events where you have to drop everything, and you realise what's important, and how fragile life actually is. There were certain points in the Iceland trip where Pete and I had, separately, gone exploring with Jake, our friend who was out filming with us - and found ourselves utterly stranded.

Iceland is a beautiful place when you know you've got a lift home - but when you miss that lift and the temperature drops 20 degrees - you realise that nature's elements are much bigger than you are, and it puts things into a brutal perspective! We both had to hitch-hike out of our respective predicaments and luckily we managed to, but it definitely got us in the mindset of 'things can turn in a second, and life is much more fragile than complacent city life would have you think.'

One of the aspects, to me, that makes Alarms In The Heart such a terrific listen is how it’s sprawling and ambitious, but also really focused.

That's something that's always been a challenge with our band I think, and I'm glad you feel it sounds that way. There's beauty in the absolute detail of Peter's songs - a turn of phrase or a fragile vocal moment, but at the same time, as a band, we aren't content to fully restrain ourselves, we like to explore soundscapes and dynamics as much as we can, and striking a balance can sometimes be hard. It's difficult to realise both ends of that spectrum on a recording, but hopefully we've done that at points on the album.

Talk about the unique challenge of recording and releasing a second album versus a debut

We didn't think it would be as big a challenge as we later found it to be. With Shallow Bed, our first record, the songs were already there when we started. It was a case of just playing them and making them sound good when we got in the studio.

It's then difficult to build on that, create new things, and be satisfied that you are progressing and improving, and not lose what was good about the older work. We're pretty tough on ourselves , which you need to be, but there were times when we were driving ourselves crazy - losing perspective, and really going through the cliche'd second album meltdown questions! What do we want this record to mean? Have we got any singles? Are we going to lose people with these new songs? Does that matter? What do we want the band to be etc etc. Painfully Spinal Tap-esque stuff but incredibly true and important all the same.

It took us a number of revisions, overhauls, and new batches of songs to reach what we ultimately did, but Ithink that we appreciate the album more now and are more sentimental about it, because of the pain making it!

I’m a sucker for the lay of the music business land, as odd as that sounds. Talk about how marketing Alarms In The Heart worked

We actually changed labels part way through the making of the record - just after we returned from Iceland. It was a strange time, with a lot of change happening at our then label, and when we delivered the first version of the album (which we weren't entirely happy with ourselves), we mutually decided not to release it together. That afforded us a bit of time to go and write and record a new batch of songs, and around that time we also found the photograph which became the front cover of the album, and everything seemed to come together. Finding that image seemed to make sense of the album in a way. It perfectly visualised that 'uncertainty' theme I was talking about , and giving the album a 'face' I think made a big difference and invigorated everybody.

I still think having a striking album cover helps a lot , when you're marketing a record. The way people buy records (or don't) is ever-changing but I personally think artwork is as important as ever.

We've signed with Transgressive Records who have been long-time supporters of the band - from day one - and everything feels good. We now work pretty closely with them on the marketing of the album, much more so than when we were on a major label, and we do a lot of the day-to-day running of the band, touring arrangements, merchandise, etc ourselves.

Do bands need an edge, like, hey, this record was recorded in Iceland?

I don't think bands necessarily 'need' an edge like that, because the music should speak for itself, but at the same time, I love reading into the stories of records. If I like an album, I like to know everything about it, and its great when there's a story there - to set a context for what you're listening to , it almost gives the music another dimension.

I love the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco. Or more recently, there's a collaborative album by Jon Hopkins and King Creosote, called Diamond Mine. I love that record so much, and when I read into it, I discovered it took 7 years to make, and was a really trying experience for them - it made me appreciate the record even more, because it really sounds perfect to me - and knowing that it really did take that much time and effort to realise, makes a difference in a way. Its the ultimate story of reward for hard work.