Interview: Stealing Sheep

Rebecca Hawley of folk/psych trio Stealing Sheep chats to Richard Lewis

Posted on Jul 2nd, 2012 in Features and Interviews, Stealing Sheep / By Richard Lewis
Interview: Stealing Sheep ‘I was thinking of making a map animation of all the places we’ve played this year with a tally of all the miles we’ve done’ Rebecca Hawley wonders out loud, sat in Liverpool city centre café/gig space MelloMello. ‘Europe was amazing, it was just us three, we’d just bought a car the day before. We started in Istanbul at a festival, then flew back to London then drove to Milan.’ Traversing much of the Continent before the first half of the year is out Stealing Sheep continue their mission which begun in late 2010 to take their music to the people.

Meeting in the present venue is particularly fitting as the band’s debut LP Into the Diamond Sun, one of the most anticipated albums of the year was recorded on the premises. Produced by Sam Crombie, part of the team that runs Liverpool’s best venue The Kazimier next door, the record charts the continuing musical adventures of Rebecca Hawley, vocals/ keyboards, Emily Lansley vocals/guitar and Lucy Mercer, vocals/drums in stunning fashion.

Beginning their recording career with the charming off-kilter folk of The Mountain Dogs EP in February last year, followed by the woozy psychedelia of I Am the Rain released to similarly ecstatic reviews in June, the LP is being trailed with the sublimely dark nursery-rhyme of ‘Shut Eye’.

As the song began to pick up scores of YouTube views the numbers went stratospheric following the track’s inclusion on a Wicker Man themed Hollyoaks trailer. ‘We got in the charts, can you believe it?’ Becky smiles still pleasantly surprised at the occurrence. ‘My Dad was updating me, I’d be sitting in Austria on tour and we’d be getting texts saying ‘You’re in the charts!’ we were like, ‘Oh! Really?’ The group hadn’t been anticipating ‘Shut Eye’s presence on the Top 100 as the 45 hadn’t yet received a formal release.

The DIY approach the band have taken since their outset has endured, as aside from a booking agent, the band handle all of their affairs in-house. ‘We’re doing everything ourselves still’ Becky nods. ‘We’ve distributed a lot of the roles now between all three of us. We literally drive, unload the gear, do the soundcheck, play the gig and then sell the merchandise as soon as we’ve packed down onstage and then drive to wherever the next destination is.’

‘We’re a good team, we’re quite self-sufficient and at this stage we don’t need the help really. Maybe for our album tour we’ll take a sound engineer. Whenever you bring another person into the group it always affects the dynamic and the relationship, so if the right person comes along then maybe’.

‘We do end up getting cabin fever a little bit and going slightly hysterical’ Becky says of the arduous cross-country jaunts between gigs. ‘We did a 10 hour drive to Brussels from Berlin recently and I think we’d all gone a little bit insane by that point. The only way to cope with it is laughter. You just have to laugh hysterically.’

Alongside touring commitments, the band wrote the album from scratch with none of the material they had already released on their two EPs featured on the finished LP. What has been heard of the disc’s 12 tracks so far more than satiates the appetite, a rich crystallization of the band’s alt-folk, electronic and obscure psych leanings into songs that flit between cutting-edge pop and more esoteric fare with consummate ease.

Magnificent new track ‘Genevieve’ led by Emily’s unspooling guitar arpeggios and Lucy’s booming drums topped with one of the trio’s most infectious vocal harmonies sounds suspiciously like their best moment to date. The aforementioned ‘Shut Eye’ appears second on the disc, while captivating live favourite ‘Bear Traps’ concludes the album.

Into the Diamond Sun is quite conceptualized, it’s sort of inspired by sci-fi and fantasy films’ Becky explains. ‘Things like Escape to Witch Mountain and The Dark Crystal and there’s a bit of Star Wars in there too. I think it’s all that crossed with The Wicker Man and pagan themed stuff.’

Listing Alt-J, Django Django and Grimes as her current listening material, the electronic element of the three bands is something Becky is keen to explore further with Stealing Sheep.

‘During the recording we used a few different sounds that we wouldn’t have dreamt of almost that we’re now introducing into the live set electronically’ Becky explains. ‘Samples of dulcimers going backwards, timpani, orchestral drums things that we couldn’t really recreate live, Lucy can now trigger all of these sounds.’

After writing intensively together to complete the songs on the LP Becky feels the trio are now operating more as unit than ever before. ‘It’s become more intuitive and collaborative as we go’ she says. ‘You’re always learning how to be on each other’s wavelengths and understand what each other wants out of the song. I feel like it’s always improving and we don’t need to try as hard to understand each other’s playing styles.’

‘To begin with it’s almost alien to hear what someone else puts to your idea. We don’t want it to become formulaic, but there’s definitely a way we naturally play together, we’re all continuously stretching our imaginations on how to approach the instruments in a different way or bringing in new sounds.’

Hinted at in the album title with the Pagan worship of the sun, the medieval influence many have remarked on in the band’s sound may be due to the surroundings Becky grew up in, out in the rural idyll of deepest East Staffordshire. Growing up in the sleepy village of Abbotts Bromley, elements of the folk tradition both visually and musically (the village is the scene of the oldest folk dance in the UK held each September) subconsciously seeped into Becky’s writing.

‘Weirdly to start with I didn’t even realise our music was pagan-y or folky it didn’t cross my mind’ Becky says. ‘It wasn’t an intentional thing, I still find it hard to believe people associate us with it. Then suddenly I started listening to it and thought ‘Ah, I sort of get it now, there’s the mediaeval drones and the bells and harmonies. I’m glad it stimulates an aesthetic for people.’

These facets were brilliantly captured in the video for ‘I Am the Rain’ directed by band collaborator Jack Whitely, a miniaturized movie featuring the trio walking in procession garbed in magnificent costumes to a beach where an unnamed deity appears before them in the sky.

Following festival appearances over the summer (or what passes for it in these Isles) and a headline UK tour, the trio have set their sites on the States for their next foreign adventure.

‘It’ll probably happen after the UK tour which is close to the end of the year, so it will either be before or after Christmas’ Becky says. ‘Hopefully we’ll get to meet up with Sea of Bees in California.’

‘Julie (Bazinger, Sea of Bees songwriter) is a really good friend of ours, she became a groupie!’ Becky laughs. ‘After her tour finished she went to Europe and then she came back and joined us for another week of headline shows and festivals and she came and played tambourine onstage with us for all of the gigs. Pins were brilliant as well’ Becky states. ‘They joined us on tour in Leeds and Nottingham. It was so nice to be around other female musicians!

‘We’re planning a collaboration with Laura J. Martin who’s an amazing flute player at Green Man Festival’ Becky says of the forthcoming shows. ‘We’re playing on her stuff on the Friday night and then she plays flute on our show on the Saturday.’

‘We’ve always been interested in the visual side of the performance as well. We’d like to try out some costumes plus lighting and projections. Hopefully we’ll have a bit of time now before the album comes out to think about these ideas that we’ve got and bring them to life before the end of the year.’

With the debut album wrapped up and ready to go and the live dates continuing around it what does the future hold for the band? ‘I think we’re going to start writing our second album soon’ Becky states. ‘We’re all hungry to write more tunes all the time, so there’s no reason why we can’t start now.’

‘You’ve always got melodies and lyrics in your head you get little sparks of ideas all the time and you don’t want to let them escape, you have to get them down. We’re going to write everything specifically for that record, I’m excited about starting afresh and seeing how we’ve progressed.’

‘Shut Eye’ b/w ‘We Like the Dark’ is out now on Heavenly

Debut album Into the Diamond Sun is released by Heavenly on Sept 3rd