The Boy Least Likely To – instrumentalist Pete Hobbs and lyricist Jof Owen – recently returned with The Great Perhaps, their first official album in four years, that brings with it a change from banjo to Casio.
During that time, Jof worked in a record shop and their songs featured on American television and Apple adverts. But how has their success affected them? Is there a danger of becoming an indie cliché? And, most importantly of all, which darts federation is the best?
Here, Jof gets tappy on a keyboard and tells us about the new material, the current state of pop music, and ‘pure’ darts tournaments…
Aside from 2010’s Christmas special, The Great Perhaps is your first album for four years. What have you been up to in-between? It’s been quite some time.
After the last album came out I just got a job in a record shop and I did that for two years. I loved it. It was such a relief to not have to think about the band all the time and not have to worry about it being successful. We carried on writing songs for a new album, but I don’t remember feeling like I particularly wanted to go through the process of recording an album again for a while. We weren’t in any sort of rush. I don’t know, I guess we’d been through a lot since the first album had come out and I think I was just exhausted. We did shows every now and then and we made the Christmas album in the summer of 2010. That felt like a nice way to ease ourselves back into the process of writing and recording together. We didn’t really start recording this album properly until August of the year after that. We’d started working songs up and thinking about it, but we weren’t really working towards anything before then. I Keep Falling In Love With You Again was the first song we finished and we’d been struggling with it for a long time. It was a real breakthrough when that song was finished because it gave us a direction for the rest of the album. Pete had been trying a Korg Monotribe on the song and then he layered up loads of Casiotone and Casio CZ101 keyboards and added an Omnichord arpeggiator bubbling throughout. That song became the basis for the way we would approach the whole album.
Following on from above, in a previous interview for musicOMH back in 2006, you said it would take a month to record a minute’s worth of music. Do you think this is still the case? The gap between albums suggests you’re still perfectionists – or “patient” – so to speak.
I don’t think either of us are perfectionists as such, because nothing we’ve ever done has sounded particularly perfect, but we just want it to sound right to us I guess, and that takes time. After we finished recording I Keep Falling In Love With You Again it was about 16 months of trying things out and working and reworking songs. Sixteen months is quite quick for us. I guess we are quite patient. Well, Pete is, and I’ve had to learn to be.
You’ve been featured in all sorts of places, from American film and television to being the apple in Apple’s eye (sorry, I couldn’t resist) through featuring in the iPhone ad. How has this impacted the writing and recording of the new album?
It just meant that we could afford to take our time to record it, without having to fit in the recording around jobs. It didn’t affect the writing or recording of it. We’ve never written or recorded a song with a sync placement in mind. We were just lucky that our songs suited what people were looking for at the time. By getting rid of the glockesnpiels and banjos, if anything we turned our back on the very sound that has been so successful for us.
Following on from the question above, has the success put more pressure on you? Indeed, going back to the 2006 interview where you said the memory of the headteacher neither knowing him nor expecting anything from him stuck in his mind – that seems rather far away now, doesn’t it?
I try not to have any expectations for anything we do, but it’s almost impossible after having had even the smallest success not to worry about how what you’re doing is going to be received. I think that’s one of the hardest parts of the creative process for me now. Just trying to switch off from that and be creative. That was how we made the first album, because we had no expectations for it at all. Everything was written and recorded thinking that no one would ever hear it. I think the expectations got too much for us when we were recording the second album. I could hear every review, every letter or email from a fan, whispering in my head. It makes it so hard to write anything if you’re worrying about what people are going to think about. This time it was easier to switch off. I could imagine no one ever hearing it, and once I’ve got all those thoughts out of my head it comes quite easily.
“I don’t think you have to know every point of historical musical reference to like a song. You just like it or you don’t. We just remember pop music being more exciting and thoughtful when we were growing up.”
Michael Collins is based on the forgotten astronaut on Apollo 11. In keeping with the space theme, perhaps you could write an Ode to Felix Baumgartner? Indeed, what prompted you to look towards the skies for inspiration?
Pete has always been fascinated by the idea of space and the universe, so he’s always wanted me to write a lyric about those sorts of things, but I’ve never managed to find something that appealed to me. I always loved the idea of people on earth looking up at the moon at the same time as people are walking on it. Susan Faludi writes about it in the opening chapter of her book Stiffed, and that chapter was where I got the idea for the opening verse of Be Gentle With Me, but that was as far as I’d ever taken it. Then I read about Michael Collins and his story just captured my imagination. Not just because he was the “forgotten” part of such a major historical moment, but also because the aloneness and solitude he experienced was so unlike anything that anyone else has ever experienced. On top of all that he had such a beautiful poetic way of describing everything. Just before the launch he wrote in his notes, “here I am, a white male, age 38, height 5 feet 11 inches, weight 165 pounds, salary $17,000 per annum, resident of a Texas suburb, with black spot on my roses, state of mind unsettled, about to be shot off to the moon”, and in another note he describes the “urine particles like angels”. It’s amazing stuff. The hardest part of writing the song was editing down all the pages of lyrics I had for it.
You are both obviously influenced by the likes of Belle and Sebastian and The Smiths, and you mention the likes of Morodor and The Human League in relation to The Great Perhaps – both can be clearly heard in upcoming single Climbing Out Of Love. But which current bands have impacted on your sound? In fact, with your switch towards synthesizers and drum machines – which seem to be quite popular at the moment – have the current crop of Italo disco and electro inspired bands rubbed off on you?
I’m not sure if any current bands particularly influenced the sound on the new album. I think we were looking back to early Depeche Mode, Yazoo, The Human League, The Cure and other things that we grew up listening to. I don’t know really, I’ve spent the last three years listening to ’70s country and Pete’s been listening to all his old Van Halen albums a lot, and I don’t hear either of those things in there, but I guess anything you like influences you in some way. We both like Belle and Sebastian and we both grew up listening to The Smiths, but I think they’ve only influenced us in so much as they make pop music in an unusual way and that they were quite happy not to fit in with whatever was going on around them at the time. I’ve never thought of either of them as being direct influences on our sound, but I guess our sound is just a mess of all the things we loved listening to when we were growing up so they’re probably in there somewhere.
Following on above, what prompted the departure from banjos to beats?
We just wanted to try something different. I think we were surprised when we recorded the song George And Andrew for our Christmas album how well my voice suited an electronic pop backing, and the idea just grew from there really. We’ve used banjos a lot on the other three albums and I don’t think we could have gone on using them the way we were. Not if we wanted to freshen up our sound.
“People thought the nativity scene for our Christmas album artwork was saccharine and twee, but we drew Joseph as Santa, and Jesus was an upside down tortoise. I think that’s quite a bold thing to put on the cover of an album celebrating a Christian festival.”
The Great Perhaps is a rather self-deprecating album title – is there still a sense that what you have achieved could disappear very quickly? Equally, is there still a doubt that you haven’t achieved what you’ve wanted to?
It’s always there, that doubt and that worry that it could all disappear, especially when things are going well. We’ve achieved more than I ever thought we would, and our music has taken us places that I never thought I’d get to go. I ended up being in a band instead of going to work every day and that’s still unbelievable to me. The album title was taken from the last words of François Rabelais, who was reported to have said “I go off to seek a great perhaps” on his deathbed. I guess it’s just the idea of the great unknown, of all the things you could have done or could have been instead of the things you ended up doing. I do feel like we could have been so much more, but then we could have been so much less too.
You mention that The Great Perhaps is pop music “the kind you remember growing up with”. Does this suggest that those who are in their late-teens or early-twenties aren’t the audience you’re going for?
Not at all. I’m sure they’d like it just as much. We’ve got lots of fans in their early twenties. I don’t think you have to know every point of historical musical reference to like a song. You just like it or you don’t. We just remember pop music being more exciting and thoughtful when we were growing up. I think there does seem to be a distinct homogenous pop sound at the moment, in a way that I don’t think there was in the early eighties. I listen to the top 40 every couple of months and I’m shocked that everything sounds so similar. It could almost be the same two or three artists making all the records. There just doesn’t seem to be as much variation between the sounds of different artists and it seems to be a lot less adventurous melodically. I definitely think it’s a bad time for pop music, but then again I’ve spent the whole day listening to George Jones and Tammy Wynette so maybe I’m just getting too old for this.
You list Dexys’ Don’t Stand Me Down as a favourite album. What have you thought of their recent return? Come to think of it, Dexys are a good band to think about when it comes to love, as One Day I’m Going to Soar demonstrates.
I really liked the album. It’s probably my fourth favourite Dexys album, but it’s still better than most pop records being made at the moment. Dexys are a great example of what I was saying about pop music today. You would never get a mainstream pop act coming through today who were as musically exciting, adventurous or as fiercely intelligent as Dexys were in the eighties, and there seemed to be lots of those sorts of bands in the charts when I was growing up. I know there was a lot of crap too, but at the moment it feels like mainstream pop is dominated by badly thought out crap. It’s not that I dislike all contemporary pop music. The last Taylor Swift album was my favourite album of last year, and I think Vampire Weekend are an amazing pop group. There just seems to be less of those sorts of things, and this isn’t indie snobbery because I hate what the alternative is just as much. Bands like Everything, Everything and Bastille. They remind me of all the bands in the ’80s that I thought were terrible, like Flock of Seagulls and Wang Chung. It’s like they looked back to the eighties and picked all the worst bands as influences. Even a band like Haim take themselves too seriously. I think that’s the trouble with a lot of bands at the moment. Being taken seriously seems to be so important to them, in a way that it never seemed to be to bands like The Smiths or Blur or Pulp. I don’t mean that The Smiths or Blur of Pulp weren’t serious about the songs they wrote, but you can write songs about serious things without having to pull a ridiculous prog rock face while you sing them. I just think that that whole tongue in cheek thing has disappeared from pop music completely at the moment, and it’s not because all the bands nowadays are singing about more important things, because they’re not. They’re usually singing about nothing of any substance. It’s all Romans and wizards, and there’s always a ghost in there. It doesn’t feel like there’s any attempt to really connect with people through the lyrics. It’s as if what these bands mainly want is for the audience to stand back in awe and admire them for their musical proficiency and how much they remembered from their theology A-levels. Pop music feels just like progressive rock at the moment. I find Later… with Jools Holland unwatchable.
“We did sign to an evil record label after the first album came out…We’d have so many awful meetings and email conversations. I remember one that went on for a whole week about the colour of a lamb on a single cover. It was painful.”
On your blog, you list Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as favourite books. Surely they’ve influenced an album revolving around “love, death and loneliness”? Their story is almost the quintessential one for illustrating love, death and loneliness – has this filtered through to any songs in particular? Indeed, have any particular memories or moments fed and inspired these songs? It Could’ve Been Me, perhaps?
I’m not sure how much of an influence they were on this record, but I do love both those books. The Birthday Letters is such a beautiful autobiography of their relationship. The writer that influenced me more than any other in the writing of this album was probably Carson McCullers. She seemed to capture that incredible loneliness and longing for love in her books. I definitely wanted to try and take something from that because I started out wanting to write an album about love, just because I felt like I’d never really written explicitly about love before. Then the more and more I tried to write about love I found I was writing about loneliness and the human need for understanding instead. It Could’ve Been Me was written after I went to see a friend of mine doing a a stand up documentary show, where he met up with a girl that he’d been in love with at school but never told her at the time. He went back and found her and gave her the love letter that he hadn’t been brave enough to give her when he was fifteen. It’s just a song about wondering what your life could have been like if you’d done all the things you thought you were going to do when you were young, and about the idea that it’s never too late to start over again. Inspiration comes from a lot of different places, but it feels like it comes from a less and less personal place for me with each album. Often a song that might seem like it’s obviously a very personal song might have been written about something completely different or about someone else’s situation.
Is there a danger that you may be considered a bit of an indie pop cliché? Your love of The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian, the hand-drawn cartoon album covers and the album’s subject matter may be considered, by some cynics (not us!), as rather saccharine and contrived.
I’m not worried about people thinking what we do is contrived, because I think all pop music should could be contrived. It’s not meant to be authentic. It’s meant to be wild and imaginative and fantastical. That’s the difference between Girls Aloud and Mumford And Sons. I hope we’re not a cliche though. I think we’re a mess of a lot of different influences and although people might be able to hear certain reference points in our music, I don’t think we’ve ever done anything that sounds that much like anyone else. I think we still sound pretty odd, and I can’t remember the last time I listened to The Smiths or Belle and Sebastian. There are a lot of other bands I love a lot more. I think our artwork has always suited the sound of the records. I never wanted us to appear on our record sleeves, and I always know my brother, who does all the drawings for our artwork, is coming from the same place as us, so they always suit whatever the album is about. People thought the nativity scene for our Christmas album artwork was saccharine and twee, but we drew Joseph as Santa, and Jesus was an upside down tortoise. I think that’s quite a bold thing to put on the cover of an album celebrating a Christian festival.
“Oh dear, all I do is moan about things not being as good as they were when I was growing up.”
Following on from the above, your beginnings were typically and wonderfully indie: starting a label, doing things yourself, having complete control of every facet from production through to promotion. Is this still the case considering the success you’ve had? For many, you’ll be seen as being the epitome of indie purity.
We started out doing everything exactly the same way as we’ve done it on this album. We did sign to an evil record label after the first album came out, but by the time the second album came out that relationship had fallen apart. It wasn’t a great experience, and I guess it’s put us off getting into that situation again. We do like to have control over all the creative decisions and it was really difficult when we didn’t have that. We’d have so many awful meetings and email conversations. I remember one that went on for a whole week about the colour of a lamb on a single cover. It was painful. They made so many bad decisions and I think it took us a long time to get over that. We still make mistakes, but at least now they’re our mistakes to live with. It’s much harder knowing that when something goes wrong it’s someone else’s fault. Now we do everything and it all comes from us, but I don’t think indie purists think we’re the epitome of indie purity. We’ve done too many car commercials and played too many poll winners parties for that. I’m sure a lot of people think we’ve “sold out” in a lot of ways, by doing adverts and touring with the people we’ve toured with, but we never said that we didn’t want our music to be used on adverts or any of the other things we’ve done that people see as us selling out. We haven’t gone back on any of our principles. I think sometimes people think a band is ‘selling out’ just because they’ve done something that they don’t themselves agree with, even if the band haven’t done anything that contradicts what they set out to do.
On your label, have you ever considered switching from artist to label moguls? Ian Watson, who runs the club night How Does It Feel To Be Loved, has done this particularly well with his label through releasing the likes of Haiku Salut and Butcher Boy.
I’d love to. If I ever had enough spare money I’d open my own record shop and run a label out of it, but at the moment I just don’t have the money or the time to do it. Sadly.
You’ve used Pledge Music for the new album. Has this proven an effective way to fund The Great Perhaps? And has anyone taken you up on your £500 “day in the studio” offer?
It’s definitely helped pay for all the costs of releasing an album and promoting it, which is nice, but that wasn’t really what appealed to us about working with pledge. We mainly did it because we were aware that we’d been away for a few years and we’d need a few more months to remind people that we even existed before we put a new record out into the world. It was a lot of fun and I got to talk to so many amazing people who like our music and hear about what we mean to them. It was nice to hear people say nice things about us for five months while we finished off the album. We wrote some pretty weird songs for the pledge to have a song written about you too. We’ve been so busy with the album that we haven’t had a chance to record them yet, but hopefully we’ll be going in next week. No one came into the studio though. A lot of people wrote to us about it, but it’s a long way to fly from America just to spend the day in a dark room with us. I resent the train journey in to the studio most days.
On darts, BDO or PDC? The BDO seems much more pure than the PDC, don’t you think? The use of the walk-on girls in the PDC seems awfully distasteful and offensive.
Oh no, that’s completely the wrong way round. The PDC is the ‘pure’ darts tournament. It’s like a socialist workers union. The PDC was set up in 1992 when 16 rebel players broke away from the sport’s governing body, the British Darts Organisation (BDO) because they didn’t think they were doing enough to promote the sport and there was less and less tv coverage and sponsorship. They were originally called the World Darts Council (WDC) and they included all of the previous BDO world champions still playing darts at the time. It was a huge deal. It’s the equivalent of the top half of the premiership breaking away and forming their own league, except instead of football clubs owned by billionaires they were 16 slightly overweight darts players barely earning enough to play the sport professionally. These were a lot of the big players at the time – Phil Taylor, Cliff Lazarenko, Jocky Wilson and Eric Bristow. 1993 was the last year that those 16 players (although it ended up being fourteen because two of them went back) played in the BDO world championship and they wore their WDC insignias on their shirts. After that the BDO banned the rebel players from playing in any county darts competitions and they even threatened to ban any player who played darts in exhibition events with any WDC player. They’d send spies out to pub exhibitions to report back to Olly Croft, the head of the BDO. The 16 players ended up taking the BDO to court, literally fighting for the right to be able to play darts. It’s a great story. I do watch the BDO World Championships still and I know what you mean about it feeling like it’s stayed true to how darts used to be seen on television, but it’s not like it was when I was growing up, with all those amazing players. Oh dear, all I do is moan about things not being as good as they were when I was growing up. If it’s not pop music, it’s bloody darts.
Questions by David Meller. Answers by Jof Owen. The Boy Least Likely To’s new album The Great Perhaps is out now through Too Young To Die.