With Teeth of the Sea set to headline Deeper Cuts Festival Getintothis’ Rick Leach chats to Sam Barton about the immediacy of performing live, getting things just right and being undefinable.
It’s a hot afternoon in early July as I phone Teeth of the Sea’s Sam Barton.
The sun is shining, there’s scarcely a breath of wind and a clear unbroken blue sky lies overhead.
All the windows are open and there’s a fat, lazy bee wandering from flower to flower outside. It’s rather too warm to be doing anything.
Our dog is fast asleep on the floor, exhausted by the heat and having been lulled into a dreamstate by my repeat playing of Teeth of the Sea’s most recent album, 2019’s astonishing Wraith earlier on.
I’ve got the Wimbledon tennis tournament on the television in the background on mute and the incongruity of chatting about Teeth of the Sea’s music which has been described as ‘dystopian,’ ‘science fiction’, ‘dark imaginary Bladerunner-esque soundtracks’ on a typical balmy English summer day is striking at say the least.
It’s scorching here in Liverpool, I remark to Sam.
‘It’s just the same in London this afternoon,’ he replies before we move on from that typical English thing of talking about the weather before we get to the matters in hand, namely Teeth of the Sea’s forthcoming headline appearance at the Deeper Cuts Festival, the Wraith album, the evolution of their music and whatever other directions our chat takes us on.
The first thing I feel I have to ask is something which I’ve been wrestling with for a while.
How to describe Teeth of the Sea to someone who’s never heard them before? How do you do it without falling into those aforementioned dystopian science fiction sound tracked pigeonholes?
So I ask Sam. Where do you start with Teeth of the Sea? Where do you fit?
He maybe struggles with it as much as I have.
‘It’s a hard one. Well, from the off we had a willful experiment angle with what we did but you make a rod for your own back of you paint yourselves out of being too undefinable.
Because you have to say somehow to people that is what we’re all about…this is what we do. But if you listen to the records there is a sound to what we do…but maybe it’s hard to describe it what it is.
We’re all from quite disparate musical backgrounds.
We’ve got Mike (Bourne) on one hand who is pretty much an electronic musician who’s main set of influences would be Autechre, Aphex Twin and there’s Jimmy (Martin) who’s an out-and-out metallar, into shredding and the psychedelic stuff and I’m more from a jazz background: I’ve played trumpet since I was a teenager.
There’s a weird blend of stuff. People have called it post-rock, because that what people call stuff that doesn’t really fit and is hard to bracket! We started off as calling ourselves as psychedelic…’
He hesitates a bit. Like me, struggling to explain.
‘…the thing that’s used most is references to film soundtracks, because it’s instrumental and widescreen and epic somehow.
And not being able to pin us down has it’s upsides as well as downsides!’
I mention that I find the jazz element to Teeth of the Sea to be a fascinating one, especially bearing on mind the rise of nu-jazz and wondered if Sam’s background in jazz gives him hope for this revival.
‘I can definitely see the rise of jazz. When I was younger, I only ever listened to jazz and as I said I played the trumpet from an early age.
But in the last five years or so, there’s been a massive increase and interest in jazz, not just in London but across the UK.
It’s great to see boundaries being blurred with the rise of the likes of Sons of Kemet. Ezra Collective, Coco Rosie and The Comet is Coming. And they know where to play, playing to a younger audience, a much more racially and gender-mixed audience that the traditional jazz audience.’
As much as Teeth of the Sea have this imaginary film soundtrack label hung around their necks, there’s much more to them than that. Over five albums in and particularly with Wraith, there appear to be deeper elements at work, different strands and different influences.
There’s the jazz influences of course, but I remark upon the undercurrents of new classical music that thread their way like veins of gold in quartz all the way through Wraith. I wondered if that was a fair or true assessment.
For this last record…for me personally, well we all bring our own ideas, but for me I was channeling a notion of the outdoors, something rural. I was listening to a lot of Vaughan Williams and a lot of modern classical so I was influenced by that. I can’t speak for the others of course, but that was in my mind for sure!’
All the best and most interesting artists seem to produce albums that are different every time.
Coming up with the unexpected or different and Teeth of the Sea have consistently done that. Five albums in, I ask if the process of evolution has been a considered one or something that’s happened more organically.
Sam hesitates for a few moments while he chews this thought over. The bee is still buzzing outside and on the Centre Court the activity is frenetic. He gives a considered and thoughtful response.
‘It’s kind of a bit of both really. Once we’ve done something we’ve kind of looked upon it as being done and finished with and what do we do next? Just for the sake of keeping it interesting for yourself.
You kind of say to yourselves “What did we do last time?” But its more organic. It’s not that calculated. Over the years we’ve changed the line- up as well. The three of us have always been in the band though. But those changes have made us organic and made those changes anyway.
We do play our older stuff live but you get to a point where you’ve tinkered with it so much it’s like staring at the smallest detail of a painting- you can’t see the whole thing and you need to let go of it.
And there’s always tunes on our albums that are unplayable live anyway and are pure studio creations.’
What I really like, what I really enjoy about Teeth of the Sea is the denseness of their music, right from 2009’s Orphaned by the Ocean to 2019’s Wraith. There’s a complexity to it all, akin to a great novel or film. Something you can immerse yourself in, over and over again.
How much of that is down to what they do in the studio? Or in fact do they consider themsleves a live or a studio band? Which of these two does he prefer?
‘That’s a good question. I’d say studio is more rewarding but live is more fun. I love playing live. If it goes well, it’s a really immediate hit. You get that immediate feedback from the audience and I love seeing people dance to our music and it’s fantastic! It’s a really great big endorphin rush.
Studio is a really long game. You have to really keep your concentration levels up. We layer a lot of stuff down so you’re wading through track after track after track. It’s arduous and because we’re a very democratic unit everyone might have a very different idea about what works until we hit upon it.
You have to be painstaking but when you come up with something you have a record that’s forever, you know?
Some tracks you get straight away…but others, like Visitor off the new album, took an inordinate amount of time to get just right. We tried so many different things but when we got it we just knew. And it was a case of taking things out rather than adding things that made it work.
From an artistic level, as a musician that’s where the interesting things happen, putting it all together.
But I can’t really speak for the others, as they may see it as completely different!’
We discuss for a while about the demands of time, the fact that we all have to balance various things in our lives and I wonder if those external limitations adversely affect the creative process.
‘Those limitations are good in a counterintuitive way because we have to make the most of our time and use it well. You see too many very promising young bands who are pushed too hard, too early and just are done and burned out within a year or eighteen months…’
I remark that while Teeth of the Sea may be a little bit older than the young bands Sam has referred to they’re still young in comparison to me. I see them as a ‘young band.’
‘Ah you’re too kind! But because we’re a bit older and we have different lives and jobs outside the band we make the most of our time together especially because we are such good friends anyway.
I mean, if we were all stuck in a van for six months on a non-stop tour that’d probably be the end of it! But seriously we love what we do and we’re such good mates anyhow’
With ten years if albums under their belts. I ask if there are any plans for Teeth of the Sea to do the “we’ll play the whole of x or y album in its entirety from beginning to end live” thing. Would they ever go down that already sad and tired route?
‘No, we’re not going to be doing that sort of thing! It’s too literal. I mean I went to see Wire play Pink Flag and that was interesting and great and I loved it.
The new album lends itself to be played live so most of our current set is the new album with a random selection of old bangers from the earlier albums thrown in there as well.’
And finally, of course, I have to ask about their forthcoming headline appearance at the Deeper Cuts Festival on July 13. What are we to expect from Teeth of the Sea?
‘Well, it’s a great honour to have been asked to play and even more so to headline and I’m really, really looking forward to it, especially as there’s so many other great artists on the line-up such as Gum Takes Tooth and HOUSEWIVES who I really love.
What can you expect? Well, there’ll be the new record!
There’s going to be loads of energy and it’ll be very dynamic. And this year, we’ve gigged a lot in the UK and for me, I really feel that we’re hitting the zone and we’re at a peak.
We want to play a blinder. It’s a Saturday night in Liverpool!’
- Teeth of the Sea play Deeper Cuts Festival at Phase One on July 13 alongside Gum Takes Tooth, HOUSEWiVES, The Dream Machine All-Stars, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard and many more