After three years of filtering everything through Brexit and Trump, 2020 is the year of Coronavision as the universal lens. With that in mind, it’s fair to say that The Desert got there first by a long stretch on the ‘isolation’ naming front. They were part of our ‘Sound of 2019’ list. Sounds like 2020 could be a big one, despite the current palaver. Ryan Rogers gave us an update on how they’re getting on, and the band picked five songs that have been influential on their tastes and sound:
“The month approaching the quarantine was (as for everyone) a turbulent time for the band. It largely revolved around a block of time we had booked with producer/engineer Joe Jones at Rockfield Studios (in Wales). We planned to finish an album we’d spent a lot of last year writing. After a tricky year and a few set backs, there was a lot of emotional weight on signing off on this bunch of tracks. Rockfield was booked from the 22nd March but as we edged closer, the world began to further unravel and we were all met with bigger questions than ‘can we still go and make an album in Wales?’
“Although the band was formed in Bristol, only Gina and Ryan are still based there. Jonny’s up in Chester and Tom lives on a boat in London. That’s where a lot of the complications arose. London’s lockdown was looking increasingly likely, leaving Tom’s travel options very limited. It was a stressful time for him and his girlfriend, who were beginning to question whether a small boat in London was a good place to be stuck, especially as their work was being cancelled.
“We managed to get together a week before the studio time in Bristol for one last rehearsal and to meet with Joe Jones. We also went for a surreal photoshoot with Ania Shrimpton, wandering around the streets of Bristol, filled with a sense of impending doom. ‘Smile!’ It was a tough call, but after a lot of conversation, we decided that as long as we all self-isolated and the country wasn’t called into lockdown, we’d still go ahead with the recording session as planned.
“In the days between, Tom travelled back to London and made the difficult decision to move off their boat and relocate back to his hometown of Hastings. The rest of us crossed every finger possible in the hope that the studio wouldn’t close. Tom then got a train up to Bristol and we pulled in some risky van-related favours to get us and the gear to Rockfield. We made a plan to try and focus on the music and worry about the pandemic at a later date.
“We made it to Rockfield of the morning of the 22nd and the lockdown was announced on the evening of the 23rd whilst we had dinner. We all sat around the TV to watch Bo-Jo on the same sofas that the Gallagher brothers once brawled on. We found ourselves crossing our fingers again that we wouldn’t be sent home just as we were easing into the recording session. Thankfully, the studio owners said we could stay until the week was over and so we cracked on.
“The sessions that followed were particularly fruitful. Maybe the weird energy helped in some way. Joe Jones was in his element, applying his creative approach to sound engineering our music. We recorded through echo chambers, corridors, tape machines and moisturisers, working until way past midnight every night. Set amongst fields of baa’ing lambs with the sun shining, we were able (with the help of a few drinks) to forget about the outside world for a week. We drove away with a stack of finished tracks (and some hand sanitiser), ready to get back to the real world, feeling extra grateful to have spent the first week of lockdown making music together in Rockfield.
“Since getting back, we have separated to our respective parts of the country. Ryan and Gina decided to avoid their cramped shared house in Bristol (full of musicians clashing notes through bedroom walls). They have settled, for now, at Gina’s parents’ place in Cambridgeshire, where they’ve set up a home studio are working on lots of new music. Jonny’s back up North and has also been collaborating online with fellow label mate, RVBY.
“Whilst we were at Rockfield, Tom filmed a lot of footage that he is currently editing into a mini doc about our time there (as well as mixing the new recordings). With The Desert recently entering a new campaign, we are constantly jumping on Zoom calls and collaborating on content via email. Strangely, we’re quite well adjusted to working in this way; the main difference is we don’t know when we’ll be able to get together again. We’re a pretty tight group and we normally tend to get together a week or so at a time so we’re missing each other a bit.
“We had some pretty exciting shows lined up, which have obviously been scrapped for the minute, so a big part of how we move forward at the moment is figuring out ways to keep up the momentum around our new releases. We’re brain-storming and firing ideas back and forth, so in some ways it’s quite a productive time for us. For example, a music video for an upcoming release got cut, so Gina’s been putting together old footage from her phone to make a DIY alternative.
“The pandemic poses a lot of challenges for the music industry, but in a time when we are having to separate ourselves, it’s amazing to see how active lots of bands and musicians are being. I guess music will always bring people together, even if we are all in for another three months of Sundays.”
See the video for ‘Beauty Queen’ here:
The Desert’s ‘In Five’
Gina: The National – Quiet Light
Writing the latest set of tracks for The Desert was challenging. Many of the tracks were written collaboratively on ‘writing retreats’. For the first time, I put my guitar down and played with lyrics over the music the boys were making around me. It was much more ‘in the moment’ and I had less time to think. I found this scary at first, but I learned to enjoy the freedom. The National are one of my favourite bands and I reckon there are some similarities between their and our new stuff. Their music is often driven by drums and Jonny definitely provided the spine to a lot of our new tracks. Matt Berninger sings in an introspective, conversational style that is serious but also playful. His phrasing is so interesting, like on this song (from their most recent album, I Am Easy to Find). You expect him to end the first phrase of the chorus with “black to white,” which would rhyme with lie/light/sky, but instead he says grey and makes room for another few lines before rhyming it with ‘awake’. It’s so clever and unpredictable and gets me pretty excited.
Jonny: Paleman – Yrs Ago
Paleman was the first techno/electronic producer that I got into who didn’t always use a four-on-the-floor. I used to listen to his Rinse FM mixes and found them so rhythmically interesting. He’s been the single biggest influence on the way I make beats, which I hope is evident on some of the new Desert tracks that are coming out over the next few months.
Ryan: Jonny Greenwood – Dark Streets (Reprise) – You Were Never Really Here OST
When Lynne Ramsay’s film You Were Never Really Here came out, The Desert were just starting work on a new body of tracks. I saw the film at Watershed and Jonny Greenwood’s score instantly grabbed me. It blends analogue electronics and live-roomy sounding instruments/percussion in a really specific way. It’s dark, groovy and super rickety, without being too heavy-handed. When came out on physical, I was working on the top floor of Fopp and would spend a lot of time listening to it, alongside great pop records like Ariana Grande’s Thank You, Next and Lorde’s Melodrama. I think the combo of those sounds really started to inform the way I approached making music with The Desert.
Tom: Boards of Canada – Sixtyniner
I chose ‘Sixtyniner’ by Boards of Canada because they influenced me so much as a producer. I fell in love with their tape-warped synth sounds along with a few others from Warp Records in the 2000s, and there’s an element of that which I’ve always tried to bring to The Desert’s sound.
Band choice: Big Thief – Paul
Big Thief was one of the first bands we all bonded over. ‘Paul’ is one of those songs that instantly grabs you tight and gently shakes you full of shivers. It’s a pretty perfect track. We bumped into Adrianne Lenker in a dressing room in Texas at SXSW last year and gushed pretty hard. I think we freaked her out a bit! It was a wonderful feeling, like we’d come full circle – definitely a highlight for the band.
Follow The Desert on Spotify here.
Featured Image by Ania Shrimpton.