Ships release their debut LP Precession this month. One half of the duo Sorcha McGrath discusses their origins, connections to Cleveland and the joys of ambulation.
The music of Ships exudes craft. Comprised of Sorcha McGrath and Simon Cullen – the synth-driven duo have been intermittently releasing perfectly formed pop gems from their suburban home and studio for almost five years. Subtle and bombastic in just the right measure, considering the meticulous nature of their output, the laissez-faire attitude employed in its formulation might come as a surprise. These guys, if McGrath’s insistences are to be believed, really don’t know what they are doing.
Though, on sampling their staggeringly realised, instantly loveable debut LP Precession, I’m inclined to chalk McGrath’s protests down as charming self-effacement. We sat down and chatted funding, the psychological benefits of ambulation and the majesty of Kim Deal.
So, you guys have been kicking around for a little while now….
I think it was maybe late 2012. But, to be honest, we didn’t have a plan as such. We just started making music together and were kind of feeling it out. We put our first finished track on Soundcloud and it was picked up by Nialler9 and we got maybe a year’s worth of gigs off the back of that. We didn’t have album worth of material or anything. So, every gig we got we ended up writing more music to fill out sets. Again, without a plan, we’d spent a few years really honing our sound and liking what we did without really knowing what we were doing.
Do the two of you come from broadly similar musical backgrounds?
I guess we’re similar in the sense that we both studied music. I did classical piano as a kid…
…Did you enjoy it?
I enjoyed it until I got caught not being able to sight read in an exam. I was faking it until about grade 6 or something (laughs). After that it wasn’t much fun. I think, like most young children, I probably would have prefered to be somewhere else but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. There was things that I loved about it but my main memory of playing classical piano was when everyone was out of my house and I was too hot and I’d just place my head on the ivory keys because they were cold. That’s my fond memory, it’s kind of a sensory thing.
We both had dads who played in bands so we always had guitars around the house and that definitely shapes your mind, I didn’t see playing in bands wasn’t just a thing “other people” did. I got a guitar when I was 13 or 14 and started a band and we were into like Funk and Mathrock but also like Juliana Hatfield and Smog so it was a pretty weird combination. I played a lot of gigs from the age I was 16 all the way through to my 20s and so did Simon. We didn’t actually meet though until our late 20s…hopefully nobody does the maths there and figures anything out (laughs)
When did the idea of using fund:it to finance the release come about?
We had most of the record finished and a lot of people were asking when we were going to put it out. We’ve both had a little experience with labels putting out small things and we felt, because we record at home, mix ourselves, produce ourselves, we don’t really need a record company in a traditional sense. We all had that stuff done and we knew what we wanted so why would we involve a middle man?
I’m a big fan of funding too. I’m a member of fund:it and kickstarter and I’d funded films, books, art projects, I’m just a massive fan of it as a model. If you want something to happen then go and make it happen. That said, it really warms your heart when people are going out of there way to pay money and commit to something that doesn’t really exist yet. We’re not very good at promoting ourselves so it was really huge for us. Then, once the release had been funded, the reality set in that we had to actually do it!
We had about 90% of the writing done when we started the fund:it but we are very finickity mixers. I guess what makes the music interesting is that we have slightly different ideas of what we want. Which is great in writing but difficult when mixing, It’s just the two of us we have to agree. It was hard at the end, you can sit on a song for a year and keep changing things and that can be fun. You put something fresh in a song and it’s not necessarily better but you obsess over it because it’s new. So, the fund:it helped in that I think we really did need a deadline to be like “This is the final mix”.
The record is undoubtedly pop. In the sense that it’s something that could conceivably get radio play and all the associated coverage. When you are writing a song that occupies that kind of space is it hard to deem it “successful” as an artistic exercise without it being tangibly successful in the broader sense?
Well I love melodies and hooks. I love singing along to things so why would I write something I wouldn’t want to sing along to? Hooks can come to me my like mantras in my head. I just catch yourself singing something over and over and go “what is that?…wait that’s nothing, that’s mine!”
But in terms of success, you have to just let that go. By the time we’d finished the record and I was giving it one last listen before we sent it off to get mastered, I was thinking to myself “what is this? Is this even a thing?” I didn’t know if people would hear it and think it’s pop or too alternative and strange or is it somewhere in the middle. I can’t say we thought about it at all when we were making it and that’s probably a good thing. I think we kind of have the advantage of being in a place where the value of the music, for us anyway, isn’t judged by its “success”. We haven’t set ourselves up to be like “we’re going to write a bunch of hit songs” and if that doesn’t happen then we haven’t achieved anything.
I’m about to break my own rule here and ask you about your band name. But you’ve said “Ships” comes from the suffix as opposed to the means of transport. As in the name pertains to relationships and friendships and how they are ultimately what enrich life. Does that philosophy inform your writing?
I would say yeah in that I can only write from my experience. We’re both fascinated with the human experience and relationships and companionships and all those ships are kind of what make up life and life is what makes up the songs. I tried to write from a different perspective once. I was living in Cleveland Ohio during my 20s I was involved in a project where lots of different bands had to write a song about a different American president. I can’t even remember which one we did now…it felt like a school project.
I didn’t realise you spent time in Cleveland. I kind of think of it as one of the most underrated rock cities in America. It’s home to Guided by Voices and Kim Deal after all…
Absolutely! I even shared a rehearsal space with Guided by Voices. I’m a huge Breeders fan too. I think that’s the reason I play music. I saw Kim Deal and I was like “Oh!”. I didn’t know you could wear a tshirt and jeans and not have to be like “look at me, I’m this sexy girl with my tits out” you could just get up there and play. I clearly remember being 11 or 12 and seeing a Breeders video, I already had the tape and loved the music, but it was seeing her just being a human being playing music and not doing the “girl in a band” thing I’d seen before. I had this idea that I couldn’t live up to being some, sexy woman who plays with Prince. They were all amazing musicians too but I really thought I could never do that, that’s just not going to be me. But then I saw Kim Deal and she was just a regular person that was really good at what she does. Suddenly I didn’t feel like I had to live up to any standard. She was definitely the biggest influence on me playing music.
So, true to form, you guys are playing some festivals this summer. You seem to enjoy them which isn’t always the case with artists.
I love it. It’s obviously different and there is something that gets into your mentality that you just feel a bit freer at a festival. I have a theory about festivals; do you know what ambulating is?
Alright, so say if you and I take the same route to work every day and we’re walking on concrete paths like most people do in a city – that does nothing for your brain. Whereas festival grounds are naturally up and down and undulating so your brain has to work constantly to get your balance because you don’t know where your foot is going to land, That’s ambulating. If your brain was hooked up to an FMRI scanner when you were ambulating around a festival, in and out of tents, you’d be able to see it sparked up all over the place. All these connections have to be made because you’re taking in all this unfamiliar sensory stimulation. It’s actually really good for your brain! So, I think when people come to a festival they’re already in this place where their mind is open because their brain connections are open. I think that’s why you can get this feeling of openness at a festival that you just don’t get when you walk into a dark venue.
Wow. Well, I’ve learned something so that’s probably as good place to leave it as any. Thanks Sorcha.
Words: Danny Wilson