Rich O’Flynn on scrapping an entire album and battling inner darkness on new album ‘Sunny Hills’...
All We Are (Credit: Hollie Fernando)

It’s all change on the new record from Irish/Norwegian/Brazilian trio All We Are.

While the Liverpool-based band’s self-titled debut buzzed with good time Bee Gees harmonies sung over the kind of cheery minimalist instrumentation that could be favoured by a less emotionally downbeat incarnation of The xx, their new deceptively titled record ‘Sunny Hills’ is an entirely different beast. There’s a dark anxiety that runs through this album’s nine overwhelmingly direct and to the point tracks, an angry maturity that was almost entirely absent from its predecessor.

“They are totally different,” confirms drummer Rich O’Flynn, chatting to me from the pub where he and his bandmates are celebrating the successful final rehearsal of their Glastonbury set, “It’s weird to say, but we actually signed to Domino in December 2013 when the world was actually quite a different place and in two or three years a lot of things have changed. They changed for us personally, and we do still see it as a very personal record, but it was only afterwards that we realised we were being influenced by the stuff around us.”

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As a group of immigrants, and with Rich being an EU citizen, the band felt the impact of 2016’s Brexit vote more keenly than most. “Then there was the populist movement in the States and the horrific refugee crisis and we were just like ‘Fuck!’” Rich exclaims.

‘Sunny Hills’ might not be a directly political record, but the monumental geopolitical shifts that occurred during its writing and recording process clearly had an effect on the band’s collective psyche. The result is an album that weaponises introspection, channelling the more globally minded angst of a generation that came of age in an era of mass hysteria and 24 hour news. “We just had a lot more to say and wanted to get this anxiety and energy out of us,” he tells me, “That’s what you’re hearing on ‘Sunny Hills’ I think, this kind of aggressive directness and emotion being expressed.”

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We just had a lot more to say!

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The amped-up anxiety of the atmosphere and lyrics of tracks like ‘Animal’ and ‘Dreamer’ is not the only audible switch from their debut, there’s a new finesse and focus perceptible in the way the band play.

Rich laughs as he admits that this might have something to do with the fact that half of the band were still learning their instruments up until recently, “I started playing drums and Guro (Gikling) started playing bass out of necessity. Luis (Santos) was just the best guitarist so he got to stay on guitar!”

He swears, however, that there has never been any relegation resentment from the band’s rhythm section, “Naaah, he’s just too good a guitarist for that.”

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This musical metamorphosis also comes from the trio’s decision to rethink their method of delivery for what they felt was a far more candid and intimate clutch of songs. “With the first record it was mainly me and Guro singing lead in unison or harmony as a double vocal,” he recalls, “then with this record we felt it had to be more direct, honest and personal because we really felt like we had something to say. We thought the best way of doing that was splitting the songs so only one of us would take the lead to sing the lyrics they had written, that if you’re delivering these lyrics you have to know what they mean.”

The gap between their first and second albums saw the band undergo a major internal recalibration they weren’t necessarily prepared for. In fact they scrapped nearly the entirety of the initial sophomore effort they had been developing while touring in 2015, one that was far more similar to their debut in its soul-indebted sound. “I think there were a lot of terrible tunes written as the vibe changed and we felt this directness coming,” he muses, “we were going through a period where we were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves and getting really involved in what we were doing.”

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We were going through a period where we were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves...

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The change really hit when All We Are decamped to a friend’s newly-purchased warehouse in Margate and heavier, sharper songs started coming to them in droves. “That was a time of epiphany for us,” Rich remembers, “after a week we were just like ‘Wow, we’ve just written all these amazing tunes’, only one of which (‘Down’) survived actually. But the vibe stayed and we sacked off everything that had come before and started afresh.”

Listening to the far superior and thematically tight progression of tracks on ‘Sunny Hills’, this decision to press the reset button instead of just making an ‘All We Are Part 2’ demonstrates the dividends that artistic bravery can pay. But for the band the process was profoundly stressful. “As our name suggests, All We Are is really all we do!” admits Rich, “I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and there was a lot of anxiety and darkness in its inception. I guess you could call them growing pains.”

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I think we’ve become so close that we’re almost family...

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For many a group of friends whose desire to create music together has evolved into their lives’ work, as it has for All We Are, such intense pressure on inter-group relationships turns band-mates into mere colleagues, sometimes even enemies. For Rich, Guro and Luis, who only formed the band in the first place to be able to keep on hanging out after they’d finished their studies at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, the opposite has actually been the case. 

“You know what?” he muses, “I think we’ve become so close that we’re almost family. With family you can go to a place where you get extremely pissed off with each other, but you always know that it’s totally cool because you know we all really love each other. There’s a real sense of ‘Just fuck it, we’re all in this together!’”

If you hazily remember hearing their debut back in 2015 (a year that seems a lifetime ago) and thought it sounded pleasant enough but never found it truly commanding your interest, it might be time to give All We Are another listen. You might find yourself surprised. Where once their sound was as pleasant but gentle as a friendly housecat’s purr, now it’s the guttural roar of a sleek, well-muscled panther. It takes real courage for a band to completely change their identity at any stage in their career, All We Are managed to do it after only one album.

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'Sunny Hills' is out now.

Words: Josh Gray

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