No man is an island. Yet some do stand apart, alone, distinct from the crowd, their own corner of a genre continent. And since day one of going solo, William Doyle aka East India Youth has achieved just that: separation from the sound-alike, operating in a field of his own sowing.
And yet, everyone needs a box. It helps to sell, to market, to the masses: Coke tastes this way because it’s what you’re familiar with, these pants make you feel more of a man. This music, this debut album, ‘Total Strife Forever’: it’s electronic, yet not. Singer-songwriter, but so far away from the usual connotations associated with the tag. To suggest it exists in a between-points limbo is to imply a sort of lifelessness, which is entirely untrue of a record that couldn’t sound more human, more alive. It’s… What is it?
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‘Dripping Down’, from ‘Total Strife Forever’
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“It’s like a neo-classical thing, with this really heavy, digital sound to it,” comments London-based Doyle, when pressed, when Clash meets him on the release day for ‘Total Strife Forever’. “I’m big into orchestral and classical music. I can’t really write music, notation wise, but I wanted to capture some of that same spirit, in the dynamic shifts and the changes of tempo you find in classical music. I wanted to shift that into an electronic setting.”
“The way I cut my teeth, my discipline, is from a songwriting perspective, really,” he continues. “I was always looking at melodies – and I’d always sing on a track, I’d sing scratch vocals. That’s true even of some of the instrumental tracks on the album. It was just instinct, it’s my natural go-to position: ‘Right, I’ve made music, and therefore I must sing over it.’ And then I’d disrupt things – I’d take out the vocals. I think that a lot of the songs mean more, emotionally, to me, without the vocals on them. And I thought that they got across what I was trying to do, better, without the vocals.”
He’s not wrong. Though he possesses a more-than-serviceable singing voice, a clarion-clear tone ringing through his layered arrangements, Doyle is just as expressive of emotion, as articulate of message, without uttering a word into the microphone. The first two songs on ‘Total Strife Forever’, ‘Glitter Recession’ and the first part of a title-track quartet (positioned at two, six, nine and a climactic 11), are wholly instrumental. If the former is a bright, accessible offering of chiming electronics and cascading chords, the latter is more meditative, a rising pulse, something close to Coil’s ‘A Cold Cell In Bangkok’ given a steady diet of Skittles for the second half of its incarceration.
The relatively straightforward-of-structure ‘Dripping Down’, reminiscent of the output of Liverpool’s awesome Outfit but soaring skywards on an uplift of the purest, most joyous optimism in its chorus: “Find new love / Dripping down your soul”, precedes the arrival of the dramatically stripped-back dance beats of ‘Hinterland’, a track The Quietus classified as “fuzzed-out techno”. It’s this set’s most driving six minutes, a piece that in a decade past might’ve been blindly attributed to the pre-Chemical Dust Brothers. And if this is making ‘Total Strife Forever’ sound like a very diverse collection of compositions, it is. And it’s an entirely natural situation for Doyle to find his debut in.
“It took a long time for me to reach this point. I’d been recording a lot at home, while I was in another group, but with no real direction. It was just for fun, really.” And that explains why songs like ‘Heaven, How Long’ – a beautiful, vocals-and-synths-led centrepiece – and the detailed ambience of the enveloping ‘Midnight Koto’, two entirely disparate expressions of singular inspiration, can coexist on the same long-player. “But as that went on, I thought I was becoming a lot more emotionally better with it, and I realised that it’s this that I wanted to do.”
Clash suggests that, at times, ‘Total Strife Forever’ is evocative of the second half of Bowie’s ‘Low’. “That was a huge influence on the album, actually. I didn’t want to separate the vocals and the instrumentals in the way that album does, though – I wanted them to be tied together. I’d not heard many people doing things that way.” The end product doesn’t sound anywhere near as blueprinted as Doyle’s making it out to be, though – there’s a continuity throughout, binding DNA, coherent tone and tangent. The four ‘title tracks’ comprise, in Doyle’s words, the “papering of the cracks between the songs”. They coalesce the constituents with a rare assuredness for a first attempt, with a constant sense, however muted it seems at times, of movement to proceedings.
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‘Looking For Someone’, from ‘Total Strife Forever’
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“If the album does sound quite assured of itself, it’s because I got to properly sit down with it to work out the narratives, and the dynamics,” Doyle explains. The first mixes for ‘Total Strife Forever’ were finished around 18 months ago. He wanted something complete to take with him as he moved from Southampton, his home since the age of 12, to London.
“I thought it’d be a lot more useful than just sending out emails, to actually be there, in London,” he says. “If I saw someone, I figured I could just press a CD into their hands. I think a lot of people get too focused on their online personas, and making sure their Facebook feed is full of stuff. I never thought about things like that.”
One of the first people – if not the first person – to receive the preliminary cut of ‘Total Strife Forever’ was The Quietus’ editor John Doran. He and his colleague Luke Turner liked what they heard so much that they set up a label to release an East India Youth EP, ‘Hostel’. Says Doyle: “Them releasing ‘Hostel’ wasn’t part of my plan, at all. But it was great, because The Quietus is one of my favourite websites, and I’ve always learned a lot from it. I always thought it’d be cool to have my stuff appraised by them – but then they went and took that to the next level.”
And the level after that saw Doyle sign to Stolen Recordings for the release of what is already a genuine contender for album of the year status. Reviews have been forthright with their praise, with great scores posted across the board. Nine-out-of-10s have been issued by Drowned In Sound, by The Line Of Best Fit, by Clash (review).
Yet Doyle has missed much of the year-start hype that can swallow some artists, that can set precedents their material can’t hope to meet. What if he’d been listed on something like the BBC Sound Of, would the next 12 months take on a different shape for Doyle?
“I expect it’d be totally different,” he says. “I think it’s good if that sort of thing happens to you – I can’t be that negative about it. To have recognition from certain publications and influential sources can do some people some good. But I was always a bit scared of it, of being under the spotlight too early.
“I think that we’re all so keen to focus on new and emerging talent now without giving it time enough to be nurtured, and I think that’s quite dangerous. It’s like someone winning the Mercury on their debut record: it gives them so much attention that they can become waylaid from their creative goals because there’s suddenly so much other stuff to worry about.”
“But I think it’s important, with all this craziness going on, all these amazing reviews, to keep writing and to keep focused on your next creative goal. It’s great that this is happening for me, and I’ll enjoy it while it lasts. But you can’t get too side-tracked by it, or take it too seriously.”
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‘Heaven, How Long’, ‘Hostel’ EP mix
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So what if ‘Total Strife Forever’ does do something incredible, like win the Mercury? Don’t fret: Doyle’s got his next album planned already.
“I had the record finished a while back so I’ve actually had a fair amount of time to be thinking about new material. So when it does finally come time to properly sit down and start writing another record, I won’t be starting from scratch – I already have a big backlog of ideas, and a certain direction in mind. So the timing between this album and the next one will be a lot shorter than the three years it took to get from A to B on this one.”
So no, no man is an island, exactly. And even the most individual of artists can echo the work of others, intentionally or otherwise, albeit in the process of capturing something that’s theirs alone. William Doyle is a sole trader, a lone operative, a man on the fringes of a map he’s drawing as he travels. But why not travel alongside him a while. You might just arrive at somewhere unexpectedly wonderful.
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‘Total Strife Forever’ is out now on Stolen Recordings. Find East India Youth online here and see him live (laptop, keys, treated bass – “It’s a thing for people to look at, you know? It changes people’s perceptions of what they’re watching when they’re looking at a guitar, doesn’t it?”) as follows:
29 – Cathedral, Sheffield
30 – Gulliver’s, Manchester
31 – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow
1 – Korova, Liverpool
4 – Louisiana, Bristol
6 – The Lexington, London
7 – The Green Door Store, Brighton