Just A Dream: The Proper Ornaments Interviewed

"We’re not very comfortable with the times we’re living in..."

There’s another London underground, one that runs in parallel to the historic tube system but supplies music, not trains, and delivers records, not weary commuters. It’s a criss-cross path that includes a host of vagabonds, crate-diggers, psych-heads, and mystics, a sub-aqueous realm of lysergic wanderers. Or, to put it a little more bluntly: it’s a bunch of mates making great records.

The Proper Ornaments hinges on the relationship between James Hoare – once of Veronica Falls, also of Ultimate Painting – and Max Oscarnold, also of the band TOY. It’s a project that overlaps many others, but relies on a very simple factor. “It doesn’t work like a band, really,” Max tells Clash. “It’s mainly James and me, it’s our friendship – that’s what it is, and that’s how we operate. That’s why we don’t work as a band – if we want to hang out together, then when we do that is when we end up making music. And that’s how it happens.”

Debut album ‘Wooden Head’ was an minimalist psych-pop joy, its 2014 release injecting some greyscale noir into London’s water supply. Reconvening last year, The Proper Ornaments set about crafting a follow up at a studio in Hackney, before the technical hitch ruined everything they had lain down. “We used a tape machine, and when we went back to our studio with the tape machine the pinch wheel… we didn’t realise, it was fucked, basically! So we couldn’t use any of that.”

“We had to start from scratch,” he continues. “So we just decided: OK, let’s start again. Without any pressure, let’s start again, and when we did that we started doing other songs. We wanted to keep it fresh, and everything changed from there. It had a way more laid-back feel because we were in another place. It wasn’t a studio playing live.”

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Working from James Hoare’s house/studio in East London, the band were able to leaf through years of demos and DIY recordings, scavenging through half-forgotten ideas to spark renewed progress. “We did write a lot of songs over the years, so sometimes we’d go back through what we’d done, and we can always recycle. We’d also write a lot. I’d go to James’ house and we’d work on everything in the moment.”

The switch to home recording means that Proper Ornaments’ new material took a substantially different shape than their debut album. “We just changed the way we were doing it, because we’ve done the record before quite loud, with a lot of distortion. Loud guitars and stuff. We just wanted to have a bit more dynamic, and different textures. When everything is loud it’s hard to work with that.”

“We were a bit worn out from the record before, which was great but then we got together to do this but in a really easy-going laid back way. And the songs we chose were the laid-back ones that we had,” he asserts. “That’s the nature of the thing. We could have taken the amps and put them really loud, but we just wanted to try other things. The nature of the songs didn’t lend themselves to being played in a heavy rock way. We didn’t want to do that.”

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We were a bit worn out from the record before…

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Out now, ‘Foxhole’ is a real gem. Low-key and under-stated, the intricacies of the songwriting are delivered in a simple, straight-forward manner, while the late night, drowsy feel adds an incredible sense of atmosphere to the recordings. It’s a little like Television with the volume turned down, or The Velvet Underground’s famously bummed out third album re-recorded at a flat in Stoke Newington.

“We’re not pessimistic about the present, but we live our lives with a bit of a melancholic feel,” Max says. “We’re not happy people, basically. So I think we tend to cover ourselves with that feeling, thinking about things from the past that will make you feel better.”

At times outright melancholic – ‘Cremated (Blown Away)’ lingers on the feeling of already being dead, for example – the album seems to find beauty in the darkness, with its more downcast moments providing both the disease and the cure. “If you think about the past when you were younger, the good things that happened in the past, you knew it happened because you were there. You can’t feel like that with the future. We’re not that kind of people, basically.”

“Like, in the 60s for example they’d think about the future and say: ‘yeah, we’re going to make this better, it’s going to be OK’. We did the other way – like, it used to be OK. We’re just trying to escape from feeling like shit. We’re not very comfortable with the times we’re living in.”

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We’re not very comfortable with the times we’re living in…

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Sealing themselves away in the comfort of familiar surroundings, The Proper Ornaments write song after song, each becoming a brick to block out the gloom of the everyday. “It’s like a little womb to cover yourself from all the things going on outside,” he muses. “That’s the feeling. And that’s what the record was to us. We weren’t doing a record, we were getting friends together to do something. To have a nice little thing going between us. Apart from the rest, the craziness going on outside.”

“It’s definitely a way of dealing with those feelings, and sometimes they change and sometimes they don’t. But at least they’re in a song, and you can learn something from the record. It’s a nice way of classifying feelings, y’know.”

As the record evolved it became a chart of feelings and memories, a vessel for experiences between friends. “I go back to records and songs that we’ve done in the past, and relate them to certain feelings and I can remember exactly what happened with each song. It’s a very therapeutic band in a way, we write things in the moment. So you can classify those feelings, and you can go to the filing cabinet and say: this is what was going on then.”

“This is basically the record that represents what happened in the last year and a half,” he says. “Like every record in the world, to some extent.”

By retreating inwards, The Proper Ornaments may just have helped to accidentally define the malaise, the entropy that swept across 2016. Malleable, flexible, and fun, their small, tightly contained universe is everything the outside world could be, but in an era of Trump and Brexit… simply isn’t.

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'Foxhole' is out now.

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