Quality Of Language: This Is The Kit Interviewed

Kate Stables on recording, accepting her jazz influences, and the absence of touring...

For Kate Stables, better known as This Is The Kit, the release of her fifth studio album, ‘Off Off On’, is proving rather different to those that have come before it.

Conducting numerous interviews from her Paris home via the medium of Zoom – “I just get to hang out with loads of people every day that I’ve never met before in the comfort of my own front room” – Stables used one such conversation to talk to Clash about the fortuitous timing of its creation, the sonic qualities of language and the current state of the UK music industry.

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The new album was recorded at Real World studios near Bath in March. You must have been cutting it fine ahead of the national lockdown?

We just skidded our way in under the garage door, but I didn’t really even see it coming. I think everyone else in the band – they’re a bit better at reading newspapers than me – every morning would be like ‘this is looking a bit weird guys’ and I’d be all ‘ah it’s alright, it’s just another flu, let’s get on with it.’ And then I was really proved wrong and it was a real shock. We were just kind of in studio bubble world and not thinking about the outside world very much and then look what happened.

Given the way it took you by surprise, did you manage to actually complete the record before the world just stopped?

We finished the recording session. We did the full number of days we’d planned to do and got 97% of it done. All that remained was mixing and editing, and a few overdubs which I could do at home. We also sent it to a few friends [Aaron Dessner of The National and Thomas Bartlett, better known as Doveman] to add some touches, so the bulk of it was all done. It was just the mixing, the final phase, that had to happen long distance. It feels like some unlikely car chase scenario where you just miss the tree falling onto you. We’ve been quite lucky.

You have a different producer this time around, Josh Kaufman, and would it be fair to say that the vocal sound is pretty different for you?

I’m someone that always makes a fuss about reverb but Josh, god bless him, put his foot down. There are less effects than there were – we sort of came to a compromise – but I’m really pleased that he insisted because it makes it different. I think my main problem with reverb is that at a gig, when the sound engineer doesn’t know your music, they just decide to put loads on because you’re a female. That’s where my reflex against reverb comes from, but when it’s used carefully and thoughtfully it’s obviously a really great tool.

On ‘No Such Thing’ from the new album, aspects of the delivery sound almost like a vocal going down some stairs with the angular way the notes are drawn out. There’s also a counterpoint on ‘Start Again’ with two distinct, simultaneous parts. Is experimenting with your voice something that excites you?

I really like messing around with vocals and with the rhythm of them and I'm really fussy about harmonies. Un-thought out harmonies annoy me, so I'm quite fussy about which ones get used.

Luckily, Rozi [Plain] and Jamie [Whitby], who do the backing vocals in This is The Kit are really good; they come up with things I like. I really enjoy it when people aren't singing the same words: the kind of cacophonous effect. Also, part of it is because it's fun to set me, Jamie and Rozi the challenge of then doing that live.

It takes quite a lot of training sometimes for us to be doing one thing and then trying to do another on top – we try and make it as difficult for ourselves as possible. Sort of brain gymnastics trying to ward off the Alzheimer’s.

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How did you arrive at the album name ‘Off Off On’? Is it something about the title track that elevates it to being used for the whole record or is there another reason?

There’s this thing I have with words, just what it feels like when you say them. Sometimes that's all you need to decide, the feel of words in your mouth, and I guess I'm a little bit drawn to things that are, not tongue-twistery, but just have that sensation.

I just enjoy saying Off Off On and I find it funny when I have to introduce a song and say “this is a song on ‘Off Off On’” and I find it funny saying “this is a song off of ‘Off Off On’,” you know. It's just me getting my own kicks, really. Don’t know if I should be owning up to this!

It’s as good a reason as any! The lyrics of the title track involve lots of mirrored phrases – such as “breathe out, breathe in, but breathe out / both ways, you’re leaving, both ways” – and clustered syllables. Is the sound of the words as important as the words themselves?

For me, it’s such an instrument, the English language. Well, any language, but the English language is the language that I have learned. It's a musical instrument, language, and it's really fun to play with it and to make sounds with it.

Are there other artists who have inspired you to work with that mindset?

An early one would be Bob Dylan. He's so great at the feeling and the sound; it’s so palpable. Then Lou Reed, I love how his relationship with language and the feeling of words in his mouth.

Recently, I remembered an album that I listened to loads that was ‘Irresistible Bliss’ by Soul Coughing (a Nineties alt-rock hip-hop outfit fronted by Mike Doughty) which is amazing. You could just slice it with a knife, it's so sound based.

People like Steven Malkmus and also Beck are just so great at this physical sensation of words and it kind of annoys me when people are like “what’re they talking about, what’s that about, what’re you talking about?” I think it’s none of your business. Just listen to how brilliant this is!

Do you feel that once a record is released, it’s up to the listener to do what they want with it? Are you interested to see what people make of ‘Off Off On’?

That's what it's about for me. Maybe one day I'll learn how to be a songwriter that clearly, specifically tells a story from A to B, but I think the way my brain works and the way I enjoy using language, it's less like that. For me, it's really important for people to interpret it and quite often that's where the magic happens. When you let the listener find their own meaning in it, often the meaning they find is better than anything you’d have ever thought of anyway.

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Quality Of Language: This Is The Kit Interviewed

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I notice I’m not the only one to detect a jazz sensibility in this record. Was that a further aspect of changing your sound?

I think it just happened by accident; it's just a kind of weird alchemy or chemistry between the people in the room at the time. I feel like there's probably one particular track that gets people’s jazz radars going called ‘Slider’, because we got our friend Lorenzo Prati, who's a really amazing musician, to play sax over it, all the way through.

We were all just sat there in the room, not listening to the track, just listening to his saxophone playing and it was amazing. It was so important for me that we kept as much of that as possible. It was incredible being in that room and we were all totally silent, because there was no separation, no booth or anything. Maybe that track flags up a bit of jazz, or just the horns in general, I guess. Having horns just nudges you a bit closer to jazz. But not in a bad way – I'm happy that people hear that in it.

‘Was Magician’ is at least partly inspired by Ursula Le Guin. How was your reading over lockdown? Plenty of people said they found it hard to concentrate.

Mainly I couldn't read, but then I had about a week or two where I could only read or I had to be existing in a book rather than in reality. I could only read Ursula Le Guin! I couldn’t read anything else. She’s written so many books that there's still stuff I haven't read. It was familiar in that it was her voice, but in stories that were new to me.

So no new discoveries from the enforced downtime?

There was one thing. We got hold of a book [by Rutger Bregman] called Humankind – A Hopeful History. I'm not usually very good at reading non-fiction. I really struggle with getting to the end of a page if it's not a gripping yarn, but it was really great and it was hopeful and it was something that we read out to each other in our family.

There were some amazing stories in there and some really encouraging examples of how human beings are good and how we can do it. We just need to remember that it's in our interests to be good and to tap into what's good about us.

Is there any difference for you as a performer between being introduced as This Is The Kit or, by Matt Berninger from The National when you feature on their songs, as Kate Stables?

I think there is a difference in how I feel about it because as soon as I'm introduced as This Is The Kit I feel like it's kind of a publicity stunt or something – that sounds really bad! But, I'm really touched if Matt chooses to mention my project, that's really nice of him to do that. But, I would never ask someone “call me This Is The Kit.” It depends on the context: if it's my music I'm playing and it's stuff that I've written then it makes more sense to me to be called This Is The Kit.

You accompanied The National on a sizeable run of gigs to support ‘I Am Easy To Find’, upon which you feature. Is it a less demanding touring experience being a guest of another band?

Yes! It is less demanding in so many ways. It’s less demanding in that I don't feel cripplingly anxious for everyone's wellbeing or feel the responsibility of hoping that I'm giving everyone what they need. It's also The National, so it's not the same touring conditions. With my band, no one is ever in a room on their own; it's always sleeping bags in a pile, then in the back of the van and then in the venue.

It’s just a lot of stuff to put up with. It sounds like a negative thing but it's also amazing and a pleasure, and it’s my favourite job. But, when it's a band at that level, you've got a hotel room, you've got time off before soundcheck. It's just a different rhythm of life and, to be honest, it just felt a little bit like a holiday!

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I know you consider European tours to be very different, partly because of the importance they attach to art and culture. In light of the recent lack of support for the UK music industry as a whole, how do you reflect on the situation – has the response to Covid exposed a real disparity in how countries value culture?

It’s true. They just fund it. It's really weird and interesting because, in one way, how difficult it is to be a touring musician in the UK and the US means that it kind of sorts out the wheat from the chaff a little bit. You just get people that almost don’t have any choice but to do it, because that’s what they want to do or they’re so desperate to be famous that they’re willing to go through all of these horrible ordeals.

I feel like in France there’s more funding and less soul-crushing bankruptcy in becoming a musician; it’s a very different type of musician that it makes. But then I also see – and I’m not saying that either system is better or worse – that in France people are quite proud of being a musician and in England there’s much more of an attitude of “I haven’t got a proper job.” They kind of belittle themselves and they’re ashamed of owning what they do.

Your whole promo schedule around the album has been postponed until next spring. Socially distanced gigs have started popping up in the meantime. How are you feeling about that side of things?

I’m waiting. The gigs have been shunted back. They are all there, waiting to played or cancelled depending on what happens.

In France, gigs haven’t ground to such a halt, until now. I’ve actually played three shows since September, which was really amazing. Two of them were outside and one of them was inside, but everyone was spaced out and had to wear masks. It was the longest I’ve ever gone without playing a show so it was a whole load of different sensations at once. But now, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Is it different with an audience wearing masks and lots of space in terms of reading the room?

It does make a difference. With this particular gig we did that was inside, it was two things. It was the fact that it was a seated gig, so that already makes people a bit snoozy and comfy and they don’t really clap much and you kind of think ‘shit, we’re boring them to death’ and then that coupled with the fact that they’ve got masks on means physically you can’t whistle and also it just makes you less likely to go ‘wooo!’ or whatever because the mask is all up in your face.

I did have to make a real effort to recalibrate and to try and tell myself that they’re not all asleep with boredom. Things like that, I think it does have an effect. But, having said that, both of the outside shows we played, people had to be wearing masks the whole time and they were still really enthusiastic.

As ‘Off Off On’ nudges 2018’s ‘Moonshine Freeze’ into the distance, I wonder how you feel about past records? Do you listen back to them at all or consign them to the past?

Well, they’re all like time capsules or family photo albums; there’s these nice documents of what you did with these people at that time, but I don’t listen much to my past albums.

Obviously there’s the fact that I’ve just been working on this new album and so I’ve been listening to it because of that, but I also feel like I’ve been listening to it a bit more than I usually do because I miss the band and it’s just nice to hear them.

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‘Off Off On’ is released on Friday (October 23rd) via Rough Trade.

Words: Gareth James

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