Across two stellar breakout records St Paul & The Broken Bones have carved out a formidable identity.
Expert purveyors of gritty Southern soul with a classic feel, the band's roots in Birmingham, Alabama give them a gutsy sense of realism.
New album 'Young Sick Camellia' however, is where it all changed. Working with producer Jack Splash, frontman Paul Janeway and bass player Jesse Phillips set about approaching music from a completely different angle.
Utilising samplers, drum machines, and synths, the band reconstituted their sound for a future-heavy, completely 2018 approach.
Somewhere between Kendrick Lamar and Otis Redding, new album 'Young Sick Camellia' is out now, a risk-tasking triumph that might well include some of Janeway's more personal, insightful lyrics yet.
Clash caught up with the frontman on the eve of release to find out more...
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So how is London treating you?
We got in a couple of days ago, played a festival, and then a show last night. I’m good, it think – just about caught up on sleep!
You’re one of the hardest working bands around! Have you mastered jet-lag yet?
I don’t think I’ve mastered anything yet but as long as I give myself a day in between to stay up, watch TV or do something then I can usually get pretty well adjusted. Adjusting is relative!
It must be so full on. When you approach making a new record how to do you adjust that mindset?
I think, for me, I had the mentality that once a project or record is out it’s over for me. Obviously we’re doing shows, but those are the shows – as for the creative part of it… I’m on to the next thing internally. With this one I was on to the next thing when ‘Sea Of Noise’ came out. It’s weird – the moment it comes out then mentally I’m on to the next thing or idea. I’m a perpetual motion kind of person.
So playing live and working in the studio are two different things?
Oh completely. Playing live is a different entity entirely. You obviously want to capture some of that energy in the studio but you can be more experimental. For us, we’re limited to what we do onstage as we don’t run tracks or anything like that. But in the studio you can do all kinds of weird shit. I mean, we hooked up guitars to Leslie speakers, things like that. You have to have two different mentalities, and that to me is the fun part.
You seem to relish the experimental aspect on the new record, particularly with the choice of producer.
It was obviously a different direction for us but it was still musical. And I think that was the key. He comes at it from hip-hop, and for us hip-hop emerges from all these funk, soul, and reggae samples. For us, there wasn’t this huge leap – we’re both music lovers, it’s just your approach on things. We have a guy who played Hammond B4, one of the best out there, and asking him to play synthesiser was… a challenge. It was out of his comfort zone.
And that went for all of us, we all embraced that. We’ve done the thing, we felt like we scratched all we can from doing it the way we done it, but with Jack it was about different instrumentation, doing it in a different way. Being more experimental in general. And it was very satisfying!
Were you as musicians always aware of hip-hop anyway?
Yeah. I think it happens all the time. I listen to the new Kendrick Lamar record and think it’s amazing – he’s working with Kamasi Washington, Thundercat. It’s great musicianship. You glean something. We’re not a pop band by any stretch of the imagination, so there’s ground there that we can cover. We’re like everyone else – we want to expand the ground we cover. There’s similarities there. I don’t think it makes zero sense, it’s all part of the progression.
Was Jack central to the songwriting, or did he come after?
I think what happens is that me and Jessie – the bass player – would go out to LA with Jack, and he would bring the samplers and drum machines, so we’d riff of that and write songs that way. Then we did a few of the songs with the whole band. But he was really good about using sampled stuff, that we weren’t used to doing, to build on top of that stuff. It was a different experience. But it was definitely different than the way we’ve done it in the past. We did everything live before, and this time… it was all played, just not all at the same time, and the same room.
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How did that new technology impact on the way you approached songwriting?
We would write with samples and then put in an actual drum beat with an actual drumpad. But it honestly makes things easier! It’s just an interesting process. Honestly, you can go in a thousand different directions, it’s almost unlimited. And it was a fun process – it was fun to learn about it, and now some of the guys have Kaos pads and synths onstage. It’s been a fun process to learn and embrace.
Lyrically, the record seems very personal, almost introverted – there’s a lot of inter-generational issues.
Well ‘Sea Of Noise’ was this almost political record, in a way. Growing up in Alabama, and looking at the States, especially the times we’re in now… There’s a lot of people who can do that broad sweep really well, but it wasn’t moving me in the same way. I felt that’s what ‘Sea Of Noise’ was about.
With this, I wanted to focus on my relationship with my father, and his relationship with his father. There are these weird tendencies that fall down through Southern generations, and it makes you more introspective when you’re looking out at the world. Where is the common ground? So I explored these themes.
The idea of this record was… Initially we were going to do three Eps, and one would focus on me, my father, and my grandfather. But it became such a big project, we wanted to do three albums. And obviously, labels love it when you say three albums…! So this was supposed to be the first part of a three part series. This was about me, and very personal.
Me and my father had a complicated relationship, and he and his father had a complicated relationship. His father is the voice throughout the record, and – bizarrely – he died after recording it. He got sick and passed away. So it felt like destiny after that. I’d already had this planned and then that happened, so it was like: now I have to go through with this. Just exploring that. It’s this inter-personal… that’s what led my there. But it was fate, in a weird way.
That notion of family and lineage is a very Southern thing – it runs alongside that stoic nature. So how does that stoicism square with the highly personal lyricism? Was it a struggle?
I think for me, it was tough to open myself up that way. I’ve always thought there are things that are off limits. And this was one of those things. To talk about these things in public… I felt like I had to do it. I think all great art has to be vulnerable, and has to show humanity. And plus, I thought it was important to me, for my self-growth. It’s definitely been emotional. But it feels like the right thing. Difficult is probably a better world.
My grandfather and my father came from a poor part of Kentucky, on the eastern side. Going through all that to understand why I am the way I am has been an interesting journey and it’s not over yet. It feels therapeutic in a way. That part of it’s been great. It’s been difficult more than it has been natural.
That sense of introversion is a common theme across the South right now, if you look at the way young people are now confronting that neo-Confederate legacy.
When we first spoke about this to the label they were like: is this a Trump record? But it’s long before that… it’s a cultural thing. I mean, politics in Alabama has sucked for a long time… it ain’t nothing new to us! But it’s one of those things where it’s a cultural thing, it’s about how my Dad and his Dad interacted. The cultural differences between us. Understanding that there is some negative space and some positive space. Trying to find yourself in that is difficult but – honestly – that’s what it’s all about for me.
Well, the best way of uniting people is music, so how has this new material been going down in the set? Have the band been enjoying these new tricks?
I think so! Now I can’t get our keys player off the synth. We’ve started to play the new stuff live and so far… the show is the show. We are live, live is our bread and butter, but it’s been a lot of fun to see interaction… It’s a new territory. What you hope is that enjoy what you do. It’s been a lot of fun so far. We haven’t done the total new show yet, but I think we’re up to five, six new songs in the set and it’s been a really great response so far. I can’t complain.
This is album number three now, and each one is very distinct. Is that what you want as a band, moving from space to space?
Oh completely. If you look at someone like Bowie or Prince or Radiohead that can move through so much ground, then I feel like – for us – that’s really important. I get to play with some really talented guys, so getting them to stretch… We could just rest on our laurels but to challenge them and challenge myself I think is important. To always stretch those boundaries and see how far it goes.
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'Young Sick Camellia' is out now.
For tickets to the latest St Paul And The Broken Bones click HERE.
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