English husband and wife duo The Rails – James Walbourne and Kami Thompson – have just made their best album yet.
Recorded in London at the start of 2019, Cancel The Sun – their third record – was produced by Stephen Street (The Smiths, Morrissey, Blur) and sees them moving further away from their folk-rock roots – Kami is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson – cranking up the electric guitars and embracing power-pop and New Wave, (‘Call Me When It All Goes Wrong’, ‘Ball and Chain’, ‘Waiting On Something’); ‘60s-tinged country-soul (‘Something Is Slipping My Mind’), and Beatlesy psychedelia (the title track).
Their gorgeous trademark harmonies are still in place and there are some folky ballads (‘Mossy Well’ and ‘Leave Here Alone’), but this time around, James, whose other job is as the guitarist in The Pretenders – has really cut loose and pushed his extraordinary playing to the fore. “We felt ready to make a big record – we’ve got the bit between our teeth,” they say…
SH: Congratulations on the new album – it’s brilliant. It’s very instant and direct – it doesn’t mess around. It has a harder, poppier feel than your last two records…
KT: If it was up to me, I’d have it in the old Pop/Rock section of Our Price, but that doesn’t exist anymore… This time, we didn’t rule anything out – we just wanted to make a bigger record. We’d always wanted to do that, but time and financial constraints often means you can’t. Our sights were set a little higher this time and we were more comfortable being at home [in London] – it all came together. This record is definitely more us.
Why did you choose Stephen Street to produce it?
JW: We wanted someone a bit different – who would take it forward – and who had perhaps more of a rock edge.
We were thinking of the sound of Graham Coxon’s [Blur guitarist] solo records – in-your-face guitar.
How was it working with Stephen?
KT: It was perfect – there was never a moment when we didn’t trust something he said. He’s so experienced and talented, so we could relax, take our hands off the reins and just play.
It was a really quick record to make. Ironically, we set out to do it over a couple of months, but we ended up doing it in a couple of weeks.
JW: He was a joy to work with – I wanted to let him really go for it – he made it happen and he made the guitars sound brilliant.
For this album, you took a different approach – for the first time, you wrote the songs together, rather than separately. Why?
KT: We set out to do it quite purposely – the way we’d gone with the last record wasn’t sustainable. We weren’t working well together and it was causing tension and friction. This time, we sat down and decided we were going to do it differently – because we co-wrote everything, the result is that we’re both fully invested and it’s made it much more personal. I think the songs are better – they’re different anyway. We’re definitely working well together and it’s made the whole experience significantly more pleasurable. We both feel very attached to these songs.
JW: We found a way to work where Kami would sit in the pub and write lyrics and I’d go and write tunes up in my little room. It was great – if I’m presented with lyrics, I can hear songs and, weirdly, a tune comes pretty instantly.
James – you stopped drinking a year and a half ago. How has that affected you and how did it influence the new album?
JW: I got into a real work ethic when it came to songwriting. I was doing it every day – suddenly it was my job. I didn’t f*** about! There wasn’t much procrastination – I just got it done and it was easy.
KT: The last record was pretty dark – we would both get into some dark places – but our outlook has now changed and it’s affected our relationship in a positive way. We’re a bit more confident and we’re more settled – we really felt ready to make a big record and we really want to push it. We’ve got the bit between our teeth.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album.
The first single, ‘Mossy Well’, lures us in with that dark folk music sound that you’re known for – it’s a song about drinking yourself to death – but the follow-up, ‘Call Me When It All Goes Wrong’ is a radio-friendly, power-pop song – albeit with a wry, cutting lyric about a relationship…
KT: ‘Call Me When It All Goes Wrong’ is an outsider’s view of someone else’s situation – they’re thinking they’re doing really well, but they’re flailing. You know that things are going to go tits up… We’ve tricked Radio 2 into playing it with a peppy tune.
‘Save The Planet’, the third single, has a cynical lyric about ecological issues and people’s hypocrisy– “save the planet, kill yourself.’’
It suggests that the best way to end humankind’s destruction of the world would be to end humankind…
KT: It’s my effort to try and shake people into thinking about it a bit more. Everyone’s trying to do their bit, but we’re all incredibly self-interested and there’s tokenism – everyone thinks if they just recycle a bit more, everything will be fine. I obviously don’t want anyone to kill themselves, although, if Trump killed himself, that would go some way to saving the planet, but he’ll probably never hear it…
The title track has a Beatles feel to it and some great guitar
KT: I love the guitar on that song – the wig out pleases me no end.
JW: I wanted to end it with a big, whacked-out solo with a bit of psychedelic stuff going on.
‘Ball and Chain’ – a song about addiction – is my favourite track
JW: That was one of those songs that came straight out of the sky, fully formed, in 15 minutes. Like some of the other tracks on the album, it has a New Wave / power-pop feel…
JW: Yep – that’s just part of my upbringing, what I listen to and people I’ve been influenced by. I love all that stuff, like Matthew Sweet. I was writing in a different way – the shackles came off and I didn’t have to write folk songs. I wanted it to be different, new, and exciting and to have fun playing the songs live, rather than us just having to take two acoustic guitars out with us.
I started using Logic Pro [music software] as a platform to write – I experimented with drums. I’d make a beat, put headphones on and then sing along with an electric guitar, so it sounded like I was in a band. It was really refreshing and instant – it opened up a whole new world for me. I wasn’t toiling away on lyrics and chords on an acoustic guitar for weeks on end…
You’ve been labelled as a folk-rock act. Do you think this album will surprise people who hear it and open you up to a wider audience?
KT: I hope so – when you make records, all you want is for people to hear them. We’re feeling good about it and we hope it gets out there a little more.
I think it’s your best album yet…
JW: That’s very kind of you – I appreciate that. After you make a record, there comes a point when just you don’t have a f***ing clue about what you’ve just done. This record is a truer reflection of what we listen to.
Cancel The Sun by The Rails is out now on Thirty Tigers.
We also spoke with Cancel The Sun producer Stephen Street. He worked his magic on classic indie guitar albums by The Smiths, Morrissey, Blur, Kaiser Chiefs, and The Cranberries. We ask him what it was like making Cancel The Sun with The Rails, what he brought to the record, and how he listens to music at home?
SH: How did you come to work with The Rails and had you heard any of their music before you started on the album?
SS: They approached me through their manager – I had no previous knowledge of their music, but I was vaguely aware of James’s reputation as a seriously good guitarist in certain musical circles.
When we first met, James mentioned to me that he wanted a ‘more direct’ record, with perhaps a bit more edge and ‘indie’ attitude, with the guitars being a bit more to the fore. I guess that’s what I’m known for. So, I just did what came naturally.
It all went so smoothly – everything we tried seemed to work well. We had a good working relationship. The sessions were fast and highly productive.
As you said, James’s electric guitar has been pushed to the fore on this record – particularly on heavier tracks, like ‘Call Me When It All Goes Wrong’, ‘Ball and Chain’, the title track, and ‘Waiting On Something’. How did you approach recording those songs?
James is a seriously good guitarist – unleash him and let him play! Rehearsals were important; making sure the rhythm section was playing the right parts and the groove to support James’s guitar parts. James and I would experiment with different guitar and amp combinations to get the tones we wanted.
James has a technique he has developed that is fantastic to watch and listen to. I loved working with him.
Cancel The Sun [the title track] was always going to make the cut. It stood out on the initial demos that I heard. Kami’s singing is superb – I loved the slightly Beatlesque feel that the song naturally seemed to lean towards, so we just went with that vibe. James’s solo at the end is scorching – so much feeling!
There are some quieter, more stripped-down songs on the album, too…
I particularly love ’Something Is Slipping My Mind’. Kami’s melody is beautiful. Rather than the whole band just strumming it, I came up with the idea of an electronic ‘heart beat’ pulse, which we added to the sound of James slapping the back of an acoustic guitar, while holding the chords, to get a slight overtone of the musical note, while being percussive at the same time. After that, we just had the chords played simply, but put through a tremolo setting on the amp, to give it a slightly shifting, liquid atmosphere, against which to set their beautiful vocal harmonies.
How have current audio trends such as the return of vinyl and the rise of streaming, as well as the emergence of hi-res audio, affected your approach to producing records? Has it made your job harder? Is it something you think about when you’re making a record – ‘how will people be listening to this?’
One of the good things about the vinyl revival is that artists are once again conscious of fitting an album onto that format – i.e., not making it too long and editing their work to fit. There was a time just after CDs became popular when acts were recording far too much music for an album just because the format could take it.
This album [Cancel The Sun] is a case in point. Ten songs, 34 minutes – bang, thank you very much, goodnight!
What’s your preferred way of listening to music at home?
I listen to music on all formats at home – CD, vinyl, and streaming. Streaming is convenient if I’m sitting at the computer, but I do love to play a CD or vinyl album through my hi-fi system, too. I have an Arcam amp and a NAD CD player.
Any new projects in the pipeline you can tell us about? And who would be your dream collaboration?
I’m currently working on a new Pretenders album, which is shaping up really well. Hopefully it will be out early next year. Obviously I would love to work with Blur again in the future, but I’m not holding my breath!
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