This Is The Kit interview: "The album has a lot to do with truth and honesty, to ourselves and other people...how you interpret stories."
I spoke to Kate Stables, leader of long under-the-radar folk ensemble This Is The Kit. Following three much-loved but under heard albums, Stables and her cohorts were snapped up by indie kings Rough Trade for the release of her fourth album Moonshine Freeze. The step up to a new label also comes with a step forward in production and song craft, which Stables and her bandmates have been honing in their delightfully precious and captivating live shows. With the help of indie stalwarts John Parish on production and The National’s Aaron Dessner contributing some guitar parts, Moonshine Freeze is by far This Is The Kit’s most complete sounding album to date, and with the new Rough Trade platform, seems set to springboard them to a new level of appreciation.
Moonshine Freeze is out today, and we caught up with Kate Stables a couple of weeks ago to get the low down about the lyrical themes and recording of the new collection.
You usually take in songs that you've written by yourself and they get imbued by the band, what kind of form were the songs for Moonshine Freeze in before you took them into the studio?
I guess most of them were finished so to speak. Well, all of the songs were finished; they were ready to be taken to the studio. Some of them we'd been playing live so the arrangements had been developed a bit and the band had found their parts for them. But some of them hadn't been played with the band yet, so it was a case of workshopping those songs and everyone finding their place within the arrangements. And then there's one or two that stayed as pretty much solo songs, because they didn't really feel like they needed anyone else to join in. So yeah varying degrees of finished basically, which is really nice because sometimes you go into the studio and know that they're not finished and it's really stressful [laughs].
You're rejoined by John Parish for production; I think this is your best sounding album - I mean from the very beginning of ‘Bullet Proof’ with those drums and the banjo that comes in it just sounds amazing. Did you feel that this was a step forward?
Yeah... well I guess every album is a step forward even if it doesn't sound as good as the last one, if you know what I mean [laughs]. It's all part of the journey. But I definitely feel like the sound of this album has changed a notch, for want of a better phrase, and it was really great. I just feel like it was so perfect that John was able to produce this one, because in terms of having the whole band, all of the musicians who were present at the recording session, which was really important to me this time, and then to have someone who had such a good ear and musical judgement and could sort out what was needed and what wasn't needed. Because when you've got so many people involved it can get kind of tangly and he just can have the best energy and approach and communication skills and listening skills. And so yeah I'm so pleased that he did this album with us, it worked out really well.
Where did you record it?
We recorded it at Invada in Bristol. The record label [Invada] has a studio, so we were in their studio. It's a really lovely place, big enough for us all to be playing at once. So a lot of the tracks were recorded live, or the main backbone of them was recorded live, which was really nice for us. It gives them a particular feel, where it's not just one person playing at a time, we played together. And just being in Bristol was convenient as well because we have friends that we could stay with, half the band lives there, John lives there, it was just very serendipitous.
Let's talk about the music itself. What are the overall themes of this album?
Well I guess I feel like I wrote it over a period of time where I was thinking a lot about change and dealing with change, and honesty and truth, and our relationship with honesty and truth and storytelling and how we interpret truth one time and different another time. Truth can change, I think; one thing can be true one day and the next day something else is true, so that I was thinking about when I was writing the songs. What else? Changing, adapting, learning to deal with all sorts of situations. I guess a lot of songs are just human situations that you try to untangle - I feel like that's what I usually do when I write songs. But in terms of this album particularly there's a lot to do with truth and honesty, to ourselves and to other people, and how you interpret stories.
The album starts with 'Bullet Proof' which seems like a pretty tough self-examination - you even mention yourself by name - why did you decide to start with this one?
Yeah it's true, I do mention myself by name, but there's also no avoiding that there were things like that to learn [laughs]. Let me think, why did we start with that one? I really love the drum beat that Jamie plays on that one, I think he did a really lovely job finding that rhythm. And people often try and persuade you to open the album with a big sort of explosion, but there's something I quite like about just sort of getting into the water without a splash, as it were. So sonically it felt like the right choice to put 'Bullet Proof' first. And I feel like as a song in that group of songs, it's got links and threads to all of the different ones, it's a sort of umbrella, it's over them all because it's definitely got themes from all the other songs within it, so it felt right to have it first. And it's always nice to start with a banjo song.
Then we go into 'Hotter Colder' which is lyrically really interesting and dark. I don't know if you consider the songs dark; there's a lot of blood and fighting, even though the music doesn't suggest it. But 'Hotter Colder' specifically, you have the line "someone riding on your shoulder," I'm curious what gives you that feeling?
I guess in the song I'm thinking about just blundering around in the dark, when you can't see - you're in a room or a cave or a tunnel or whatever you want, and there's no light anywhere, and you have to find your way around. And then the image of this little creature sitting on your shoulder - the image is a little bit of that classic Disney-style conscience, the little devil on one side and angel on the other side telling you what to do or trying to get you to behave in a certain way. So there's this creature that's guiding you around in the dark and you're not sure if it's on your side or not, or how competent they are as a guide. That was my thinking behind the person on the shoulder. And also just that game where you hide something in a room and you have to find it, and the person who has hidden the object is saying "hotter hotter hotter, colder colder colder, hotter hotter... really boiling! There it is!" I don't know if you know that game...
Yeah of course! I don't think it has an actual name though does it?
We used to just call it 'Hotter Colder', but I guess there's regional differences in what it's called...
And then you've got this amazing sax break in this song...
Yeah! We've been playing the past year or so with a little horn section. It was a couple of guys from this community orchestra that Jesse works with in Bristol, and then one of them moved back to Australia. Then we had the luck of asking this guy called Lorenzo Prati from a Bristol band called The Evil Usses and a few other bands, and he's just such a lovely player, and he’s got excellent delivery and interpretation of rhythm, and it's just such a pleasure watching him fly. So we were just in the studio and the saxophones are taking turns trying stuff out soloing, we weren't necessarily going to keep it, we were just like "this next time play whatever you want on this end section," and it was just so exciting when he played it, it was a total joy to witness and behold. I just thought “well we've got to keep that, that was too excellent a moment to not have.” And it's always fun, Jesse in the band is a big fan of sort of finishing the song and then coming back and playing the song a little bit longer. So that was a fun game too; finish the song - not finish the song. Just having fun.
You definitely get that feeling of excitement and spontaneity when you hear it. Did you always want to have brass in your sound?
I do really like horn arrangements, and because the past year we've been touring with the horn section it just made sense for them to feature in the album as much as possible. But also Jesse, who is obviously in the band, but sometimes not in the band, he’s just so great at writing arrangements and he really loves it. He's been writing lots of arrangements and that's kind of why we ended up having the horn section on tour with us in the first place. And since they’ve come on tour we wanted to have them on the new material.
Then we come onto the title track, 'Moonshine Freeze'. To me one of the things that comes across on this song, and a lot of the album, is that it seems like you're taking a passive stance on things that are generally frustrating. Here you sing "as the change sets in we've lost our way again/ as the game begins we are found again... cycles of three," there's a lot of cycles...
Well I guess it could be a kind of Daoist approach of just going with the flow, that might be something that I've thought about. Basically change and different dynamics, the significance of different numbers, is inevitable; things are gonna happen and yeah it's hard, but you've gotta get on with it. That's a little bit of the thinking behind that song. Also I just like playing with the number 3, in rhythms as well as words, there's something I get really drawn to about mixing a tertiary rhythm with a binary rhythm - although we did that on other songs, not sure about this one - I just can't get enough of it, just messing around with numbers in terms of rhythmical patterns is a real joy. That is also a little bit what I'm singing about as well.
'Easy On The Thieves' - is this quite an angry song?
Kind of, I guess sort of frustrated and disappointed, and then when you feel frustrated and disappointed in a situation or yourself it does often make you feel angry because it's just unnecessary that such an unsatisfactory situation should arise. So I think there is a bit of anger in that song. But like you say, in this album there's a lot of darkness and struggle, but people often just hear the plinky banjo and think "ah, how lovely!" [laughs] So it's sort of confusing for a lot of people I think. For example, that song 'By My Demon Eye', people ask me to play it and they seem to have a bit of a "song that I'm going to play for my baby as it goes to sleep" sort of thing, but the message is pretty dark and that is quite an angry song as well, but it's true you wouldn't tell that from the instrumentation and the delivery.
Does that make you wonder if you should start make angrier sounding songs so they get the message?
Nooooo I'm not going to cater to anyone. I don't think I need to patronise people into expecting certain emotions. People can interpret a quietly angry song. They probably have to listen to it a couple of times before they realise what's going on. [Laughs]
Does that bother you if they think it's a nice song when it's really not?
No, not at all, it's just an honour that they want to listen to it at all. And also the songs, they're just going to get interpreted. This is kind of one of the themes of the album, people just interpret things depending on their own internal landscape, as it were, so I think it's really crazy to be precious about how people interpret my songs, because they're going to be interpreted in many different ways, most of which I've never thought of. But I'm always pleased to hear how people interpret it. Sometimes they'll say "is it about this?" and I'll say "well not originally, but maybe now it is, because that makes sense."
Since you mentioned 'By My Demon Eye', let's jump to that. What is that line "Tako takoti o takoti sman yamba takoti" - is it African?
It's from a story read by Hugh Tracy, like early recordings of him reading these folk tales collected in Africa when he was doing his musical anthropology, but also collecting stories. It's a song that the tortoise and the rabbit sing as they're on their way to the boiling pot to both get boiled and see who's lying, because the wife says "the best way of finding out which one of you lying is to test by boiling." And as they go to the boiling pot they sing this song, which basically means "boil boil water boil, let the liar be boiled," and that is what I'm singing in the chorus. The rabbit was lying basically; he was being a troublemaker. In the end he got boiled, so he got his just desserts.
And how does that tie into the rest of the lyrics in that song, like "we are both not enough, and too much"?
Well it's a lot to do with how honest we are with ourselves and the people we live with and work with, because we need to get real with each other and ourselves. Quite often you can trick yourself into thinking you are being truthful about a situation, or about how you feel what you are, but we have to check ourselves sometimes, if we're letting ourselves off the hook, or how honest we're being with ourselves and about ourselves.
Wow, tough. There's a lot of tough examinations on this album. One of the ones I want to talk about most is 'Riddled With Ticks' - I don't even know how to summarise this song, it's so desperate and violent, "I will fight you" you sing many times. Who or what is it about?
A friend of mine put it quite nicely recently, she was talking about the ticks as being emotional baggage. We sort of enter into these situations, or leave situations - in that song I picture people leaving a wood and heading onto this beach next to this wood... I feel like quite often when you're at a beach next to a wood you get a lot of ticks, so that was the sort of visual situation I had, but yeah ticks are emotional baggage, and it's about how we bring those to discussions and relationships, and how protective we feel about what we're willing to fight for in terms of honour and, again, honesty. Also there's a sort of sensation for me in that song that's linked a little bit to doing anything to protect your family as it were. If you're a bear with a bear cub, then you'll just do anything to make sure your bear cub is OK. But you don't know if you’re gonna succeed or not, so that's why the lyric at the core is "I will fight you will lose"; it's not clear if it's "I will fight - you will lose," or whether it's "I will fight you - and will lose." Does that make sense? It's not clear who's going to win or lose - it changes every day who wins and who loses.
In the next song 'Two Pence Piece' you're fighting again! Is that a form of expression?
It's not literal fisticuffs... but then it is as well... hmmmmm. I've been thinking about the word. It's funny because since writing this album I've been trying to avoid using the word "fight" because there's a lot of situations where we do have to fight for justice or peace or our rights, but I wish that there was a different word in our vocabulary - there probably is, I just need to learn it - that just means fight for your rights, but without it having the violent connotations. Because we're too easily fed into some sort of conflict these days I think, personally and politically. So it's nice to find other words than "fight," but I didn't manage that on this album, I just put "fight" in all over the place! [laughs] Because I guess when you feel threatened your porcupine quills do bristle, you brace yourself.
But you keep it playful by relating it to a two pence piece or using children's tales...
Yeah, exactly. I mean, split lips happen, whether it's intentional or not. You have to see the human side of everyone in the situation because you can't just do the "but sir! she started it!" thing [laughs].
'Show Me So' is probably one of the songs that didn't change from before the studio, since it's just guitar, I guess that's because it's the saddest song on the surface. And is it political in a way?
It is, but in a sort of afterthought way. When I sing it now it does make me think of a lot of stuff that's happening in the world, and the experiences that people have to go through, and people's lack of compassion - or excellent ability to be compassionate on the other side. It has sort of become that, even if my original seeds of the words were first to do with more firsthand personal experiences. I often find that I'll start a song writing about an encounter that I've had, and then afterwards I'll play it back and I'll be like "oh well this is obviously about the Second World War," or something. Not that I've written anything about the Second World War, but when you step back you can see that it is a smaller version of a bigger picture.
Let's go onto the last song, 'Solid Grease'. Glancing at the lyrics again I might actually say this is the saddest song on here - what do you think?
I don't think it's the saddest song, 'Show Me So' might be sadder. But again it's just kind of an acknowledgement of the stuff that people have to go through together and separately. I think there's a nice bit in Chronicles by Bob Dylan where he talks about what his grandma said to him once, and it's something like, the message was you can never know what people are struggling with in their own personal lives, we don't see behind whatever they present. You might think you know someone, see them every day, think they're doing fine and they function in life and everything's ok on the surface, but we never know what people are actually struggling with and carrying around with them in their own chest, in their own private lives. This song's a little bit like that, just acknowledging the fact that everyone struggles and carries their own stuff around and we have to remember that and not just assume that someone's being an arsehole for no reason.
That's a good way to end the album I guess.
Are you excited for this album to come out?
Yeah I'm really excited. I'm just so pleased with the experience. Making the album was a real pleasure, everyone involved in building it has just been great. And it's just exciting to be working with a new record label, meeting new people, trying some new stuff out that I haven't tried out before in terms of working. It's a time of exploration and learning new ways.
Has signing to Rough Trade made any difference to how you've gone about this?
Well yeah because there's just a bigger team now working on the project, and so there's a slight weight of responsibility. I feel a bit responsible for their work now. What I do and what I agreed to do, or would rather not do, directly affects how easy it is to do their job, or how they would like to be doing their job, so that is a new thing for me to learn about. I've got to learn not to get stressed by feeling responsible for people, and I've got to learn where my boundaries are in terms of things I feel OK about doing. Sometimes it takes me a long while to learn how to be OK about the tasks. But they've been great! just really understanding and kind and positive, it feels like the right match in terms of their vibe. It's good, really exciting.
Moonshine Freeze is out today on Rough Trade Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 19th July 2017.