I reached out to Flotation Toy Warning a few weeks ago and asked if I could get a short interview. Paul Carter (Lead Vocals, Sampler, Programming) and the band were kind enough to consider my request. The below interview turned out to be quite a revealing look at the toll that creating an album can take on the artists. Also, make sure you check out the excellent Headphone Approved new release from the band, The Machine That Made Us.
The Fire Note: It has been almost 13 years since Bluffer’s released. What took you so long?
Paul Carter: In finishing Bluffer’s, we fell out of love with the process of making music and out of love with each other. We are obsessive perfectionists who drive each other and ourselves to distraction. I do not think Ben or I had even a single evening off in the last 3 or 4 months of completing that album. We were always either making music, being at work or being asleep. This was following on from many months of working 7-day weeks with only the occasional day or evening off. To cap it all we had 14 days in a row of 12 hour days in the studio, transferring the songs onto tape from outdated digital desks (tricky when some of the songs had up to 70 tracks) then mixing them. Take it from us, that is enough to break even the strongest of friendships.
After touring the album through 2004 and 2005 whilst getting by rather than getting on, we then went off to hide and lick our wounds. I think we were all wary of each other and of making music together for a long time after. Just at the point that the creative urge was starting to override this and drag us back in for more, the children started arriving.
Suddenly all those weekends, evenings after work and holidays we used to use were booked up for something else. Sean at Talitres offered us enough of an advance to take some time off work in 2010/11 (I think!) to write. Ben and I wrote furiously and had demo versions of almost all the songs that made it onto the album, but then we ran out of time.
Sean loved the demos, but despite our best efforts, it all began to drift again as the only time that was not booked up was sleep time. Your partners can look after the kids alone and give you some time to write from time to time, but not every weekend. Not when it is not even bringing in a few pence to go towards the bills. That is just not fair.
In desperation, Sean offered us another advance in 2016. So it was last chance saloon. I always knew I couldn’t let go out of choice, but still, it was an intimidating decision as I knew just how much there was left to do and how little time there was in which to do it. My confidence in my own abilities is never that high, and after a long time out of the saddle, it was particularly low. However, such a big part of me would have had to die if I had walked away.
TFN: Was finally recording these tracks a cathartic experience?
Paul: Yes, and this time for a long time it enhanced our friendships instead of damaging them. It was wonderful to enjoy making music again. That said, these things always drag themselves out too long. The enjoyment of recording together in the studio ends and you move onto more mundane parts of the process. There is no ‘hurrah’ moment in finishing an album when you all hug then crack open the champagne. Instead, there are countless little endings – finishing the recording, finishing the mixing, finishing the mastering, and finishing the artwork. Then before you know it, videos are required yesterday and there are photo shoots etc. etc. etc. These things slowly grind your enthusiasm into the dust as the day job kicks back in too. However, our friendships were strong enough and healthy enough to see is through this time.
TFN: It seems there are some relationship issues that are prevalent throughout the album. Were there breakups and dissolved friendships involved in the creative process?
Paul: Not this time. Although some of the lyrics refer to what happened last time, but in a positive sense. The lyrics towards the end of ‘When The Boat Comes Inside Your House’ are about Ben and I rediscovering the special musical bond we have.
I have to play games with myself to write lyrics and put myself into imaginary situations then try to feel what it might be like. Other times it is about remembering what certain situations feel like then transferring them to a different setting. For example I have a very good relationship with my partner but to write I Quite Like It When He Sings I had to imagine how it would feel if it all went bad, and focus on all the things I will never be to her no matter how hard I might try. In terms of lyric writing skills, I guess you could argue this either way. Such intense feelings were immediate during the making of the first album, as I was much younger and not generally in a great place. Now life is much better but maybe the imagination needed to make yourself have those feelings then write them down is stronger. Everyone has bad days, so you have to turn a microscope on those.
That said, there is at times some tension in any collaborative creative process. There can be moments when a song is being pulled in five different directions by five individual opinions. The trick is to steer through this and leave everyone’s ego relatively unscathed. I think this is a skill we only really mastered this time round.
TFN: Can you give us a brief overview of the creative process of how you and Ben Clay wrote this album?
Paul: Ben was just as central as he has always been. Everyone in the band is important in creating the music, but the bedrock of that is mine and Ben’s ability to write together. Songs such as ‘King of Foxgloves’ and ‘When the Boat Comes Inside Your House’ are real 50/50 productions. I may start some of the songs by myself, but I never get too far until Ben gets involved. What we write individually tends to be far more one-dimensional. The real magic only starts when we are bouncing ideas off each other. I should add that all those wonderful guitars in ‘Due to Adverse Weather Conditions’ are from Ben and Nainesh working together. Nothing to do with me!
TFN: For each member: What artists have influenced you and contributed towards FTW’s music?
Vicky West (Keyboards, Sampler, Vocals): Brian Eno, Yo La Tengo, Damon Albarn, Grandaddy, Os Mutantes
Ben Clay (Guitar, Bass): Deus / Sparklehorse / Karen Dalton / Lou Reed / Kim Deal /Jeffrey Lee Pierce
Steve Swindon (Drums): Putting together drums and percussion for FTW songs is a real collaborative process. Often there are strong cores ideas from which to develop drum tracks and everyone has an instinct as to what will work. There is always space to try things and interpret the song but I would say the influences come from within the band rather than from other players.
Nainesh Shah (Guitar, Bass, Vocals): Although not limited to these they are certainly a big part of me. Early Human League i.e. Reproduction and Travelogue albums; Flaming Lips (I am a big fan of Dave Fridmann’s production style with Wayne Coyne’s creative songwriting; Velvet Underground (I love the way those luscious guitar and keyboard melodies work with each other).
Paul: Ennio Morricone, OMD, Leonard Cohen, Lee Hazlewood, Laibach, Lou Reed. Just lots of stuff beginning with ‘L’ really…but not Lindisfarne.
TFN: The album art looks great from what I can see on the website. Looks like it will rival the Bluffer’s reissue gatefold in terms of design. Who did the album’s art design?
Paul: Michael Byzewski from Aesthetic Apparatus did the album art. When we were looking for someone, I saw some of the Christian Fitness covers which we all really liked, so we got in touch. It is very loosely based upon an image I saw in an old science magazine about an exhibit in the great exhibition of 1851. I love what he has done. To me it has the warmth of feeling we are trying to convey in the music. Vicky West did the entire layout and designs to adapt the art for the different formats. She did all the design on Bluffer’s too. She’s very clever like that.
TFN: What format does the band prefer? Vinyl, CD, digital?
Vicky: I like CDs
Ben: VINYL of course!
Steve: Vinyl all the way!
Paul: It is boring, but I have never owned a turntable in the lifetime of Flotation Toy Warning. Therefore, I will have to say CD, but of course, the vinyl always looks so much more splendid.
Nainesh: Vinyl for always. There was a period in the mid to late 90s where I started buying CDs but have slowly started buying some of these back on vinyl. Recently I found myself doing this with the Spacemen 3 – Sound of Confusion; and with Mission of Burma – VS
TFN: Favorite track on the new album?
Steve: There are so many memories attached to recording these songs but a favorite is ‘Everything That is Difficult Will Come to an End’. The intro sections were recorded live at TAPE Community Music and Film (where Paul has been hiding in North Wales this last year and a half to finish lyrics) and the session was creative and sticks in my mind. Those moments are my most treasured around recording and I am back there every time I hear it. Same for ‘The Moongoose Analogue.’
Vicky: ‘Everything That is Difficult Will Come to an End’ and/or ‘Controlling the Sea’
Ben: ‘Due to Adverse Weather Conditions,’ ‘All of my Heroes Have Surrendered’, although I am most proud of ‘King of Foxgloves’ in terms of Paul and I as a writing partnership
Paul: ‘The Moongoose Analogue’. Your ultimate fantasy as a songwriter is to have the ability to reduce grown men and women to tears with the power of your music. I think this song is our deadliest weapon yet.
Nainesh: This is a difficult one but if I had to it would be – ‘Everything That is Difficult Will Come to an End.’
TFN: Is there a tour in the near future?
Paul: We will be playing in France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Switzerland in October. People often say ‘come to the USA/Japan/Mexico/Italy/Spain to play’. Believe me, we would love too! However, the word will have to spread a lot wider to make all of this remotely viable.
TFN: Will it take 13 more years for another album?
Paul: We hope not, but it all rather depends upon the circumstances. If this album does no better than the last and we all continue with our day jobs then it is not going to be easy. It was a strain on all of us, going for months on end without any kind of break with the added challenge of looking after young children. I had to put my partner and family through a lot to get this record finished. The financial impact of it will continue to affect us for a long time to come. This ain’t rock n roll, this is…economic reality.
TFN: Anything else you would like to add?
Paul: Yeah. I would like to thank everyone who waited so long for this record. We have had quite a few personal messages sent to us through Facebook saying the kindest of things about both records. It means a lot. Some people have even talked about how our music helped them through tough times. For us this is the ultimate compliment. It means the process of putting our thoughts and emotions into music has worked
Also, thanks to Sean Bouchard. Without his patience and belief there would be no new record. So if you like The Machine That Made Us, I guess you owe him one!
-Interview by Daniel Taylor