Leeds is a graveyard. Here lies buried This Et Al, Immune, Forward Russia, Shut Your Eyes And You'll Burst In To Flames, Polaris and Wintermute in amongst many others. Grammatics were added to the list of casualties on Friday 20th August 2010, their name now etched in stone, and I'm left with the distinct feeling that we fucked this one up more royally than most...
Can you describe the Grammar events you used to put together in York? How important were they to the formation of the band?
Owen Brinley: Dom and I put on Grammar in York after seeing the kind of success PIGS had in Leeds. Dom grew up in York and we both have a lot of friends there, my old band Colour Of Fire were based there... I was the only person from Leeds in the band.
We'd go out in York and be baffled at how far behind things were in terms of musical tastes and fashion... it was like there hadn't been a gig since Spike Island! There was obviously an opening for a club that played stuff other than Shed Seven, The Stone Roses and Oasis so we exploited that.
Grammar was just a great bit of fun really, we had a very young and open-minded crowd who'd dance to whatever we'd play... mainly because we'd constantly beg the bouncers not to ID people. It was important to the formation of the band because it meant we had set times when we'd bond over music... Rory and Mike (of Wonderswan who was in Grammatics at that point) would come along and DJ too. We'd listen to promos we were sent from DJ plugging companies and be united in our disgust at 95% of them... they all sounded like shit Libertines or Arctic Monkeys and we were excited by idea of starting a band and doing something different.
In hindsight, do you think the name of the band was actually a hindrance? I sometimes wonder if people dismissed the band as being a little too clever.
I don't know to be honest, we never thought we'd become huge playing the kind of music we did in the first place... we set out to be purposely niche. There has always been a "If you don't like this, we don't give a fuck" kind of arrogance to the band, so people dismissing us was never a worry. The lion's share of our songs were too long to get anywhere near the radio, so the machine was kind of built to fail. Back then a lot of music was purposely dumb with comedy kitchen sink lyrics about chip shops and queues for nightclubs. I suppose we set ourselves up in polar opposition to this trend by calling ourselves Grammatics and concentrating on somewhat more transcendental themes... it was absolutely inevitable that it wouldn't go down too well with some people.
There look to have been a couple of line-up changes through the years. How did these affect the group's dynamics?
In both good and bad ways. The line-up we have now gets along with one another better than ever before but the tension we used to have definitely birthed some explosive performances. Grammatics has always been a stressful band to be honest but I'm sure most bands are the same. You're doing something that takes up all day every day and making no money at the level Grammatics are at, the only thing driving you is this weird blind passion.
Jumping forward somewhat, how did you feel at the time, and how do you feel now about your debut album? Was that the first time you had worked with James Kenosha?
It wasn't the first time we recorded with James, he's recorded everything we've ever released bar one song. There's been a certain symbiosis between my development as a songwriter and his as a producer and that has been a really enjoyable thing. I was very proud of the album when it was finished and still am to an extent... there are songs I don't love so much (like The Vague Archive) on there but overall I think we really pushed ourselves and it's a pretty grand statement. James has been the perfect producer for Grammatics as he let us push things further than most would and went above and beyond the call of duty to help us get there. He is a man of immense patience but also knows when to tell me when it's time to stop pushing for something unobtainable.
The reviews for the album were almost uniformly positive (score aggregator Metacritic assigns an average score of 73/100) yet sales were maybe not up to what was hoped for. Is the figure mentioned on Wikipedia about right (quote "Sadly, the album went on to sell less than 5000 copies")? The phrasing of that makes me laugh a little as 5000 seems like a pretty large number.
I don't know that we sold that many to be honest. I think we expected to sell more than we did after getting such good reviews. I think a problem was that the full album promos went out so far ahead of release. People had downloaded and digested the record by the time it hit the shelves.
Your recent interview in the Yorkshire Evening Post mentions illegal downloading and file sharing. Do you believe this had a substantially detrimental impact on copies sold? Where (both as artist and consumer) do you stand on the "free" content theory put forward by technophiles such as Chris Anderson?
I do believe that it had a substantially detrimental impact on sales, although I'm in no way saying we'd have been a huge band or anything of that ilk. The reason I think it had an impact on sales was the sheer amount of links to the album that could be found on forums and blogs around January 2009... it was ridiculous, you could download the album with one click in so many different places. People get moral about it and say, "Well, I'll still buy the album when it comes out" but then three months down the line for one reason or another most people don't... money is tight for most young people so why waste it on something you don't desperately need? Something more important than balancing out the karma of stealing from a group of young musicians will have come along, like a friend's birthday night out or something.
The most upsetting thing about it was the quality of the upload on some sites. We'd spent months making the album a thing of sonic beauty (in our opinion) and some fucker rips and uploads it at the poorest quality imaginable three months before release. People were saying "it's really badly mastered" when one of our objectives had been 'anti-loudness' - to have it very sympathetically mastered so it was a very dynamic and uncompressed record.
In regard to the ''free content'' theory, it's difficult to tell if this model can work for bands of Grammatics size. It's easy to give an album away if you're Radiohead and have a formidable management team behind you, as well as millions in the bank - risks can afford to be taken when you're in that position.
There needs to be a redressing of the balance in band's relationship with the people who consume their music, and if that means getting the album for free when you buy a t-shirt or gig ticket, then so be it. It's better that way than people just illegally downloading the album for free, at least the band gets something this way and can hopefully stay afloat. I just wonder how bands are supposed to make records in the first place... there will be a lot more rough and ready home recorded debut albums around and that could be a good thing in many cases.
Dance to the Radio looks to have provided a real boost to the local music scene. How did you get involved with them? I think I remember you supporting Forward Russia at Mine a while back - did you play together much?
We toured with Forward Russia back in the day, but I can't remember playing Mine... that may have been with The Futureheads. Dom used to work for Futuresound and I DJ'd at The Cockpit every Friday and Wednesday night, so there was already a strong bond between us and signing to them was the next natural step. They were the first label interested in us, even on the strength of our first Meanwood basement demo which, to quote a friend of mine, "sounds like it was recorded under a bed"! It was recorded with a couple of crap mics plugged straight into my 16 track.
You also looked to receive support from some fairly major players in the UK indie scene such as Bloc Party. Do you think that somehow Grammatics became more of a musicians' band?
I've never thought of that but it's possible. There's definitely a strong other-band contingent whenever we play certain cities. Bloc Party have been great to us, they made sure we could do the Bloctober tour without tour support by giving us higher-than-average fees (for a supporting band) and chose us as their only support despite the inevitable pressures to take other bands. The whole month was such a pleasure and I feel very lucky to have been given that chance.
When I looked through the previous articles and reviews on LMS I was surprised to see that there didn't seem to be any previous interviews and although the review scores were good, they weren't outstanding. Do you feel that you got enough backing locally? By the look of it, the album wasn't reviewed on here for some reason or other.
Hahaha, we used to joke that LMS would do anything to avoid giving us a great review! We always seemed to get a bit of a tough ride...
I think we've had a great backing locally, especially from the other bands that we've gigged with over the years who've constantly supported and helped us out like These Monsters, Pulled Apart By Horses, Lone Wolf, Blue Roses, Forward Russia, This Et Al etc. Though in terms of people turning up to our gigs, we do a lot better outside of Leeds for some reason.
Can you put some more detail around the circumstances of the split? I know there has been mention of unpaid bills that you were not aware of mounting up.
This has been a major factor. Basically, we had a past manager who was very careless with the paying off of mounting invoices and after they fled their role, invoices we had no idea about came flying in. We've been working for the past year in order to pay back the money we owe to people and this has meant we've not been able to take a penny for ourselves, despite that being in this band has been a full time job. This has caused inevitable pressures to the point where members said 'This is impossible, I have no money to live and no time to get a job'. If it wasn't for the efforts of people like Pete Flinton (our sound engineer and tour manager who has helped us plan ways out of some really bad financial situations) things could have been a lot worse and we could have had our possessions/gear repossessed by a collections agency. One company we owed money too was threatening this until we put the Pledge plan in place and proved we could raise the money to eventually pay them back. Another person to thank is Simon from iLiKETRAiNS who pointed me toward the
Money wasn't the only issue involved in the split, things haven't gelled as well as they could have over the last year for one reason or another, although the financial strain may have been at the source. Our current drummer James is living in London and Rory wants to be there too. He's been in Grammatics since he was 16 and understandably wants to go do new things.
That would have left me as the only original member, and the essence of the band lost. It kind of left me with two options - look like a crazed Mark E Smith/Axl Rose style character and just blindly continue with this project with yet more new members or do something fresh and new. The latter appealed more, even though the band has only released one full album there are a lot of Grammatics songs out there, especially when you take the EPs and one off singles we've released. I think I may have said enough with Grammatics music and I don't want to release anything stale or get in to a comfort zone with my writing. It feels like the right time to move on.
Recently you've hooked up with Pledge Music in order to raise the money to record and release the songs you had been writing in preparation for another album. Can you tell us a little more about some of the more irregular items for sale? For example when offering to play in someone's front room are you not scared of what you might find?
Not at all, we love doing that kind of thing... we played in a fan's garden last summer for their daughter's birthday. Any gig situation outside of a normal venue is usually fun and our fans have always turned out to be really overly nice and accommodating people. I think that is why the Pledge has been such a success - although we're not a big band, people appreciate that we've dared to be different and have made music to suit their tastes... we've always been presented with great devotion and appreciation from the people who really love the band and that has made it all worth while.
The 'irregular items' for sale are the kinds of things bands are encouraged to sell on Pledge... I suppose it's tapping into the devoted fan's desire to have material souvenirs of their favourite bands. You always hear of people buying handwritten lyric sheets of famous songs at auctions for hundreds of thousands and this is the same, although to a much lesser extent and the funds are used to do something productive, like make a record. The fan has therefore both bought a memento of the band and helped the band raise the funds to go and make a recording. They are given the chance to be part of the project and that is the draw.
One of the positive things about it is that it is a good measure of a band's audience, if you don't hit your target no money is taken. I feel that the amount of money spent on the production of an album / EP should be in correlation with the demand for it. What's the point in a major label spending 100 grand on a record that stiffs because the band has no fans!? Labels need to spend accordingly if they are to survive.
Do you feel this may form the basis of a new wave of rock memorabilia with the progressive shift away from physical music formats such as the 7"?
Maybe so, if people aren't collecting records what will people fill their rooms with!? What will people own? My shelves are full of CDs and vinyl, but if your music collection is all on a laptop then you may want other music memorabilia to display on your shelves such as iLiKETRAiNS' broken delay pedals!
The new songs you played at York sound fantastic. Will it not be frustrating not to get the chance to play them live afterwards?
Well, no, because we've been playing them on our farewell tour and at all the dates we've done this year.
But doesn't an audience that knows the material provide a different kind of response, kind of like a feedback loop? With the theatre for example the performance is often affected by reaction. These songs will never be sung back to you as a band.
That is very true but there is also an opposite force at work here - if the crowd don't know a song then the band do their very best to put it across to them and drill it into their heads... that extra bit of effort goes into the performance. Hearing a song live for the first time can be an awe inspiring experience if a band really pulls it off.
It is slightly weird doing a farewell tour and playing three or four new songs a night. We've had to find this strange balance of not crowding the set with new stuff (for the sake of the people who want to hear the old songs one last time) whilst ensuring that the new songs are performed live because they never will be again. It's really cool that the fans have been so sympathetic to this.
Are there any clauses that would stop the band reforming in another guise? You're probably well aware of the resurrection of Parva as Kaiser Chiefs for example.
I don't think that will happen. I'm not saying that certain members of the band will never play together again in the future at some point, but the name change with same band members thing isn't really our style.
At the York gig Rory alluded to the fact that all your equipment is on the verge of collapse. Your website seems to have been taken down lately, what's the story behind that?
We were just too slack to keep it updated or pay for the domain. Bands are now expected to kind of self-market themselves and constantly communicate with their fans online. We've never been very good at this, we'd rather be out having a drink than sat on MySpace. It's got to the point where you've got a MySpace Page, an official website, a Bebo page, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a band email account and countless other things to keep updated. Is there any time left to think about plugging in your guitar and writing something new? It's a drain of intellectual energy, there are too many things to keep up with that crowd your mind and get in the way of being creative.
In terms of equipment, everything has always been broken. Lots of bands in Leeds have been so generous in lending us things.
We've not made things easy for ourselves on stage and only have ourselves to blame when things play up. We've always used cheap children's instruments live that quite simply are not built for the rigours of the road.
You are listed to play solo on the Sunday of the Play Patterns festival at The Well, do you think this could be your next musical opportunity or are you looking to put together another band?
This definitely won't be my next musical project's debut show, so to speak, it'll just be me and an acoustic guitar playing a few Grammatics songs and a few others... I might ask Lins to play too. I was offered the chance to play and a lot of my friends are playing that day. I enjoy playing the odd acoustic set and it's good to keep playing live in some shape or form.
I don't know if I'm looking to start another band yet, it's still too early to tell as Grammatics is still taking up most of each day. I'll need to wait for that gap in my life to appear when the band is over before I decide what to do. There will definitely be something, I just don't know what it will be yet.
In terms of a legacy, what do you think the tracks are that best represent Grammatics?
Inkjet Lakes, Shadow Committee, Swan Song, Relentless Fours, Stalinesque and Cedars-Sinai (the last two are from the new EP).
Have you thought much about exactly the way you want it to end? Have you been studying Jay Z's Black Album and The Band's Last Waltz DVD?
I just want to enjoy playing the songs on stage at immense volume one more time and enjoy it to the full. I'm proud of the EP and am pleased that we've called it a day at what is arguably a creative peak rather than slowly letting things decline. I just hope people love the EP. The album took 5 months and we only had 5 days to record the EP but I think we've done a great job in quite bizarre circumstances. It's weird to be recording something with a band you know is on the verge of splitting but I'm glad we did it this way rather than everything just coming to an abrupt halt.
Grammatics played their last show with Blue Roses and These Monsters on Friday 20th August at The Brudenell Social Club in Hyde Park, Leeds. To date there has been no gig review published on Leeds Music Scene. Tickets were available to purchase on the door.
"Sulphur, burning amber, driving under golden twilight / Rising, sleeping, walking, never waking, fast asleep"