Three albums in, Newcastle’s Lanterns On The Lake were burnt out and needed a break. They return refreshed, leaner and not afraid to speak from the heart on their strongest record yet. Gary Walker hears why they’ve never been happier…
Rising waters, unhinged autocrats, fake news and in the final reckoning, a future civilisation carbon dating the whole sorry mess we’ve left behind. Lanterns On The Lake’s fourth album finds humanity at the precipice. Yet despite all the existential terror spilling from chief songwriter Hazel Wilde’s pen, Spook The Herd’s central question is “do I have hope?”. You bet she does.
While a concern for humanity has always coruscated through Lanterns’ dreamy post-rock vignettes, on Spook The Herd it’s overt, Wilde’s writing more direct than at any time since they formed in 2007 from the ashes of previous band Greenspace.
It was Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde, who discovered the band, his waning faith in British music restored by an early single he heard guesting on Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable radio show. Their 2011 debut album, Gracious Tide Take Me Home, showed promise. Two years and a line-up change later, Until The Colours Run was a huge leap forward. Its nine examinations of the minutiae of real life in England’s neglected towns swell with cinematic majesty and the influence of both one-time touring partners Explosions In The Sky and Raymonde’s Cocteau Twins.
“There’s always that hope,” Wilde tells us, sitting alongside guitarist and long-time partner Paul Gregory, cradling cups of tea. With Lanterns On The Lake, there’s always tea, too. “I think a lot of people, myself included, are guilty of being pessimistic, but deep down I think people hope things are going to change.
“We’ve never consciously made an effort to write about any particular subject and this album is more personal than anything, but huge world events affect you and that comes out through the songs. It’s looking at the world through a personal lens.”
The Newcastle band have, like the rest of us, been through the wringer since their last album, 2015’s moody, dark-hued Beings. Watching their beloved North East lead the way on the night Britain voted for Brexit, Trump assuming power and environmental destruction gathering pace, the band were exhausted. As Gregory puts it succintly, “the wheels were about to come off”.
When Lanterns played a homecoming gig at Newcastle’s Mining Institute in December 2016, it was the end of a tour that kicked off almost a year earlier at a celebratory show with Royal Northern Sinfonia in Gateshead’s cavernous steel-roofed Sage. The band’s glacial pop and widescreen atmospherics found a natural bedfellow with the orchestra. Three albums in, the world appeared to be stirring to their gauzy talents. A circuit of Europe and summer festival shows followed before a final UK lap left the band running on empty. It was time for a break. “There was an unspoken feeling that the wheels were about to come off,” says Gregory. “A lot has happened since we started, and there was this underlying feeling that we were a bit burnt out, so when we got back from tour it felt like a natural time to have a pause, but we didn’t intend it to be this long.
“The time off has been really good, as it meant we were able to spend quite a long time on this album. The last ones were always: finish the album, tour, come back, make another one… this two-year cycle.
“The last tour, I can honestly say was the most fun I’ve had in Lanterns, but when we got home it was slippers on, open the wine…”
That sense of fun spilled over into the sessions for Spook The Herd and the album is a leaner, more exhilarating listen as a result. Wilde had been writing in isolation, initially not intending her compositions to be taken on by the band. “I started the songs about three years ago,” she recalls. “I had four or five demoed in my phone, and I didn’t know what to do with them. Because Lanterns were on hiatus, I didn’t think they’d be Lanterns songs and that gave me the freedom to write whatever the fuck I wanted.
“I’d agreed to do a solo support slot with Mercury Rev, when I hadn’t finished any songs, to give myself a kick up the backside to finish some stuff. By the time I’d finished, we’d started the new Lanterns record.”
As soon as he heard those songs, Gregory wasn’t prepared to let them get away.
“The first songs I heard were Baddies, Every Atom and Before They Excavate, and I remember thinking, ‘We’re having them’,” he laughs. “‘Whatever you’ve got planned for them, we’ve got to have them’.”
Wilde, Gregory, drummer Ol Ketteringham, bassist Bob Allen and violinist Angela Chan regrouped at their rehearsal room beneath Newcastle art gallery The Biscuit Factory. What emerged was album opener When It All Comes True, a shimmering call to arms, Gregory’s majestic bowed Jazzmaster lead line soaring skywards. It’s stirring orchestral music played with guitars and at its denouement, Wilde is left declaring: “Through the searing heat and the empty streets, I’ll keep my word for you.” A few hours later, gathered around pints in the nearby artsy Ernest cafe bar, they knew they had the beginnings of album four.
“Funnily enough, the first song I had was When It All Comes True, and the last one that came was A Fitting End,” says Wilde. “When It All Comes True came together really nicely, we all went to the pub and we were buzzing. This was the new thing we were going to do…”
If Spook The Herd is a sobering plea for action, it also sees Wilde writing some of her most exalting lyrics. On swoonsome lead single Every Atom, she travels to the ends of the earth in search of a lost loved one; on climate change anthem Swimming Lessons, as the flood waters rise she gazes skywards to “Vincent’s starry night with the colour drained”. By the elegant end-of-the-world waltz Before They Excavate, she’s cooing over spectral piano: “Let’s take out every streetlight in London tonight and soak up the beating moon”.
It’s evocative stuff, but are they the best songs she’s written? “I don’t know…” she answers. “I’m always trying to work on my craft as a songwriter and after I’ve written something I’m focusing on the next one, so I try not to look back. When you write a song and get to that point where you find the perfect chord change or line that sums something up, you get this shiver down your spine, and I remember a lot of those moments writing this album, which is a good sign.”
With the first batch of songs complete, the biggest decision the rejuvenated Lanterns faced was employing a producer. Their first three albums were helmed by Gregory, whose day job is mixing other Bella Union artists’ albums. This time, though, they turned to Joss Worthington, setting up camp in a cottage next door to his Distant City Studios in the Yorkshire village of Ripponden. In idyllic quietude on the banks of the Ryburn, band and producer bonded quickly, aided by regular trips across the river to The Old Bridge Inn.
“Making this album has been a happy, exciting thing for us,” says Gregory. “People probably won’t get that from the subject matter, though…”
“Working with Joss was a breeze. I felt like I could do with some help and I wanted to concentrate on being the guitarist. Bringing Joss in was a bit daunting because it was the first time we’ve been in a studio with someone else, but he’s the nicest guy in the world, his studio is amazing and he has really similar tastes to us. And there was a pub next to the studio… which was 90 per cent of the reason for going there.
“He’s our man now. Every band needs a guy, or a girl. Joss is ours.”
By early 2019, Spook The Herd was finished. It was time for the hiatus to end. Well not quite. Gregory and Wilde found out they were expecting their first child, Alice, who happily gurgles away throughout our interview. They decided to wait a full 12 months to release the record. Did they fear delaying an album so inherently concerned with the current world might backfire? That they might miss their moment?
“You hope things are going to change,” says Wilde. “But then would the songs still be relevant? We weren’t selfish enough to hope that things would remain the same, and they’ve probably got worse if anything. Even if those situations had changed, there would still be a feeling of polarisation because none of the big solutions have been found and people are still at each other’s throats.”
Yet, while she tackles the urgent need for a response to the climate emergency, social media addiction and our splintering society head-on, did Wilde fear being met by compassion fatigue or written off as trite?
“I’m sure some people are bored of listening to that sort of thing,” she says, “but to be honest we’re four records in, I feel I can say what I want… we’re not trying to be preachy, and we don’t profess to have the answers. You have to stick with your gut feeling.”
Over the past decade, Lanterns On The Lake have had to stick with their gut feeling a lot. The music industry has changed enormously, with sales of physical formats plummeting and the emergence of streaming. It’s become a case of rolling with the punches. But they’ve survived, and the first singles from the album, Every Atom and Baddies, have had more radio airplay than any songs in the band’s career.
“We signed to Bella Union in 2010 and the first album came out in 2011, and that’s when things really started to change,” says Gregory. “There was lots of chatter when we were touring, bands that had been doing it longer than us were really worried about what was happening – record sales were dropping, streaming rates were going up. When our first album came out, nobody really streamed us. The second one was only two years later, and the difference was shocking. By the time Beings came out, even more so. It’s been a very interesting ride…”
“We’ve barely survived financially,” admits Wilde, who designs much of the band’s merch. “We rely heavily on that and people buying the albums and coming to the shows. Some of us have part-time jobs, some of us have full-time jobs, we try to make money any way we can… I try not to think about it too much. If you thought too much about the millions of streams and the 0.0001 pence we get per stream, it would be really disheartening, but the music we create itself wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have some of that struggle.”
It raises the question of what in 2020 represents success for a band such as Lanterns On The Lake. That question hanging momentarily in the air and the tea finished, Alice begins to get agitated, signalling the end of our interview nearing. “Making this album really has been the most fun we’ve ever had, and that’s partly because none of that stuff entered our heads,” says Gregory.
Wilde takes over: “If it reached an audience beyond what we normally reach, that would be a success. A huge thing when we talk about success is making a living out of music, but also in being proud of the records we make, and I already feel this album is a success because we all really love it, regardless of whether critics like it or people buy it. The record means a lot to us because of that.”