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Thousand Yard Stare on Their First New Album in 27 Years

Unfinished Business

Apr 22, 2020 Thousand Yard Stare
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Slough. Home of popular British sitcom The Office, and also the place that gave birth to one of the most overlooked bands of the ’90s indie boom, Thousand Yard Stare. Having initially formed in 1989, the five-piece—Stephen Barnes (vocals), Giles Duffy (guitar), Kevin Moxon (guitar), Sean McDonough (bass), and Dominic Bostock (drums)—became one of the most coveted bands on the independent circuit.

Their first proper EP, entitled Weatherwatching, came out on their own Stifled Aardvark imprint the following November with another two critically acclaimed EPs (Keepsake and Seasonstream) eventually culminating in the band signing a deal with Polydor. Thousand Yard Stare’s first release on a major (the Comeuppance EP) saw them break the UK Top 40 singles chart with debut album Hands On coming hot on its tails in the early part of 1992.

The world was their oyster, and another album (Mappamundi) followed a year later. However, relations became strained between both band and label, and it wasn’t long after that Thousand Yard Stare called it a day.

Fast forward to 2015, the band reunited initially with the intention of playing one last farewell show. Nevertheless, buoyed by the rapturous reception from fans old and new, the five-some set about writing new material for the first time in a quarter of a century with three new compositions appearing on 2016’s Live At Electric Studios.

Two more EPs followed in 2017 (entitled StarGrazing and DeepDreaming respectively) and with the band’s creative spark reignited, work began on a long awaited third album. Now, 27 years after their last long player, The Panglossian Momentum is here. Comprised of nine songs that take the blueprint of their previous works to create something that’s both identifiable with Thousand Yard Stare’s past but also clearly of its time. The Panglossian Momentum is due out May 29 via Stifled Aardvark and might just be their finest collection to date, so Under the Radar got the lowdown on one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 2020 from singer Stephen Barnes and guitarist Giles Duffy.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): When the band got back together in 2015, did you ever foresee making another album?

Stephen Barnes: Absolutely not! Initially, I couldn’t see beyond the reunion gig at the Borderline, but that was such an overwhelming evening for all of us, we knew we had to carry on. However, it felt important even then that we didn’t just live in the past, it all felt very new again, and some new material would bring a freshness to proceedings, something to mark the band in the “now.”

When you started writing new material, did it occur to you that an album might eventually surface?

Stephen: I think it was always at the back of my mind, but only if the material was strong enough. It’s not like anyone had been waiting a quarter of a century for a new album! “It Sparks!” was the catalyst, from the minute Giles sent me the outline of the track, it felt like something that an album could be built around. Both of us were cautious on the LP idea at first, but as new demos emerged, a shape was developing, and it became a natural progression.

The eight songs that make up the StarGrazing and DeepDreaming EPs could almost have been an album in itself. What influenced your decision to release them as separate EPs instead?

Stephen: Referring back to that caution, I feel making an album is a big statement, a cornerstone in any band or artists’ canon, and we just weren’t ready to add that label to those songs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely proud of them—“Marginal Gains” is my favorite ever Thousand Yard Stare song—but these were our first steps back as a band. Also, EPs were always our favored format, and the songs fell perfectly into that vessel. Originally, we were going to release them separately, but as they were made at the same time, it just made sense to package them together. I guess those EPs paved the confidence to make The Panglossian Momentum.

When did you start writing for The Panglossian Momentum?

Stephen: Hmm, it’s hard to pin that down. I had a few demos from Giles that I was digging through, trying things out. But as with before, I guess we looked at it as a potential album project after finishing the demos for “It Sparks” and “Precious Pressures” around the end of 2018.

Did the title influence the songs and was there meant to be a running theme from the outset?

Stephen: The title came after. I was looking for something to summarize the themes of the record, but nothing really worked, so I decided to make something up! I thought The Panglossian Momentum sounded like a film title, or some far flung philosophy—it’s wilfully obtuse, pretentious, even—but also the perfect summary of the themes of working through life’s conundrums, when we are often armed only with naive optimism and a stiff upper lip.

Do you see the new album as a case of unfinished business, particularly after Mappamundi and the band’s subsequent break up?

Stephen: Absolutely. For me, that was the fuel. I genuinely don’t think I ever listened to Mappamundi as a finished album even back in 1993. It was a difficult time and we were on the verge of splitting up. It wasn’t until we reformed that I had the courage to listen to it as a record, and whilst far from perfect, it’s no way as bad as I thought it was! In fact, some of my favorite Thousand Yard Stare songs are on there. “What’s Your Level?” and “Tragedy No.6” are both live staples again now. But partly due to the circumstances surrounding the time it was made, and partly because I never felt we had the chance to really get it right, it did mean there was unfinished business, an itch that needed scratching. It’s clear now that Mappamundi is an important part of our story, and without leaving that itch, the new album would probably have never come to pass.

Giles Duffy: I share that perspective but I also just love writing and collaborating. I will always just be writing whether there’s an album to think about or not. Stephen is a good editor for me. At one point I was excited by something and he said “That’s basically the theme tune to an English rural detective series.” And it was. Quite a good theme tune to a rural English detective series, but…!

You’re releasing the album independently through Stifled Aardvark rather than working with a label. Was that decision influenced by your past experiences with Polydor?

Stephen: No, not really. The Polydor time was not a particularly bad experience. We were mainly left to our own devices anyway. I don’t think they really knew what to do with us. We weren’t the coolest, didn’t fit into any particular scene. We were the runts of the litter if you like. Independence suits us, and as we are now existing just for ourselves and those who want our music, there’s no need to add industry layers in. I think those who follow us appreciate that this comes with no spin, or fanfare. It’s just an honest record from an honest band.

Giles: There’s something lovely about just pleasing ourselves. The people that like it, find it. I’d rather be playing a packed Lexington than an arena any day.

Would you ever consider working with a major label again if the opportunity arose?

Stephen: A major wouldn’t touch us with a bargepole!

With The Panglossian Momentum you’ve taken complete control, from recording and production to marketing and distribution. Did you all have individual roles to play? Did it feel more organic having a greater degree of freedom?

Stephen: That’s been the main joy of it, the freedom. Not being beholden to anyone else. Plus, I’m a control freak plus I’ve worked in the industry ever since the band ended first time round, and kind of know the ropes. So it makes sense. It means a lot of work, but it’s our baby, so it’s joyous labor.

Giles: Yeah and we do all have roles to play in making Thousand Yard Stare what it is. Songs Stephen and I write come alive when the others get their fingerprints on them. That’s part of the joy of it. I mean, Dom [Bostock, drums] is an absolute WEAPON! When the real drums go on its always a bit magical.

Was it difficult to record with all of the band now based in various parts of the UK?

Stephen: Well, Giles and I write the songs, and with modern technology, it’s actually a lot easier. Giles would usually drop some demo ideas, then I’d add words and melody, and pass it back and forth until we have a strong demo. Then when we get to the studio, we have a salient structured track, and then Sean [McDonough, bass] and Dom weave their mojo and bring the rhythm to life. It’s easier now as me and Giles are both in a similar space musically, so the distance between us sonically is less, even if geographically, it’s greater. That said, I do miss just getting in a room, the five of us, and jamming things out. You can tell that much of our early stuff—“Wonderment,” “Keepsake,” and so on—were just the sound of five boys finding a groove. There’s something magic about that.

Giles: One of the joys for me is being able to write something pretty outside of the normal range of Thousand Yard Stare. I mean, I write constantly in all sorts of styles—and occasionally throw something at Stephen that’s really quite different, and then be surprised when he does something beautiful with it. “Cresta (Seachange)” and “Sense the Panacea” were very much like that. The latter started as a bit of eerie electronica. It’s also meant a very different sound world on this one—I can get obsessive with textures and sounds. I call it audio greebling and bring it to the studio. But yeah, the days when it was The Lilac Time vs. Ministry are long over, thankfully! Boy was I an angry 20-year-old!

Of the songs on the record, several mirror some of the songs from your back catalogue in style or structure, for example “It Sparks” has similarities to “Buttermouth” and “0-0 AET” with its anthemic chorus. While “Spandrels” could be a distant cousin of “Seasonstream,” “Schism Algorithm” in a similar vein to “Comeuppance,” and “A Thousand Yards (A Panglossian Momentum)” is a buoyant finale like “Wideshire” off the first record. Were you aware of the similarities at the time and was it deliberate?

Stephen: Not consciously. It was more of a realization afterwards, but I think I was always keen that the record didn’t feel detached from the previous ones. It needed to be a new member of the family, despite the 27-year gap. So maybe that seeped in subconsciously?

Giles: It’s a balance really. I could happily produce eight minutes of thumping repetitive techno but I don’t think our crowd would necessarily enjoy that. There’s a thread running through all of this in that I think we like to experiment—“Cresta (Seachange)” is musically oddbut we also love a good tune you can throw yourself around to. I really think we got that balance right on this one.

Quite a few of the songs on the album are personal to you [Stephen]. Were these written cathartically? Did they turn out to be cathartic in any way?

Stephen: Most of my previous lyrics have been outward observation. This time I wanted more self-analysis, and in that way, many of the songs are cathartic. As ever, they are clouded in imagery and double meaning. That way I hope others find their own conception within them. “A Thousand Yards (A Panglossian Momentum)” and “Spandrels” are the hardest songs I’ve ever written on an emotional level. They are very personal to me.

Will all of the new songs feature in the live set?

Stephen: It would be nice, but a couple of them will be hard to recreate, especially in our kind of high energy set. But at least four or five will slot in with ease alongside their older siblings.

Giles: I really, really love “Sense the Panacea” and I’d love to play it but I’ve no idea how right now.

Were there any other new songs written around this time that didn’t make the record? If so, will any of them be revisited in the future?

Stephen: Because we were writing with a specific album idea in mind, anything that didn’t have a purpose towards that goal has stayed at demo level. That said, we did record a ninth track called “Upping Sticks” in the album sessions. It’s as strong as anything on the album but unfortunately it just imbalanced it, so was left off. It’s a belter though, so I think we might release that at some point. Or it could provide the catalyst for a few more new tracks. Who knows!

Giles: Yeah, maybe an EP of harder more direct stuff like “Upping Sticks” would be fun. I just got my first fuzz pedal and it’s making me do things.

You’ve planned the album launch for Saturday, 30th May, but with the COVID-19 outbreak that looks unlikely to go ahead. With bands having to cancel shows and tours, festivals postponing and venues closing, what kind of lasting impact do you think the virus will have on the music and entertainment industries?

Stephen: As I still work in the industry and also teach Music Business at a University, I am seeing the impact from inside the eye of the storm. Most of my colleagues and friends work in the industry, many of them run small businesses so are self-employed and it is a very scary time for us all. However, it has been heartening to see how all these cottage industries are rallying around, trying to collectively find solutions, support each other, and try and weather the storm. And along with financial support from music institutions and trade bodies, and even some help from central government (for once) we can all bounce back. The wounds will be deep and take time to heal, but they will heal, and it is bringing out the best in (almost) everyone. It’s an incredible community.

Do you think a band like Thousand Yard Stare would enjoy the same level of recognition and success if starting out now as they did back in the early ’90s?

Stephen: Oh absolutely. We’d just make Trap music and I’d be a mumble rapper.

Giles: I’ve got folders of Trap tracks just waiting for some mumbling

If you had the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you’d change or do differently?

Stephen: Of course, there’s lots of things you might change—not signing to a major and staying more on an independent. Personally, being less impetuous, playing “the game” more, but it’s what it was. That’s how we were, so no, I wouldn’t change it. We were a gang, going our merry way, and for a time it was the best thing ever. I guess I only regret that we didn’t have the courage or foresight to slow down around Mappamundi—it had been such a whirlwind, and I for one, was mentally and physically exhausted. If we had taken more time—or actually took some time out—at that point, we may have survived. But we didn’t, and that’s just the way it is.

Giles: In retrospect I wish we’d taken a break, communicated better, and calmed down a bit. But five 20-somethings don’t do those things. I still think some of Mappamundi is cool though. I’d defend that record given what was going on around us at the time.

Hands On turns 30 soon. Will you be doing anything special to commemorate its anniversary?

Stephen: I’ll have a cup of tea.

Are there any plans for a fourth album?

Stephen: It’s already in the works, it’s Trap / Mumble Rap FIRE!

What’s been your highlight of the last five years since Thousand Yard Stare reformed?

Stephen: Oh, there’s many. The reunion gig was just a such a special evening, an explosion of pure joy. Playing the Roundhouse—my favorite London venue—supporting The House of Love, a personal dream. The recording of this album in the studio, hearing it come to life. Being with my old friends again, late night banter in Travelodge’s, reacquainting with so many old friends and fans, designing new artwork and T-shirts. All of it basically. It’s all one big highlight.

Giles: Obviously rekindling our relationships and hanging out with the band and the people that come to see us is just amazing. And the Travelodge banter too. But really, any gigs pretty much. I was playing at Shiiine On this year on a Sunday afternoon with my mates, going through a big old Marshall 4x12 and thought “this is SUCH a privilege.” That said, the Roundhouse was a corker. And the first one from what I remember of it!

www.thousandyardstare.co.uk

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Law dissertation
May 7th 2020
5:39am

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Law Dissertation
May 7th 2020
5:42am

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