Glass Animals at SXSW. Photos: Joy Shi
We were introduced to Glass Animals by way of "Black Mambo" and "Psylla,” deceptively simple tracks dipped in sly, shivery beats that snaked over velvety, R&B-infused melodies. At the time, we believed the band comprised a female singer and a band styled like the Roots - clad in all black, coolly rocking out. Part of Glass Animals’ charm is that when you discover they are neither female nor a roots jam group, who they actually are is just as intriguing.
Since their shy emergence on the internet, the Oxford quartet have been fiddling with and dialing out their sound, inching it into new corners on each new track. With “Woozy," they took drowsy drums and a female voice (belonging to rapper Jean Deaux) for a jazzed-out spin; on "Gooey" they mused over peanut butter eyes and summer smiles while playing back a sea of rustling, hazy beats.
Altogether, the group preaches a torrid uncharted minimalism rooted in the streets of urban city life. At the same time, Glass Animals are darkly, wonderfully nomadic, as if you could stumble on their music in the jungles of a remote island and be totally unsurprised. Their latest offering, the Psylla EP released last November, oozes of balmy synthesizers and sumptuous grooves, funneled through a sieve of hip-hop and percolating urban beats. (A good snapshot comparison is the Flying Lotus song "Melt," whose jungle-invoking vibes approximate their humidity well.) Glass Animals are evidently inspired by eons of evolutionary world music.
Following a recent tour with St. Vincent, the group have been busy sending out tracks to various rappers and musicians online, resulting in a number of collaborations. That most recent return is the reverent, lingering slow-burn "Holiest," featuring the Brooklyn-based singer Tei-Shi. (Listen below)
We caught up with Glass Animals at this year's SXSW, the group's first, where we confirmed they were, in fact, four men from Oxford, and where they spent an impressive amount of time laying down tracks with collaborators in the flesh, including Ones To Watch local favorite Moses Sumney. With an upcoming EP on April 8 and a debut album ZABA due out this June, right now is the perfect time to get to know Glass Animals. Read on below for our interview.
Ones To Watch: Do you see yourself moving more towards the hip-hop/urban scene and working with rappers?
Dave Bayley We've worked with rappers before. On our last EP we had a rapper do a track with us [Jean Deaux - "Woozy"]. And yeah, coming soon actually we just did another track with Chester Watson. He's pretty unknown, but I think he's gonna do some really cool shit soon. He's like - I think he may have done stuff with [MF] Doom. So yeah, we'll see what happens.
Of what little information I could dig up on you guys, I know someone was in med school.
Where were you studying?
D.B. In London. I've dropped out now. My mum's not very happy…but she'll get over it. And I'm having a freaking sweet time, so no regrets.
What year did you find everyone and start making music?
D.B. Well I found all these guys when I moved to the UK from America. I was about 13 or 14. Yeah, they were just the first people I met in school, best friends in school.
What kind of 13 year olds were you all when you first met?
D.B. We were quite weird, I think.
Joe Seaward We used to smoke a lot of pot.
D.B. Yeah I remember what they used to call us in school: "the wild indie kids."
J.S. Really? I thought we were called the pot heads.
D.B. The teachers called us the pot heads. We used to sneak out of school and go see gigs. Yeah - we were a bit cheeky. We didn't go to school that often.
How did Glass Animals start?
D.B. The first EP came out about two years ago, and a year before that I started writing stuff late at night in my room. I don't sleep very much and I had some spare time just to experiment.
Are you a night owl or did you have insomnia because of med school?
D.B. The second one… I had so much shit to do in med school, and so many patients to look after.
What stage were you at?
I've got a degree in neuroscience and one year of clinical medicine. And yeah, I really, really liked it and I loved to meet the patients but medicine is run very badly in the UK. The whole medical profession, the way the NHS runs it, is just very disorganized. It's run by administrators; you get to meet the patients for about seven minutes each. And it's not any better than a desk job, as far as I was concerned. So I started looking for other jobs and I found music.
So had you all been musicians before that working on other projects?
J.S. It's the first thing we've ever done - for all of us. First band.
How would you describe Glass Animals?
J.S. It's like me asking you to describe your face. It's kind of hard; it's just yours. It's got a nose and eyes. I think we are just trying to make music we really love, and draw influences from music that we love and listen to when we're not making music. And so I guess the bits you hear in G.A. are bits from other music that we like and try to fuse into our own version of it.
D.B. Some Canadian guy described us as four white kids playing Dr. Dre., which was quite funny. Which is really cool - we love Dre. And yeah, it just sounds like us, I hope.
So besides Dre, are there any big influences collectively that you listen to as a band?
J.S. Drew and Dave are really into some old stuff like Can, and — who else.
D.B. I really love American music - all good hip-hop comes from the United States. So I'd love to move to New York, 'cause it's such a cool city. Yeah I listen to a lot of Can and used to listen to a lot of Pink Floyd. Listen to a lot of old soul as well: Nina Simone, a lot of Otis Redding, that's where a lot of the songwriting comes. A lot of hip-hop…especially nineties hip-hop. We have a tradition: we always listen to Kendrick in the tour van. A lot of electronic dance music producers. Lot of Caribou and Four Tet, Burial.
J.S. And people like Flying Lotus. There's also a band called Empress Of who we saw here - they're amazing live. They're really cool. So yeah quite a broad range of stuff.
Everyone’s process is different: how do you guys write?
D.B. Normally it's like the babies, the baby ideas. I'll wake up in the middle of the night, normally. And it's usually a tune, or a melody or some chords and I'll have it. And I'll wake up and it'll be in my head, and I'll be like shit I need to get back to sleep. But I'll have to sit up, get my guitar out, and record everything. And I'll spend the whole night putting the ideas down. And get a kind of sound, like a production sound and aesthetic for the song and maybe start the lyrics. Yeah and then when it's in kind of demo form we'll get together as a group and start tweaking it and working on it.
Tell me about your song Psylla. I loved the Wikipedia entry for it.
D.B. The thing is the name is totally unrelated to whatever it means on Wikipedia, it was a total accident. Yeah, I think I wrote down what I thought I wanted the name to be, but I couldn't really read it. But it looked like Psylla, so I just kept it. Normally I try to come up with lyrics after I have the melody, and normally that leaves the title last.
I really love the artwork on your music as well. Who does that?
D.B. Me. I've done about half of them. I didn't set off to be an artist really. But it's really because we didn't have any money to pay someone to do it, someone had to do something.Yeah; really, it’s like some weird hand drawings. I'm really into patterns and colorscapes and things so I was doing it in Photoshop, and would draw something and take photos of things I liked, kind of like the colors of everything. And you layer it all up and you get weird textures. So yeah, Photoshop.
What's your take on SXSW. There's the whole corporate sponsorship and terrible lines, but there's also the aspect of discovery — which is made hard by the exclusivity of some events.
J.S. Yeah, sure. It's quite a strange amalgamation of people and ideas. I'd say I really like the concept of it - you know the center of a city shut down for small bands to come play but yeah. It's hard for us because I don't know who's really in the crowd. I don't know who the people are. I hope some of them are really cool, normal people who like to listen to music, but I know a lot of them are industry people.
D.B. It's also a really good chance for us to see new artists and work with them. We've been working with some, we've found some new people who really like and have been putting tracks down with them.
Who are you collaborating with that you've found at SXSW?
D.B. We found this guy Moses Sumney. He's got the most delicious voice, it's melting honey. So we got to the studio the other day. And we played him some tunes and he was like, "Yeah - feelin' this; feelin' this. I'm doing something on this." And he got a mic out and sang on it. So hopefully we'll release some of this shit at some point. We knew there were going to be people we wanted to work with so our label helped us.
How about your record, where is your progress on that?
D.B. We finished it. It's all done, we're just gonna wait for a bit - not listen to it for a while then wait a few weeks and make sure we like it.
And what's your plan after SXSW?
J.S. We fly to the UK after SXSW and then going to Australia - we're playing a few shows out there for a couple of weeks. Then hopefully back to America at some point.
D.B. Lots of touring.