ASYLUMS (from l-r): Mike Webster (bass), Jazz Miell (guitar), Henry Tyler (drums), Luke Branch (vocals/guitar)
INTERVIEW by ZAK SLOMAN
From Essex, Asylums are an ambitious, fiercely-independent four-piece who specialise in a well-crafted, artistically-led alternative rock sound, which is accompanied by thought-provoking lyrical content that relates to a wide range of personal and contemporary political and social issues.
As well as focusing on their own development as a band, the Southend quartet also run a record label, Cool Thing, which supports and encourages emerging like-minded musical collectives.
I spoke to the outfit about all of this, and more, following their set at the recent Camden Rocks Festival, and here is what they had to say to me:
How did the band initially get together?
LUKE BRANCH (vocals/guitar): Basically, we were all in different bands, but in around 2013, they all came to a natural conclusion, for all sorts of different reasons. My granddad could see I was getting stressed out about it, so he gave me £1,000, and told me to keep pursuing my musical dream.
I then called Mike up, and asked him if he fancied working on some songs with me, then we called up Jazz about two weeks later, and then Henry after that. We went on to develop some material as duos, and then – I think it was around Christmas 2013 – we all got into a room, and started to jam on what we had been working on.
It just started like that, really. We didn’t go, “Let’s start a band! Let’s be the greatest!“, and I thank my granddad for giving me that money, because without that, I don’t know if we would have ever got off the ground.
How did the name Asylums come about?
LUKE: Many years ago, I used to play in a band with one of my best friends, and he said to me, “Fuck me, mate! We’re either going to end up living in mansions or asylums doing this!“, and as time went on, and that band finished, and so on, I was walking up a hill one day, and I thought, “Yeah, I think I’m ready to live in an asylum!” (laughs)
What would you say was your songwriting approach?
LUKE: Up until recently, we kind of had a factory line, as I would first work on a song by playing the piano or the guitar, and try and flesh out what I got from that as much as I possibly could, and then I would usually go to Jazz or Mike, who would then make their contribution, and whichever one of the two came next would then also contribute, with Henry usually being the last to contribute, and that seemed to be the way we always did it, and after that, we would add lyrics, chords, and melodies, and then record it.
However, with the album we’re working on at the moment – our third – we’ve tried a new approach. Rather than doing what we’ve done before, where we have all done stuff and sent it to one another, we’ve gone for a more collaborative process. I will play something I’ve come up with on the piano, and then Jazz will improvise on his guitar, and so on, so we’re still achieving pretty much the same thing, but it’s fresher, and it gives the record more of a flavour, so that’s something we’re getting rather excited about.
We had to do what we did before, mainly because of lack of time, so we had to be strict with ourselves, but now, we can be more relaxed.
What inspires the band lyrically?
MIKE WEBSTER (bass): Horror films.
LUKE: I read a quote somewhere recently from the author Martin Amis, who said, “Every line needs a minimum of elegance“, and I think I know what he means by that, because you have to set a bar for yourself lyrically, and words in general, as every line has to justify itself by being beautifully constructed, which is a hard thing to do, as you have to be conscious of the bar you set yourself, and it needs to feel right, as the feeling is more important than anything else, so you have to try to balance these two things, while also not diminishing the meaning of it, and that’s where the instinctive, playing together, drawing from the lyrics as you remember writing them rather than lifting them directly from the page, helps to bridge that gap.
In terms of inspiration, our lyrics can range from subjects such as gender politics, austerity, generational stereotyping, nostalgia, and even to a greater degree on our next record, the conflict between biological and genetic means of pro-creation against an increasingly right-wing world.
So far, you have brought out two albums, which were both very well-received. Honestly – especially in regards to your first album – did you ever expect it to get the response they got at all?
MIKE: We really didn’t expect anything, to be honest, because I think we were at a stage where we had been in separate bands, and we had decided to come together, and it was like, we decided from the very beginning that we wouldn’t go down the traditional route of working towards getting a deal with a major record label – any label in fact – and that’s why we decided to start our own one up, Cool Thing Records, so whenever we brought a record out, and it got great reviews, we felt better about it than how we would have felt had we released one through a label we had signed to, so the fact that we have been able to do that, as well as being able to sustain ourselves through Cool Thing, it’s been a fantastic journey for us, so far, and for us, over the past couple of years, it’s always been about the label, more so than ourselves, really.
On the subject of Cool Thing Records, a few other emerging talented outfits have been signed up, for example, Indian Queens were invited to play at the Meltdown festival in London when it was curated by The Cure frontman Robert Smith last year. That must have been quite an experience for them, as well as for you all.
MIKE: Indian Queens have a great agent, and they’re actually playing here tomorrow, but unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to see them. They are a great live band, they have a lot of talent, and they also work very hard, as do all of the other bands who are on the label, but yeah, Meltdown was a particular highlight for them, as well as for us.
MIKE: I mean it was a fantastic thing, as I saw The Cure‘s ‘Disintegration‘ performance at the Sydney Opera House the other day on YouTube, and it was really, really good. Did any of you guys see it at all?
JAZZ MIELL (guitar): Yeah, I did. I respect Robert and the rest of The Cure so much.
MIKE: They also tuned in on my favourite song of theirs, ‘Fascination Street‘, and when that came on, I was like, “Yeah!”
LUKE: Anyway, going back to your original question of did we ever expect the responses the albums got, I think – especially in the run-up to the first album coming out – we had given up using traditional methods, and we had all learnt the same lesson of – it this makes any sense – “All art is created for its own sake“, so there was really no point of us trying to second guess how well it was going to do on the radio, how it was going to be received by the press, and that helped to free us in a big way, because from there, we could just be as expressive, and have as much fun with it, as we wanted, and I think that was another reason why we started Cool Thing up, because we didn’t have to answer to anybody, so we felt we could take the piss, and be as anarchic as we liked, and that’s really how rock n’ roll should be.
It shouldn’t be about red carpets being rolled out, and musicians getting ideas above their stations, and unfortunately, those things have reduced the sentiment of the whole thing, I think.
You have just played a set here at Camden Rocks. How is the experience – for the band overall – of performing live?
JAZZ: Generally, for me, I try to embody what we try to do with the music, so the stage performance is like a physical representation of what is on our records, but every gig is different, I find, whether it’s the crowd, the venue, the weather, you never really know what’s going to happen on the day, so I think you owe it to the audience to produce a unique experience every time, as we can’t just stand there and not do much.
How was the band’s set today?
JAZZ: It was really good. We had a great time, and we really enjoyed ourselves. The venue we played (Fest) did a good job of looking after us, and every time we’ve played here at Camden Rocks has been a really good experience.
LUKE: We did our first gig here four years ago, at The Stables in Camden Market, and we tried something recently. We were mentally exhausted from the process of making music, don’t get us wrong, we still very much enjoyed it, but it was draining us mentally and physically, so we decided to take six months off playing live, and we used that time to re-focus our friendship and relationship with music, so today was the first time we had done a gig in six months.
The last one we played before then was at the Camden Assembly, but it honestly hasn’t felt like it has been six months, but we have used that time to re-adjust our personal lives, because I think it is important to do that, especially when it involves our mental health.
Even though mental health is now a very big topic, I still don’t think it’s discussed enough what a human being can take in terms of touring, making records, and promoting them, as I still think that there is a lot of pressure on an artist to compromise their mental health to a degree where maybe they start to feel that they are in a dark place.
That’s just my opinion, but I know from the experience that we are a hell of a lot better, a lot more creative, we have more music in the can, so I think our break was just our way of saying we needed a breather, which is something I would almost certainly recommend for anybody who is reaching a point where everything is becoming too much for them.
What are your plans for the near future? You earlier mentioned that you’re working on another album.
LUKE: Yeah, we are doing another album. We’re doing it in circumstances that we’re really excited about, but unfortunately, we can’t say too much in regards to that at the moment, but I think it would be something that people might be pleasantly surprised by.
We’re going to be making a documentary called ‘Join Us On The Small Wave‘, which will be about Cool Thing, and we have a wider agenda of getting three albums out by three of our acts on our label, so currently, the plan is to get out our next album, and I suppose the point of all that is really that we want to expose sustainability, an approach to existing in the arts with a message of positive mental health, community in the arts in a positive and stabilising feature of independent work.
THE THIRD ALBUM BY ASYLUMS WILL BE RELEASED SOON THROUGH COOL THING RECORDS, AND FURTHER INFO ON THE BAND CAN BE FOUND THROUGH THE FOLLOWING SITES: