Interview : The Electric Soft Parade

It has been an unpredictable couple of years for brothers Alex and Thomas White, filled with frightening lows and empowering highs.  They have been trying to produce a new album under their joint name Electric Soft Parade for the first time since 2013’s “IDIOTS”, which this time has entailed financing it using a crowdfunding website, which frustratingly was criminally mis-managed to the point of liquidation, leaving every artist who had reached their target (at which point all payments are made by the fans) without a single penny.  Miraculously Alex and Thomas managed to still record the new album despite this lost investment and it is due for release in January 2020.

The pre release orders for the album ‘Stages’ are now being managed locally by cutting out the middle man using Chord Orchard on Bandcamp’s fantastic rock solid store front platform.  You can now order digital download, CD and vinyl by visiting HERE

Electric Soft Parade are renowned for not granting interviews, so I am thrilled to be able to bring you my conversations with both Alex and Thomas as they look back at their career, their songwriting and their new album, which judging by the pre-release track ‘Roles Reversed’ made available recently, will be their finest work yet.  Thomas has described his brother’s songwriting and album concept as “..an extremely generous thing, to go into your experiences and feelings and come back from that place and make art with it and send it out into the world.  Generous and brave.” 

Enjoy this comprehensive journey into the inner workings of two consistently brilliant and original artists and get your orders in now.

Do you feel that the hype and success of ‘Holes in the Wall’ in 2002 helped or hindered the rest of your music career?

Thomas: It obviously gave us a huge start – a baptism of fire, pretty much.  Looking back, we were just so young, and did a lot of the stuff other bands do but in reverse.  We’d never toured before we got signed, so we did a lot of learning along the way.  Brakes was really important for us in that regard, too.  With ESP we went straight into having road managers and tour buses and all that stuff – with Brakes we sort of learnt from the ground up, doing a lot of the on-the-road stuff ourselves, selling merch, lugging gear, logistical stuff.

Do you prefer the freedom of looking after your own affairs now, or do you feel weighed down having to be artist and businessmen and road manager, all at the same time?

Thomas: There’s obviously pros and cons to both ways of running a group.  With a label and the whole “team” that galvanises around a record, obviously there’s a shared sense of this thing coming out into the world, and you’re invariably swept along in that.  When you’re self-releasing or doing it as a cottage-industry thing, the work load can be more intense, especially around a release, but you’re also at your own mercy creatively – another potential positive/negative.  You’re in control of where the thing is going, completely.  One of the big hurdles of working with any label for us has always been the issue of creative control.  We do not, and never did, trust or particularly value the input of anyone outside of the studio.  Our view has always been that it is not their world, just as we wouldn’t barge into an office and pretend to understand a spreadsheet.

In an interview supporting the ‘Idiots’ release you said to Helium regarding your mindset whilst producing the album: “I think we put a lot of thought into who likes the band, what they like about us and what our strengths are” as if you were catering for your audience – this new album seems more personal so was ‘Stages’ made with an audience in mind at all?

Thomas: At that time we did.  We’d been encouraged to look at our audience, and perhaps to reconnect with those that had liked the group early on.  Not that ‘IDIOTS’ was entirely an exercise in that.  It wasn’t.  But, in making the record we did consciously look back and consider those things.  It was also largely written by me, so I can go out and say the record was much like most records that get made these days – not a deep concept or anything, just a collection of a writer’s best current songs, sort of bunged together and dressed up like an “album”.  ‘Stages’, on the other hand, is completely from Al.  

He wrote the entire thing, and there is a deep, strong current flowing through the whole thing.  It was written in response to, or in an attempt to process or understand, grief.  It’s an incredibly deep record, one that I’m sort of constantly surprised and overwhelmed by.  It’s an important record, possibly the most important that we’ve ever made.  I think absolutely anyone who has ever known grief or had to deal with it or work through it, should hear it.  It comes from a dark or difficult place but offers so much light, and that is a beautiful gift to give the world.  The word that keeps coming up for me is generosity.  It’s an extremely generous thing to go into your experiences and feelings and come back from that place and make art with it and send it out into the world.  Generous and brave. 

You have described your music as “upbeat, poppy music with this sucker punch of melancholia”, which I would say neatly described the music of Elliott Smith too (and I know you covered his beautiful ‘Happiness’).  Was he an influence and if not, are there any artists who inspire you?

Thomas: Elliott Smith was and remains a huge influence, yes.  Especially the big three – ‘XO’, ‘Either/Or’ and ‘Figure 8’.  I love that you can chart that growth as an artist so clearly through his albums – as he progresses and his writing sort of unfurls itself, he simultaneously stretches himself out in the studio and just gets better and better at every aspect of the whole thing. 

I understand you write a lot of the time and have other side projects too, yet ESP albums come out very sporadically.  Does this mean you have a vault of unreleased music like Prince did, or a box of hand written lyrics and chord shapes?

Thomas: Not so much a box of hand-written stuff, but yes there’s reams of unreleased stuff sat on laptops and hard drives.  I try to release pretty much everything I spend any massive amount of time on though, much of which is up on the Chord Orchard page online – The Fiction Aisle, Black Bunny, my solo stuff.  But yeah, invariably some things never find a home, and there is a big pile of stuff which to this day remains unreleased…

Now we must talk about Pledgemusic.  For those who aren’t aware ESP set up their Pledge page in the spring of 2018, by October 2018 they reached their goal and all pledges were honoured and payments sent to Pledge (I know because I was a pledger).  Then in 2019 it was revealed Pledgemusic were not forwarding money to the artists and not refunding any money to their customers either.  Each pledger lost a few pounds but it left many artists with no money to make their albums.  Pledgemusic are currently in liquidation with no assets being passed on.

Amazingly ESP have managed to produce the album they wanted, but clearly all pledgers who weren’t able to get refunds will have to buy the album over again.  ESP have been transparent about the issues facing them and their fans the whole way through this disaster, but clearly the financial side of production has been upset by the mismanagement at Pledgemusic.

Did you think at the time Pledgemusic stopped releasing the money due to artists, that there was no way the album could be made?

Thomas: We don’t really want to discuss that episode, as for us it was extremely toxic and almost completely derailed the project.  We will say however, that the unerring support we’ve felt from our fans around the world has been extremely grounding for us, through days where we truly wondered if we could summon the energy or goodwill to push forward and finish this record.  One man’s greed precipitated almost total destruction of another’s art, and that is a  tragic fact of the modern world.  While we lost nearly £15,000 (none of which we saw), other groups had invested huge amounts in merchandise and manufacturing/touring costs, so while on the face of it we lost a huge amount that we had mentally allocated for finishing and manufacturing the record, other groups had already gone into manufacturing and were hit extremely hard.  Every fan who pledged money is also out of pocket individually to the tune of £10 and upwards.  It was a total scam.  And Pledge being a limited company, of course nobody is personally liable.  We never heard from Pledge personally regarding anything that went down.  I tried to contact them myself, and never got a single straight answer.  Not so much as an email or a phone call.

Did the original songs change much once Thomas became a part of the arrangement and production process?

Alex: To an extent, yes: very much.  The songs were written by myself a good while back, and originally intended for a new project altogether, which was played live and then recorded by a whole new band, which I called Interlocutor.  Following this, and having failed to find a home for this new project, or a way to release it, it went on the shelf for a period.  Tom suggested we put a new ESP record together, and then at some point realised we could use these songs and repurpose them to more of an ESP feel and style. 

Ironically, although the first new demo versions sounded very different, the final product is more in line with the original sound I had envisaged, although in far better quality and iteration, I would suggest.  It was always an ‘ESP project’ in many ways, and we realised that, and put it together accordingly.  But it’s safe to say the material is the most well-realised and, in my view, as perfect as it could be in this new form, and Tom has absolutely nailed it.  It’s not often one gets to complete an entire record twice: to get a second go.  I hugely appreciate the opportunity of doing so, and I believe we’ve done good work. 

Was self-producing ‘Stages’ a financial necessity or a purely artistic decision?

Alex: Frankly, although having worked with some world class producers and engineers over our career, we’ve always been extremely hands-on, especially at the mixing stage.  Our last album with Chris Hughes and Mark Frithwas a very collaborative effort sonically, and before that we had recorded an E.P. which was basically self-recorded, in the sense that our bass player Matthew Twaites (himself a professional engineer and producer) recorded it, and we worked out of the Levellers’ Metway studio in Brighton. 

With ‘Stages’, we really had zero budget, so we took complete control of it ourselves, called in some favours, worked on downtime, etc. and just generally did it all ourselves, with Matt engineering the drum sounds, Tom engineering the vocal sessions, Matt coming in for mixing, then final tweaks by ourselves, and mastering by our friend Andy in Brighton.  It’s been a hodge-podge of recording really, but hopefully the result is impressive and can stand against any of our other records, some of which for some reason cost over £100,000!  So, yes it was done like this for reasons of budgetary constraint, but also enabled us to retain absolute artistic control. 

As a home studio producer myself, can you satisfy my geeky tendencies and give us a rundown of the set up you used for this recording regarding DAW and outboard, as I guess purely analogue was beyond the budget you had set yourselves?

Alex: Indeed. We used Logic Pro X, as it was the easiest thing to swap between sessions and pass mixes back and forth, etc.  Logic has many great plugins anyway, but Matt flew some in. There’s some Kemper guitars on there, and I bought a new keyboard, a Kurzweil SP6, recently, so that’s on there a bunch.  We just kind of used what was to hand really.  The story of the album is all true, and all from our experiences, so the sound is intended to be quite natural, and not too ‘produced’.  Beyond that, you’d have to speak to Matt and get him to explain his mercurial skills.

You mention another album is due out in 2020 – ‘Avenue Dot’ – was this recorded simultaneously with ‘Stages’ or is totally separate?

Alex: This is a separate project entirely, although we see it as kind of a sister record to ‘Stages’.  In May of this year, I was house-sitting for a friend, and rather randomly and accidentally just came up with it all in a week.  Again, it was originally intended as a solo piece of work, but quite quickly we fell in love with the idea of it as an ESP record, and thought: ‘why not?!’  The way I see it, if ‘Stages’ is a roadmap for grief, ‘Avenue Dot’ is a roadmap for depression, or rather overcoming depression, feeling good about oneself, practicing mindfulness, self-love, etc.  A happier, more positive, more forward thinking set of songs; although there are tunes about the insignificance of life, death, a plane crash, losing a friend, and not getting what you want.  But, generally, it’s more upbeat.

I once wrote that your songs are like a Coen Brothers film, in that you never know what is going to happen next.  Have you continued that style of writing on the new songs?

Alex:  Well, that is high praise indeed, thank you.  May I take the film comparison and suggest Tarantino as a reference, in the same manner:  his view of his own work is that it is genre-based, but genre-aware:  there are real consequences for all this trope-ish, ‘genre’ action; for example in ‘Reservoir Dogs’, it’s a heist movie with no heist shown, and also his protagonist is shot, and rather than cutting away we just see him bleed out in real time.  Consequences. It’s that ‘reality’ coming to a world where normally we are allowed to pretend consequences don’t exist.  It’s sort of having it both ways.  I don’t know if that answers your point really. I’ve always thought we’re a “bog-standard indie” band (NME) but more interesting than that description would have you believe.  A left turn here and there is useful.  But really, the answer is we don’t think too hard about it, we just do what we think is good, and hope others agree. There isn’t a sense of wilful contrarianism, I’d hope.  In fact, some of the newer stuff is frankly more ordinary, in terms of chord sequences, you might find.  I spent years trying to write ‘more interesting stuff’ and tearing my hair out, failing.  I write simply and honestly these days, and in my view the songs are all the better for it.  To come back to film: structure is king! 

Does the new album have another joyous collection of arrangements?  (I’m thinking here of when you have used unconventional ways of producing like on: ‘Misunderstanding’ – the closely repeated vocal lines in the left and right channels that are louder than the main vocal; that special chord in the chorus of ‘Idiots’; use of unconventional time signatures like ‘Lose Yr Frown’ or ‘Things I’ve Done Before’ or ‘Blitzed in 6/4’.

Alex: Well, I’d hope so.  Arrangement is my thing.  I love the coalescing parts one can achieve, and the maximum emotion this can convey or provoke.  The first song we have released is in 7/4. There’s some 6/4, some interesting key signatures, horn parts on every song, and one track on ‘Stages’ – the centerpiece track, at 13-odd minutes – which develops into a massive crescendo with multiple lead lines working against each other… ‘contrapuntal’ if I remember my music theory right!  Not to sound pretentious, but I tend to write as ‘composition’ as opposed to ‘a bloke with a guitar’.  Much as I’d love to be able to be Bob Dylan and say it all in that simple, prosaic manner, and I love that music, I tend to go wide, big: Spiritualized, Divine Comedy, Laura Nyro, Todd Rundgren, Elbow, Mahler, Bernstein. 

Are you a pop band that does the occasional Avant-grade piece, or an avant-garde band who writes the odd pop song?

Alex: I think it depends who you ask.  Like many groups, to us we’re just doing our thing… we like doing executive 3-minute pop one second, then a dirgy epic wigout the next.  Perhaps it is alienating, or frustrating to labels or audiences, who just want a repeat of that idea they liked…  I really can’t say.  Personally speaking, I am a pop fan, ultimately.  I like a three minute pop thing; the simplicity, the skill of it: anyone can drone on for ten minutes!  But at the moment, my writing is more longform: sort of three minute pop songs that take 6 or 7 to happen. Having it both ways again.

The new track revealed recently ‘Roles Reversed’ feels like an ESP track with the beautiful use of a half bar, massive guitar sounds, driving rhythm and a focused vocal, but it does feel older and wiser.  I mean 10 minutes long.. but it really doesn’t feel like that, it doesn’t drag, just keeps growing like some Hey Jude for the 21st century.  Was it purposefully chosen as the lead track as a good way into the album, or some perverse sense of “we’ll hit them with the big one and see how they like it”?

Alex: I think that speaks to the point I was just making.  Thank you for such a kind view of this new sound: I was worried it may not be accepted as ‘us’.  I think the reason it doesn’t feel overlong, is because it’s just longer, but the arrangement is still Verse/Chorus x2, Middle 8, End Verse/Chorus… it’s not ten verses like a Bob Dylan.  So it feels naturally like the correct length of the idea.  That’s how it was written: I just went for as long as the idea felt like it needed, and only then looked at the time – “oh, it’s ten minutes!  OK, then”.  The track was chosen as ‘this represents the record best’, and isn’t really a single in that sense. It’s sort of rounding off of the album and felt right to release.  I think perhaps you’re right though: the entire thing is longform, and there isn’t a track under 5-6 minutes, so we felt like people should try to get on board with that idea from the outset.  There’s no ‘Empty at the End’ on ‘Stages’.

Do you feel like older and wiser writers and performers now?

Alex: I’d say so, yes.  I found it very tough to write for many years, and have reached a new method of writing, which has been rather successful, in my view.  I think we are better at realising what we have and how to do it these days, and we are able to tour for very little, and do everything ourselves.  I think there’s always a sense of being the eternal student and trying new things, improving what one does, but I’d say these new works are more fully realised, more honest, more mature than work I have done before, certainly.  Tom’s writing has matured wonderfully, and he has been far more prolific in general.  I think generally we are always looking for new things, to move forward, to include recently learned styles, influences, techniques, whatever!  And some of my favourite artists’ work isn’t their ‘exciting’ early stuff, it’s the ‘Nearly Human’/’Second Wind’ Todd era, or the mid/late-stage Randy Newman, like ‘The Great Nations Of Europe’.  My favourite Hitchcock is ‘Family Plot’.

Have you any idea where you will play live to promote the release and will this be in January or in the Spring?

Alex: As yet, nothing concrete, but we will always play as much as we can.  The UK has always been quite tough, and we do better in Europe, but after Brexit touring Europe may become more difficult, so we will probably be bothering the wee bars and venues of dear Blighty a bit more: who can say?!

Thank you so much for spending the time to answer my questions and I hope to see you play if you come to the West Midlands next year.

Alex: Thank YOU!  And sorry if my answers tended toward the longform: it’s a current mentality, as I say.  It’s a great pleasure to be interrogated on these things, and to have this work finally out and provoking an interest from people such as yourself.  Thank you for your interest in the band. Hopefully we will indeed hit the West Midlands in coming tours.  And may I wish you good luck in your own work: I’d love to hear some of it.

Music journalist