The Blinders – Interview under lockdown

In February of this year I had been asked if I was interested in reviewing the forthcoming album ‘Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath’ by The Blinders, which was due for release on May 8th, as well as their show in Birmingham at the end of May.  As I have reviewed and interviewed the band since 2017, there was no way I was going to pass on the next instalment in The Blinders’ glorious rise and rise… but then, the world changed.  Priorities changed almost overnight as our lives and personal actions became a matter of life and death.  When lockdown kicked in during late March, with schools closing and then shops and pubs and live venues, psychopath or not, we had to stay at home.  And then suddenly, part of an album’s title that few people even knew about, became part of a government mantra, repeated endlessly and displayed everywhere… STAY AT HOME.  There was something eery about waiting to hear and review this album and seeing its title on the news everyday.. stay at home, stay at home, stay at home, stay at home.

As it became increasingly clear that lockdown was not going to be short term, venues and bands  announced that tours and shows would be postponed.  The Blinders’ May run of gigs were cancelled and some rescheduled to September, when hopefully we will be able to go back outside.  This had a knock effect with the album’s release as well, with no way of promoting ‘Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath’ and issues regarding manufacturing and supply, the release was delayed until July 17th (although available for pre-order now).

So I find myself, like everyone else, in a cruel limbo.  Unable to listen to the album or see the band play it live..and also feel extremely fortunate that my family are safe and well, whilst simultaneously feeling guilty about those on the frontline in the NHS and those that have lost loved ones.  As a key worker, I am still working as normal, apart from being in my kitchen, but thankful to still be working unlike many who have been furloughed.

The Blinders have not wasted this time of enforced isolation and have been a constant presence on social media, with Thomas singing acoustic versions of songs picked by fans (not always the most sensible course to take), and like when Bowie asked his public to choose the setlist for his 1990 Sound+Vision tour and almost had to play ‘The Laughing Gnome’ (albeit after a campaign by the stupid NME), Thomas had to play ‘Cotton Eyed Joe by Rednex.  Yes we laughed, until we heard him do it and realised what a supreme talent he is, as he drew inspiration from the original 19th century American folk song.  This along with a stunning performance of Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ has kept fans more than happy while they wait for the official release.

Three of the tracks from the album are available already and released with accompanying videos; with ‘Forty Days And Forty Nights’, which had been a staple of the last tour, being not too dissimilar to their first album’s material and can almost be seen as a bridge to their new work.  However, the next two ‘Lunatic With A Loaded Gun’ and more specifically the first official single ‘Circle Song’, shows their musical progression and desire to develop the arrangements, featuring a piano, backing vocals, dual guitars and solos.  And more importantly the evolution of their songwriting, with stronger melodies and more interesting and complex chord sequences.

Even the artwork for ‘Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath’ has moved away from the stark, high contrast debut album cover of ‘Columbia’, featuring full colour, full band and a roomful of Blinders’ possessions.  As I have not yet heard the full album but I was still desperate to speak with the band, I start my interview asking about the inspiration behind the cover art:

Who came up with the concept for the album cover artwork?

When we first began to think about the artwork, we didn’t really have anything to go off, other than we wanted it to hold hands with the title.  We were originally inspired by a series of photos by the photographer Martin Parr and approached him to use one of his shots from the Coronation Street collection.  He politely declined so we looked into creating our own image. 

We have the pleasure of working with very like minded people and Sam Crowston is one of those. He’s followed us from the beginning, first as a photographer but then began to translate our ideas visually.  Now he’s behind most of the art direction for The Blinders.  We spent some time thinking of what to populate artwork for Fantasies with, and ended up having a lot of fun with it.

It reminds me of another album cover that features a living room (Michael Spencer Jones’ Definitely Maybe cover shot) except yours seems to be from a much earlier time period (1950s?) and it is in a darkened room with curtains drawn and no natural daylight.  Was that a conscious decision to have that visual connection?

Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ and Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ were the main influences for the final cover.  The shot was taken in the guest room of the studio which we were practically living out of at the time.  Really liked the result so we went with it. 

I can imagine your fans will be using a magnifying glass to scrutinise every book spine for clues into the inner workings of The Blinder’s minds.  Did you specifically place every item that appears in the frame?

Every item that’s in frame is there for a reason.  Most objects refer to the themes of the album, but some refer to specific lyrics on the record. 

Have you been asked yet why two clocks are showing 8:05 and the third clock is showing 5:10?  Is there a significance of the clock motif, as it also appears in the video for ‘Circle Song’?

We started working on Fantasies at a pivotal point in our lives.  We were coming of age both as adults and as musicians/songwriters.  We felt like we were in a state of becoming, like we were born again.  Made us give our all to the record.  Filled it with everything we had ever known up until that point and bottled it.  Closed the lid and sealed it.  Already we grow tired of it and are eager to move on, but instead it’s more waiting, more time flying by.  And time’s always running out for people like us…    Each clock is set to our birth times… it was just an interesting thought.

It seems that with this album you constructed the songs in the studio, whereas ‘Columbia’ captured your live sound.  Was there a different approach to recording these songs?

You’ve hit the nail on the head.  We eventually shook off the limitations of trying to ‘capture’ something.  We could never get anywhere near it anyway.  We still can’t.  We had the pleasure to meet with Jim Sclavunos from The Bad Seeds, who was interested in making the record before Rob Ellis got involved, and he said something really interesting to us along the lines of, ‘as soon as you start feeding sound through those microphones and it’s coming out of the speakers in the control room, it no longer belongs to you; it becomes electric vibrations that are meant to be bent, warped and distorted’ (that sounds like nails on a chalkboard compared to the eloquent way he put it!).

It was liberating for us to think that way, instead of being so set on capturing an energy that we just couldn’t recreate without all the factors that come into play when performing a live show… the crowd, the volume, and the intoxication, which we weren’t willing to put ourselves through every session. 

Did you feel free to experiment with arrangements rather than recreating how you had played some of these songs on stage?

We discovered the importance of arranging music during the making of this record, definitely.  Robert Johnson was hailed to have a style so blisteringly wild that the devil himself had to have a hand in it.  The reality is Johnson was a virtuoso when it came to arranging music.  Every intonation, every quip and change in pace and direction wasn’t the result of him being possessed by some demon or making a bargain with the devil, it was consciously thought about and written down.  It’s just no one else was doing it.  That’s why he’s so great. 

Anyway everything seemed to roll from that idea, and we found it really easy to make this record… often found ourselves forgetting that clocks even existed on the walls.  When it comes to translating to the stage though, we have given ourselves some room.  Don’t expect a Phil Spector record or anything like that.

Was there much of a difference working with Rob Ellis, compared to Gavin on your debut album?

Two completely different people, both sickeningly gifted.  The only thing that kept us together during the making of the first record was Gavin.  It would have died a death if it wasn’t for him.  He pulled out the best of us when we didn’t see it. 

Going into recording album two, we were in a much more stable state and had learnt more in the last 12 months than some people do in a lifetime.  We were infatuated with working on a record with someone like Rob Ellis and are so grateful that he agreed to take the journey with us.  Couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve created. 

Tom mentioned to me in December how it was a conscious decision to change producer and make a different sounding album, and judging by feedback I have seen already, fans are blown away.  Did you worry that you could lose supporters who gravitated to you originally?

Losing favour with people because you’re moving away from something that they associated you with is bound to happen.  But we knew we had to do it.  The lifespan of a band depends on it, and we were eager to relieve ourselves of some of the ideas that were driving us literally insane.  At the heart of it all, there are no rules you should follow.  As soon as you start doing that, you become part of it all; the passé and status quo, and all of that.  That route is really just about everything we are against.  If Fantasies bombs though, you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be working on a pop record for album three…

Your songwriting has matured and I can see more adventurous melodic progressions and arrangements here.  I love the line in ‘Circle Song’ about Bowie, referencing ‘Life on Mars?’ because it is so blatant.  Have you broadened your horizons with regards to music that inspires you, or just got better at the craft of writing songs? 

I think you can make a genius out of anyone.  If you put them in the limelight for long enough.  If you back them time and time again, and all of the stars are aligned correctly then eventually they’re guaranteed to become masters of their craft.  Once you put your faith in a creator, they begin to believe it all and yearn for it.  They start to dedicate their lives solely to pursuing it.  Through experimentation they begin to find and latch onto a process.  Sure, that often means pushing thousands of buttons on a console that don’t do anything a lot, but by chance you find the one that does something.  I guess we’re still pressing buttons at the moment, but sooner or later we’ll find the right one. 

You seem to have toured endlessly since before ‘Columbia’, you even taking time to do fundraisers on the run up to the general election when you could have taken a breather.  How do you find time to write the material for the new album?

The honest answer is we don’t.  But luckily it doesn’t take long to write a song.  It takes an eternity to perfect it.  But when we came out of finishing Fantasies we didn’t want to even think about writing.  It’s exhausting making a record.  Being on the road for us in the winter was a break from writing.  We did take a short holiday away for the New Year though.  Think we all needed one after the general election result. 

Regarding the lockdown and the delay in releasing the album and the tour, are you afraid any stimulus already built up will be lost?

Sure, of course we are.  But in the meantime we’re exploring new avenues of creating content and staying relevant.  Everyone around the world has had to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis, and we’re not exempt from that.  The stuff that we are making is pretty interesting and we’re looking forward to the response we get from fans. 

But there are worse things happening to a lot of people right now than a band getting miserable because no one wants to listen to their music anymore. 

And Charlie, I remember asking this question at the same time last year and unfortunately jinxing both our teams in the process (although there is no chance of my team Liverpool failing this year), but Leeds are doing well again this year, are you confident they will achieve automatic qualification this time, if the leagues ever start up again?

If there’s one thing supporting Leeds United teaches you it’s never to be too optimistic but, to steal a phrase from you Liverpool fans, it was starting to feel like ‘our year’. 

It feels like you’ve got to answer these questions with a disclaimer – of course sport is inconsequential at the moment, but nevertheless its absence still leaves a massive void in people’s lives, I know it has mine.  I’d personally love to see football resume only at the point when we can have stadiums full of people celebrating it in the way it should be celebrated, however long that takes.  That obviously seems fanciful and perhaps we’ll just have to embrace it, however it happens. 

Thanks again, I look forward to finally hearing the album in full later in the year.  Stay safe.

The Blinders’ album ‘Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath’  is available for pre-order now from all good digital stores as well as signed CD’s and vinyl direct from their official store: https://www.theblindersofficial.com/  it will be officially released on July 17th on Modern Sky UK, and I cannot wait to hear the rest of it.

Music journalist