Them There - Q&A
"I'm always telling people how similar Dublin and Berlin are in spirit and vibe. The people of Berlin are as laid back as Dubliners. Like Dubliners, Berliners don't get too stressed about shit that's unimportant"
Q&A: Danny Carroll | Photos: Maansi Jain
Them There is the brainchild of songwriting duo Craig Walker and Phoebe Killdeer. Based in Berlin, the former Power Of Dreams frontman Craig and Nouevelle Vague singer Phoebe have pulled together an exceptional cast of international musicians, working with Mercury prize winning producer Victor Van Vugt (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave). Having made their debut live performance at Riverside Studios for Other Voices Berlin, Craig Walker spoke to us about ambitions for the band, the importance of creative spaces and the differences between Ireland and Germany.
For the uninitiated, tell us a bit more about the individuals who make up Them There?
Them There are myself and Phoebe Killdeer sharing the lead vocals and songwriting duties. Phoebe first came to prominence as the lead singer of Nouvelle Vague. Jan Hendrick Schmid is a wunderkind guitar wizard from northern Germany. Jan is also an excellent composer and his role also involves songwriting. Raphaël Séguinier from France plays the drums. He has worked with Shannon Wright, Rufus Wainwright and a host of other major artists. Berliner Tyler Pope originally from California is the bass man - in between touring commitments with his band LCD Soundsystem. Knox Chandler a New York exile also living in Berlin plays guitar and has also done the string arrangements on the record. Knox has worked with a stellar cast of greats including R.E.M., Depeche Mode and Lou Reed. Victor Van Vugt, twice winning Mercury prize winner and all round legend, along with producing the entire album has played a number of instruments including keyboards on the record.
What music did you bond over?
We all love authenticity in music. Artists who make music created from the heart. Anyone who's real. In fact a lot of the bands and artists that the guys in the band have played with would be inspirational to me. R.E.M. Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, LCD Soundsystem, PJ Harvey, Cake to name a few.
How do you feel this will be different to your past projects?
Phoebe and myself are sharing the lead vocals and we write all the songs together. This is the first album I've ever done like that and it's been a great experience. Phoebe is an excellent writer and singer. She is very strict, and rightly so, about lyrics and insisted we put time into rewriting and perfecting them. I can be a bit lazy about lyrics so it's nice to have someone driving that side of things on. Also all the guys and girls playing on the album have been extremely generous with their immense talent. They elevated the songs to a new level.
In the past you’ve collaborated with film composers such as Michael Nyman and Nathaniel Mechaly, what did you learn from those experiences? Will Them There have some cinematic sensibilities?
I really enjoyed working with those guys. I once spent a really memorable few days in Paris with Nathaniel Mechaly and Sun Ra's bass player Juini Booth, working on a movie soundtrack. I learnt so much from that session. Juini taught me the importance of tension and release in music. He is also a big believer in creating the right vibe before we even touched our instruments. There's a string laden song on the Them There album called 'Colour of Honey' that we co-wrote with fellow Dubliner Michael Moloney from the great Dublin band Director. We think it should be the next James Bond movie theme!
Craig, you’re an artist in residence at Riverside Studios in Berlin, tell us more about the space and environment there?
Riverside is a real hub of creativity with 22 studios located within its building. With that amount of studios you obviously get a lot of musicians and producers coming and going. This leads to all sorts of collaborations and new ideas. In the two years I've been a resident at Riverside I've worked with a lot of the other residents. Victor Van Vugt who's producing the Them There album is a resident. Booka Shade who I recently did an album with are also residents. It kind of proves the theory that if you put creative types in the same building, they will undoubtedly end up being creative together. I would love to see a Riverside Studios kind of thing happen in Dublin - our greatest export is our creative talent and it should be nurtured and encouraged by the government with funding and affordable studio spaces.
Coming from Dublin originally but now living in Berlin, we’d love to get your perspective on being a musician in the two cities - do they feel wildly different, or would there be some similarities?
I'm always telling people how similar Dublin and Berlin are in spirit and vibe. The people of Berlin are as laid back as Dubliners. Like Dubliners, Berliners don't get too stressed about shit that's unimportant. The summer is slightly better here than in Dublin but the winter is more harsh and seems to go on forever. Berlin is a far more electronically driven city than Dublin. It's far bigger too than Dublin so a lot of people come for short bursts of creativity and then leave. This gives it a feeling of constant evolution. The other great advantage Berlin has over Dublin for musicians is the amount of venues with capacity of 100 and below - over 60 - which compared to other major cities is phenomenal. It's possible to play small shows in different venues all the time and build an audience organically. My heart is forever in Dublin though.
Previously you and Phoebe had a massive hit with the song ‘Fade Out Lines’, why do you think people caught onto that particular song?
I think Phoebe's voice is incredible on that record. She has one of the greatest voices in music today - I would prefer to listen to Phoebe sing than Adele, Katy Perry or any of those currently lauded singers. I believe her completely when she sings. A rare gift. The song has meaning and lyrical depth which made its success all the more amazing.
Tell us about your songwriting process with Phoebe, how do you develop your ideas and get on the same wave length?
A lot of the songs start with Phoebe and I sitting in a room with a guitar and jamming out riffs and ideas. When something gets us both excited we then try and knock it into some kind of structure to work off. We both then record melodic ideas separately and then we meet up to see what the other ones got. If both ideas are strong, we will then work on incorporating both ideas into the one song. It's a completely new and fresh way of working that keeps us both interested and inspired. Phoebe and I wrote a song on the album with the young Swedish band Colleagues. That was written while we were in LA last year. Others were started as demos in my studio at riverside with Jan Hendrick Schmid and another young German producer called Sebastian Martin. We would start ideas and then Phoebe would come in and we would start developing the ones that worked further.
You’ve been working on an album with producer Victor Van Vugt - what has he brought to your music?
Victor's input has actually been immeasurable. When we played him the original demos for the album he said they were great but they needed to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch. He heard something in the songs that we couldn't. He had a vision of where we should go with them. It was exactly what we needed. He's someone Phoebe and I have enormous respect for. He's made more than a few of our favourite ever records. We trusted his vision and it's been an incredible journey from bringing the songs acoustically to him and then recording the full band and bringing in guests like Emma Elisabeth and Stereolab's Tim Gane and a great string quartet led by Yemi Gonzales to play on the record. I've personally learnt an awful lot from working with Victor. He's reinstated the reason I started making music in the first place - to make music that has intention and means something. VVV is the man!
What’s next for Them There?
We have one song left on the album we have to finish the vocals. Then in the coming weeks Victor will start the final mix. We hope to start releasing music very soon from the album. The album itself will be released in early 2018. Then it's all out our hands - the public will then decide if they like it or not!