A decade after William Doyle’s musical rebirth as East India Youth – going on to receive a Mercury Music Prize nomination for Total Strife Forever, his debut LP in that guise – this acclaimed artist remains strong on songcraft as well as experimental soundscapes.
After four self-released ambient and instrumental albums, 2019’s Your Wilderness Revisited – with his own name on the spine by then – proved a work of enormous ambition, receiving somewhat ecstatic reviews.
And now he’s delivered Great Spans of Muddy Time, an album borne from accident but pushed forward by instinct following a disastrous hard-drive crash, its material largely saved only on cassette, ultimately forcing William to accept recordings as they were rather than go for a four-year approach to completion again.
And after ‘embracing the wonky and jagged’ to great effect, from the moment the new record kicks in I was hooked, its many highlights guaranteeing it will feature among the best of 2021 LPs come December.
Early review mentions of Berlin-era Bowie, early Eno, Robert Wyatt, Robyn Hitchcock and Syd Barrett set the scene. And for me there’s often an ‘80s feel too, even though it’s in no way retro.
En route, William writes about endless tour van trips, long walks, widescreen views, cosy pubs, and a less likely influence too, having watched long-running BBC Friday evening staple Gardener’s World ‘quite religiously during lockdown’.
“I became obsessed with Monty Don. I like his manner and there’s something about him I relate to. He once described periods of depression in his life as consisting of ‘nothing but great spans of muddy time’. When I read that, I knew it would be the title of this record.
“Something about the sludgy mulch of the album’s darker moments, and its feel of perpetual autumnal evening, seemed to fit so well. I would also be lying if I said it didn’t chime with my mental health experiences.”
‘Theme from Muddy Time’ on the LP also captures ‘an element of breaking through a barrier, either by force or with time,’ Bournemouth-born and bred William adding, ‘Things change. Time does pass. The cloud does make way to reveal the sun’.
Around 10 years after he handed a CD-R demo to The Quietus co-founder John Doran at a gig, who loved it so much he set up a label to release William’s debut EP as East India Youth, it’s been a remarkable journey so far, Great Spans of Muddy Time, recently released on Tough Love Records, launched via an exclusive livestream from Crouch End Studios in London.
But don’t think for one moment that he’s all about technology, perhaps understandably following that catastrophic computer crash. In fact, he seemed relieved that our conversation was being conducted over a phoneline.
“This is a radical move in it not happening on Zoom, which seems to be the standard way of doing things now.”
Well, maybe we could just paint pictures of what we feel we look like as we go along.
“Ah, I much prefer phone calls, I have to say. It’s a lot easier to sit and look out of the window, rather than pretend to stare at someone.”
True enough. In fact, as one of my music PR contacts put it to me when we spoke about this last week, seemingly taking the Roddy Frame approach, ‘Why can’t we just send letters?’.
William was in East London when I called, but he’s North West-bound soon, moving to Manchester, as we’ll get on to. And talking of ‘up north’, I told him I was intrigued soon as he sang in opener ‘I Need to Keep You in my Life’ about ‘driving in twilight over Pennines’. Was that a memory of past travels between live shows?
“Yeah, I mean, how many times have I driven across there? I’ve been touring since I was 17, and I’m 30 now. And I think the sentiment of the song is laid out in the first line. What I like is that it’s specific to me, but will hopefully resonate with other people.”
I’m with you there. I also like ambiguity, but appreciate that specific feel too, not least on stunning lead single ’And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’ as he reveals, ‘I’m always dimming the light switch’. A contender for somehow deepest line ever, perhaps? Or am I over-analysing? It certainly brings a smile, either way.
“I’m glad. There was great debate on (BBC) 6 Music between Radcliffe and Maconie about whether one can actually dim a light switch – the on/off switch being the binary part. You can always trust them to bring a banal reading … quite rightly.
“I like it when listening to a song it somehow punctures the way you’re expecting it to go, be that with a very specific mention of the Pennines or dimming a light switch. It’s not standard lyrical fare.”
I’d hate to lose the mystique of it all, but was that something that just came randomly to you?
“Yeah, that song was done with a David Byrne/Brian Eno-type technique – singing nonsense over backing tracks then listening back, deciphering what the words could be, given the vowels – a good way of wrong-footing yourself rather than fall on more familiar clichés and tropes.”
Seeing as you mentioned Brian Eno, I was going to ask about his spoken-word contribution to ‘Design Guide’ on the previous album. Were you already on his radar? How did that come about?
“I’m not sure who introduced him to my stuff, but in about 2013 he came to a show in my guise as East India Youth. Obviously I was made up about – he’s a pretty big influence. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I did the second East India Youth record, the PR person at XL Records thought it would be a good idea for us to be in conversation with The Guardian. That was the first time I went to his studio and met him, and we stayed in touch, with lots of work and bits and pieces between us ever since, which is amazing.
“When people ask about that particular collaboration, I’d already written the words, but there was a very quick turnaround. I told him I felt he’d be a great fit – he’s a very good orator – and he emailed back, said, ‘I’m about to go away for a few weeks, but if you send it over now, I’ll do it’. He sent it back and asked if I wanted to change anything, and I was like, ‘No, that’s perfect!’ And that was it.”
Well, it’s great, and I love that you asked him to add his voice, rather than to play some obscure piece of space-age technology you know he’s got.
“Yeah, he likes being asked to do things that aren’t what he’s usually asked to do, like producing someone’s record or playing a synthesiser, something like that. He loves being asked to sing too.”
I love the way ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’ appears to be a continuation of a song that opened on a previous side of a record. And while so ‘now’ in its delivery, it could have burst out of the radio in my formative early ‘80s teenage years. Yet it’s not necessarily retro. For these ears, that and ‘Nothing At All’ almost offer a new take on Soft Cell, without – and I mean this from a place of love – Marc Almond’s off-kilter delivery.
“Ha! Much as I’m influenced by so much from the past, classic songwriting is really dear to me. As much as I like to experiment with sound, if I can marry the two things together, that’s the best of both worlds. Nothing for me beats a good, well-crafted song or hook, but it’s nice to be a little more adventurous with the way those things are presented.
“I wouldn’t say ‘Nothing At All’ is pastiche, but it wears its influences on its sleeve, whereas with ‘And Everything Changed’, the structure’s odd. There are bits you recognise – like here’s the chorus and here’s a guitar solo – but it’s not standard.”
The guitar solo is gorgeous. Are you one to noodle away to your own songs, that giving way to the occasional happy accident?
“I guess the unifying thread of this record is that everything was done quickly, because of the way it came about, where I had to salvage all these songs off a cassette tape following a hard-drive crash. So what’s there is sort of what’s on the record now, bar a couple of things I added on top.”
You’ve forced yourself to be less precious with this record, in a sense.
“Exactly, and with the guitar solo, that’s what I played when I hit the chords, and a first take. The guitar sounds backwards, but really it’s being played forwards – I have an effect which switches things around while you play – and sometimes the sound dictates what you play rather than the other way around. So yeah, I’m not really one to try and get a perfect line – as long as the spirit and feeling is there, that’s great.”
The climax of ‘Somewhere Totally Else’ and its backwards – to use that phrase again – noodlings, could be a synth-like take on The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
“Yeah, sure. That’s one of the best pieces of music ever made, and I guess there are similarities. And maybe there’s a cassette tape feel, almost a collage-y thing.”
That said, on this occasion Ringo Starr’s mighty drum patterns have been replaced by synth loops.
“There is a drum machine on that track … but if I could play drums, I’d like to do something like that.”
In fact, I’m back to thinking of a day driving across the East Lancashire-West Yorkshire border – in a land that time seems to have forgotten – heading to report on a football match, listening to Revolver. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ came on and seemed to fit perfectly with everything I was seeing – from the people I passed on the paths by the road to the majestic Pennine backdrops landscape serving as my backdrop as I drove through.
“It’s amazing when things have the power to synch up with your experiences of the world.”
Your use of instrumental interludes on this album remind me of a few things, and I see you and Blancmange’s Neil Arthur as fairly kindred spirits – another artist who seems to switch seemingly effortlessly between the occasional pop certainty and more instrumental Eno-esque moments.
“I’m going to have to take your word for that! I haven’t really delved into them, and I don’t know why, because you’re not the first person that’s made the comparison.”
In light of that admission, I felt it was my turn to confess. I’d missed out on William’s rich song catalogue until recently, despite many recommendations from those whose opinions I value and his past work with several acts I rate highly – from British Sea Power to Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper, working on a remix for the latter’s Erland and the Carnival, and collaborating with him on Murmuration more recently.
“Yes, and I made ‘Somewhere Totally Else’ from this album in Erland’s studio, not far from me in Hoxton. He has the main room and I had the middle room for six months, and that was one of the improvisations made while I was in there. I first met Erland and Hannah around 2014 … and these are all the same sort of orbit.”
A mighty orbit it is too, one well worth the cosmic plunge. And beneath the scratchy exterior and synth-based melodies of latest winning single ‘Semi-Bionic’, it’s epic pop, I’d venture, hinting at traces of Roy Orbison or Gene Pitney. Can we expect more of the same next time around?
“I think so. The next album will probably be more traditional, although I’d still like it sonically interesting. But it’ll be more song-based, although there are byways and avenues I explore with different sounds. Maybe it’ll be an amalgam of this record and the one before.
“A blend of those two approaches might be good, keeping the song aspect strong and intact. For the record I’m working on now, all the songs – unusually for me – have been written just on guitar, and I tend to get into the world of those songs, starting to play them every day, working out the idiosyncrasies.”
Was that partly a distrust of technology following your calamitous hard-drive crash?
“Ha! Actually, those things happened in tandem with each other, working on this next album last summer and having that saved to an external hard drive, whereas these other pieces were on my main computer hard drive, the one that was corrupted.
“This record kind of happened by accident. I didn’t necessarily intend for this material to see the light of day. It took a bit of convincing from people to put it out properly. I was just going to sling it up on Bandcamp as a digital download.”
That sounds similar to Erland telling me about record company interest in his until then private Orkney project, that becoming three great albums … and all because someone influential happened to hear them and love them. So this too was never intended as a proper release?
“Well … I’m not as shy as Erland! But sometimes you have to share things for people you trust to get a good read on it. And I’m glad we’ve done it. People seem to have connected with this record in a way I wouldn’t have thought they would. It’s a challenging, strange prospect to ask casual listeners, but I think there is something to hook people in … long as they’re willing to put the time in!”
‘A Forgotten Film’ carries elements of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ and ‘I Won’t Get Fooled Again’ era, with your keyboard work, and that’s something I also hear back in the sands of time on ‘Welcome to Austerity’ in your former life with Doyle and the Fourfathers. It seems you present a fairly wide canvas. Then again, perhaps that love of great songcraft never left you.
“Yeah, it’s hard to know what to focus on. I guess that’s why I make whole start to finish records. You have to put things in an order that makes sense, and that scatter-shot nature – one track sounding completely different to the one before it – can be mitigated if it’s in the right order rather than all over the place. But I guess I’ve done a fairly wide amount of stuff in the last 10 years.”
If East India Youth was seen as your musical rebirth, you seem in places to be veering closer now to the 2010 indie pop of Doyle and the Fourfathers, coming around to where you were as a songwriter back then.
“I just want to try out doing a good song record again. But I might make a completely ambient record after. I don’t see rules there. It’s just about whatever piques my interest in the moment. When I did the first East India Youth record, I was really into dance music, and more abrasive electronic textures, wanting to explore that. I still like all that, but these last couple of years my interests have gone back into songcraft. I like the idea of keeping going in and out of all that though.”
Was this album partly put together pre-lockdown?
“Apart from one synth-line and one guitar bit I did last August, everything else was from 2019.”
So will the next one be more your covid album?
“Well, I’d written most of the songs for that already, mostly in 2019. So I think I’m going to just skip covid out of all this!”
Quite right too. Perhaps, just hold back that material, do it as a retro project in 2045.
“Yes, maybe. I know I had all the time in the world to listen to records last year, but without there being a world out there to experience – gigs to go to, and so on – I found it really hard to connect with a lot of records that came out last year. The context for listening was the same everyday … apart from maybe you’d sit in a different chair while listening. A lot of stuff I connect to while listening on the bus, music on the move. And I had that same experience with making music.
“I spent a long time not touring, between the end of the East India Youth project and Wilderness, but I just started poking my head out at the start of last year, doing a short UK tour for that with a full band. I thought we’d do festivals last summer, but then …
“It was nice to get back into a regular creative practise at home though. So I kind of want to do both now.”
Was the starting point on this LP, ‘Theme From Muddy Time’, or was that a part-way through focus?
“To be honest, everything gets titled retrospectively. That was just a piece I had, but where it landed on the record, it felt like it had a nice resolve to it, like the last scene of a film before the credits. I didn’t try to labour over the idea though.”
Although not written specifically about covid times, the LP’s theme seems rather apt at a time when we’ve all looked to find solace in our natural surroundings amid these testing times. In your case I understand you became obsessed with Gardeners’ World, hence using that line from Monty Don as the title. And I think we can all relate to that search for something outdoorsy right now … grounding ourselves, so to speak.
“Absolutely. And there’s no better place to do that than in the garden.”
And musically, the ‘theme’ song comes together rather beautifully, like a wonky take on OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’, the bagpipe effects there replaced by rather off-kilter synth-lines.
Meanwhile, it’s been five years since you started using your own name on the records rather than East India Youth. Was that a new-found belief in what you were doing, or was that never an issue?
“I just wanted to draw a line under the things I was doing before. I was working on some ambient records, but Wilderness was the one I wanted to put together. It felt so different from what I was doing before, but it was an idea I had rattling around for 10 years before it came out. And using my own name made me feel truer to myself. Besides, I can’t run away from this name.”
So do you see this album as part two, following Wilderness?
“No, this is totally different. Wilderness had such a big over-arching concept, including lots about my life and my upbringing, and it’s difficult to make that record over and over again. So I wanted to make sure this one was totally different. And I didn’t want to spend another four years making it.”
Is home no longer East India Docks?
“I haven’t lived there for years. I live in Hackney … but I’m about to move to Manchester. My girlfriend works for Manchester International Festival, remotely since January, but needing to be up there when the festival happens. So we’re having a change of scenery. And I’m looking forward to it, having been there a lot during my touring life and having friends there.”
William’s spent time in Brighton and York too, although he’s spent the last three years back in London. But he’s originally from Bournemouth, and his first band was based around Southampton.
It’s been more than a decade since Man Made, a lot happening in your life since. But listening to the Fourfathers, I see not only where you came from, but something that remains in your music. Songs like ‘The Governor of Giving Up’ and the afore-mentioned ‘Welcome to Austerity’ seem somewhere between The Divine Comedy, Arctic Monkeys, Cardiacs, Edwyn Collins, and Franz Ferdinand. But songs like ‘Summer Rain’ – sort of Neil Hannon does Richard Hawley – sits fairly well with what you’re doing now.
“That was like my bread and butter, that and early Scott Walker records. I tried to move as far away from that as possible at one point, but I’ve started to see the value in it, how that’s still part of my DNA.”
That’s what I meant – I can see you taking some of that back on board now.
“Yeah, I like that idea, with everything else I’ve learned in the meantime, about producing and how to make an interesting sound world out of things. Sometimes when I listen back, I’m like, ‘Wow! How did I write that?’ I feel my songwriting chops were really good then, and sometimes feel I’ve lost touch with that a little. And when you’re 17, you haven’t as much responsibility in your life, so can spend all day long writing songs, so you’re bound to become good at it.”
And it’s amazing when you think how many great songs have been made by people in their late teens, down the years. But judging by this new album, you’ve clearly still got it.
“Well, that’s good to know!”
And apologies for catching up so late, but at least I’ve now got a great back-catalogue to savour.
“Well, I like that. As much as it’s nice that you have a big record that comes out at the time and that’s how you get to lots of people, I do like the idea that you’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs for people to get into.
“I really want to be doing this forever, and like the idea that you don’t get too hung up on whether one record is a success or failure at the time, because who knows what it might mean to someone who’d never heard of something that came out 10 years ago, who then might have a special moment with that. It’s a long game, isn’t it.”
And with that, William was away, telling me that while I’m belatedly checking out his back-catalogue, he’d recently decided to do the same with XTC. A wise move, I agreed, also reminding him to look up Blancmange while he’s at it. I look forward to an update soon.