Hand Built by Isolated Human – back in touch with Newton Faulkner

Newton Faulkner is extremely proud of his seventh LP in 14 years, a hands-on project like no other he’s previously crafted.

Recorded in his East London studio, Newton ventures into new territory in what he sees as the beginning of the next phase in his career as a recording and live artist, pushing himself to the max, declaring, ‘I’m not very precious anymore’, describing the new 17-track Interference (Of Light) ‘a bit chunkier … definitely way heavier, much less acoustic … simpler, but tasteful’.

The result – arriving 14 years after debut LP Hand Built By Robots topped the UK charts, the first of four top-10s, two of which reached No.1 – is the impressive product of a rollercoaster year of lockdowns, uncertainty and high emotion that certainly tested his resolve. But he was up to the challenge, truly getting stuck in. Adamant that it should always be ‘about the songs’, Newton has delivered something ‘grizzly, soulful, and a step further’, the Surrey born and bred ‘guitarist and writer who sang’ now feeling his voice has ‘caught up with the stuff I was doing on guitar’.

And as I put it to him, he’s sculpted a pretty perfect pop album, far from formulaic, yet full of great hooks and touches.

“Oh, thank you very much! Yeah, I’m really happy with this one. I’ve just never had this much time, and time is such a huge part of making an album. I’ve always kind of made excuses for the lack of time I have, but going back to classical music and how even some of these massively iconic bits of music considered the height of music itself were written for events so had to be done on time. So it’s not a new thing, having to make music to a schedule, but having quite so much free rein as I did with this meant I got to explore ideas that never would have survived otherwise.”

Is this what kept him busy over the lockdown periods?

“I didn’t do anything in the first lockdown. I went in the studio, sat and stared out of the window – I was confused, and scared. I didn’t really feel like playing guitar. I wanted to understand what was going on.”

It’s odd looking back on that now. Perhaps we’re not ready to dwell on it all again yet, but I was talking to another interviewee this morning who said more or less the same – how frightening it was.

“Yeah, there were massive ups and downs, creatively and in terms of how you were feeling about life in general and yourself. Sometimes I was very focused and incredibly hard-working, working hours and hours and hours, other times I’d go in and …oh no. Everyone creatively seems to have been in the same boat.”

Did you have a few jotted ideas, or was it a case of working afresh on this?

“I dug myself a trap when I was promoting (2019’s) The Very Best Of – I went around telling everyone in all the interviews I did that the next thing I did would sound really different. But I completed a curve or thought process and that had come to a natural conclusion, then after that it was a different kind of time period. When you told a lot of people that, you really have to pull something out of the bag! One of the reasons I told anyone that would listen is because I really wanted to force myself to have to get out of my comfort zone and go down different paths, make different noises … and it really worked.

“‘Sinking Sand’ was the first track I came back to out of everything I’d done before but hadn’t released. It was one of my favourite things to play at soundchecks. It was something I always came back to and really liked, but at that point I didn’t think it would fit with any of the other stuff I was doing, or if people would get it or think it was an OK thing for me to do. But I never played it to people and it wasn’t coming from anywhere else other than me. It was just like, ‘I am this kind of artist and I have to stay on this route for this amount of time’. But as soon as I took all those constraints off and did whatever felt right … I think that’s one of the reasons the album is as diverse as it is – it covers a huge amount of ground … sometimes in the same song!”

You’ve pre-empted me. There’s lots of impressive, often surprising tosses and turns en route. In fact, LP opener ‘Sinking Sand’ holds traces of Marc Bolan and T-Rex, plus early David Essex studio craft.

“Ah, nice – I’ll go with both of those! Yeah, I wanted it not to have any rules. That’s one of the reasons within the first two tracks I wanted it to kind of throw you off balance a bit, especially the intro to ‘Cage’, made at six o’clock one morning using a bunch of weird electronic toys, coming out of the heavy, slow rock vibe of ‘Sinking Sand’ into that little eight-bit old school computer game noise thing, then coming out into a bigger soul song, again with a different vibe to things I’d done before.”

On my hastily-scribbled notes as I listened, I suggested that as well as your playing, what sounds all the richer down the years is that big ol’ soulful voice, not least on ‘Cage’, and it’s something that’s arguably gained maturity down the years. It’s got more living in it now, perhaps.

“Yeah, I’m still digging deep into my voice, finding new things, especially this album, where I really pushed it. I was talking to a vocal coach and played them ‘Back from the Dead’. She was sitting behind a piano, it came in, she pressed a couple of keys and they kept going up, with her looking at me, really confused, asking, ‘What are you doing up there?’. ‘I don’t know. It just felt right!’ But it’s stupidly high, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about that further down the line!”

I was just getting on to ‘Back from the Dead’, where there’s also the mark of ‘Sledgehammer’-era Peter Gabriel. Maybe that’s what you found inside you.

“Yeah, I did go a bit Peter Gabriel. It’s that kind of tone I do have access to. I think a lot of the experimenting with my voice came out of doing some tracks for a film, which was really well timed, for a film called Terminal, completely different to my usual challenges, trying to work out what I  sound like. With this, I felt it doesn’t have to sound like me at all. It could sound like anything – let’s just do whatever feels right for the visuals, and I had so much fun, doing David Bowie impressions, going all over the place, making a completely different vocal character – a bit Elvis, and the guy from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, that kind of tone, with a bit of Nick Cave as well. It was real fun experimenting with it.”

That Peter Gabriel feel also comes through on ‘Riding High’, but there are also hints of the poppier Paul Simon and a bit of Paul McCartney’s more recent solo work, the latter another artist who reaches notes allowing him to go someplace else.

“Well, I’m definitely a massive fan of all that as well. I’m definitely enjoying these references!”

As for next song, ‘Four Leaf Clover’, we kind of have The Feeling on a collision course with Lenny Kravitz and The Stereophonics, with a nice bit of blues guitar. I’d also like to think there’s some Finn Brothers influence, thinking of ‘Luckiest Man Alive’. And this track should be all over the radio, surely, hot on the tail of first single, ‘World Away’?

“Yeah, we’re doing digital releases, and ‘Four Leaf Clover’ came out digitally, while ‘World Away’ has had quite a bit of Radio 2 play, so that’s working out well.”

There are a fair few 21st century pop moments that should appeal to mainstream radio stations. That’s not so much playing it safe as knowing you need those hooks among the other stuff for airplay. And you wear it well. But I prefer it when you’re not having to seek out crossover potential, and this is pretty much an organic set of songs.

“Yeah, there’s a degree to which I’m willing to play the game. Ha! Not all the time. I occupy this strange little corner of the music industry and I’m just out here on my own, which I do love. It’s amazing that I’m not really part of anything. Every time something else has appeared around me, I’ve just shuffled off to one side, like, ‘You guys, keep that. I’m gonna hang out over here now!’

“I’ve stayed out of any kind of group that would accept me! I feel I’ve carved my own space, and it feels very safe. I feel I can push boundaries and experiment, and the next tour is going to be very experimental in terms of it not being like anything I’ve really done before. Because I’ve played so many things on the album, I want to bring that into the live show and experiment with the instrumentation side in a way I’ve never really been able to do live before.”

Am I right in thinking most of what I hear on this album is you?

“Yes, because I didn’t have access to any other human beings, ending up doing way more than I’ve ever done before, really dipping in, because of the lack of time constraints. I was asking, ‘When does this need finishing?’ and hearing, ‘It doesn’t, we’re not even sure why you’re working. The world’s closed. Chill out!’

“I ended up spending hours and hours playing drums and three weeks just playing bass. I wanted to get deeper into other instruments, the same way I’ve got deep into guitar – that deep exploration of trying to find out exactly how you want it to sound and fit with everything else.  In the same circumstances before it would have been, ‘How long have I got? Three days. OK, let’s get a drummer in, do loads of tracks.’ And he’ll be able to do it because I know how he thinks and he’ll get what I’m telling him.

“Whereas with this, it was a case of, ‘I’ve got the time, I’ve got the kit. I can do this, let’s just take the time and learn how to do it, which was fascinating. I hit more problems as I got further into it, so I thought, ‘OK, I can play the part now, that’s great, the next challenge is I don’t really know how to record drums, so let’s start learning to do that! Ha! Once I had a load of mics on different things, it’s like, ‘I need to mix the drums so they sound alright, and have absolutely no idea how to do that …”

Were there lots of phone calls and emails to friends in the business?

“There were lots of YouTube tutorials! And I was going to bed reading manuals. I’ve got this gear and don’t know how to use it, so let’s put time into understanding how this actually works. I learned so much that’ll become part of everything I do, moving forward.”

If we could sum up where you’re at now, 15 or so years in, I’m thinking this is the beginning of the next chapter, perhaps.

“That’s definitely how it feels to me. This is how I wanted it to feel and I was terrified it wouldn’t … but it worked! For me this album feels like the start of a new path, which has different textures and different tonality to it.”

With reference to your first two LP titles, this could really have been Hand Built by Isolated Human.

“Yeah! Hand Built by Isolation! It does feel like the beginning of something else, especially live with this set-up. I’m working with a lot of tech companies, talking to a company called Head Rush that came to me a long time ago, brought me this looper board, and I was like, ‘This is amazing, but it’s literally the polar opposite of what I’m doing’. I was massively multi-tasking, doing these incredibly polyrhythmic complicated things that no one understood, I realised after a few years doing it. Then, I went back to Head Rush, said, ‘Is this still on offer? I think with this next record I want to explore all the stuff I’ve got in the studio – I want to play drums and want to play bass, but can’t do that in multi-tasking formats. So the looping thing makes more sense and becomes more interesting to me when you add in all the other instruments.”

I’m thinking of Jeff Lynne’s promo video for ‘Mercy, Mercy’, playing all the instruments in his band. That’ll be you on the road soon, won’t it?

“It’s edging in that direction. One thing I never want it to do is get in the way of the song. I’m trying to make space for the song. That happened with things I’ve done before where someone’s filmed it and I’ve watched it back. It’s too complicated and too cerebral to actually get across the emotion.

“That’s what music is about – communicating ideas, but I’m not communicating ideas, I’m performing live maths! With this I want to be able to do something, get it going then just sing and let the singing have its own space, because I’ve brought in too many other things around it.

“The stuff I’m doing with Head Rush – and I’m talking to Roland and Boss about all kinds of stuff – makes for quite an interesting relationship. There were a couple of things where I said, ‘Could it do this?’ and he was like, ‘No, but there’s a big update coming in this month, do you want us to put something in for you?’. ‘What, you can change the way everything works?’ ‘Well, yeah.’

“This was a completely new realm of developing sounds, working with equipment that suddenly seemed very fixed in the past but has become malleable and fluid in a way I’ve never had access to before. So that’s really interesting.”

Back to the new LP, and for someone only born in 1985, you seem to have pulled in a real ‘70s feel in places.

“Oh, definitely!”

‘Killing Time’ hints at Snow Patrol, but goes a bit off the scale into epic prog towards the end, as if you’ve kidnapped Rick Wakeman, dragged him into your studio and made him play for you.

“Dan Smith played on that, the guitarist in The Noisettes. An old friend now. He’s awesome. We had a couple of really good days.”

It sounds like you’re having fun. You’ve let yourself go, Newton … in a good way.

“Yeah, there’s that very layered kind of cyclical thing and whole choir section at the end that fully came out of nowhere. I opened the track up again, after working on it for months previously, saw this track that said ‘glock’, and wondered, ‘I can’t hear any glock.’ I listened again, and it was recorded with gain too low on the way in.

“I cranked it up, it was just there, and I felt it sounded quite nice, but you still couldn’t pick it out. So I felt, ‘Maybe it needs a couple of voices, just to give it something – in a slightly lower register so it’s not just top-end ping, to just bolster it. So I did a couple of vocals, felt it sounded quite interesting.

“Then, after God knows how long, I decided to try and make the choir from ‘Mr Blue Sky’ – that’s the kind of tone I wanted. I went through doing impressions of random people to try and get this multi-textural thing, and the very high stuff I wanted to sound like an old lady opera singer! And getting loads of dramatically different sounding voices working together is sometimes what you need!”

We need to chill somewhat after that, ‘Here Tonight’ doing the trick nicely, perfect for a sun-setting festival moment, Newton’s folk roots still clearly there. But then we’re off again with ‘Better Way’, another number with a rousing finish. And while it’s starts in very 21st century fashion, it soon enters more filmic territory, the phrase ‘coming around again’ reminding me of Carly Simon, again fitting that ‘70s remit. Was that reference intentional?

“No, that wasn’t intentional, but I can totally hear it!”

If ‘World Away’, perhaps the most commercial moment here, is about being away far too long from home, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there – being careful what you wish for.

“Ha! I know what you mean. And ‘Together’ is kind of about the same thing – being reunited with the people you love after being away, which again became really poignant after everyone got separated for such a long time, kind of morphing in meaning.”

I get that. While ‘World Away’ and ‘Together’ touch on thoughts of home while abroad, something of an alien concept to most of us these past 18 months or so, the premise of ‘feeling as close as it’s possible to feel to someone, while also being as far away as possible whilst still being on the same planet’ no doubt chimes with many of us.

After ‘World Away’, we have another bluesy pop rocker, ‘I Can Pretend’ – like a pumped-up feelgood take on Stereophonics’ ‘Dakota’ – and then the ‘80s does ‘60s soulful interpretation that is ‘Leave Me Lonely’, bringing Steve Winwood to mind in the verse and the afore-mentioned McCartney in a more raucous chorus.

Talking of Winwood, that other track mentioned, the super-catchy ‘Together’, wouldn’t have been out of place on Back in the High Life. And this is definitely a pop section, but with enough Faulkner-esque quirky touches to set it apart from standard chart fare, ‘The Sun is Coming Up’ a case in point, heading towards ELO territory in places. And as I put it to Newton, he’s something of a chameleon, the way he uses his voice, not least with all those influences I hear.

“I do like experimenting with it, and kind of pushing different things. Also, I’m still trying to work out the best ways of using it and find new things in the studio. And when you’re on the road, it’s different again, asking, ‘How do I get that again, every night?’”

‘Rest of Me’ also shines, again in a radio-friendly way, and I wonder if Newton’s been lost in time. He’d have been massive if he’d broken through around the year he was born. And yet I’m sticking with a notion that I prefer it when he takes a more leftfield profile, like on the seemingly-effortless yet right side of ragged ‘Ache for You’, doing his own thing.   

The after-hours laid-back reflection of ‘It’s Getting Late’ also fits that premise, more ethereal and all the more cultured, the soundtrack of a road movie yet to be shot, perhaps, his voice plaintive and subtly expressive.

And then we’re away on another pensive, atmospheric moment, title track of sorts, ‘Interference (F@&k, I Think It’s Love)’, where I suggest to Newton there’s almost – and on reflection it’s on the previous track too – a little Gerry Rafferty amidst his bluesy guitar.

“A bit Gerry Rafferty, a bit Chris Isaak. And definitely Gerry Rafferty in terms of the vocal delivery.”

You hold yourself back on both tracks, and sometimes that can be all the more powerful.

“Ah, I love it as an ending. Soon as we came up with that, I was like, ‘This is the last track – this is how it should all end! We’ve been all over the place, now it’s time to stick your arm out of the window, cruise down the highway and head towards the sunset!”

Funny you should say that. When I finished playing the LP the first time, I went back and played that last number again.

“Did you? Interesting! I’m particularly pleased with that, in terms of a vibe, it’s so contained and full. And my son noticed I was working on it. When I was doing the track-listing, he was doing his maths homework, and said, ‘Daddy, you do know there’s a naughty word on your screen, right?’ I was like, ‘Is there? Where?’ He was, ‘There! There’s an f-word!’ I said sorry about that. He said, ‘Why is it there?’ ‘Ah, it’s a song.’ ‘Have you got a song with the f-word in it?’ ‘Yeah, but I’m a grown-up, so I’m allowed to do that.’ ‘How many times?’ ‘Oh, every chorus.’ He looked more impressed by that than anything else I’ve ever done!”

That’s Newton’s 10-year-old, home-schooled during the recording process and featuring on ‘Back from the Dead’, counting Dad in.

“He asked, while doing his homework, not really taking it all in, ‘Why aren’t you singing anything?’. I said, ‘Because I don’t come in until bar 32,’ so he said, ‘Can you point to it?’. When we got close, he shouted out, ‘One, two, three, go!’ And it was that take I ended up using as the main vocal, as it had an energy to it. I left him on there really quiet, thinking someone will ask me to take it out at some point, then got the first mix back, and it had been cranked right up, being asked, ‘I love this – what is it?’”

In fact, Newton reckons ‘everyone that was there ended up doing loads of stuff’, including his fiancée, who added vocals.

“It was little bits and bobs but made a massive difference, and being able to work was huge! Where people had to go into studios, they weren’t open and you weren’t allowed into them. On ‘Better Way, I spent just four months on that one track. Mildly unhealthy, bordering on obsessive, but it was still amazing to be able to do it!”

It certainly comes over as beautifully crafted, even if he has given himself a headache from here, trying to replicate the album’s feel on the road. But it’s a positive dilremma for an artist based in London from around the time of his first LP success, yet retaining his links to Surrey, having been born in Reigate and studied at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) in my hometown, Guildford, where he recently played a memorable socially-distanced show at Holy Trinity Church.

“That was a beautiful gig. Amazing. I always come back to Guildford for gigs. I want to do more guitar things and was talking to people about that, building more structure around that. I’ve got so many ideas and things to play for at the moment.”

The ACM does seem to have had an impact down the years. As previously discussed on this website, it was close to the long-gone off-licence above which Jet Black masterminded the operation of The Stranglers in the mid-’70s, and these days Hugh Cornwell‘s live trio involves two lecturers from the academy.

“I was incredibly lucky at the ACM when I was there. I had some of the best players in the world just randomly wandering around the corridors there.”

Time is against me by then, and I finish by bringing up that dreaded question of genre really. When I first interviewed him, five and a half years ago, on the release of fifth LP, Human Love, some still had Newton down for crossover folk-rock. He’s certainly not that now. I’m not even sure he was then.

“I never know what to say when people ask. I just say, ‘I do guitar stuff and make mouth noise’! I try and make it sound very simple. I just like experimenting, and I always liked experimenting, so it’s just finding new, interesting ways.

“There’s some new guitars coming out with me, like this guitar called Frank which had a massive influence on this record, the guitar I play on ‘It’s Getting Late’, a very weird electric guitar built by a guy that builds acoustics. So much fun. That’ll be out on the road a lot.”

For the previous WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Newton Faulkner, from March 2016. head here.

Interference (Of Light) is out now on vinyl and CD and is also available digitally, via Battenberg Records, each format featuring different tracklists. Streaming sites get a 17-track album with no interludes; the CD has 17 tracks plus interludes for a smoother flow; and the vinyl will be 11 tracks curated to work on one disc ‘with the best possible flow from one side to the other and the best possible sound’. For details head here or to Newton’s website, where you can also find details of his forthcoming tour dates. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Newton’s autumn tour dates open at Chester Live Rooms (Fri 24 September); Castleton Peak Cavern (Sat 25 September); Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sun 26 September); Bury St Edmunds Apex (Thu 30 September); Tenby De Valence Pavilion (Fri 1 October); and Swansea Patti Pavilion (Sat 2 October). Then comes the Interference (Of Light) tour at Glasgow Galvanizers SWG 3 (Mon 11 October); Edinburgh Liquid Room (Tue 12 October); Newcastle University (Sat 16 October); Hull Asylum (Mon 18 October); Sheffield Leadmill (Tue 19 October); Manchester Ritz (Wed 20 October); Liverpool Academy (Fri 22 October); Cardiff Tramshed (Sat 23 October); Birmingham Institute (Mon 25 October); London Shepherds Bush Empire (Tue 26 October); Norwich UEA (Thu 28 October); Oxford Academy (Fri 29 October); Bristol Anson Rooms (Sat 30 October); Torquay Foundry (Sun 31 October); and Dublin Academy (Tue 2 November).

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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