Often when a band release their debut album and hits the road hard to promote it, as EAGULLS most certainly did, they return with something in the way of an encapsulation of that period, an attempt to capture the raw energy and spirit of a live show that they have honed into blistering perfection through sheer repetition. In the case of EAGULLS, however, the polar opposite has happened. If their self-titled debut album was the surging adrenalin of a young band funnelling all their energies into their opening statement to the world, then ‘ULLAGES‘ is the result of them pausing for breath, reflecting, pondering ‘where next’ and then doing it all again, set on creating an altogether different record.
When you see a band strolling up to the podium to beat the likes of Arcade Fire, Lily Allen and Pharrell to a major prize at the NME Awards, or take the David Letterman show by storm on the same night Bill Murray is a guest, the in-built cynical response is to presume that what you’re seeing is the result of another well-oiled, major label-funded buzz band being churned through the mechanisms of the music industry. These are not scenarios necessarily synonymous with a hard working independent band from Leeds with staunch DIY ethics.
However, such was the success of their incendiary debut album, that this is where they found themselves in the wake of that release in 2014. Having spent a few years filling basements, sweatboxes and a plethora of venues throughout the country, they found themselves catapulted – with the full support of both mainstream and independent press and radio – to playing all over the world, taking in prominent festivals such as Coachella, Latitude, Field Day, Leeds and Reading, Bestival and numerous others, as well as acquiring – often hand-picked – major supports with bands such as the Manic Street Preachers, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Suede, Franz Ferdinand, Ride and many more.
Whilst their debut album was a juggernaut of a record, often moving at breakneck speed and intensity, it was also a deeply melodic one; one that underneath the heady fuzz and gushing charge of the guitars revealed a band with just as many pop leanings as they had punk leanings.
It’s these moments that have been brought to the surface on ULLAGES; dense, deeply textured explorations that recall the shimmering opulence of the Cocteau Twins and the ominous gloom of Disintegration / Pornography era Cure. It’s a sound that represents what they feel was perhaps a misconception about their personality the first time around.
“There was an idea around the release of the first album that we’re these rowdy lads and we’re not, we’re just making music,” says guitarist MARK GOLDSWORTHY, before adding, “with Ullages we wanted to make music that had ups and downs, not one sort of beat; something different but something that follows on from the first record; more dynamic, more thoughtful.”
Such dynamism and thoughtfulness is instantly apparent on the new album. On opening track HEADS OR TAILS, one might be temporarily fooled into thinking Smiths-era Johnny Marr had resurfaced to lend his melodic touch but whilst the track, much like the guts of the rest of the album, recalls such timeless song structures, it takes a new shape and unmistakably becomes EAGULLS’ own.
On MY LIFE IN REWIND, the group allow ruminating bass lines to power the underbelly of the song as luminous guitar lines float above and powerful yet restrained drums colour the background. It’s on tracks such as this that the vocals themselves become another layer of melody; gliding within the song almost like another guitar track has been thrown into the mix.
While thundering drums and heavy, hammering bass may lead the opening to LEMONTREES, it’s songs like this that display the group’s natural propensity for plucking out, seemingly from nowhere, a melody as beautiful as it is gutsy. And it’s a trait that can be found peppered throughout the record. EUPHORIA, as the title suggests, is a glorious injection of serotonin but delivered with a tact and deftness to it. Whilst charged with a pumping, melodic euphoria, it too is draped in a seductive, lugubrious tone.
It’s an exercise in texture and ultimate proof that if EAGULLS wanted to make straight-up, fist-pumping guitar music, they could probably do so with their eyes closed. On ULLAGES they are stretching and reaching for something much higher.
Pushing themselves was always on the agenda for this record. “You don’t ever want to get stuck in a comfort zone,” says guitarist LIAM MATTHEWS of the process, whilst Goldsworthy echoes the sentiment by adding, “You have to push through the hard moments to get places sometimes; you can sail along comfortably or you can take a chance and do what you want to do. When touring, you learn the old songs inside out and, although I still love those songs, it came to a point where it wasn’t challenging, so we thought it would be good to do something that was out of our depth, to push ourselves”.
This was a process that came with its fair share of self-inflicted pressure too. As singer and lyricist GEORGE MITCHELL says, “There was pressure on ourselves to do it better, and we definitely have. We had to propel ourselves to get there”.
The process of writing and recording the album involved long days and nights in their rehearsal space, which turned into long days and nights in a converted Catholic Church with returning producer Matt Peel before the album was mixed by Craig Silvey [Portishead, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, REM]. The intensity of working out some of these new songs, intent on breaking new ground, combined with the concentrated proximity of extensive touring, might have been enough to unsettle some bands but, as EAGULLS prepare to release their moist accomplished work yet, they seem as focussed, bonded and determined as ever.
“This band is really important to us. We don’t ever switch off … ever. It’s very important,” Mitchell says, with Goldsworthy echoing, “None of us switch off but our friendship comes before the band; we’d never let it affect our friendship”. A friendship that’s morphed into a mutated sort of family, as Mitchell says, “I see our band as more like a family, really. We’re together so much; we’re like dysfunctional brothers”.
The title ULLAGES is both an anagram of the band’s name and was once something of a plan B name, as Mitchell explains, “I was thinking that if we ever changed our name, it might be to ULLAGES because it’s an anagram but it also suits these songs really well as most of them are trying to look towards positive thoughts rather than negative, so there’s a ‘whatever’s left in the bottle’ mentality to it rather than half full / half empty”. An ullage is the amount by which a container or bottle falls short of being full.
The current of positivity that can be found running through ULLAGES was an important one to have, say the band. Not only to again shift any false misconceptions that the group are a bunch of raging nihilists with a permanent sense of pessimism, but also on a more pragmatic level for Mitchell.
“The optimism part comes really from the last album in that many saw it as completely pessimistic, but a lot of the songs weren’t; it was more about seeing the good in the bad. But with this one, I wanted to make it a lot more prominent, that you can get positivity from negativity. I also wanted to sing songs with optimism because I’m constantly down. I wanted to sing songs that could make me feel positive because I am always down.”
It’s as refreshing as it is exhausting to hear ULLAGES as the band continue to forge a fierce and prominent British voice in the world of music. This record is every bit as dazzling as its predecessor but it comes with that most rare and treasured quality of feeling simultaneously new whilst retaining the existing character and tone of the band. Never has the term ‘sophomore slump’ been kicked so mercilessly to death as by EAGULLS on ULLAGES.