Having taken a few musical cues (and their band name) from an old Charlie Chaplin film, British alt-rockers A Silent Film clearly have a deep and abiding love for the music scene across the pond.
Last year the Oxford-based duo made headlines and solidified the affection of diehard fans in the states with their Secret Rooms tour, a unique series of shows across America where the band found unconventional venues like an abandoned warehouse, a bike shop, and a recording studio – the location of which was announced to ticketholders just 48 hours in advance. The result was a more intimate, stripped-down set that paved the way for the band’s self-titled third album, their most personal record to date.
This summer they’re back on tour in America playing a more traditional set, but as drummer Spencer Walker puts it, they’ve always done things “slightly differently,” so we wouldn’t put it past them to have few surprises up their sleeve.
All Things Go caught up with Spencer before the band’s show at D.C.’s Rock and Roll Hotel.
For those reading who aren’t familiar with your music, let’s start with some basic background info. How did you get into music? And how did you and Robert come together to create A Silent Film?
Spencer Walker: Robert and I met when we were 13 years old. We met at school where we both were playing music. We were both into the same kind of music, so we ended up starting a thing together. We were in lots of different bands, but eventually we found the right ingredients and started A Silent Film. From there it was a pretty weird trajectory to get over to America, but we’ve always done things slightly differently, and we’ve always been independent. If an opportunity arose, even if it seemed a little unusual, we tended to jump on it. Without the usual support of a big major label telling you to do things, we had a very unusual start where we did work in England and did a fair amount of touring there. Then we ended up in Portugal of all places because there was a label there who wanted to put our music out. That actually was really successful, and then after that there was an indie label in America who wanted to license the record and put out the debut album. We had nothing to lose, and the rest is history. We got lucky on KROQ and some other important radio stations where that first single did well enough for us to build on that ever since.
Are you still with that label or is your latest music fully independent?
SW: We licensed that debut album to a label, but we’ve been independent since day one. So we have our own label and we release through that.
Got it, so you’re truly “indie” then! Let’s talk about your new album, A Silent Film. How is this one different from your prior two? What did you guys try to do to chart new musical territory?
SW: We certainly don’t set out with anything particular in mind with each new record. Our general way we work is that we always change. We’re always inspired by new music, new art, the people we meet on tour, the places we go, so what we write is constantly evolving. It’s less a case of us saying, “Ok great, we’re just going to make a record inspired by this,” or, “We’re going to make a record inspired by that.” Because of the experiences we have in between each record, inherently when we come to write that music it has evolved. It is in a new place. It’s in a different place than where it was before. For our second record we spent so much time here in the states on tour, and we wrote a lot of it out here. We were in the desert for about six months doing that album. But for this one we wrote a lot more of it at home, and I think that actually comes through in the feel of the record. Maybe it only comes through to Robert and I, but we feel like it’s a little more nostalgic for us. It’s got more of a flavor of yearning for home. Again, it’s not like we set out to write that, but now that we’re a little distant from it that’s what it sounds like to me.
The album is self-titled, and I’m always a little mystified when artists do this. Why did you make the third album the self-titled one? Was there any particular reason for that?
SW: We’ve had some lineup changes in the last couple of years. The band started as Robert and I, and it’s always been that way, though we’ve worked with lots of people over that time. It’s funny, because when we sat down to finish the writing for this album, we both were thinking it, and we both immediately agreed that (making it self-titled) felt right – that this album, perhaps, was the first one that really reflected in an uncompromised way what we wanted to do at this moment. It just felt like something of a rebirth to us. So we decided that, yeah, it’s often the first album that is self-titled, but we always do everything slightly differently, so it figures it was going to be the third album not the first album. But yeah, it just felt right.
You’ve said in past conversations that your songs are a mix of autobiographical and other stories, but that more and more they’re becoming more personal and based on your own experiences. To what extent is that true on your latest album? What’s prompted that shift?
S: Robert writes all the lyrics – though I can happily say that we’ve talked about this a lot. He very much felt that when we were starting out he didn’t think he had the experiences necessary to write in a way that would interest him – and connect with other people – about his life. I think that what’s changed over that time is we have had a lot of experiences, you know? A lot changes from when you’re writing your first album, when you haven’t done very much, to now. We’ve done hundreds of shows over here; we’ve played on multiple continents. You inherently have a lot of experiences in that time. You have the great tour experiences that everyone would assume you have – weird stuff happens on tour – but you’ve also been learning and growing as a musician and as a person. So I think that (Robert) feels now that he’s in more of a position where he can justify being more autobiographical than perhaps we were on our first record.
You’re music is refreshingly genuine and free of cynicism and irony because, as you guys have put it, you see it as a way to draw people together and for them to make deep emotional connections with each other. Are there any ways you’ve seen your new album do this as you’ve taken it on tour and released it to the world?
SW: We’re probably not the best people to ask about that (laughs) but in a way we do see our fans come together, and honestly nothing gives us more pleasure. There’s this ability we now have to correspond with fans directly through social media, which was something we didn’t have when we were growing up. That’s an amazing tool; that’s an amazing thing as a fan to be able to do that. It took a little bit of adjusting – though I would say that’s probably true for a lot of artists – but especially for our generation who grew up with music pre-social media, pre-the internet. We straddle both worlds so it took us a little time to get our heads around it, honestly. But at this point we get to go and witness these interactions – not just ones that we’re directly involved in – but we look at these pages – our pages. And you see fans from all over the world talking to each other, forming bonds and relationships through our music. And honestly it’s like, I’m sure every band shares that, but it is the most amazing thing to actually witness and to think that you had some small part in bringing people together. We live to play shows, and at every show our aim is to try to make some kind of connection with every single person in that room. We want to make them feel something different – to make them feel there was a reason why they came down to that show and hopefully made them feel like they’re talking something away that is more than what they came in with. That’s why we do it. And so you try to do it through recorded music, you then try to it through the live show, and now you have this other layer where you’re also doing it because there’s this whole online community built around A Silent Film’s music. And that’s a very cool thing to us.
Speaking of touring, as the core of the band what is your and Robert’s relationship like? Are you always hanging out when you guys are on tour or do you each need your own space?
SW: You know it’s really weird that no one’s ever asked us that question. I feel like we know each other incredibly well now, probably to the point where we don’t need to communicate directly as other people do because by and large we know what the other one is either thinking or wanting. So it’s often quite an unspoken relationship. I think we are two quite different people with fairly different skill sets who complement each other hugely well because one thing we’ve always had in common is a shared objective, especially a shared passion for what we do: the music that we make together. Because the end game for us has always been the same thing, we’ve been able to harness both of our different skill sets and talents and actually allow them to complement each other. If we didn’t have the same goal I don’t know how close we would be, because we’re pretty different.
Can I ask you about the song that put A Silent Film on the map for me?
SW: Yeah of course!
I remember the first time listening through your second album, Sand & Snow, and the track “Let Them Feel Your Heartbeat” really grabbed me – in large part for how it portrays love and intimacy as this tangled mix of selfishness and vulnerability. Can you share anything about the back story of that song?
SW: Weirdly it was the first song that was written for the second album, because it actually was written right at the end of the first album. There was a point where we did a version of it that we almost put on the first album when we released it in the states as an extra track. We just weren’t quite sure we’d got it right, and I’m so glad we didn’t put it on, because we definitely didn’t get it right. But then we really got it right the second time. Stylistically, when we recorded that song we were both feeling pretty inspired by certain artists and records. Sam’s Town, by The Killers, would be a fairly good example of some of the stuff we were thinking about at that point. We thought that song could really benefit from that kind of production, and we wanted to go in and do something similar. It’s got a sort of pop-y chorus, but we wanted to do something with a more rock-ish arrangement.
Last year you did your Secret Rooms tour, which showed that you guys aren’t afraid to try something unique or unconventional when it comes to your live show. As a teaser, is there anything special we can look forward to on this coming tour?
SW: Obviously Secret Rooms was something fairly unique. So I would say don’t expect something quite so different, but for this tour we’ve still got some really exciting things. We’re going to be playing a bunch of brand new songs for the first time that we’ve just been working on the last two weeks. So in fact D.C. is going to be the third city in the world to hear these new songs, which is pretty exciting. For us it is obviously such a joy to be able to play new stuff and test drive those songs. And then we’re also revisiting some older songs that we have taken note that our fans wanted to hear, so we’ll be playing some old favorites that we haven’t played in a while. And as ever we’ll just be bringing the usual – high-energy, high-octane. We’re always open and up for seeing people after the show. We like to make sure we meet everyone who wants to say “hi” to us. It’s always a good time!