Asylums’ Track-By-Track Guide To New Album, Genetic Cabaret
This Friday (July 17), Southend art-rockers Asylums will release their third full-length album Genetic Cabaret. Recorded in Chicago with Steve Albini, it’s the product of a band not only looking outward at a crumbling society, but also gazing inward at their own wellbeing.
After five years of touring, the band took six months off in 2019 to recuperate and work on music that would become Genetic Cabaret.
“I wanted to slow the pace down for a while and really enjoy writing the record at home,” frontman Luke Branch tells Kerrang!.
“During that time my wife and I decided to try for a baby and as such there was some deep introspection while also looking towards the future,” he continues. “In the news, the debate around Brexit raged on and the country seemed to be in a state of crisis and change. I started to develop an interest in political history and this – along with the prospect of fatherhood – seeped into the music.”
Below, Luke takes us behind every song on the upcoming album.
“The first track on the record is called Catalogue Kids and it subsequently became the first single we released from the record at the end of January.
“Weirdly, it was one of the final songs to be written for Genetic Cabaret. It contains some of the musical DNA of our previous records, while delving into different lyrical territory.
“I was thinking a lot about my own childhood and how it informed my adult life; I tried to make connections between my learned behaviour and how we find our place in the world. The title of the song was intended to be taken a number of different ways; on the one hand it evokes memories of happy children staring back at me from Argos toy catalogues during my childhood, while on the other hand it makes me think of how we put each other into pigeonholes. The funny kid, the eccentric, the academic, the romantic, the loser, the brave… More often than not we are probably all of these definitions at different times in our lives and we may not recognise it. Ultimately, I think the message in the song is that as humans we are not easily definable.”
“During the first few months of writing I forced myself to only use a synthesizer, my voice, and an 808 drum machine. The psychology behind this approach was to find songs that had a colder more angular intrinsic value, and to leave room for the boys to put their stamp on the material when we developed it as a band. I listened to a lot of Soft Cell, early Pet Shop Boys, John Carpenter soundtracks and escaped the electric guitar just long enough to miss it.
“Myself and Jazz [Miell, guitar] would meet every Tuesday and work up a new tune. As we worked on Platitudes it started to take on a new personality; it was faster, more frantic, more warped lyrically. I realised that what I was trying to communicate was an observation of the political messaging going on in our country at a time where things are hyper-sloganised.”
A Perfect Life In A Perfect World
“A Perfect Life In A Perfect World was the first song that I fell in love with on this record. It came out at the piano one day as I had a simple 808 rhythm playing, and out of that 10-minute jam came almost everything in the basic song.
“As Jazz and I started to develop it for the band, I felt that somewhere inside of the tune it had a quality that evoked Baba O’Riley by The Who, perhaps even something like Free Falling by Tom Petty in its simplicity. In contrast to those references, Michael [Webster, bass] and Henry [Tyler, drums] were able to bring a little bit of Talking Heads to the verse play and I really liked the juxtaposition of those influences. As far as pop songs go for Asylums, it’s one of my favourites.
“The message in the lyrics is for anyone who has ever struggled with low moods in their lives. I certainly have and for years I found it difficult to live in the moment – always thinking about a perfect life.”
A Town Full Of Boarded Up Windows
“The changing shape of consumption has long been an area that I’ve enjoyed writing about. Songs like Joy In A Small Wage featured lyrics like, ‘If the high street closes down should we leave town?’
“In A Town Full Of Boarded Up Windows I wanted to paint a pretty stark picture, I would walk around my hometown as well as other high streets in the country and see lots of boarded-up shop windows and flats in recent years; while some rejuvenated high streets have the emphasis on food entertainment for the more affluent.
“It was written at the piano and initially I didn’t think of it as an Asylums song, when I showed it to Jazz he immediately copped the main riff which I was playing at the piano and I realised it would work for us if we kept it really simple. There’s some of The Beatles in there, perhaps even a little bit of dub in the bass and drums. It’s a different flavour for us and it’s really satisfying when we hit that chorus and all those long-hanging chords open up and move in unpredictable ways.”
Clean Money is a sleazy sounding song and a sleazy subject matter. When I’m working on our heaviest songs I tend to collect riffs and squirrel them away until need them. Around January 2019 I was listening back to a bunch of riffs and I came across the verse and middle-right parts to Clean Money – both I really liked. The song features a couple of my favourite lyrics as it explores the fear of being an artist and also a businessman working within an industry that’s been through extreme change in the way you are able to earn. There are some nods to Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible era in there, but like all the best heavy Asylums songs, it sounds stressed out and humorous at the same time.”
Who Writes Tomorrow’s Headlines?
“Who Writes Tomorrow’s Headlines? is another one of my favourites on the album; musically, lyrically an arrangement-wise it’s all quite different for us. While working on the music for this album I became fairly obsessed with the politics of the 1980s and the various bands that soundtracked it: The Jam, The Specials, The Smiths and so on.
“It felt to me like some aspects of what I was researching from that era were also being replicated in real-time contemporary politics as it continued to shape-shift.
“I showed the song to Jazz on the piano about 24-hours after I wrote it and we quickly found a way to translate it into Asylums. I love the fact that the chorus is the verse and the main riff occupies the space where a traditional chorus would normally be.”
The Distance Between Left & Right
“We knew that we would be recording with Steve Albini before we rehearsed any of the songs as a band. During the writing and selection period we were all looking for certain material that would lend itself to being recorded live, as well as benefitting from the incredible drum sound Steve can create.
“This song was an instrumental that I had been digging for quite some time and I was tossing and turning about whether to make it melodic or not. I often keep a little lyric book with me with me wherever I am, and one morning I was having a coffee and saw the title ‘The distance between left and right’ on the page and it instantly inspired a full lyric.
“It is written from a politically-neutral perspective and just observes the fury going on inside the Houses Of Commons and the UK during the first half 2019.
“Henry and I had good fun collaborating on the drum part. Jazz typically added some massively trippy elements to the track, which give it a surreal quality, and Mike bought a heavy portion of the Beastie Boys to the awesome bassline. I can’t wait to play this one live.”
The Miracle Age
“In the six months that followed the release of our second album, Alien Human Emotions, I took a bit of a nosedive in terms of my mental health. I was totally exhausted from writing, performing, running the label, day job stuff and generally absorbing too much stress.
“Throughout those months I would record fragments music at the piano as a daily coping strategy for stress. The Miracle Age was born out of one of those pieces and I remember that upon playback this idea had a melodic quality that was quite pure, memorable and emotional. We were in two minds as to whether to record it at first because it is very tender.
“When we got to Chicago with Steve the first three or four songs for the album were recorded on the first day. As jetlag was kicking into excruciating levels Mike began crawling about the floor of the studio begging for some sleep… To close the day we took one crack at this song and that’s the version on the album. I don’t think any of us could believe how lovely it sounded upon playback – its one of my favourite vocals on the album.”
“Adrenaline Culture was the first demo Jazz and I finished for Genetic Cabaret. It was a nice mid-paced tune that helped us ease back into the process. We all really like the melody and the laid-back swagger of it.
“From a lyrical perspective it is informed by several experiences; firstly, my own workaholic tendencies which are often compounded by being in a particularly difficult industry that can mess with your self-esteem. Secondly by the wider culture of constant work that exists in the world – be it on email and phones 24 hours a day, encroaching on evermore family time, rest and clarity. Finally, there is a bit of the pandemonium that existed as the Brexit debate continued to play out with its moving deadlines and political conflicts. The message in the song is a bit of a mood piece for those three intersecting areas.”
“I like collecting song titles that can inspire full songs, and the whole idea of Yuppie Culture in the 1980s has long fascinated me; probably because it is diametrically opposed to my own values being in the arts. As I’ve mentioned I spent a long time researching the 1980s from a cultural and political perspective while writing this album and it made me wonder whether Yuppiedom still exists in a different guise today, or perhaps if it is in the process of emerging?
“The song was quite challenging musically. We worked really hard to give the song an off-kilter schizophrenic quality, while still retaining its core message of questioning greed culture. There is also a nod to the book Who Owns The Future by Jaron Lanier.”
“This is one of our most musically ambitious tracks. It certainly pushed our musicianship to it limits as the track moves in and out of various time-signatures, tempos and is full of odd syncopated rhythms.
“We wanted to try something that had a more groove-orientated feel so that it would allow me to move in a different direction as a singer.
“The subject matter of the song continues with some of the themes from Catalogue Kids and expands upon them. It talks about the inheritance of personality traits, explores the idea of cloning and deepfaking in a society that is breaking down, but also how we document our lives in real-time using social media posts that produce micro-dopamine responses in the brain.”
“Dull days was always going to be the last song on the album and it strangely foreshadowed some of the experiences that the lockdown has brought into our lives.
“It was written on piano and developed specifically as one of Asylums’ more intimate slow songs. We enjoy this kind of material as music fans and over the years it has offered a contrast to our more hectic moments.
“The genesis of this song goes back to my early 20s when my experience of being a creative person was quite depressing. I would often be by myself in between jobs - broken up slightly by touring and writing. This song is about those days when the motivation to get out of bed was low, when you feel hollowed out by the pace of life and the pursuit of dreams.
“In those younger years I found it difficult to imagine how I would ever be able to afford my own flat let alone support myself and a family as a creative. I suppose that inherently breeds low self-esteem. It gave me great satisfaction to record this song with one of my heroes in Chicago as an older man.
“Henry doesn’t play drums on this song although he does sing backing vocals, he also encouraged us to record the track without a metronome and to rely purely on instinct and eye contact to capture the feeling in the lyrics.
“We were looking at each other’s feet tapping on the floor as we recorded but upon playback we realised that he was completely right. I’m happy with the vocals on this song and Steve was very complimentary about my abilities the singer, which is something I’m certainly insecure about. Jazz and Mike also contributed some really soulful playing and I’m very proud of them for that too.
“In today’s world it is hard to reach making a third album no matter who you are and we are so grateful to the universe that we could do just that.”
Asylums’ new album Genetic Cabaret is out July 17 via Cool Thing Records.
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