Come Out Swinging: How You Me At Six found their fight again
Josh Franceschi is frayed around the edges. No, really. You Me At Six’s frontman is sat in a darkened room of his London flat, a lamp on the windowsill providing spectral illumination in the background while his laptop casts an eerie glow upon his face, giving him the appearance of a man caught midway between worlds.
This, it turns out, is a fairly apt approximation of YMAS’s 2020, given they spent much of last year building up to the release of their seventh album, SUCKAPUNCH, while being robbed of any ability to play its songs live (the band’s last show was their headline slot at London’s Gunnersville Festival on 8 September 2019, months before the words ‘coronavirus’, ‘doomscrolling’ and ‘furlough’ became part of the everyday lexicon). “There’s been a real disconnect,” explains Josh of life since, a bottle of beer in hand. “I’ve been trying to feel good without music, which is the thing that I’ve always had to make me feel good. I went through a phase of Imposter Syndrome, asking myself: ‘Who am I without this massive part of my life?’”
Maybe he could become a teacher. Among YMAS’s last live performances, pre-COVID, were sets at Reading & Leeds, where they performed alongside the likes of Royal Blood, twenty one pilots and Foo Fighters, but could the band’s frontman command a classroom as ably as a festival main stage? Or perhaps the man who’s become increasingly confessional in his lyrics could one day become Dr Franceschi, pursuing his interest in psychology to explore the minds of others as well as his own?
Josh has seen both as potential alternative career options, with opportunities and interests of a life away from music increasingly turning the head of this “complicated” man in recent years. “I think it was a positive in terms of growth and evolution and all that quirky shit,” he ponders of that rarest of commodities, upsides to 2020, suggesting he’s found his way back to the path. “It was good for gratitude and appreciation – understanding what we’ve got.”
Josh had already received a lesson in gratitude when YMAS recorded their new album. It was one he needed more than bandmates – guitarists Max Helyer and Chris Miller, bassist Matt Barnes, and drummer Dan Flint – given that, by his own admission, he wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of album number seven. “I won’t say it was getting like Groundhog Day, because that gives it a negative connotation,” he says of the role he’s played since he was 15. “But I was starting to wonder if there was something more than this. This is the only thing I’ve known, and I want to know what else I’m capable of doing. Being in a band takes up a lot of your time, headspace and being – in the best way possible – but it felt like a hurdle rather than something that elevated me.”
What got Josh through? Perhaps it was his agreement with producer Dan Austin to approach SUCKAPUNCH as if it were YMAS’s final musical statement. “I knew it had to happen for other people in the band, but there was a detachment between me and making music,” he reveals of his predicament. “Eventually, though, I liked the challenge of how we might leave [the band’s career]. What would our swan song be? It would have to be completely unfiltered; it’s got to be everything.”
So did he mean it? Or was it something he told himself to ensure he and his band, free from distractions and the opportunities for pulled punches they can allow, could unveil every experimental impulse they’d ever had? “In essence, it really got a rise out of me,” admits Josh. “It got a rise out of Dan [Austin] too. And in a poetic way, it bled through to everyone else.”
Despite this rationale, guitarist Max Helyer thinks Josh may have been more serious about calling it a day going into SUCKAPUNCH than he’s letting on. “I felt like this was going to be his last record,” Max says of his best mate later. “And I felt like it could be the last You Me At Six record, seeing the uphill battles we’d dealt with. Things happened in our individual lives.”
Hear Josh describe how experimentation helped YMAS find their true selves again
Max has been through his fair share of challenges, not least the breakdown of a relationship he won’t be drawn on, but which has left a mark on him as evident as the peroxide that’s bleached his hair. Despite “savage” experiences, he remains the excitable hype man he’s always been – albeit with a new air of world weariness.
For all of us, navigating the change from our teenage years to adulthood is difficult enough, but YMAS had to do so while keeping their friendships and band going, as well as pleasing the many factions of an audience wanting different things from their heroes. Though life dealt Josh and Max a series of recent blows even before a global pandemic reared its virulent head and put them on the canvas. In such trying circumstances, then, just making an album would have been enough – let alone one that sees its authors land the kind of creative KO you no longer thought them capable of…
In recent weeks, You Me At Six’s social media accounts have gone into overdrive sharing pictures from the making of SUCKAPUNCH. The images, taken in October and November of 2019, show the band under caramel-coloured skies punctuated by palm trees, basking in the sun and a sense of camaraderie at Karma Studios in Bang Saray, a beach area near the city of Pattaya, Thailand.
“It felt like the perfect place to go to unplug from the world and have pure focus, where we were able to leave behind lots of ill thoughts and feelings,” enthuses Josh of the place where Enter Shikari recorded their 2012 album A Flash Flood Of Colour, and Bullet For My Valentine made 2013’s Temper Temper. It was a location agreed with producer Dan, who first worked with YMAS on their 2012 single The Swarm – to accompany the Thorpe Park ride of the same name – and also manned the console on 2018’s VI album.
“[On] the last record, we were getting to know each other and finding our feet with each other,” explains the bearded producer on a recently released documentary filmed during the making of SUCKAPUNCH. “We created, I think, a fantastic record,” he says of VI. “But on this one a lot of that getting to know each other and having to get the best results out of each other is out of the way. We’re constantly now pushing each other to see how far we can go.”
Interestingly, in the same doc, guitarist Matt Barnes claims credit for the idea of recording in Thailand. Whoever was responsible, though, studios in Wales, Belgium and Los Angeles were all considered first, before being dismissed in favour of a remoteness more conducive to the focus the band needed.
“I always manage to find something to distract myself with,” admits Josh of past recording experiences. “I’ve made albums where I’ve been clock-watching the whole time, trying to get out so I could go and watch a gig down the street. Even where we were at Vada [Studios, Worcestershire, where VI was made] I knew I could pop home for the weekend, or to the local pub to watch the football, so there was always something to remove us. But when you’re having to exist in the same space for the whole time, if you’re having a bad day or things aren’t coming together, you’re forced to face it head on and become accustomed to having no fear.”
As the beers flow today, so does the conversation, particularly regarding the idyllic conditions Josh and his bandmates had been in, a stark contrast to the cabin fever inside his flat now, and the clinging cold outside it. “Everything was clear then and nothing was distorted. We knew what we wanted and what we were doing. We were doing 16-hour days where the time flew by effortlessly.”
Hear Josh discuss the transformative effect of choosing to record SUCKAPUNCH on the other side of the world
So satisfying were conditions during the six weeks in Thailand, in fact, that drummer Dan Flint was forced to reconsider his long-held belief that the making of fourth album Cavalier Youth in the Hollywood Hills was the best recording experience of their lives. The band only took a few Sundays off during their stay, too, with Josh recalling one in particular. The five friends had called time on work early the previous evening so they could rise before dawn to board a boat for a day of island hopping, returning for a water volleyball tournament and a spot of dinner beneath the stars, before retreating to the studio until 6am. What’s more, the twilight session that followed this “perfect day” yielded WYDRN (What You Doing Right Now), SUCKAPUNCH’s woozy, dancey fourth track, which features the lyric: ‘Tell me when you’re back down south / Until then keep my name out your mouth.’
“It’s one of my favourites on the record,” says Josh of a song referenced numerous times during our hour-long conversation. “But [it] wouldn’t have ended up the way it has if we’d been somewhere else, because we’d have said things like, ‘That bit sounds too much like hip-hop, so we should leave that bit alone’, or let our trepidation veer away from the album’s title track sounding like [legendary London trance outfit] Faithless with big guitars.”
Josh and Max, as the latter explains, were in a similarly lasting embrace this time around, which proved mutually beneficial. “Josh helped me when I was going through a really shit point in my life,” the guitarist admits. “That’s when we wrote [new] songs like Beautiful Way, Kill The Mood and MAKEMEFEELALIVE together. Having seen what I was going through, I could tell [Josh] realised it wasn’t the time to give up on the band. At the same time, I could see he needed his best mate to fucking be there with him, doing what he loves doing. [Josh has] become more open over the last few records than he’s ever been. And the man is a fucking hook machine! It was so much fun to help each other.”
The duo have long been united by their desire to evolve their band’s sound. When Kerrang! joined them on the road in early 2017, while they toured less appreciated fifth album Night People, talk already revolved around their frustrations with rock’s blinkered adherence to the album format and the lessons in creative fluidity to be learned from hip-hop. Given Josh and Max’s desire to push the envelope, presumably they’re happy to have produced an album replete with unusual touches and textures that, sonically, walks it like they’ve long talked it?
It’s a yes from Max, the restless musical soul who namechecks Tool, Muse, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar and Foals in the course of this interview alone. He has long impatiently moved on to new ideas the moment an album is finished, which makes the admission he regularly listens to SUCKAPUNCH rather impactful. “There’s not many records we’ve done in our career I’d do that with,” he admits. “But I’ll sit there and say: ‘Hey mum, dad, sister, girlfriend, friend… I want to play you some new shit. If you think you know our band? You don’t.’ From track one, Nice To Me, which is properly heavy, you’re on board and the album doesn’t let you go from there.”
Josh agrees, particularly when you compare the album to its predecessor. “I think VI was made by a band coming out of an interesting time, with rough internal business things going on with labels, managers and lawyers that you don’t want to have to worry about. VI was us safely putting out a record to get some validation for ourselves, while this album is like the middle child that can get away with anything and everything. I know we’ve said that shit out loud before, but we didn’t really say it with our chests. It’s about being our own thing and not chasing a sound or success, or trying to emulate your peers because it’s been done. This is the record where we’ve found our place, having gone missing for a little while. It’s empowering and liberating.”
Listen to Josh take you behind the scenes on SUCKAPUNCH track Glasgow
Josh's facial expression is pained to say the least. His eyes are screwed shut and his mouth is wide, with teeth bared, as if he's snarling his way through an unpleasant ordeal. Meanwhile, flames burn perilously close to his head and steam rises from his ears. Before you start worrying about the welfare of the singer, however, we should explain that we’re describing his appearance on the label for SUCKAPUNCH, the vegan hot sauce accompanying the album of the same name. This habanero based bad boy containing distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt is the result of a collaboration with Lou’s Brews, the company responsible for Creeper’s Angel Blood sauce.
“Matt was passionate about doing it,” says Josh of the kind of innovations keeping things interesting in the face of more routine elements like, say, interviews. “It opens the door to different kinds of conversations, like us being asked to do food blogs and discuss veganism, stuff that’s got nothing to do with our music but keeps things fresh. Back in the day we’d do press junkets where we’d have 15 – 20 interviews in a day, and by the end of it all we’d literally hate saying things about our own band or our music. So as soon as Matt suggested we do the hot sauce, it made complete sense to me. Why should we take this side of things so seriously?”
Why indeed? Because let’s be honest, You Me At Six have had a spicy old time of it, the equivalent of riding a rollercoaster atop another rollercoaster. They went into making a new album unsure of music’s place in their lives and emerged with a record that reaffirmed their love for who they are and what they do, only for proceedings to be then derailed in the most all-encompassing way possible. But given that Josh, Max, Chris, Matt and Dan have now been forced by circumstance to consider the prospect of life without a career in music, that serious question looms back into view: could SUCKAPUNCH be the final You Me At Six album? Even if the coronavirus pandemic is contained sooner rather than later, the omens aren’t looking good for bands trying to ply their trade post-Brexit. Days after this interview, reports appear that the UK rejected an offer of visa-free tours by musicians in the EU. ‘This government does not care about musicians’, Josh reacted via Twitter to the news.
Despite being the resident “eternal optimist”, Max can’t say whether it will or won’t be the end of the band records wise, though not because he’s bound by some sort of bro code – he simply doesn’t know at this point. Plus, he’s not a fan of bands teasing their own demise as part of some long-term marketing strategy, only for the ‘shock’ announcement of another album a couple of years down the road. “If this is the last record that You Me At Six do, I think we can all walk away knowing we put more blood, sweat and tears into this than any record we’ve ever made before,” he suggests. “We stepped up to the game, tried different things, and genre-mashed like never before. Maybe we’re ending the chapter… maybe we’re ending the book.”
Josh has a more romantic view of things. Finish What I Started, SUCKAPUNCH’s epic, Imagine Dragons-esque penultimate track was written on tour in 2017 and now being released in 2021. “That makes me think we’re writing songs that still make sense years later,” the frontman offers. “That tells me we still have a place. As long as our band still has the ability to create songs personal to us that become equally personal to other people, strangers, then we’ll keep going. That’s a rare commodity – and one the world needs now more than ever.”
You Me At Six’s SUCKAPUNCH is released on January 15 via Underdog Records / AWAL. Pre-order and pre-save your copy here.
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