Pop Smarts and Bittersweet Melodies: An Interview with From Apes to Angels

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 6.54.52 PMConsisting of Millie Gaum on vocals and producer Andrew Brassleay on synths, From Apes to Angels is a retrowave synthpop act from London and Sheffield. Their debut EP, New Skin, drops in July, and it’s overflowing with gorgeous, shimmering synths and angelic vocals. The songs are reminiscent of 80s synth pop like Nenah’s “99 Luftbalons” or Depeche Mode’s early catalog—and maybe a hint of Bananarama, but the tracks are produced with a contemporary twist that allows them to sit comfortably next to more contemporary acts like MGMT or Tegan and Sara. And while New Skin is certainly a fun collection of songs, its musical terrain is complex enough to warrant multiple listens, each with its own sonic revelations and lyrical discoveries.

I love the name of your band. It suggests, to me anyway, evolution not just from where we came from to where we are now but also to where we’re ultimately headed as a species. Is there any way in which your music is looking forward to – or even trying to inspire – the next step in our evolution?

Andrew: Spot on: the name’s pretty much a direct nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey – in particular that cut scene towards the start that spans about two million years in a matter of seconds. It was something we had in mind when we were coming up with names that suited our sound. The eighties was the last era that had a whole tonne of pop songwriters unashamedly pushing for a grand, melody-driven cinematic vision in their sound — music that really sparked big, widescreen images in the listener’s head: Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, Prince, U2. There’s not a lot of major, major acts nowadays who are doing that, though Lana Del Rey and Florence + the Machine spring to mind as exceptions. So that from the past is what we’re trying to evoke. But I don’t think what we do could have been written at any other time apart from now. We’re trying to shove the form forward in our own daft way.

Millie: I very much wish we could be inspiring the next step in the earth’s evolution! I find myself writing lyrics which are actually quite concerned with the fact that being a human being (an ape even) is challenging and that while desperately wanting our lives to be happy and peaceful (perhaps angelic) I think we humans are constantly challenged by our own impulses. I like to sing about that pull between wanting to be “good” and needing to be “bad.”

More cosmically, where do you see humanity going, and how does your music fit into that vision?

Andrew: If we don’t end up with flying cars I’ll be very upset. But I’m far more pessimistic than I might have been even a few years ago. We can go as far as our imaginations take us, but we’ll probably end up destroying ourselves before the century’s up. We’ve somehow been pushed along to be able to see the ends of the universe and a huge understanding of what surrounds us by a small number of geniuses, while the rest of us get on with stumbling about in the dark. How do we fit into that? God knows; I think we’re also just stumbling about just making what sounds right by us. If we manage to communicate anything positive to our fellow stragglers, or make a connection where otherwise there wouldn’t have been one, then that’s just grand.

Millie: I am told that we are due an Ice Age! It puts things in perspective for me in terms of our significance here. Seriously, though, I find it crazy that we haven’t managed to live together amiably. Wherever we are destined to as a species I feel that every day we can act in a way that serves the world and our fellow human beings. To act kindly is the bread-and-butter daily commitment I make. This doesn’t apply when someone cuts me up in the car obviously; then I may just employ ape-ish behaviour.

What inspires your music?

Millie: I need to write and sing in order to feel grounded and make sense of the world. It is an act of emotional release for me. I am inspired by my daily observations and also by the stories I hear, read and watch every day; human suffering is immense. Somehow when I hit a good vocal melody and lyric I feel that it touches something in me which is a kind of balm. I guess I hope maybe someone listening to it would feel the same. I am really inspired by other musicians too, their music drives me to want to create my own. There’s so much good music out there and I don’t want to be left behind. Working with Andrew is a great source of inspiration because his instrumental tracks really hit the spot for me – I just have to listen to a track once and I find myself hitting a vocal line. It’s a really satisfying creative process, I’m not sitting there racking my brains wondering how I can fit into a song. Sometimes in terms of lyrics I like to make up scenarios and imagine myself to be in a certain situation and sing about that. I heard in an interview with Joan Armatrading that she does that, she said few of her songs are based on personal experience.

I was glancing at some of the bands you like on your Facebook page and was surprised to see Buddy Holly listed alongside Depeche Mode. I’m a fan of both, but it was the first time I’d ever seen their names right next to each other. How do these extremely different performers find their way into your sound?

Andrew: Apart from the fact they had pop smarts, they’re great for parties. If anyone complains if either Rave On or I Just Can’t get Enough come on at a house party, I’m not sure I’d want to know that person. They were also pioneering – anyone who pushes boundaries back is alright in my book. It’s pretty easy to get started with synths nowadays – anyone can do it and have access to it. I can’t imagine how Depeche Mode and the others in the late 70s and early 80s managed to get started and figure out how to start off playing with all that gear. Just think of the hours they must have spent tweaking to get the right sound.

Along similar lines, are there any other unexpected juxtapositions in your music?

Andrew: I’m a metalhead deep down, so a lot of those rhythms end up turning up in our music; just in a different format.

Millie: I’ve always loved bittersweet melodies. The Cocteau Twins are my all-time favourite band and if we can replicate any kind of that pleasure/pain vibe then I will feel I have achieved something.  I didn’t know Andrew was a metalhead but that explains a lot about our “noisy” music now. I really like dance music so I tend to quite like relying on the repetition of one very good melody line but Andrew seems to like a lot of changes in the songs and so I’m learning to appreciate that.

I also hear hints of Stone Roses—especially on “Together.” I also get the sense that your music is firmly rooted in 80s synth pop. What’s your attraction to this sound?

Millie: I’m so pleased you reference the Stone Roses! I procured a bootleg copy of their The Stone Roses album in Camden Market back in the day and what a marvellous work it is. You are right: our sound is firmly rooted in 80s synth pop. For me it’s a very nostalgic sound, perhaps because the 80s is the era I grew up in. Songs like The Human League’s Together in Electric Dreams are just pure pop heaven. I watched so many of the films at the time such as The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, St Elmo’s Fire, and I think that those films introduced me to certain sounds. The Psychedelic Furs’ Pretty in Pink track is addictive to me.

Andrew: There’s a lot you can do with synth pop sonically. It’s not like playing a guitar — unless you’re Tom Morello you’re going to get so much more out of them than you will with a guitar, even if you have a pedal rack the size of Yorkshire.

For readers who aren’t familiar with your local geography, how far apart are London and Sheffield—both in terms of actual distance and also culturally?  What does it mean for you to be from both places, and how does that influence your music?

Millie: Without wishing to sound like a travel guide, Sheffield and London are a three-and-a-half hour drive by car. Sheffield is a very down to earth sort of place. You can’t really have a big head about you for long before someone snaps you out of it, people can see through your act. I rather like that. The music and arts scene is thriving and it feels like there are so many opportunities for people to start up their own creative projects. It’s quite a DIY scene and people support each other’s work. I think anything feels possible here precisely because it is a relatively small place, at least in comparison to London.

How did you start working together?

Millie: I responded to an advert Andrew put on Gumtree where he was looking for a London-based vocalist. The music he had posted as an example of his work really impressed me and I just wanted to let him know that. I wasn’t expecting him to want to work with me as I wasn’t in London. He asked me to send him some of my music though, said he liked it and suggested we try to do some tracks together and here we are!

What’s your writing and recording process like?

Andrew: I’m lucky and unlucky in the sense when the tap’s working I’ll usually come up with a fully-fledged song in my head. Lucky in that, that’s not a bad thing to be able to do and makes the initial songwriting process easier. Unlucky in the sense once it’s in there it’ll be all I can really think about until I get it recorded to pretty much how it sounds in my head. If what’s really attracted me to the song is the melody line, or even a lyric in there, then I’ll usually carry that song through as much as I can. Otherwise, I’ll throw the song to Millie and see what she comes up with. It works the other way as well. Perfection and One For Me, two of our previous singles, were both Millie’s. She showed me previous demo versions which sounded very different to how they ended up. I just added my own interpretation to what she’d done. It tends to all work out pretty well in the end.

Millie: I feel I have an easy life now because I tend to write lyrics and vocals based on whatever instrumental track Andrew sends me. I record my vocal ideas in Logic on my laptop and email them across. I go into a studio in the final stages to record my vocals and Andrew sends across his finished tracks. Phone conversations are numerous as you can imagine.  When I’m writing my own songs I record ideas initially on my phone. I will just get a sudden urge to express something or snap myself out of a mood. I sing and accompany myself on an old guitar from Oxfam. I tune it to DDADAD because I can’t actually play the guitar and with that tuning you can pluck any combination of string and it sounds okay.

Any plans to tour in support of the new EP?  Is there anyone you’d like to tour with?

Andrew: We’d love to get these songs onto a stage, but we’ve not been able to get a live show on the road going at the moment. We’re both parents to young children, so we don’t lead particularly rock ’n’ roll lifestyles at the moment, though I do get to bash a toy drum every now and then in between the nappy changes. But there’s a few fellow synthwave artists about who would be great to hear live: Timecop1983 is incredible. We’ve also worked recently with Chronica, whose music we’ve also got a lot of time for.

What are the biggest obstacles you face as an indie band, and how do you overcome them?

Andrew: Meeting up is obviously tricky for us because of the distance; you can’t just meet up down the road and work on tracks there and then when you’ve got a few hundred miles between you. But at the same point, writing together in this band has been far easier than rock bands I’ve been in; you don’t have the problem of trying to organise five or six people to meet up. At first with that set up, you think it’s going to be a band of brothers and sisters like Arcade Fire who are going to spend all their time sitting in a circle singing songs, but you find that no one has the time to all rehearse at the same time, or you spend weeks getting ready for a show only to have someone drop out at the last moment due to other commitments every few weeks before shows and recordings. I’ve found being part of a synthpop duo is much more productive; we’re both heavily committed to the songs in this band, rather than just doing it because there’s nothing else better to do of an evening. There’s a sense of ownership we both feel to the tracks and we want to do them justice. Because of that, we can dictate our own pace and know we’ll both bring something to the party.

Anything else you’d like your fans to know?

Andrew: We’re working on new stuff. Listen out for it.

3 thoughts on “Pop Smarts and Bittersweet Melodies: An Interview with From Apes to Angels

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