> Interview - Theo Bleak On Literary Influences, Pain, DIY, and High-Flying Support Slots - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview – Theo Bleak On Literary Influences, Pain, DIY, and High-Flying Support Slots

"You have to forgive yourself, and with this EP, I hope it reaches people I have hurt or who have hurt me, and it a testament to growth."

There is a lot to be said for an artists’ name giving you a lot of insight into what to expect from them. In their own words, there are some brutal moments in the Theo Bleak output, but equally, there are moments of fragility, beauty and exhilaration.

SNACK caught up with Katie Lynch to discuss literary influences, pain, DIY, and high-flying support slots.

Your artist name, Theo Bleak: why this name, and what sort of freedom does it provide you with compared to recording under your own name?

The artist name came from wanting to create a character, or stage persona. We liked the word bleak, thinking it suited my haunted, Victorian personality! We worked with Ted and Teddy, and then my dad said Theo, and that was so great. My dad’s been involved with a lot of my musical endeavours, so it’s nice he had a say in the name too. I’ve really enjoyed having the persona, it made it easier to step into a character who I want to be, as opposed to who I actually am.

You have a previous EP called Iliad and you cite Jane Austen and Anais Nin as influences. Do literary influences shape your music as much as bands and artists do?

Probably, yeah. I’ve always loved reading since I was young, and literature has a big say, as does philosophy and movies. I like different artistic ways of expressing yourself to create a sound. With my newer work, it’s been a whole world I’ve wanted to create, rather than just musical. Books are a big thing, especially with lyrics.

You also have an EP based around each season of the year. Are you someone at one with nature? 

I try to be, I love going outside, walking, camping. I lived on Isle of Skye last year for a bit, I could probably live a remote life. I was inspired to write about the climate crisis, I wanted to put those messages into an EP. I was inspired by Anohni’s album, and she’s a huge environmentalist, and there’s been a few messages throughout my music.

It’s everyone’s role, you can’t tackle a big issue on your own, it’s everyone doing a little bit.

You’ve released two songs from the Pain EP so far, musically different, but both direct and forceful. ‘It’s Not Doing Me Any Good’ is really emphatic musically while ‘I Look Like A Fool To You’ meshes beautiful music with what could be brutal lyrics. How do you approach the songwriting process?

This EP has been such a challenge, because I decided to talk about brutal things. It’s funny you noticed that, sonically. We released the hard-hitting song first but its humorous while sounding angry. The next song is delicate but brutal lyrically, it feels second nature to me and Mark (Johnston), who writes and produces with me . We agree on what the songs should sound like. A lot of the songs are written as skeletons, and then you develop them. With ‘I Look Like A Fool To You’, we get the message across with guitar, vocal and cello, it seemed obvious. We struggle with other songs where we heavily layer them, and we want to place Easter Eggs in. 

Really, it depends. The EP was done in quick succession, we wrote and produced it quickly. Every EP I’ve done has been so different. This was so personal, and it reflects the process, which was a nightmare. It wasn’t a cathartic experience; I’m glad people are connecting with it.

It’s so funny, I [do] sometimes have cathartic experiences, but the nature of this EP was so difficult, and a lot of things went wrong in finishing it up. There’s been so much energy behind it, that when we play it live, it’s fun and freeing. We know the songs are finished, the recording process was difficult, but I feel we’ve levelled up now because we had to. We challenged ourselves musically.

I’m so excited for people to hear it live, it’s so raw and real, painful to play, and I want people in the room to experience that with me.

Theo Bleak – I Look Like A Fool To You (Official Video)

Was the title in place from the start, or did you name the EP Pain because the process was a pain in the arse?

Honestly! Mark always says if something is painful to watch, or if someone is upset, he always says ‘pain’. I love that, it’s a young way to look at things. From that, I realised a lot of my experiences were ‘pain’, and when the songs came together, we thought, that’s the title, it says it all.

Hilariously, the process was so unbelievably painful, a pain in the arse, so that was definitely the right name for it!

It felt like wading through water to get things right and get people on the same page. We were arguing for two days, it was a hostile environment, it had to be perfect and we were so highly strung. Even doing the video for ‘It’s Not Doing Me Any Good’ was a nightmare; anything that could go wrong, went wrong. It was worth it in the end; it looks great and I love it.

I got a tick that day in the woods, and that’s my biggest fear. I laugh now watching it, thinking that tick was probably in my body while filming. I was like ‘oh c’mon, this is a joke!’

Theo Bleak – It’s Not Doing Me Any Good (Official Video)

What can people expect from the so far unreleased songs from the EP?

It’s more in a similar vein to ‘It’s Not Doing Me Any Good’. It’s got an alt-rock sound. The title track has Nu-Metal and Britpop influences, which I wouldn’t have thought of, it’s out there musically, and lyrically, its brutal, so listen to the lyrics!

I hope people listen to it in order, we try to make our bodies of work a journey, and this one definitely is. There’s highs and lows, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.

Pain is your fourth EP in two years – does the format appeal to you, perhaps making it easier to create strong and consistent themes across the songs?

I think so, we planned on doing an album next but expect another body of work soon, very soon after this. We feel we’re letting people know what to expect from us, I think we’re finding ourselves now. Previously, we were doing it with other people in mind but with Iliad and Pain, we are true to ourselves, and our experiences. Hopefully after Pain and after what we do next, we’ll have solidified ourselves as serious artists to watch out for.

EPs are good, we can do it in our home studio. If I was to do an album, I’d like to go away for a bit and live in that, somewhere else.

You’ve tackled heavy subjects such as fear, perception of men, and emotional instability. Are you writing to yourself, or in the hope you reach and help others?

I’m quite introspective and very critical. Probably because I’ve had poor mental health for my whole life, so that’s become the norm. But it’s helped me be more balanced in my views.

I wanted to tackle things I was a victim of, but I’m also aware that when I was hurting, I’d hurt other people. That’s unacceptable, but you have to forgive yourself, and with this EP, I hope it reaches people I have hurt or who have hurt me, and it a testament to growth.

In the past, I wasn’t good at recognising I was in the wrong; it’s good to be able to look at yourself like that, without self-hatred. Now, I feel it’s instructive and just because someone has wronged me doesn’t entitle me to hurt someone else. I think the pain I’ve gone through lived on this EP. Even with some vocal takes, I didn’t know I could make those noises, it is real. Yeah, it’s weird, this EP is different to everything we’ve done before, because it’s been such a process.

How do you see your growth from your debut EP Fragments to the upcoming Pain EP?

I think when we did the first EP there was a lot of other voices that were coming from ourselves and the external world. We had a band before, our confidence was at an all-time low, as writers and producers. There are elements I love and inclinations of what we were becoming, but now, the sound and direction are clear, whereas it was muddy at first. I don’t resent that, it’s good to grow and find your voice.

And with having a studio at home, the more you do, the more confident you’ll become?

Exactly. My boyfriend, Mark, is a lot of the genius behind Theo Bleak, I need to give his name out there more because I couldn’t do this without him. We’ve become creatures of necessity, and that creates invention. We’ve not had money, so he learned the drums so we could record drums. He made me laugh when he said he was two weeks away from learning this bizarre instrument, because we had to do it, because we were so skint. That’s what I’m proudest of, we’ve put aside perfection and anxieties of not being good enough to do it, and we’re willing to learn as we go.

Who knows what we’ll be able to play this time next year!

Theo Bleak – It’s Not Doing Me Any Good (Crystal Sessions)

Having supported acts like Suede, Joesef, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, what have you taken away from these experiences?

I felt like we were chancing gits with how we got offered some of that. I still don’t know why we got asked to support Suede. We were elated.

I’m good friends with Joesef, and he took me under his wing, I was very lucky, he seems to like what I do, and he’s taken me a lot of places, which I’m so grateful for. You learn from all these things, you learn a lot from supporting people, and being the opening act. It’s a good place to figure out what works live, what doesn’t, and winning over an audience who frankly aren’t there to see you is great.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Noel Gallagher’s fans but they were absolutely lovely, we took away a lot of people who really liked it. It was amazing. Being in front of someone else’s fans who they’ve worked hard to gather is a total privilege.

You’ve shows in Dundee, Glasgow (as support to Lucia & The Best Boys) and down south in November – what’s your aim with live shows?

I’m also playing The Great Western at the start of November, our name was big on the poster, which was pleasing.

We just want to play live as much as possible. It feels where we are our best selves. I love indoor festivals, so The Great Western will be great. Our headline shows are the 8th in Manchester, 9th in London and 18th in Dundee, I hope they’ll be good, we’ve put them on ourselves, which is such a risk, but hopefully people will come out for those. And they’re a great place to connect with people who want to see you and to be there.

My plan for next year is play as much as possible, I love supporting people, so fingers crossed more people will ask me!

Where do you see Theo Bleak in the next couple of years?

I have no set thing in mind. I’ve done music long enough I know there’s no point in saying this or that because anything can happen. All I want is to have the privilege and time to create music and release as much as possible. If I can be ten steps ahead of where I am now that’s brilliant, but I just want to be grateful, and not want more than I have. If people connect, that’s my wish, hopefully help people realise life is messy.

We’ll experience Pain with you at the end of October, what does joy mean for you?

Ohh, I think joy is being content, when I can look around and everything is in its place and I want for nothing more, that’s what joy is. I don’t strive to be too happy or sad, anything excessive isn’t good for you. Joy to me is feeling safe and content in the moment.

Pain is released October 31st. Theo Bleak play The Great Western Festival in Glasgow, November 4th and Chamber East in Dundee, November 18th.

All photos credited to Nathan Dunphy

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