Formed after a chance encounter at a St Andrews recording studio, Lichen Slow is the new musical project of Malcolm Middleton and Joel Harries. Neither a stranger to the UK scene through their respective solo careers and work with Arab Strap and Team Leader, the duo’s combined forces have resulted in their debut album, Rest Lurks. It is a stylistically loose set of songs that encompass anxious existentialism and hilarity in equal measure; celebrating the joy of creation despite being made with the two never meeting in person. Ahead of their UK tour in April and album release in March, SNACK chatted to the pair to find out more about the record’s origins.
At what point did the project evolve from sharing ideas to being something you believed had the potential to make an album?
Malcolm Middleton: I sent Joel a guitar part and he came back with a fully fledged song. It was obvious there was something cool happening. Months passed and we didn’t do too much but after a year or so we realised how much material we had accumulated, and we thought ‘this looks like a record.’
Were there any eureka moments when you stumbled on something that set the tone for the rest of the album?
Malcolm: It changed. The first one was ‘It’s Not What We Thought’. Then the next one for me was probably ‘Preset’ which was quite exciting because it just sounded different from the stuff we’d been doing. And maybe this is cruel to say, but ‘Hobbies’, as the last song we did for the record, was another step up and an idea of where we can go for the next album.
Joel Harries: ‘Preset’ was a definite wow moment for me because it was a total departure from the songs we had done so far. It felt like everything started moving quicker after we had done that track. And ‘Hobbies’ has definitely set a tone of where we may end up going with future recordings.
A song like ‘Preset’ seems to poke fun at the state of new music. Is that a genuine take? Or does it speak more to the expectation of artists to churn out new music?
Malcolm: It’s tongue in cheek. I think these things sometimes, but the tongue in cheek part of the song is that we are also a shit band in someone’s opinion. It’s one of these stupid cyclical lyrics where you end up not knowing the actual fact or truth behind the lyrics. It’s good-humoured.
Some themes of the album could be considered quite meta in a way; a creative project about the trials of being a creative person.
Joel: There is a lot of pressure to be constantly churning out material. But there’s still a lot of pleasure to be found in making music for yourself. This project especially is certainly a showcase of that because we had such a nice time doing it. There was no pressure at all or any real discussion about it.
Malcolm: We didn’t really know each other; we didn’t talk about style, there was no expectation. Personally, I didn’t think I had to write another Malcolm Middleton song. I wouldn’t have written the words for a song like ‘Preset’ for myself. It just came along with Joel’s music which kind of egged it on.
There wasn’t much thought of people listening to this. We weren’t even thinking that far. We were just thinking ‘let’s make some music we’re happy with and see what happens.’
Was the process fully collaborative, covering both lyrics and music?
Malcolm: There was all sorts of different stuff. For the first one, I gave Joel the guitar part and he wrote the words and on another couple, he’d give me the music, and he’d have the choruses already and I’d do the verses.
Joel: It’s an interesting way to write. And a few of the songs have dual meanings because I wrote the chorus before there were other lyrics or there were verses before the chorus arrived.
Malcolm: It’s good because sometimes you can just ignore what’s there and do your own thing and see how they complement each other. We could write really personal or stupid stuff because it was just kind of in the air somewhere between Manchester and Anstruther that was undefined. It gave it a certain freedom to not worry about outcomes.
How did you manage to retain such a cohesive feel to the record?
Malcolm: When I hear people have done albums via email it always sends a shiver down my spine. But when you are in the studio trying to be creative – even with people I’ve known and worked with for years – you are tip-toeing around what they might be thinking or what their expectations are. But when you’re doing it this way you’ve got an amazing amount of space to do what you want before sending it. That can make it more cohesive and personal because each person individually can be really free.
Joel: I think if we made a record in a studio it would have come out remarkably differently. When you are on your own and you’re doing a vocal in your house, you’ve all the time in the world to feel comfortable doing it. You probably end up doing fewer takes. Some of the vocals on the album are one take.
Malcolm: Some of them I hadn’t even woken up properly yet, and you can hear it, but it adds something to it.
What was the most valuable thing you learned from each other’s process?
Joel: I think a certain open-mindedness that I wouldn’t have achieved making a record on my own. When I write my own songs there’s a very specific way that I approach it and certain sounds I wouldn’t even think about adding in. It’s a strangely cohesive-sounding record for one that wasn’t made in the same room, and I think that’s largely to do with Malcolm’s influence on the way that I approached it and the way that I felt comfortable writing in this manner.
Malcolm: Working with Joel made me try harder. I was in awe of his guitar playing and of his voice, and it felt like I had to deliver something, but it all seemed to come naturally. It’s always great when you send off something you’re not sure about and get positive feedback. You are then encouraged to do more and add more.
Joel: It was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Especially during what was an awkward time in history.
Middleton: We had our first band practice a couple of weeks ago. It was good being in the same room and singing these songs together, and realising that outside the record they are good, strong songs and good fun to sing and enjoyable to play. I think people will see that when we play live as well. That’s not a plug, it’s just to say we are a good unit now.
Rest Lurks is out 10th March via Rock Action Records. Lichen Slow play The Hug and Pint Friday 28th April.