Anti-folk cult heroes The Awkward Silences’ recently released eponymous fourth album led Joyzine’s Hind El Bouaissaoui to proclaim it “their catchiest, most unusual and most personal work to date” (read the full review here), quite a statement for a band whose music over the past fifteen years or so has been very much characterised by those three traits. So with that glowing review in mind, along with the excellent non-album track ‘You Should Have Been Here 20 Years Ago’, which featured on The Joyzine Advent Calendar (download it free here), we asked frontman Paul Hawkins to take us through the album track by track.
The writing of ‘Quantum Physics’ started at a music festival and ended in a hospital bed, which feels like a fairly good analogy for this whole album! My previous role at Attitude is Everything – where I still work – was advising music festivals on disability access and I’d often be wandering around music festivals by myself. I wrote the lyrics whilst jaded and exhausted at the end of the festival season at a dance festival which, whilst great, was a very weird place to be alone. Four months later, when I was in hospital, (Silences bassist) Jes sent me a piece of music he’d come up with. I listened to it on my phone whilst recovering from a general anaesthetic and it suddenly came to me the lyric was a perfect fit!
Getting Ready for My Life to Begin
This is a song about picking yourself up after failure, and finding a hope that your past doesn’t define you and that, whatever’s gone wrong, you can do it better in the future. In that sense, it might be the most optimistic song I’ve ever written! I really like the arrangement of this one. The backing vocals really lift it and the keyboard part Mary’s playing has a bit of a Springsteen-esque feel and I think this is the closest we’ve ever come to stadium rock. That said, we’re still not very close, admittedly. Recreational playing field rock, anyone?
There’s Nothing More Obnoxious Than a Self-Made Man
This is the first album we’ve recorded with Stu (drums) and Adam (guitar) in the band and the biggest change they’ve brought has been that we’ve spent a lot of time in rehearsals working on arrangements of songs whereas, in the past, it was maybe a bit more a sense of trusting the first arrangement we came up with. I think this is one of the songs that really benefits from the work the band put into it. I started with a lyric and an idea for a rhythm and it’s developed into something quite ambitious. The lyric is about certain people in the post-war generation who succeeded with the help of other people, and of the government system of the time, but have re-written a narrative to suggest their success was entirely of their own doing and that everyone else should be able to emulate their achievements without the same advantages. “You’re unleashing snakes and pulling up the ladders,” is one of my favourite lyrics I have come up with, which is probably why I repeat it so much at the end!
Everybody Loves Organised Fun
The title started off as a bit of a joke but quickly turned into something very different. I wrote it the week my Dad was having an operation for a cancer diagnosis that would ultimately kill him. The song, which is inspired by Haven Holiday camps I went to as a child in the 80s where there’d be party dances to ‘Agadoo’, ‘YMCA’, ‘The Music Man’ and so forth. I worried it might sound mocking but, as I wrote it, I realised there’s something quite unifying and cathartic about rituals where people all come together and dance, no matter how ridiculous the actual music it is. This album was steeped in death – in addition to my Dad, my Uncle and two musicians I knew well (Nick Boardman from Extradition Order and Jack Medley, who was a regular on the antifolk scene) died during the recording and this song went from feeling quite flippant to feeling like a celebration of how music brings people together and distracts you from reality. I had no idea when I wrote it how apt the final line “everything feels wrong now there’s no organised fun” would feel come 2020…
Other People Die
This is another song that feels like it unfortunately has its moment in 2020. The song is essentially about the nature of the internet and the way that everything from terrorist attacks to warfare to killings by police to – as it turns out – global pandemics, quickly get turned into debates and discussions where everyone picks a side, fakes an expertise they clearly don’t have in the subject and pontificates on the subject at hand, and soon everyone is so busy trying to prove themselves right that the human cost and individual stories involved get lost amongst all the noise. From a musical point of view, I wrote the song on a guitar with a ridiculously placed capo that really shifted the sound of the instrument. Adam plays both guitar parts on the song, and I really like the part he came up with on the instrumental which, along with Chris’ keyboard, gives this quite an ethereal feel we don’t tend to get in Awkward Silences songs.
Count Each Mistake
This is another song where Jes came up with the majority of the music and the arrangement was then worked on by the band to perfect it. Stu’s nod to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is one of my favourite moments of the album. Musically I think this is definitely one of the strongest songs on the album. The lyrics refer to difficulties with obsessive thoughts that I’ve had since I was a teenager. These days I tend to be good at seeing them for what they are, which is why I manage to make light of them on songs like these, but it’s genuinely terrifying how easy it can be a times to pick some minor incident nobody else will have noticed and build it up to a point where I’ve utterly convinced myself I’m the worst person who has ever lived and I used to have a lot of sleepless nights followed by incredibly fraught days where I was trying to conceal the lack of sleep so I didn’t have to admit to anyone why I hadn’t slept in case I admitted to the utterly terrible things I’d perceived I had done…
The Medical Model
This song is heavily rooted in disability politics. Being disabled isn’t something I used to talk too much about and I’ve found being involved the last few years, where I’ve been involved in disability movements and had friendships with other disabled people, incredibly liberating. ‘The Medical Model’ refers to the way people think about disability as a medical problem which needs to be cured whereas, as someone who was born with my impairment, it’s part of who I am and a “cure” would effectively be taking away something that has been crucial in shaping who I am.
Everything Will Probably Be Fine
One of the major changes on this album was the fact that Mary Boe, who played a key role on Outsider Pop, was busy with her PhD for much of the writing and recording process, which has resulted in her only appearing on three songs, including singing lead vocals on this. I wrote this at a bit of a low point when I wasn’t really getting out and seeing people as much as I’d like and it is another song that has suddenly felt incredibly relevant in an age of lockdowns, shielding and social distancing.
Pretend to be Fine
There’ve been points in my life where I’ve not been the best at admitting I’m not in a good place and this song is very much about faking being okay until the illusion shatters completely and you do something stupid as a result. I wrote it when I was stressed over my Dad’s health, some work issues and various other things and decided to fix things by walking out of a meeting and going AWOL for half an hour, which turns out not to be the best way of making anything better. There are times I’m really glad I have an incredibly supportive workplace! Musically, this is one where we really break out our percussion collection and it was a lot of fun to record, although I broke my kokiriko in the process! I think one of my favourite things about the recording is that it really comes across that the band are enjoying themselves and I think that really lifts the recording.
The New World
This is a song Jes and I brought from the Empty Gestures, a project we worked on together with Mary, our ex-keyboard player Niall and our friend Will back in around 2011. Jes had long wanted to bring it to The Awkward Silences and I think it was the first time it really suited what we were doing. The lyric is inspired by stories of settlers trying to spread across America and move West in search of better lives, and the sense of an absolute faith, however misplaced, that a better life might be possible. I think it is clear to a listener that their journey is doomed to failure but I think the hope, in spite of the odds, that this time will be different, feels like a great summary of what it is to be in a band! It occurred to me a while ago that thematically this song is about pretty much the exact same thing as the Village People’s ‘Go West’ and I’m really happy about that!
The Awkward Silences is out now via Blang Records
Introduction by Paul Maps