Belfast band Paper Tigers release their debut EP ‘Graceless’ on 29th April. Breige Cobane caught up with lead guitarist and general boss man Michael Smyth to talk about recording the EP, Baz Luhrmann, ego, Eastenders, drive and jumping off amps.
This interview lasted 81 mins, this is just a little excerpt… we’ll probably make a film about it soon…
BC – So, we’re gonna talk about ‘Graceless’, the new EP. I’ve had a listen and its fab, and I recognised most of the songs from seeing you play live and your singles. Tell me about it?
MS – So it seems we’ve been sitting on it for so long now because we were meant to record the year the pandemic hit, and then our drummer left so that put everything off. Then we got a new drummer and we recorded in May last year, so the songs are nearly two years old. Some we’ve been playing since the beginning of the band, so it just feels great to finally get to the stage where its coming out and people can hear it and we can say look at all these songs, then straight away start playing new ones (laughs).
We recorded over three days with Ryan McGroarty and Start Together here in Belfast. He plays in a band called Beauty Sleep and they are super poppy and happy and bouncy. We’re not like that but that’s why I wanted to work with Ryan because he has this great pop sensibility especially when it comes to vocals… he makes suggestions in the studio but he’s not overpowering (and) to get an outsiders perspective really adds to it… there was stuff he brought to us in the studio that really did make the hairs on my arms stand up.
Matt (drummer) and Emma (bassist) recorded their stuff on the first day. Matt has unfortunately left the band now to go be a lawyer, I mean who does that?
BC – I know I saw your posts on Facebook
MS – Its bad, we played our last show with him in February, but having him there for (the recording) he picked it up so quickly his stuff is one or two takes and then Emma just rumbled through her stuff, so I had a full day of just guitars, nerding out over pedals. It was amazing.
Hayley did vocals on the third day and again it was pretty straightforward… we did some gang vocals in a stairwell, I’m sure people thought we were idiots, but it’s in there and it sounds good. That’s on ‘Blue Light Trails’…
…I had this whole concept in terms of the artwork, I’ve been really heavily influenced by Baz Luhrmann and Romeo and Juliet…
BC – Oh my god, I’m glad you’ve said that! I wanted to ask you about that and how it came about because you can see the style there. Right, tell me all about it.
MS – I’m so pleased someone picked up on it, to me it’s incredibly obvious but I guess people just don’t have reference points. I just love that film and that over the top aesthetic. It just straddles that point between beauty and gaudiness, nearly so much it’s gross. Tie that back to the music, it straddles beauty and grit. I like everything to be one huge big cohesive piece and some of it gets really deep and arty and pretentious but that stuff is important to me… I really like Lana Del Ray and she plays into the religious iconography and the catholic iconography, and I’m not religious but they have great style you know.
My girlfriend is a graphic designer and she took my sketch on a post-it note and turned it into amazingness… flowers have been a motif that’s run throughout the band. Everyones going to the woods, or the subway or an abandoned building to look tough. I don’t want to do that weird thing in the woods so let’s go the other way and make it look almost fashiony, because people don’t do that. If everybody’s going right, I’m going left you know.
BC – Whats the significance of the swans?
MS – …It’s the grit and rockiness and then the beautiful melodic part of the songs and that’s Hayley… that lovely floatiness she brings against the punk rock heartbeat of the band. You’ve seen us play, there’s a lot of that energy…juxtaposition… our posey photos and then this mess of sweat and glitter when we play live.
BC – The EP itself and its themes, I mean I love listening to you talk so proudly about this project, the music is quite deep. Is making the music a cathartic experience? Is it a release?
MS – Whenever you play a song like ‘Graceless’… Hayley wrote the words for ‘Graceless’ and we’ve been playing it for a long time now. It has this emotional weight to it and from when we started playing it until now it’s kind of changed. In the beginning it was an emotionally heavy song and took the show to a different place. Now it feels a bit more celebratory… now it’s got to the other side where things are ok.
BC – I’ve seen you described somewhere as one of the busiest men in music and you’ve talked before about being in three bands. I know the vast majority of the promotional side for Paper Tigers, you’re behind. What drives you and how do you find that energy?
MS – It’s probably all ego Breige to be honest (laughter). We got funding to record an album and part of that is working with mentors. I got three different mentors and one of them was like… ‘you know it might be at some stage you just don’t do this anymore’ and he kind of saw my face and he could tell that’s just not an option. That’s what it comes down to. I started playing in bands when I was 13/ 14 and from then on this is all I’ve ever wanted to do…
…people are like ‘where do you find the time?’ And I’m like, well what do you do? On a Monday night what do you do from 5 until 10? Do you watch Eastenders?
You only get one shot at a life… I just want to fill it with things that I enjoy… I just don’t know what I would do without it.
BC – So we’ve talked about this project ‘Graceless’ which is out on the 29th April. What have you got planned for the future?
MS – …the EP covers a lot of ground over five songs, but it also allows us to branch out and do more stuff from that, so we’re halfway through recording an album and those songs sound very different to the EP and I already know what the albums called and I know what the art’s gonna be and yeah it’s a whole other thing. It will still be us and the Tiger’s sound but there’s a lot more dynamics and much bigger focus on vocal and melody… and it takes a wider, more outward view…
We were out in B&Q and IKEA yesterday and the whole time I was looking around thinking ‘I can use this in the photo shoot, and I can use that, and that’s gonna cost me a lot of money but I’ll save the receipts…’
BC – Don’t give too much away because it sounds very exciting already!
MS – We’re hoping to do a UK tour and an Irish tour later in the year and we plan to release a standalone song to bridge the EP and the album, so you’ll get a taster of the melodic side but still with that grittier part.
BC – I feel very privileged to talk to you at this point in your career, it feels like a bit of a turning point. It’s going to be very exciting to see where the band goes.
MS – I hope so. I just hope whenever (the EP) comes out people react to it and even if they take it at face value and they don’t think about ‘why is this?’ and ‘what does the art mean?’ Even if they take it like ‘oh that’s cool’ and spend time with it and it resonates with people. Given the subject matter and the music, I can’t see why it wouldn’t. You put all the work into it and once you put it out you’ve no control anymore… its not yours, it’s for everybody else then.
BC – What’s your dream venue over here?
MS – I’d love to play Barrowland, the bigger the stage the better. It means Hayley doesn’t get hit by my guitar every three seconds. The last time we played in Oh Yeah for the ‘Moloko’ single launch, there’s a point in ‘Hush’ where it’s a guitar break and unbeknownst to me she climbs up on my amp to like dance and jump off but as she jumps off she flicks the standby switch so my guitar just dies and I was just like what is..?
Something like that goes wrong and I’ve got 14 pedals in front of me and I’m like ‘which one of youse has f*ckin died?’… and Matt the drummer to his credit and Emma just kept playing on and Hayley’s apologising… as soon as we were back in everybody knew and that comes from practising twice a week and being in synch… unless something goes on fire or something…
BC – Even then I could see you styling that out, total Baz Luhrmann moment on stage
MS – Just throw the guitar into it like Hendrix, like ‘Get it on video!’ (laughter)
Paper Tigers are supporting Woodburning Savages in Derry on 6th May, Havvk in Dublin on 7th June and playing Belfast on 11th June, Hoobity Festival, Cookstown on 2nd July, and Portrush in September.
Graceless is out on 29th April on all streaming platforms and to download via Bandcamp.
Review by Breige Cobane
Photograph by Y Control Photography