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The Blue Aeroplanes

What Happens, Happens (At the controls: Mike Melville )

By • Jan 29th, 2017 • Category: Feature

“Are they still going?”

A not uncommon response when I mentioned that I was going to see the Blue Aeroplanes recently.

And to be fair since the mid 90s, in public at least, the Aeroplanes, led by the irrepressible Gerard Langley, have been something of an intermittent proposition, even if an unbroken line can be drawn right from the start of the band to the present.

Yet, with the release of their twelfth studio album ’Welcome, Stranger!’ at the start of the month, a lot more people are going to realise that the band are still very much a going concern.

‘Welcome Stranger!’ is quite possibly the band’s most direct, accessible record to date. As such it’s the perfect introduction to anyone wishing to investigate the wider and weirder world of the Blue Aeroplanes.

Laden with hooks, WS! Is dominated by cool, concise rock songs.

The jangling lead single ‘Dead Tree! Dead Tree!’ (on which Gerard references Peter Cook and imitates a crow!) might well be the pick of the bunch. But there’s also the opening ‘Looking for Xs on a Map’ with its grinding chords and abrupt shifts of tempo.

And, oh, yes, the album’s cover – an improbable version of Shanks & Bigfoot’s ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’ which totally replaces the original instrumentation whilst incorporating the most sublime guitar hook you could imagine.

The band stretch out a bit on the second side of the record see. Both ‘Nothing Will Ever Happen In The Future’ and ‘Here Is The Heart of All Wild Things” evoke the likes of ‘Weightless’ and ‘What It Is’ from ‘Swagger’ with slower tempos and swooping, crescendos of guitars.

Another Aeroplanes tradition is that there’s a “solo” song by another band member and here it’s guitarist Bec Jevon’s ‘Skin’, a punchy number which recalls the likes of Belly circa ‘King’.

It’s true that there’s a degree of familiarity to a lot of this – undeniably it DOES sound like the Blue Aeroplanes. Yet ‘Welcome, Stranger!’ is also a record that they haven’t made before and doesn’t have a weak song on it. It’s ferociously good.

And if a truly great, new record wasn’t enough for long-term fans, to support the album, the band have also been out on their first full UK tour in a decade, a tour which took in two Scottish dates including their first show in Edinburgh in goodness knows how long.

Audiences have been rewarded with some exhilarating performances and it’s clear that this line-up deliver on the band’s reputation as a formidable live prospect.

Ahead of the recent Glasgow show I caught up with Gerard, the only permanent fixture in the band’s 36 years’ history, to discuss the Blue Aeroplanes in 2017.

First off, Gerard talked about why the band may be about to consign their illustrious history to the history books.

“As I keep pointing out at the gigs, it’s not a nostalgia exercise. I don’t feel beholden to our past.

“It’s not like in this set something like ‘Jacket Hangs’ comes over as being way better than something like ‘Dead Tree’ does it? Because it isn’t.

“In the set, with ‘Jacket Hangs’, it’s like ‘we know this one’ but as a song, if you’re doing a shit set, you think ‘Oh fuck, we can always play ‘Jacket Hangs’ that’s great, everyone really likes it’.

“But now it’s just another song in the set. We’ve got some good songs but when we’re doing ‘What It Is’ in a way we might as well be doing cover versions like ‘Breaking In My Heart’.

“It’s not (a cover), because I wrote it and we play it really well, but the meat of it is the new stuff.”

The new stuff was largely co-written by new(-ish) members Bec Jevons and Mike Youé and Gerard explained how the two were inducted into the Blue Aeroplanes songwriting tradition.

“After the split up of my first band, one of the guys who was mostly responsible for the music left, and it took me a while to work out a way of doing things with people.

“If I get really good musicians they either get it or they don’t. If they don’t get it, it doesn’t matter how good they are they’re never going to get it. But if they get it and they’re sympathetic to it, it’s relatively easy to do.”

On the evidence of ‘Welcome, Stranger!’ both Bec and Mike get it enabling them to bring their own twists to the Aeroplanes sound.

“There’s a way of doing stuff. When we first started jamming Bec would just come out with stuff, riffs she had around or riffs Mike had around. I would say, play a bit more of that, and we were shaping it all together.

“Then they came round my house and I played them some older Aeroplanes stuff and Bec said ‘This sounds like what we’re doing’! She’d never heard it! And it was quite in keeping with what we were already doing.”

Although the album took a comparatively long time to finish, the actual recording sessions were quite intense.

“If we’re going to do an album, we need material that’s really good so we need to record it properly. To record it properly is quite hard because you got to go to a really good studio with really good equipment.

“But we haven’t got the money to do it for like 3 months like major labels do. That meant we could do it but we had to rehearse the hell out of it and basically record live, do two or three takes and pick the best one.

“Then it’s a question of organising stuff, doing the overdubs and working on it until it’s right. If things aren’t right then you work on them until they are.

“Then, you’ve got to come up with a good enough title and the graphics have got to be good enough. Then we put a good cover on it because we like having a good cover.

“Once you’ve got something you want to be really good, you’ve got to make every bit of it really good. That’s not easy to do, but you work at it.”

In terms of announcing to the world that the album was out the Aeroplanes have done a good job. A pre-order campaign through Pledge Music was followed by some good press early in the New Year not to mention those life-affirming live shows.

Nevertheless, the wider opportunities such as national radio and the influential national music press which could make or break a band in the past don’t really exist anymore. Gerard isn’t shedding many tears for that era as he feels that, in particular, there was never much radio support for the band.

“We never got much national radio. We got the early evening plays, we got Janice Long but we never got much daytime play, and we never got any John Peel.

“So we never relied much on that, to be honest.”

Instead Gerard sees opportunities in the more diverse media of the 21st century.

“There’s different ways of doing things now. There’s word of mouth and there’s internet stuff. Now most of those internet sites don’t have a huge audience compared to the NME or Melody Maker had. But they do have an audience and if you add them all up that’s the theory of the long tail.

“It’s an economic theory which is that all the coverage is given to the top two per cent of things but if you add up the 98% it actually sells more than the top two per cent. So all told if you can get as much as possible, the potential from the other end of things, you’re building up a quite a lot of stuff.”

However, it’s fair to say that selling records is not something that Gerard loses any sleep over. In fact, his ambitions for the band seem relatively modest.

“I don’t sit at home or sit in a café or get an idea on a bus to think “ooh I could sell x amount of records out of this, I should write something”.

“We just write a riff and play it because we like it. And then we take it out to anyone that wants to book us and we play some gigs. We’ll play a really good gig to people who want to hear us.

“And then what happens, happens. And then it sells or it doesn’t – I don’t care. (laughs) We don’t do it for that.”

Instead, with a desire for forward momentum that a band like Wire could appreciate, Gerard is already talking about the band’s NEXT album.

“We actually did 16 tracks in the sessions for this album. Some of them were good songs we didn’t quite nail in the recording because you don’t get a 100% strike rate. But we’ve got pretty much half to two thirds of the next album there.

“If we write a few more things, I’m aiming to try and get another album out this year. I say try because you’ve got to go for quality, right? That’s what we’re going to be doing when we get back.”

The new record, when it arrives, will likely lead to further gigs but the Blue Aeroplanes at the end of 2017 could be playing a very different set from anything in their career.

“If we get the stuff then, yeah, I’d like to be back in all these places in November.
“Like with this album and if we do another album then the old stuff could come down to three songs. (Laughs) I could see us just doing new stuff. Some people would be disappointed but a lot of people won’t.”

To conclude, it seemed fair to ask Gerard what motivates him to keep the band going. To an outsider, the seemingly constant churn in membership and the career ups and downs would have accounted for most other bands. Yet Gerard’s response is straight to the point and delivered with a laugh.

“Why not?

“Let’s put it this way. No one really asked Mississippi John Hurt that question in the 60s. No-one asked BB King why he was carrying on.

“It’s only because, I suppose rock music, pop music, was originally  identified as youth music. But it isn’t now.

“So if you think what you do is as good or better than most people doing it, why would you not do it?”

Why not indeed?

‘Welcome, Stranger!’ is available from the band’s Pledge Music site.

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