The Little Kicks are back. Four years after releasing their breakthrough album ‘Put Your Love In Front Of Me’, the Aberdeen-based indie-pop band are on the verge of releasing its confident follow-up ‘Shake Off Your Troubles’. Lead singer Steven Milne tells us about recording the LP in a lodge by Loch Ness, getting out of their comfort zone, not forgetting to have fun, paying tribute to a close friend, and why he’s got nothing to be scared about.
What troubles are you shaking off with the new album? Or hoping listeners will shake off when they listen to it?
Our last album in 2013 – ‘Put Your Love In Front Of Me’ – always clicked with anyone who heard us play live but for home listening it was perhaps a slow burner. Lyrically it encapsulates a period of personal uncertainty for me and we were going through various changes as a band during its making. By the end of the ‘PYLIFOM’ campaign in 2014 we had amicably lost two founding members but gained two new very talented members in Andrew (guitar) and Adam (bass) respectively who brought a lot to the table.
The band suddenly felt, looked, and played like a new band and when you couple that with a big change in my personal circumstances, I started naturally writing in a much more upbeat, confident way. So we wanted to make a record that reflected that change in mood and while I’m not saying everything is perfect, there is definitely a message to be thankful for what you have, don’t take things like friends or good times for granted, and most importantly don’t let anyone beat you down.
How do you think decamping to a lodge by Loch Ness influenced the album?
Recording at the lodge was indeed a massive gamble, but it definitely paid off. Despite doing a lot of research prior to arriving we were still nervous about potential issues – objecting neighbours, bad acoustics for recording, even forgetting things. When we got there with all our gear, our producer, and recording equipment we immediately turned the three-bedroom space into a live recording studio and started making noise. Thankfully, it was as we expected and worked perfectly. The thick carpets and wood in the surrounds and ceiling were particularly great for recording.
We kept a schedule with breaks together, always cooking for each other, and even if in the downtime the TV was on (we took a PS3 and played a lot of ‘FIFA’…) it was always on mute due to the red light being on. The lodge had a balcony which looked out onto Loch Ness and often you could sit out there while someone else inside recorded but we were never out of earshot and constantly giving each other feedback. Our guitar amps and equipment were set up 24/7 in hallways, living room spaces, and in between beds.
The nearest pub was ten minutes away and we had no phone signal, internet, or communication with home. Even if we were going to boil the kettle or use the toilet, we had to check with our engineer that he wasn’t recording as there were microphones set up in the bathroom and kitchen for vocals.
We took a plentiful selection of nice food, wine, beer, and coffee so that in the evenings when we finished and the weather allowed, we could have BBQs and dinners on the decking before getting back to it until the early hours. We lived there for ten days and literally worked on the record non-stop – coming home exhausted. I would do it again in a heartbeat!
You’ve said the album shows a massive increase in the band’s confidence and abilities. Where do you think this confidence came from?
I think a combination of factors have led us to this point but mainly I would say there is a confidence gained from the reaction to the songs. Despite what I said before, we did take lot of confidence from the positive response to our last record. People coming up to say that they play your music at parties all the time or that they identify with the sadder elements of a particular song, and that your music has helped them in some way, is a very affecting thing to hear.
First and foremost I gained a lot of confidence from the guys within the band’s positive reaction to the new songs when I brought them in to the room or sent a demo around. Although I primarily write the songs at home I have been deliberately quicker to bring the ideas into the practice room this time around when they are at a more bare-bones stage. I think that has conversely helped the guys to be more confident in putting ideas forward too and made it a much more collaborative writing process.
Is there any one moment on the album that best shows off those increased confidence and abilities?
Lyrically I think probably the line “I’ve got nothing to be scared about…” is probably as honest an assessment as any of the mentality of making this record. We always start with sketches of songs that could easily go the other way and be weirder and longer, but by the end of the writing and recording process our music tends to veer towards making melody-focused pop music which is in a traditional structure. While in the past I think we perhaps felt a little ashamed about that or almost embarrassed to admit it, I think now we are much more comfortable in our own skin. I like to think that our music is poppy but has plenty of interesting sounds and hooks within it that it’s more credible and interesting than what the term “pop music” usually implies.
What did you learn from recording your previous album that you wanted to avoid or repeat this time around?
On our last record we learned how to utilise the studio more, as well as the importance of good microphones and not to concentrate on doing too many takes or trying to get the perfect take. You can end up beating away the heart of an idea by over-thinking or over-playing it, so we wanted to avoid that by getting into recording the songs sooner.
We also learned what we didn’t want to do this time round – to deliberately avoid using any comfort zone methods or sounds we know work and to be more experimental this time round. Being a new environment, the lodge setting easily enabled us to do that by allowing us to take longer on newer ideas and relax about takes. We also utilised new toys such as vocal effects, synthesizers, tape machines, and percussive instruments in a way we wouldn’t have ever attempted before. I would also say having Adam and Andrew – both reasonably new members – who can both sing meant we could employ three-part harmonies across the songs to great effect for the first time. We also learned how to utilise and use our sampler more to such a degree that it’s now a key extra instrument to playing the songs live.
Could you share anything about the lead single, ‘Don’t Get Mad, Get Even’?
I had a scrap of a demo for that song on my iPhone for about two years as a voice memo. Then, suddenly, around a fortnight before going into the lodge we needed another song for the pile so I wrote a demo of this song from thin air and sent a very rough voice memo of me playing it to the guys. The next thing is they are really excited about it and saying it has to be worked on and has to be on the record. So we take it to the band room and the guys add harmonies, we chop a verse or two out, and the whole thing is sitting pretty.
We get to the studio and we decide it has a Fleetwood Mac or Midlake vibe and we cut it live and suddenly that was it finished. Everyone played a blinder on the recording and that song was the first song to be finished for the new record as we tackled it first. It was a really great moment in the lodge when it came together and for me it’s the perfect example of a writer being too close to the material – as the band took the scrap of an idea in this case and helped turn it into something much greater through collaboration. Truthfully I didn’t see it as a single but I was happily outvoted.
This is a long shot but, based on a sentence in the album bio and the song name, does ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’ have anything to do with all the big names who died in 2016?
Shortly after our last album’s release, a very close friend of the band who had given a lot of his time and expertise to help us passed away. Then a short time after that another good friend of mine told me he was suffering from depression. I came home to the piano one evening thinking about both people and feeling pretty helpless and this song came out very quickly and naturally. I felt it was maybe too raw to share and perhaps too downbeat for the new record but at the same time for us to not pay tribute to this person in any way on our next record felt wrong.
As soon as I sent it to the guys, I would say it became not my song anymore. It became clear to me that I had written a song that summed up how we collectively felt about this person and recording it would allow us to pay tribute. I would say the guys really put everything they had into the recording of this track and tellingly it was the only song we even came close to falling out about at any point (most likely because emotions were running high). It took me over a year to even attempt to play it publicly and it’s a very difficult song to sing so I wouldn’t expect to see us play it live often but the recording is very pretty and it’s the one quiet moment on an otherwise upbeat album.
You famously recorded Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’. Which other songs would you consider covering?
We don’t do many covers and that Fleetwood Mac song was a classic that shouldn’t have been touched! But when we tried it out we found it really worked with our sound and vocal style so I guess anything similar to that in feel would be good. I would like to try ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’ by The Blue Nile as I think it’s a beautiful song that we could do well. And perhaps with the guys now doing harmonies so well we could do something cool with a Bon Iver or Beach Boys song. For a more suitable party-starting cover I would love to try ‘Nighttime In the Switching Yard’ by Warren Zevon as it’s one of my favourite songs and always makes people dance.
When you first started the band, were there any songs or artists you all bonded over, that made you realise “this collection of people could work together”?
Truthfully we don’t actually all like the same music but I think that’s why the band works so well. We all bring differing influences from different artists to the table and while there is a handful of bands we all like and can agree on we all have pretty different tastes. Some of the modern bands we would probably all agree to be great would be acts like Local Natives, Foals, Hot Chip, Fleet Foxes, The Twilight Sad, and LCD Soundsystem among others. As well as many old and new Scottish bands that we often play in the van. Needless to say, older music like ‘70s disco, Fleetwood Mac, Can, Chic, ‘80s pop, Orange Juice, The Beatles, and David Bowie are all collectively agreed to be great too.
And what is it about this collection of people that makes The Little Kicks so unique?
I think the main reason the band works so well as a unit is that ultimately we all want to serve the song and to create something unique together. We don’t want to sound like or copy anyone else and we enjoy making and performing music together a lot.
I would like to think being that wee bit older than when we last released an LP we are getting better at our instruments and benefitting from a more focused attitude to practice too. That’s something that makes us much more confident when playing live but also a factor when in the studio trying to make the best thing that you can with what you have.
Ultimately we all have real life priorities to consider (be it partners, work, or family), so if we are going to take time away from such things for the band it needs to be time well spent and we need to give it 100%. We don’t have a manager or a booker so I think it makes everyone a lot more invested in the project as it feels like a group effort when things go well but importantly nobody’s fault when it doesn’t which is thankfully rarely. Bands can forget to have fun and at the end of the day your band should be a set of pals playing together and having a good time. I think we all feel that being in The Little Kicks is fun and we are very (probably far too!) comfortable with each other at this point.
- The Little Kicks release ‘Shake Off Your Troubles on 3 March. Pre-order it now at www.thelittlekicks.co.uk. The band play Venue 2, 229 Club in London on 23 February.