The very essence of instinct, as Charles Darwin once declared, is that it’s followed independently of reason. The idea of following a natural compulsion with no regards to motive ensures the achievement of the purest form of art, something unadulterated by the burden of expectation. Propelling the artist through an organic development, perhaps overcoming wrong turns and dead ends along the way, they arrive subconsciously at uncharted territories, which somehow feel like it’s exactly where they ought to be.
Nothing But Thieves have found their place. Natural selection has carved a path to right here, right now: the edge of promise. “We knew that there was something that we wanted to reach,” says lead singer Conor Mason. “We didn’t have the skills to get there really.”
The UK band find themselves, in 2014, vindicating the journey that led them to this point, trusting each other’s intuitions to form a definitive and unique sound. At once thunderous yet delicate, raw yet methodical, they evoke the profound dynamics of music’s more creative imaginations. Drawing inspiration from the bombast of Muse, the playfulness of Kasabian, the unpredictability of Arcade Fire, the songs on debut EP Graveyard Whistling (War Road Music via Washington Square/Razor & Tie) reimagine the majesty of rock and roll, simultaneously kicking and comforting the listener. It’s been a worthwhile adventure.
Their tale of learning begins, quite appropriately, in school, where Conor played in a string of bands with guitarist and Foo Fighters devotee Joe Langridge-Brown. When the elder Joe advanced to university, Conor found a new ally in his sixth form music class, when new arrival and classically trained guitarist Dom Craik sought to take advantage of his virtuous asset. “I met Conor and I was like, ‘God, you’ve got a good voice’,” Dom laughs, remembering his reaction to the lure and potential of Conor’s soaring tones. Raised on classic soul and hard rock, Conor cites Jeff Buckley as the unifying influence that harnessed those dual forces and compelled him as a lead singer. “It was stupid not to just jam,” Dom concedes, “but it was just for fun, nothing serious.” Philip Blake is Dom’s cousin and after two years of searching for a permanent bass player Dom remembered “Oh shit. My cousin plays bass.” James Price joined the band on drums as he is an old friend of Dom’s from school.
Intentions shifted up a gear upon meeting Richard Reines and Stefanie Reines, the American siblings who founded Drive-Thru Records. Smitten by the assurance and abilities that Conor and Dom exuded, they assumed managerial duties and encouraged the pair to dedicate themselves to music. “We decided to form a proper band,” Conor explains, “so I called Joe – ‘Do you want to come back and do a band thing?’ He replied, ‘Yeah! I’ll leave uni and drop straight out – I’ll leave this week!’ I didn’t even press him,” he laughs.
Holed up in Dom’s garage, embarking on their pursuit of originality, the band struggled to cultivate their distinction. “The stuff we were coming out with wasn’t good, and it was all the same,” Dom admits, “so it was consistently shit.” After two years of frustration, their management decided to bring them to the U.S. to invigorate their inspiration, arranging meetings with producers and writers there. “We were just like, ‘Anything to get out of the garage and explore a bit,’ because we completely hit a plateau with the writing,” Dom continues. “So we spent a few months in the States – went to Los Angeles first, then for a few weeks in Nashville, and then New York – and by the time we came back, we’d written a load of songs. It was being exposed to the versatility of it all. It’s been a series of lessons like that, I suppose.”
“It took that trip in America to realize how to properly write, and then we came back and managed to figure out the kind of sound that we wanted to go for,” adds Conor. “Everything we wrote we were happy with. It was progression. We felt like we became better songwriters with every song.”
Foundations built, it was time to build some structure. Their starting point was the “push-pull” chemistry that was producing interesting results: Dom’s electronic “noodling”, Conor’s “old school” rocking, and Joe’s forays into “Riff Central” fused to form “a weird monster,” which the band grabbed by the tail and rode as it thrashed. As Joe shaped lyrics from the melodies the songs dictated, the definitive Nothing But Thieves began to take shape.
Assembling their strongest material to date, the band’s first EP arrived in October 2013, unveiling to the world three songs epic in size and scale. The EP was originally called If You Don’t Believe, It Can’t Hurt You and was self-released on the band’s Voleur Records. “We put up the video for “Emergency,” Conor reveals. “Six hours later we got a message from Radio 1, Zane Lowe’s team, asking to play it. We were a bit shocked. That was the first video we put up of our actual songs.”
The EP was re-configured with an added song (“Last Orders”) and the Graveyard Whistling EP was released in the UK in September 2014 via RCA and will be out in North America in October 2014 through War Road Music via Washington Square/Razor & Tie. “Graveyard Whistling,” “Itch,” and “Emergency” demonstrated the vivid hybrid the band had spent so long conceiving, in which rippling synths flutter over crunching guitars and glorious crescendos wrestle with their subtler foils, while Conor’s voice throughout shadows the extremities. Its impact was immediate.
Nothing But Thieves have commandeered their vision and are confident of its direction. After recording the rest of their full length album the band is eager to explore their limits at each opportunity, deftly meshing electronic and human elements into one experimental synthesis. “What I can safely say we do not do,” asserts Joe, “is write the same song twice.”
“We don’t just want to do one thing – ‘This is our thing. We’re good at it’ – and stay there,” Dom concurs. “We’ve found all these different channels, and through each song we’ve written there’s a different sort of element we’re introducing, and Conor’s voice is a great tie between going down different routes, because it holds everything together.”
Joe’s lyrics, “patched together” from flashes of inspiration and stimulated by the works of Bukowski and Crowley, can get “pretty dark,” according to Dom, and are discussed at length with the group to elucidate the emotions that may shape the song’s sonic movements, but mostly to acquaint Conor to the feelings he must inhabit. “I don’t really have to tend to think about anything that I wouldn’t want to say,” Joe says of the process. “I’m sure it’s the same for Conor – I know what he wouldn’t want to say, and vice versa. If I’m happy saying it, he tends to be as well.” His objectives for the album’s narrative are for abstract ideas to be simplified into direct and identifiable messages. “That’s what I think people get attached to,” he reasons.
If Joe’s intuition proves trustworthy, perhaps it will lead Nothing But Thieves to their aspired territory, where their mighty sonics may prevail best: stadiums. “That’s the dream,” Conor enthuses. “You definitely see yourself there and you strive for that.” “It’s how you get there,” Joe adds, “which is what we’re very careful about. Not that being the endgame so you try and make some music for that. The idea is to make your music for you.”
“Taking things slightly slow and building from the ground up,” Dom affirms, his prudence vindicated by their judgment so far. A year from now, a considered and intuitively cohesive album will be in our midst, and its creators, while primed to take it to the people, will already have broadened their horizons and grown beyond their formative designs. It’s called evolution, and that’s something else Darwin knew much about.