As CBD workers and uni students navigate past each other on an unseasonably warm Melbourne afternoon, it’s clear even from a distance that the man leaning against the wall outside a makeshift bar is from another place. Dressed in vintage clothes and hiding from the sun under a hat from somewhere in the distant past, he smokes a rollie and seems lost in thought. It’s not, it turns out, an act.
Quietly spoken and perhaps a little uncomfortable with the ritual of the interview, Finn Andrews is here to talk about his band, The Veils, and their upcoming Australian tour. But this is a man who resolutely never listens to anything he’s recorded after it’s completed, and whose relationship with the creative process – both songwriting and recording – is a visceral one, to the extent that he often isn’t entirely sure what his own lyrics are about – not yet, anyway.
“You never really know what you’re writing until a few years after it’s written, that’s been my experience of it,” Andrews says at the mention of reviews that described the latest Veils album Sun Gangs as their ‘breakup record’. “That’s what it felt like to me, I suppose. It was written during a pretty kind of destructive time, I guess, and it felt – to me, anyway – like it charted the disintegration of something and the beginning of something else.”
Breakups are familiar territory, in a way, to Andrews; when The Veils first appeared in London in 2002, Andrews found himself signed to a major label on the strength of his demos, playing with band members recruited out of necessity. By the time the album arrived there had already been court cases, a subsequent change of label and, shortly after the album’s release, the band parted ways.
“It was just a result of getting signed very, very young, on the basis of the first songs I ever wrote, Andrews recalls. “Seven of those ten songs were written before I was 16, so by the time I was 20 when it came out, I didn’t relate to that part of myself any more. I just didn’t really know what I was, or what I wanted to do particularly. I like that that record exists now, but at the time it was very frustrating. And that record did very well in Europe – it was odd, because suddenly I was playing to quite a lot of people, and I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I kind of hated what I was doing. I felt like I’d been led down that path, and we hadn’t even put an album out yet. It was all a bit much for me at the time.”
And with that, Andrews left the UK, did some brief touring of his own, then returned home to New Zealand, figuring the whole ride had been an unmitigated disaster. “Yeah, I thought that was it for me. I’d seen a side of things that I’d heard existed, from my dad and mates of his growing up. It just seemed very ugly to me, the whole thing. We were a very young band. If it wasn’t for Geoff at Rough Trade helping us get out of the Warners thing and onto his label, we would have been totally fucked. So I just left. I said to Geoff I was going home to New Zealand, and he told me if I wrote anything, he’d like to put it out. Which was very good of him at the time.” And Travis’s faith didn’t take long to be repaid, either, as Andrews found old friends Sophia Burn and Liam Gerrard, and new songs started to take shape. “I thought I wouldn’t do anything again, but within two months of being rid of the old band and rid of living in London and feeling that kind of pressure, I’d written most of Nux Vomica and started playing with Soph and Liam… I just felt like I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder.”
Why, then, not just bring the new songs to the band that had recorded the first album, and record without the distraction of record company pressure? “That first band, we didn’t really talk or hang out. I got them together purely to play those songs. It was a solo album, really, that first album. And I didn’t want that. I wanted a band. It was just very lonely, that world, and I wanted some people to come along with me, I suppose, that were on the same… thing.”
Creating music without the destructive influence of outside expectation proved, says Andrews, to be liberating. “I don’t feel an awful lot of external pressure. I just feel it from myself, really. I’m never very happy with… I don’t know. I don’t want a career, really. I suppose that’s why I don’t feel any pressure. I hate that word. That’s exactly what I don’t want. That’s why I want to do this. I would happily stop making records. I don’t feel any pressure that I have to do this for the rest of my life. With each record I spend a good six months to a year just deciding if it’s worth doing. I just feel like there’s so much shit in the world, and I don’t want to add to that. It takes a lot out of you. With the first album, by the end I wasn’t behind it enough and it just made the whole thing kind of pointless. So with these last two, I’ve really had to prove it to myself, I guess, that there’s no choice but to do that, to write those songs.”
The Veils’ third album Sun Gangs vindicates Andrews’ holistic approach; warm, dark and viscerally emotional, it was, surprisingly, recorded in a few short weeks after interminable touring. “We wanted to get it out quick. There’s quite a big gap between Nux and Sun Gangs, it’s weird. We spent that whole time touring, basically two and a half years straight on the road. So by the end of that it was pretty easy to get something recorded that quickly.” It doesn’t sound like the sort of album bands make after writing on tour, though… “We’re a perverse lot. Things don’t tend to affect us the way you’d expect. It’s a very introspective record. But I feel it’s a very optimistic record as well – it’s not a mopey breakup record, it’s very hopeful. Nux was a very angry record, and this one… I’m still making sense of this one. It takes a little while.”
The songs themselves have been evolving since the release of the record last April, too. “They start meaning different things. We’ve got a different drummer now as well, which has changed the feel of it a lot – it’s a lot heavier now. I’m really excited about the shows we’re doing. That’s taken me a while to get my head around – spending so much time working on writing I felt like I’d got something of a grip on what I wanted to do with that, but the live thing is this whole other thing. It’s only in the last year or two that I feel like we’re a great live band. And the side of it I enjoy most at the moment is touring and doing these shows. It’s a whole other thing.”And as such, there won’t be any desperate attempts to recreate the sound of the record on stage – though Andrews points out repeatedly that the album was pretty close to being a live recording anyway. “We were playing it live in rehearsals beforehand, and we just recorded what we were doing. There’s not an awful lot of overdubs on that record – or with Nux, they were both recorded very live, and with Nux the string sections were done live in the room with us. I like that kind of recording – it’s something we got off (Nux Vomica producer) Nick Launay, really. That’s how he does all his stuff. He’s the best producer in the world, I think. I’d love to work with him again.”
Of the two emotional centrepieces of Sun Gangs – the intense-emotion-meets-pop-song The Letter with its heart-wrenchingly forlorn vocal, and the lengthy, menacingly detailed Larkspur – it’s the latter that is perhaps the more remarkable, simply because what you’re hearing on the record is quite literally the first time the band had ever played it. “We did that in one take, and we’d never played it before that. I told everyone I had the song – and it really freaked me out when I wrote it, I just played it all day in a loop, I was hypnotised by it. And I knew how we should begin it and how we should end it, but didn’t know what went in between that. So we just went in and did it. It’s pushing the self-indulgence thing, it’s a little long. But it was just trying something new for us. There are no overdubs on there, that’s the first performance of it on the record. It was a real little moment.”
As for the subject matter of some of the more intense lyrical moments on Sun Gangs, Andrews insists that he hasn’t yet figured out what his songs are exactly about. “I just wanted to make someone up and then kill them. That was the basic idea,” he says with a laugh when asked who Killed By The Boom might be referring to; could this be a songwriter who prefers to leave the interpretation of songs to the listener? “I would willingly talk about it, I just really don’t know. They are what they are, and I’m trying to make sense of them a lot of the time.”
But whatever the underlying meaning of his songs, Andrews says he feels compelled to write them; this isn’t a man who writes to order or to a deadline. There are other reasons, perhaps connected to his growing up with XTC and Shriekback founder Barry Andrews as his father. “Running to words, running to music… it’s certainly a family trait. Since I was 12 or 13, playing guitar… ever since then it’s something I naturally run towards, I think. It keeps me focussed. Makes the world make sense for me. I think everyone has something like that, which brings them comfort and structure and orders the chaos out a little bit. That’s all it is for me, really. The writing is ordering the chaos – and playing live is kind of throwing it on everyone else!”
All of which makes Andrews sound somewhat insular, isolated from what is going on in the wider musical world. Nothing could be further from the truth. “You tend to listen to things in quite a… forensic manner, I think. But then, some things come along that completely knock you off your feet, you feel like a kid again and you can’t stop listening to it. I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on at the moment. There’s so much out there, it’s harder and harder to find things of quality, I suppose. But I think there’s still just as much there as there ever was.”
“I think this is a great time to be making music. I’m very glad to be alive and making music right now. I’ve had my doubts about that in the past. But I think you have to stick to your guns, really fight for what you’re doing. That can breed some great things. It’s not easy, not easy right now to be making music. And I think that’s good. You’ve got to prove yourself. Which is a weird duality, because it’s easier and easier to produce music, but it’s the hardest time ever to make something of quality.”
So, in other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for the next Veils album. While it’s unlikely to be another two years of touring and travelling before one materialises, nothing is a certainly in this band’s world. “I tend to get to the point where I think I’m never going to be able to write another song again,” Andrews says ruefully. “And then the next week I’ll write ten. It seems to usually be that I’ve got to be teetering right on the edge of the creative black hole. I’ve got to get to that place – I’ve got to walk the tightrope for a while.”
© Anthony Horan 2009
Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1098, 18th November 2009