WORDS : ETHAN MEGENIS-CLARKE
“There’s going to be so much noise at the end of the year… It’s a good opportunity to be heard while people aren’t doing much.” – South London alt-rockers Wallflower on releasing their debut album during a global pandemic.
On March 22nd, 2020, Wallflower released ‘Hungry Eyes’, the first single from their long-anticipated debut album Teach Yourself to Swim. It was the first new music Wallflower had released since the standalone single Magnifier in 2018 and followed three years of touring in support of their 2017 EP Where It Fell Apart. During that cycle the five-piece shared a stage with breakthrough British acts such as Milk Teeth and Boston Manor, international bands like Free Throw and Knuckle Puck, and appeared at Download, Slam Dunk and 2000 Trees festival.
Then, on March 23rd, Boris Johnson addressed the nation on the developing COVID-19 pandemic. The British government had so far been slow to enforce lock-down measures, but in his speech, the Prime Minister confirmed that people should not have contact with anyone outside of their household and gave the police power to enforce penalty fines on those caught breaking the rules. For the music industry, that meant the postponement or cancellation of virtually all tours and festivals for the rest of 2020 – vital opportunities for new bands to promote their music to potential new fans. It also prevented any in-person promotional events such as signings and acoustic performances, and even stopped artists from making on-location music videos.
We definitely had a brief conversation where we said: ‘is this the wisest thing to do?’
With the release of Teach Yourself to Swim scheduled for June 5th, Wallflower were hit by an imperfect storm; their April tour with Microwave was cancelled, they were unable to shoot the music video for second single ‘Eat Away at My Heart’, and any promotional activity they had planned around the record’s release was unable to go ahead. “We definitely had a brief conversation where we said: ‘is this the wisest thing to do?’.” Frontman and guitarist Vini Moreira-Yeoell says about the band’s decision to stick to their planned release date.
“I think we benefit from being a band that can pick up new people,” the singer continues. “We’re still unknown to a lot of people. During this time when not a lot is coming out, we have something new for people to dig into and in the more distant future be like ‘I’ll go and see that band’.”
You’d be forgiven for finding this optimism surprising given the darker themes of Wallflower’s music; on the aforementioned ‘Eat Away At My Heart’, Moreira-Yeoell sings: “We found our bodies shutting down, accepting our defeat”. Meanwhile, ‘Hungry Eyes’ takes aim at the powers that be with the line: “The paradise they promised you has withered away.” Still, the frontman is confident that holding firm on the June release date is the right thing to do: “There’s going to be so much noise at the end of the year, with bands rescheduling their stuff. It’s a good opportunity to be heard while people aren’t doing much.”
it costs a lot of money to record and release an album when you haven’t got a label backing it
Teach Yourself to Swim has been a long time in the making. Written and recorded eighteen months ago, the band have been sitting on gold for so long to ensure the album gets the release it deserves: “The bottom line is, it costs a lot of money to record and release an album when you haven’t got a label backing it. We didn’t want to spend all the time and effort on making the record and then when it came time to put it out, going: ‘Here’s a single, now here’s twelve songs’.” Moreira-Yeoell explains.
“Originally when we first started writing towards ‘Where It Fell Apart’ it was going to be an album,” the singer elaborates. “I’m quite glad it didn’t end up being an album because I feel like the direction we went in made more sense in a short-form release.” Where that EP was 16 minutes of Wallflower at their most intense, on Teach Yourself to Swim the band finds space between louder moments to produce some of their best material yet. The atypical time signatures of album opener ‘A Parody Of’ echo In Rainbows-era Radiohead, whilst ‘Passer By’ takes dynamic inspiration from Death Cab for Cutie.
While their earlier releases took what Moreira-Yeoell describes as a “wall of sound” approach to guitar recording – most notably the thick textures of Inside Out and Mas Eu Quero Mais – Wallflower make full use of their three guitarists throughout Teach Yourself to Swim. Combining interweaving melodies with innovative effects, the band are able to create everything from lush textures to harsh industrial-esque noise with instruments believed by many to be outdated compared to synthesizers. “To a lot of people, guitar music has become a bit of a stagnant genre. I don’t blame the think pieces for going ‘is guitar music dead?’” The frontman and guitarist comments. “Of course, I disagree. But I don’t think it’s an unwarranted opinion to have.”
It’s always been about having an outlet and an output for expression.
“I feel like when people talk about ‘guitar music’, they think about straight up ‘rock’ bands, we’ve always seen the guitar just like any other instrument: An opportunity to make a sound.” Moreira-Yeoell elaborates. Where so many other bands innovate by adding more – more instruments, more guests – Wallflower use what they already have at their disposal to a greater effect on Teach Yourself to Swim: “It’s so important to use what you have rather than saying ‘we’ll use the synth and put it on a backing track’.”
Fans of Wallflower’s harder hitting material need not worry; Teach Yourself to Swim also features some of the group’s heaviest songs to date in the form of ‘Hungry Eyes’ and the final track, ‘take take take’. As an independent band, Wallflower retain the creative control necessary to produce a dynamic, varied album that fulfils the old cliché of being ‘heavier and more melodic’. “We are a band that are so meticulous about every little detail. Everything we do, there is a discussion and a conversation about.” The band’s frontman says on the topic of releasing their debut without a label. “The one downside to having a label, with some bands at least, is they lose some of that conversation.”
It’s a decision that has paid off for Wallflower; while some of their early tour mates such as Gnarwolves, Hindsights and Yearbook have dissolved or broken up in recent years, Wallflower have stuck around on their own terms. “There’s a moment where you can make the jump from being a band that can still live a more normal life and the moment where you have to 100% of your attention into the band.” Moreira-Yeoell explains of the band’s longevity. “As soon as you make that jump, that can be the moment that makes it more difficult to hold a band together.”
In Teach Yourself to Swim, Wallflower have an album that could give them the opportunity to take the aforementioned jump. Far from letting the roadblocks that they have encountered over the past few months take the wind out of their sails, the band have taken it in their stride and produced an album that will outlive lock-down. “I hope for the people that listen to our band, we stay at the forefront of their minds for a long time and they see the work we put into it.” The band’s frontman says on their aspirations. “It’s always been about having an outlet and an output for expression.”