Messed!Up

The constant evolution of The Slow Readers Club: Interview

J.N. December 2, 2018

The last couple of years have seen Manchester four-piece The Slow Readers Club perform sell-out shows up and down the UK, including a sold-out Apollo at home. After two albums and very little attention, everything were about to change after supporting James around the UK.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Kurtis, Aaron, James and David when they visited Hamburg and talked about the amazing set of events from supporting James to having a number eighteen album on the UK chart this year.

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We’ve often covered bands that follow the DIY path and faces everyday struggles of putting together a schedule of ordinary day jobs, spend a few hours rehearsing and then trying to hook up with that kind of headliner that would boost your own band’s career. The Slow Readers Club is one of those bands – up until quite recently.

In the summer of 2012 I happened to visit an old friend in Manchester and she brought me to The Ruby Lounge in Manchester just to have some music in our ears while having a few beers. There were three unknown bands on stage this night and one of these bands were The Slow Readers Club, and for someone being a massive fan of early Editors songs like “Feet On Fire” and “Sirens” got stuck and were spinning around the head for a few days, and I returned home with their self-titled debut album in my hand.

Three years later, in 2015, the second album “Cavalcade” was released and I was convinced about an immediate success and gigs at the major British festivals, but nothing happened. A year later everything was turned upside down when they supported James on a tour around the UK leading to a huge increase in attention, and the change was around the corner.

2018 saw the band signing up with Modern Sky and the release of third album “Build a Tower” that went straight into number eighteen on the Official UK album chart – ten on the physical album chart – and suddenly UK isn’t big enough. After building up momentum on home turf for quite a few years now with a cult following of fans growing and growing, it’s time to conquer Europe.

The breakthrough years

The last years seem to have been somewhat hectic for you with, for instance, supporting James, signing a deal with Modern Sky and releasing “Build a Tower”. How would you summarize what happened recently?
Aaron: James was actually a couple of years ago and just one show last year I think but what we did earlier this year was our own tour where we did, for instance, Manchester Cathedral, we did London Islington Assembly Hall and we released an album and it got into number eighteen on the UK charts in the beginning of the year.

The start of the tour was before the album was dropped actually which is quite unusual, and with a lot of the set we were playing it was fresh to people, nobody had heard it, so that was an interesting experience (laughs), like in the Cardiff Globe where no one has ever heard the tracks before.

“Build a Tower” sounds a bit different from previous records. How was it different to write the album?
James: We’re just trying to write good songs but we didn’t make a decision and say that we wanted it to sound like this, we wrote songs while we were rehearsing and they ended up being what they are now but it was no conscious decision. But it was important to write better songs than on “Cavalcade”.

Aaron: And it happened in a more concentrated time period. It was the first one with a label so it was a lot more pressure but we already built a reputation with “Cavalcade” and built an audience around the UK as well, so it was more expectation than on the second record.

When we released the first only people in Manchester knew about as, maybe in Sheffield a little bit but in general across the UK we were unknown, but since then we have just been building and building.

It sounds different to the other two because when it comes down to it, we’ve developed as musicians by trying new things to keep ourselves and the audience interested.

What makes an album really good is that the songs tell a story and this album really has a good story.
Aaron: They’re also existential and introspective songs. We’ve seen in reviews for a number of years now that it’s cathartic to be at our gigs and people seem to identify with what I’m saying basically, things that they don’t talk about with mates. A lot of it is personal experiences, some of it I try to sort of project much of myself into people’s situations like in this one on the album called “Distant Memory” where I’m thinking about the people rather than myself.

But if there’s a change on this album, lyrically, it’s a little bit more positive because I think I’ve been a bit dark in the past. There are a few more love pop songs (laughs) but still with a sense of alienation, and it’s with a feeling that we’re a little bit out of place in the world politically and that kind of thing.

James: Melodically as well; I think that Aaron comes up with some great melodies that resonate with people. Obviously Aaron writes the lyrics but we all chip in if someone’s playing something well and he sings something that work together with it, and we can say “Write some lyrics around that melody”.

He does come up with some great melodies that hook you in and that repeat around in the head, and obviously people learn the words based on that we’ve written a great melody.

Aaron: I think we’re big on hooks, big on memorable melodies just like The Beatles or Queen did. But it doesn’t necessarily starts in the melody, it could be a guitar or James bassline or the drums, like in “Supernatural” where the drums are central. The point is that we get better and better and I’m really excited about the next one.

Now you’ve signed to Modern Sky. How come that you ended up there?
James: We had interests at that time, some majors, not just independents, and we could still have done it ourselves and just used them for distribution, so we had a few different avenues. Dave Pichilingi, one of the directors on Modern Sky, came to one of our gigs months before we even sat down at the table with him. Eventually we got management and agents into place first and then sat down for some negotiations.

Aaron: He was infectiously enthusiastic and is great to have around. We did a festival in Manchester called Head for the Hills Festival, in Ramsbottom, and he was backstage before the gig and was just so full of positive energy and it’s really good before you go on stage to have people around like that (laughs).

How is it different to finally have a label and people around you that take care of much of those things you did on your own before?
James: It much different because labels can save us much time. Instead of us getting a load of demo CD’s and send them out to stations or whatever it might be, meaning we have to post them out, a label and a management just help us out so we can focus on playing gigs, writing songs and recording. It’s just all the things you don’t have to worry about.

We’re still involved, like Aaron still does the design work, when we do gigs David will go through what kind of light will work out best for us, and me and Kurtis don’t do anything (laughs). So we still do things, but having those there just makes it easier and they already got contacts and the machinery to do everything. Well, we haven’t been on national radio yet in the UK.

Aaron: But we’ve been on Radio X and 6 Music [BBC Radio 6 Music] which is national radio, but getting repeated exposure requires you to be a top-ten artist I guess.

David: After the James tour we suddenly saw a rise in interest on our website, selling a lot of our first two albums, and we were sending it all out ourselves and we came to a point where we sent hundreds of records a week and now we have our own distribution people doing all of that.

Aaron: And that was also a difficult transition in a way because we ran it ourselves for a very long time like using Tunecore for digital distribution, and when it was transferred to the label it was a bit to answer the management about things you were used to do and you had to take a step back and get out of it to let the management deal with all of that.

James: You just have to trust that they do what I’ve been doing and then go with it and focus on the other stuff.

But do feel more pressured to release something new soon when taking the step to work with a label?
Aaron: No, not yet, not at all.

David: But don’t forget it has only been released in the UK, territory-wise, and this next year will hopefully see a release in Germany and then the US. It is about breaking new territory while we’re writing a new album.

I was going to come to that because the ambition must be to over to the US and tour as well?
David: Europe as well, next year we’ll do more in Europe and more in Germany.

Kurtis: This year has been really different and it has mostly been festival gigs.

James: And it’s just interesting to see how people like us at festivals, and there’s a potential new crowd.

There might be people there who get in touch with us and want us to play another festival as well like “Can you play this next year?”, so it’s more building towards next year really, but it’s not that we disregard this [Reeperbahn Festival] because this is a really big opportunity for us, but the plan is next year when we want to come back to Europe and have a real go of it.

Aaron: That’s have been a real change for us as well, that we are professional in our mindset about being musicians and we’re planning six to twelve months ahead. Within our minds we’re projecting what we’re going to do with the whole next year whereas before we were going out as soon as someone asked us to do a gig in Sheffield the next months (laughs).

Kurtis: But that’s about touring; when it comes to actual song-writing it just happens when it happens. Our approach to song-writing, like we said before, is to write as good if not better hooks than before. We never even considered that we need to go in a certain direction with our music.

“We still have day jobs”

Balancing a day job with a music career can be tricky on so many levels, especially when you’re so serious about your music – you want to be dedicating a hundred percent of your time to it, but you need some way to pay the bills until you can get there.

While being a music researcher interviewing too many Swedish bands and artists, I learned that even bands that were filling three thousand cap venues and smashing the charts had to get home in time after a gig just to be back at work the next day.

Some artists have turned to crowdfunding to pay for projects and tours now, and they’re still using the traditional method of flogging merch at shows just to earn some extra. Sure, touring has the potential to yield some cash, but as any touring band will tell you, you would have to be on the road relentlessly to do more than break even.

The one reliable alternative? Be a normal, boring human. Yep, rock stars have day jobs too. Just like the rest of us. If this is new to you, you have been too naive to understand the realities of being in a band in the digital age, far away from the rock life of the seventies.

For The Slow Readers Club day jobs are still part of their everyday lives to keep them fed, watered and sheltered. But next year may be different.

Does it finally feel like you stand on your own and can start living off music and quit your day jobs?
James: We still have day jobs but hopefully not next year.

Aaron: We’re projecting to be doing it full-time next year basically but it happened quite naturally. There were only a few opportunities in the past that we had to turn down where the time has been stretched and we got more days to support bands that didn’t work with day jobs. But we don’t usually do that, we take every opportunity we can as long as it’s sensible. The next year will hopefully be a lot more flexible.

I read somewhere that you said that you wished you would have been more strategic in how you released singles and albums previously. What could you have done different?
Kurtis: We sort of learned from having long periods of time between singles and when we finally had the album ready to come out a lot of time had passed, just like with “Cavalcade”.

David: And we didn’t support it with gigs either.

Kurtis: If you would have done it properly you would have a plan that would be “That single comes out that month, that one the next month” and you would plan it ahead and you would have gigs supporting those releases. Instead we released them a bit ad hoc and with a DIY approach.

David: Because we were just eager to get out there; we wrote it, we recorded it and we liked it, “let’s get it out there”. We didn’t had an idea that we should had a tour booked; to release something you should have a few shows booked in (laughs).

Kurtis: It was just about learning really and we didn’t have enough money behind so I just guess we did it our own way.

Aaron: This summer we got our own management, label and booking agents and that kind of support that established artists have I guess.

Did you want to do it DIY from the beginning or was your plan to find a label?
Aaron: It happened through a necessity. To me personally at that time it was like “I want this stuff out in the world” and if we don’t do anything, nothing will happen. If it’s out, it’s there for people to listen to.

James: Obviously you’d love everything to be a success but the way I see it is that we’re still doing it and that it’s probably made us better musicians, to work even harder and not take anything for granted; nothing has ever been given to us. I mean, if we get anything like playing a festival, we just see it as a massive opportunity.

If you would have got that early on in your career, it would just have been another show, another thing to do, whereas every opportunity we get today we appreciate it very much because we know how shit it was years ago (laughs), all that shit to try to do gigs and fit them in with your day job and to write songs, and all that stuff that comes with it.

But this struggle you talk about, is it because of the huge competition between bands to get on stage and to get people come out to the shows?
James: I don’t think it’s because of the bands, it’s more about how to get people’s interest, how do you get on radio, how to get people’s support as an unsigned band. If we when we released “Cavalcade” would have got support from media and PR I think we would have got to this position earlier.

It just worked in a different way for us; gaining fans to gain us the support of these different mechanisms. But it has helped us because a lot of bands that had success and might get into the top ten charts can’t even sell-out a two hundred venue whereas we can sell-out three to four thousand, like Apollo in Manchester that we did pretty much on our own.

We only had backing for this album, we had a label for the album that came out in May. The fanbase we have has been created by being tour support for James.

This way has worked well for us actually if you consider that bands can have an album out and then disappear in the next couple of years because they haven’t built a fanbase.

David: And we got stuff to back it up, it’s not that we have just one song out and people say “What do you got?” and then you don’t have anything else, because you can say “You can buy our other albums if you want that”.

Aaron: The thing is that the back catalogue has an audience as well which I personally find quite satisfying. When we played Albert Hall in Manchester last year in front of two thousand people, we played songs like “Block Out The Sun” from our first album which has a kind of melancholic tune. At the time we were writing that we fully believed it’s a great song and it deserves a big audience and then you play it to two people in Doncaster. To hear two thousand people sing that back is very gratifying.

When we played Haldern Pop Festival earlier this year near Düsseldorf people in the audience were like “I can’t believe I never heard you before”, and that kind of feedback is kind of common and great to hear.

I remember when I was a kid and got into like The Smiths or The Beatles and them having a back catalogue that you can go and listen to. That’s what people do with us I guess. Well, maybe we’re not Beatles yet (laughs).

Do like The Manics?

Much have happened the last two years. What’s the ambition for 2019 and the next couple of years?
James: Personally it’s the opportunity to play to more people and playing at different places. When we tour Europe it will be full, that’s the ambition. You think massive, you always do, and want to play stadiums but at this point I just want to be able to tour Europe and the US, or anywhere in the world where they book us, and where there’s a lot of people who love what we’re doing. And I really hope we still write good songs.

David: If we can say that “This is our life, we create music” and it reach out to people it doesn’t matter if we play to five thousand people or fifty thousand. As long as we can say “This is now our lives, we love what we really do as a job”, you can’t ask for more I think.

But are you like most bands from the UK with the ambition to be on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival in the future?
(laughs)
James: It would be nice; wait, I’ll rephrase that. It would be a great experience (laughs) but if it didn’t happen I’d just be happy. If we sell-out our own shows that’s good enough but if it happens that would be ridiculous.

When you’re growing up and you’re in a band Glastonbury is the festival in the UK. I know there are a lot of others but it’s the one that has the biggest window for a band. It’s on TV more than other festivals and that’s the one you look out for. We just have to see how it goes.

Aaron: I think that would be possible. I have been stopped outside by fans saying “You should play there” and I was like “Thanks but we can’t fill it yet”. In my mind it was an unattainable target at the time.

Now we’ve filled the Albert Hall, we sold-out three months in advance, Scala is nearly sold-ut in London [gig on Dec.11th]. And as we said earlier today, we would be very happy if we can sell-out Apollo-sized venues with three thousand in every city and can go to Europe and do the same. That would be pretty special. We don’t need to be stadium big, it’s enough that our music connects with people all over the world.

James: And the next time you do it there will be slightly more people.

Aaron: You just don’t want it to the other way (laughs).

David: We can go up to stadiums and then come back down like the Manics did; they went up so high and then they slowly went back down but they still have their core followers. I wouldn’t have a problem with that (laughs).

Kurtis: I think that next year we might actually be at Glastonbury. Recently, at the local festival we played, we headlined that. Even if it’s not Glastonbury it was our first headliner and compared to the last three-year period where we’ve played mid-day slots in a tent, that’s something different.

That side of things hasn’t been achievable up until this point because everything has been on a budget kind of thing. As we get bigger and bigger, the spectacle side of it can become more part of it.

Aaron: And we spent a lot of time speaking with the team about lightning and stuff more professionally. I mean we have considered that on previous tours as well but obviously a headline slot at a festival requires a bigger spectacle.

Final question then; what do you expect from the German audience tonight?
James: I just hope to win more people! We play, people like it and then, if we look at our Spotify stats and we look at our social media, you would like to see some kind of spike or some kind of improvement.

We’re interested in winning more people on it because we will be back in Germany next year to do our own shows – at this moment we play to people we don’t know, we play a festival – and I would like those people saying “I saw you at Reeperbahn Festival, I saw you at Haldern Pop Festival”. That’s why we do this and work so hard to reach out.


Photographer, interview/band photo: ©Julia Schwendner
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Photographer, concert: ©Mandy Privenau
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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.

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