Pioneering math-rock band TTNG are currently still on the road touring with original vocalist Stuart Smith, in celebration of their seminal album Animals turning ten years old last year. Having been a big fan of the band personally, as well as having played alongside them on occasion, I asked them if they could take a few minutes out of their busy schedules to answer some questions I had. Guitarist Tim, and returning vocalist Stuart did me the honour.
Everything Is Noise: What has it been like being back in/having Stuart back in the band?
Stuart Smith: I’ve loved it. Being in a band, playing music, and travelling are what I’ve always wanted to do. Getting a small taste again after all this time has been wonderful. It’s been especially great to meet so many lovely people and appreciate first hand what a positive impact our music has had on so many peoples lives. It’s been very humbling to be made aware of that connection with the people that have attended the shows.
EIN: Is Stuart going to be with you for the festival season? You have an appearances at ArcTanGent; can that audience expect to hear Animals in full?
Tim Collis: We will be joined by Dan Adams (original bass player/trumpet player) at ArcTanGent, so we’ll be able to play the full record, plus a few extras if we can force them in.
EIN: You recently released a track that didn’t make it onto Animals, that was recorded during the studio sessions. The song is called “Aardvark”, and it seems like a very political song, which isn’t a theme I’d associate with the remainder of that record. Is that why it was left out of the original track listing, or were there other reasons too?
TC: The track was left off the record as we weren’t happy with the way it came out. The theme of the lyrics didn’t really factor into it. Garrett found it on an old hard drive and sent us a copy. People had always asked about it, so we figured why not just release it.
Note: I had originally included a few questions here about some of the bands lyrics from songs ranging across all four of their LPs; however, the band expressed to me that they prefer not to discuss the meanings behind their lyrics, which is totally understandable. Hopefully that gives context to the next question.
EIN: Are you all big readers? If so, what authors/poets do you like to read the most?
SS: I’m not sure I’d describe any of us as big readers, but I don’t think we’re averse to a good book when the mood takes us. I think we’ve all got areas of interest and subject matters that are well serviced. Chris tends to have some sort of Yogi philosophy tome on the go. Tim’ll be trying to make his way through some sort of historical/social commentary type thing. I shudder to think what Hank wraps his head round. They guy is intensely passionate about specialisms that peak his interest, so I’d imagine you’d find him curled up with Nietzsche just as easily as you would some sort of electronics instruction manual. Personally I haven’t had much of a chance to read a book since my daughter was born, but when I do/did get the chance to read, it’d mostly be non-fiction historical/social commentary stuff, with the occasional guilty pleasure like The Hunger Games or something.
EIN: Enough about poetry and words, talking strictly about music, by this point math rock is no longer necessarily a new subgenre, but there are very few that persevered and have managed to surpass the initial gimmick of the style and be recognised by wider audiences as just being a ‘alternative rock’, which is a far less niche term to be associated with, for better or worse.
Either way, the TTNG sound is pretty idiosyncratic. Plenty of people have been inspired by it, and hope to re-capture it in their own music, but really there’s only one, two or maybe three bands that pull it off. Going all the way back to when you initially started introducing this more rhythmically complex, technically demanding and ‘busy’ sound into the songwriting, what inspired that? Was it the learning of a new technique, another band in particular, or a happy accident?
SS: I was lucky to have met a guy on my first day of Uni (in fact I think he was the first guy I met at uni) who had come from Grimsby, where (at the time) there had been a strong math/hardcore scene. He was the one who introduced me to Don Cab and Ghosts and Vodka, as well as a bunch of UK math and hardcore
bands like Stand, Andy, Glenn, And Ritch, The Jesus Years, and The Little Explorer. I instantly fell in love with its complexity and ability to capture and convey emotion in a way that the more mainstream bands couldn’t. That and the fact that Oxford itself had a really strong scene, helped my music education. Whilst none of us in the band were in a position to play like these bands, I think Tim and I both had a musical connection and a distinct idea about the type of band we wanted to be.
We loved the complexity musical complexity of a lot of those bands, but we wanted to write stuff that was recognisable as ‘songs’. I think when Chris joined the band we were then really able to push ourselves and find the sound we had in our heads. I feel like the songs we wrote before him joining are the sound of a band struggling to find themselves. To this day TTNG is the only band I’ve ever been in…we just rotated band members until we got it right (which says a lot given that I’m not in the band anymore ;-P).
EIN: Do you ever find being a math rock band, pioneering or otherwise, to be restrictive? I feel like there are songs across all of your studio releases that could be just as commercially successful as a long list of the indie rock that came from the UK between 2007-present day, but whilst you guys have obviously been hugely successful, you’ve not broken into the ‘mainstream’, is this something you’re consciously avoiding or is it something you’re still striving to achieve, if you ever were?
SS: I think we’re striving to make music we like. There is only so long you can stay together as a band playing music you don’t like. It’s testimony to the longevity of the band, that we’ve stayed true to the principle of playing music we like.
EIN: You seem to be a band that don’t shy away from their genre-affiliations. Having people such as Yvette Young and Nate Kinsella be involved in your recent acoustic rendition of Animals. That’s almost three generations of math/emo rock musicians collaborating on one record, and it’s beautifully done. Why did you want to make that record, instead of recording something new with Stuart singing?
SS: Ever since I left the band we talked about doing a ten-year anniversary tour of Animals (with varying degrees of seriousness). As the time approached, it became apparent that actually people might want us to do it. That’s when we started talking about re-releases and what that might look like.
We pretty much snuffed out talk of re-mastering Animals, or just doing it in another colour as cop-outs, that even we could barely care about let alone anyone else. Once we decided on a re-imagining, we ended up going along the acoustic route, but being conscious that a whole record of just me and Tim could get dull pretty quickly, we thought about how we could keep it interesting and that’s when we thought to contact friends the band had made over the years to help fill out the sound and add something to make it more interesting. I couldn’t care less about genre affiliations. The band have been fortunate to make friends with like minded people who share a passion for music, who are not only fantastic musicians in their own right, but they’re also really lovely people.
EIN: I saw you perform in London last year for the ten-year anniversary tour of Animals, Stuart wasn’t the only original member that featured in the performances, and the set list also included some songs from the self-titled record. I have a few questions about what these experiences must have felt like. Namely, you were playing some songs that haven’t been included in your sets in years, tracks like “Zebra”, “Lemur”, and “Rabbit”, among others. Did these have to be completely re-learned, and how did it feel playing them?
TC: I felt it was really fun to re-learn and play some of the songs we rarely or had never previously included in sets. There were a few tracks like ‘badger’ which we’d never played live at all. I was pretty anxious but excited to play them on a personal level. It seems everyone who knows the Animals album has a different favourite song so it was great to play the whole album in its entirety.
EIN: Playing all of that earlier material, with Stuart and co., for what must be a much larger audience that the one that would have been standing in front of you back in 2008, must have been a surreal experience. After all of the grafting, relentless touring and hard work, did it feel like it had paid off?
TC: Yeah for sure. There are many aspects of playing in a band that can be deemed a success, not just playing in front of people but I do think the Animals shows we played were really special – the London show was probably our biggest UK crowd and I think even if it was half as full, the excitement levels and enthusiasm of the crowd still would have been incredible. I’m still really grateful that so many people came out to support us, and I’m already looking forward to the 20th anniversary shows.
EIN: I stood among however many hundreds of people that were in that room, singing along to a trumpet melody, of all things. What does that mean to you, that so many thousands of people resonate with your music on so deep a level that they learn to sing along to trumpet parts, guitar parts, specific drums parts, and so on?
TC: It’s just unreal and a supremely positive thing to experience. Like many bands, we never expected our music to reach so many people or have so many people come out to see us and show support. I love it when the crowd feel comfortable enough to take part and the energy between the band and the crowd shares the same space.
EIN: TTNG fans are very special, I think. For me, this is because they are attached to both the music and lyrics, in equal parts. The blend of challenging, thought-provoking and almost unbelievably skillful music, layered with lyrics that are so deeply relatable and relevant to people of all ages, many of whom felt like they grew up with the band, leaving their teen angst and heartbreak behind from the self-titled album, to Animals where they’re faced with the same romantic dilemmas but through the lens of adulthood. Later being observant, and disillusioned by things such as class, isolation, bereavement and more on 184.108.40.206.0, and then prophetically spelled out in the title, a feeling of disappointment as they approach, or meander through their late 20s and 30s. Losing the taste for living, biting their tongues until they are bleeding, so to speak. The quiet desperation indicative of what it is to be British, I suppose.
Speaking strictly from myself, but I’m sure on behalf of many others, TTNG, in both of its different carnations, has chronicled and aptly documented my adolescence, and early adulthood, with a voice that I feel is my own. Of course, musicians are nothing without their fans, so I’d like to know what it is that you think about your fans specifically, what questions would you ask them?
SS: What’s your name? Where are you from? Sounds stupid, but I’ll always remember meeting James Dean Bradfield (of The Manic Street Preachers) at a show at the Zodiac in Oxford when I was a student. I was a massive Manics fan as a teenager and convinced myself to go and say something (anything) to him. I can’t really remember what I said, but I remember he asked me my name and where I was from. I don’t think for a second that he cared much, but the fact that he asked me a question and that it put me at ease and made me feel comfortable, really stuck with me.
Sure enough, now when I meet fans and they look a bit nervous and unsure of themselves I’ll ask them where they’re from and what they’re called. It’s a little thing, but encourages a conversation to start and I hope a means by which we can connect. I’m not sure this strictly speaking answers your question, but I’ve written it down now and it’s too much to delete and I’m not going to start again.
TC: Again, we’re just very grateful and privileged to have people come out to show support. As Stu said, I always try to make an effort to connect with fans even in a small way, such as asking their name, where they’re from, etc.
EIN: Lastly, now that Stuart has been with you for just shy of a year, touring the world and performing Animals every night, what is next for the band? Are you all going to make a new record with Stuart and Hank both singing? Is Hank taking a back seat, vocally? Is Stuart returning to his family and leaving music behind him for a little while, if so, where does that leave the three of you that are left?
SS: I think I’m going to slink back into musical obscurity again. As for the other guys, I think they’re planning on writing new material. Fingers crossed we all won’t have to wait too long.
Whilst it undoubtedly comes as a bit of a bummer that Stuart won’t be sticking with the band past this tour, it’s redeemed by the announcement that the band are working towards new material! Any EIN readers heading to ArcTanGent this year (including some of our own writers) can expect to hear Animals start to finish, as well as some gems from the band’s self-titled album, also. You can follow them on Facebook to stay informed about any future updates.
TTNG are a band that always exceed the limitations, and expectations of a typical indie rock band, but never lose their ability to both sensitively, and succinctly tackle hard questions, and subject matter. On top of this, they are also sincerely good people who always find time to talk to their fans, which I have witnessed first-hand. I know I am not alone in being proud that they are a UK-based band.