The human race has always had a keen fascination with the sciences, especially since Neil Armstrong made the first bootprint on the moon. Since this extraordinary event, our evolutionary understanding of science and the ever-expanding universe around us has propelled humanity into realms never before thought of.
Progressive music has exploited this innate union, from 70s sci-fi aficionados Hawkwind to modern-day mathematical cosmologists TesseracT.
Since their inception in 2000, Scandi/Brit purveyors of technical progressive rock Thieves’ Kitchen have built the foundations of their sound on this subject. The band, consisting of guitarist Phil Mercy, vocalist Amy Darby and keyboardist Thomas Johnson, have developed it into something singular with their new release, The Clockwork Universe.
“The thing with this album is that it seemed to be an almost overly simplistic explanation for things, which when you look at them in detail are far more complex,” explains Mercy. “All the songs in some way or another seem to relate to this idea that it isn’t a clockwork universe at all, and we should experience it as human beings.”
There’s a danger when delving into the stoically scientific angle of music that the human aspect is lost in translation, and this is something the band were keen to steer away from. “I think I was aiming to get diversity in the storytelling this time,” Darby says. “It moved more into the realm of telling stories, and it’s an example of stepping away from my own story [to focus on] other people’s experiences of the scientific world.”
She goes on to explain that the band had a desire to move away from the rigidity of their previous releases, employing a more human-centric resonance. “I think on the last three albums we’ve been developing a far more organic and fluid sound, moving away from the more rigid technical sound. But underpinning it all is that well-engineered scaffolding, if you like. We don’t improvise – everything is carefully thought-out.”
Mercy concurs, stating that for him, this decision was about ensuring the longevity of quality, stressing that many musicians will have been in the unenviable position of composing music that is far too complicated to sustain. “The early days in the band, it was all about if we could play what we’d written,” he says. “We were more like technicians. So with our latest ones we’ve tried to take a step back and allow humanity in. It gives our music an added texture.”
Despite this conscious move away from the sound of the earlier albums, there’s a certain level of intelligence in the band’s latest release that’s rare in modern music, and when discovered, different layers of sound are audible and change with each listen. As Darby explains, this depth of sound is down to Mercy and Johnson being “boffins”, with day jobs in mathematics and physics respectively. Mercy reckons this informs his thought process while writing music.
“There is definitely a link between mathematics and music composition – it influences how you go about writing a piece from an architectural level,” he says. “Especially when you’re used to describing big, complex things with simple statements like an equation. E = mc2 is so simple to explain something so far-reaching and fundamental.”
As many other musicians will attest, the level of perfectionism in a band is something that can be integral to the sound. This is something that Darby, like the vast majority of the populace, leaves to those blessed with patience. “Phil and Thomas are perfectionists. When it comes to the editing and mastering, they can just disappear into the studio for hours. I mean, they talk about fractions of a decibel or half
a decibel louder for one note. I love it, and it’s so much what makes the band what it is, but I’ll normally go and pop the kettle on.”
The luxury of not being bound by restraints is something that both Mercy and Darby say is very important to them. They are purposefully independent of a record label, and both say their music has benefited greatly from not having time or musical constraints. “We have the luxury of creating what we want in our own timescale, which can be dangerous as you don’t have any arbitrary limits,” Darby says. “But we have this wonderful playground with which to create music.”
Mercy also hails the progressive fanbase as being the reason why bands like Thieves’ Kitchen have seen
a growing interest in what they produce. “Prog fans are just brilliant and they want to buy your product. They continue to support the band and are very loyal, so it’s very possible to fund a band like Thieves’ Kitchen, to sell our music and still break even.”
Thieves’ Kitchen have always operated outside convention. That’s not just down to the band’s increasingly unique sound but also their limited use of social media, and even more so the fact that both Darby and Mercy didn’t come from a traditional musical background. “No amount of teaching gets you as good as years of practice,” Mercy explains. “I haven’t had a lesson in my life, and I’m pretty sure I’ve cheated from day one. I completely bypassed the blues, which I found boring. I wanted to sound like this Allan Holdsworth guy I’d heard.”
Mercy in particular has the enviable gift of being able to listen to music and then transcribe it instantly. This may not sound strange in itself, but when you consider he’s done this with the wonderfully chaotic eccentricities of Frank Zappa, it beggars belief.
“I remember sitting in the back room and I could hear this amazingly beautiful music wafting up from downstairs, and it happened to be Zoot Allures by Frank Zappa,” he recalls. “It had such gorgeous chords that I couldn’t rest until I’d worked it out. So later that night I wrote it out, and what I didn’t realise was that the entire household was sitting staring at me. They couldn’t believe someone could sit there and work out Frank Zappa, but I didn’t realise it was meant to be impossible to do.”
The tone with which Mercy recalls this event is that of one commenting on the weather, and while it’s sure to cause ripples of jealousy through many of Prog’s readers, the guitarist just smiles. “I think it’s a curse,” he says.
The Clockwork Universe is out now. See www.thieveskitchen.wordpress.com for more information.