Darran Charles likes to be busy. He’s just wrapped up a tour where he pulled double duty every night, first fronting his own band – the pummelling progressive metal quartet Godsticks – after which he would return to the stage as guitarist for The Pineapple Thief.
“It was a lot of hard work, but to be honest with you, the adrenaline usually gets you through each day,” says Charles. “It’s the travelling that’s the tiring part of the tour. I enjoyed doing two sets. Boredom is the biggest enemy on tour, so keeping busy all the time would be my preferred choice.”
Over the course of an EP and three albums, Godsticks have steadily honed their sound, with the band embracing their heaviest instincts on 2015’s Emergence. Now Faced With Rage continues in the same furious vein while pulling in new sounds and influences. Alongside the industrial intensity of Guilt and Unforgivable, there’s the melancholic mood of We Are Leaving and the off-kilter syncopated epic Everdrive.
A host of factors have fed into Godsticks’ evolving sound, including the presence of two new faces in the group, with Gavin Bushell joining on guitar and Tom Price taking over the drum stool from Steve Roberts.
“We didn’t purposely go in a heavier direction – all the albums were pointing in that direction,” says Charles. “The heaviness was inevitable. Having Gavin and Tom on board, they’re on the same page musically. We explored not just heavy sounds on guitar but heavy textures and a darker, atmospheric feel that [2015 album] Emergence hinted at and that we’ve realised on Faced With Rage. We’ve not just turned up the gain on the amp, we’ve explored darker sounds compositionally, as well as producing heavier guitar sounds, and those two definitely had an impact.”
Showing they haven’t lost their progressive proclivities, Faced With Rage includes the longest piece of music in the band’s catalogue to date in the form of the thickly knotted rhythms of Everdrive.
“I never thought I’d write something that was eight minutes long,” confesses Charles, who usually prefers shorter tracks, despite growing up listening to Yes, a band not exactly known for their love of the concise composition. “It used to annoy me, the 20-minute epics, not because they were long but because I wished they’d done little points in the middle where you could skip ahead to a particular section. I like to make a statement pretty quickly, but with Everdrive it just kept going. I didn’t feel the point had been made after four or five minutes. It just ended up at eight minutes. Then you’ve got a song like Avenge which is less than four minutes long because I think I’d made my point after four minutes, whatever that point was.”
Another mission for Charles has been refining his lyric writing, trying not to load every line with as many words as he could.
“One conscious effort I made on this album was to phrase things a little bit differently, so I’m trying to convey the meaning using fewer words, rather than ramming something down someone’s throat. I’m borderline rapping on some earlier stuff.”
In addition to leaving more room lyrically, Charles sought to explore different facets of his own voice. “When we went on the first leg of this tour, I remember after a few gigs the sound guy, Simon, said, ‘Why don’t you just let yourself go a bit vocally?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I always have the impression that you’re holding back a little bit.’ It wasn’t something I was conscious of but later on I thought, ‘I’ll explore this a little bit.’
“I think I’d been holding back. I always thought if you sang with power, you wouldn’t get your melody across. I found that my voice is able to handle it, I’m able to put some welly into it and still retain my pitch. What I’ve done on this album is where the songs are more aggressive, I’m singing more aggressively, and on tracks like We Are Leaving, I’ve tried to sing softer and to use a different part of my vocal range. I think this is probably my best vocal performance on all of the albums, just for those reasons.”
The lyric-writing process often begins with Charles just improvising around a melody. “Apparently Freddie Mercury used to just sing gibberish and then refine the vocals afterwards,” he says. “That’s what my process is like – I usually tend to find some words and vowels that sound the way I want them to for a song. It’s the vowels, the sounds and the inflections that are the most important part. Then I come up with a theme afterwards that I think best suits the feel of the music.”
In the case of We Are Leaving, he came up with the titular refrain before he actually knew what the song was about. “I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical,” he says. “I had a very good upbringing, my parents always looked after me, but the area I grew up in, it was rife with crime and heroin. When I was in my 20s, loads of my friends fell into that trap and became addicted to heroin, so in that song, the ‘We are leaving’ part is someone trying to extricate themselves from that situation.
“It’s the music and the melodies that inspire the lyrics, rather than the other way around. I grew up in a place called Pantside Estate, which is a bizarre name. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking Toxteth and other riddled-with-crime areas, but I do remember loads of my friends descended into addiction. It’s different there now but at that time, when I was about 20, in the early 90s, it was particularly sad seeing friends you grew up with turn into completely different people, people you couldn’t trust because they were addicted to a drug and they would steal from you. I only experienced it directly a few times, but it was still unpleasant to see.”
On a cheerier note – “I’m depressed for the day now!” laughs Charles – the new blood in Godsticks has transformed the dynamic within the group. The frontman believes he has been guilty in the past of taking on too much of the musical heavy lifting, covering all the guitar parts on stage while having to deliver as a vocalist. The arrival of Gavin Bushell has allowed him to share the load.
“It has an effect on your performance when you’ve got that much to concentrate on, the singing and the playing, and bringing Gavin in has made my life a lot easier,” says Charles. “I’m quite confident to pass on any complicated guitar parts, leaving me to concentrate on simpler things, and also my singing, which I think has improved quite a lot since Gavin has been about.”
Regarding the new face behind the drums, Charles says, “Yeah, we recycle in this band quite well – that’s what it feels like. Steve left not long after we did Emergence and Tom was the first person to audition. Fortunately he was the right person straight away. He’s fitted in marvellously well. He’s certainly put his stamp on the new material and I really enjoy playing in this line-up. Me and Dan [Nelson, bass] are bleak characters, I would say – we’re not exactly the life and soul of the party. Tom and Gavin have got really positive, uplifting personalities, so it’s actually rubbed off on us. We enjoy ourselves a lot more than we used to in the past and that’s been translating into the recent live performances.”
The fresh faces have helped shift Charles’ mindset about how bands function. “Back when I first started out, I wouldn’t say I treated it as a job,” he says, “but I never thought it was essential that you got on with your all your band members and were socially comfortable with them. I thought it was more important to have people who are able to play the music that you want to create than it was to spend time with them. But especially over the last few years when Tom and Gavin have come on board, I’ve realised it does have a positive effect on the music when everyone gets along and everyone chips in and is working towards the same goals. It has changed my viewpoint of what a band should be about.”
After almost a decade of navigating the music industry as an independent act, Godsticks signed their first record deal with Kscope for Faced With Rage. The label is home to Anathema, Ian Anderson, The Pineapple Thief and more, but getting Kscope interested in Godsticks has been a war of attrition.
“I’ve been pestering Kscope for about nine years,” says Charles. “Back when we released the EP, in 2009, I didn’t know much about the music industry and this EP was getting positive reviews online. I thought, ‘Well, that must mean we’re worthy of being signed.’ I started ringing around record companies, basically expecting to be offered a deal. I learned quite a lot of harsh lessons.
“I was educated by Tony Harris at Kscope for quite a few years. Even though he was one of the many people who said no to me, which was the word used in most of the conversations I had during that time, he was always giving me pointers and advice.”
With every subsequent release, Charles went back to Harris and Kscope to try to entice their interest. He nearly succeeded with Emergence in 2015 – “I think they only sign a certain number of bands per year and they’d already reached their quota,” he says – before finally cracking the nut with the new album.
Just as Bushell’s arrival has lightened the load of the guitar duties, so signing to Kscope has lifted the administrative chores from the shoulders of the bandleader – no longer does he have to worry about sorting out barcodes for the albums. But on top of that, he has another set of ears to provide feedback during the creative process.
“I would send demos to Johnny [Wilks] at Kscope,” says Charles. “I always send stuff to Bruce [Soord] of The Pineapple Thief, he always gives me feedback. But I always limit the people I send stuff to because there are not many people who are genuinely honest. Bruce is always honest. I always send stuff to the first bass player from the band, who I’m still in touch with, and they’re always brutally honest. If they think something is shit, they’ll say they think it’s shit. They’ll give me the reasons why – it’s always constructive – but they aren’t afraid to tell me that something’s rubbish and I quite like that.
“Johnny is the same. There’s a track called Guilt, I sent it to Johnny, and there was a minute intro to the song. He said, ‘I think you should cut it.’ Immediately I went defensive, ‘I ain’t cutting anything! Nothing!’ Then I thought about it and when we cut it out, he turned out to be right.
“If anybody else had said that to me over the course of the last few years recording the other albums, there’s no fucking way I would have cut anything. But because he’s been so constructive with everything else, I value his opinion. It’s not just the bureaucratic side, they’ve provided me with a lot of support as well, which I otherwise had never experienced when writing an album, so it has been an immensely positive experience so far. I hope it continues.”
Faced With Rage is out now via Kscope. For more information, see www.godsticks.co.uk.