When an album comes complete with a glittering list of high-profile collaborators and guest stars, it can be easy to overlook the actual music contained within.
You'd be forgiven for doing so with Humanist's self-titled, debut album. Created by songwriter and producer Rob Marshall, the album collects vocal turns from some of alternative music's most desirable names – Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan, Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan and Ride's Mark Gardener among them. Assembling them all on one album would be a feat for most artists. That Marshall managed to do so on his debut record without having any prior relationship with most of them makes that feat all the more impressive.
But to focus solely on the names involved is to do a disservice to the music Marshall has created with Humanist. Ranging from stadium-sized indie with anthemic choruses the likes of Elbow or Interpol might covet, all the way through to sophisticated industrial synth-pop, it's an eclectic mix of tracks that showcase Marshall's abilities as a songwriter and curator.
Here, Marshall guides us through Humanist one track at a time.
"After I finished the record, I instinctively felt like it needed an intro. Something to recognise the creation of a new beginning – the birth of Humanity, all its flaws. It's all layered synths with a reversed vocal. There’s a train passing by, layered throughout – a nod to the very last track where the outro includes same train passing through what I almost imagine to be the gates of heaven."
2. Kingdom ft Mark Lanegan
"One of the first tracks I worked on for Humanist. Being in a guitar band for years, I wanted to do something which was totally opposite to my big expansive guitar history. I wanted to feel free of the shackles of trying to 'create a big guitar sound' for a while, and try to follow the creative muse.
"I've always loved the sound of saxophones on tracks like Born To Be With You by Dion, Somewhere by Tom Waits or the Screamadelica album tracks by Primal Scream. So being able to get sax into the track really felt like I'd hit something totally new for me.
"This track is where my relationship with Mark began. I hadn’t know him previously, but my manager pitched to his to see about collaborating on Humanist as I’d always loved him. He was onboard straight away after hearing it. In the end, as it turned out, we parked Humanist for a while and we first worked first on his album, Gargoyle, together.
"In reality, this track came first and sparked the entire thing. After hearing Phantom Radio with its slight electronic edge, I felt this track would be well-suited to Mark, and dare I say, push him into slightly uncharted territory. I gave it the title Kingdom just to differentiate from the other ideas I sent, but also hoping to spark something creatively. He very cleverly incorporated the title into his lyrics, and when I heard his melody and voice on it for the first time, I knew we had something pretty special.
"In that moment, Humanist went from an idea to a reality. I knew this would always be the opening track to the record, just as I knew, when I heard Gospel back for the first time after Mark had sung on it, that it would be the album’s closing notes. When Mark sings on your tracks he makes it suddenly seem more expansive. It's that voice – incredible."
3. Beast Of The Nation ft Mark Lanegan
"With all the polarised stuff going on in the world, every news feed, social media post, papers, and TV shows were – and still are – completely saturated with political madness and turmoil. I think Trump had just got into power in the States and the Brexit farce was looming. You couldn't avoid it and I found the whole thing depressing.
"This was just a release of energy sparked from frustration and anger. I knew Mark could take on this style of song easy from his previous would with Queens Of The Stone Age, so it was never in question as to who I’d want to sing on it. Luckily Mark liked it and what he came back with was total genius – some of my favourite lyrics ever. His melody is direct, almost vicious, but has a real Stones vibe to it. It’s pretty damn cool. I love this track."
4. Shock Collar ft Dave Gahan
"I originally planned for the big single to be Kingdom – but as Mark's new record release clashed with mine, it meant I couldn't put a track featuring him out around the same time. The record had already been delayed, so I needed to find another potential single.
"I already had this song, which I’d written with Mark, and with him being such a badass, he mentioned about playing it to his friend Dave Gahan as he felt he’d like it. Luckily, Dave liked the track and agreed to sing it. With a little negotiation between my manager and his, he decided to be involved in the video too. That was quite a moment, really. What a gift to have written and played on tracks with some of the greatest singers ever – I'm an incredibly lucky guy. And Dave Gahan totally nailed the vocal. He also, like Mark, turns out to be one of the most down to earth and genuinely humble guys I've ever met.
"I didn't want to mix this one myself, so we reached out to Chris Potter (Urban Hymns, U2, The Stones) to do a mix. I’d been speaking with Chris direct after the release of Gargoyle, and I was chuffed to hear he liked what I was doing. He came back with a killer mix."
5. Lie Down ft Rob Marshall
"I wanted to try and write a track with a big release in the chorus that opens up unexpectedly. I started with the guitar part. Occasionally I write lyrics and melody as well as the music and this was one. Most of the time I just map out melodic ideas that I have, the odd word/line comes through, but the majority is mainly made up of sounds and phonetics. I took this one further, and despite usually hating the sound of my own voice, I decided to keep it on this one.
"'This God fuelled Christ is reigning alone”. I’m not religious but do recognise our need for deities. It does feel like you’re being cast off in adulthood – out to sea. We’re all kind of abandoned and left to sail off into the horizon with no compass, really. I think this track is about that feeling of aloneness, emptiness, and how, despite the importance and gravitas your own existence has to you, the entire universe has the audacity to keep moving, regardless of whether you live or die. 'All the stars lie down' is a nod to that – a kind of 'Come on, react! I matter, right?' It’s about our humanity, our need to worship even a totally silent God. Almost, by taking control or trying to at least control our own destiny in a world which is out of control.
"We’re all a little lost. That’s what this is about. I think."
6. Ring Of Truth ft Carl Hancock Rux
“I first heard Carl’s work on David Holmes’ album Bow Down To Exit Sign, and loved the energy and spirit of his delivery. Around this time I'd been listening to a lot of Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, which I absolutely love, and had this idea which was Ring Of Truth. I guess I felt that musically there was something that resonated in this piece of music I had. Every time I played it, I would think of Carl’s voice.
"At this point we had already worked on Mortal Eyes. So I sent it across and he immediately got back to me saying he loved it. I think for this song, I wanted to suggest how we all suffer from the deep burden of global issues, which run in contrast with our often relatively small personal problems. More and more, we’re trying to maintain equilibrium while dealing with very dark and horrifying news around us, polarised by increasingly rare moments of euphoria in our own lives.
"Carl took a free rein and wrote some beautiful, dark and poetic lyrics across the verses, which totally elevated it. Occasionally I map out vocal parts, and what you hear on the choruses are the vocals I sent to Carl for him to replace. We decided in the end to keep the original there, as it was stark contrast to the verses, but had a mystical feel that offered an insight to something other worldly."
Carl Hancock Rux on Ring Of Truth:
“Ring Of Truth is a languid ballad rooted in a theory of consciousness, where space and time are conceived and imposed on the noumenal world – being the conditions for experience. Essentially, it is the darkest room of a dream state and a plea to be emancipated from that state ('spread open to me') as images of a conventional world clash against inoperable feelings of love and desire."
7. Skull ft Mark Lanegan
"This idea came from the bunch of tracks I recorded for the Gargoyle session. It was a very intense week of writing and recording, with very little sleep or food and being a little under the influence. I think I wrote and recorded around 14 tracks in seven days – all the instrumentation and productions, whilst working a full time job. I think I went a little mad, in fact.
"Six of those songs ended up on Gargoyle, and this one I kept. I don't remember much about those seven days, other than they went by very quickly. When I heard Mark’s vocal on this, I instantly knew that it would be perfect for my album. So a win-win. And this time mixed by the brilliant Alain Johannes with Jack Iron on drums."
8. English Ghosts ft John Robb
"John had been in touch to say he was in Hastings for a music convention and so we arranged to meet up and do something.
"Originally I had a track called Death Party that John was going to sing and play a little bass on. But once he arrived we just decided to start something fresh. For me, it’s all about capturing an energy as quickly as possible. When you feel that otherworldly something in the air, then you best act quick. With John, we certainly connected with that spontaneity.
"The idea came extremely fast and it was recorded with a kind of spiritual rush about it. It was down in one take, and around 18 minutes long! I later edited it a fair bit, and added extra drums and production. We made the video at a run down, shadowy picture house in Sheffield, where you could feel the echoes of the past swirling around us – our own figures in silhouette, feeling like giant imperious ghosts. It was a day I’ll always remember."
John Robb on English Ghosts:
“We wrote the track on a great atmospheric night in February. It was really stormy and the waves were crashing over the promenade – really dark, a foul fantastic stormy night. The best kind, if you’re going to write music. That kind of atmosphere is so electric. We put the main track together in literally 15 minutes. When you think that London is over 2000 years old, what’s buried beneath the pavements has always fascinated me… so that's part of it – The Ghosts Of England. You get that little psychic rush when you’re walking about this old place. I’ve always been fascinated by the layers of history."
9. In My Arms Again ft Joel Cadbury
"This was one of the first things I ever recorded for the record. I really like the way the track kind of just falls into this dream like state and builds to a noise and then switches into a full on break beat/bass loop. I've known Joel Cadbury – from the brilliant bands South and Unkle – for years, and he's been one of my favourite singers forever. He was the only person that I knew this track would be perfect for. Thankfully he liked it and sent the most amazing, layered vocal parts back. It feels like the centrepiece to the record, and the half way point/placement compliments the subtle transition, of passing from one world to the next."
10. When The Lights Go Out ft Mark Gardener
"Sonically and musically, it's a nod to my musical past. Quite a straightforward track, and it was definitely leaning on those 90s influences, especially the Longpigs and Ride. When creating a wish list of singers, Mark Gardener from Ride came up a number of times, and to my surprise, after receiving a pitch from my manager, he said yes and loved the tune.
"I had a working title of the track which was Dreams which got incorporated into the lyrics, but eventually decided to change it to the title above. The track also is quite special as it features my friends Scott Pemberton and Simon Lindley from Exit Calm on drums and bass respectively. So it's a little moment of a reunion of my old band."
11. How’re You Holding Up ft Ron Sexsmith
"I’d been sitting on this track for about six months and I kept coming back to it. I really loved the stripped back nature to the instrumentation, and l wanted to have something on the album that was perhaps a small nod to a track like Blue Moon by Big Star, which I love and is one of my favourites. I’m not comparing the two of course.
"I’d just connected with Ron, via the powers of social media, and I knew I had to ask him if he would be involved in the record. Ron is one of the greatest songwriters out there, and he has such a natural, relatable way of telling his story through lyrics. When I heard this back, I couldn’t stop smiling – such a beautiful sentiment that we can all relate to. It’s one of my favourite tracks on the record."
12. Truly Too Late ft Ilse Maria
"This was built around a guitar loop I had created – I wanted a piece of music that you could fall into and get lost in, that didn't change too much and was more based around parts coming in and out to provide change.
"I was conscious that the album was male heavy throughout, and felt I needed something to break this and add a new point of view, musically. Luckily I knew an incredible female singer that goes under the moniker Isle Maria. She’s yet to release her debut, but I’ve heard it, and its truly great.
"Again, she added melody and beautifully layered vocal parts that sweep through in a dream like state, that compliment the music but add another dimension that I would never be able to do. To add further, I managed to have her provide some background vocals to a few of the other tracks, she’s singing on Kingdom, Shock Collar, etc, which has helped bind it all together and add a layer of consistency to the sound throughout."
13. Mortal Eyes ft Carl Hancock Roux and Joel Cadbury
"This was originally named Dark Toms and written around a programmed drum part. The track remains in its original form the beginning of the drums to the end, with the original improvised guitar and bass tracks – although I did record live drums on top of the original with Scott Pemberton and producer Fraser Smith.
"What transformed the track was Carl’s involvement. He sent me this incredible spoken poetry piece – along with the rhythmical mantra 'keep it going/keep it moving' – that blew me away. I had to chop things up quite a bit and made an intro to make sense of the verse but I knew that we had hit something special. The chorus parts were instrumental, and to provide consistency again, I asked Joel if he might be able to add something to it: a new and fresh hook. Joel built on what Carl had provided and elevated it even further. It’s turned into one of my favourites."
14. Shoot Kill ft Jim Jones
"Very early on – and long before I realised that for financial reasons, I would see through the majority of the production and mixing alone – I had been speaking to a brilliant producer, Fraser Smith, who was my manager’s partner. We were going to take on the record together as it was pretty early days.
"Different vocalists were getting suggested for some of the initial burst of track ideas I had. Fraser had mentioned Jim Jones, as he was once a member of the band Thee Hypnotics, so he brought Jim in and I recorded the vocals in Kent. An intensely hot day if I remember right.
"Jim was enigmatic, engaged and in full spit down the mic performance mode – like a possessed Jagger, morphed into the bellowing voice box of Tom Waits. Jim attacked the microphone like a peacock on speed. A great moment and brilliant performance, that is still visual every time I hear it. After spending months mixing the record, the track was gearing towards the end, and I had to have someone take a fresh spin on the mix as my ears and mind had burnt out. I passed this one over to Jamie Ellis. Jamie had worked with my old band and I knew I could rely on him the deliver a kick ass solid mix. Which he did."
15. Gospel ft Mark Lanegan
"I knew Gospel would be the last track. The guitar part is from one take and completely improvised. How you hear it is how it went down. All the end noise, distortion, squeals and screeches are not considered, nor are they shaped into more of a pleasant sound that might be more forgiving. I built the climax until I could take it no more. The strings that snapped did so out of the physical force of trying to take it higher than I ever could.
"I added things later, which was difficult in its freeform state. Mark's vocal is genius. And his vocal take? Even better. It’s not a concept album, but there is a thread/narrative of life and death that runs throughout the album. From Kingdom to Gospel there's a questioning of mortality and recognising or understanding our fate. This is my last chapter for now in this double record that somehow feels like a life in itself – a 360 from the opening intro. But then I think that was the main intention. I just didn’t know it until after.
"The record was made with nothing but willpower, hope, energy, self-belief, and everything I could ever muster from every ounce of heart and soul. I’m honestly not motivated by whether anybody likes it, because I made it for myself. I could never have made it without the contribution of all the artists involved though – and my enduring manager, I am forever grateful for their work on it. I’m classic musician, constantly broke and have very little equipment, so made this record on clapped out old gear, in my little one bed flat by the bleak and whipped up sea. The vocalists managed to give it something else. With months of mixing I think I managed to make it sound more expensive than it really is, but they added extra integrity and other dimensions to it way beyond what I would be capable of on my own. I never even imagined it would be signed and released, but I’m extremely glad it’s going to get an airing.
"Forever in gratitude and debt."
Humanist’s self-titled debut album is available now via Ignition Records. Catch Humanist live at the dates below:
Mar 23: The Sunflower Lounge Birmingham, UK
Mar 24: The Lexington London, UK
Mar 25: Sheffield Picture House Sheffield, UK
Mar 26: Nice N Sleazy Glasgow, UK
Mar 27: Riverside 2 Newcastle, UK
Mar 28: Soup Kitchen Manchester, UK
Mar 29: Prince Albert Brighton, UK