You wouldn’t know it from the surface, but every time Sam Healy releases new music, he’s tinged with self-doubt. Imposter syndrome, the North Atlantic Oscillation mainman says. And this time around, that nagging worry has been exacerbated by a five-year wait between albums.
“At some point you’re going to write your last good album,” the musician says from his home in Edinburgh. “Everyone is going to do that at some point. The question is: is it the last one? That’s the worry.”
Judging by United Wire, the latest album from the forward-thinking electronic prog outfit, the multi-instrumentalist need not worry. It’s been half a decade since the last record, 2018’s beguiling Grind Show, and the project – NAO are effectively a one-man-show with Healy at the helm – continues to be in fine fettle.
For United Wire, the title of which was inspired by a company name on the side of a building the musician would see on cycles during lockdown, North Atlantic Oscillation continue the journey through dreamy prog, electronic textures and masses of melancholic melody. The only ‘real’ instrumentation here are vocals, electric and acoustic guitar and clarinet, with the rest – including the trademark layered, velvety soundscapes – conjured through the wonders of technology.
The first single released from the record, for instance, was Matryoshka, a track that swells with chaotic, Squarepusher-esque electronic intensity before dissolving into a serene sense of melancholic calm that would be a snug fit on a modern-day Radiohead record.
“You can enter a weird set of space that’s simultaneously very precise and crystalline but also feels kind of chaotic as well,” Healy says of electronic music. “That’s a pleasing place for me.” Perhaps the inclination towards ‘digital’ sounds, including expertly programmed drums, reflects the fact that North Atlantic Oscillation these days has no members other than Healy. Gone are drummer Ben Martin and bassist Chris Howard, but you get the feeling Healy isn’t too fussed about creating on his lonesome.
“I’ll be working on a song sometimes for a year with breaks obviously in between, but just constantly chipping away at it,” he explains. “It means, for example, if something is bothering me about the last time I heard a song that I’m working on, I can get up in the middle of the night and fiddle with it. Whereas I couldn’t really ask a collaborator to get up in the middle of the night and help me on it. So it’s useful in that sense, to be completely self-sufficient, because you can have very weird schedules and not burn through your friendships.
“The writing has been solitary anyway for me for most of the time. Even with collaborations we would come together and exchange ideas, and go off and do stuff independently and then reconvene again. The actual writing itself, I think, was always done solitary.”
A “collector” of virtual instruments, Healy admits he’s obsessive about getting a spot-on digital drum sound: “I always consider the drums to be a little bit more than just a background texture that establishes a pattern. I like it to have unexpected changes and developments and so on. With that in mind I kind of go through it literally hit by hit, and bar by bar, and make sure that there is interesting stuff happening and the dynamics are right.”
The album wasn’t all created in solitude, though: longtime collaborator Pete Meighan, from Dublin, contributed some production and mixing, as well as a dollop of modular synth. However, Healy’s independent approach extended to the album’s physical release, with only 300 CDs and digital downloads initially doing the rounds, issued via his own imprint, Vineland Music.
The cover art was also designed by the musician himself. For a DIY record, it sounds bloody good, but going by NAO’s back catalogue, you wouldn’t really expect anything less. While Healy isn’t ruling out a future vinyl release, there’s no chance right now of the record being toured.
“It’s not just that it would be difficult to do live,” he says. “Unfortunately it’s financially basically impossible. It’s sad to say, but you lose money by touring these days unless you’re at the level of international stardom, basically. The smaller bands that do it, more power to them – they have to kind of claw back the expenses through merchandise, or the label or they take the hit. It’s really sad; it’s a very, very unfortunate development.
“I would like to play live again, but it would probably be in a different context. I have vague plans to do some live coding, like some improvisational stuff, but that’s a story for another day.”
North Atlantic Oscillation’s sound has subtly evolved since their 2010 debut, Grappling Hooks, released on prog-friendly label Kscope. Holding a rockier ethos than the latter-day material, it garnered a 4/5 review from then-indie bible NME, and was applauded by tastemaker Zane Lowe.
A biography written prior to their first album release suggested the band sounded like “if Brian Wilson could operate a laptop… or Pink Floyd were young and skint in 2009… or Wayne Coyne was Scottish”. Healy, though, states that North Atlantic Oscillation are not a ‘prog’ band in the traditional sense of the word, even if they fit into the wider context of the modern style of the genre.
“We’ve never called ourselves prog,” he says. “So the moniker must have been as a result of being on Kscope. I quite like prog, especially the 70s prog, so I’m not dismissing it because I don’t want to be associated with it. Prog is a very technically demanding genre, I couldn’t play it if I wanted to.”
“We got to play to bigger audiences than we would have on our own, and that helped us to hone our live show,” Healy reflects. “We needed to play that size of venue before we realised, ‘Okay, this is what we need to do to bring our live show up to the level of those venues.’”
The history of North Atlantic Oscillation roots itself back further to around 2005, with Healy forming the group after moving to Edinburgh to study mathematics. Fast approaching 20-odd years – although the exact date of conception is unknown – it feels there’s a sense of fluidity as to where things go next. Although it’s just him “at this stage”, Healy is reluctant to give definitive answers on the future line-up of North Atlantic Oscillation “because who knows, things tend to change quite fast these days in every aspect of life”. His mind has already drifted towards new material, and a change of direction could be on the cards.
“I think it’s going to be a lot more instrumental and a lot less vocal,” he reveals. “I had that idea for a while, even before this one, actually. Having vocals in some ways can let you get away with slightly less interesting song structures because the lyrics are developing even if the music isn’t. I like the idea of dispensing with that and being forced to innovate a bit more by virtue of not having vocals and lyrics to fall back on.”
Speaking of lyrics, those on United Wire – which tend to be delivered through warm vocals slathered in succulent effects – are suitably mired in a touch of enigma. ‘Everything is a clock, a novella, a rock,’ Healy sings on the opening track, Clock. ‘Everything’s winding down, you won’t hear a sound.’
“It turned out to be more concept-y than I planned,” he says. “You start writing music and then halfway through it’s writing itself, or it’s calling the shots. It would be very difficult, I guess now, to write something that doesn’t in the same way address the weirdness of this phase of history that we’re in. So that stuff definitely crept in even though I never planned to write that kind of stuff in advance. Themes of disconnection, attempts to communicate that are sometimes successful and sometimes very much not successful.”
The bulk of United Wire was recorded over the last two years, mostly at home but also at Meighan’s studio in Dublin, and he managed to navigate through the “fog” of the pandemic to conjure up the record’s 10 tracks. Designed to be listened to in one go, the songs deftly overlap, forming a rich tapestry of music as multi-layered as your granny’s winter outfit, and then some. The cinematic flow, helped by plenty of dream-soaked atmosphere, is best experienced with quality speakers, or with ears enveloped by headphones.
So, has Healy considered working on film or TV scores? “I’ve done various bits and pieces in that area, but I’ve never really pursued it,” he replies. “I think you have to do quite a lot of apprenticeship. You can do your apprenticeship in albums and touring, but you have to get to a high level before you have your pick of film scores to work on. I think you basically have to cut your teeth and work on stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily want to, to make a name for yourself. And I don’t know if I would be up for making music that I didn’t really want to make, just to climb that ladder to the point where I could make music I did want to make. But if someone approached me and it was with a script that was amazing… then absolutely I would do it.”
In his own time, Healy has found himself drifting more towards listening to jazz and away from rock and pop, heralding Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie as the “best of his generation”. “I was listening to that a lot during the period of writing this, so maybe some of it snuck in by osmosis,” Healy adds. “Also reading lots of science fiction. Stuff definitely does sneak in. I think like whatever you’re eating ends up part of your body, I think the same rules apply to creativity.”
He also admits that five years since Grind Show is too long. And in comes the doubt again. “I think it’s easier when there’s a shorter incubation period, because you have less time to doubt yourself and worry if you have anything to say this time around,” Healy continues. “I’m going to try and make an effort for it to be less of a wait this time, for selfish reasons.”
How have North Atlantic Oscillation progressed in those last five years? “In that time nothing else has happened: there hasn’t been any tours, there hasn’t been any EP releases, or anything,” Healy says. “Any way we have progressed, I guess it’s there in the music. So, it’s up to you.”