But, as frontman Tim Elsenburg reveals, they just couldn’t give up making their folkish, prog-pop, Mercury-award winning sounds, and are all guns blazing on album number four.
One of the finest releases of 2012, and a huge favourite in these pages, was Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Crown And Treaty. Their third album was almost unanimously adored on a critical level; so much so that the band seemed set for much wider exposure. The kind that might elevate their meticulously-crafted music – which transposed their own bespoke vision over the constituent elements of David Sylvian, mid-period King Crimson and late-period Talk Talk – into the popular imagination.
But things didn’t quite pan out that way. Instead, as frontman, guitarist and songwriter Tim Elsenburg reveals, Sweet Billy Pilgrim very nearly split. “Six months after Crown And Treaty came out, we parted ways with our manager,” he explains. “Reactions to the album had been amazing, but we couldn’t then afford to stick that on the side of a bus or in the tube station to let people know about it. There seemed to be no correlation between the amount of work we put in and what was actually happening to us. I remember one conversation with quite a big-name manager, who shall remain nameless, and he was like: ‘The good news is that you’ve made a great record. The bad news is that no one buys records anymore.’ So there was loads of negativity and basically, after years of working really hard, I couldn’t afford to live. I’d got to the point where I was on the brink of just calling a halt.”
The core trio of Elsenburg, bassist Anthony Bishop and drummer Alistair Hamer had known each other since their Buckinghamshire schooldays and had been playing together for well over a decade. The arrival of guitarist/singer Jana Carpenter brought a fresh slant to proceedings in 2010, but it wasn’t enough to avert this crisis. Disillusioned, Elsenburg considered the band’s future. There appeared to be no way forward. At least until he was struck by a revelation.
“It dawned on me that, frankly, what the fuck else was I going to do?” he says. “I wasn’t going to stop writing songs or recording them. And, at the end of the day, if what we’re doing means anything to anyone then we’ve had a conversation. Whether it’s with one person or 2,000 people, it’s worth doing. I realised I needed to be pragmatic rather than self-pitying. And once I’d sorted that out, it felt like a great clearing of the ways. It’s very easy to become mired in cynicism, but it’s the death in terms of being creative. Nothing good ever comes of it.”
Elsenburg took care of the bills by throwing himself into a teaching role at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in Kilburn. And by pouring his creative energy into a new batch of Sweet Billy Pilgrim songs. The result is Motorcade Amnesiacs, the band’s first offering on leftfield prog label, Kscope.
The album also marks a shift in emphasis from the layered ensemble work of Crown And Treaty. Guitars bustle their way to the fore, ringing with dissonant abandon. Soft acoustic passages erupt into heaving prog. Riffs and grooves emerge from spiky outcrops of art-rock. A key texture is the vocal interplay between Elsenburg and Carpenter, who has a more prominent role compared to the last album. Above all, Motorcade Amnesiacs feels much more free-roaming, as if in direct contrast to the exactitude of its predecessor.
When Elsenburg spoke to Prog around the time of Crown And Treaty, he conceded that there was very little allowance for improvisation. Everything, he explained, had to be just so. Now he’s taking it all back. “I’m trying to kind of undo all the stuff we talked about last time,” he laughs. “Jana is a fully-integrated member of the band now and she’s an improviser by trade. Co-fronting the band with her has been a real eye-opener, because she operates in an entirely different way to the way I do. It’s kind of opened my eyes to what’s possible when you don’t nail things down quite as firmly. There should be possibilities left open, in the same way that they are from writing to recording to performing an album. My tendency is to have everything in its place, but I felt it was time to loosen up a bit. And this album is probably the first expression of that.”
When it came to writing the songs for Motorcade Amnesiacs, Elsenburg found that the aforementioned crisis, post-Crown And Treaty, presented a ready narrative: “Having pretty much got as low as we could get, a lot of it is about being positive. It’s not a concept album in the Muse sense, but certainly it’s unified by a running theme: the struggle against cynicism. Even though you get older, you still have to be able to find the kid in you, the one who liked mucking about with guitars and making lots of noise and being stroppy. I don’t think not being cynical means you can’t be angry. There are even some explicitly political moments on the record, which is something I’ve not really got into before.”
Perhaps the most salient example of the album’s overriding theme is Slingshot Grin, which opens with an almost filmic chain gang rhythm, before flowering into something altogether more epic. “That’s the cornerstone of the record,” agrees Elsenburg. “That’s the one that’s most explicitly about the battle between cynicism and freedom. I wanted that chain gang shuffle, the idea of being enslaved to constantly banging on about how terrible the world is. So my character is singing about how bad things are, then Jana’s voice is trying to break me out of it. It came out of a very long conversation that we both had, where she was talking about this sort of battle that I was having inside myself. As the song builds, we eventually come together in agreement and it takes off out of that doomy, dirgey thing and ends on a high.”
Another highlight is Fast Forward To The Freeze Frame, which morphs from something you might find on an early Wire album to the kind of prog-pop cunning that Field Music have patented in more recent times. Elsenburg is a huge fan of the latter, with whom Sweet Billy Pilgrim have regularly shared live billings: “Field Music are a big part of the inspiration I’ve had over the past five years. I love that idea that prog music can be pop or jazz or close-harmony singing, all contained in a three-minute song. It’s almost like: ‘We’ve got loads of other great stuff to show you, so let’s move on’. If I had to encapsulate what I feel the word ‘progressive’ means in terms of a band, it would be Field Music.”
Elsenburg also admits that his day job at ICMP, where he runs a BA course in songwriting, has helped open out the Sweet Billy Pilgrim sound in unexpected ways. One of the new tunes, the highly infectious Just Above Midtown, is probably as close as he’ll ever get to a classic 80s sensibility. “I’ve always loved pop music,” he says. “And teaching has meant I’ve had to find some way of expressing that. I teach a class called Structure, Style and Content, which is about different genres of music and what identifies them. In doing that I’ve had to select songs from my past, ones that have meant something to me, and look at them in a way that’s more than just nostalgic. And a lot of times it’s the pop songs that still have the emotional impact. I love hooks and see no reason why a song with a weird time signature can’t have a massive hook that everyone can sing along with. Just Above Midtown turned out to be the hardest thing to write for the whole record. But every time I played it, Jana just started jumping around and dancing, with a massive grin on her face. Without putting too fine a point on it, I thought, ‘Fuck it. It’s perfect! Why shouldn’t we have a moment like that on our record?’ The song is about the joy of being in a band, specifically about doing what you love, with the people you love. And then hopefully getting it to people who will love it just as much as we do.”
This elemental joy of making music, being in a band and forging connections is, as we’ve already discovered, the central reason why Elsenburg, and Sweet Billy Pilgrim, decided to stay at it. Motorcade Amnesiacs, like Crown And Treaty or 2009’s Mercury Prize-nominated Twice Born Men, serves as a wonderful discourse on the plasticity of song. They haven’t entirely reinvented themselves, but they’ve most certainly moved on.
“The previous music felt like an architectural drawing and this feels more impressionistic,” Elsenburg says of the album. “We had fun recording it and I know we’re going to have some fun playing it for people. God forbid, we may even get some people jumping up and down, possibly even have a Sweet Billy Pilgrim moshpit. That’s the dream!”
Motorcade Amnesiacs is out now via Kscope. See www.sweetbillypilgrim.com/site for more information.