If you want easy-to-digest, vacuous, three-chord pop slop you may as well fuck off right now. Seriously. If you want accessible, homogenised piss to listen to in your Vectra on the way to a sales conference, or chest-beating, misogynistic macho tripe draped in just about enough faux angst to keep some A&R douche happy then you can do likewise, buddy.
If, however, you’ve got some balls and you want to take a chance on something real, if you want a righteous experience, made by people not afraid to stand on their own while inviting you to join them, then you’ve found it: While She Sleeps.
“We’re just trying to make people open their eyes,” guitarist Mat Welsh says of the band’s mission statement. “We’ve always aimed for the same thing – we were trying to do it with the first album too – you don’t have to do what people think will make you a good person to make you a good person, do you know what I mean? You just have to reflect the right things and have the right idea on life. Like, don’t be a knobhead! We’re trying to say, ‘Look, just be a dude and have respect for the things that you need and that deserve to have your respect – push a positive message‘. And I think we’ve always tried to do that. It’s about appreciating why you’re here and what you’ve got around you, but at the same time not taking shit from people who have no right to be dishing it out. We want to build a society of people that believe the same things that we do because it’s positive – and it’d be good for everyone.”
Ardent readers of Metal Hammer may well be aware that the first album Mat’s referring to there is the Sheffield five-piece’s self-financed 2011 mini album The North Stands For Nothing, as it was given away free by this very magazine. Normally it would be mere journalistic platitudes and hyperbole to say that it gave the British metal scene a thorough and much-needed kick in the gonads, yet it unquestionably did. Not at all bad for five
guys (the lineup being completed by vocalist Lawrence ‘Loz’ Taylor, second guitarist Sean Long, bassist Aaran McKenzie and drummer Adam Savage) who all met at high school (well, with the exception of Loz who “Got to know them from playing the same venues ’til eventually their singer left and they asked me to join!”) and later went on to quit their various day jobs – which included picking bits off a conveyer belt at a skip company, being a learning support assistant and serving average Italian food at a Frankie And Benny’s.
Social commentary aside, there was another aspect to their debut that marked out While She Sleeps as a little bit different – and a whole lot braver: their daring to confront what they see as a glaring problem in the UK music scene, as Loz explains: “We used to travel miles to play a show yet when we’d get there people would be almost disrespectful towards the fact that we’d turned up to play – do you know what I mean? People would watch their friend’s band and then be like, ‘Fuck watching anyone else’ and just leave. So that’s where we got the idea for The North… because we felt that, some of the time, we were out on our own, in our own genre, because when all the straight hardcore kicked in we were left outside, on the edge.”
And it’s a problem they’re still encountering to this day, as Mat elaborates. “We’ve toured so much, and been to so many different places, and we’ve found that there’s a bit of an arrogance in some towns – Sheffield is one of them, although we love it. Everywhere has got this problem where people are only bothered about themselves,” he says matter of factly. “Like, they go to gigs and only watch the local bands, then they fuck off for the headliner that’s come from a different place; they’re not interested. We don’t like that vibe, if you go to a gig you should watch all the bands, it’s music, people should go with open ears. And we’re just trying to erase that sort of cocky attitude from people who say they are music fans.”
It’s an issue they’re still trying to correct on their debut full length, the acerbic yet remarkably cultured This Is The Six, an album that, while still full of enough brutal riffage to make even the most gnarly Slayer fan shit his pants, is also beautifully tempered with anthemic vocal harmonies and even – say it quietly – piano-led passages! But then, as the band themselves will tell you, they’ve never been just about “smashing shit up”, because theirs is a message imbued with hope, too. “We’re not fucking screaming about nothing; we’re only screaming because it’s louder than talking,” says Mat.
Loz elaborates: “A lot of feedback that we had from The North… was that although it was heavy, when the melody came in it gave people a sense of hope. Like, it gave people hope about what they’re listening to, and what they’re going through. We had a lot of people hit us back with that sort of thing while we were touring the album and we wanted to keep that element with the new record. So a lot of the songs, in a sense, are heavy in the way of heavy as fuck riffs, and we have breakdowns that are really, really heavy, but they’re also heavy in terms of the lyrical content. And they’re also heavy with a sense of hope.”
Maybe we’ve gone off the deep end, but that makes stupidly good sense to us. What doesn’t immediately make sense is the record’s cryptic title.
“It’s a reflection of the band and everybody else making up these six things,” says Mat. “Which is all us five, and then anyone who wants to stand with us; anyone who feels our message. It’s a way of telling people they don’t have to be out on their own – come and be part of something.”
Loz gives a far less convoluted explanation. “There’s six letters in ‘sleeps’,” he says, “So it’s one way of having a self-titled LP without sounding like you’re up your own arse!”
While She Sleeps aren’t the first, and damn sure won’t be the last, to mix hardcore and metal into a savage concoction made to cripple your mental hegemony, but others of their ilk are regularly berated in some quarters for being ‘fashionable’, ‘trendy’ or ‘contrived’. WSS aren’t immune to this, so how do they deal with it? Shouldn’t people be supporting positive UK metal? With a typical common sense approach, Loz rationalises: “I think a lot of people do support UK metal but at the same time when a band’s got a heavy message and they’re starting out people are like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can come on board with this’ and I think they almost get a bit scared of a different style or sound. Like Bring Me The Horizon, for example. We’ve seen those guys play a lot of times, and we have a huge level of respect for them and for what they’ve achieved, but they’ve taken a lot of shit over the years, man – at the end of the day there’s still so many people that are into them as a band. I don’t think that everyone can like everything that you do, but as long as there’s people that like at least some of what we do we’ll still be a band.”
“We don’t see it as, ‘Oh, they’re just jumping on the bandwagon now’,” chimes in Mat.
“It’s just opening people’s eyes… it’s all about representing the time and the place around you. We feel like we write good music, because of what’s around us and the things that we surround ourselves with. It’s all about the best way to reflect yourself, and if you’re doing that then that’s kind of all you can do.”
This approach is paying dividends for While She Sleeps, and we’d put money on it continuing, yet beyond the quality of their records, their unassuming social consciousness and their near-masochistic approach to touring, they’re vividly aware that without their fans they’re nowt, and in no other aspect of their collective character is this realisation more apparent than in their feverish devotion to their punkish DIY ethic; designing and sending out, by hand, all their own merch being just one aspect. They might not exactly be Black Flag or Minor Threat, but they understand the importance of connecting on the most personal level with their fans. Mat, with no small amount of pride in his voice, tells us: “I grew up really idolising some bands, they just ruled my life. I was all about this or that band. I listened to anything they said, and I listened to as much of their music as I could find and took on their message. And the best feeling when you’re into a band like that is to think that the band has done everything – you don’t want to think that someone else has told them what to do. When you order that t-shirt you want to know that that band has put it in a bag for you, and sent it out. And it makes us feel like we deserve the success that we have now; it’s a way of letting fans know that we appreciate their support.”
“I think these days bands have lost some of that personal connection,” concludes Loz. “We’re very grateful to anyone who buys our t-shirts, CDs or comes to our show and I don’t think there’s any better way to do that than to tell those people, to their faces, that we appreciate them supporting our band. That’s why we try to DIY everything.”
A righteous attitude, face-melting riffs and a genuine social conscience; it seems that the north does stand for something after all.
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 233