After 'Backward-Looking' Debut, Temples Gear Up for More 'Modern' Album 'Volcano'
James Bagshaw may look like he just stepped out of Velvet Goldmine, but the Bolanesque front man for U.K. flower pop rockers Temples has no interest in a 21st Century version of Swinging London. Bagshaw did his time in the big city -- a year -- but found it creatively “rubbish.” “I didn’t write one good piece of music while I was in London,” he confesses. “So why would I live there?” Instead he and his fiancée decamped a year ago to a 300-person village not for from Kettering, the Northamptonshire town whose name Temples put on many a music blog’s radar in 2014, thanks to the band’s sparkling, trippy first album Sun Structures. While his bandmates continue to thrive in London’s hustle and bustle, Bagshaw prefers the quiet life. “When I’m on tour I get to see these big cities and stuff,” he explains. “And when I come home I don’t really want to look out my window in the morning and just see buses and traffic and all that sort of stuff. It feels like a distraction.”
Sun Structures was itself a welcome distraction three years ago -- full of groovy charmers like “Mesmerise,” “Keep In the Dark,” and “Shelter Song.” Bagshaw and Co. knew their way around fuzzy riffs and immediate and addictive hooks -- a talent proven once again last October, when the band returned with “Certainty,” a lilting, lysergic first taste of album number two, Volcano, which arrives this week. Temples have called the new record more “direct,” and Bagshaw adds that it’s more “modern" -- maybe not a bad thing, since if there was any knock on Sun Structures in some quarters, it was how unabashedly referential to a certain window pane-d era of music it was. If Donald Trump has his “p-word,” there’s one that’s clung to Temples as well: that rather vague descriptor “psychedelic.”
Volcano should make strides to move the boys away from that tag, as there’s a variety of flavors in store: the acoustic-meets-synth sweetness of “Oh The Saviour"; the motorik chug of “Open Air” and “Roman Godlike Man” (one of the record’s most insistent, and a lyric that may or may not be about our aforementioned P-Grabber In Chief); “I Wanna Be Your Mirror,” which starts all Ren Faire-baroque, then lurches into a very Temples gallop; and the swirling, standout second single and album closer “Strange Or Be Forgotten," for which Temples recently released a video populated by some truly colorful characters.
When Billboard caught up with Bagshaw by phone, he was a long way from that little English village -- making his way down the U.S. west coast as part of the Desert Daze Caravan, on which headliners Temples are traveling with four other bands, musical kindred spirits that include Deap Vally and label mates Night Beats.
James! You guys played Vancouver last night, but you’re back in the States?
James Bagshaw: Yeah, we crossed the border at like 3am or something.
Back in Trump’s America! Glad it went smoothly. But that’s because you’re not from Somalia or Sudan, you know.
Well it shouldn’t matter where you’re from, you still are a human being.
Of course, of course. So how is the caravan going? You’re just a few days into it, right?
Yeah, it’s gathering pace. You know any tour it kind of takes a while to be in your tempo. But the last couple of shows have been really good, and certainly the new stuff has been really well received and we’re getting better at playing it as well.
And playing some offbeat venues too, in keeping with the Desert Daze vibe. I had to Google the Miners Foundry Cultural Center in Nevada City, CA.
Yeah I’d never heard of it either. You know, we were gonna do 24 nights sold out at Madison Square Garden, but we decided that was a bit much. [laughs]
So the first record came out more than three years ago now. Was there ever a point in working on Volcano that you worried you might be waiting too long to put out the second record?
I know that you’d think that. I thought we’d get to the point where we’d be like, “We need to get this out or we’re going to lose momentum." And I think we could have maybe rushed something out, but it wouldn’t have been as special. So we just said, “It’s done when it’s done and we’re happy with it. And if we’ve lost momentum by the time that we release it then so be it.” As opposed to it being just for the sake of keeping up hype, or that sort of thing.
And you worked on it for the better part of a year?
Well not the recording, but the whole process of coming up with ideas. You can’t really put a time on that, and it took the full year to come up with songs. The first song written was “Oh The Saviour.” I think it’s the only song I have ever written that was in a hotel room, and had it actually be any good. That was at Mount Fuji in Japan.
Hence the lyric in it about a volcano, which ended up being the album title?
It’s a more “earthly” title than Sun Structures and I know you’ve said you wanted a record less cosmic and more down-to-earth this time.
I think lyrically on this record -- and musically -- we wanted to be less tied to an era you know? Almost like a non-era album.
You certainly got the “psychedelic” label affixed to you. Is this record trying to move away from that?
Well the funny thing is, it’s all down to production. I don’t know if everybody really knows that, but it really is about the way that you record the song. It would be so easy to record the songs off this album and make it sound like a completely different genre than it is. I think with Sun Structures it was very much backward-looking as far as the production. We wanted modern songs with modern lyrical concepts and content but almost like a “found in a vault” kind of sound. But with this one, I feel like it’s more a contemporary album -- a modern album. It’s not ditching all our love of the golden era of songwriting, but I think what it’s doing is not being afraid to use the studio in a forward-thinking way, as opposed to a referential, retrospective way. You should be able to play this record next to a modern album.
In “Strange Or Be Forgotten” you have a line that says, “I am living in the past/ Future came to me,” and later, “caught up in the time of a different century.” I wonder if that’s a response to those who portray you as a revivalist guys obsessed with past music?
Not really, but you’re absolutely allowed to interpret it any way you want. But personally, with that I was just looking at, I don’t want to say “celebrity” culture, but just popular culture, and how it’s changed.
That new video is pretty remarkable, featuring an eclectic group of performers. Were they given any direction in how to perform?
Well [director] James Beale did a casting of all these people, but it wasn’t like in a normal way. It wasn’t actors. They scoured London through friends to find people that were interesting that weren’t necessarily professionals. So he got different forms of expression out of it, and we kind of picked a few people from this casting that we thought would work effectively. But videos are hard, man. They’re the hardest thing, Because people rely on imagery so much. If I could have it my way I’d have no videos, because I feel like then you’d hear the song more for what it is. But then when it is juxtaposed with the right visuals -- I mean there are moments of the song where I just got goose bumps watching it. And that never happens on your own video. Usually you’re just looking at it going, “Oh my God, I look like a dickhead”. [laughs]
I have to ask you who inspired “Roman Godlike Man” -- because it reminded me of a certain political megalomaniac.
[laughs] Well, you’d have to ask Tom [bassist Tom Walmsley] -- that’s his idea.
That’s interesting to me that you can sing lyrics written by one of the others. I know you guys write in a collaborative way, but I assumed the words were all you.
No not at all. There’s certain songs where I have a very, very clear idea of what I want to talk about, like with “Oh The Saviour” or “Strange Or Be Forgotten.” But lyrics are generally something that I struggle with. When I have a song idea, it’s usually the music for me, the melody, which comes more naturally. But I wish we’d put out the lyrics in both of our albums. Because there’s a lot of people who’ve put them online and they’re wrong! It’s funny, when we were in the Netherlands, someone said to me, “Oh I heard in ‘Certainty,’ you’re singing about the Netherlands!” And I was like, “No, it’s ‘neverland.’ Not ‘Netherlands’.”
I know you’re a gear head, and you’ve amassed a lot more of it since the last record?
Yeah I’m picking up bits as I go along really. Just finding interesting sorts of studio gear in thrift shops or -- usually I’ve been swapping things at the moment, where I’ll just find something and think, “Oh well I haven’t used that in a while. It’s not really my kind of thing. Let’s see if we can swap it for something that I will use”.
And you’re building a home studio in your back garden?
Yeah my fiancée and I have been in the house almost a year, and the house came first, cause you know, you want to make it your own. But the studio, I have been in there and I’ve been insulating the roof and that sort of thing. I’d like to do it myself, cause at least I know what the end goal is. I don’t want to just get a builder in who is used to doing it for like an IKEA room. But our third record, I wanna make in this studio that I’m building, because we’ve never had like a live space to record in. The way that we’re set up it’s always been just individuals. So I’m basically making a mini Sun Studio-slash-Snakepit in Detroit, you know? Kind of my version of that, that’s what I want to do. And not to be -- well, yes to be nostalgic, but at the same time there’s gonna be modern technology in there. But I don’t want it to be like walking into like Air Studios. Do you know? Like any of these professional studios, I just want it to be like going into a little kind of work space. You know, I think people get shocked when they see like Hitsville [the original Motown studio] in Detroit where you go in and say, “This room did so much for music,” and yet…
It’s so modest.
Right! It’s not fancy. And you don’t need it to be.
You’ll be at South By Southwest soon. I saw you there in 2014.
Well technically Temples have never played South By Southwest, because our drummer wasn’t there the first time. He didn’t get his visa and stuff in time, so we had our friend Angus sit in. So it was an approximation of what we do as far as the rhythm section. So this is the first time we’re playing it as the actual lineup of the band. And I think South By Southwest is such a good platform for people to kind of see and hear our new stuff.
And you’re not bothered by the 2000-plus bands and everybody playing multiple gigs a day and sometimes no sound checks, and…
Oh yeah, of course I am! It’s horrendous! [laughs] But you know, you just kind of have to roll with it.
Temples headline the Desert Daze Caravan through March 19, and play SXSW March 14-16. Volcano is out this Friday.