Things seem to be coming together for iLiKETRAiNS. Well, technically they’re I LIKE TRAINS, and have been since 2009’s Sea of Regrets self-released single, yet the old logo sticks like an old and particularly stubborn friend. PEOPLESEEMTOLiKEiT. But change is good, and change is what the TRAINS boys have been ably grappling with over the last couple of years, the results of which endeavours can be heard on the long-awaited He Who Saw the Deep, which will be officially launched at a special gig at Hull’s The Deep aquarium on 14th October.
Their first full album, Elegies to Lessons Learnt, released in 2007 on the now-defunct Beggars Banquet, is a heartwrenching collection of soaring and dramatic melancholia, detailing the stories of the underdogs of history (and their deaths via suicide, burning, drowning, plague – you get the idea). Elegies enjoyed critical and popular success, and the TRAINS toured it extensively in the UK and Europe supporting the likes of British Sea Power and Sisters of Mercy, garnering a loyal fanbase in the process.
But in 2008, their progress was stopped in its tracks as Beggars Banquet became catalogue only and stopped releasing new material. At a time when record labels are reluctant to take risks, musical or financial, this became a problem for the boys. Alistair (the TRAINS’ bassist) explained to me: “I think we’re in between fairly commercial mainstream indie, which the bigger labels go for because they’re money makers, and the avant garde, more experimental bands which small labels pick up because they’re arty. We’re kind of stuck in the middle.”
I was really sceptical, I thought it would just fall flat on its face and it’d just be embarrassing, but the support from fans has been unbelievable
However loyal the fans were, there weren’t enough of them in the mainstream to allow the boys to negotiate the right deal with a new label. Despite several options being on the table, the band were determined to wait for the right offer that would allow them to produce new material without compromising their artistic freedom.
A one-off EP in 2008 (The Christmas Tree Ship on Fantastic Plastic), kept things ticking over, but the TRAINS hadn’t lost sight of their next album. Still deal-less, they continued writing while they plugged away at their day jobs, and in late 2009 and into early 2010 they snuck off to a friend’s farmhouse-cum-recording studio in the Yorkshire Dales to start recording the songs which would make up the new record, still hopeful for a deal to make distribution viable.
Alistair tells me the new album moves away from their previously trademark historical topics. “You can’t look to the past all your life or you won’t go anywhere. We’re taking a look towards the future now, seeing where the world is taking us and where we’re taking the world”. This new outlook isn’t the only change to the TRAINS’ creative process. Being effectively unsigned, the album has taken much longer to make from start to finish, but the lack of pressure and deadlines on songwriting has been a welcome relief. They took the opportunity to intentionally leave songs unfinished until getting into the studio, then experimenting while recording them, capturing a more vibrant and immediate atmosphere.
There are new sounds to be heard too – Alistair and Simon (drums) play (subtly) with synths and beatboxes, and the band have conscripted luscious, swooping and daydreamlike strings to several of the tracks; overall the recording sounds tighter and more cosy (a tiny farmhouse is a lot less echoey than the bare church where Elegies was recorded), but still with plenty of punch.
In fact the whole album is more upbeat than the last, although realistically this means more the entertaining of a few major chords, fewer lyrics about death, a slightly quicker tempo, and a slight variation in time signatures, than out-and-out pop. We are still talking about I LIKE TRAINS, and we can still tell they have a soft spot for doom and gloom. But the new tweaks are clear to hear, and where Elegies can be hard work in places if you are normally of a cheerful disposition, He Who Saw The Deep springs into life.
But the real sea change has been how the band have got to releasing the album. Says Alistair: “Our new manager thought it would be good for us to use Pledgemusic.com, where you set a target of what you want to raise to fund a project, and then ask fans to “pledge” money towards it by promising to buy the album or pay things like some of our old instruments, a private gig, or whatever we decided to offer.
“I was really sceptical, I thought it would just fall flat on its face and it’d just be embarrassing, but the support from fans has been unbelievable – I’ve been really touched. I really wasn’t sure if anyone cared about I LIKE TRAINS anymore as we’ve not been able to do much for such a long time, but we reached our target in 24 hours. The response from fans has been overwhelming. We’ve even raised enough to release a collectors’ edition of our back catalogue on vinyl, and go on tour. Although I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed that no-one pledged to play me at Scrabble”.
The fact the band has such a loyal following is one of the lovely things about I LIKE TRAINS. They really care about their fans, and people really care about them, their individual approach to making music, and their refusal to compromise on their art. The buzz amongst gig goers and music fans, and the success of the TRAINS’ Pledge project is testament to that. Editors asked the band to support them on the European leg of their tour last May, which Alistair says was a lot of fun. “It was such a shame we couldn’t do the UK leg with them too – the dates just didn’t work. But we’re looking to break through to the next level of consciousness of the public, and we’ve kind of reached most of the people we’re going to reach unless we can start touring with bands like that again”.
It’s been an eventful summer for I LIKE TRAINS. On top of the whirlwind Pledge campaign, Simon broke his foot and the band had to use a stand-in drummer for a European festival appearance. Fortunately he appears to be on the mend, and the band are still working as hard as ever, buoyed by the culmination of nearly 2 years’ work to get He Who Saw The Deep released, and some nice pieces of recognition (the boys were excited to have their majestic 2009 single Sea of Regrets on a recent episode of CSI: Miami, and have also had work featured on cinema previews for two films including Amelie).
So what’s next? An album launch show surrounded by sharks and other suitably imposing sealife promises to be spectacular, and will be followed by a short tour with more UK and European dates. I LIKE TRAINS are still unsigned, but further tours are on the cards if and when backing becomes available. It remains to be seen if the record industry can continue to support creative, original music, under conditions in which bands like I LIKE TRAINS can flourish, or whether bands will see more progress, and indeed reform of attitudes towards getting a record deal, using innovative methods to support viable self-releases, and involving existing and new fans alike.