I ask to meet Ben Scarff, stickman and riffmaker for Silent Gestures, as Siberian winds hit Barnsley. And where better to discuss psych rock and the state of modern music than Weatherspoons? A draft dogs us, so I decide to get on with the interview and think of warmer climes.
Perth for instance, home of Tame Impala, who are a seminal influence on Silent Gestures, or San Francisco, where the band Sleepy Sun grew up and found a fan in the younger, trad-indie Ben. What started off as the American revival of all things pre- to mid-60s around the millennium (‘New Rock Revolution’?) figures heavy in Silent Gestures’ musical trajectory, as a reaction against groups they’ve witnessed pulling tricks dressed as a Gallagher or a Doherty, bereft of ideas or purpose. For better or for worse, Ben and co. are, a-woah oh-oh, away from here.
But they’ve all grown up and got into music in this town. Travis Glen Eaton (vocals, guitar) was formerly of the ‘progressive indie’ band The Harringtons, along with Callam Mellor (bass) until that drew to a close. Silent Gestures began when Ben entered the fold on drums, and just recently Tom ‘Laughy’ (guitar) joined, an old friend of Callam. All had played in bands before, all came confident in their abilities. Ben also mentions his ‘other band’ Ivory Tusks, where he plays guitar, and it seems appropriate he would have a side-project like his hero Tame Impala and Pond honcho Kevin Parker.
Silent Gestures only began about a year ago, but Ben describes the early days as being a continuation of Travis’ last band, with a ‘dark indie’ style prevailing in first rehearsals. As they had plenty of experience under their belt, songs took shape from the start, with Travis and Ben being the driving focuses behind the song writing at first. Ben thinks that since Tom joined the dynamic has changed slightly within the group, with him and Callam starting to create their own songs and contribute more to the overall output of the band.
It’s the distance that’s important to Ben though. He and his comrades may have started out going through the Brit-Rock motions which they saw all around, but were soon to stress their eccentricities rather than bury them. As such, Ben enjoys a full spectrum of psychedlia, from light to heavy, new to old, without being too specific about acts, although he loves Led Zeppelin and their drummer John Bonham. Barnsley’s scene, when they were starting, doesn’t (or didn’t) accommodate their style all told, “we don’t mind playing here, it’s where everyone we know comes from so it’s the best place in some respects, but it’s always been a very divided place to play gigs. There’s the ‘metal’ guys or whatever you wanna call them, and then there’s the ‘indie’ guys, and it fractures the scene into two very vague groups. If you’re on a bill, it’ll consist of one of these categories and it kinda denies any overlap. Our music isn’t just one thing, we want to reach as many fans as we can, but there’s a tribe mentality which breaks down bands being original. It’s just same old, same old.” Having said that, Silent Gestures weren’t formed in a vacuum. Their mates Toba Caldera have also been drawing on inspiration further afield than the Smiths-Libertines axis, and often share the bill with them in Barnsley and Sheffield. So maybe things are changing.
When I ask about gigging with the band and how it’s different to being in the studio, Ben clearly thinks of their live shows are as-close-as-possible reconstructs of their studio tinkering, which is important when you consider the sound weirdness that goes hand in hand with psychedelia. He even suggest that being in the studio adds to the writing process, making him and the others more aware of what could be added or taken away to benefit the songs. Churning Doctor Who synths, vocals like the ocean and lounge-y asides come together with a lo-fi sensibility, or as Ben suggests “if I’ve got a neat drum groove down, I’ll tend to distort it, make it sound a bit crap really. It gives it a character.” The prominent synth lines on songs such as ‘Ride’ and ‘Mellow Minds’ were themselves studio afterthoughts, with Tom now including these otherworldly tones into their live set by pedal hammering and guitar-wizardry.
With this talk of soundscapes and trippy manipulation in mind, I ask Ben what-wasn’t-really-but-now-is the elephant in the room: What in the bloomin’ hell does it mean to be a psychedelic band? He looks away for a moment to collect his thoughts. I’m the first to admit to him that it’s a iffy question, but the fact that he’s spending time to formulate an answer speak volumes about the way Silent Gestures work. I seems that he and the band see ‘psychedelic’ as something uninhibited by discussion in his apprehensive reply. In other words, they just get on with making it. But I’m interested in what ‘it’ is. “Erm, well I think it can be musical and it can be lyrical, we do try and combine the two in our songwriting. A lot of the time our music can be quite simple in some respects, but it’s the interplay between each part that makes it become what it is. And effects are an important element of that. I mean, I use a minimal drum kit, using a lot of crash cymbal, but that’s all you need to get the groove to make a tune. Callam’s bass playing is really great because its economical and pretty sparse, but it gets right to the point.” Avoiding the clichés of rock and pop, they’ll take any steps necessary to catch the listener off guard and force them to hear with fresh ears, “Like we’ll have a verse, verse, this bridge thing, another verse…” Maybe it was an iffy question, or may there is something inherently elusive about their music.
Silent Gestures have a few gigs lined up in the coming months and hope to get recording in December, which along with the four songs currently on the Web, will comprise in a free CD for anyone who goes to their gigs. “We’ve been working at 2Fly in Sheffield,” Ben tell me, “It’s a great place to record over there because they’ve got a lot of older, vintage equipment that suits out sound well.” Ben is clearly excited and optimistic about the future, but feels that slow growth is the way to go for a young band. He sees too many people put all their energy into getting their band known instead on focusing on developing the music and letting the attention come when it comes. They want to get better but they also want to keep their feet on the ground, staying realistic about what’s happened and what could still happen. All the members have their day jobs (which is where they all are as I chat with Ben), as much as their iridescent wig-outs would like to sun themselves off a tropic coast, but they can’t. Ben mumbles a goodbye and marches back into the wind.