You were active on campus a few years ago, under the name of White Elephant Emporium – why the change?
Harrison Ward: It’s not so much a new name as a new band. Emily and I started White Elephant Emporium by ourselves but we became best known as a quartet so after tensions between Wentworth and I came to a head, the name went down with the ship.
When Emily and I decided to go out on our own, it felt more like starting from scratch than carrying on, because although our methodology hasn’t changed since the early days, we’re doing it for different reasons now and approaching it with a different mindset.
What’s the meaning behind the new name? Who is the wolf and who is the weather?
HW: People like to assume that the name refers to our identities in the band but I never actually thought of it that way. To me, it evokes Aesop’s Fables or the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. That kind of folksy, mythological imagery just seems to suit the music we create.
Emily Pickthall: The production of meaning is something for the viewer/ reader/ listener to take part in, not exclusively the artist. But, I mean, if you asked us now who the wolf and who the weather would be – Harry is probably the wolf, I’m definitely the weather. If only because I’m the more unpredictable force in our duo!
“Within about two weeks of meeting, we’d written [two songs] and played our first house party. There was a spark right from the off.”
How did you both meet each other and decide to start playing music?
EP: I actually thought on a whim that it would be really cool to join forces with some people and start making music in a band. I was frustrated in my second year of university and wanted to try something totally outside myself, that I’d always fantasised about doing but had never had the guts to get started – which was singing in a band and co-writing songs.
So I sent out a post on campus bands asking if anyone was interested. Harry got back to me, and it turned out that he’d been hidden away on the same English course as me all that time. It turned out that despite coming from wildly different musical backgrounds (myself classical singing and opera, Harry from a self-taught guitar-driven history) we had a hell of a lot in common and making music came pretty naturally to us.
HW: Within about two weeks of meeting, we’d written ‘Body of Leaves’ and ‘Neighbourhoods’ and played our first house party gig. There was a spark right from the off.
You’ve recently recorded your debut EP under The Wolf and the Weather, can you tell us a little about it?
HW: Yeah, bits of it were already taking shape when White Elephant Emporium imploded so it’s been in the works for a while. ‘Untitled Nude’, for example, is a new version of something Emily and I played live a few times but never recorded, and ‘Fading Roses’ evolved from what I originally envisioned as a prelude to ‘Eye’, one of several songs slated for the EP but later shelved. Another omission, ‘Plume’, almost became the opening track and would have been a thematic link between this EP and our last but the longer we went on, the less befitting it seemed of the direction we were taking.
As is often the case, the EP took far longer to piece together than we expected and bears little resemblance to the one we planned to make but despite all the false starts, frustrations and endless edits, it’s our strongest and most focused release yet.
EP: I feel like its a much more mature release than our last EP. The process took longer and it definitely has a gloomier sound, but all in all everything seems to have come together a lot better – from the structure of the songs to all the themes. Whilst our first EP Blood Sweets dealt with themes like growing up and leaving home and featured some quite childlike qualities, Portrait with Teeth is more introspective. The lyrics to ‘Wanderlust’ were actually written after I’d left university and had embarked on three months of travelling and working in Europe. I was deeply homesick, hadn’t quite come to terms with graduating and the close of the Exeter chapter in my life, and yet I forced myself to stay out there travelling, desperate to see if I could define myself in a new way.
Similarly, ‘Fading Roses’ always felt like an ode to the end of one era and wondering what remains into the next. ‘Untitled Nude’ is actually a track about handling trauma. I won’t say too much about the thought process behind it because I think its really important for listeners to form their own understanding from what they hear. I will add that its title is a play on that same dismissive title that predominantly male artists have given the reams of female life drawings and nudes produced over the centuries. I always felt that there was something brutal about the way that the female body was marked down and owned, sometimes without a name or even a face, as nothing more than a an object of fascination or even just a drawing exercise.
How did you go about recording it?
EP: Without crying too much!
HW: There are always at least a few tears! Emily usually gets her lyrics and vocal arrangements figured out fairly early on but I’m responsible for all the instrumental parts and because I can’t play everything all at once, it’s impossible to know what will work and what won’t until I start trying things out in the studio. This means that the line between composition and production is often somewhat blurred and that can complicate things.
It’s an approach that lends us a lot of creative freedom but because nothing is locked down, it’s sometimes difficult to commit to decisions about things like the direction of a track or the sound of a particular instrument so it can be quite a drawn-out process. It’s too tempting to keep going back and changing what’s already been recorded, especially when you’ve lost all sense of objectivity from listening to the same thing over and over again. Ultimately, we’ve learned that the only way to really finish a project like that is just to trust your instincts and know when to call it a day.
EP: Trusting your instincts is one of the most important things you can do. It was important throughout the whole process, especially when we were living quite far away from each other and didn’t have that immediate proximity until we started recording.
Your style is pretty atmospheric indie rock, where were the inspirations coming from when recording?
HW: I tend to gravitate towards artists that combine prettiness and ugliness in their music so bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies, and Nine Inch Nails have always had a huge influence on my songwriting. That dark/light dichotomy is also something I’m very aware of when producing and I suppose a lot of the ambient layers and textural elements I incorporate stem from analysing the production work of guys like Flood, Nigel Godrich, and Josh Homme.
EP: I actively tried to distance all ‘inspirations’ when recording my vocals. I wanted to know what I could sound like authentically, without any references or derivation. When I listen back though, I can definitely hear a lot of Kim Gordon being channeled into songs like ‘Wanderlust’. I was buried in the entire discography of Sonic Youth at the time and I was interested in the more spoken word quality of her vocals.
“Cavern is possibly the best example of one such venue in Exeter that goes beyond being a venue. It actually extends into a thriving community and is rooted in a network of great independent music across the whole of the UK and beyond.”
What have you guys done since graduating? Do you still keep in touch with Exeter’s music scene?
EP: I’m actually quite far removed from Exeter now. I’m based in London undertaking a Masters in Fine Art, and I’m hoping to take my visual art (some of which features on the cover of our recent EP) further into a career. Nonetheless, I still love hearing about what is going on in Exeter – especially at the Cavern, where I used to work as a bar gal. The Cavern is possibly the best example of one such venue in Exeter that goes beyond being a venue. It actually extends into a thriving community and is rooted in a network of great independent music across the whole of the UK and beyond.
Since I’ve lived in London, there is a hell of a lot going on, but its not the land of milk and honey; I haven’t really found any music ‘scene’ or venue that has retained such a strong sense of community and identity. Unfortunately, its the same for communities of artists. Musicians and artists are being priced out of London. It wouldn’t be totally outrageous to suggest that I might move out of London again after my course, back to somewhere more grassroots like Exeter or Bristol.
HW: I moved back to Rugby where there used to be a really strong psychedelic rock scene but any remnants of it have been more or less wiped out in recent years so I’m actually very keen to get back to Exeter and see some local talent again. I’m hopefully coming back next year to do an MA so that could well be a reality fairly soon.
“we’re less a physical band than we are a virtual band right now; but that can be interesting too”
What’s in the pipelines for Portrait With Teeth? Are you looking to tour the EP at all?
HW: Our lives are getting busier and more complicated by the day so touring will never be a priority for us but there have been discussions about a possible follow-up EP, perhaps featuring at least one of the songs cut from Portrait with Teeth. Whether we’ll get to it this year, next year, or five years from now is anyone’s guess but there is still a lot more we want to accomplish as a band so I’m confident that there will be new music from us at some point in the future.
EP: Yeah, I suppose we’re less a physical band than we are a virtual band right now; but that can be interesting too, and maybe even more beneficial for our creative and personal wellbeing. We just enjoy making things together, even without performing it.
Who is your favourite band making waves in Exeter at the moment?
HW: I’ve been out of the loop for a while so I don’t know if they’re still around but Saudade [winners of 2013’s Battle of the Bands] are hands down the best student band I’ve seen in Exeter. As for local bands, I’m a big fan of Cavern regulars Muncie Girls.
EP: I’m going to give a shout out to my buddy Edd in the grindcore/crust band Human Cull. We both know its not really my cup of tea but they’re doing seriously well for themselves and are total artists in their own right.