We Were Promised Jetpacks: Telling Stories
The Scottish Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile may seem an odd place to meet and interview a raggedy bunch of local indie musicians. The clean, bright, family-friendly space is certainly at odds with the typical rustic boozer or grimy gig venue that normally plays host to such occasions. However, such a lack of pretence is something that helps mark out Edinburgh quartet We Were Promised Jetpacks. That fun moniker feels imbedded in the group and their outlook, particularly when the preceding photo-shoot descends into a game of dress-up thanks to a handy costume box found on site.
“Well, we certainly got our agenda across," jokes guitarist Mike Palmer as he and the band settle down post-frivolity to chat to The Skinny. By agenda we assume he means ‘penchant for arsing about and not taking things too seriously’. That said, with sophomore album In the Pit of the Stomach on the horizon, serious thoughts are firmly fixed on the group's future.
“I’ve often wondered why bands change so much from their first album to the second,” begins singer and guitarist Adam Thompson, trailing off from the standard journo question on the evolution of the band since we last heard from them. “Our first album (2009’s These Four Walls) was a wee bit patchy,” he admits. “It was almost completely recorded live and we had all the songs set before we even began rehearsing.” The feeling seems to be that a lack of recording knowledge, and perhaps some inflexibility in responding to the writing process under these conditions, led to an album which never truly satisfied the band themselves.
By contrast, the songs that now make up In the Pit of the Stomach were less of a known quantity when the opportunity for a second album inevitably presented itself. “There’s a difference between just writing songs when you have the time, to suddenly approaching it as a job with a six-month deadline,” says Mike. “It’s challenging, but it really helped us.” And in spite of their frolicking, they aren’t afraid of some weightier tones. “You can still tell it’s us,” clarifies drummer Darren Lackie, “But it sounds a bit more…mature. Yeah, we’re using that word. More mature and a bit more polished sounding. But still us.”
Such a trajectory is usually the case of course, though fans can rest assured in Darren’s words. In the Pit of the Stomach remains charged with the band's up-tempo rhythms and off-centre pop nous. Yet if These Four Walls was in need of a little pruning, as the band attest, then album number two shows they didn’t shy away from getting out the secateurs. “A lot of things were different this time,” explains bassist Sean Smith. “We had a set team and we knew who we wanted to work with. Andrew Bush, our sound engineer, was there for the whole process. He became a fifth member and would tell us if things were working or not. We were more than happy for him to do that.”
This process inevitably led to changes, some of which will become evident at future live shows. “We avoided recording songs like Conductor,” says Mike of one of their debut album’s more popular numbers. “It’s a wee bit, um, ‘rom-com’ – I think that’s a good way of describing it. We never felt we got it right when we played it live, so it’s gone [from the setlist] now.” Sean elaborates more positively; “Songs like that felt good at the time, but after playing them so much, we just wanted to be rocking out a bit more.”
Having signed to Fat Cat records for their debut and with their new album also coming out on the auspicious label, it seems the band were given exactly this kind of flexibility. “We knew that Fat Cat would rather put out a good album late than a patchy one on time,” says Mike. “So we never felt any pressure from them. All they said was just to make it amazing.” Pressure enough it would seem, though by their own standards, it’s a requirement they seem to have met. “I never felt the urge to listen to the first album,” Mike continues. “But I really want to listen to this one. I’m playing it when I don’t really have to and it’s actually on my iPod.”
Meeting a band at this point is always an interesting experience; the hard work has been done, the album is finished, but it hasn’t been released for mass consumption yet. “I’m just starting to think about how it’s going to be received,” admits Adam. “We do care, but also, to a certain extent, we don’t care. We’re happy with it and that’s what’s important, but obviously we would like it to get good reviews and have folks still come to our shows. That’s still important to us.”
Mike is equally modest in what he would like the new album to achieve. “Our hopes with the first album were to get to make another,” he claims. “And that’s the same for this one really. We hope that the venues don’t get smaller. We’re happy that they seem to be getting slightly bigger; a nice, steady, slow rise.”
This may be something of an erroneous comment, mind you. For a wee Edinburgh indie outfit, the Jetpacks have achieved an enviable level of success and exposure off the back of one album so far. They are popular enough to play sizeable gigs in the States, whilst many of their songs have found their way onto both British and American television shows. “We’re still overwhelmed by it,” admits Mike. “We’ve played to 1400 people in New York. There’s so much to do over there, yet people still come to see us, sometimes travelling hours to make a gig.”
Of course, an early roster of touring with label mates Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad didn’t hurt things. Indeed, the former were initially making better headway across the pond than they were on home territory. “We did get a little bit tired of the comparisons to begin with,” admits Mike. “But we can hardly deny it; we did totally ride on the coat-tails of them both to begin with. On our first US tour, we were playing to 900 Americans who loved Scottish rock music. It was a good place to start.” “And a good way to nick their fans,” adds Adam.
Yet having gaily admitted to this leg up, the Jetpacks look ready to prove that they can stand their own ground. In the Pit of the Stomach certainly comes across as a more confident album. It’s more dynamic, with little filler and is astutely recorded whilst being playful and a joyfully loud racket to boot. “We set out to record something that would be fun for us to play,” concurs Darren. “And hopefully fun for people to listen to as well.”
And with that, in a venue befitting such an analogy, this particular story comes to an end. Well, almost. “We apparently have a few celebrity fans,” claims Mike when I ask the band if they can furnish me with a hitherto unknown little story of their own. “Harry Potter and Irvine Welsh,” he continues. “Oh, Jim and Dwight from the American Office came to see us, but they didn’t like us very much. Well, they didn’t buy any of our merch.”
Sensing he has let us down with celebrity tid-bits, Mike then whispers into The Skinny’s dictaphone: “Darren was in the womb for ten months,” he deadpans. “That’s no word of a lie.” Does that say something about him I ask, at which point the remainder of the band, who clearly enjoyed a more standard birthing process, loudly agree in unison. “He always says stuff like that,” claims Darren himself with mock offense. “He’ll just walk up and say ‘ten months explains it all for me’. I don’t know what that means!”
Sounds like a whole other story to us.