Dress to Impress: Liverpool band Outfit ready their debut

Three years, two cities and finding out who they are – as well as who they're not – have fed into Performance, the anticipated debut album from Liverpool's Outfit. We meet a band dedicated to interrogating the intangible

Feature by Lucy Holt | 06 Aug 2013

The concept of identity, and the pursuit of it, motivates everything Outfit create. You need look no further than the lyrics of single Two Islands: ‘I go out to find out who I am, I go out to find out who I’m not.’

This idea also weaves itself through any discussion with the band’s frontman and spokesperson, Andrew Hunt. Via a temperamental Skype connection to New York, he makes frequent references to personal discovery and “the importance of keeping hold of yourself amid the noise of our lives.”

It makes sense for this conundrum to be a central preoccupation of theirs – circumstances have aligned for Outfit in a way that would make anyone reconsider their place in the world. First, there've been the various permutations of the band, intertwined with Liverpool music’s recent past. Sharing bloodlines with Balloons, Indica Ritual, et al – and subject to the omnipresent journalistic habits of parallel-drawing and comparison-making – Outfit could easily have found themselves placed in the centre of a tangled, homogenised web; or, even worse, a ‘scene’. Then, there’s Liverpool itself: a city that is all but consumed by a veneration of its musical heritage. As inhabitants of that environment, they might have found it difficult to avoid the binary of local traditionalism or awkward defiance. And finally, in a more immediate sense, the band are about to release a shiny new debut record into the big wide world. Performance, out this month on Double Denim, is the product of an extremely isolated and solitary recording process – and now, they have to let it go.

It’d be easy to understand if Outfit were suffering a crisis of confidence. Yet they are barely fazed by any of the above factors. Whether through blithe ignorance or level-headedness, they seem to exist entirely outside of their own context. Thomas Gorton, the band’s keyboardist and co-lyricist, views Liverpool with fondness, but not as a defining characteristic, thinking the significance placed on hometowns in general is excessive. “You're less likely to ask someone from Derby what it's like coming from Derby,” he emails. “They're just places, with buildings and people in them, and we tend to look outwards rather than in.”

The idea of Performance being at all interwoven with the band’s past projects is also dismissed with a similar, polite conviction. They’ve spent a lot of time in London (they moved there en masse, before returning to Liverpool). They’ve built their own studio. They’ve refined a sound. So you believe Hunt when he says, “this record is definitely Outfit.”

“The subjects we try to write about are moments in your life when you’re dissatisfied, but motivated to make a change. We’re writing about moments of potential” – Andrew Hunt

Performance has this precise strain of quiet confidence at its core – but that does not negate variety. Hunt talks about the importance of deviance, and how working with the album form – as opposed to an EP – gives more freedom to explore while retaining a sense of coherence; and Performance's downbeat, existential pop sways from creeping, fragile instrumentation to yearning aural sweeps, punctuated with tight, synthetic glitches and distant vocals. In the band’s infancy, on the track Everywhere All The Time they sang, ‘I want to be everywhere, all the time, and I just can’t decide.’ With Performance, they’ve had the opportunity to stray from the beaten path without getting lost. There are tracks that, on first listen, seem to plunge to the depths of minimal, rhythmic despondency. Take Spraypaint, which is almost sinister in its use of abstruse musical textures, sharp, unsettling keyboard parts and nearly whispered vocals, and Two Islands, which is in the same vein, with oceans of lyrical loneliness in the simple declaration of ‘I don’t know anyone else, I don’t know anyone else in here.’

So far, so bleak, but both Gorton and Hunt, separately, insist the album is optimistic – at least more so than their previous work. “Songs like Nothing Big and The Great Outdoors have quite a strident ‘everything’s alright’ feel,” says Gorton.

“There’s a melancholy to our music a lot of the time,” Hunt adds. “We try and create a melancholy atmosphere but lyrically look for something positive. The subjects we try to write about are moments in your life when you’re dissatisfied, but motivated to make a change. We’re writing about moments of potential.”

It seems that where most would see crisis, Outfit see a catalyst for change. Hunt goes on to explain that “anything that is expressing loneliness also has a comfort in it. If you listen to it having experienced similar things, it can end up being a positive. If you’ve felt ostracised in a social dynamic, it’s comforting to hear someone has felt the same way. In that sense, it’s quite empowering.”

They talk about themes like finding group therapy through mutual understanding, but would still consider themselves, as Gorton puts it, “independent Beyoncés at heart” – and it’s this independence, this tendency towards self-sufficiency and detachment from Liverpool, that could well be another reason Outfit stand out from their peers. They have strategically avoided hammering their home turf with live shows, conscious of people becoming bored of them – and Hunt expresses a glimmer of pride that they’ve reached a point where they can do everything on their own, wary of the idea of having to rely on anyone else for recording and production. But perhaps the most important aspect of their quasi-exile is Lathbury House, an empty concrete block of flats that’s been central to the creation of – and that’s depicted in the cover art for – Performance. With the building’s brutalist exposed stairwell and looming water tower, it’s hard to imagine a setting less likely to nurture Outfit’s enduring optimism, yet the reverence both Hunt and Gorton express for it is hard to overstate. “It was our place where no-one else could go, where we were locked away,” Gorton says. “Our souls are all over it. It reeks of our souls. But they smell okay.”

It all makes for an intense-sounding creative process – something their lyrics pay testament to. Gorton is wary of getting too cathartic, but identifies some over-arching themes as “ambition, fear, loneliness, euphoria and reflection.” Such emotion-spanning must take its toll, which is perhaps why, as the band find themselves with a month off prior to the record’s release, they are scattered about the globe; Hunt in New York, Gorton in London, Dave Berger (drums/production) in Switzerland and Nick Hunt (guitar) and Chris Hutchinson (bass) in Liverpool. Quite the definition of getting some space.

This 'hard to pin down' sentiment applies to what seems to be a deliberate ambiguity with which they shroud themselves – vague terms like ‘performance’, ‘spraypaint’ and, most notably, ‘outfit’ might give the impression they’re aiming for deception and theatrics. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: they want people involved. “We love the name Outfit because it allows someone the opportunity to interact with the name, dress it up in their own way,” clarifies Gorton.

As they've have taken great pains in the recording process to make the record sound “human”, despite the band's arguable penchant for the opaque Performance is not alienating – and it is this friction between the grandiose and the introspective that warms the heart of Outfit’s music. Gorton describes “the endless search for something that might not exist,” and Hunt talks of a desire to sound both “iconic and ambiguous.” This compulsion to achieve both may just be Outfit’s greatest advantage.

Performance is released 12 Aug through Double Denim

Outfit play FestEVOL at The Kazimier and Garden, Liverpool, 10 Aug, Electrowerkz, London, 12 Sep, and Festival No. 6, Portmeirion, Wales, 14 Sep