No Fear of Pop: East India Youth Interviewed
East India Youth analyses Culture of Volume, his precarious live show, and how – sadly – we can’t all be Caribou
William Doyle – aka East India Youth – is sat outside Glasgow's King Tut's, keeping his sharp blue suit admirably clean whilst posing for The Skinny’s photographs on a grey, drizzly evening. His sophomore album Culture of Volume dropped less than two months ago, and this stop off is toward the tail end of a lengthy traversing of American and European soils. The record is Doyle’s first release with renowned buzz label XL, and it’s an ambitious exercise in charting a spectrum of pop: colourful, meticulously crafted and brimming with confidence.
Never one to shy from the p-word, Doyle wears his influences proudly, name-checking the likes of Eno and Bowie, as well as Soft Cell, Björk and the Pet Shop Boys – all to be found in a recent (excellent) playlist documenting the album’s heritage. You’ll have noticed we’re not talking Robin Thicke-styled popsters here; we’re definitely mapped in left-field territory. Amongst that same mix you’ll find contemporary electronic experimentalists like Jon Hopkins, Daniel Avery and Perc, too – an indicator of Doyle’s love affair with dance music of all sorts and guises.
He grins. "I think it’s about… not being afraid. One of the only reviews I’ve read of the album was Alexis Petridis’s one for The Guardian. It was a five star one, why wouldn’t you want to?! Anyway... he said that I seem like the sort of person who doesn’t see their love of pop music as… you know… detrimental to my artistic vision. Some people who decide they’re going to make slightly weirder music really do react badly to having their music labelled as pop. I’ve got absolutely no qualms about that at all. In fact, I was welcoming it."
"The idea with this album was that, tongue-in-cheek I suppose, I’m going to be a pop star now" – William Doyle
His debut album, last year’s Total Strife Forever, was a largely instrumental amalgamation of glossy, pop-infused highlights and textured, techno-inspired, after-dark reverberations. The record saw him catapulted into the critical limelight, championed by The Quietus’s John Doran, billed on almost every festival and nominated for a Mercury award. Sophomore success seemed written in the tea leaves, and after such an exuberantly diverse calling card, you’d be forgiven for expecting Doyle to have relaxed somewhat. Instead, his magpie-like tendencies have been amplified tenfold. Culture of Volume is titled aptly: suggesting a greed for more, Doyle’s thrown down ten tracks of mountainous proportions. From the showbiz sass of Beaming White to roaring, techno-inspired introspection on Entirety, Culture of Volume’s complexities reward a patient listener – but many of the record’s treasures are held within slightly easier reach.
"Yeah, I did what I set out to do this time," Doyle confirms. "Which is to make pop music that on the surface hooks you in – there’s something very immediate about it, and the casual listener can get that. Then, for the person who wants to dig a bit deeper, there’s still a depth under the immediacy of it all."
There’s a strong sense of curation, a careful landscaping: the architecture of Culture of Volume is precise and "totally conscious." Yet, despite his encyclopaedia of influences and interests, his approach to curatorship is far more organic than it is rigorous. He recalls a conversation with his sound engineer, George: "I asked him, 'When you get a musical idea, do you write it down?' He says yeah, he likes documenting it. I don’t. You put it down once, and then you forget about it, because you’ve got a record of it. But when you go back to it, you’ve only ever really thought about it the one time that it happened...? And usually it’s just not very good. I think the ones that remain in my memory, they’re the ones that are worth it. If they’re still in there, still swimming about, they’re the ones that are worth working on." Kind of a Darwinistic approach to ideas, then? "Exactly. You let the ideas ferment. It’s about cultivating those ideas; lyrics, melodies, beats, styles. And if you forget something… you’ll always have a new idea."
The album's certainly a journey, in the most genuine, least cheesy sense – this is no lazy journo-speak. Doyle's emphatic about his love of the format, and it shows. Opening track The Juddering lays firm groundwork in an entirely purposeful way, influenced by the "old Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound test." For comparison purposes, try Doyle's mix of cinematic openers. The Carousel, the slow-burning, emotional crux of the album, feels a sharp, measured intake of breath after its mammoth, dance-floor ready precursors. Doyle's enjoyment of the deliberate structuring is infectious as he describes how, instead of having been a long-ruminated concept, the track burst to life far more urgently. “You’re just like, ‘Oh shit, something’s happening,’” Doyle laughs, gesturing energetically. “It’s like, ‘This is happening RIGHT NOW. BATTLE STATIONS! Everybody get on board right the fuck now, we need to get this down!’ Sometimes it just… happens.” Laughing, he admits that his enthusiasm often gets the better of him: "You start imagining the whole album before you've even made that much of it. But when you've got so many disparate ideas and influences, it does help to have some idea..."
In a monumental London show late last year, a culmination of the Total Strife Forever tour, Doyle experimented with how he would present his new material – with the performance of Carousel posing the biggest questions. "I knew I wanted a new live set up, like, 'How am I going to redesign this?' I couldn’t work out to play [Carousel] live. And then I thought, why don’t I just press play and sing on top of it?" This simplistic description is beyond misleading. The East India Youth live show circa 2015 is, if possible, even more complicated. Doyle’s known for his frenzied and unbelievably complex single-handed performances; a perfectionist when it comes to sound quality, visuals and the mapping of a set. Earlier shows were anchored, visually and sonically, by a table supporting a plethora of wires, cables and buttons – behind which he’d throw himself about, looking in very real danger of taking out an eye. But even without the "shackles" of the desk, Doyle’s still "not quite free to roam." With his equipment now supported by stands, he laughs, "Yeah, there’s four things that could fall over. Which is exciting actually. It is more precarious now, definitely more precarious."
Happily, Doyle doesn’t smash anything during the storming, sweaty set he plays to a rowdy, adoring audience later that night. He’s "re-tooled" material from Total Strife Forever to fit his newly super-sized, voluminous sound, and the result is magnificent. The dichotomy between surging, pounding tracks like Turn Away and the moment of calm that Carousel provides is both moving and welcome, a chance to regain breath and appreciate the intricacies in the colossal sound that Doyle is weaving.
Unmistakeably at home in the belly of a dark, cavernous club, he makes no attempt to hide his feelings about playing where he doesn’t belong. "I did Unknown festival in Croatia the year before last. It was on the beach. At 4pm in the blazing fucking sunshine. How many people were watching my set, versus how many people were sunbathing? My music doesn’t fit that environment, I never imagined it to fit that environment. You know, I wish I could be Caribou. But I’m not. Caribou can do day and night, he’s that versatile."
He’s joking, but Doyle is extremely analytical and self-effacing of himself and his work. "It’s funny now, in hindsight. I know I say 'in hindsight', and the album’s only been out for what, seven weeks? But the idea with this album was that, tongue-in-cheek I suppose, I’m going to be a pop star now. I very quickly realised that, although I love pop music and I love making it, and I hope that people have enjoyed my stab at it… I don’t think I’m cut out to be the popstar that I thought I was going to be."
Really, it all boils down to your definition of pop, doesn’t it? It’s possible that East India Youth’s precisely engineered, peculiar avant-pop is too left of centre to fit mainstream measurements. Yet, the muscular, juicy choruses of tracks like Beaming White and Turn Away are as soaring and as polished as any pop purist could hope for. Perhaps there’s tension between the ‘popstar’ Doyle expected to be and the artist he’s become, but when the result is a record like Culture of Volume, and a show like the one that left the King Tut's crowd ecstatic, it’s clearly no bad thing.
Most tellingly, when Doyle speaks of the artists – the popstars, even – that have inspired him, he never once suggests that he’s trying to mimic them. When he writes a song, it’s "an homage to a scene, but it could never be considered a part of that scene. It’s filtered through my own experience. To try to do something that feels like dabbling just seems wrong to me." Pausing, he continues, "That’s all you can do as an artist, isn’t it? Otherwise you’re just making a pastiche of something. And it’s a fine line. I don’t even really know if I’ve worked out a) how to identify that fine line, and b) how to be on the right side of it either. I really don’t know! Maybe that’s the mystery that keeps me coming back to making it."