Keep the Faith: Errors reflect on 12 years of hard labour

With a place on the hotly contested SAY Award shortlist, Errors are rightly receiving recognition for taking risks at this stage in their career. Vocalist Steev Livingstone discusses his new lyrical focus and the difficulties facing young musicians today

Feature by Tom Short | 17 Jun 2015

When The Skinny catches up with Errors' Steev Livingstone he sounds both knackered and relieved. It's not long after a fairly special concert, a one-off performance of their latest album's final track with the Glad Community choir at the Glasgow Science Centre. "It was logistically a nightmare…Trying to organise that stuff and having the balls to go 'this song’s good enough.' And having people read your lyrics!" Having a choir sing your music would be stressful for any musician, though it's especially impressive considering that Errors haven’t used vocals in their music in a serious way until fairly recently. Fortunately, the band are already reaping the rewards of the risks they took when producing their SAY Award nominated Lease of Life. Making the shortlist in a year that also features Belle and Sebastian and Young Fathers is no easy feat, and critics have been captivated by the group’s unusual decision to record the album in a cottage on the Isle of Jura, the impossibly remote environment in which Orwell wrote 1984.

Post Bon Iver, escaping to the wild has become a well trodden path for musicians looking to inject some natural warmth into their sound. Yet while the stark beauty of the Hebridean landscape is certainly felt in the record’s expansive textures, its presence is striking because of the way Errors deliberately blur the line between the organic and processed, throwing the whole prospect of retreating to nature into question. Livingstone puts it best: "We’re quite interested in using synthesised organic sounds. A lot of the synths we were using on that record are from the late 80s, the dawn of proper fully digital music, where you had an acoustic guitar sound on a keyboard… that was our palette for this record. And on the artwork, we’ve got a CGI thing where you can’t really tell if its a real plant or not. If there’s any kind of theme going on in the record maybe it's that."

The inescapability of technology is hardly the cheeriest of subjects, but Errors’ take on this issue is refreshingly non-preachy. The vocals on Slow Rotor float by so elegantly that its easy to ignore the lyrics in the same way you would on a Cocteau Twins track, yet on closer inspection its wide-eyed refrains contain trenchant observations on the virtuality of modern life, informed by screen burn as much as sun-kissed Balearic house. While previously the group adopted Liz Fraser’s self-described nonsensical approach to lyrics, this new thematic focus lends the record an added dimension that is discursive rather than dystopian. "This is the first record where we’ve actually thought about lyrics," says Livingstone. "With this one I actually sat down and thought about what I wanted to say. Slow Rotor is about people looking on their phones, which I guess is a kind of common cliche. Just discussing the issue or opening up the discussion is what I’m interested in."

"‘I’m definitely sad that they haven’t made it on to the list. It's pretty much agreed that their latest album is their career best" – Steev Livingstone

Despite its contemporary bent, Lease of Life has a distinctly old-fashioned, luxuriant feel. Synth washes and soaring harmonies drift in and out of focus across the album like rolling waves, so that the careful stripping away and reintroduction of these elements during the thirteen minute, gospel-tinged finale feels like a real payoff. The increasing scarcity of longform pieces of music in the age of the Spotify playlist is a trend that particularly vexes Livingstone: "That’s the really sad thing. Me and my friend were talking about this yesterday. We were driving home and he put on The Bends by Radiohead. I didn’t realise it was 20 years old this year which is kind of scary. It's a classic album and I'm worried that they don’t exist any more because people don’t listen to music in the same way, start to finish. Each track on that record is necessary, you need it there to get to the next part. We’ve been pretty keen since we started to write albums that way, making the artwork nice, using 180 gram vinyl, so that we’re rewarding the people who actually want to listen to the record.’

With news of the Arches’ closure looming in the news, our conversation turns to the difficulties posed to the artistic community by factors ranging from hardline local politics to the rise in streaming services. It's hardly a conducive environment for bands making left-field electronic music to develop, and Livingstone is grateful for the fact that his band have been allowed to evolve at their own pace, carefully honing their sound over the course of twelve years. "We’ve been really lucky. Rock Action are willing to watch us develop rather than making the first thing we release make or break. They were happy for us to take a year and a half or two years off from making any records or going on tour and that wouldn’t happen for a lot of people." This is not to say that Errors have had an easy time of it, but they are pragmatic about having day jobs: "It would be great to do just this and nothing else. We lasted about a year and a half doing just music but the money ran out. I think its more of a shame that a lot of really good songwriters don’t get developed in the way they want to anymore."

Given the incremental growth that has characterised Errors’ career, the SAY Award shortlisting feels like a real milestone, a sign of growing enthusiasm for their work. "It was a really good feeling to be shortlisted. Particularly as we worked really hard on this record and we’ve worked really hard for 12 years. It's a boost of confidence as it shows us we’re on the right track." Unfortunately, it has come with the bittersweet caveat that their touring mates The Twilight Sad weren’t shortlisted. "I’m definitely sad that they haven’t made it on to the list. It's pretty much agreed that their latest album is their career best. Most people would agree that it's quite weird to be judged in such a way, particularly when it's your pals."

Voting controversies aside, Livingstone is pleased to see a friend at a very different stage in his career receive a nomination: "I’m really happy that Happy Meals are on there. They’ve made a great record. It's their first as well. I think they were pretty blown away by the nomination. It would be nice if someone like that won, someone who would use the money to record the next album, or buy equipment or whatever…it would be nice if this award became about helping younger bands out. There’s people who could do a lot more with the money than some of the more established people." It's a prudent reminder of the camaraderie that has always defined the Glasgow scene, though the question of what Errors could do the prize money doesn’t escape us. There would certainly be scope for the group to return to Jura for a lot longer, though Livingstone is cautious: "Maybe we could go somewhere warmer next time!"

The Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award winner is announced this Wednesday evening (17 Jun). Errors play The Skinny stage at Leeds' Garden Party on 29 Aug.