False Advertising on songcraft and self-sufficiency
With their self-released debut turning heads, Manchester noise-pop trio False Advertising explain how songcraft, and not attitude, is at the core of their DIY ethos
It's an inch away from patronising to label False Advertising's recently released debut album as one of the surprises of the year. After all, with a growing reputation in and around their home base of Manchester, the guitar trio were already starting to wield serious onstage clout. And while their debut single Wasted Away was a tune and a half (imagine Juliana Hatfield backed by Dinosaur Jr.), its follow-up, the pummelling Dozer, put scuzz before melody and False Advertising were suddenly double the prospect they were. The album, following a month later, confirmed not just that they'd nailed their nu-grunge styling, but that they had the songs to go with it. That self-titled, self-released, self-produced debut is, crucially, a songwriter's showcase: 11 tracks and every one a monster.
No wonder the delight. But, as we gather in a Northern Quarter bar for an early lunchtime pint – the general consensus is that midday is just too late for coffee – Jen Hingley, Chris Warr (both on vocals, guitar and drums) and Josh Sellers (bass) begin by explaining just why their opening shot really shouldn’t be raising eyebrows.
"Chris and I started playing open mic nights," explains Hingley as introduction to their stop-start beginnings, "and we'd known each other for a few years through friends. So we ended up bonding through doing that, really. That was how we began about three years ago."
"I vent my frustrations through music" – Chris Warr
Warr takes up the story. "I'd been trying to get Jen to play with me for ages, because I knew how good she was and she was always too busy. So it took a year of pestering her to get her to do it. We just picked a few covers the first time we did it. After playing here and there for a while, we started writing material, which then led us into forming a band. This was about two years ago." Sellers was added to the core ("I'd known Chris for years and we'd been in bands together – we went to the same school") shortly afterwards. "We also had a drummer then, so we were a four-piece," continues Hingley. "Chris and I both played guitar and sang, so it was a different format but we wrote these new songs and played some gigs, and, as these things do, it just sort of disintegrated quite quickly!"
"Yeah," says Warr, "it culminated in a horrendous gig where we were out of tune, the stage was too small, the sound was awful. And Jen's quite hard on herself, and us, so we were all pretty flat." So Jen's the leader? "Yes. Jen wears the trousers." Ouch. "Please don’t say that," says the only member of False Advertising not actually wearing trousers. "That's really sexist." Warr laughs: "How's that sexist?!" A look is all it takes to silence one half of the band's actual trouser wearers.
Warr finishes the story: "So we lost that drummer and we had a bit of downtime. It was summer a couple of years ago. I was convinced me and Jen had to do something. I knew our voices went well together. Jen's a web designer and does graphics, and I'm a producer, so it seemed almost obvious that we should do it all ourselves. So we sat down, had a chat and made the decision to start a new band."
"We were very ambitious," says Hingley, "which may sound naïve, but we sat down and realised we'd been writing all the songs. Between us we can play all the instruments, so we thought if we could get slightly better at drums, we could record our own stuff – Chris has worked as a freelance producer for years. We can do all the artwork – we could probably do our own videos. So we realised that we had all these things – so as long as we can write some good songs and perform them in a reasonable way…"
Aha! There's the ultimate hurdle, and there's the reason False Advertising stand out and why they will, if the other stuff happens (people open their ears, planets align, etc.), steal a march on the insipid UK guitar scene. A DIY ethos for its own sake is no good to anyone, but if the songwriting is advanced enough, the world beckons. And it's this subject that, throughout our interview, really fires them up. Hingley: "It's important to stress that when we had this conversation where we realised we could do all of this if we work hard enough, it was very inspiring, and that fired the writing process. I immediately started doing demos, writing new songs from scratch but that feeling, that whole 'Why can we not do this?' was what made the songs happen, or at least the first ones that I wrote. And then it became more collaborative and we started to work on them together."
"I started doing the same thing," says Warr. "I'm not quite as prolific as Jen. I was writing a fair bit of stuff as well but I ended up scrapping most of it because it sounded too much like the old band. But all of that was about establishing a direction for us to go in: that's what came out of that initial burst of inspiration."
Even if the album's foundations are established and solid, it's still a hugely accomplished first album. With Warr taking lead vocals on four tracks, and the highlights demonstrating sharp musicianship and even sharper arrangements, False Advertising is leagues ahead of standard nu-grunge posturing. No two songs sound alike, which is some achievement. "I like albums where the songs are different from each other," Sellers says. "It helps create a more characterful album, rather than just a sound the band is comfortable with. But I think with our album, the songs do differ throughout, as you say. That's important to me, so that's nice to hear."
It's Warr, with his years of freelance production work behind him (he's mixed recent and upcoming releases by The Orielles), who takes much of the credit for the album's distinctive sound. A warm, heavy and authentic throwback, it benefits from everything being right there in your face. Bass, guitars, drums and vocals fight to the get to the front.
"Well, it's all really old gear we're using," he explains. "The drum kit is a 70s Pearl kit. So, although we use modern recording techniques, the gear is old. Jen's got an old Fender Silverface amp, so we did get some authenticity of sound just by using older instruments rather than microphones. 'Cause we couldn't afford that!
"The recording equipment itself is only about five grand's worth – not a lot. And I reckon anyone could do it. If you know Cubase, you can do it. I've developed a technique based on no budget and it's taken me a while. It's a needs-must scenario. You work with what you've got and the production process is definitely a creative process, too. I've honed those techniques. I was always going to be in a band – I can’t not be in a band. This is my thirteenth band." As he laughs, Hingley deadpans: "He makes it sound like he has a fourteenth planned…"
On record and on stage, their connection is nigh on telepathic, and in conversation, False Advertising are equally connected. They’re excellent company: articulate, warm and possessed of a smart and dry humour. Sellers is the quietest perhaps because his bandmates take the lead, but when he speaks, he's quietly compelling. Hingley may or may not be the leader but she's clear-sighted and passionate, whereas Warr is an explosion of words and ideas. He talks, you listen. And, based on his damning response to a side-road discussion point we alight on – a blog which earlier that day had described PINS, an act the band like and admire, as "Joy Division with a vagina" – sexism appears not to be an issue in the False Advertising camp.
We return to songwriting methods as we finish up. "I think I just veil mine," Hingley remarks of one of the album's strongest suits: its brooding, accusatory, lyrics. "I think they mean something different to me than anyone else. There's the odd moment where we're like, 'What's this line supposed to mean?!' but it's been collaborative, overall. Wasted Away, for example, is just what I was singing on the demo, and a few things have actually found their way into songs that way."
As talk turns to forthcoming plans (more gigs, perhaps a tour in the new year), we circle back to inspiration and why it is that the band do what they do. It seems fitting that Warr has the last word. "I vent my frustrations through music," he says. "I'm a fairly happy-go-lucky person in real life but it's my alter ego in song, my opportunity to get it all out. That's why I do music." He pauses and smiles. "It balances me."