Future Blues: Stealing Sheep on Big Wows
After years of multi-disciplinary dabbling, Liverpool’s genre-defying electronic experimentalists Stealing Sheep return to take on the technology age
Three records and nearly a decade into their career, Stealing Sheep remain defined by dichotomy. Their debut album, 2012’s Into the Diamond Sun, placed the Liverpool trio’s uncanny, folk-inflected vocal harmonies front and centre, but backed them with a veritable smorgasbord of instrumental diversions – they covered everything from lo-fi psych to glittering electronica. When they followed it up in 2015 with Not Real, they pursued the latter route much more aggressively, all shiny synths and stuttering, programmed drums – which, set against the eclectic intertwining of their voices, made for another, very singular push-pull dynamic.
Plus, their penchant for visual creativity and pushing their musical output beyond the boundaries of the typical band has meant that they effectively have another artistic life entirely; they’ve done everything from perform sets of David Lynch covers to score obscure 70s science fiction films. Since Not Real, they’ve created a jubilant, multi-disciplinary tribute to the suffragettes and paid homage to their hero, electronic trailblazer Delia Derbyshire – both in the past 18 months.
It’s Derbyshire’s influence that hangs heavy over this month’s long-in-the-works third LP, Big Wows, which once again finds Stealing Sheep striking a delicate balance – reporting on the instability of the modern technological era without passing judgment on it, and delving ever further into electronic music while still striving to produce something tangibly human, defined by empathy.
"We’ve been juggling a lot of different things over the past few years, so it’s taken a little bit of time to put together," says bassist Emily Lansley of the group’s protracted studio lay-off. "We ended up working quite independently, which was new for us, coming up with our own ideas and then bringing them together at the end. It felt like something we needed to do, just to rediscover our own creative processes a little bit after so long doing things so collaboratively between the three of us. By the time we got together to record it, it all sort of melds together and becomes Stealing Sheep, but it seemed like a good idea to chip away on the initial stages of these songs by ourselves."
When it came to the early work on Big Wows, Lansley confirms that the creative parameters were undefined. "We just wanted to do as much exploration as we could with this record," she relates. "When it comes to working with electronic sounds, Becky [Hawley, keys] especially is really into it – that thing of making new sounds by using Logic plugins or manipulating the sounds of keyboards and things like that. Lucy [Mercer, drums] and I had always worked in more of a live way before this; the ideas tended to come from us jamming together, so for the two of us, it was a little bit more challenging. It was freeing, too, though; we had a lot of room to vary in how we approached the songs. The Wow Machine project fed quite nicely into this one."
Stealing Sheep themselves described Wow Machine as a "theatrical-musical-dance-art spectacular"; in layman’s terms, that meant sci-fi visuals, sparkly outfits, dancers and, musically speaking, all-out electro-psych, as the band channeled the spirit of electronic innovator Delia Derbyshire, who might be best known for co-writing the theme to Doctor Who. "We did some work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop a few years ago; we collaborated on a soundtrack to the film La Planète Sauvage for the Jersey Film Festival," Lansley explains. "That was when we first became aware of her work – we got to work with her foley tapes when we did that project, which was all of the sound effects she’d created for film and television. She was a pioneer, really, and way ahead of her time. Wow Machine was our tribute to her."
With Wow Machine coming to fruition during the making of Big Wows, Derbyshire’s influence inevitably bled into the new work, too – something that Lansley acknowledges also came to suit the record’s themes. "She was always looking for the humanity in the machines and computers that she used," she explains. "She always wanted to find something organic in these sounds that were obviously artificial in nature, and that’s something we’ve been searching for since our last album – some kind of balance between synthetic and real.
"I think over the course of our career, we’ve never been interested in opting for normal sounds in our writing; even with the earlier stuff, where we were using instruments that were more traditional, we were forever trying to change them – putting effects on crappy keyboards, or just warping our vocals, that kind of thing. We’ve made an album that looks at the chaos of the technology age, and that desire to make things sound harder or a little bit discordant fits with that."
In the three years since Not Real, the world around Stealing Sheep has become more turbulent socially and politically; rather than strive to look for answers as to why, they instead spend Big Wows holding up a mirror to the role of technology in fostering the present climate of uncertainty. "Culturally, it seems as if we’re surrounded by the internet more and more all the time," says Lansley. "We were trying to speak through the language of how everything – and everyone – is so easily accessible, especially with the rise of social media. We were thinking about how you’d describe this moment of the internet age with sound, and create a landscape, and that’s something that’s spilled over into the videos we’ve made so far, because the visual side of our creativity has always felt crucial to the music. Hopefully, that’s obvious to an outsider from the videos for Jokin' Me and Show Love."
The record is supposed to be seen as more of a treatise on the state of things than a condemnation, however. "It’s not necessarily a criticism," Lansley explains. "I think we were mainly just observing and recording what we were seeing. I know I wouldn’t want things to be any different, in terms of my own relationship with the internet. None of us would. There’s always going to be times where you feel overwhelmed by it, when there’s so many people’s feelings and thoughts out there and accessible, and then there’ll be times when it feels great and like a really effective tool. I think the record is more a representation of how we’re affected by the internet and the social media age at different times and in different headspaces. It’s not supposed to be a critique."
The band’s other major project last year was Suffragette Tribute, a commission centred around the centenary of the women’s suffrage movement; initially lined up for Liverpool’s Sound City festival and then toured around the country throughout the summer, it brought together dancers, percussionists (15 of them) and all-new music from the three-piece to create a carnival atmosphere. Like Wow Machine, the timing of the project meant that there was inevitably some overlap with Big Wows, albeit in more abstract ways.
"We never really sit still, creatively speaking," says Lansley. "The music keeps progressing and changing all the time. There’s one song on the record, Breathe, that started out as a really slow ballad. Six months later, it was totally different, with all these dancey drums on it. The whole dimension of the song changed. That happens a lot – we think we’ve got some ideas boxed off, and then they turn into something else entirely. That’s just a result of remaining open to new ideas and new commissions like the ones we did last year."
The album’s endearingly colloquial title goes some way to encapsulating the trio’s detached, level-headed approach to their subject matter; as adept as they are at sonically evoking the chaos and confusion of the world’s emotional relationship to the internet, they lyrically skewer it in a way that acknowledges the unemotional nature of the machines that facilitate it.
"Big Wows means 'don’t stress it', basically," says keyboardist Becky Hawley as she jumps on the call. "So when the paraphernalia of the internet is all around you, and it feels as if it’s getting to you and becoming quite hectic, the best approach is to remain chilled, and keep it light-hearted. It feels as if it’s becoming more difficult to remain human when there’s so many new machines and so much technology that’s coming at us so fast. A lot of the album is summed up in what you see in the video for Show Love, which is about cutting through all of the advertising and the things that people are trying to put on you, in order to get to the real stuff, like love and finding the truth in a post-truth world."
Big Wows is released on 19 Apr via Heavenly Recordings