Hex Education Half-Hour: Ninetails Interviewed
While engaged in the fruitless pursuit of re-finding the euphoria of the first hit, Liverpool trio Ninetails have concocted something truly special
“It’s straightforward in the sense of how sentimental it is...” Ninetails’ Jordan Balaber is explaining how their new EP, Quiet Confidence – an astoundingly complex tapestry of pulled apart guitar motifs, discombobulated hooks, pitch-shifted vocals and samples featuring everything from Vietnamese chanting, to cathedral bells ringing and cards being dropped – is actually just a pop record.
“There are so many melodies within it, ones that just go round my head until I have to use them – sometimes from other songs!” he adds later. “Take An Aria: there’s a bit there which has the same hook as the ‘before I put on my make-up’ bit from Aretha Franklin’s Say a Little Prayer – and that’s a great thing! Taking this really classic, powerful pop melody and re-contextualising it completely differently.”
Balaber and his bandmates, Phil Morris and Jake King, are sitting around in their flat situated in Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter. King and Morris lounge languidly, drinking beer, smoking; but Balaber is rapt and upright in his chair, his polite American accent belying the fierce conviction that blazes from the words tumbling at pace from his mouth. When we walk into the flat he’s actually playing Quiet Confidence's opening track Radiant Hex on his laptop, standing up sheepishly to insist, “I was just deciding whether to show you the video for it or not.”
Later he’ll enthusiastically get up to find a dumb bell in order to re-enact that same song’s clanking introduction, only to lose patience when it doesn’t sound exactly as it does on record. Balaber’s manner isn’t one of braggadocio – in fact, all three members quickly refute any suggestion that the EP’s title relates to their own perception of the band. It’s more the wide-eyed excitement of an artist who knows inside himself that what they’ve created is something they’ve been striving for ever since meeting as students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts – “and the sort of music I’ve personally wanted to make for 15 years.”
“I was imagining being stuck in the eye of a tornado, with all these chunky bits of debris swirling around me” – Jordan Balaber
In Quiet Confidence, Ninetails are about to drop a stunning work of art. Balaber’s right, it is a pop record; at its heart, Radiant Hex is a sultry R’n’B jam resplendent with a plethora of brain hooks; it’s stretched out beyond proportion though, allowing its warped elongations to give rise to contorted forms and tones. An Aria contrasts the rich, cushion-soft layers of its twinkling surroundings with unashamedly bright sounding guitars and trumpets. It’s only when it reaches Hopelessly Devoted that all orthodox song structures dissolve away, the band fully off-piste, percussive boundaries lifted and textures coalescing. Put next to their debut EP, 2011’s jangling math-rock Ghost Ride the Whip, it becomes like a Kid A compared to a Pablo Honey, or a Field of Reeds to a Beat Pyramid, to use an influence they themselves cite. “The first EP was pretty much written to satisfy our course criteria to be honest,” Morris says. “It wasn’t even a true reflection of our tastes,” adds Balaber.
The group had been a four-piece then, but have since parted ways with former lead vocalist Ed Black, leaving Virginia-born Balaber to step up to main vocal duties and causing the group to turn fully towards the more heavily layered, sample-embellished sound first evidenced on 2012’s follow-up Slept and Did Not Sleep. Its concept of western society's technological dependence, in which forever left-on mobiles, laptops and other devices interrupt our slumber, was acutely represented in its starts and fits of songs that would falter and disappear, before a new element would re-emerge from the ether, disrupting the silence all over again. “Slept and Did Not Sleep came together very sloppily, in three weeks,” admits Balaber; “I recorded my vocal parts six hours before getting a flight back to America for summer, chugging a bottle of Buckfast as I went – I still cringe listening back to that vocal performance!”
In contrast, Quiet Confidence took 18 months, and as such sounds meticulously collaged. “A lot of the record is samples, many of which come from me and Jake working with field recordings,” Balaber says. “Jake (who also records as solo producer LinG) mixes beats out of found sounds; I record a lot of conversations I have with friends. It seemed really important to have these sounds from the outside world within the studio recordings. It’s supposed to feel like you’re just walking down a normal street or something, but with all the thoughts inside your head visualised around you. Taking things like conversation snippets and placing them in the EP’s grander musical context is kind of its thesis; taking the mundane and trying to make something extraordinary out of it.”
The EP’s structure is bound up intrinsically with the themes of its content. “It’s about a character’s deep devotion to something, and the things they sacrifice or put aside, just so that they can access the rare moments of euphoria it gives them,” Balabar explains; “that could mean anything; a relationship where you spend all this time with someone for just those few transcendental moments of making love; spiritual enlightenment; or any moment or goal someone has in their head that causes them to spend every day forging these paths to reach them. It’s about the desperation of chasing these moments, and trying to find them again once they’ve passed.”
That narrative of addiction is what causes Quiet Confidence to shift from Radiant Hex and An Aria’s more defined passages and more overt lyrical signposts ('I put it all on the line for the comfort of the rarely known,') to the far looser, sprawling flurries of composition that, through Hopelessly Devoted’s heavenly calls and shimmering keys, reaches climax with Sinn Djinn’s colossal slab of guitar-led crescendo. After hinting at such ultimate ejaculation throughout the record, with several structural collapses and re-builds, this final release is the most intense orgasm, the white light of religious enlightenment, the chemical rush, the final, greatest euphoria of the narrator’s quest. “I was imagining being stuck in the eye of a tornado, with all these chunky bits of debris swirling around me,” Balaber elaborates. “The way the record plays out in terms of being more structured is because it starts out focusing about the character’s pursuit; but then the lyrics stop after a certain point, things disintegrate when they start to completely lose themselves to this devotion.”
For Balaber, there is a cathartic element to it all, stemming from a childhood memory of finding himself swept up at a huge Evangelical gathering in his native Virginia. “It was a stadium and there were thousands of people there lifting their hands in worship, chanting for four hours until people were crying, on their knees in submission,” he recalls. “It felt super profound at the time, all these people united in sacrificing themselves for this same belief in something greater. Any union of so many humans sticks with you, never mind something like that.”
Given he also talks of visualising songs in his mind before they’ve even left it, Ninetails have taken on an increasingly cinematic quality to their music. “I’ve always written like that,” he shrugs. “As a little kid I wrote a 60 page-long book that was a total rip-off on Lord of the Rings; but every night I’d get into bed I’d be able to watch it scene by scene in my head. It’s also how I see music, and so a lot of the sounds that are on this record were pursued after I’d envisaged them in my head.”
Recorded in pristine hi-fi by their friend and fellow LIPA graduate, Chris Pawlusek, Quiet Confidence is consequently lifted up to a comparatively alien place, a sonic environment more accustomed to big choruses and crisp pop hooks. “Hi-fi was the buzz word,” agrees Balaber, “Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch was a huge influence; we wanted things emerging out of empty spaces, super vivid events that were kind of terrifying.” Such clarity allows the focus to be on the tumble and fall of the clattered percussive sounds, the murmurs and whispers that surround the main body of each track and, of course, the breathtaking thrust of each dizzying crescendo. “A lot of people talk about tension and release in music,” says Jordan, “but our aim was just to create something that was all ‘release, release, release.’”
Quiet Confidence is released on Pond Life on 10 Mar. Ninetails play their first Liverpool gig in a year, supporting Jon Hopkins at Liverpool Sound City on 1 Mayhttp://www.ninetailsband.co.uk