Into The Wild: Errors Interviewed
Steev Livingstone and Simon Ward of Glaswegian electronic mainstays Errors discuss their winter retreat to the Isle of Jura and how it informed expansive fifth record Lease of Life
When George Orwell travelled to Jura in 1946 to write what would become his seminal, eerily prescient tome 1984 he didn’t do it by halves. Despite being in an already frail state, brought on by a heavy onset of TB, Orwell didn’t settle for the isle’s coastline where he landed, opting to live in a solitary farmhouse named Barnhill, in the centre of nowhere. “We tried to go to where he stayed one day but it was too far away,” Errors' Steev Livingstone admits to The Skinny, sat next to bandmate Simon Ward in Glasgow’s Mono, the pixelated webcam picture giving the impression of words simply coming from the wildly plundering beard that you suspect has been there since his own creative pilgrimage to the Inner Hebrides. “In order to get to his house, you drive as far as you can go on the road and then that just stops. Then you have to walk another ten miles across fuck all.” Attempting it on a short November day in 2013, the pair promptly got lost. “It would’ve been nice to see it… but then that’s not the reason why we went to Jura.”
Livingstone and Ward both play down the influence of Orwell on their decision to write and record the bulk of Errors' very recently released fifth album Lease of Life in Jura, but there are parallels to be drawn. Both sought the solitude of the countryside and the subsequent space to truly maintain a clarity of thought during their process; whereby Orwell turned the idyllic countryside into a juxtaposition, using the surroundings to create something claustrophobic, tense and as far away from natural feeling as possible, Errors immersed themselves in the open terrain, Lease of Life bearing the hallmarks of a group reinvigorated following a break from the urban sprawl.
"There was a patience on Jura that I’ve never really had in the city; that time to just sit and observe" – Steev Livingstone
Devoid of internet or phone signal, and turning a cottage a friend of theirs happened to own into a makeshift studio, the pair spent a lot of time enjoying the lack of distraction, spending hours hillwalking when not working, and generally pressing a pause button on the rest of life. “I’d still struggle to tell you how the surroundings affected the record, but I’d like to think they did,” says Livingstone. “It sounds daft when I tell people about going up there though, like it sounds as though we did nothing when we were there, but I spent a lot of time just looking out my window. We had a really good view across the sea and so spent a lot of time just watching things subtly and dramatically change, and I like to think that had an effect. There was a patience that I’ve never really had in the city; that time to just sit and observe things like that, you just don’t really get to appreciate a different environment.”
Famously, Salford painter L.S. Lowry drew inspiration from the sea front, where he could sit and reflect on his own isolation. Errors' own perspective on isolation appears to be positive though; in an ongoing process that’s continued over their four previous full length albums, space has opened up between the elements. Their early records, It’s Not Something But It Is Like Whatever and Come Down With Me were trussed up with the exuberant ebb and flow of Glasgow’s club scene of the late 00s; but nearly five years later and the syncopated afro-beat inspired rhythms that have always been a hallmark of the trio feel less like straight-up encouragement to visit the dancefloor, and more frameworks from which the group can then expand upon – be that the glorious, almost choral-like echo of Livingstone’s vocal on the title track atop an oscillating synth whirl, or Dull Care’s brittle percussive claps giving off amorphous clouds like dust off a chalkboard cleaner. “We didn’t have lots of different sounds and instruments that could’ve clashed with one another. We kind of kept things the same,” says Ward. “I think it’s also a slight realisation that most people’s albums use very similar sounds on recording, so it’s ok to do that,” chimes in Livingstone. “If you look at our previous records you’ll find a different drum sound or use a different drum machine on every track, and that hasn't always worked.”
The break was also timely for Livingstone in particular, who’d started to grow tired of much of the music scene. “I’d pretty much stopped listening to music,” he admits. “I was fed up with everything, I was getting annoyed with everything that was getting hyped.” Going out to Jura was a perfect chance to elongate the shut-off period, the pair able to ignore the tides of influence and instead stick to their own intuition. “It’s probably not what you wanted to hear is it?” he laughs. “We listen to no music, we just listen to Radio 4 or podcasts. This American Life is a bigger influence than any band on this last record.”
Unlike many peers of a similar standing, Errors have rarely felt the pressure of needing to remain visible, always spitting out something new, always out on the road. Since first emerging in 2006, each of their five albums has been done, dropped and left to gestate, the group retreating and regrouping before considering their next statement – so it was with their latest LP, nearly three years on from mini-album New Relics. “I think there is a pressure to be quite present all the time,” Livingstone says. “I struggle with social media stuff like people having a cup of coffee and then thinking that needs to go up online so everyone can know about it. And as a band it’s just weird that thinking about your online presence is almost as important as the music you’re releasing. Sometimes what you’re releasing feels like it’s the least important thing nowadays.”
Thankfully for Errors it remains important to them, the band using Lease of Life to notably push themselves out of their comfort zone on two specific instances. Firstly, there’s the ongoing development of Livingstone’s vocals – first trialled on 2012’s Have Some Faith In Magic – and on this record they’re delivered with a clarity hitherto unseen, echoing the resonant, almost spiritually evocative tones that first appeared on that record’s Magna Encarta. They reach a pitch on the album’s final track, the 13 minute Through The Knowledge of Those Who Observe Us which marks the second notable for the band, in the use of a local Glaswegian community choir.
Even for a non-believer, there’s nothing to force the mind into considering a higher sense of purpose quite like the sight of the planet uninterrupted. Ward and Livingstone certainly didn’t go out to Jura with the intention of writing an ode to nature – Ward comments that “the pallette of sounds came together there” but that ideas had already been set in motion by the time they got there – and the record doesn’t come across as such. However the final track gloriously releases all those underlying feelings and subtle influences of their time away, the familiar skewed disco that’s come to hallmark their sound gradually becoming overgrown with a rootsy, traditional sense of songwriting. “It was definitely the song most affected by our trip to Jura,” Livingstone admits. “I think when you’re in a place like that you think about time a lot more, you see the effects of hundreds of thousands of years on things.”
The spiritual bent is intentional too, from the title, adapted from the passage of the second epistle of Peter 1:3 “through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,” to the more obvious effect of the choir. There’s always been, deep down, a sense of soul music to Errors' sound and the pair confess a love of old gospel. “There’s something in those grand overflowing statements I find very interesting,” Livingstone says. “I’m not religious, but it’s a thing I’d like to go and see a lot more of. It’s kind of amazing when you see that kind of Baptist church singing that goes on there, and the kind of crazy behaviour that you get. I think if you were in the midst of it it’d be pretty easy to get caught up in.”
In addition to vocal contributions elsewhere from friends Magic Eye and Cecilia Stamp, the decision to go through with using the choir, something long talked about, marks a further evolution of confidence within the group, with Livingstone not just gaining confidence in his own lyric writing, but also in being able to give them away to others – even if they were 20 people he’d never met before. “They were great,” he enthuses. “They totally got into it, did one rehearsal and then recorded it. I was way more stressed out about it than I have been a lot of things, but we’ve realised no-one else is going to do this for us.”
Not that they always know what this is. “Believe it or not we still don’t really know what we’re doing,” Livingstone confides. “We know how to turn machines on and use a computer and that, but we don’t really think about the effect of having vocals that are starting to sound like Justin Timberlake on our record.” It is, though, those happy accidents – those errors you might say – that often create moments of true excellence within their music, and so it is that while the Glasgow group may not have intended for Jura to become the bedrock that their fifth album would be hoisted upon, there's no denying that it’s truly led to a reinvigoration, a new purpose, a new lease of life.