Modern Studies on soaring new album Welcome Strangers

We speak to Modern Studies' Emily Scott and Rob St. John about their latest album, Welcome Strangers

Feature by Harry Harris | 15 May 2018
  • Modern Studies

It’s often overlooked, but arguably the greatest innovation technology has brought to music is the ability for bands to exist without the need to even be in the same city, piling into a shared rehearsal room every week to work on songs. In the case of Modern Studies – whose members live in Glasgow, Perthshire and Lancashire – their geography is arguably one of the things that allows them to flourish. Songs are passed back and forth between each other, growing up and out with each members’ contribution and interpretation.

“We’re playing to our strengths really,” says singer and songwriter Emily Scott, one of the band’s Glasgow contingency, “everybody’s got a real expertise in some area or other, and it’s about letting that person get on with that side of it.” The trust that exists within the band that allows them to work like this comes from having worked with each other for a long time in various other musical guises before Modern Studies ever came about. Scott and Rob St. John – the group’s other main vocalist, as well as provider of guitars, synths, tape loops, and other sonic experimentations – used to play on each other’s solo projects in Edinburgh a decade or so ago. Bassist, cellist, pianist and producer Pete Harvey was also involved around that time, with drummer Joe Smillie coming into the fold more recently. “Everyone has these really disparate influences and they develop quite easily and naturally,” Scott says; St. John adds: “There’s always a hook, or a riff, or a melody in the middle of all this. There’s always a pop song.”

'We’re not like analogue fetishists or digital futurists in any way; it’s more about choosing the tools that’ll do the job' – Rob St. John

‘Pop’ might not be the first word that comes to mind upon hearing Modern Studies' music – songs shift time signature and build up in layers of sound, incorporating beautiful gilded string sections, generally just moving in ways that you wouldn’t expect – but St. John's description of it does hold water. There’s nothing arch or inaccessible about Modern Studies’ new record Welcome Strangers, and when songs do take unexpected turns they always end up in beautiful places. Every experiment the band undertake is all in service of making the song work, and coming from a musical place. “We just use what’s to hand,” St. John says. "We’re not like analogue fetishists or digital futurists in any way, it’s more about choosing the tools that’ll do the job.”

The track Mud and Flame is a good example, beginning with a tape loop of Scott’s voice, a stuttering and strange rhythmic tone which quickly descends into a funky, almost psychedelic groove. “I used a sample of Emily’s voice she sent to me, dubbed it up on various loops, and disintegrated it over time in various ways. And then that kind of falling apart of the material tape gives it its rhythmic character," St. John explains. "It’s really interesting, for me at least, to do it in this more tactile way. It’s doing it in this subtle way where it sits and doesn’t say 'this is something to be appreciated as a piece of art.' It’s something to be appreciated as a pop song. It’s just got all these weirdy things going on.”

That Welcome Strangers has more of these “weirdy things” going on than the band’s previous work is partly down to funding. The band scored some Creative Scotland funding which enabled the four-piece to enlist backing singers, string players, trombones, free-form saxophone, extra guitars and ample rehearsal time. In total, the whole album took almost exactly a year to make – 364 days between laying down the first demos to sending off the final masters. “It would have been a four-piece record without the funding,” Scott says, but it’s a testament to the band’s musicality and fluidity that you feel as if this record, as a four-piece, would still be just as interesting and exciting.

“We’ve been playing them live as a four-piece," St. John says, "they take on a new life again, and doubtless they’ll take on a new life in the future depending on who we play them with [and] where we play them. There’s a pull and push in these songs in being able to play them as a four-piece, playing quite loud, and there’s times you can play much more grand places, more with a lot of texture and nuance and space, so they’re always pulling and pushing depending on the players and spaces we’re playing in.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the record sounds like it’s being influenced from a lot of different places, from pastoral folk to expansive, trippy, krautrock-esque soundscapes. One constant that helps ground the record is the way Scott and St. John's voices blend together. They work in tandem, St. John’s bassy, Lancashire accent perfectly in line with Scott's more sonorous inflections. Almost always they sing the same melody, an octave apart, allowing the other backing singers to augment and adorn as and when. “There’s a real joy in the way we both phrase in very different ways,” St. John says, and he’s right – as with everything else on the record, the quality comes from things that perhaps shouldn’t make sense, making sense.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers once described managing a football team as "like trying to build an aircraft while it is flying." It feels like Modern Studies have a similar approach to making music, putting things together, learning as they go, changing and adapting at will, all with the one shared focus of keeping this thing in the air. New records are already on the horizon, as well as the possibility of other musical projects and directions. “We’re up for whatever people throw at us,” Scott says, and you feel like, at this stage, that could be just about anything. Whatever it does happen to be, they’ll make it work, and they’ll keep the plane flying.

Welcome Strangers is released on 18 May via Fire Records
Modern Studies play The Happiness Hotel, Edinburgh, 25 May; The Glad Cafe, Glasgow, 31 May; Mackintosh Church, Queen's Cross, Glasgow, 1 Jun; Rip it Up @ Summerhall, Edinburgh, 23 Jun