A Relationship in Pixels: Outfit interviewed
From Liverpool's next big thing to a band sprawled across three cities and two countries, Outfit sound closer than they ever have before
A relationship through pixels is a strange thing, a stasis held via a connection that maintains the dull glow of a laptop screen switched on late at night. Skype curates a version of your partner, their facial expressions skipping and pausing in a patchwork of the familiarity you remember. Their voice is there but not there, disembodied and muffled, the crackle of the line cutting the nuances that used to make your heart flutter. Attempts at intimacy are broken down into kilobytes, spat out thousands of miles away.
Holly Herndon’s Platform, recently released on 4AD, and her attitudes around the potential for emotional resonance with online communication and smart technology are important and refreshing antidotes to a narrative still borne out in music criticism of machines evoking a disconnect and coldness in their users' music. Yet if she speaks positively of such technological kinship then it’s timely that, on the other side of the world, Outfit are releasing a new record in Slowness that in part ruminates on the process that someone would have to go through to reach the same outlook.
Sat alongside his older brother Nick, the pair drinking red wine from cups in the shade of a veranda hidden within the labyrinth of their former abode, the 20-bedroom Croxteth Lodge in Liverpool, frontman Andrew Hunt considers the impact of his own long-distance relationship on his perceptions. Although now married and living permanently in New York with his wife, most of the previous three years has involved much transatlantic toing and froing, interspersed with long bouts of longing.
"It wasn’t all emails and file swapping" – Andrew Hunt
“The laptop was quite a sentimental place for me during that time,” he smiles. “It was almost like a weird shrine. Particularly at night there’d just be the glow coming from there and it’d feel like this portal to another place that felt very comfortable – and it did feel very real. We’d go to sleep with each other, she’d fall asleep and I’d be up doing something. I don’t think those things are cold.”
Slowness makes good on the refinement hinted at when The Skinny caught Outfit trying out new material in the upstairs of Gullivers in Manchester last autumn. With their 2013 full-length debut, Performance, offsetting sweetly delivered pop hooks against a moody hue of coolly detached vocals and carefully considered krautrock and house influences, the five-piece looked to be gearing up for a future assault on the dancefloor. Instead, though, they've veered the other way, stripping back and intentionally limiting their sound palette so as to allow certain elements to come to the fore. The tick-tock of David Berger’s percussion on Happy Birthday laments the passing of time; the portentous oscillating swells of spine-tingling finale Swam Out comes punctuated by Skype sound effects – Hunt premiered the song individually to fans who called him up across the video call app; while Thomas Gorton’s fizzing synth smear effect often provides the sole corrosive in tracks unafraid to push bright piano melodies and nakedly emotional vocal pirouettes. As progressive pop made within the orthodox structure of a guitar band on these shores, it sits easily unmatched so far this year.
“With the first record you don’t hear the individual sounds as such,” comments Nick. “There’s great ones in there but because it was so layered you could mute half the tracks and it would still sound really good,” he says, adding with a laugh: “we should’ve remixed that record with half of the sounds there.”
At Slowness’s core lies disconnection, between Andrew and the UK, and between bandmates themselves (synth player Gorton now lives in London, for example). It’s an album that easily pulls apart music journo clichés around an organic-sounding album indicating a natural creation process; the group, restricted by how often they could all get together in Liverpool, recorded it in two pressurised blocks across the road from where we sit now in their self-made studio. “It was a bizarre decision to make this a live band record because we weren’t actually together for a long period,” Andrew admits. “When we worked on the album we tended to be together, it wasn’t all emails and file swapping. But the distance came into it more in terms of lyrics on the album and a general emotional feel of it, the sense we’re all kind of displaced a bit and remembering who everyone is and who we are in relation to the people that we love.”
Central to that is the relationship between the younger Hunt and his wife. The album’s title track deals with what he describes as the “language of images” that made up his relationship while they were apart. “Be it images of something that’s happened or images you’ve composed in your head,” the singer adds. “To an extent it’s always a fiction the way you put them together – and then when you’re reunited you have to come to terms with the almost jarring reality of what it’s actually like when you’re in a room together.” On Happy Birthday that feeling of awkwardness around someone you know so well's physical presence is recognised in the doubting vulnerability of the line “Is it the right time that I’ve chosen to be here, to see you, to want it?”
"We used words like 'water' or 'air' a lot and they're really suitable, because in any relationship you have to change," comments Nick. "After three months of not seeing each other I guess you can’t go back to that original state, although that's the case in any relationship too. You have to change, you have to move." Elsewhere, Genderless stands out in contrast to the rest of the album’s spacious, richly melodic textures. It instead judders through a claustrophobic series of propeller-like electronic rushes before finally breaking through. “It’s really trying to get at a sense of isolation from your body,” Andrew says. “When I was apart from my wife over here I was essentially living a life of a single person, but without the sexual purpose. It’s looking at yourself in terms of a relationship, or lack thereof – not having that mirror to hold up in front of you.”
Feelings around detachment manifest themselves in other ways than the group's personal relationships. Take The Smart Thing, written by Andrew as he pondered coming home to New York to vote; he describes watching the leaders debate as "an anchor to back home." Talking in the raw aftermath of a general election that saw the establishment of a Tory government, there's a general sadness between the two brothers, not just at a result that's seen the country shift further to the right, but also at the reaction of the left.
"We’ve seen so many Facebook statuses about how evil people are for not being considerate to other people, this sort of snake-eating-itself kind of attitude: 'What a worthless shit you are for not understanding other people’s opinion,'" Nick muses. "Not saying that everything’s relative and there is no right decision, but I guess it's that sort of cheesy thing of being the change you want to see in the world. Chasing other people’s minds is kind of an irrelevance in terms of the things that work on yourself."
Outfit aren't political in the sense that some old hacks would like today's musicians to be, but then theirs is a position shared by many peers – that blunt rally-crying and closed-off judgement isn't particularly beneficial. "Writing about our internal experiences and spiritual dimension is a bit more universal than trying to write or communicate political ideas, certainly in the type of music that we make and the people we are on stage," comments Nick. "We're a band of five white lads – would us hectoring people about socialism communicate to the same degree as talking about our personal experiences in a way that transcends some of those more tribal things?"
Away from their personal lives, Outfit’s perception of themselves as a band has altered too. 2013’s Performance came out off the back of a move to and subsequent return from London; the band commendably disregarded their own early hype to ensure that the debut LP was something of a slow burner. That they're previous tour mates with Manchester's Reich-influenced tunesmiths Dutch Uncles is telling; there are definite parallels to be drawn between two groups who've written great pop songs that sit a little too off-centre to ever become pop hits – a triumph of artistry if not commercialism.
“I think we’d recognised over the course of releasing the first album and touring it that we’re not really ever going to be a very Radio 1-like ‘singles’-type band,” says Nick. “We’re too odd to ever be a full pop band and so it felt like rather than landing between those things, it’d just be better to admit who we are and work more towards a different sort of thing.” Andrew admits an element of “pig-headedness” coming into the new record “like, ‘we’ve just made all these melodic pop songs and no one gives a fuck,’” but it’s clear that maturing beyond a careerist bent has ultimately benefitted them in the making of Slowness. "Free from the burden of expectations," he laughs. "I totally envy us. But, yeah, I'm excited already about writing a third record" – something you wouldn't bet against happening no matter how physically far apart the are: some relationships transcend physicality.