Strife's What You Make It: East India Youth on his prodigious debut
A chance encounter with a reluctant label boss sent electronic prodigy East India Youth on an unexpected trip. William Doyle tells us about his long-incubating debut and the ongoing struggle to stop impulse trashing his MacBook
It’s rare for an artist to become a critical darling before their music has even reached the hands of a record label. But in late 2012, William Doyle managed just that when, during a Sonic Youth performance, he handed a tape of demos to John Doran, author and editor of influential and occasionally acerbic culture site, The Quietus. Despite previously claiming that he’d “rather cut off my own head with nail clippers than start a label,” Doran was nonetheless suitably impressed and felt compelled to give East India Youth a serious boost by doing just that. The EP, Hostel, perhaps wasn’t what everyone expected from the site (Popjustice memorably described the Quietus’s first foray into releasing music as “surprisingly listenable”); lead single Heaven, How Long was a ponderous slice of electro-pop with a heart-stopping, soulful finale.
As it happens, Doyle has been living with Total Strife Forever for a long while – nearly three years, in fact, landing in the hands of Mr Doran in almost full form, and now remixed and remastered for release (via Stolen Recordings) on an uncertain indie landscape. A startlingly confident and ambitious debut, the LP’s Foals-referencing title doesn’t necessarily prepare the listener for the musical gravitas on display throughout. While it was composed and recorded entirely within the confines of his own bedroom, Doyle has at points managed to coax out the sort of expansive and dramatic soundscapes associated more with Brian Eno and Björk. It’s an approach that, at times, skirts melodrama, but impressively so, employing a 60- or 70-strong chorus of his own looped and adjusted vocals.
“I recorded the initial stuff over two years, and now it’s three years since I first started it,” recalls Doyle. “The whole idea of the project formed quite gradually, and then, in the summer of 2012, clicked together really quickly. So I’m coming back to it now and wondering, ‘How did I come to this conclusion with this track?’, and it’s a really interesting process. I’m really looking forward to it coming out, because then it’s done and I can move on.”
It's becoming a bit of an issue, rushing the set to get to that release at the end" – William Doyle
Prior to East India Youth, Doyle was the lead singer of indie outfit Doyle and the Fourfathers, a ‘tipped’ indie act with an almost orchestral sound reminiscent of Irish chamber pop band The Divine Comedy. The foundations of East India Youth were poured while Doyle was still in the band, when he quickly came to the realisation that he could “tap in quite deep to electronic music… to convey things easier than with words.” Despite Britain’s ongoing obsession with discovering the next great archetypal or arbitrary guitar band, has the spike in bedroom producers and the availability of software meant that those previously labouring away in rehearsal rooms are now thinking both bigger and smaller when it comes to solo creativity? “The technology’s so easy to get and that’s quite cool. It’s like post-punk bands picking up synthesizers in the 70s; now anyone can download a whole studio one afternoon and then get on with it, and electronic music links in better with that than being in a band,” reckons Doyle. “Now that everyone lives online on social media, I think it’s part of a wider problem, actually meeting up with two or three guys in a room when everyone just lives online seems pretty unappealing when you can just be getting on with it.”
The accompanying press for Total Strife Forever subtly suggests that a scenario of great personal change was the emotional foundation of the recording process. On tracks like Glitter Recession and Midnight Koto, Doyle gears his electronics to something approaching all-out melodrama – but it’s the delicate, heart-on-sleeve songwriting of Dripping Down and Looking For Someone that give the record its melancholic and pleasingly cathartic feel. 'Looking for someone/Pretty sure you were the one/Once you’re there and now you’re gone,' sings Doyle on the latter, with heartbreaking resignation. However, he’s keen to remain opaque on what drives the heart of East India Youth in its current form. “When I finished the first mix of the record it was a real watershed moment,” he recalls. “There’s a lot of personal, family stuff involved, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m making a press release from it. I wanted people to know it was made in a state of anguish, but as for the specifics, maybe not. I’ve kept the title all the way through, even when I thought it might not be a good idea, but it just sums up that period of my life, really.”
Total Strife Forever has a strong neo-classical influence; unsurprising, given that Doyle recalls listening to classical before even pop music as a child. Minimalists Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Estonian luminary Arvo Pärt all inspire East India Youth, but Doyle stresses that it’s “more to do with the spirit [in which] it was made, and paying attention to changes in tempo and dynamics is what classical brings to the table. How repetition affects the listener.”
Nonetheless, Total Strife Forever goes so deep into instrumentation alone that the more traditional songwriting that bubbles to the surface might comes as a surprise on an initial listen. Doyle cites the template of Berlin-era Bowie – such as Low, in which The Thin White Duke’s pop songwriting gives way to a wall of meditative krautrock – but is nonetheless perfectly happy to invert it.
“It was really important to me that I skewed the balance of the pop tracks in favour of the instrumentals,” he admits, explaining the benefit of self-restraint in the writing process. “A lot of artists seem to favour the vocal stuff above the other, whereas I thought it’d be interesting to reverse that. Many of the tracks started with vocals naturally attached to them, because being a songwriter that’s what my habit is, but most of them breathed better without it. There are no vocals until the third track, Dripping Down, which might confuse some people but it makes the most sense for the album.”
Then there’s Hinterland, which, early doors during Total Strife Forever, suddenly and briefly takes Doyle’s work in a completely different direction – pounding, analogue techno, complete with a lurching acid drop. During a recent support tour with Factory Floor, the East India Youth laptop – adorned with a telling Perc Trax sticker – was sent flying to the floor as he pummelled the track out of his digital and analogue gear. “That’s actually not the first time that’s happened,” he assures, before, with tongue firmly in cheek, pondering the possibility of destroying a MacBook at the end of every show. “I really enjoy playing that one live, and it’s becoming a bit of an issue, rushing the set to get to that release at the end, because I just fucking love playing it,” he confesses. “And I could easily make everything like that, but it’s not going to be enough of a challenge for me. But I do love that sound, and this year I’ve mainly been into industrial techno like Raime, Vatican Shadow and Regis. That stuff really chimes with me, I find it to be very visceral music. I have been working on some material in a separate folder that’s more in that vein, but who knows if that will see the light of day.”
A recent and boozy Saturday night audience in Manchester awaiting Factory Floor thoroughly embraced both the understated, inner-gazing aspects of East India Youth, as well as his full-throttle, club-ready finale. “It’s an interesting juxtaposition,” Doyle observes. “Trying to mix those two styles without it becoming a gimmick.” While there’s nothing gimmicky about an East India Youth performance, it certainly differs from the usual young-man-hiding-his-laptop aesthetic that either haunts or perfectly services the majority of live electronic shows. Doyle performs with such sweaty, impassioned and festival-friendly gusto, he looks less to be checking his email as battering his ISP provider. If he’s keen to keep the lyrical influences of Total Strife Forever under wraps, then what, at least, inspires such confidence?
“Well, I’ve been the frontman in bands, prancing around for years, that’s something I’ve always enjoyed,” suggests Doyle – on this subject, it’s fair to say, diverging from the spirit of his influences. It’s difficult to imagine Oneohtrix Point Never or Tim Hecker express their love for any kind of prancing.
“I was worried I wasn’t going to enjoy performing electronic music as much as playing in bands, so the idea was to have more of a show,” he says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision, but how do I make it interesting for the audience as well as myself? I didn’t want to become the archetypal electronic musician. I didn’t want to focus too much on the aesthetic, even down to just looking down the lens in photos. I wanted to add some personality into what’s become a faceless music scene.”
Given its diverse influences and unapologetically high-minded mix of heart-wrenching pop and experimental electronica, it will be interesting to see the sort of audience Doyle establishes with Total Strife Forever. Regardless, given the occasionally staid state of affairs in British alternative music, it’s invigorating to hear a record as passionate and occasionally transcendent: having hopefully dealt with whatever heartbreak lies at its centre, we can only hope that Doyle will continue with the lofty ambition that many other artists debuting in 2014 would do well to match.