The Road to Reykjavik: Tuff Love on Tour

After a whirlwind eighteen months since their arrival on the scene, Glasgow fuzz pop duo Tuff Love continue to thrive and flourish ahead of January's debut LP. We join them on the road to Iceland

Feature by Tom Johnson | 19 Jan 2016

It's 5:30 in the morning when we meet Tuff Love at Glasgow Airport. By the time we arrive back from Reykjavik two days later, the band will have travelled over five thousand kilometres in 48 hours, to play two short shows at the 2015 edition of Airwaves festival. The nucleus of the band – Julie Eisenstein (guitar, vocals) and Suse Bear (bass, vocals) – hate flying; a point reinforced by the vice-like grip upon our arm as we take off for the first of the trip’s four flights. The mood is somewhat downbeat; it’s extremely early, the gear is heavy and awkward, the Glasgow rain torrential.

We’re also flown via London because the festival arranged the travel, and so a two-hour trip becomes a seven-hour trip. For a "job" as routinely idolised as ‘touring musician’, the truth is perhaps something a lot less glitzy. Tuff Love, a band who have played Glastonbury, been lauded in The Guardian (as well as in this very publication, of course), heralded by mainstream radio, will be spending the following couple of weeks on tour in Iceland, firstly, and then across the rest of the UK. They’ll be driving themselves, carrying their own gear, selling their own merch. Some of the shows will be poorly attended; if they just get a decent bed they’ll be ecstatic. Suffice to say, an easy life it ain’t.

Of course, in amongst all of this, are the highpoints. They’re being flown to Iceland to play a specially invited showcase of some of the world’s best musicians, and for all the many vexations they don’t complain once; there are nerves and tiredness and many stresses, on this one short trip alone, but Tuff Love do as they've always done: they keep their head down and plough on regardless.

"Confidence and productivity comes in waves" – Suse Bear

January 2016 sees the release of Resort, the band’s debut album of sorts, which will see their three previously-released EPs collated as one, and which looks set to see their music reach far greater shores. Resort also underlines everything they’ve achieved in the three years since they started making music together; this Icelandic trip is something of a flag-flying moment for all of their achievements.

Rewinding somewhat to the band’s first release, the long sold-out Junk EP, you have to wonder whether this was always the plan, whether crossing oceans and conquering bigger stages was ever anticipated, or even expected. “I really just wanted to write songs,” Julie says plainly of the band's initial working. “I think our goals were always more personal, more about what we could do within the project and less about the future success of the band.”

The Pictish Trail's guiding influence

Despite the modesty, or perhaps just limited expectations given their aforementioned place within the industry, the acclaim came quickly. The Guardian came on board almost straight away, streaming the band’s debut track alongside an accompanying handwritten letter that Johnny Lynch (label boss, manager) had sent to the publication. "That was pretty nuts. It was just a mad surprise," says Suse. "It was definitely something noticeable that happened afterwards. I think people took us seriously, like we were a real band. I guess sometimes it takes a recommendation from someone people trust, like a music journalist, for other people to listen to your music and think it's ok."

Lynch’s role in Tuff Love’s development shouldn’t be understated. You probably know him best as Scottish electro-folk hero The Pictish Trail but he’s been Tuff Love’s biggest champion from the outset, to the extent that they probably wouldn’t be at the same level without him. “Johnny’s played a big role in getting people to pay attention to the band,” Julie says of his influence. “There are so many gigs we’ve played that we wouldn’t have been able to if it wasn’t for him.” Suse is similarly enthusiastic about his input: “I think we’re pretty self motivated, and once things started to kick off we wanted to take advantage of it all, but there are some things we just could never do ourselves,” she admits. “I think if we'd never met him he would still be making stuff, but he's really helped push us forward. Lost Map as a whole has been incredible.”

Left to their own devices, there would probably only be the music; they’ve only ever spoken sporadically about their own reflections, choosing instead to completely focus on the writing and the playing above anything and everything else. And it shows. Their development has been palpable and substantial; an almost effortless blossoming of their craft in the 18 months since their arrival. Resort will show this best, a snapshot of everything they’ve released thus far, from the bedroom demos that got them signed to the latest creations that feel all the more weightier and significant.

Finding focus

“Sometimes I wake up and think I can never make anything ever again,“ Suse says of their craft now, “and then the next day I wake up and I write a song or bunch of riffs and I’m on a creative roll for a week. I think confidence and productivity comes in waves. I’ve felt simultaneously more and less confident with each release. I think if we've developed it's from experience – as confidence is a hard thing to measure when you don't have much time to reflect.” Julie is suitably straight shooting in her view. “I don’t know if I feel like a better songwriter now,” she says, “but I feel more confident in writing and finishing songs, and maybe I have a stronger sense of direction than I did in the past. The lyrics are important to me. It’s important for me to get them right, which I haven’t always felt like I’ve managed. It’s as difficult as it ever was, but maybe I’m more decisive now.“

As with all bands at this stage of their career it’s the development which is perhaps the most important aspect – and in that regard Tuff Love are positively prospering. Latest EP Dregs is a magnificent collection of songs, showcasing more shades and textures than we’ve seen from the band before. Released on the week of their shows in Iceland, it received the most rave appraisals from fans and critics yet. While they were riding something of a wave going in to the shows in Reykjavik, the band will be the first to admit that things didn’t quite go to plan; festivals are always a tricky beast for bands; little time, new surroundings, casual crowds and comfort zones well and truly dispensed with.

“That was a hard one,” Suse is quick to confirm. “There were sound problems on stage and perhaps pressure too; a whole load of things. It wasn’t our best show, but that’s OK. We’re humans not robots and although our live shows are pretty consistent now, circumstances still sometimes don’t work in our favour.” Julie had problems too: “Personally I felt like my ears were hallucinating throughout that show – it was very disorientating. It has stuck with me, and I try to learn from experiences like that.”

It was obviously a difficult experience for the duo in the aftermath, especially given the unique aspect of such an experience. “We were so, so excited to get to go there and play and I felt really disappointed afterwards, like I'd let people down,” admits Suse. “I find it hard to write these things off. I felt bad about it for a whole week after for various reasons. When you’re at the stage we’re at it’s good to make the most of every opportunity you get because you never know what it might lead to, and in my head that was a big opportunity." 

At home in Glasgow

Such is the rollercoaster ride of being in a band like Tuff Love, however, they didn’t have to wait long to get back on the horse. When we catch up with them a couple of weeks after the Iceland trip they’ve just closed the tour with a Glasgow show that felt like a truly celebratory homecoming. “Playing in Glasgow always feels good,” enthuses Julie. “It’s nice to be around friends and to feel supported. It was the launch show for the last of our EP trio so it did feel good, like closing a chapter.”

“We’ve not actually played in Glasgow that much this year,” Suse says of the show. “We’ve mostly been playing to new people in new cities so it was a noticeably different and positive vibe; I felt like people were actually excited to see us, which then made us more excited too. It made me feel good again.” 

It’s been a long year and a half for Tuff Love; heck, it’s been a long couple of weeks. Watching them play to a full, swaggering room at Glasgow’s Hug & Pint, it’s hard not to feel impressed with just how far they’ve come and also the sheer resilience needed to just be a band, to put yourself on show on so many nights, weeks, and months of the year to both strangers and friends. One expects that they might appreciate a rest some time soon? “We’ve said yes to just about everything that’s come our way this year, and we’re feeling quite tired.” Suse admits. “It would be nice to take a little Tuff Love thinking break for a bit, and come back excited again.”

It won’t be too long a break, however, with the band already lined up for a host of shows, most notably a batch of dates on the continent. So while precious time for writing and recording might be hard to come by, do they have any idea what they want from the resulting recordings? “I just want to write songs that people actually want to listen to,” remarks Suse, “not songs or singles that people hear on the radio which they forget about as soon as it ends. I want us to write songs that people sit and listen to at home from start to finish. If that means it takes us two years to write an album then that's cool actually.”

Resort is released on 29 Jan via Lost Map. Tuff Love play Nothing Ever Happens Here at Summerhall, Edinburgh on 22 Feb.