With a pair of freshly minted singles slated for same-day release in the spring, a four-track E.P. to follow in the summer and a specially commissioned video for stand-out track “River” casting the band in a new and intriguing light, Kevin McGrath checked in with Silent Forum’s Richard Wiggins (vocals), Oli Richards (bass, vocals), Dario Ordi (guitar), Aaron Wood (guitar) and Elliot Samphier (drums), at the Cardiff Arches rehearsal rooms to discuss Siberian radio, David Gedge, and the group’s fast-growing reputation for visceral live performance which should make 2017 a break-out year for these intense exponents of Indie-noir.
Back in the mid-nineties BBC2 ran a fascinating series called Rock Family Trees, which charted the evolution of some of the leading bands of the day, revealing the odd skeleton in the musical closet along the way. Which member of Silent Forum has the most to fear from a close inspection of their musical C.V?
RW: Most members of the band used to be in fun indie rock group How I Faked The Moon Landing which performed songs with names like “Why I Hate Mr Brookes” and “Let’s Get Depressed”. We recorded a single “The Small” on Jealous Lovers Club but by the time it was released in the spring of 2015 we had already realised that it was impossible for it to go on much longer.
Had you simply outgrown the music that you were making?
RW: Partly. Everything was a great idea when we started our first band – anyone could play anything in any style for a couple of hours and then we’d call it a song. There was an admirable lack of focus that made us incredibly malleable. We made a four track demo comprised of a funk song, two indie tracks then a trippy spacey synth track – the lyric to which was about me wishing we were a better band.
How difficult has it been for Silent Forum to get a foothold in the music business – to find live venues, to secure airplay and to get a record deal?
AW: It’s a funny old world to try and navigate – some of our very first gigs were in Clwb Ifor Bach which we probably didn’t appreciate (or even fully deserve) at the time; it took us a little while to get back playing there. There’s definitely an element of earning your stripes in getting venues and promoters to recognise your name amongst the myriad other bands out there.
RW: Oddly, we are currently on the rotation playlist for Siberian radio station ‘Radio Why Not’ – they seem to be a countercultural liberal platform which shares a bizarre variety of music. You might hear The Beach Boys, followed by Bonobo, followed by a man talking passionately in Russian, followed by us. We are also regularly supported by Stephen Rowe from Dragon Radio who had us play one of his excellent gigs in January.
To what extent is song-writing within the group a collaborative process?
DO: That first spark of a song is usually obvious as soon as played. From then on drawing out the song from the idea can take anything from a couple of hours to a couple of months. Most bands don’t have a drummer who is integral to songwriting, but Elliot structures all of our songs – they would be a complete mess without him.
Does that give you an absolute veto over each song?
ES: Usually to drop what we’re writing, two or three of us have to be sure that the idea is not going anywhere, and that tends to happen quite early on in the process.
To what degree should we regard these songs as works of fact or fiction?
RW: It depends. Songs like “Limbo” or “Nameless” are written about specific situations, not necessarily about me. I try to keep these lyrics as truthful as possible otherwise they start to lack narrative sense. We have two new songs with plenty of fiction worked into them. “Humility” and “Hosanna” were written to sit side by side and take a character on a twelve minute journey from a horrific break up into a state of grace. You wouldn’t want every song to be this high concept, but it helped create something completely different to the rest of our set.
Is it the case that the music is worked out first and that the lyrics are written to order?
RW: If I ever write lyrics in advance of a song I will generally cut them down or select particular words before running with them. I don’t do this often but it’s a great way to get beyond the ‘blank paper’ stage and can be cathartic if there is something you particularly want to sit down and write about. Usually though I come up with lyrics and vocals as the rest of the song is being written, although this is more difficult the results tend to mesh better. I then go back later and rewrite all the parts which I hate, which could be 80% of it.
There’s an interesting line in “The Small” ‘We must be sincere or nothing at all’. Would that serve as a mission statement for Silent Forum?
RW: I’d like to think we create and present music sincerely. When we play live we do not ask audiences to come closer to the stage, we will play the room as it is given to us. We would never tell people to dance, clap their hands in time to the beat or join us in a call and response. We would never introduce each member of the band individually on stage. I think there are plenty self-serving and insincere techniques of engaging an audience by taking the focus off of the music – which we try and avoid.
Reviews of the band, and I include my own, here, have focused on the connection between Silent Forum and those deified pallbearers of punk, Joy Division. Is that a blessing, a curse or a classic example of lazy journalism?
RW: If you sing with a low, formal, sullen voice then you are going to get comparisons to Joy Division. However, for us, and bands like The Sound / The Horrors / Interpol, the comparison only goes so far; particularly if you look at our structuring and instrumentation.
OR: Whilst I don’t think we sound particularly like Joy Division we have each separately been inspired by them at different points in our lives. I was obsessed with them at sixteen, a useful obsession to work through as a teenager. I would be inclined to say that lazy journalism sees this inspiration as the be all and end all of a band, suggesting that if we are influenced by Joy Division then we are somehow only influenced by one seminal post-punk band and therefore obsolete or naive.
How would you define the band’s sound?
RW: We sound exactly like Joy Division.
ES: Our lack of a classic rhythm guitar and the use of two guitar lines that could really stand out on their own as lead lines often give our sound a lot of drive and energy. I think we try to balance elements that could run the risk of sounding chaotic with a really coherent emotion to tie them together.
Which other bands or artists have particularly inspired you?
AW: I have always appreciated bands where the guitar’s more narcissistic tendencies are curbed in favour of its atmospheric and textural qualities; anything from Slowdive and The Maccabees to more modern fare – Amber Arcades and Pumarosa are two current acts nailing this sound incredibly well.
RW: I think each member is drawing from different sources. Personally, David Gedge from The Wedding Present is a massive influence on me. Whilst I don’t share his Mancunian accent – his style of singing with an open and vulnerable voice definitely seeped into what I do. I haven’t mastered the restraint and control he carries with his vocals though.
Do you draw on any other art forms for inspiration?
OR: Not as such, but it was incredibly gratifying to have Elaine Preece Stanley, the Liverpool based artist, paint a companion piece to our track Nameless last year as part of the Llawn program.
DO: Australian filmmaker Jaydon Martin also created a music video for our track River. Seeing him turn our song into this entirely new, impressive piece was incredibly rewarding. Having someone outside of the band directly responding to a song we’ve written gives it a really refreshing quality and brings in another dynamic point of view.
When I saw you play live for the first time, at last year’s Sŵn Festival, I was surprised by the intensity of the band and, particularly, by your singular performance in the role of front-man. You’ve released a few 30 second clips of the band, via social media, though nothing that fully reveals the impassioned nature of the Silent Forum experience. Has that been a conscious strategy, so as not to minimise the impact of seeing the band live for the first time?
RW: I don’t like clips of myself at my most “into it” on stage – especially outside of the context of the gig and the energy in the room. It’s not been a deliberate strategy though – usually the audio quality suffers in live footage when it gets to the loudest and most energetic points.
Given the dramatic intensity of your onstage persona, I half-expected you to be meditating, or even medicating, in a darkened room before the show, while, in fact, you were holding a bit of a meet and greet, warmly embracing each of your friends as they arrived for the gig. Do you just flick a switch when you step on stage?
RW: Obviously I perform with more intensity on stage than I would in the practice room – but not considerably more. I think it’s pretty common for people to find music to have an affecting quality to it – when you’re on stage you don’t have to bottle that up. I also think that you cannot accurately convey an emotive or intense song without looking emotional or intense. Directing this energy outwards stops me from selling the songs short and feels natural.
How much of your performance is “scripted” and how much of it is intuitive and of the moment?
OR: We have a vision of the kind of band we like and would like to be but there is no ‘scripting’ as such. I think the intensity Richard manages to capture can be controlled to a certain extent and utilised at specific chosen moments, but not in a disingenuous way.
RW: The energy we have in the room when we are writing will sometimes necessitate a certain kind of performance. As we were writing “Trust” I decided to wail some of the words instead of singing them. When performing this it would be counterintuitive to try and disguise the fact I am wailing – it would actually take me out of the moment.
Do you accept that a part of your audience might find the melodramatic manner of your performance somewhat unnerving, given that it takes place within the framework of a conventional rock group?
OR: A lot of the gigs I go to are emotionally very heavy, this is probably my main use for music, to explore and express feelings I might otherwise leave at the back of my mind – I can see why people with a different use of live music would find this element of our band inapt but for me it is at the core of what we offer people like myself.
At the Moon Club in January, you wryly introduced a couple of songs as “fun singles”. Were those simply offhand remarks, or subconsciously revealing of a potential conflict between the kind of band that you are and the band you truly might like to be?
OR: Having been a fun band for a while we feel confident that we can write more conventional and enjoyable songs. I feel a desire to achieve this whilst also playing something absolutely grinding and intense so for me this is all part of a journey. The two non-EP singles, “Trust” and “Limbo”, certainly tread or blur the line between more conventional rock music and the melancholic, melodramatic place a lot of our music naturally springs from.
There’s a manifestly tactile element to your onstage camaraderie (there’s a lot of ruffling of each other’s hair and the occasional pre-gig group hug, for example) that certainly positions you at the touchy-feely end of the post-punk spectrum! Is that evidence of a close bond between band members’ that extends well beyond the boundary of the stage?
RW: None of us have ever argued, we are completely supportive of each other and we do hug. When we listen to and play music together it heightens our emotions and I think this has meant that we have naturally become pretty close over time. You referenced “meditation or medication” earlier, I think this is what other people have to do to get into the kind of states we feel naturally when we play music with our best mates.
You’ve just recorded a follow-up to your debut E.P, Brief Collapses. Talk us through what we can expect from the new record?
OR: The sad bits are sadder, the heavy bits are heavier and there are more hooks and more choruses. Richard moves from aggressive to sassy to demanding to needy and eventually to a place of solace over 4 quite different songs. If Brief Collapses was us in black and white the new EP feels colourful.
DO: We’ve really honed in on a particular sound that represents us as a band on this record, and I feel this comes across in the cohesiveness of the songs as a body of work. This refinement is very much a process of us simply having had more time to explore how we all fit together.
What’s the game plan for Silent Forum in 2017?
RW: We are making a concerted effort to gig more and in more places this year. We have just been offered an incredible slot at Blissfields Festival, where bands like Metronomy and Pumarosa are playing. As well as our planned singles, we are hopeful that “When I See You Shake”, which will be on the new EP, will have a good chance of being played on 6 Music.