Q&A: Telegram

The 5th of May was Ascension Day, it felt like the first day of summer and everyone had BBQ at the park. Except us – we were sitting in a bar next to the train tracks of the U1 interviewing Matt Saunders, the singer of UK newcomers Telegram. Later that evening the London based fourpiece would have their second German gig ever after the Munich debut the night before. Despite of the weather there was a decent amount of people who didn’t want to miss this historic event.

Telegram just released their debut album Operator in February featuring their hit single Follow amongst other rough, catchy, punkish songs. With this record they fulfilled the high expectations the debut single had set. Live on stage it wasn’t hard for them at all to recreate the unpolished sound of the record and they played a tight and fast paced set.

During our talk with Matt we got a glimpse of the creative process behind both their music and the accompanying art and visuals.

You just released your first album Operator. We noticed that it sounds almost like a live recording, very raw and unpolished. How did this decision come about to record it that way?

We recorded it on a boat down Docklands, which has a studio inside of its hull. Rory Atwell, our producer, has a quite “live” style anyway. Being a live band, we kind of wanted that energy on the album. It would have felt strange to people who have seen us play before to have a polished album, that wouldn’t feel right. When you release your first record, you’re still at a stage where you need to get people to come to your shows and check you out, so I think it should be a sample of what you’re like as a live band.

Were you consciously trying to find a middle ground between having a lot of rawness and noise on the one hand and quite catchy, accessible melodies and guitar parts on the other hand?

Yeah, you’ve got to be careful and find the right balance. When we write songs we start with an initial structure that is based on a simple melody and then we add noise and effects… I think if you start the other way around it’s not really working.
I love a lot of good pop as long as it’s real and you can believe the person that it’s coming from. As a band you are constantly told that you need to have one or two songs which will get you on the radio, which is the only way that you will get booked for festivals as well. You have to think on a different level about what you’re doing. We are trying not to let it get to us but it’s still how things work.

What are your thoughts on how the second album is going to sound like? Anything about the debut album that you want to depart from?

The first record is fast, it has a lot of pace in it. A lot of the new songs we are writing at the moment have that as well, but we don’t want to make a complete follow-up to the first record. We want it to be quite different, to be a little groovier in its tempo.

There is definitely a big consistency between your sound and your visuals. We noticed that all your music videos have the same intro for example. What’s the concept behind it?

I’ve got a VHS camera that we shot the first video for Follow on and I had a clear idea in my head how I wanted it to look. I used to work at a location for photography and film, which had two rooms with wooden panels on the walls. One was cream white and the next one was black, so we would do the same set up and click from one room to the other.
The credits in front were also made with that VHS camera. It has a controller where you can type in the credits and they come up on the TV screen, then you have to make sure that everything in the room is dark to film the TV screen. The problem is, if the thing breaks… (laughs) So I’m trying to copy all the letters so if it did happen we could just cherrypick letters digitally and pop them in … though it’s cheating a bit.

SONY DSC
Matt Saunders ©Nora Lee
Speaking of technology – you named your band Telegram and your album is called Operator. Is there a background to it, such as a retro technology theme?

Yeah, I think this aesthetic has a sort of dystopian, sci-fi theme – things like Kurt Vonnegut and J.G. Ballard, that imagery is quite attractive to me. The name “Telegram” came about four years ago, when I was looking at a newspaper which had a list of releases for record store day. I was just circling words that would be good for a band name, and there was a re-release of Telegram Sam by T-Rex. When that word came up it just felt good, satisfying in a way.
Operator was going to be called Telegram originally, which was lazy. We would always talk about calling it like a constellation or some other spacy thing… The name Operator came about because I was working on the artwork at the time and using a telephone as the basic back of the record as a theme – a telegram is being sent via a telephonic machine that you would press certain numbers on. This was maybe a day before we had to decide the title. As I was going through images of buttons on the telephone, one of them just sat staring at me, it said “Operator” and I thought “Ah, that’s perfect!” That sums up a lot of things that we’re about.

So you also did the artwork yourself?

Yeah, I went to art college for like four years and art is still a hobby of mine. I’ve also got a little studio space. For me the idea of somebody else doing the artwork is like getting another person to buy a birthday present for your girlfriend or boyfriend, giving them a couple of ideas what they’re into and then they go off and buy something for them. But if you find somebody to collaborate with that you can really trust then that’s worthwhile and I’m totally up for that. I mean there’s limits and boundaries and at some point I’ll have to get help, maybe.

Let’s talk about the lyrics a little. Do you focus on telling a story or is it more abstract…?

I imagine a lot of the lyrics are rather sentiments, as opposed to stories, in the same way that you might feel angry or upset or interested or bored or in love or whatever it is you’re feeling, and of course there is a story about it, and then I abstractly write about it.
There are so many lyrics that are just a repetition of the same themes and lines, about love or missing someone or this or that… It’s just not very original, so I try to be more abstract to make it interesting. I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohen for example. He’s really good at creating lines of abstraction, and then there is one line that is really straightforward and very simple which ties it all together and gives it a meaning, before it goes back to strangeness again.

Do you put personal experience into your lyrics as well?

Definitely. There will be one line that’s very specific to something from experience, and the next will be more of a general feeling about time, or space … it’s quite mixed up.

We read that you crowdfunded your album. Is that something you would do again?

I mean, it was really hard work but at the same time – it worked. We had a record deal with Sony but after nine months of nothing happening, it fizzled out, and then we went that way instead. Initially I was a bit skeptical, I didn’t like the idea of crowdfunding. To me traditionally, growing up, that’s not how a band puts a record out. But actually I think the simple method of a fan buying a record upfront – paying for the record before it’s been made – is a really clever way to do it, because you’re not asking for anything more than the cost of the record you would pay for anyway, it’s just reversing the order in which it happens. And if we did it with a label they would take 80% and we would have 20%, of control over things as well. All of that nonsense disappears. I would recommend it, and we would do it again.

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