❉ The cult indie band’s frontman talks to We Are Cult about the new album and what 2017 may hold for the Blue Aeroplanes.
I’ve been following the trajectory of the Blue Aeroplanes for nigh on thirty years, and so I was honoured to have the opportunity to talk to Aeroplanes frontman Gerard Langley before the band’s traditional Christmas gig at the Fleece (which they own) on Friday 16 December. An instantly recognisable figure, in his ray-bans, black garb and tousled black hair, Gerard looks every inch the rock’n’roll beat poet that he is. A man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and vast experience in the music business, Gerard is Head of Songwriting and Music Business Tutor at the Bristol branch of the British and Irish Modern Music Institute. Gerard lives in the same part of Bristol as me, so I have encountered him quite a few times in shops or out and around the area (he once walked past my kitchen window as I was doing the washing-up), and conversed with him before and after gigs, but this is the first time I have actually formally interviewed him. As my experience of interviewing rock stars is zero (I drunkenly interviewed indie band The Wood Children at Wolves Poly in 1988), I was quite nervous, but I shouldn’t have been, as Gerard is an affable dude, clearly proud of his band, and excited about the new album and what 2017 may hold for the Blue Aeroplanes.
We talked in the attic-like dressing room in the Fleece whilst other band members such as Chris Sharp (bass), Bec Jevons and Mike Youe (guitars) came and went. I made a lame joke about Christmas not being Christmas without a Blue Aeroplanes gig. ‘Not in Bristol, anyway!’ said Gerard. I started the interview proper by drawing a comparison between the Blue Aeroplanes and The Fall.
NW: It strikes me that the Blue Aeroplanes are a lot like The Fall – both bands have been around for a long time and seen many line-up changes. However, the current line up of both bands is quite stable; with the Fall it’s ten years, with the Aeroplanes, it’s..?
GL: Four and a half years. The main difference between the Aeroplanes and The Fall is that we’ve had a lot of members, but they tend to be line-ups that stick around for a bit, make a couple of albums, then it all changes. It’s not people constantly drifting. But we haven’t had a stable line-up really since, probably, Swagger/Beatsongs [1990-91]. People stick around for a long time but they never overlap a record, so I was always putting out a record with one line-up and touring it with another. So this is the first time really since the early albums that we’ve had a line-up that’s written the stuff, recorded it, and is now playing it live. The other difference is, of course, I get on with former band members!
NW: I know you see yourself as a national band first, and international band second, but you are synonymous with the Bristol music scene, you own the Fleece, and Bristol often turns up in your songs. Does it bother you that when articles appear about the Bristol music scene, you are seldom mentioned?
GL: Well, Bristol decided it was gonna go trip-hop and not guitar bands! We can’t do anything about it. Apparently we’re included in RyanAir’s guide to Bristol, alongside Bananarama!
NW: The new album is extremely poppy and accessible, in direct contrast to ‘Anti-Gravity’ [the band’s previous album, released in 2011] Was this deliberate?
GL: To an extent, yeah. ‘Anti-Gravity’ was done a lot around jams with various different musicians, but ‘Welcome, Stranger!’ was fairly stable. It was basically, initially, me and Bec and Mike, working on loads of material on stage at the Fleece. And the material we came up with was so immediate and really strong. It’s a long time since Anti-Gravity, so I had a lot of words, and I was picking up all the best ideas from those to make it quite hooky and strong. And then we thought, well, we’ve got all these really good songs now, so we’d better record them properly. So we actually went into a really good studio with a really good engineer, and thought, right, we’re going to record this to a major label standard, just a lot quicker.
NW: The production is absolutely beautiful, very sharp and clean, it really brings the songs to life.
GL: But it’s still basically the all band playing live – two or three takes, max.
NW: There’s a very sixties, psychedelic sound to the album.
GL: Sixties but punkier.
MY [Mike Youe, Aeroplanes guitarist]: It was recorded at Vale [Worcestershire recording studio situated in a Georgian manor house renowned for its retro equipment] using a vintage Neve console, and ‘classic’ microphones, so that might contribute to it.
NW: The production on ‘Swagger’, your most acclaimed album, in comparison, at least to these ears, sounds awfully flat and uninspired. It seems to smother the songs.
GL: To be honest this is one of the first albums we’ve ever done, apart from ‘Bop Art’ [the band’s first album released in 1984], where I actually really like the production. I always thought the production on our albums sounded a bit tame – it should have sounded louder, on things like Swagger.
NW: I like the cover, it somehow reflects the playful mood of the album.
GL: Yeah – I was trying to get people to do artwork based on retro-friendly aliens and rockets, but it nothing seemed to work so I just bought a rocket myself!
NW: The guitar riffs in Sweet Like Chocolate, and in other places on the album sound remarkably like the distinctive style of Angelo Bruschini [former Aeroplanes member and legendary guitarist who featured on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album]. Was this a deliberate attempt to sound like the ‘planes of old or was it… how can I put this… alchemy?
GL: Well whilst we were jamming, I played Bec [Bec Jevons, Aeroplanes guitarist] some early Aeroplanes…
BJ: And I said, Wow, this is just like the stuff my band is doing! I’d not really properly listened to the Aeroplanes before, but it just came out that way, kind of semi-accidentally.
GL: With Mike [Youe, Aeroplanes guitarist], there’s a mutual influence, in the shape of Richard Thompson, who played modally. So did Angelo, and so does Mike – so they’re going to sound similar because they’re coming from the same place.
NW: Is the album, and the upcoming tour, a conscious decision to try to get new fans on board? To ‘welcome strangers’, as it were?
GL: Let’s put it this way. This Christmas gig used to do all right, but never used to sell out. Three years ago, it sold out on a walk-up, so on the night. Last year, it sold out a few days in advance. This year, it sold out six weeks in advance. So, there’s a curve, and if I can get that curve into other cities and promoters go with it… Because normally, if a band who’s been going a quite a long time like us, like Theatre of Hate, draw 250, then that’s their audience – 250 people. But we’re actually growing an audience here, and in London, places where we play regularly, we’re building an audience as if the Blue Aeroplanes was a new band. We’ve got a promoter on board with that, and if we can get the venues on board with that, and give it a go, like a new band, say right we’ll play 150 in Liverpool then 300 next time, we’ll see where it goes. At the moment we’re literally just writing the songs.
NW: After the forthcoming tour, are you planning further dates later in the year?
GL: One of the reasons for this tour in January, apart from that’s when the album’s coming out is, I don’t know if I can manage it, but I want to have a go, is to get two albums out in a year. I can’t guarantee it, because the quality’s got to be there, but if I can, I’ll get another out in October/November.
❉ The Blue Aeroplanes’ new album ‘Welcome, Stranger! is released on 6 January 2017.
❉ The Blue Aeroplanes will be touring the UK in January 2017. Full tour dates here!