Nothing But Thieves is a rock band that started out with 5 guys in Essex back in 2012. With Connor Mason (lead vocals and guitar), Joe Langridge-Brown (guitar), Dom Craik (guitar and keyboard), Phil Blake (bass guitar) and James Price (drums), over the years, they’ve gotten quite a following in Europe and around the world, even in their earlier days. When their self-titled debut dropped in 2015, they got even more worldwide exposure and have quite a few accomplishments under their belts now.
In September, the band released its sophomore album Broken Machine, which was in big part written while the band was touring in 2016 and then recorded in less than two months. The album is a true mix of sounds; from heavier and more aggressive tracks like “Amsterdam” to more mellow songs like “Sorry” and “Soda”.
After spending just 20 minutes with the band when they played the Belmont last week in Montreal, I can say these guys have a special bond, even though they joked about now finally being acquainted after hating each other at the beginning. They were constantly making each other laugh and teasing each other, whether it was about Joe’s hair evolution or Dom being the designated table watcher when the other guys smoke. I felt like I got a real glimpse into the band as we spoke about their beginnings, Broken Machine and more.
Into the Airwaves: You guys debuted back in 2015, what has changed the most since then?
Dom: We now know what we’re doing a bit more. Not fully at all but I think just a band, what happens when you tour is you get tighter as musicians, don’t you? And same with the writing, I think we got better as writers.
Connor: As a band, we’ve gotten a lot tighter. We toured a lot, our song writing has gotten better.
Into the Airwaves: And do you miss anything from being a small independent band?
Phil: We’re actually in a good position where today’s gig in Montreal, we’re on the other side of the world and we can come back and play small venues again. We don’t get to play these venues that often in the UK. It’s cool to come back and do this sort of thing. But then we can go home and play to 5000 people.
Dom: It keeps it all refreshing and exciting to be able to go back to one and the other. I think if we were to just play the same sized place everywhere, it would be a bit boring.
Into the Airwaves: What is your most memorable moment of being in the band so far?
Phil: I remember we had a run of shows in Spain and Poland. Me, Dom and our tour manager Sweeny all had a [flotilla] and we all got salmonella. I definitely won’t forget that. Dom was throwing up on stage while playing.
Dom: Yeah that was a bit rough. I don’t know if that was the sort of memorable thing you were looking for.
Joe: It was memorable for me because when Dom went off, the sheer panic set in: “How the hell do I play these songs without him?” Also, Phil was on a drip 10 minutes before going on stage.
Dom: He had three one-litre bags.
Phil: I was asking the paramedics in Poland if we could stop this. And the guy grabbed the bag and was pushing it. My arm inflated.
Dom: And then he started shivering because this stuff was ice cold. But he did alright that time. I don’t know how!
Into the Airwaves: Your album Broken Machine dropped last month; what is the meaning behind the title?
Joe: It just seemed to sum up all that we were talking about. It’s about religion, politics, mental health and systems that people generally perceive to be automatic as to how things work when really they’re not. It’s just how we talk about all these subjects and it just seemed to sum up everything.
Into the Airwaves: And how did the album art come along?
Connor: We asked the artist who did the last album; Steve Stacey. He smashed the first album! So we had this idea of kintsugi that we brought to other artists and it just wasn’t good enough. So we brought it to Steve because he was so good for our first album and he nailed it. The idea of kintsugi, this Japanese art form, is that when they break something, they put it back together with gold and it’s supposed to look more beautiful than how it started out. It’s kind of a metaphor for our album.
Joe: It’s kind of a positive spin on Broken Machine.
Into the Airwaves: And is there a meaning behind both covers? One being white and the other black?
Connor: We couldn’t choose!
Dom: It’s really because we were indecisive. They both looked amazing and we wanted them both to see the light of day so we were lucky to have the option for the standard and the deluxe version.
Into the Airwaves: Which track represents the album best, sonically?
Joe: For me, the first track “I Was Just a Kid”. It has a lot of moments. It’s quite a journey, that song with different moods and phases. There are some very hard aggressive moments and it’s the most aggressive thing that we’ve done probably. And then there are these quiet tender moments.
Into the Airwaves: Which track took the most work?
Dom: We hadn’t written “Particles” when we got into the shoot.
Joe: Just had had the chorus.
Dom: Yeah so Mike Crossey, the producer, set up a room upstairs for us to finish it up. I think in the back of our minds, we thought this might take a few days but we managed to nail the verse pretty quickly.
Connor: We were lucky with that. I think if we were to go back and do that again, we wouldn’t be able to do it.
Dom: And on top of the song structure not being figured out, the actual sound of the demo wasn’t where we wanted it to be so there was a sonic thing that needed work. So that song was a bit of a challenge but it could’ve been much harder.
Into the Airwaves: Which song do you like to play live the most?
James: My top pick for playing live would be “Particles”.
Phil: There is a nice moment where in a middle eight, Connor is doing this wailing thing and me and Price scream the lyrics at each other.
James: We’re always singing along.
Phil: I really enjoy playing “Amsterdam”, because it’s rock. It’s also the last one of the set and I just can’t wait to have another beer.
Joe: Playing “Amsterdam”, wherever we play, it doesn’t matter: everyone just goes bananas. And Phil gets to do his clap along bit too and it’s probably the best bit of the set.
Dom: My favourite song to play live is probably “Reset Me”.
Connor: We’ve not rehearsed that once.
Joe: We’ve not played it once.
Dom: But it will be!
Connor: Mine is “Soda” just because it’s easy and it’s a break in the set for me where I can go off to my thoughts and come back to the world.
Joe: At the moment, we have a song called “Hostage” and before that, it’s this sort of jam bit and I get to live my Pink Floyd dreams.
Dom: I keep trying to play chords that forgo off his solo.
Connor: I’ve noticed that! I saw you did some horrible chords.
Into the Airwaves: Now, if we go back to your first record, what is one valuable lesson that you brought over to the recording of Broken Machine?
Dom: I think that it was fine what we did with the first one but I think we learned that we can record in a quick timescale. The first one was done over the course of a year, whereas this one, we had 6-7 weeks and we knew we had a deadline. I think that pressure was a positive spin on our workflow, rather than it being a feeling of panic.
Into the Airwaves: And when you guys go in to record, I know some bands write the album out as a storyline laid out from the first track to the last track; is that something that is on your mind?
Joe: We kind of knew what we wanted to start and end on during the recording process. Even the end track “Afterlife”, that whole long extended outro was decided to be the end of the album.
Dom: That wasn’t even on the demo but when we decided that was going to be the final song, we wanted to make it like a closing end credit sort of thing.
Connor: When it came to recording, I think there were about 10-15% of the album that was still yet to be written which we left for that studio juice. So we knew what we had to record first. Some songs were obvious and of course Price always starts everything with his drums. He got done in about two weeks.
James: I believe it was 10 days.
Connor: The way Mike Crossey had the studio, he had two studios set up, a writing room and a jam room. So there was always work going on in the studio. We could work on one bit and do vocals in one room but do drums or guitar in another room. It was very good doing it that way. And we always had a tick sheet.
Joe: And that energy, how quick it was, was really integral I think. Something was always going on; something being written, drums being recorded…
Dom: There was no stagnation.
Into the Airwaves: You guys have been posting a lot of stripped down versions of the songs on YouTube. How do those versions usually come along?
Dom: I think for some songs, it’s self-explanatory. You take the most integral parts. For “Sorry” for example, you know it’s just going to need the guitar chords and Joe would do some ambient noodling; I think that is the technical term.
Joe: “Broken Machine”, we just took all the amps that we were playing and we turned them down and that was it.
Dom: And took the drum kit away from James and gave him a button.
James: Just press a button, it was great.
Dom: He’s pretending to do stuff but really…
Into the Airwaves: Now, I’m going to ask you to use your creativity and draw something that represents the band.
Dom: I’m just trying to think of what actually represents us.
Dom: We actually have meetings and we crunch numbers and this is normally what we look at.
Joe: Me and Dom are stats guys.
Right before I left, I asked them how they would describe the band in one word. What I got showed me the guys are pretty humble and, true to the entire interview, here is what they said, in the midst of inside jokes and laughter: trying, average, progressive, alright and lucky.