So let’s start from your musical background, both as listeners and as players. Where do Theatre Royal come from?
Robbie: “I grew up listening to the greatest hits of Elvis tape in my parent’s car, as well as a Beatles greatest hits tape. We also got Paul Simon’s 'Graceland' when that came out. I can remember being fascinated by the lyrics, reading them through as we listened to the songs. I wanted to learn guitar for years before I actually did, as my dad had an old acoustic (made in Italy by EKO would you believe!) hidden in his wardrobe, which I used to literally fool around on. I didn’t start learning properly until I was eleven and had started at secondary school.” Oliver: “My early musical tastes all came from my parents, listening to The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon or The Waterboys in the car on summer holidays. As a teenager I started developing my own tastes. We all grew up with Britpop and Nirvana, that time was very important in helping shape our musical tastes, it was an exciting time to be young and listening to guitar music, it was everywhere. From there I suppose we all explored lots of different influences, going back through the decades, finding albums and sharing them with each other.”
Can you walk us through the members of your band, how you met and so on?
Oliver: “Robbie, Jon and I all met at school, we all liked music, went to the same places and were in various bands together over the years.”
Robbie: “We met Brendan later on. Thanks goodness we did. He is by far the best musician I have ever had the good fortune to play with. We had been in bands for years, but I was never happy with the overall sound. When Brendan joined and we formed Theatre Royal, it just clicked straight away, and it seems to have improved ever since…”
I agree with some of the reviews that you have been improving your sound, arrangements and songwriting record after record. Do you also feel that way?
Robbie: “Yes I do, although every time we finish an album I think to myself “well we are never going to make a better record than that”. I guess that’s what spurs us on to work harder on our songs, the drive to constantly improve, even when you think there is nowhere else to go. This same drive is in everything we do as a band I think. We try not to repeat ourselves and won’t be satisfied until the arrangements are as dynamic and interesting and as fresh as they possibly can be.”
Oliver “I think that we all feel that this is out most complete album from start to finish. We’re very proud of all three albums, but we are a better band now than when we started, we have all upped our contributions to the sound, the songs are stronger and I think there’s a quiet confidence to this record. I think that the introduction of 4-part harmonies has been very important for us, this is something that we’ve made an effort to develop.”
“We Don’t Know Where We Are” also has a slightly mellower sound than your previous records, without losing your shimmering touch on song dynamics and so on. Do you acknowledge this change? Is it just a personal thing or are also your musical tastes changing over time?
Oliver “I don’t think that there was a conscious attempt for a mellower sound, but we did make a point of focusing more on harmony lines and other instrumentation rather than just guitar, bass and drums. This may have had the knock on effect of giving the album a more textured and delicate sound in places. Saying that, the album opener ‘The Past Is Always Gone’ is probably one of our most intense recordings from the 3 albums. I wouldn’t say that our musical tastes change, but we are always introducing new records to each other and adding to our influences. For me personally The Grateful Dead ‘American Beauty’ and The Walkmen ‘Lisbon’ were reference points in the back of my mind whilst writing and recording this album. I started writing one of the songs ‘Ripple’ whilst watching a Ray Davies (The Kinks) documentary, his writing has been a big influence on me personally over the last few years and that song has some references to him as a man as well as the sound.’
Robbie “Yes, I guess it has. I’m not sure that it was 100% a conscious decision, but I definitely felt like I wanted us to free the songs of some of the extra clutter we added to the second album to give it a big sound – let them breath more and stand on their own a bit more. I’m not sure this reflects a change in my musical tastes however – I still pretty much like the same music I did when I was kid.”
I like the fact that you are able to sound profoundly British and, at the same time, like nothing has ever done there. Do you share the same feeling about your band?
Oliver: “That’s very nice of you to say, we have some very obvious influences and don’t claim to be the most experimental of groups, but we we have a distinct sound of our own. I don’t think that we could ever sound anything but British because we all sing with our regional accents. Even when we embrace country and Americana influences, we always sing in our own voices and write about our own lives. You won’t hear us writing about Route 66 or Sweet Louise as some British acts do, that embrace lots of American music in particular. That’s fine for them, but it means nothing to us.”
Robbie: “I am proud that we have always remained true to ourselves. We have never gone out of our way to follow any particular trend and we have never been ashamed to make the kind of music we wanted to, even though it has nearly always been desperately unfashionable compared to whatever the current “scene” is. This has led some to dismiss us as derivative, but I really don’t see that at all. We have ended up making worthy art by doing what we love. Other bands who are supposedly more original than us, lack the emotional depth we have. Even if we only remain a small band, at least we can be happy we were genuinely loved by our fans, and that we ourselves loved the music we produced.”
Your songs share musical vibrations from several decades, blending together summer pop from the sixties and seventies and the alternative flare of the eighties and the nineties. Which musical era do you really picture yourself in?
Robbie: “Good music is timeless. Making music now gives us the advantage of being able to take inspiration from more different artists and genres over larger spans of time.”
Oliver: “We all enjoy a whole range of music from throughout the decades, from early blues like Robert Johnson to newer records by people like Daniel Avery. Along the way there are key influences like The Beatles, Bowie or The Velvet Underground, but we don’t like to align or define ourselves by an era, we see ourselves as a band of our time, with hopefully timeless qualities. I really love 80’s bands like The Go-Betweens and The Chameleons, who maybe Robbie for example isn’t too aware of, but he’ll be enthusing about some old country or blues record at rehearsal and I will not have a clue who they are. Jon and Brendan will bring in different influences again, but we never try to copy or imitate, we just incorporate sounds as we feel is right for the song. The influences are all important, but they certainly do not define us.”
You stayed close to your idea of music and sound, throughout your three records. How do you feel with respect to your surrounding, ever-changing musical scene?
Robbie: “As I said before, I take absolutely no notice of whatever the current musical scene is supposed to be. I just want to make music that reflects my life as honestly as possible. I realise that potentially makes us very uncommercial and less likely to “succeed” in the music scene, but our music draws strength from its emotional truth, and that should be protected for as long as possible I believe.”
Oliver: “We all listen to new music to varying degrees, but it doesn’t inform our own music any more or less than a record from 50 years ago, good songs are good songs and that’s what matters to us. We have no interest in following trends and fashions. Success for us is writing and recording great songs.”
Which is the perfect pop song for you?
Robbie: “Wow! Difficult question. There are so many contenders. Procal Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” would be the one most evocative from my childhood, but I guess the one I am most obsessed by at the moment would have to be “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles, but then again that would be forgetting “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers and “Great Balls Of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and….”
Oliver: “I don’t think that you can go far wrong with “Help” by The Beatles, “Train In Vain” by The Clash or “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. They are all perfect from start to finish and deserve repeat listens. But then I was just listening to "Highway 61 Revisited" and is there a better song to listen to on repeat than ‘Like A Rolling Stone?”
Brendan: “Hmm, “Here Comes Your Man” by the Pixies and “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs. Thought I'd leave The Beatles out, would't wanna be too obvious!”
Jon: “David Bowie ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ for me. Bowie at his best. Great melody, great lyrics, with a twist of weirdness.”
You seem quite fond of radios and airplay – you recently released a “single edit” of one of the songs in “We Don’t Know Where We Are”. Is that a nostalgic fixation or you really think it still helps nowadays?
Oliver: “We’re releasing a new version of ‘What Was That Sound?’ because we had some new ideas for the song that really worked, I suppose those new ideas felt that they made the song sound more like a radio single, hence the release. Radio is important for us, we’re a band working on a tiny budget, and so along with blogs and magazines, it’s the best way for us to get our music to people all over the world. We all grew up listening to the radio, finding new music and listening out for our favourite songs, so to be on the radio and be played by DJ’s that we have grown up listening to is important, it’s a nice compliment if nothing else. Maybe there is an element of nostalgia to this, but I still find the idea of being played on the radio really exciting.”
Robbie: “I think that singles can definitely help introduce people to your sound and help keep current fans interested, but singles need to do something special to count. For example we have released a couple of singles that do not appear on any albums (one of them being a Christmas Record!), as well as ensuring our releases have a least one exclusive B-side or that they are part of a limited edition E.P.. This current single is exciting because it has a trumpet part on which was played live by our long term collaborator John Whittaker, but after we had finished the album. In fact it sounded so good we booked the studio as soon as we could so that other people could hear it…”
You also seem quite a DIY band, but the sound of your records has grown to the point of perfection. How can you do that?
Robbie: “Magic! A secret recipe but with a couple of key ingredients…1) We have had the good grace and fortune to work over many years with the fantastic Jim Riley at Ranscombe studios, who constantly reminds us of the importance of capturing the spirit of live performance to breathe life into our records (he runs an analogue studio in Rochester so there is no “cut and paste” to be had. If the take isn’t right then it has to be done again). 2) By working constantly over countless hours for many years to hone our playing, singing and song writing. I can honestly say that it took me fifteen years of being in rubbish bands before we finally begun to get good. I just hope that we have not yet reached our peak and that we can continue to improve for many more years (and records!) to come…”
Oliver: “We are a DIY band, we fund all our own records with money from gigs and record sales. There are no big record label budgets for studio time. This means we record very quickly compared to lots of bands. Our albums have all taken between 5 and 10 days to record, some bands will take 6 months in the studio to make an album. But we like the time constraint, for us taking 6 months to record an album is pointless. We go into the studio with very well thought out ideas and fully arranged tracks, we like to get a good take, with energy and feeling, which is more important to us than perfection. We do get help along the way, our friend and publisher Shaun has put this record out on his Vacilando 68 Recordings, it’s a very friendly arrangement, Shaun does a lot for us and gets very little back in return!”
Do you spend a lot of time in the studio, or are you more of a live band?
Robbie: “We don’t have a lot of money so we only go into the studio when we are confident that we can be very efficient and productive. To get to that stage requires a lot of rehearsal and hard work so would seem to suggest we are a live band. I think it’s more complex than that however. I think that if you come to see us live you will to experience the energy and passion we put into performing our songs, though they might not necessarily sound as they do on record. In fact I think we succeed where many other bands fail, in that we can produce a record that stands alone from our “live sound”. We don’t just try to play live onto tape and call it an album. We want to make a record that lives and breathes on its own.”
Oliver: “We spend more time writing and rehearsing than recording. As I say, we spend only short periods of time in the studio. But we love playing live and are maybe a different band live than on record. Live we are more intense, there’s an element of aggression, whilst still maintaining our pop sensibilities.”