THE NORTH WIND DOTH BLOW
LANCASHIRE LADS AQUILO CREATE MESMERISING MELODIC POP SO CALMING IT SHOULD COME WITH A SAFETY WARNING. DISTILLING THE RAINY RURAL LANDSCAPES OF THE NORTH INTO THEIR DREAMY, MELANCHOLIC SONGS, THEY ARE GAINING A CULT FOLLOWING THAT’S IN DANGER OF GOING OVERGROUND. AS THEY BUILD UP TO THEIR DEBUT ALBUM, TOM AND BEN POP DOWN SOUTH TO TELL WYLDE ABOUT MUSIC, MOVIES AND MYTHOLOGICAL MUMS! INTERVIEW BY DAVID NEWTON
PORTRAITS BY SIMON LIPMAN
“It’s got to be as personal as fuck!”
Buzz-gathering duo Aquilo are telling me their plans for their forthcoming album; still being written, but due for release in early 2016. The boys, Tom Higham (above, right) and Ben Fletcher (left), have known each other since they were kids in their idyllic-sounding rural Lancashire village Silverdale (population 1.5K) and, after gigging their way around the pub circuit in their respective bands (bizarrely, thrash metal and grunge), something clicked and they joined forces to create the beautiful, melancholic “aural honey” (as their music has been described) that is causing such a stir.
Ben takes up the story: “We were literally playing gigs together, but it’s not cool to hang out with someone five years younger than you [Tom’s 24, Ben just turned 20], so it was a little bit awkward to talk! I just love songwriting and I really wanted to take it seriously, so I started writing my own acoustic music and put some songs up on SoundCloud. Tom heard them and messaged me, and was like, ‘Oh, I absolutely love these. Come over!’ Tom at that time knew how to produce and I didn’t know how to at all. We wrote some songs and it all happened quite organically. In Tom’s ‘studio’ that he had (basically a laptop, a microphone and a guitar) we didn’t have drum mikes or anything like that. We couldn’t make a big ‘band’ sound, so we literally found samples off the internet and did what we could, and it turned out to be slightly electronic.”
I tell the boys that what I love is the fact that electronica is used only sparingly, leaving the vocal harmonies, and especially piano, to come to the fore. “Yes, piano’s become a really big instrument for the two of us,” replies Ben, “and it’s quite exciting because we’ve spent the past eight or nine years smashing away at guitars!”
So who’s doing the singing on the tracks? “It’s a 50-50 thing,” Tom tells me. “On record a lot of the time it’s Ben doing all the harmonies and me doing the main top line.”
These harmonies are, to my ears, beautifully complex, so I wonder where they come from. Do the guys hear other stuff and think, “That sounds good: we’ll have that!”?
“No, you don’t really think about it; they just come naturally,” says Ben. “I guess it depends on what you listen to growing up. My mum used to listen to the Dixie Chicks all the time in the car and, I’m not joking, but the harmonies on their albums were absolutely incredible. And the songwriter Dan Wilson is amazing too. It’s as cheesy as fuck but it’s incredible songwriting, and the harmonies are mind-blowing.”
What stuff gets Tom’s ears excited? “I’m listening to a lot of D’Angelo at the moment, which is a little bit of a curveball. And I love the new Kendrick Lamar album. Active Child is a huge inspiration. And when we started writing music we loved Mount Kimbie’s production methods. We were like,: ‘Wow, how are they doing this?!’ And James Blake was a big influence.”
As a duo, do they have the same taste?
“Yes,” says Tom. “He’ll find a new band or I’ll find a new band. But I think it’s a personal thing, listening to an album. That’s why I want our album to be really personal; it’s got to be an experience. We’ve just been relentlessly writing and not doing that many shows. We want to get it all properly mixed and be really happy with it. I mean, this is our first album: it’s got to be perfect. Everything’s been leading up to this since we started music.”
So how do two band members writing separately, create an album that’s “as personal as fuck”? Surely that can only come from one person’s experience?
“Yeah, it does,” is Ben’s reply, “but bear in mind that Tom and I have just got a flat together in Manchester. I don’t think there’s been a day in the past two years when I haven’t been with Tom, unless I’ve been on holiday or something. So we know absolutely everything about each other! The beauty of it is I know Tom’s situations and Tom knows mine.”
“The lyrics could be about an ex-girlfriend, it could be about a love interest,” Tom adds, “We’ll feed each other ideas and lyrical content. It’s such a natural process you don’t think about it. It’s so easy and so natural!”
"You’re like twins!" I say. “Pretty much!” laughs Ben.
I then ask the boys, separately, to give me the one word that describes the other. What single word describes Ben in Tom’s mind?
[No hesitation] “Interesting. He has ideas that he brings to the table that no one else I know would think of, which is a really, really strong aspect of his personality.”
And what word describes Tom for you, Ben?
[After much umm-ing and ahhh-ing] “Serious? Yes, serious.”
Talking of words, where did the band’s name come from?
“My mum!” answers Tom.
“We had a lot of shit names… I mean really shit names suggested to us!” Ben tells me. “All our mums and dads and mates threw in suggestions, and Tom’s mum came up with Aquilo. We were like, ‘No, it’s shit!’ then after a week we were like, ‘Actually, that’s cool!’ It’s from Roman mythology and it’s the god of the North Wind. It was the only idea that had any relevance to us at all, so Tom’s mother gets credit for that!”
Is she quite into her classical mythology, I wonder?
“No, I don’t think so; just a lot of Googling went on!” says Ben.
“She’s always online and is our biggest fan!” Tom laughs. “She comes to all our gigs. When we were starting off she used to say, ‘What gear can I help you with? What gear do you really need?’ When I was at school I really struggled because I’m severely dyslexic. It was horrible, actually; I just didn’t ‘get’ it, like the other kids did. Eventually, I had the whole Statement [special educational needs assessment] thing and got a laptop through that, and that’s how I started doing music production. And Mum desperately wanted me to do this music.”
“Could she see you were becoming energised by it?” I ask.
“Yes, absolutely, and she really liked the music we were writing, because she wasn’t a fan of the thrash metal!”
I can imagine! Do the boys like playing live?
“Yes, there’s no feeling like it,” is Tom's reply, without hesitation. “I am terrified beforehand, I am stricken with nerves. But as soon as you’re into the flow of it, it becomes a lot better. But the initial walking on stage is fucking terrifying!”
Do they get fan mail?
“No fan mail yet! But what we find crazy, and I’ll never get used to it, is people coming up with vinyl records and pictures, wanting us to sign them. Even people in their 50s coming up with their vinyl… I don’t think we’ll ever get used to it!”
Aquilo’s music videos are beautifully evocative mini-movies that accompany and complement the yearning, melancholic (and very British, I feel) songs. The band do not appear in them (as yet); instead, we’re treated to loose story lines involving thwarted young love set in the semi-rural landscapes from which Tom and Ben have emerged. How important are these visuals?
“I think they’re massively important and I think they're becoming more and more so,” Tom tells me. “The story lines are crucial. Maybe further down the line we’ll appear in them, but I just don’t know if it’d work.”
Talking of movies… which ones do the boys like?
Tom [immediately]: “My favourite movie is Interstellar. The music by Hans Zimmer in that film is unbelievable, inspiring, actually. I remember watching the film and then going straight onto my computer to check it out. It’s really subtle, and the whole storyline… I could watch it over and over.”
“It’s fuckin’ sick!” gushes Ben. “Mind-blowing. We watched it together. I really like Into the Wild [Sean Penn’s road-trip movie from 2007]… but my all-time favourite is Billy Elliot!”
“And I loved the first Iron Man movie,” adds Tom. “I like my blockbusters! I’m not cool, I’m not a hipster!”
On that note, I tentatively ask what they think about being dressed up for our upcoming photo-shoot (they’ve never been “styled” before).
“We’ll see… we’re both pretty easy,” Ben decides. “If there’s something we don’t like, we’ll probably say so! I quite like the clothes, actually.”
“I love it!” replies Tom. “This is cool, it’s really fun!”
They may not be hipsters (thank God!) but these cheerful, thoughtful creators of sonic heaven are, to speak the lingo, Cool as Fuck!
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIMON LIPMAN
STYLING BY CHRIS PRESTON
GROOMING BY REBEKAH LIDSTONE @ STELLA CREATIVE
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT: PHIL HEWITT
PRODUCTION: BLOOD & CO
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