Interview with Phil Stiles (Lead Vocals, Rhythm/Lead Guitars, Synths and Programming) and Richard Awdry (Rhythm/Lead Guitars,Backing Vocals, Programming)
The UK’s Final Coil create what you might consider a mixture of grunge, progressive and alternative rock music quite like a mixture of Tool, Alice In Chains and The Swans, as odd as that sounds. What’s more, is that it works and in ways that I would never have believed possible. I sat down with Phil Stiles and Richard Awdry as they talked about their beginnings, the new album and it’s forthcoming follow-up, as well as their love for all forms of media with a sense of weight and depth.
TGT: Great disc, gentlemen. It has the sort of Nu-Metal crunch that I remember from my teen years, mixed in a little with that Tool/APC/Chevelle vibe. How did this project come to be and how did you get to this point of your career? What sort of hard work was involved?
Phil: Thank you so much. It’s been a labour of love to get this album together, so we’re always pleased to hear when people dig it. And yes, it was hard work. I’d love to say it was easy, but (and to be honest, I would imagine this is true for most bands) it took a tremendous amount of effort to get to this stage. But, you know, work can be fun and we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t enjoy simply being in a band. To be quite truthful, I don’t think any of us imagined we would see our career develop in the way that it has, but sometimes hard work does pay off, and it’s been a great journey so far.
Looking back, the earliest iteration of Final Coil only featured me and Richard from the current line-up, and we just wanted to play, preferably loud and preferably heavy. I was influenced by the grunge scene – bands like Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Alice in Chains – so, that sense of melody was always there, but there was also that chaotic edge and it took a long time to kind of edge away from that to start working on songs with the sort of emotional core and sense of dynamic that would have some longevity. I don’t think it was a conscious process so much as growing up a little bit, but you can certainly hear the progression if you look back at our earliest recordings and compare them to the way we play now.
The first of two major turning points occurred when Jola joined (back in 2008), as she’s a fantastic musician and very open-minded when it comes to incorporating different elements into the mix. She really helped to open up the sound and she is also heavily involved with the visual identity of the band, which freed me up to concentrate on the musical side of things more. Then, in 2014, Chez joined as drummer. Before him, we’d had an almost Spinal Tap-esque succession of drummers, but no one seemed to fit. From the start, Chez was very open to working with different elements (including the synth parts we started to incorporate on the Closed To The Light EP) and he’s bought a lot of his own style and personality to the percussion. So, having those two join the band made a big difference to our sound, our presentation… pretty much everything.
So after Chez joined, we worked on Closed To The Light, and that was the first EP that really started to gain attention. We’d done Live Without Doubt before that, but Closed To The Light seemed to strike a chord with people and it somehow made its way to Wahoomi Corvi, our producer on the album. He felt that he could help find us a label, and that led to two years of A&R work with Carlo and WormHoleDeath.
Now, Carlo is brilliant – very thoughtful and capable (and he’s also a musician, so he knows how the process works) – but he’ll make you work hard because he only wants to put out the very best that he feels an artist can manage. So, between 2014-2016 I wrote eighteen songs and created full demos for them, and Richard added another two. From those, we developed about fifteen tracks further before making our final choice. It was an arduous process and Rich and I spent hours mixing the home demos, programming the drums, re-recording bits that didn’t quite work and so on. But, the thing is, I’m a complete geek when it comes to this stuff, so, although I’m happy to tell you that it was hard work, I don’t want you to think it wasn’t fun. I treasure every minute I get to spend creating with like-minded people, and we learned a lot from working on those demos.
Rich: I think we’ve come to this point through two directions. One being the well-worn path of playing many gigs, sometimes to very few people and learning (and not always learning) things along the way. The other has been spending many hours in home studios just seeing what we could do and how far we could take our sound. Since Chez joined the band and the Closed To The Light EP came out, I think we’ve been more focused in everything from recordings, rehearsing and image. WormholeDeath came along about then and showed an interest in what we were doing and have been very helpful with that. Phil and I always wanted to have a go at putting a proper album together so to get that opportunity has been pretty damn cool.
As for preparing the album itself, we spent many days tinkering with demos often completely redoing much liked guitar or vocal phrases to give us the best possible template for recording proper. Working with a click track in rehearsal took some getting used to and even just trying to get a workable sequence of songs that we were happy with, that flowed nicely and that gave the best balance to the record, took longer than we might have imagined.
Tell me a little bit about the writing and recording process behind this album. What kind of feel were you going for, do you think that you achieved this and where would you like to go with the next release as far as sound and style?
Phil: Well, I think all of us were absolutely of the opinion that, if we were going to do a studio album, then it should go beyond what it’s possible to do on stage. I don’t mean pitch correction or lame stuff like that, but we wanted to put those layers of harmonies in and we wanted to put those little guitar elements in that, maybe people don’t notice the first-time round, but which matter to us. This is stuff that, in the live environment, we have to compromise on (well, you know, short of having a line up the size of latter-day Pink Floyd), so we wanted it to be ambitious. But it still had to be stuff that we could replicate live (and we have played every one of those tracks on stage) and it had to feel like real people were playing it.
In terms of vibe, I have tried to articulate this before and it comes out different every time, but I suppose I wanted to capture some of the thought process that goes through the head late at night, so it has that introspective, slightly melancholic feel. But then I also wanted to capture a sense of fighting against the status quo, so that’s when the music explodes around you. It’s almost like the cover, where you have all of those beautiful colours and images emerging from the shattered head of the central character. There’s beauty there, but it’s a dark, slightly sinister beauty and there are things that will bite if you get too close…
As for the recording – it was just amazing. We got to spend twenty days in a beautiful town in the hills above Parma, in Italy. On a fine day we could see the Alps from the studio door but when the weather closed in we could only see about five feet. It contributed to the vibe of the album, I think, in the sense that the atmosphere of being closed in, surrounded by the darkness, fed into our playing and performances. But, of course, that was the atmosphere external to the studio. As a band, we had an amazing time – we were laughing and joking as we worked to layer up all the elements and the guys in the studio (Luca, Christian and Wao) were so friendly and so cool that you couldn’t help but relax into the process of recording.
For me, it was a dream come true. I have never enjoyed being in a band more than when I had the opportunity to go to the studio every day and work on the record. The people, the place, the music… all of it was brilliant and I came away absolutely convinced that we needed to do at least one more record.
The record, though thunderous at times; can be a real emotional rollercoaster. There are many deep topics on this one, which seem to stem from (at least from an observational standpoint) life experiences. That to me, says it all. In my own band, the lyrics usually stem directly from things that I was feeling at the time, even if I don’t quite feel the same way a few years later. What were some of the experiences in your life that you were going through during this lyric writing process?
Phil: Writing lyrics is always a very difficult thing because, as you so rightly say, you are not only capturing a snapshot of your life, but you also have to know that you’ll feel comfortable singing it years down the line. You also have to make it relatable – if an album’s all “poor me…” people will turn off immediately, because how can you spend time wallowing in someone else’s perception of the world?
So, when I sat down to work on the lyrics, I tried to build the album around a theme of communication and the things that impact upon that. Some of it is, for sure, based in personal experience, although I also like to dig into history and literature. “Alone”, for example, was the first song that I ever wrote directly about a book that I’d just finished reading: Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, and the idea just seemed to fit so well.
One of the hardest songs to get right was “Corruption”. I wrote that at a time when a close relative was extremely ill (and, in fact, very nearly died). I wanted to articulate the terrible impotence that comes with that, but I also had the idea to juxtapose this physical sickness with the moral sickness of someone who chooses to alienate others through the spreading lies and doubt. So, verse one deals with the corruption of the body and verse two deals with the corruption of the soul and that was really, really hard to get right. I think we all experience both types of situation, and yet, from the perspective of one faced with it, there’s that cry of rage and hurt where you’d trade it all for it just to stop.
Rich: I think the last track title says it all. “Alienation” seems to broadly cover most subjects on the record whether it be the sort of feelings of displacement with people around you or the world at large. There’s also the pace of life and the rapid adaptation of the whole world that you’ll have seen if you’ve lived through the last decade. Certainly, the two lyrics I contributed stem from frustration at certain elements of social media and the cyclical nature of how we keep making the same mistakes but find new and inventive ways of doing so.
There’s a lot of hard rock, a lot of crunchy metal and some definite radio ready alternative cuts to be found here, it’s quite a mixed bag! But that I think is a good thing, as many albums can sound quite formulaic these days, even to the point where many people are calling rock music dead. It’s quite obvious from just our music awards shows these days that rock music just isn’t being celebrated as much as it should be. What are your thoughts? Is rock now “dead” in the mainstream and becoming more of an underground/independent sort of genre?
Phil: Well, to deal with the album first, all of us in the band are very diverse in our tastes and I think that it’s that you can hear coming out in the way the music is constructed. I never wanted to be pigeon-holed or limited in the way that I could express myself through music, so it’s often the case that the mood and concept of the song defines its character. “Corruption” is, necessarily, very heavy because it comes form a very heavy place emotionally. In contrast,”Failed” has a more lilting vibe because it’s a dreamy, late-night kind of song.
I don’t blame bands that have a uniform sound (I listen to a lot of bands that do) but that’s just not how I want Final Coil to be. I’m very lucky in that I work, not only with a group of musicians who feel the same, but also with a record label who are very supportive of that eclecticism. What I did want to get right was the sequencing. I wanted the record to be a journey (or a rollercoaster as you put it) that listeners would want to undertake, and it’s definitely meant to be heard as an album rather than as a series of isolated tracks.
With regard to rock being dead, well the mainstream media do love a story, don’t they? But here’s the thing – music goes in cycles. So, whilst the music awards may be ignoring big guitar bands right now, it won’t last. Just in my life time, we’ve seen the rise, fall and return of hair metal, thrash metal, nu metal… hell, maybe one day we’ll be fashionable! Perhaps my view is necessarily tainted by my own love of music, but I refuse to accept the perpetual and self-serving narrative that ‘X’ is dying. I would also argue that choice is playing a large part in hiding the scale of love that still exists for rock music. When I was growing up, there were a limited number of places where you could buy music, and a limited number of bands who could afford to put their music out. Now, pretty much every band going has a record (whether self-released or commercially), which means that the fans are spending their money ‘off the grid’. I spend a fortune on unsigned and independent music because I see these bands playing and they’re just… brilliant. Rock’s not dead, it’s just diffused and harder for labels to track where the money’s going. Just go to Bloodstock or any other rock festival, to see what I mean!
Rich: We didn’t set out to sound like anyone in particular, and most of the bands we love tend to have a broad scope in their sounds too. I think many artists seem to shoot themselves in the foot by trying to be the same thing all the time, from one song to the next or from album to album. That said, it’s easy to see how that happens, as criticism these days is instantaneous on Twitter and I think many people’s listening habits can be more impatient too, so the pressure is always there to either bring something familiar or just to become ever more heavy, more proggy, bigger, better, faster… And if you survive that, the call for you to revisit your roots comes along! I personally don’t see rock as dead, but as a mainstream entity is going to face challenges, particularly as the headline festival bands dwindle.
I don’t usually ask artists this, but due to amount of emotional brevity found on this record, I’m quite curious. What are some of the topics that are floating around in your head for the next album? Have you already some songs in production for it?
Phil: Well, I’m not sure quite how much I should give away at this stage, but I will say that the next album is actually written and demoed. The concepts that are referenced on Persistence of Memory are still there to some extent, but I’ve tried to adopt a more sociological perspective – looking at how the experiences that we have shape and mould the way we react to others in society. Certainly, I think we all have a moment, at some time in our life, where we look at ourselves and perceive that something we have said or done has been influenced to a great extent by an experience from our past. So, the new album deals with the way that two people made their way through the last century and how their experiences helped to shape their fate and the fate of others with whom they are connected. I would so dearly love to talk about this further, but I think I’m going to have to save any further revelations for a future date.
We here at The Grim Tower like to combine music with geek culture, so what sorts of things do you gentlemen geek out on? It doesn’t have to be games, music, movies, books or TV but anything that you devote a lot of time to outside of music.
Phil: Well, music is my first passion for sure and the piles of records that litter my house are a testament to my unfailing love for all things musical! But, seeing as you asked about other forms of geekery, my main passion is reading. Games and movies, well I enjoy those things for sure, but I see them as transitory. They rarely hold my attention for long. But a good book… that can take you anywhere that you want to go. John Fowles remains one of my favourite authors and his book, The Magus, is a magical, wonderful masterpiece. Then there’s Dickens, who was one of the sharpest, funniest, most humane writers ever to put pen to paper. Orwell, of course, is wonderful but what tends to escape people is the richness of humour that permeates his work. Down and Out in Paris and London, for example, is just wonderful and so evocative of a world that, sadly, does not really exist anymore. When I read, I can lose myself for hours and if you combine the experience with a great record then I’m pretty much in heaven.
I will add that, although I am not super geeky when it comes to movies (certainly not to the extent that I am with regard music and books), I do make a point of collecting older movies and I love the films that have weight and atmosphere. It seems that most modern movies emphasize special effects at the expense of character, but when you dig into a really good movie from a director like Kubrick or Hitchcock, then it really is like a window into another world. One thing that is quite interesting is to take a movie that is very visual (say David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia), turn the sound off and play around on guitar or synth over it. It can spark some really interesting ideas and it’s a very different way to develop a mood or theme in your writing.
Jola and I love to travel and we make a point of going off the beaten track and seeing as many different places as possible… the key now is to try to combine that with the band and get out on tour – that really would be amazing. Alas, I’d love to tell you that I sacrifice farmyard animals upon an altar at midnight, but a good book is so much less messy…
As for the other band members, Chez is very interested in bikes and he also restores drum equipment and guitars. It’s really cool because he’ll randomly turn up to the studio with some amazing new snare and it’ll turn out to be some piece that he’s rebuilt almost from scratch. It’s really impressive what he’s able to do. Jola, meanwhile, is a plant maniac. She is a very keen gardener and she seems to think that there should be a balance between the number of plants in our house and the number of CDs (she’s currently losing, but she’s having a damned good go at it), which means that our house is like a cross between HMV and Gardners World!
Rich: I’m definitely some kind of geek but one that dips into a lot of geeky things all over the place. I’m fascinated by words and language but lack the wit and memory to make use of it properly! I listen to a few sciency podcasts too such as The Infinite Monkey Cage. Last time I was ill I watched all of Joss Whedon’s Doll House, which is my favourite thing I’ve seen in a while and I’m a cricket fan too, so there are lots of ways to take up a lot of time!
Persistence Of Memory
Rushing in like a mixture of nineties alternative and grunge with more depth in terms of progressive rock, Final Coil have created a truly strong effort here. The disc has a deep emotional brevity, which I think frontman Phil Stiles captures extremely well. On opener “Corruption” this is instantly felt, starting the disc out on a relatively heavy and familiar note before rolling into the soft rock nature of “Dying.” There is such a depth in variation between the two songs that you’d hardly believe you were listening to the same album, and this is something that I feel we’re missing a lot of in mainstream rock music. “Alone” has a light Opeth vibe to it which is always nice, as “You Waste My Time” has a mixture of both mid-era Katatonia and mid-era Paradise Lost to be had, which I never would have seen coming. “Myopic” comes off more like early Tool, while “Failed Light” is given the time necessary to flow with atmospheric goodness. In all honesty, I think that Final Coil managed to get right what Deathwhite flubbed on their latest effort, and that really says something. It didn’t take even half of an album for Final Coil to prove their worth, and the disc doesn’t come off sounding like nothing more than heavy pop music either, which is a breath of fresh air for me. Though there are obvious chunks of downtuned bass in some areas which might put off some listeners, the record definitely contains a sense of substance and I feel that is most important in the long run. If you’re looking for real emotion in your music that doesn’t come off as something from Dashboard Confessional, you’ll definitely want to pick this one up.
(11 Tracks, 65:00)
Purchase HERE (Bandcamp)