XMR Retrospective: Straight Lines – Persistence In This Game
Xtra Mile Recordings has been in existence since 2003. That's a fair amount of time in this industry these days, and with a focus on the independent and the new, we have an extensive back catalogue of excellent under-the-radar artists and records. This (semi) regular column will introduce you to or refresh your memory on some of these old'uns.
This time round, we are looking at Straight Lines' debut album Persistence In This Game from 2010. You can buy it from here on CD or download. The band are also touring the album for its five-year anniversary. You can still buy tickets for two of the dates (the Cardiff date is, rightly, sold out) here for London tonight (23 October) and here for Manchester on Sunday 25 October. Go go go! Have a look at the lovely tour poster below.
Five years ago, a four-piece from Pontypridd, Wales finished a record that churned soaring, energetic choruses with anchoring power chords, and out frothed a more viscous blend of alternate tunings and mischievous vocal journeys. These songs were slightly odder than you might expect. Whether from years on the road in other bands (notably bassist and producer Todd Campbell was in the well-regarded Dopamine) or guitarist and vocalist Tom Jenkins's fascination with the twisted sounds of bands like Sonic Youth, there was a vital off-kilter thread running defiantly through the album. But at the same time, those melodies just about broke the brittle line between rock and pure pop, their sticky exuberance spilling out unashamedly.
Like most people, the first thing I heard was 'Us vs the Allegiance', and it's just as undeniable as it ever was. Drummer boy percussion opens into sliding chords before three hugely memorable hooks in a row that then lead into a huge gang-vocal chorus sounding like a rallying cry ripped from the frames of a comic book civil war. Tell me you can't see CAPITALISED ADJECTIVES emblazoned on clouds spat from cartoon mouths. No! You're wrong! You can. It's a no-brainer choice for opener but while it almost offsets the album in a seesaw battle for supremacy on first listen, there's enough throughout to sustain repeat listens and keep the overall album quality high.
Following that first single with 'Loose Change', for example, helps balance the album immediately. Again, the refrains are laced with *something* that seeps insidiously into your everyday jukebox — you know, the one inside your head, consistently playing hits that soundtrack every moment of your life. Give this song a couple of listens and it'll earn its place among that almost infinite selection.
.A little unexpected is 'All My Friends Have Joined the Army', which — while firmly in the pop spectrum — is a touching and honest appraisal of the decisions young men and women make to find their place in the world. Coming from a place where prospects might not seem as bright as some other cities in the UK, Tom's refusal to condemn or support these recruits is brought into relief and remains one of the more intriguing and powerful songs on the record.
'Antics' is pure power pop, the album's raison d'etre in some ways. It's hugely tuneful, while Tom's vocal melodies tilt away from potentially judgmental lyrics and outright wagging fingers. Instead the delivery seems to say: "it's your choice but we live in a different world now and we should think twice who we're getting involved with". Regardless of the sentiment or perception, the energy and aural worm of the chorus keeps it driven and memorable. Check out Luke Jones' homemade video above for the perfect listening post entry to the record.
The record never outstays its welcome, never drags, never overwhelms. It wouldn't be until Freaks Like Us, their second album, that Straight Lines would begin to really diversify, but this doesn't stop PITG from bringing you a new favourite with each song from the record as you go through its 40 minutes or so runtime. And really, it's a refreshingly clean record that just cuts through any of the fussily produced noise or shrugged predictability peddled by their peers.
And I can never figure out exactly why. Like all my preferred music, I feel there's some sourcery going on, bringing the otherwise ordinary ingredients together in some unfathomable way. I don't understand how, for example, The Ballad of Peter Devine dives lower for the chorus, but builds some unassailable wall of noise. How does it do this? I mean, don't explain it to me obviously. The magic will be spoiled and I'll be slightly sadder.
But really, my favourite bits are the stabbed, scathed, scoured, caressed, hurdled, tackled chords lain across a marching, trampling and celebratory rhythm section. That middle bit on A Place To Stay. There. Isn't that ace? About three minutes into Oh Blue Eyes. Those squeals you've heard before but for those rhythmic chords.
This album comes highly recommended as a real beacon in our already blindingly excellent 2009-2010 release schedule, which also included The Xcerts' debut album In the Cold Wind We Smile, Far's At Night We Live, Chris T-T's Love Is Not Rescue, and Rock & Roll EP by Frank Turner, among others. You can get it from our digital shop.
Also, as a special treat, we talked to the awesome Dan Griffiths, former XMR team member and now doing wonderful things at Orchard as Senior Manager of Interactive Marketing. He was integral to the signing of Straight Lines back in 2010, and he had some stuff to say about that time five years ago. Read the Q & A below.
Who are you? What did you have to do with XMR?
Dan Griffiths. A lot! Almost everything, in my time! When there's only a small passionate team you all have to pitch in and cover all aspects of running a business and releasing records.
You were responsible for "discovering" and helping to sign Straight Lines. What was it about them that captured your imagination?
They were actually one of only a handful of artists I quite literally pulled out of the demo pile that we ended up working with. They sent in an unsolicited demo when they were in a band called SaidMike. I instantly liked it; they wrote very immediate pop-rock/punk songs and it amazed me when I found out they were so young (about 17 years old at the time). They were definitely writing songs way beyond their years.
I then went to see them play in Reading and met them after the show and we sat and chatted in a rather clapped out white van they owned. We shared a mutual love for the same type of music/bands and got on well so it made sense to work together. The show was a little rusty to be honest (especially compared to what they became), but I could tell straight away that in time they would become a solid live band as the songs were already well on the way.
Persistence in This Game embraces pop punk but there was always something 'odder' about it. What do you think PITG has that makes it stand out five years later?
I believe the album was written with a rather unusual guitar tuning but above all else I just think the songs are really strong and honest. Tom has an unusual and distinctive vocal style but it's really about the tunes. I think the gang backing vocals are a huge part of the record, they make you want to sing along. Todd from the band produced the record and you can tell it was a labour of love for all involved.
As somebody who has worked at both a record label and a distribution company, what do you look for in a band?
It sounds cheesy but really it's the music and if the songs are any good. When I was working at Xtra Mile I was keen to sign and/or approach artists that had their own unique sound or spin on a genre rather than just being a carbon copy of anybody in the scene at the time.
It was always important for us to meet the artist to see if we got on with them on a personal level too. When you work an album for an artist and you are part of a small team, it of course helps if you all get on and can work well as a unit.
For artists that are part of the independent rock scene I think it's important that they also have the drive and are willing to work for their own success too. Touring can be hard work, but it’s vital to success.
Where do you think SL fit in XMR's past roster? Why did they fit the label's bill and why do you think they will last as a highlight of their back catalogue?
Looking back, I think a lot of the artists we signed at the time (Far, The Swellers, The Xcerts etc), largely played to my personal taste. Maybe I was being greedy! I guess in some way those signings were a continuation of the first two bands that were signed to the roster when I joined (Reuben and Million Dead). Even though they all play heavy guitar music of different styles they all share the same work ethics, were good to work with and were all unique in their own way.
I'm surprised the album is 5 years old already. I actually listened to it before I knew I would be doing this interview and I still think it stands up.
Their PiTG live shows are this week. What will fans of the album gain from the live shows?
As Straight Lines, the band have always been able to put on a great live show. They are all very talented musicians who have been honing their craft since they were in diapers!
What was your favourite (or top 3 favourite) moments related to Straight Lines? They may involve alcohol or not at all.
One of my favourite times was seeing the band on their first tour of the UK. I believe they played the Enterprise pub in Camden. After the show we headed to the legendary Marathon Bar Kebab shop on Camden high street. For those who are not aware of the Marathon Bar, they have a back room that's open until the small hours that serves booze and for five nights a week they have a man who comes on stage at 2am dressed as Elvis and plays covers. The band thought it was highly amusing (as did we all) and I believe Dane and Todd joined Elvis’ band for one night and one night only!
Either in the build up to the release of ‘Persistence…’ or shortly after the band were invited to do one of their first radio sessions at the BBC Maida Vale studio in London. It was a great moment for the band as they were playing their first major radio session but it was also great for myself as it validated what I heard in their music when I saw them perform for the first time.
I believe the band's first London show was at the Dog Star in Camden. The show was put on my a lovely guy called Nathan Carter who is sadly no longer with us. He was really passionate about up and coming bands in the UK rock scene and put on a fair few shows of the bands I worked with. I guess on a musical level we were aligned and all wanted the band to do well. Tom jokingly promised from the stage that night that we would both own Ferraris this time the following year… we're both still waiting!