In Conversation With…THE SLOW READERS CLUB

Manchester’s The Slow Readers Club is living proof that persistence, dedication to your craft, and a will to succeed are critical necessities when preparing for the long haul. Climbing through the ranks, the band has played literally everywhere across their hometown city: from disused firehouses to living rooms, the 18,000 capacity arena, and sold-out shows in St. Phillip’s Church, Gorilla and The Ritz. Now readying for another thrilling trip around the United Kingdom, the band will see in dates in Dublin (21st October), Birmingham (4th November), London (10th November), Bristol (17th November), Nottingham (23rd November), Manchester (24th November) and Glasgow (December 9th) as part of their Through The Shadows tour.

Major singles, including 2013’s ‘Forever in your Debt’ and 2015’s ‘I Saw A Ghost’, have brought much lauded attention onto the band, and in due course have founded interest from the likes of Jim Glennie of Manchester indie forefathers, James. Leading onward to the release of breakthrough album ‘Cavalcade,’ and a series of tours with James, as well as high profile festival appearances at Isle of Wight Festival and a recent support slot with fellow Manchester indie stalwarts, The Charlatans. The group are now working on material that will become their third studio album, an enticing footnote for now but one, which we expect will turn out to be a rewarding body of work for the band in due course.

Whilst waiting with bated breath for a new music release from the four-piece, we thought it was about time that we speak to The Slow Readers Club and catch up on all of the recent developments.

Firstly, thank you for inviting us to one of your studio sessions. How is everyone feeling today?

Aaron Starkie: “Pretty positive. As we just mentioned in there, [referring here to the Control Room in the Recording Studio] we’re about seven tracks into album three now. About four of those have actually got lyrics [Laughs.] It’s going well. There’s a few that we’re really excited about. I know that our fans are keen to hear the new stuff so it’s coming at the end of the year, people will be hearing some good tunes I think.”

So let’s dive straight in. How are the new tracks shaping up?

AS: “Really good. We’ve still got the same commitment we have to pop melodies and good lyrics, as much as I say so myself [laughs]. We’ve not re-invented anything too much, there are a few new sounds on there – a few different grooves.

Kurtis Starkie: “I do think based on what I’ve heard so far and what we’ve been doing, I can imagine people going “Oh, that’s not like them” about a few tunes.”

AS: “Yeah maybe. But you don’t want to keep it all the same, you’ve got to challenge yourself and try and move things forward a little bit so there will be one or two that will probably be unexpected.”

KS: “It’s not really conscious though, is it?”

AS: “No no, you got to do what you like really and hope that everybody else likes it as well.” [laughs]

Have you been listening to anything different during the span of working on this new album?

AS: [Opening a little hesitantly here, he proceeds] “Yeah, yeah, well…obviously we’ve toured with James, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Charlatans recently, and you know those were always bands that were in our catalogue, I’d say. We like Arcade Fire’s new one, Everything Everything – quite like their stuff but that would be the artier end of the stuff I’m listening to, personally. I’m fortunate enough to be able to listen to [BBC] 6Music all day, every day so you’re always exposed to good new stuff, and occasionally when it gets a bit too challenging, we shift to Absolute 80s [Unanimous laughs break out at this], you can probably hear that in our sound actually.”

Have you seen a change in your writing and music making process while working on this new album?

KS: “No, not really. I mean towards the end of the last album, we had a few [tracks] that [when] we got in the studio weren’t anywhere near finished, were they?

AS: “No. ‘Plant the Seed’ happened in the studio really.”

KS: “So we took that approach with a couple [of tracks] this time [around], again just by the way it worked out…”

AS: “It’s time. I think the big thing for us at the moment, with us [achieving] a level of success over the last couple of years, we’ve toured a lot and we’ve done big shows, and you’re wanting to respond to that growth in audience and keep going into different cities and stuff like that, seeing what kind of draw you can have, but we all have full time day jobs. So sometimes we’ll demo stuff at home and send each other riffs and stuff, over WhatsApp, but most of the time it happens best when we jam it all out together in practise. Then come in here and we find the structure a little bit.”

KS: “Yeah it’s a mixture really. Some of the tracks you’ve got a pretty solid idea, you can play it as a band almost, then you start to build layers and add some synth ideas and stuff. Some of the time we’ve already thought of synth ideas before we even come in, but then there’s the odd song where you go: “We’ve got a vague idea of what we want to do!” [laughs] but that can work as well because like you say [directed at Aaron], ‘Plant The Seed’ happened that way, it was hard work but it paid off in that tune, it suited it.”

AS: “Yeah. The hook in ‘Plant the Seed’ came just as an ad-lib in [the Control Room] basically, ‘Gotta tell you my love…’ [Aaron sings out in a hushed manner] that bit wasn’t even in the tune when we came into the studio.”

KS: “I think it’s more of a dancey type tune as well, it is one you can layer and piece together as you go. Whereas certain tunes … ‘Forever in your Debt’ wouldn’t have worked that way, probably not. Some tunes suit a four-piece playing it in a room first, and some you can write in the studio and it wouldn’t affect it.”

How do you feel the new music advances what you’ve released so far?

AS: “It’s hard to know, it’s for other people to say I suppose. Like I say, we’re all getting better as musicians, I would say. Maybe it’s more interesting arrangements.”

KS: “We’re working with the same producer again [referring to ‘Cavalcade’s producer Phil Bulleyment], ‘Cavalcade’ was a definite step up from the first album. But even at that point, when we’d [finished production on the first album] I thought: “Well that’s a lot of years as a songwriter. We’re not going to be able to do as many good songs as we did on that album,” and I think we did a better album the second time around [laughs] So if we step it up again, great, but if we equal it, I’d be happy. So it’s just about getting as many good songs as we can before the end of the year, and then pick the best ones [laughs] that fit together.”

Going into writing new material for a new release, and especially considering the amount of attention your last record (‘Cavalcade’) received. Does it add more intensity to the writing/recording sessions knowing that there’s a larger audience now waiting to hear new music from the band?

AS: “Yeah being perfectly honest, it does yeah. I think before we were writing purely for ourselves, obviously with ambitions for it to get radio play and you know, get the biggest audience possible. You want to have the biggest reach you can. We were proud of ‘Cavalcade’ in particular, we’re proud of that record and glad that eventually over the years since 2015, through touring and supporting James and doing festivals and things, and word of mouth. We’ve had radio play, but spot plays generally. It’s grown into something that it seems … the album’s really loved. Like again, there’s a pressure to follow it up and like you say, there are a number of people now that come to shows. We’re on course to sell out Albert Hall in Manchester which is 2000 [capacity], and then around the country we’re doing 300/400, 600 in London. So yeah there are a lot of people wanting to hear.”

KS: “There’s a time pressure as well. A, obviously we haven’t got a record label so no one’s forcing us to release it by a certain day, a certain month but in our minds, it needs to be early next year. We don’t want to leave it any longer, and then you go “Oh right, we need to write a whole album”.”

AS: “To be honest, we have recently got a manager and an agent, and there is label interest. So the normal machinery that signed bands have is starting to come into place. Like next year we should be doing a lot more festivals and things. We’ve got a good back catalogue so I’d imagine the set would be half and half, probably initially like 70% older stuff and 30% new stuff. Then as we get into next year, even more of the new stuff, once the record has been out and people have had the chance to familiarise themselves with it.”

KS: “I think we feel that we’re just starting to make some proper progress on some tunes in the studio now, so the pressure I certainly thought at the beginning of the year isn’t the same anymore. We can fit in the gigs we’ve gotta do around our jobs, and we have got some time to improve the album and write some more tunes.”

AS: “We were saying actually, with ‘Cavalcade’ and the first album, there wasn’t any wastage, we didn’t write 20 tracks and choose 12. We wrote 12 tracks of the first album and we wrote 12 tracks more or less for the second, maybe there was maybe one that we cut.”

Charlotte Holroyd: “It’s very rare to hear that.”

AS: “It’s time again. I mean a lot of bands that we’ve been on the circuit with, have just released EP’s or singles. Sometimes I’ve questioned whether we should’ve ever self-released an album because then you’re kind of ruling out the label to a degree, because then you’re not a ‘new’ band anymore, if you know what I mean, once the album is out there. But at the same time, I don’t want to leave the Earth not having put albums out so we are where we are, fortunately in a good place now.  Hopefully we can better or equal the last album. There’s certainly a couple of singles that I’m really excited about being out there, one in particular that we’ve been working on yesterday. Yeah it’ll be good to see what people make of it.”

Do you find that the songs naturally progress and evolve from the initial demo idea when you’re in the studio?

KS: “Like I say, it all depends. Some more so than others.”

AS: “Some arrive complete, like ‘Don’t Mind’ for example. The vocal melodies start to finish, came out like that right out of my head, it’s a weird thing when that happens, but great when it happens. Very seldom do lyrics happen that way [laughs] but one of the tracks that I was talking about in particular that I was excited about, when we had it in the practise room, I got home and went: “I wrote the first verse and chorus straight off”.”

KS: “It sounds obvious to say but I do think the ones that usually come easy are the ones that are just better songs.”

AS: “Yeah they are, the ones you wrestle with are the not-so-great tunes.”

KS: “Putting hard work into the arrangement and everything else is important but I think if it’s feeling like too hard work to structure it, and to find a chorus that fits that bit, it’s just not really going to flow that naturally. Like you said before [speaking to Aaron], we don’t have much wasted but we do have a load of ideas that get ditched. A lot of bands will just keep nailing tunes and have a load of average ones, and maybe record them but we don’t finish them or put lyrics to them, or anything. We think “It’s an alright idea” and move on, and find the ones that come quickly.”

CH: “Streamline the process sort of thing.”

AS: “Yeah yeah, we just have a good filtering process.”

You’ve already been able to preview a few of the tracks at various live shows, such as a song called ‘Lunatic’, do you feel the new material has been going down well so far?

All: “Yeah”

AS: “I mean ‘Lunatic’ to be honest with you, is not a favourite of ours within the band, [laughs] in terms of the stuff we’ve been working on. But that seems to be, of the two that we have played, the one that has been embraced but I guess it’s more energetic for a first live listen.”

KS: “Because it’s more immediate. It’s obviously going to go down better live, but ‘Don’t Mind’ didn’t go down that well live, the first few times we played that.”

AS: “No that’s always an uncomfortable one to play live, it’s quite delicate and it has to be heard in the right environment I think. Not festivals.”

KS: “A lot of the time though, because obviously, we’re always building in terms of new audiences and things, we always find ourselves in the position where we’re thinking: “Right, do we want the ones that are immediate, that are going to go down well straight away. For the existing fans, they’ll want to hear every track or album tracks,” So we’re like: “Alright, they’ve never heard us before, what are our best tunes?” We do tend to do a lot of gigs like that, especially at festivals.”

It’s become a rite of passage in a way, for your fans to snap a photo in spots across the world wearing Slow Readers Club merchandise. Who would you love to see sporting a Slow Readers Club t-shirt?

AS: “As in a celebrity or something? [Pauses.] Donald Trump [Laughter erupts.] Just because it would be funny.”

KS: “The ‘I’m A Slow Reader’ one, though.”

AS: “Yeah. No, I don’t know. It would give you the most reach but it’s not a good association, is it? The Pope. [Laughter resumes.] Somebody you wouldn’t expect would be quite good, I suppose your musical heroes – Morrissey, or someone like that.

“The fans doing it is enough. As well as our own pages, there’s also a Facebook fan page where they all arrange meet up’s and stuff, and share things like photos of themselves in Sydney or wherever, it’s amazing. It’s amazing to see that. We try to keep involved in that conversation, express to them how appreciative we are.”

A lot of your music carries great depth and while it is often serious, it also provides pathways into euphoric, and deeply resonating but uplifting moments. In some ways, this is one of the main draws of the Slow Readers Club, at least from my perspective. Where do you think the desire to write darkly emotional songs comes from?

AS: “I like the idea of writing things that make people feel a bit uncomfortable, [issues] that they don’t like to talk about but get value from hearing. [Also to] have a sense that I’m not alone in feeling these emotions and I think that all the music, our respect, does that, it marries [these elements together]. You know, the melody is uplifting, and sometimes it’s theme-wise and in the tune we can arrive at an uplifting place, and sometimes it is relentlessly dark [laughs] Its an exorcism, its catharsis, just knowing that other people feel that way is what helps you through I guess.”

As an unsigned act you still retain a significant amount of control over the decisions you make, and everything you do as a band really. If a record deal came in at this stage, would you be looking to sign? Or would you be happier to continue on as you are?

KS: “Depends who it was.” [Cunningly spoken in a lowered tone.]

AS: “Yeah we’ve had some interesting interest recently, and we have had people that in terms of their brand, if you like, open up a lot of doors for us – radio-wise and internationally and things like that. So, we’re certainly open to working with a label, and ideally working with a label where you have reasonable artistic control. That said, sometimes you’d welcome external input because it can be overwhelming sometimes to try and make decisions yourself all the time.”

KS: “It’s an interesting question but it’s hard to know how you’d respond in any given situation. But you could say, we finish the album and then a major label came in and said: “We can give you lots and lots of money but you’ve got to change the album” and we’d be like, “Ummm”. We may be in a moral dilemma there but it’s different like you say, certain labels would suit and certain labels wouldn’t but you do kind of need the one with the money as well unfortunately. Yeah in reality, you need to do it full time if you want to make a career of it.”

AS: “In a way, somehow not having a label and self-financing, because we are making some money now, it’s actually easier not to give away a big percentage and go full time under our own steam, potentially. One of our sources of frustration at the moment is that we are getting more opportunities now and we have to be very selective in terms of what gigs we say yes and no to, purely because [we are] time poor, with days jobs and family life, but yeah, it’s a nice problem to have. But hopefully next year we will be full time at some point, fingers crossed.”

What would be your advice to a new band trying to make it in 2017?

“I would tour as soon as you can and have a release strategy. Then go to radio with your release strategy and say, “Single one is landing this time, Single two is landing then, Single Three is landing then and if it’s an album, the album comes out then” because our mistake has been releasing ‘Forever in your Debt’ and then there was like another four month period before we released another record and that was ‘Start Again’, I think. So by the time we had ‘Start Again’, we had it semi together but there was just too long between each release. With ‘Forever in your Debt’, I think we had like Shock of the New [a weekday segment on Xfm] or something, or it might have been ‘Start Again’ that was the first one that started getting radio play actually – 6Music and Xfm, as it was then. But then you go, “Oh we’re not ready with the next bit” [laughs] and then it’s like, really you want to be able to go: “Single One’s out then, Single two is out there and then there’s a national tour to back it up” or whatever level that is, just so the DJ has got some details [to roll out alongside the track].”

KS: “One it’s for momentum and two, that’s what radio want.”

AS: “I recently saw a BBC investment type of thing and they were asking for bands, and said: “If you’re submitting for funding, what’s your release strategy.” It’s just something we’ve learnt as we’ve gone along. But we have people involved now that do know what they’re doing [with] more [knowledge] on the business side, and obviously we’ve learnt our own lessons [too].”

It’s fair to say that since you played your first gig with James, the level of awareness of The Slow Readers Club has elementally increased. When looking back to that first tour with James, what are the memories and takeaways that spring to mind?

AS: “The first gig I think we did was in Bristol, it’s the first time in the band that I can remember being scared. I was like, “What am I doing?” I wanted the Earth to swallow me up, because you just go into that first crowd very cold, and then two or three gigs in, we were live streaming the shows. James fans were talking to one another and you could see that people were ready to see you then, and interested. By the time we got to Brixton Academy that felt pretty good, still scary. Then obviously we did gigs with them again later in the year; the James audience know us very well now and as you say, it’s been fantastic for us, it’s given us a national [audience]. We were doing okay in Manchester, I think we had sold out Gorilla before the James tour, but nationally we were playing to like, 30 people in London, less in other places. After the James tour we sold out Oslo in Hackney and The Borderline, and yeah The Ritz in Manchester. So yeah, it’s been massive, and obviously doing the James tour probably opened up probably more festivals and interest from agents and that sort of thing. It’s been a massive game-changer.”

If you were to describe the past year in one definitive emotion, what would that be?

AS: [Pauses for thought:] “Exhilarating. With tiring at the same time – around the day job – touring with James is especially quite a physical challenge and mental, because we’d finish pack up and then drive back to Manchester, and be in work the next day, then go out and do another gig again. I’m not complaining for one minute but certainly doing it with the day job is quite physically demanding. But it’s worth it. And they fed us really well, really good catering, which Jim [The Slow Readers Club bassist] especially liked. He was a big fan of the cakes.”

The big news is the upcoming headline tour scheduled for this winter. With a huge show booked in at the Albert Hall in Manchester, how are you feeling about these shows?

AS: “Very much looking forward to it, slightly trepidatious because we’ve got new stuff to play to people. [All the dates] are selling well, we’ve sold out King Tut’s in Glasgow which is mad, because last time [we played there] that was one were we played to about 30 people, that wasn’t with James. Maybe you know, it’s the James stuff that’s helped us there, or the festivals, or the general exposure but that’s an amazing feeling because it’s a legendary venue. Albert Hall, we played there for Dot to Dot Festival, it’s an incredible space. So we’re just trying to think about what we can do to introduce the new material and make it a special performance. Yeah it’s going to be fantastic, I think.”

CH: “Are you looking at bringing some new production into the show as well?”

AS: “Potentially. I mean I used to play keyboards live, but we sacked that off because we felt that it got in the way a little bit. I might do some live keyboards.”

KS: “Ease of travelling was part of it as well, wasn’t it? Having that on stage as well, in small venues, it was hard work but we’re just about playing big enough venues to have enough space now.”

AS: “Yeah that might be something that’s just a bit different for people. We talked about some other things but I want to keep it a surprise [laughs] but production-wise we might change some things. I’m a great believer in the theatre of it all and the lighting show, we take a lot more care about that these days and seen as we’ve got a bit more money to invest in that … I’ve always liked when there’s a bit more spectacle, I mean you don’t want to be like Take That and have inflatable elephants, but I think there’s room for a bit more theatre and drama with the lighting and stuff.”

All featured photos are credited to Paul W Dixon.

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Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

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