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A purifying catharsis: an interview with WE NEVER LEARNED TO LIVE

They call their art a “post rock inspired cathartic misery” and I must say they got it quite right. WE NEVER LEARNED TO LIVE manage to balance monumental, post rock inspired force with organic and very natural rock and post hardcore feel. The result is a wonderfully sound that attracts listeners of at least a few different genres –  a collage of emotions and seemingly contrary strengths. I took some time to dig deeper and find out more about their story and approach to this concept of progressive hardcore band. Check out the official word and scroll down to read the full interview!

At the time their self-titled debut was released in September 2013 they were concluding only their ninth month together.

Residing in Brighton, UK, their cathartic music is as awe-inspiring as the landscape that engulfs them. With an organic approach to writing that sees them restructure and rearrange spontaneous writing sessions, it’s a route which goes someway to explain how a mere three tracks clock-up 24 minutes on this collection.

In WE NEVER LEARNED TO LIVE, as a band and as an EP, vocalist Sean Mahon is able to address his turbulent childhood in South Wales. After leaving the family home, his consequential actions lumbered him with guilt and he openly acknowledges that this EP is a milestone by providing him with the outlet to vent his frustrations, making for incredibly poignant and personal subject matters.

Lewis Johns of The Ranch Production House (BASTIONS / VALES / GOODTIME BOYS) behind the desk for the recording sessions and perfectly captures the ambience they so carefully set out to create.

In the months following release, WE NEVER LEARNED TO LIVE have received widespread praise from peers and press, and after quickly selling out of the limited edition handmade cassettes, the band’s debut effort has now made its way on to vinyl through German label Truelove Entertainment.

After several runs of UK shows in the last year with THE ELIJAH, GRAPPLER and SVALBARD, and a recent tour of Sweden with DISEMBARKED, WNLTL are planning a busy 2014 with Euro and UK tours already scheduled.

WE NEVER LEARNED TO LIVE is:
Sean Mahon (Vocals), Brett Houslop (Guitar), David Kane (Guitar), Mark Portnoi (Bass), Gary Marsden (Drums)

Hey boys! Thanks a lot for your time! How are you? How’s your 2014 treating you so far?

Dave: 2014 has been great so far!

It’s actually been a really busy 6 weeks for us preparing for the releases we have coming up.

We have just released pre-orders for the vinyl pressing of our self-titled EP, and made loads of progress towards releasing another track in April, so there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to get that all ready.

We also spent a lot of January locked away in our rehearsal studios writing for a debut album and made great progress with that too, so it’s shaping up to be a really busy year for us release wise.

We’ve been so busy with release work and writing that we’ve not played that many shows yet this year- but that will all change soon!

Wow, guys, hold your horses, you’ve just answered at least 3 of my pending questions, hahaha ;) You’re a young band and I hate to ask this question, but on the other hand would like to find out more about your background. How did you guys form and how would you describe the band’s growth since day one?

Dave: Haha! It’s been such a busy time that it was really hard to answer that last question with just a few words :)

We’ve actually played in bands together for quite a while, myself and Brett (Guitars) both played in bands back in high school, and the other guys have grown up playing in bands together too, so although WNLTL is a very young band we’ve all grown up playing music together. We actually came together to form WNLTL when we were playing in the final line up of our previous band. We realised the music we were starting to write was such a step away from some of the more traditional hardcore that we were playing at the time, and that it no longer felt like the same band. So although at the time we called it a name change, it was really much more like the breaking up of one band, and the start of a brand new band with the same members but all new music and direction. And that was the birth of WE NEVER LEARNED TO LIVE.

What pushed you towards this progressive and post rockish brand of hardcore? From where do you get your musical inspiration, what motivates you?

Dave: It’s something that happened really naturally. It helps that a lot of the music we listen to, (certainly a lot of our shared influences) is on the more post rock/ experimental side of things, so I guess it’s natural that the music we enjoy listening to comes out in what we write. Part of it is also to do with the way we write. We have a lot of spontaneous jams, so nobody really ‘writes’ the music, we just all start playing and see what comes out, then we refine and tweak if from there. That style of writing really lends itself to the long sprawling post-rock sound. We are also really motivated by the thought of creating something new and being creative.

Can you imagine trying a different genre sometimes? Do you imagine yourself drifting towards even more experimental approach like, for instance, Japan’s ENVY did?

Dave: Well… we did once played a lounge version of the EP at rehearsal, and then played ‘Afloat’ in the style of BLOC PARTY haha, but I mean that’s all just behind-closed-doors messing around!

But the serious answer is…Yes!! One thing that we realised when we formed this band was that we should write whatever feels natural and not feel forced to write in a particular genre or style. On the other hand we would also never want to force being too experimental either, so it’s definitely a balance. I think it’s very much a case of whatever comes out of our jams, and we feel comfortable and happy with, is where the WNLTL sound will naturally develop.

Although its early stages for the album, the tracks we have started writing are arguably more experimental than the EP already, and a bigger step away from hardcore than the EP was, so on one had you could say that process of experimenting is already starting. That said, it’s not a completely new style, and still (we hope) very much the WNLTL sound. We still love heavy music, so I can’t imagine a time when that is not reflected in what we are writing to some degree.

Awesome! How is your instrument setup then? Is it changing, too? Tell me all about the pianos, messing around with computers and electronic sounds? How much of it would you want to add to your basic instrumentarium and how much do you leave for production process?

Dave: We have quite a standard set up really; 2 guitars, bass, drums and vocals.

The sound we have is quite raw, and everything on the EP is played as it is live, which is something we were quite conscious of going in to record. We wouldn’t want to start layering up too many tracks in the studio, only to fall short of it live, so we kept a really honest and raw approach to the record. Lewis Johns, our producer (who’s also recorded the likes of GRAPPLER, BASTIONS, GOODTIME BOYS and has just done the new FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND album) really got that, and helped us keep that live vibe on the record and was a big part of us capturing the sound we wanted.

All the extras sounds you hear (apart from the piano) are all done with guitar pedals, which means it is all something we replicate in our live show. Between both guitars and bass we use around 20-25 pedals in our live rigs, so I think in terms of messing around with new sounds its likely to come from our pedal boards rather from computers, although we would never say never!

The piano was a nice little studio touch… we saw a nice piano in the live room, and Brett started messing around with it, and suddenly we had an outro to Kepler! No matter how prepared you are going in to record, there are always things that you decide to add or take a way in the studio- It’s such a creative environment, especially working with someone like Lewis, that you are constantly thinking of ideas as its being recorded, and we love working like that.

The official press release says that “vocalist Sean Mahon is able to address his turbulent childhood in South Wales” and the EP provides him “with the outlet to vent his frustrations, making for incredibly poignant and personal subject matters“. How would you describe your lyrical objectives? Is recounting personal experiences the only set of topics to be covered by WNLTL?

Seán: Describing my lyrical ‘Objectives’ is difficult really. At the time of writing this EP I felt I was really turning a page on things that would previously upset me or take up a big part of my day to day consciousness. There’s less of an objective as much as the guys just create this soundscape of misery and desperation and despair, and naturally it just becomes a canvas for me to spill out my thoughts. The music almost makes me scream about the things I normally shy away from talking about. In a sense I regret specifically mentioning that on the press release, because in the grand scheme of it I’d say my life has turned out pretty well and I think playing music has a huge part in that. I’m under no illusion. I’m sure there are thousands of kids going through worse right now. Everyone has their problems and their way to deal with them, this is mine and it works pretty well for me (I think).

How do ideas for poems come to you? What made you decide to become “the frontman” and commit yourself to writing?

Seán: I was singing and playing bass in my first band aged 12 in Cardiff and think I was always just up for giving it a go. So when Mark (bass) and I started at school together I think I was just always the go-to guy if anyone was starting a band or doing some recording because we didn’t really know that many people who would be up for it. When they asked me to come along for a jam when they formed our previous band I just jumped at the chance and I’ve been ruining what would be a lovely instrumental band ever since.
These days we write most of our songs from recordings of improvised jams, so I normally improvise the melodies and ideas and let the words just come out of my mouth, then later when I get a real feeling for the story or character of the song, I go through my many pages of scribbled lyrics written at 4am for a set of lyrics that thematically suit.

Tell me more about the name of the band. What can WE NEVER LEARNED TO LIVE be brought in connection with? Oh, and what if you eventually learn to live? ;) Would you change your name? ;)

Seán: I think we knew the name of the band had to accurately portray the misery and depth of the music. We didn’t over think it or give it specific meaning, I’m sure if you asked all 5 of us you would have 5 different answers. I always just felt it was a great summary of that inevitable human fear of: ‘Am I making the most of my briefest of time on this planet?’. The fear of thinking ‘No’ at the end of the line is something that I think drives us as musicians and as people, and so it seemed particularly apt. Hopefully we find the magic formula and If we do you’ll be the first to know. The name stays though, everyone knows picking a name is the hardest part!!

How much do you spend on designing your merch? The packaging of the EP looks simply amazing and it fits the music just perfect. Who does the graphics?

Seán: Thank you so much! The illustration was a concept and brief that I created and gave to Rodrigo Almanegra. I’ve been a huge fan of his after discovering his work through various Dog Knights Productions bands that he’s done work for and always had him in mind when coming up with the brief. I wanted the cover to look like it might have been an illustration from some stupidly old book somewhere and Rodrigo absolutely nailed it with that genuine wood-etched look. The actual packaging and the direction was put together by me (Seán) and it was the first vinyl packaging I’d put together so I was a little nervous to see the vinyls in person! We are so so happy with the results, the printers and vinyl pressers really did a fantastic job. But really, everything is easy when you have such a great initial illustration to work with.

Regarding your future records, do you have a certain concept in mind that you’d like to follow?

Seán: I’ve put together all the artwork for an upcoming 7″ split we are releasing and I’m really happy with the results. It was a new challenge trying to amalgamate the ideas and concepts of two bands but I think it looks really strong, and naturally eery and dark as hell. When it comes to the album, it will really depend on the lyrical content which I’m still in the process of writing, but we’ll need to make a decision as a band whether to do the artwork ourselves or whether to find an artist or illustrator to work with. I think we prefer the idea of doing it ourselves as nobody will understand suitable imagery of a record better than ourselves, but I know of so many incredible artists that I would love to work with that I would be pretty tempted to get them on board to create something really special.

Do you already have a schedule for your debut LP?

Dave: We are booked back in with Lewis Johns at The Ranch for 2 weeks in September to record the album. It was a simple choice really, it would be our 4th time recording at The Ranch in Southampton, so it’s become a really comfortable and natural place for us to record which I think is of huge importance, especially when recording an album. Lewis is also really coming up as a producer, and rightly so after producing so many fantastic records and really creating a ‘sound’ for the British scene. I think the new material will be something quite fresh for him and I am really looking forward to both of us collaborating together on creating something truly original. Finer details about labels and release dates are still being ironed out as we still have a couple of songs to finish writing before putting together some decent demos to send interested parties but I imagine we’d be looking at late 2014 / early 2015.

Can’t wait! Seriously! :)

Alright guys, having played a lot of gigs last year, I bet you’ve known a great many artists and all kinds of people supporting the scene personally. Do you find some common characteristic—in their activities, their vision, their undertakings?

Dave: Great question. I think we’ve always said that we play music with a genuine passion and a desire to create something original and different, and we find ourselves drawn to musicians (of any genre) that do the same. I think within the last year we have found ourselves finally playing shows with bands and promoters with the same ethos and mentality towards music and this ‘scene’. We feel like we are in a community with just honest, nice people and that’s perfect. This taste in music is too niche, I don’t think there’s room for egos and arrogance so we all need to support each other. I think a huge part of it is going to shows, I can never understand how bands (at this level) can expect people to turn up to their shows when they make no effort to be involved with their local scene apart from when they’re playing themselves. That said, Brighton feels like one of the best places for that community spirit at the moment and there are plenty of bands and promoters putting on really great shows to packed out rooms.

Yeah, but there is still so much ahead of you when it comes to exploring new places. You’re planning a busy 2014 with a bunch of dates already scheduled, aren’t you? What’s the plan this time?

Dave: Yeah 2014 is shaping up to be pretty busy for us. We hit the road later this month for a few shows with GRAPPLER, SVALBARD and HUMAN FUTURE, who are without doubt some of our favourite UK bands at the moment.

We’re then touring central Europe in April, so heading out to places like Germany, Hungary, Austria, Poland and Czech Republic for the first time which is really exciting. When we started this band one of the ambitions was to be able to play overseas and take our music to new audiences, and just meet loads of cool people, so we’re really pumped to be able to head out on this tour. Plus we are hooking up with our label mates FJORT on some of the shows- We’re big fans of theirs and really looking forward to seeing them live.

And after that who knows? We have a few things we are working in that may come together, but we just want to play as many shows as possible this year and next so hopefully everything continues to stay busy for us!

Nice! How about your local gig strategy? Do you have one? I’m asking because sometimes bands take it quite seriously and avoid playing too much shows in their hometown in a short period of time.

Dave: We don’t really have a strategy as such, but are quite conscious of not playing too many local shows in a short space of time, so wouldn’t want to play a local show more than every 6 weeks or so.

We are quite lucky with the types of local shows we get offered, because of our sound we tend to sit between a few different genres so we’ve been offered shows that are quite diverse from *SHELS, to POLAR, to DEAFHEAVEN, to SUIS LA LUNE… so if we play something like that then we would probably still play another local show soon after as it would be to a different crowd. It’s also testament to the music scene down here in Brighton- it’s so diverse with so much happening all the time that we can maybe play more frequently than if we were based somewhere with fewer gigs happening and less of a scene.

I guess it’s just about finding the balance between playing too much, and playing as many awesome shows as possible.

Alright boys. I guess that’s about it! Is there anything else you’d like to say to all out there reading this?

Dave: We’ve had an awesome first year as WNLTL, and since releasing our debut the journey has been unbelievable. So as corny as it is to say, we REALLY do appreciate everyone that’s helped us in any way. So thanks to everyone that has listened to our music, turned up to a show, bought a vinyl, tape, tee, or wrote a review, sent us a message, let us play in their venue/ with their band/ sleep on their floor or just told a friend to check us out. We have a super busy 2014 lined up, so we hope this continues, and we keep having fun and meeting awesome people around the world.

By the time this is printed we will have announced our next release, which is a split 2 track EP with HUMAN FUTURE released on Through Love Rec, Holy Roar and Moshtache, with a video for the new track too…. so check that out. And if you are in the UK or Central/ East Europe, we hope to see you at a show soon- there’s some tour dates up on our page!

And if you are reading this and haven’t checked us out, then we hope you do, and hope you like what you hear!

Thanks a lot for your time! It was very enjoyable. Good luck! :)

Dave & Seán: No, thank YOU! We’ve really enjoyed answering these questions :)

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