It’ll come as a surprise to many who believe that bands exist in a whirlwind of instant hype, but it is still possible to develop outside the spotlight.?
Since forming in 2008, Airship have notched up acclaimed support tours with Editors, Biffy Clyro, The Joy Formidable and Frightened Rabbit. Two self-released EPs have received rave reviews. Influential Manchester listings guide City Limits called them “Music’s best-kept secret” in 2009, and they’ve deserved that tag ever since.
Until now, when their determination to succeed in the right way has paid off with debut album Stuck In This Ocean and their secret is about to be unleashed on the world at large. Still with an average age of just 22, the quartet’s sound has progressed from an already remarkable start, their songs becoming more direct and their sound ever more open and ambitious from constant touring.?
Some major labels have paid attention and been spurned. Instead, Airship have bided their time, waiting until they had enough songs they were completely happy with for their debut album, knowing exactly what they wanted it to sound like, recording it with their own agenda, and without label interference, before eventually signing to PIAS.
“It can be frustrating, seeing rubbish bands signing massive deals,” Elliott admits "but, when I listen to our album, it feels like everything has been timed just right. If we’d done this two years ago, we wouldn’t have been fully ready.”
Stuck In This Ocean was made with Doves/Cherry Ghost producer Dan Austin in a total of just 15 days at Rockfield in Monmouth and Moles in Bath - Editors guitarist Chris Urbanowicz and Doves’ Martin Rebelski added initial production on the sessions.
“Dan was out of our budget, but he loved the songs so much he wanted to produce the album anyway,” says Elliott. “He suggested we record the album as live, the four of us playing in a room with the minimum of overdubs, and that was a brilliant idea.”
The resulting 11 songs are unquestionably An Album, willing to tackle big subjects like friendship, death and depression while doing so with rare passion and grandeur.
Not that the band are entirely serious, hating the thought of playing up to the darker imagery in Elliott’s lyrics.
“Elliott is serious when he writes,” explains guitarist Marcus Wheeldon. “But we’re not miseries. It’d be a lie if we tried to act gloomy all the time. Our attitude is more ‘Life is short enough, enjoy it while you can.’”
It’s an attitude that’s stuck since their first line-up formed under the name Astroboy as “a weird mix of The Get Up Kids punk and Pavement slacker grunge” at school in Wilmslow, Cheshire, shortly after Elliott began writing songs at 16. “I really only started writing songs as I was too lazy to bother learning anyone else’s,” he laughs.
Marcus and bassist Tom Dyball were quickly on board and Astroboy were determined to make a go of music rather than go to university. Drummer Steven Griffiths was the final element, joining when his then-band supported Astroboy. “His band were shit, but Steven was great,” Elliott recalls. “He stage dived during the middle of our set and I thought ‘Who is this drunken idiot?’”
Changing their name to Airship after an illustration Elliott saw in a friend’s book was a signifier of the completed line-up’s more anthemic sound.
Elliott is Airship’s sole lyricist, but their songs generally emerge from jams. As Marcus points out: “We’re always like 15-year-old kids again when we jam, and I think that comes over in the music.”
It’s a lightness of touch that plays well with the sombre side of Elliott’s lyrics, such as Test, about his battles with agoraphobia. “That did make playing live hard at first,” says a rueful Elliott. “We wouldn’t even face the audience, as I was nervous and thought people should just listen to the music. But I eventually realised we weren’t interacting with crowds enough. I started thinking what made my favourite showmen so good, whether it’s Robert Smith or Michael Jackson. Responding to the audience is the most enjoyable part of playing live now.
“The soul searching you have to do as a lyricist can be emotionally bad for you, but it’s cathartic singing these songs. And I want us to make a happier second record, after I’ve been out and done loads of nice stuff!”
??It’s not as if the songs lack humour, such as Spirit Party, written in 20 minutes about, well, an imaginary party with some spirits – “I grew up in a converted morgue,” says Elliott. “I was a bit pissed at my parents’ house one night and started thinking about what’d happen if we could party with all the dead people who must have been there.”?
Then there’s the eight-minute The Trial Of Mr Riddle. Written about a friend’s drug addiction, it fits perfectly in the middle of Stuck In This Ocean. “We were worried people would think it’s over the top,” admits Marcus. “But it reflects what we do live – there’s four minutes of non-stop brutal distortion and riffing, yet it feels right.”
Having taken so long to perfect their debut, the band are keen to see album two arrive sooner. Elliott talks excitedly about helping a DJ friend with vocals for his minimal techno tracks, yet he believes Airship will always ultimately be in thrall to a great song.
“If you see Thom Yorke do a solo acoustic set, you realise that Radiohead always have brilliant songs that happen to have a load of weird stuff going on around them,” enthuses Elliott.
“It used to frustrate me that people no longer give a shit about the idea of the album. If people only want to download one song off our album, it’s a shame, but fine. But some people do still value albums as an art form and, if albums are a dying art, it’s one we’re happy to flog!” Or, as Marcus happily notes: “Our tastes are all over the place in this band. But this record stands up next to any of the 20,000 songs on our iPods.
Airship, then: some things are worth the wait.