MWC are a thrilling modern duo with tour de force dynamics yet a lingering afterburn in both sound and vision. Their intensely atmospheric sonic palette combines manic and eerie synth pulses, glacial guitar ripples, heavy bass and haunting vocals that describe a relentlessly compelling world view - uneasy, heavy, confrontational. As MWC’s Tomas Greenhalf says, “You don’t know whether to dance to us or just listen to it, and wallow in it.”
Greenhalf and Ryan James don’t think they’re alone in presenting the dark/uplifting paradox; they namecheck a handful of Scandinavian artists, such as The Knife, When Saints Go Machine and The Field. But none of them place such an emphasis on lyrics as MWC, and certainly none of them grew up in Wales. The way Man Without Country don’t belong in any one camp begins with their name, chosen because of a shared, “sense of not belonging.” Coming from remote parts of South Wales Greenhalf and James felt isolated and alienated by small-town life, and it was only after meeting on a popular music degree in 2006 that they discovered they weren’t alone. In fact, both admit the reason they were taking the course, they say, was, “to find other musicians.”
For months, they exchanged emails of “audio snippets,” and with common ground established, the duo rented a rehearsal space to take one step further. “We were new to electronics so spent a lot of time experimenting with sounds” confesses Greenhalf, who was playing piano and saxophone at the time. A major fan of Eno and Stockhausen, and inheriting his parents’ love of Pink Floyd - “it’s that sheer epic and moody nature of the music” – Greenhalf was then writing more instrumental music, but after meeting James, he found a partner who could turn his music into structured songs.
James, who says he was a bit of a metalhead in his early teen years, discovered Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service when he was 16: “That’s when I first realised the sort of music that was my calling, and that I wanted to sing. I hadn’t realised before how creative and upfront you could be with lyrics and poetry, which took me down a different road.”
But it wasn’t until they decided to “become more of a band,” by adding a drummer that real progress was made, and 18 months after those first email exchanges, Man Without Country played its first live show. Three years later, MWC have refined and broadened their epic, piercing musical vistas drenched in visceral, gut-level poetry. The band name comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay collection A Man Without A Country (A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush's America) from 2005, and like Vonnegut, James tends to looks at life aghast, with an air of anger, satire and sadness. But these are hard times, with lines drawn between opposing forces. And the name of MWC’s debut album? A very simple Foe and more evidence of the duo’s deep-seated alienation.
When it comes to explaining lyrics, James can be very guarded. “Some lyrics are more personal” he says, “and some are more ambiguous than others”. But he’s willing to lay down some clues. For starters, the album’s title track: “Foe sums up the lyrics of the whole album, a very short three-letter word, for a quite hateful album.”
From direct accusations (“I’m so embarrassed that I carry your name” in “Closet Addicts Anonymous”) to more oblique attack (“lower lifeboats as you sail through murky water, wear your blindfold, ball and chain. August daughter”. “Migrating Clay Pigeon”), the effect is chilling and alarming. MWC’s musical span follows suit: “King Complex” (the lead track of the EP that preceded Foe) is as fast and full-on an attack (“your head is like a lost balloon, drifting through the clouds”) as “Ebb & Flow” is slow and imbued with a loneliness you can almost taste (“my soul’s being sold in every note I hold”). But again, these tracks were chosen for their shared continuity of sound, “there’s a feel to the music that matches the lyrics,” says Greenhalf. “The music is often moody, dark and melancholic, usually in minor keys. But there are also some uplifting passages which emphasize the poignancy of the lyrics”.
For such a dynamic sound, it’s impressive that Foe was recorded in their bedrooms, save for drums and some guitar that needed better and bigger facilities. But Foe has a secret weapon, namely legendary producer Ken Thomas, who agreed to mix the album – along with MWC - because he loved the songs.
Greenhalf: “We’d never had any outside involvement in our work, so it was good to have an impartial point of view, to bring a fresh perspective on the music. We’re fans of not only Sigur Rós but M83 and Cocteau Twins, and Ken’s collaborated with all of them. His work with punk and post-punk bands like Psychic TV, 23 Skidoo and Clock DVA is also relevant to the outcome of Foe, we wanted that edge and energy, to prevent the songs from sounding too clean and clinical”.
Thomas’ influence can be felt in the slowly building tidal wave that is “Inflammable Heart” and the gnarly intensity of “Migrating Clay Pigeon,” but also the softer synthscape of “Clipped Wings” and the ambient, lengthy “Parity”. But MWC aren’t content with creating a sound and leaving it there. When it comes to live shows, says Greenhalf, “we want to treat the songs differently, to exaggerate and lengthen different elements, so that it’s a unique live experience.“
Mike Monaghan is MWC’s live drumming powerhouse, though MWC also sometimes play without drums, as a more minimalist duo, “to vary the sound even more. It gives everything more room to breathe and picks out the subtleties.”
From stormy to subtle, swooning to haunting, scorching to soothing, Man Without Country are many things. Yet they stand alone in modern music. Get to know thy enemy...