In the despondent gloom that follows the demise of another year’s festivities, the quest for genuinely exciting new music can often be fruitless. January is rarely a month that yields anything remarkable and yet, barely two weeks into 2014, a very special record alighted upon the shelves of the nation’s indies. Fundamentally a very adventurous pop album, ‘Total Strife Forever’ is simply unlike anything else released in recent times because its creator, William Doyle, has no intention of following a formula or ticking easy genre boxes. Standing as a monument to the ecstasy of music, the beguiling mix of instrumental and vocal tracks found within are equally adept at triggering that involuntary, primal twitch that keen record purchasers everywhere recognise. These are songs that reveal more every time you come at them and grow ever grander given love. For the Record Store Day special edition of the Drift Record Shop‘s ‘Deluxe’ paper, which has independent record shops as its central focus, I caught up with one of the artists who keep such wonderful centres of culture worthy of your custom for the other 364 days of the year. The interview will tell you more about the record than one of my pithy summaries ever will, so I have reproduced below what appeared in print.
Have you been surprised by the response to the album? I thought it was going to be my ‘have you heard this’ record of 2014, but everyone I tell about it has already heard it!
Yeah, I have been really surprised. I didn’t think a lot of people were going to go for it because of the odd mixture of vocal and instrumental and how long it takes to get into it. I just thought it was going to be a bit more niche. It’s a really strange sensation, all that recognition. I’ve really enjoyed the praise it’s received, but it’s also important that you just don’t take it too seriously if you want to stand a chance of approaching the next album with any degree of balance.
The album doesn’t sound like anything else released recently. What were your influences when recording?
I could say that ‘I wanted to make some kind of electronic pop album that wasn’t afraid of repetition or noise, and that had a dynamic similarity to the way orchestral music is constructed’ but really I was just piecing together whatever I found most appealing at the time of recording. There were strands of Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Brian Eno, Arvo Part, Laurel Halo, David Bowie, Fuck Buttons, Robyn Hitchcock, Neu!, Pet Shop Boys, Perc, Philip Glass etc. that all coalesced into what became the album. I am sure this is how a lot of people work and I’m also sure that this is a way I’ll continue to work in the future.
The creation of the record was a long process from start to finish. Was it a difficult or actually quite enjoyable experience?
I find the whole creative process is about 90% hopelessness and frustration and the remaining 10% is sheer euphoria and achievement. That 10% is so powerful and addictive though that, if you’re as ridiculous as me and many like me, you will dedicate your entire life to the pursuit of it. In hindsight, you forget about the bad parts. Luckily, when I look back on making this album now, I mostly only remember those eureka moments. Other than not being able to turn my monitors up to an adequate volume because of the downstairs neighbours and having to stand against my opposing wall to even hear some sort of bass frequency at such low volume, what I remember of it is mostly beautiful moments of personal achievement.
The vocal pieces and the instrumentals have equal billing and you’ve spoken about that being important to you. Do they always start clearly demarcated or do vocals get added when you realise certain songs need it?
Every track had a different conception. The real starting point of how I knew the instrumentals were going to be a big part of the album was when I finished the music to what would become ‘Total Strife Forever III’. I listened to the opening synth loop for a few hours and just thought that for the first time in ages I’d nailed exactly what I was trying to get at in terms of mood and atmosphere. But, because I’ve always been more of a songwriter, I just assumed I would end up singing over that music at some point. Indeed, I tried hard to put lyrics over it but nothing I was writing scanned and nothing that I sung was pitching correctly. Almost out of defeat, I just decided to remove the vocals I was working on and tried to listen to the piece without them. I realised that it was much closer to what I wanted to achieve without vocals than with them. After I knew that this was a way I could work, I basically judged whether something should be instrumental or vocal based on if I thought the music was emotionally resonant enough to me without them or not.
How do you see this fitting into the current musical landscape? Is it electronic music or is this pop music that just happens to be electronic?
I don’t think anyone really knows what the current musical landscape is anymore. Or rather, the current musical landscape is now comprised of all music and nothing, really, is out there on the fringes. Certainly my album doesn’t fit into any specific trend but then each track on the album is rarely comparable to the one that came before it. It is mostly pop music and I want to make pop music the way I think it should be; with melody, structure and hooks, but with adventurous or jarring sounds or subject matters. Pop music should be more incongruous and always a constant source of mystery for the listener and I hope that’s what comes across with the album. I still have a lot of work ahead of me achieving this goal though. Maybe I’ll sing a bit more next time.
How do you know when something is ‘finished’? Are you a perfectionist?
I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist. I don’t think I’d ever regard anything as ‘finished’ if I were a perfectionist. Even though I try to work hard on the finer details of what I do, there is a certain moment of abandonment and surrender with every piece when you realise that you’ve already got to the core of your idea and that, if you are not modest in your embellishments, you’ll risk ruining something that already stands up on its own two legs. Sometimes you just have to revisit what you’ve been working on everyday and try to hear something that is missing. You don’t even have to work on it, just listen. If you get two weeks down the line and you haven’t spotted that missing thing, then I think that, to you at least, it is over.
Record Store Day is all about celebrating indie stores, but how important have physical record shops been to you over the years?
I’ve been buying vinyl for about five or six years now and so record shops have been very important to me over the most creative time of my life. Record shops are fonts of knowledge and mystery that I think have definitely helped shape what I do in my musical work and how I approach making music. I know the intensity of the obsession that the above average record buyer has and I think that helps me put a similar enthusiasm into the work that I do. What I’m doing has to feel good enough to make someone feel like I do when I hear something for the first time and I can’t help but run to the shop immediately to buy it. I’ve got a few options in London. Rough Trade East and West, Sister Ray, Phonica, Kristina.
I [played] Rise Music in Bristol this year for RSD and I really like what they do there. The act of buying vinyl doesn’t feel like an elitist or overly specialist thing there. They have a passionate and knowledgeable staff and there’s no judgement. I think environments like that, as opposed to the old-school record shop nerd who scoffs at your purchase, is the best way to attract people into buying the physical format and having a sustainable and enjoyable relationship with it.
Do physical formats still matter to you? Does how we consume music make a big difference in your opinion?
Although I personally get a lot of enjoyment from buying vinyl and interacting with the scale of it, the sound of it and the look of it, I do know that it’s not for everyone. I actually don’t think there is a correct way to listen to music. MP3s are as important to me as vinyl is, it’s just that everyone has their own mode of consumption and enjoyment. People commodify records as much as they do digital files and as long as people are listening, then so be it.