Best of 2020: 14. This Is The Kit ‘Off Off On’

I’ll admit that it took Kate Stables’ run off performances last year with The National, following her appearance on their 2019 masterpiece ‘I Am Easy To Find‘, to make me fully realise how fond I am of her work as This Is The Kit. In particular, 2017’s ‘Moonshine Freeze‘ was a record that had slowly grown on me with its approach to melody, but a new producer and vocal sound for ‘Off Off On‘ ensured it became a firm favourite almost immediately. 

offoffon

Anyone who spent even a brief amount of 2020 in the company of 6 Music will know ‘This Is What You Did‘, but this is really not all that representative of the album as a whole. Opener ‘Found Out’ does share some of the gnarly, whirly plucking of that first single, but ‘Started Again’ is a wonderfully metronomic yet woozy drift across a misty landscape. ‘No Such Thing’ was compared to Tortoise in the press release and this link certainly holds up in terms of the deliciously hiccuping drum patterns deployed. It also has a chorus which focuses as much on the sound of its words as the words themselves, with a drawn out delivery of “I do not see that; why should I see that? Why should that be? I did not say that; why would I say that? That would not be.”

A similarly musical approach to the lyrics is taken on the title track, reflecting on a friend’s serious illness and the hospital visits prior to his passing. The pattern of the words “Off Off On” are given weight by the neighbouring phrases such as, “Breathe out. Breathe in, but breathe out. Both ways, you’re leaving.” The syllabic echoes and the lulling delivery combine to capture those moments remarkably. 

The laconic swagger of ‘Was Magician’ saw it recently elevated to ‘single’ status with an intriguing narrative drawing on influences across literary fiction and musical contemporaries, while ‘Slider’ is a magnificently soulful piece which slowly intensifies until a saxophone solo from Lorenzo Prati somehow picks up where Stables’ words left off. It’s a hugely textured record which sounds confident and perfectly sculpted. There’s a Simon Armitage comment about poetry that I especially love which I think is pertinent when considering This Is The Kit’s approach to lyrics this time around:

“Prose fills a space, like a liquid poured in from the top, but poetry occupies it, arrays itself in formation, sets up camp and refuses to budge.”

***

Having expressed my fondness for the record, I then had the pleasure of conducting a lengthy Zoom chat for a piece that ran on the Clash website back in October. To add a little context, I’ve included some excerpts below: 

You have a different producer this time around, Josh Kaufman, and would it be fair to say that the vocal sound is pretty different for you?

I’m someone that always makes a fuss about reverb but Josh, god bless him, put his foot down. There are less effects than there were – we sort of came to a compromise – but I’m really pleased that he insisted because it makes it different. I think my main problem with reverb is that at a gig, when the sound engineer doesn’t know your music, they just decide to put loads on because you’re a female. That’s where my reflex against reverb comes from, but when it’s used carefully and thoughtfully it’s obviously a really great tool. 

On ‘No Such Thing’ from the new album, aspects of the delivery sound almost like a vocal going down some stairs with the angular way the notes are drawn out. There’s also a counterpoint on ‘Start Again’ with two distinct, simultaneous parts.  Is experimenting with your voice something that excites you?

I really like messing around with vocals and with the rhythm of them and I’m really fussy about harmonies. Un-thought out harmonies annoy me, so I’m quite fussy about which ones get used. Luckily, Rozi [Plain] and Jamie [Whitby], who do the backing vocals in This is The Kit are really good; they come up with things I like. I really enjoy it when people aren’t singing the same words: the kind of cacophonous effect. Also, part of it is because it’s fun to set me, Jamie and Rozi the challenge of then doing that live. It takes quite a lot of training sometimes for us to be doing one thing and then trying to do another on top – we try and make it as difficult for ourselves as possible. Sort of brain gymnastics trying to ward off the Alzheimer’s. 

How did you arrive at the album name ‘Off Off On’? Is it something about the title track that elevates it to being used for the whole record or is there another reason?

There’s this thing I have with words, just what it feels like when you say them. Sometimes that’s all you need to decide, the feel of words in your mouth, and I guess I’m a little bit drawn to things that are, not tongue-twistery, but just have that sensation. I just enjoy saying Off Off On and I find it funny when I have to introduce a song and say “this is a song on ‘Off Off On’” and I find it funny saying “this is a song off of ‘Off Off On’,” you know. It’s just me getting my own kicks, really. Don’t know if I should be owning up to this!

It’s as good a reason as any! The lyrics of the title track involve lots of mirrored phrases – such as “breathe out, breathe in, but breathe out / both ways, you’re leaving, both ways” – and clustered syllables. Is the sound of the words as important as the words themselves? 

For me, it’s such an instrument, the English language. Well, any language, but the English language is the language that I have learned. It’s a musical instrument, language, and it’s really fun to play with it and to make sounds with it.

I notice I’m not the only one to detect a jazz sensibility in this record. Was that a further aspect of changing your sound?

I think it just happened by accident; it’s just a kind of weird alchemy or chemistry between the people in the room at the time. I feel like there’s probably one particular track that gets people’s jazz radars going called ‘Slider’, because we got our friend Lorenzo Prati, who’s a really amazing musician, to play sax over it, all the way through. 

We were all just sat there in the room, not listening to the track, just listening to his saxophone playing and it was amazing. It was so important for me that we kept as much of that as possible. It was incredible being in that room and we were all totally silent, because there was no separation, no booth or anything. Maybe that track flags up a bit of jazz, or just the horns in general, I guess. Having horns just nudges you a bit closer to jazz. But not in a bad way – I’m happy that people hear that in it.

 ‘Was Magician’ is at least partly inspired by Ursula Le Guin. How was your reading over lockdown? Plenty of people said they found it hard to concentrate.

Mainly I couldn’t read, but then I had about a week or two where I could only read or I had to be existing in a book rather than in reality. I could only read Ursula Le Guin! I couldn’t read anything else. She’s written so many books that there’s still stuff I haven’t read. It was familiar in that it was her voice, but in stories that were new to me.

Buy ‘Off Off On’ from Crash Records