CULTURE: Earlies rise to the occasion; Simon Harper discovers the transatlantic chemistry behind Britain's brightest band.
With the development of technology, sending music recordings across the Atlantic Ocean takes mere seconds and the click of a button. Much faster than your average postal service, this handy method of 'conference' song-writing eventually spawned the debut album by The Earlies, a cross-continental collective trading in traditional folk, chamber pop and skittering electronic flourishes.
Multi-instrumentalist Christian Madden is one quarter of the core group of musicians that make up The Earlies, and one of two members from northern England. The Burnley native reveals that it was a chance meeting which led to the band's formation.
'John-Mark was over in Manchester doing an engineering and recording course at the School of Sound Recording there. I used to knock about there, recording a bit with Giles, and we just met him in the bar above there. In the meantime he'd met Brandon, the singer, in Texas and they were making music over there.
'Whenever John-Mark came back to England he'd bring music over and we'd work on it. We just passed things back and forth; we didn't actually get together for a long time. There was a lot of posting things through the mail and putting things on the Internet, posting WAV files and letting it develop that way. We only actually met the singer for the last track of the album.'
The resulting album, These Were The Earlies, featured deservedly highly on end of year lists, being rightfully pin-pointed as one of the best albums released in 2004. A collection of all their singles to date, it combines an impressive array of reference points - Byrdsian jangle, the psych-pop of prime Beach Boys, progressive rock and even subtle electronica.
Set to headline the Twisted Folk tour, alongside sublime New York band Hem, as well as singersongwriters Martha Tilston and Jackie Leven, The Earlies boast an affection for traditional folk and country stylings. But their songwriting methods are at odds with the approach taken by most acts in that field.
'I think the main difference with us from that kind of thing is that a lot of the stuff starts electronically,' admits Christian. 'They've got that song-writing tradition about them, and rather than starting with a chap with a guitar, we usually start with a sampler, and start with something that's actually quite cold and digital-sounding.
'We try to get back to sounding organic through the production process. I think that was because of the way we were geographically scattered about. There was no way ofanybody sitting down and writing a song, and then presenting it to everybody else, so we ended up with this system of passing back and forth loops and ideas. John-Mark and Giles are basically just bedroom computer musicians, so they could never present a song in that way, which makes it more interesting because they have to find their ways of making music.'
The Earlies are eagerly anticipating the tour, and for a number of reasons. Madden is coy when asked about the other bands appearing on the bill. 'I've checked Hem out since I heard we were going to be doing a tour with them. I feel quite overawed by it actually, they sound totally amazing. You feel a bit guilty about being on the same stage as people like that,' he offers, modestly.
Witnessing The Earlies' live incarnation, it seems, is an entirely pleasurable experience for audience and band alike. With an expandedline-up reaching into double figures, The Earlies promise to be a very different beast live compared to their studio recordings.
'Touring is definitely a lot of fun because it's 11 or 12 people all in a bus together, so it's a bit like being on holiday for two weeks every time,' says the self-confessed lover of seventies prog-rock'The first gig we did, it probably only held about 150 people at the Arts Cafe in London. That was tiny and we couldn't fit all of the band members on stage - we had three of them stood out on the floor in theaudience. It's a bit of a logistical nightmare, and it's difficult for the girl who does the sound for us, but it's getting easier.
'The album is quite laid back and chilled-out, and when it's live it moves away from that slightly, and becomes a bit more upbeat and improvised in places. It rocks out a bit more on the louder bits; it's amore dynamic experience than the record needs to be.'
After the Twisted Folk tour, The Earlies will be lending a hand to some other acts, as well as working on a second album. The band's firstturn as producers was for Texan singer-songwriter Micah P Hinson, an aficionado of The Earlies after having grown up with Brandon Carr and John-Mark Lapham.
'We had demo CDs of Micah's over here, and we were just going around to everybody we were meeting in the record industry. When people were trying to interest us in signing a deal, we were saying, 'listen to this as well'. Most people weren't really taking it up, but Sketchbook, the label that Micah was on eventually, said they'd put out his record if we produced it over here with our set-up.'
Eyebrows have remained firmly raised since their work on that fantastic record, as well as their own astonishing debut, and offers for production work have flooded their way since. Forthcoming duties include producing the new album by King Creosote, a leading figure from the Fife-based Fence collective, andalso Leona Naess. Although they are in demand as producers, the quartet are genuinely surprised to be approached by acts who have previously recorded with more highprofile individuals at the helm - particularly Leona Naess, who has worked with esteemed producer Ethan Johns.
'You struggle to see what you can offer that people like that couldn't,' laughs Madden, playing down The Earlies' formidable talents.
But there is one other musician who they would dearly love to work with. 'I suppose if we could work with anyone on earth it would be Brian Wilson, but then he's got a perfectly good band who are much better than us, so it'd be a bit of a poor do for him,' he quips.
Despite the protestations, they're fooling nobody.
The Twisted Folk tour arrives at Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall on Saturday. Tickets: 01902 552122
Tree's company: The Earlies join an exciting bill in Wolverhampton on Saturday