You’ve probably heard it before: “music is the universal language of mankind.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first declared that in 1835, and as true as that may have been then, the concept has certainly grown in the following years. Now, in 2020, with the advent of new technologies and cultural exchanges, it has never been easier to interact with all different corners of the world and learn about music from all sorts of different perspectives. One fantastic example of this is the Liverpool-based band, All We Are, who dropped a new record, Providence, on August 14 via Domino.
A trio who has perfected the art of acting as a single unit, All We Are consists of an Irish drummer, Richard O’Flynn, a Norwegian bassist, Guro Gikling and a Brazilian guitarist, Luis Santos. Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression — it’s not like these three musicians met over Zoom and made an international novelty band or something like that. In actuality, the members of All We Are met as university students in Liverpool, so they had that shared experience and cultural atmosphere. Nevertheless, the fantastically organic and effortless-sounding sonic that the band crafts stands as a testament to the universal magic of music-making.
Providence, in particular, shows All We Are expanding their capabilities and capturing a more robust version of their sound. Taking a longer time to really dig into the recording process, the band explored different moods and tonalities, eventually crafting something that almost transports you to a technicolor dream world of catchy synth melodies, grooving bass lines and unforgettable hooks. In total, it’s a feat.
A few weeks ago, American Songwriter caught up with the three members of All We Are to have a conversation about how the band approached this advancement in their sound and what making this record meant to them. We also dig into the unifying nature of music and the potential that holds.
So, y’all are from different corners of the world — Ireland, Norway and Brazil — how did y’all meet? How did this band come to be?
Luis Santos: We all came to Liverpool to study music at a university called Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. We all met pretty much straight away, first day, and we’ve been best buds ever since. We worked together during university on a number of different projects, so we’ve been playing together for quite some time, but it was after university finished that we decided to start the band. There was a really cool scene in Liverpool at the time that was really kicking off. There were loads of bands coming out of it. There was a really cool club called the Kazimier which was like the heartbeat of the scene and we just kind of wanted a bite of the apple really. We thought, “This is really awesome, let’s try and get in on this.” So we started the band in 2011 after university.
Guro Gikling: We also started the band because we really wanted to stay together as mates and make music and just hang out really. But, when we first started out, we all played guitar. So, me and Richard had to switch instruments because Lewis was just so much better at guitar than we were.
Richard O’Flynn: After we finished uni, all of our mates were moving away so that’s when we thought “Let’s stick together, stay in Liverpool, do the band.”
So, how would you say that actually learning instruments together influenced your creative chemistry?
LS: I think the instrument changes definitely shaped the sound. Not so much how we wrote, but definitely changed our sound. Even though it’s evolved quite a bit, it’s always been an effortless sort of vibe.
RO: It’s one of those cases of not knowing it was impossible, but just going there and doing it. I’m not talking about me because I didn’t actually learn anything new, but I suppose it’s a big test to change instruments. We were quite excited about it all and came up with something that was very “ours,” in a way. I mean it’s not very traditional, ya know what I mean? It’s not like a rock band playing, which is really cool. Our sound is slightly different because we couldn’t do that, so we just had to do what we do.
GG: What’s also really interesting is that Richard had never played drums before this so he played standing up and the better we got the more drums he added on.
RO: I started with a tom and a snare and a crash. Then I was like, “Hmm, I’m missing a kick drum here.” So I put in a kick drum and I mounted the snare on top of that. Then I added a tom and then I added a hat. Then I added an SPDS and did samples.
GG: Now he just looks like an octopus!
So, when did y’all start working on Providence? What inspired this album?
LS: I think when we finished the second record and finished touring it and stuff we were all kind of exhausted and, I’m not sure if you’ve listened to that album, but it’s quite pacey and anxiety-driven. By the end of tour, we were all kind of wrecked so we took a break writing together after that record. So, I went away on a writing session and wrote some tunes and brought them to the table and we kind of worked on those together. It was at that point we kind of started the process for real. Then we went off to Ireland for a writing session and wrote another number of the songs together. We’ve been writing it together for I guess some time. Since 2018, I suppose. I think we finished touring the second one in 2017. So it’s definitely taken a different form than the other ones where it was written all in one place or all together or even at the same time. It was a longer writing process this time around.
At what point in the writing process do you start nailing down arrangements?
GG: I think when we write we record everything. Every idea gets thrown on it when we demo a song. So our demos are really packed with stuff.
RO: Yeah, they’re quite realized, actually, especially on a production level. So, the recording process was really more about refining it and taking stuff away, about finding the core elements. We did do a lot of writing and shaping stuff in the studio.
GG: Yes, the recording process was a lot more about, “What is the hook of this song?” and making sure that element came to the forefront, whether that was the vocals or guitar or a synth line or a baseline or whatever it was, we just had to make sure that those elements were shining at the right time.
Y’all recorded this album is in an abandoned school?
RO: We recorded this where I live and where we’ve always done demos, it’s just this abandoned school in Liverpool. This time around, we were really interested in not paying for studio time and just giving the recording process the time it needed. Recording in a place of familiarity really interested us. So, we did it in our studio in Liverpool and it gave us so much freedom with time and arrangements and all that sort of stuff, but it also had its limitations so far as live rooms and stuff. We didn’t have a place to record drums really that well. So, that kind of influenced our production process as we recorded. Ultimately, we recorded in increments. We recorded kick and snare only and got it sounding really good, played them live, and then started building a groove around them, which consisted mainly of percussion which kind of helped the tropical vibes that germinate over the course of the record.
What was it like working with Dave McKraken?
LS: Yeah, it was amazing. We met him shortly before starting the record. He is an amazing producer. He’s got a wealth of experience in so many different styles and that really attracted us to him because what we did in the previous albums was try to set up as a live band and just capture the full performance and the energy of a live performance. But, we left the whole of the production-related decisions to the last minute. This time, we wanted to do it a little bit differently so we produced as we recorded. Dave is really good at breaking the songs apart and figuring out which bits are the most important and which bits should have the most intention. It kind of took us away from the previous records where, like we said, we were just recording everything and putting everything on top of each other and trying to decide later what should stay. This time, we were much more selective about what works and what doesn’t. Plus, doing it in our studio, we were able to actually develop certain ideas that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Dave was very supportive of it all the way through.
GG: In lack of a better word, Dave’s like a proper “pop head,” or like a “melody head.” He’s really good at pinpointing what the hooks are.
RO: Also he really gets involved personally with everything he works on. He really, really gets involved and puts his heart and soul into it. I think it was a good three months, really, that we were working on the record, from September to February. We’ve become really good friends, subsequently. He really just throws himself into the deep end and stays there for the duration — it was really great to have someone so involved. Although all the producers we’ve ever worked with have become really great friends and gotten involved, he really invested so much time and energy into this.
GG: He’s a huge, huge talent. I think what he’s really good at is vocals. Like, how he did our vocals and how fast he made them shine was just amazing.
RO: If you’re ever doing vocal, often — I think it’s quite common — it’s like, “Oh, I can do it better, I can do it better” and you try and get even more emotive or whatever. Dave would be really good at just being like, “I have it, don’t worry” or, “you need to do that again.” You know, a lot of the time if a producer says, “I have it” you think, “I’m not sure if you do, actually,” but 100% of the time he was absolutely right and that was really quite amazing.
What gear did y’all use making this record? Were there any specific things that informed your process?
RO: There’s a Teisco, like an analog synth that’s like all over the record. It’s most of the lead lines and even synth bass. There’s also a Korg Minilogue which is over every single track and does some lead lines. Those two synths were pretty much all over everything.
GG: Lewis has two new pedals.
LS: My pedalboard weighs like 30 kilos, like 60 odd pounds or something. It’s the size of a small child. It’s ridiculous really, I’m going to change it. Most of the pedals in the demo stage that were quite essential were the Chase Bliss stuff. They have really great analog chorus stuff. Earthquaker device pedals as well, they got some beautiful reverbs. I just love all that guitar tech.
RO: Louis, if you don’t mind me suggesting, I think that the story of the guitar and your grandfather is really personal.
LS: Yeah, so I went back home to Brazil over Christmas a couple of years ago and we were clearing out my grandad’s old house because he had passed away. It was me and my dad there and then my dad found this old guitar in the closet and he couldn’t even remember what it was. He was like, “What do we do with it? Do we just give it away or something?” And then I opened the case and it was just one of those stories where it looked like an amazing find. It turned out it was my cousin’s guitar from decades ago. No one had played it for decades. I just took it to my dad’s house and played it and it just had this magical sound to it. It’s basically a ‘60s Brazilian guitar with really unique pickups. It’s not very versatile but the sound captures some incredible and magical sounds. Just like really ‘60s. It’s definitely the closest I’ve ever gotten to sounding a tiny bit like Hendrix. You can get a custom shop Fender, but it just doesn’t get close. So, I used that guitar for a couple of tunes. It just has a really beautiful tone and it was quite inspirational. It’s all over the album.
GG: It sounds nostalgic. If something could sound nostalgic, that guitar definitely does it.
How do y’all feel that your different backgrounds influence your music?
RO: Obviously we’ve got hugely different musical backgrounds. In some ways, that does come through in the music. I think the power of the music that we make is that it’s brought us together as a unit, and even closer, like a family. We’ve been making it for so long and we’re all not in our respective countries, we’re in a foreign land, but the music kind of unifies us in that way and when times are tough, has always given us solace. It’s been really powerful in that respect.
LS: I still remember when I first came over to England and we went to university, the best thing about university was that it just gathered people from all over the world in this one place. I remember my first year having this realization that music was truly a universal language. I just remember meeting people who we had, in some cases, very little in common culturally or even musically, but we could still jam together. Many projects came out of that and a lot of really great music, even if just jams. I remember just realizing that everybody, no matter where you’re from, can get together, play music and have loads of fun. We can understand each other in that way.
GG: They say that music is the first thing we learn and the last thing we forget, so it’s in all of us.
Watch the music video for “Bad Advice” off Providence by All We Are below: