Aquilo Stir Up Brooding Pop Music

Aquilo flew by the seat of their pants. Quarantined in different parts of the country, they’d never experienced making music separately, so sending over ideas, song scraps, and somber mood clouds proved to be far more challenging than they could have expected. The synergy of being in the same room together had been totally zapped, and they were left pushing through as best they could.

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The British duo, who recently linked up again in person, after Ben Fletcher relocated to London, literally down the street from creative co-conspirator Tom Higham, struck upon only “five percent magic” in their time telecommuting. “For the past six years, we’ve made music together in the same room,” Fletcher tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “We’ve realized how dependent we’ve become on each other in the songwriting and creative process.”

While navigating uncertain territory, they’ve certainly kept busy, engaging fans on social media with live acoustic shows and teasing new music. Back mid-April, in a self-coined Lockdown Sessions clip on their Instagram IGTV, Higham gave a peek behind the curtain on how they generally start writing, building, and recording a song.

Out of his kitchen, he first laid down some guitar chords, feathered and piercing, and then layered on sweltering backing vocals 一 before whipping out a couple candles for some rhythmic underground. Admittedly, it was an offbeat choice, but they’ve used weirder objects to add to a song. “That was a bit of a joke,” laughs Higham. “I’m not going to lie; those were the closest things to me at the time. It sounded really cool actually. We’ve recorded with pots and pans and random things you wouldn’t normally put in a drum kit. That was the first time I’ve done it with a candle. They have a nice, great tone.”

Aquilo, who first hit the scene with 2014’s self-titled EP, have always had a knack for the absurd, mining muted, enveloping, and weirdly hypnotic soundscapes rather than straight ahead pop tracks. That is their allure; they’re largely removed from what you might hear on mainstream radio, yet they’ve amassed a loyal following and huge streaming numbers. Fletcher and Higham invite you into their world, one sequestered like an ocean-side garden littered with daylilies, sea oats, and red-hot pokers, but it rings with universal truths buried in the sand.

Over the last two years, the pair have been absent. Following the release of 2018’s double-sided ii, their third and final release on Island Records before going indie, they slinked away from the spotlight. It became clear they needed to dust away the creative cobwebs, reclaim their musical identity, and reprioritize their lives.

“Towards the end of our time with Island, the people who championed us had left,” says Fletcher. “These were people who very much made chart music because they wanted to do it for a living, and it didn’t feel like they were making music because it was good.” They perhaps harbored a bit of resentment, feeling suffocated, creatively, and unable to simply make the music that stoked their fires. “We were maybe a bit insulted that they thought we wanted to make that kind of music,” he adds. Higham quickly chimes in, making note they “had a really good time at the label. They weren’t musicians. They didn’t know what it was like to be in a session. We work better with artists.”

A last push for the boys to find a hit, the label shipped them off to Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York. During their many excursions, mostly writing sessions with people who didn’t even know their name, they were able to collect a handful of encounters that proved to be vital for their growth. “We had a lot of songwriting sessions with some of the greats. We wrote with Dan Wilson and Greg Wells,” remembers Higham. “We had these really small masterclasses aimed just for me and Ben. We sat there for this learning experience with people who’ve done such incredible work. Even if it’s a bad session, you can’t leave coming away thinking, ‘Well, that was shit.’ You had this great opportunity.”

Working with Wells is of particular note, an experience they won’t soon forget, even if it appeared to be a rather bizarre experience. “We had this really cool idea for this song, and it was going really well. Then, we got to a point like ‘Where do we go from here? I can’t think straight.’ This is two hours into the session,” says Fletcher. “Greg just goes, ‘Look, guys, go home, alright. Gather your thoughts. Come back tomorrow.’ We came back the next day, and the song wrote it itself. It was really strange. Who knows, we may have absolutely destroyed it if we’d stuck with it on that day and pushed something that wasn’t happening.”

“Maybe he just had shit to do,” Higham giggles.

Their two-month songwriting trip brought back (mostly) nothing of value ─ but their endeavours weren’t totally fruitless. They struck up quite a collaboration with both Rhye and Jamie Lidell on separate occasions. “They made us realize that we should be working with artists and people who understand that we’re not trying to force something that isn’t there,” says Fletcher.

Aquilo’s time with Island Records, resulting in several EPs, including 2015’s Painting Pictures of War, and two full-lengths, taught them, most of all, what they did not want in their work. While feeling pressures from the powers that be, their aesthetic has rarely veered away from the soft-spoken introspection that fits them like a glove.

The growth they have seen through the years is predominantly found in their lyrical approach. “We always took a very metaphorical approach to our lyrics [in the early days]. We wanted people to have their own interpretation of the songs,” says Higham. “It wasn’t international. That’s just how we liked to write songs.”

Calling upon such artists as The National, who “have very literal lyrics,” they began applying a similar dynamic to their blossoming catalog. “That’s an extreme example but he [Matt Berninger] can get away with it in a way no one else can. If you listen to his lyrics, they’re pretty full-on.”

“Our lyrics are a little bit more literal now. I also feel that comes with maturity. It’s not being too bothered to say those things or scared of what people will think,” says Fletcher. “When you’re younger and making music, maybe it’s easier to write metaphorically when you don’t want your friends to think you’re really sad and in a really bad way. Now that we’re a little more mature, we’re OK saying things how they are.”

Originally from Silverdale, Lancashire, a small village within the city of Lancaster, their early collaboration leaned fully into acoustic folk music, unintentionally. “My dad used to listen to a lot of folk music. It’s a funny one. We say we were playing folk music, but it was more… because we were just playing acoustic guitars that’s what made it folk music to us at the time,” admits Fletcher. “I’m sure if you’re a folk musician, and you heard us two playing acoustic guitars, you wouldn’t think that’s folk music. It was me and Tom and lots of old people who’d play in the local pub, my dad included.”

Higham and Fletcher became regulars at a local pub called The Royal, dipping their toes in the proverbial waters, figuring out their early vibe, and soon moving away from their garage-rock days, and the performances wrought much-needed life experience. “When I was about 16 years old, they’d let us play there, and because we were a band, they’d let us drink,” Higham recalls, with a laugh.

“Nine years ago, we’d been writing songs with rock bands in a garage with four mates stop-starting and revisiting verses. It’s actually a beautiful way of writing music, collectively. There’s definitely some sort of magic in that,” offers Fletcher.

These days, they write and produce as they go, rarely stopping to reworking a piece of music or flesh out lyrics. It all strikes as a bolt of lightning ripping through a willow tree. “We might come up with a chord progression and put a vocal melody line on top of that and then work around it. We’ve found recently that actually finishing a song is super hard. It’s an artform in itself. You have to have that drive. It’s hard to be inspired when you’ve heard the song 50 fucking times.”

Aquilo currently eye a new EP called Sober, expected July 8 on AWAL. It is anchored with the title track and “Just Asking,” two enveloping, ambient pieces that feel playful, urgent, and next-level. Working with producer Jack Sibley, the first person they’d worked with in two months who “didn’t want to write a hit with us,” endless possibilities abounded. “He just wanted to make good music, and he was so chill about it,” says Fletcher. “He has a really odd, convoluted process of making music. It’s very experimental. We ran with it.”

“Always Forever” was the first out of those sessions, and it’s sticky fluidity intoxicates and mesmerizes. “It was an opportunity for us to leave the production side and focus on the songwriting. Basically, we were just throwing paints at a canvas,” Higham says of those initial meetings. “It was a relaxed atmosphere. Everything we were doing, it felt like it was landing for the first time in a long time.”

What resulted was originally thought as a side-project to their usual Aquilo music, but a good friend stressed they had unknowingly stumbled into the band’s natural progression. Four songs feel familiar but adventurous. That is most evident with “Moving On,” the EP bookend sliding as a silky smooth, R&B-filtered jam into the ears, a funky beat throbbing in the middle.

“Jack found this drum beat, and it was kind of the first time we’d worked from a drum beat. What is so good about this song is when we heard this drum beat, we put a bass line to it,” says Fletcher. “Just two instruments sounded so good on their own. That’s such a good sign.”

Aquilo’s Sober EP is just a stepping stone. They are neck-deep in their new long-player, laying groundworking, writing as much as they can, and configuring new sonic plates. While plans are tentative, they are simply happy to be grinding away in the studio again, free to experiment, play, and uncover even deeper layers to their voice.

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