When The Beatles shipped off to Hamburg in 1960, they were still wet behind the ears on stage. Getting better acquainted as musicians, the foursome plugged in at any venue, adhering to a near boot camp schedule and fine-tuning their sound and performance style over the next two years. Minus the four-to-five hour gigs the Fab Four often had to endure, in some ways Circa Waves had a similar run. After singer Kieran Shudall released some demos, he needed to recruit a band and pieced together Circa Waves in 2013. The Liverpool band barely knew one another but immediately played anywhere they could, releasing their debut Young Chasers by 2015. “It takes a good four or five years to really get to know people and to become a solid band,” says Shudall. “I feel we’ve finally done that now.”
Now, Circa Waves have arrived at their fourth album. Split into two parts, the first Happy portion, out Jan. 10, will combine with the remaining, Sad songs on March 13, as Sad Happy (Prolifica / [PIAS]). “This next record is our moment,” Shudall tells American Songwriter. “We can show people our actual real sound and really become Circa Waves.”
Broken down by seven songs on each side, Sad Happy is not so much a jump from cheerful to melancholy but instead a vice versa of both sentiments on either end. “The cool thing about having one side called Sad and one side called Happy is that people interpret lyrics and feelings and sounds in certain ways,” says Shudall. “Through our songs, people who listen to it can say oh that was a sad song, that was a happy song.”
Sad’s “Wake Up Call” sounds more upbeat but is rooted in anxiety and self deprecation, while the quieter, acoustic-driven, “The Things We Knew Last Night,” off the Happy side, comes across somber but is essentially a euphoric song that drifts into holding on to strengths—people, places, memories—through difficulty.
“A lot of music like Radiohead has real sad elements but you feel uplifted after it,” says Shudall. “That’s the point of this album, that sadness and happiness kind of blend into one. Once this album is released as a whole, it will feel like an amalgamation of one big sad-happy.”
Inspired by Pulp’s support-the-aging track, This is Hardcore’s “Help The Aged,” Sad Happy closer “Birthday Cake” plays slightly more glum than typical birthday chants but is merely a reality check on growing older in lyrics I feel like we’re growing old, faster than what we were told… I will try to leave a mark / We’re designed to fade like scars. “It [“Birthday Cake”] could have been on the Happy side, because birthdays feel happy, but ultimately you’re one year older and everything is changing, so they’re always lingering next to each other—sadness and happiness,” says Shudall. “I don’t understand where the time is going, but once you get past a certain age, it’s like holy shit these years are going by pretty quickly.”
Pulling together the two halves of Sad Happy came quickly for Shudall after he hit a writing frenzy following the band’s last release, 2019’s What’s It Like Over There? “To say I’ve got an obsession with songwriting is kind of an understatement,” he says. “I’m really obsessed about writing music. I probably write two or three songs a week. I write every day. That’s all I ever do, so we might as well put another record out.”
Everything is swift. For Shudall, his impatience is a virtue when it comes to writing since songs materialize for him fast. “I write quickly, so I write a lot,” he says. “I sort of throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, so a lot of what I’ve done in this last record is constantly making tracks, kind of like in a Hip-Hop way, making the beats and making the music and writing as opposed to sitting there with my acoustic guitar in the more traditional sense.”
Songwriting duty aside, Shudall also shot the album’s stark black and white cover, capturing a shadowy comedy and tragedy element for Sad Happy. Initially trying to tap into some kind warped party cover, the band eventually landed on their prize shot by accident during an actual photo shoot, while one of the “characters,” a girl dressed as a clown, was taking a cigarette break. Shudall took a quick shot of her, and that was it. “We had this big party scene, and then I just took a photo of her smoking outside, and we were like we should use that as the album cover,” says Shudall. “It’s funny, because there was a really great photographer doing amazing photos inside, and here I am with my little shit camera.”
Doing things themselves is nothing new for the band. Guitarist Joe Falconer has directed several Circa Waves videos, including “Me, Myself and Hollywood,” off the last album, while Shudall produced Sad Happy in its entirety with mixing by Grammy winners Matt Wiggins (Adele, U2) and Dan Grech-Marguerat (Mumford & Sons, The Vaccines). “We’re all very involved quite heavily in this band,” says Shudall. “So it’s not unusual for us to take the photos or make the videos.”
Never shy from talking politics, the band recently got heat for posting its support for the Labour party in the UK, but Shudall doesn’t get the backlash against artists who have an opinion since, he says, music and protest have always gone hand in hand. “I don’t think that because you’re a musician, or because you sign a record deal, you don’t have an opinion,” he says. “People get really weird about musicians having an opinion about politics, and it’s strange. You don’t have to do what we say. That’s just what we believe in. If you hold the same values, then you should do the same.”
Shudall, who became a new father nearly four months ago, says he’s worried his son is growing up in a frightening world. The real issue is climate change and everything around it, he says, but unfortunately too many corporations and politicians can’t see the wood for the trees. “We need to stop fucking around now,” says Shudall. “All the people who are in charge really need to make it a priority, because essentially there are going to be so many more issues if we don’t fix it now. I think we’re also quite uneducated and naive at the moment, which is understandable because you can’t really see the issues just yet, but it’s going to start really getting terrifying in five or 10 years.”
Still, fear isn’t a constant for Shudall, who is ultimately happy with fatherhood and the state of Circa Waves. Flushing out the current worries of the world and looking ahead to change vibes with the band’s first Sad Happy single, “Jacqueline.” The indie-pop medley is strangely complemented by a campy, ’70s horror and congo-inspired video, directed by Bousher & Gee (The Fratellis) and cinematically set inside a mansion once owned by the Prince of Jordan.
Segueing into the end of Sad Happy, “Train to Lime Street,” is an almost lullaby framed instrumental about the place where all four band members—scattered throughout England—come together in Liverpool. Soft chugging sounds, like a train, are actually the heartbeat of Shudall’s unborn son, which he incorporated into the echo-y track. Now set to tour again, Shudall says it’s going to be harder leaving home since he notices how his son is growing month by month. He jokes that it may make for a great Circa Waves album one of these days.
“It used to be leaving my girlfriend was difficult, but now I have to leave my son, who is ever-changing,” he says. “But you know, I’m sure it’ll make for some good songs. It’s going to be so happy, then really fucking sad.”