Look out folks, there's a new kid on the block. England's Thieves Kitchen has just released their follow up to last year's powerful debut Head with an even more refined effort, titled Argot. The band's penchant for lengthy songs, complex time signatures featuring searing instrumental interplay, and catchy vocal melodies, have seemingly piqued the interest of the progressive rock community. Argot is chock filled with all that is "prog", from the blazing twenty minute opener "John Doe Number One" to the intriguing closing epic "Call to Whoever." In fact, not many bands these days are brave enough to record a 65- minute CD of only four songs, all over twelve minutes long, in hopes of holding the listeners interest. Thieves Kitchen however pulls it off quite admirably, by combining modern sounds with classic influences. Guitarist Phil Mercy, the band's spokesman and "all-knowing entity" when it comes to Thieves Kitchen, shared some thoughts with me recently on the band's history and smoking new CD, Argot.
Sea of Tranquility: How did Thieves' Kitchen come together?
Phil Mercy: The summer of 1998 was where the story began. Mark Robotham (drums) was playing the farewell gig with Grey Lady Down, whilst Simon Boys (vocals) and I had started working on material following the break up of 'Stuff'. Paul Beecham (woodwinds) had rediscovered his love for progressive music and had started looking for like- minded musicians.
Paul tracked me down over the Internet and we met at the Whitchurch festival
that year. We had a great old chat, swapped ideas and influences, and generally came to the conclusion that we should work together. Soon after we went looking for a drummer and contacted Mark, who decided he liked our rough sketches and joined the throng.
The band then spent the best part of the next year hunting for the right keyboard
player, all the time writing material for what would eventually become
'Head'. After many false starts, Wolfgang Kindl (keyboards), who had just moved to England, answered an advert in a musical instrument store and eventually joined in September 1999. By February 2001 we had recorded and released Head, a phenomenal achievement for Wolfgang who had to learn all the material and add his own character to the pieces in that timeframe.
When, in the summer of 2000, it became obvious to Paul that the gigging side
of TK was going to be too much for him to take on, we all decided a full time
bass player was needed and started looking. Mark tracked down Andy Bonham (bass) and eventually persuaded him to rehearse with us. He joined in October 2000 and
we started recording Argot only 2 months later. Again, it took a tremendous
amount of effort on Andy's part to achieve this. So here we are...
SOT: Can you talk about the band's songwriting process?
PM: Each member has access to a PC based sequencer program called Cakewalk. All
of the material starts life as an idea jotted down by any of us on the computer. We'll each develop ideas as far as we can individually and then e-mail them to another member for development. This tends to be a pretty creative approach and many initial ideas change drastically before becoming the final recorded version. Eventually, the tracks are arranged and recorded in my home studio. It's interesting looking back on the material and it is often difficult to track down where the initial ideas came from. We share writing credits for all material for this very reason.
SOT: What are the major differences in songwriting, instruments used, style (if
any) between Head and Argot?
PM: I think there is a definite progression from Head to Argot. Some of the
compositional ideas explored on Head in such tracks as "Mute" and "T.A.N.U.S." have been built upon for the tracks on Argot. Another key difference was a move towards a more, how can I put it, 'organic' sort of sound. This impacted on the songwriting in terms of theme development and dynamics. This direction affected instrument selection too, such as the use of real woodwind, a more traditional guitar amp sound, a more intimate vocal sound, etc.
SOT: Some reviews have stated that the band is sort of like a prog-metal version of Jadis, while others call the band a great throwback to the classic prog bands of old. What are your views?
PM: Prog-metal? Well, I definitely think we have a powerful, almost metallic edge
to the music and certainly there are a few riffs around, but Wolfgang's
up-front approach prevents us sounding too metallic. I think we were all a bit puzzled when a couple of reviewers cited Jadis as a reference. Aside from the fact that Simon sings powerfully yet melodically (as does Gary Chandler), I see little similarity to be honest. I really quite like what I've heard of Jadis but then again I like the Beatles too and they don't sound like us either. I'd like to think we've picked up on the pioneering, experimental spirit of the prog bands of old but there's been so much great music since those guys were at the height of their powers that it would be silly to start from
exactly the same place. We've had punk, metal, post-rock, etc, and so many
virtuoso players have come along to stretch the boundaries since the 70's
that there are far more possibilities now - the canvas is broader.
SOT: How has the response been to Argot?
PM: Wonderful, thank you. I think a lot of reviewers have realized that Argot
is an album that requires time to digest, and have indeed invested that time
before putting pen to paper. The reviews I've seen so far have all been
extremely encouraging. We feel as if there's been a huge vote of confidence
in what we're doing. There was a period of about 6 weeks after we'd
mastered Argot where I sat back and thought, "I wonder how people will react
to it?" Certainly I'd got so close to the material, the writing, playing and
recording that it was almost impossible to appreciate it as an audience
would, with a fresh pair of ears and no preconceptions. For a while I thought
we'd gone too far, too fast, but the reviews and sales so far have allayed
that fear, somewhat thankfully!
SOT: The band really differs from some of the modern so- called "neo-prog" groups out
there, featuring much more complex instrumentation and aggressive songs. Has this been the band's intent from the beginning?
PM: We certainly wanted to challenge ourselves compositionally and technically,
for sure. Primarily though, we all wanted to write and play music we enjoyed,
with no limitations and no compromises. The idea of targeting a market, or
creating a new niche is simply alien to us. I've been in that position before
and you really can't make good music when you don't believe in it.
TK differs, I believe, in that there is a group of musicians with differing
influences that have found common ground to explore and the result, perhaps
not surprisingly, is a little different to anything that's gone before. I
guess we've taken a risk with this approach, we could have ended up with some
ghastly raga-jazz-fusion-concept album, but I think it's worked for us.
Certainly we're all enjoying ourselves and that's the main thing.
SOT: The band mentions National Health, Hatfield and the North, Bruford, UK,
Gentle Giant, Yes and Jeff Beck as influences. What are the band's favorite
albums by these groups, and why?
PM: Golly. There are loads more than this list for sure. Andy's record collection
alone looks like 'The Golden Rock Years Collection, 1970 - 2001'...
For this set of bands, my personal choices would be:
Hatfield And The North - 'Rotters Club' ...ditto ... 'Mumps' raises all
the hairs on my body in spine tingling gooseflesh every time.
Bruford - 'Feels Good To Me' & 'One Of A Kind' ... enter Mr Holdsworth.
UK - 'UK' ... classic stuff, perhaps I'm odd in liking 'Mental Medication'
best. I remember working out the solo to 'In The Dead Of Night' as a
youngster, only to be told that he made it up fresh every night.... a
life lesson there!
Gentle Giant - 'In A Glass House', 'Freehand', 'Power and the Glory' etc.
This was Paul's biggest influence, and a band he introduced me to at
Whitchurch in '98. I'm a true convert now.
Yes - 'Yessongs', 'Close To The Edge, 'Relayer'. I loved this lot ever since
my older sister played me Yessongs when I was very young. I still think that
is one of the best albums ever in so many ways, all those wonderful
compositions played by a virtuoso band who'd come to fully understand the
Jeff Beck - 'There And Back', 'Guitar Shop'. A master of his craft.
SOT: Are there any current groups that the band admires?
P.M.: I think we all admire any of the bands who persist in playing this kind of
music. Prog has to be one of the hardest genres to take on. On the one hand,
'Prog' is a dirty word amongst the mainstream rock press and is a euphemism
for all things pretentious, old, self-indulgent, etc. Mention 'Prog' to
anyone in the high dollar side of music-biz land and you'll see them collapse
in hysterics whilst proclaiming 'Did the pixie riding the dragon steal your
flower mask?" On the other hand, those that listen to prog tend to be an incredibly
discerning audience, often with a high level of understanding of what you're
trying to do, and they have expectations to match. Prog fans demand
excellence and rightly so. A difficult job for a musician then, but I think there's a lot of decent groups around at the minute that are doing the job well. If from a prog
perspective we define admirable as "a band that has decided that it knows its
musical agenda and is pursuing it no matter what", then I would list the
likes of Thinking Plague, Cardiacs, The Underground Railroad, Platypus, Ozric
Tentacles, Radiohead and even Spocks Beard and the Flower Kings.
SOT: Are there any tours in the making for the band?
PM: We're busy rehearsing at the minute and with luck will organize a series of
gigs this year and into 2002 too. Having recorded 2 albums now, we are all
bursting to get out and play the material live. The main problem seems to be
a reduction in the number of gig venues available, in England especially.
Luckily there are some excellent festivals around the world so all is not
totally lost, but the days of organizing a string of small intimate gigs that
spans a country in a decent timeframe have all but gone I think, to
SOT: Where does Thieves' Kitchen want to be in 5 years, and where does the
band think Progressive Rock music will be in that span?
PM: There are no definite plans beyond gigging and a sketched-in timeframe for the
follow up to Argot at the moment. In 5 years time - and indeed 10 and 15
years time - I hope we will still be playing the music we enjoy and
continuing to challenge ourselves. I think there will be an underground
appreciation of prog for at least the foreseeable future. I don't think you
can ever rule out an upsurge of interest in prog (or even, gasp, a revival),
but who knows. Who can say whether a band like Radiohead won't turn the
corner and morph from 'OK Computer' into something more like 'Larks Tongues'.
Personally I doubt it, but never say 'never'...