Humanist – Rob Marshall on the Self-Titled Debut | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Humanist – Rob Marshall on the Self-Titled Debut

Everything You’ve Got

Feb 26, 2020
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Rob Marshall has been making music for the best part of two decades. Having cut his teeth with ambient shoegazers Lyca Sleep at the turn of the century, he's perhaps best known as being the guitarist in Exit Calm. Essentially a natural progression from his first band, Exit Calm released a handful of critically acclaimed singles and two albums over their nine years of existence before disbanding in 2015.

Having initially turned his back on music, Marshall started writing again towards the end of 2016 and his latest project Humanist was born. Veering away from the traditional band set up, Marshall played every instrument while collaborating with a host of different vocalists across each of the 14 tracks that make up Humanist's self-titled debut, including Mark Lanegan, Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan, Ride's Mark Gardener, punk legend John Robb, and Joel Cadbury from South.

Taking in a range of musical styles and sounds, Humanist is one of the most ambitious and ultimately fruitful records you'll hear all year. So Under the Radar got the lowdown from its creator itself, Mr. Rob Marshall.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): Where did the idea to create a project like Humanist stem from?

Rob Marshall: It's odd because I didn't really think about it. It just started to happen. Coming out of Exit Calm, it felt like all I'd ever done was be in a rehearsal room, write music then tour. I was totally consumed by that band so when it came to an end, I spent about six months not wanting anything to do with music any more. It was all I'd ever done and it was difficult because we treated it like a full time job even though we didn't get paid enough money to survive. It was quite a difficult balance so when Exit Calm ended I needed a bit of time away. Then this happened. It just calls you really and I found myself doing stuff again. I got about six or seven tracks together that sounded pretty good and I definitely didn't want to do what I'd done before; be in a four-piece guitar band. So the idea of getting different vocalists involved seemed like a natural progression. Mark [Lanegan] was one of the first that I got my manager to approach and it snowballed from there.

Do you play all the music on the album or did other musicians get involved with that as well?

No it's me. I played everything. I got my head around recording over the last couple of years and just sat there and used my ear really. Nobody showed me how to do anything. I just started writing complete pieces of music, which I guess is how the stuff with Mark Lanegan came about. I programmed all the drums, which are on the record, but then ended up replacing about 60% of those with live drums. So I got Scott [Pemberton], who was the drummer in Exit Calm to play on the album. We went and recorded some live drums over a couple of days in the studio then layered them on top of the record.

Which is the oldest song on the album? How far back do the songs date?

Probably about four years actually. It's been quite a long gestation period. Essentially it started before Gargoyle came out, which was the first Mark Lanegan album I worked on. I'd got five or six tracks together and sent a couple to Mark, which he sang on. About two weeks after that, Mark phoned me about doing Gargoyle with him. He was meant to be doing it with Alain Johannes but he was about to go on tour with PJ Harvey so it was a very small window to him. Mark had two weeks to make this next record so he phoned me up and asked if I had any Humanist material left over as he wasn't really digging the whole of his record. I didn't so I locked myself away for about 10 days and recorded something new instead. I sent him seven tracks and he used six on the record pretty much as I'd sent them bar some of the drums. Then afterwards he sent me a message saying the drum programming sounds just as good as does with a live drummer so ended up using that as well. That was the summer of 2017 when Gargoyle came out so I guess most of these songs date back to around six months before that.

How did you decide which vocalists you wanted to collaborate with? Was it easy getting them all on board?

It was actually a lot easier than you'd think it would be. Once we'd got Mark on board people tended to follow suit. I wrote down a list of names I wanted to approach so everybody who's on the record came from there apart from Dave Gahan and Ron Sexsmith. The only name on the list that didn't end up being on the record was Siouxsie Sioux. I've been speaking with her manager for quite a long time. I'm still hoping to work with her at some point in the future, fingers crossed. It certainly wasn't a closed door. The first single was going to be a track with Mark Lanegan but then we had a clash with releases. So I couldn't release "Kingdom" with Mark when I wanted to because he had a single out at the same time. That was when Mark asked if I had any other tracks so I played him "Shock Collar" and he suggested Dave Gahan. I was shocked and didn't know if he'd be up for it but it turns out Dave and Mark are really good friends. So Mark sent him the track and within a few hours Dave came back saying he really liked it then a couple of days later sent it back with some vocals. It must have only been around 48 hours later, but I remember getting the email back with an attachment on it. Ron Sexsmith came about via the power of social media. Weirdly he just started following me on Twitter and I knew I had a track that would be perfect for him. It's a bit of a wild one compared to the rest of the record but I wanted to throw something in people wouldn't expect. So I contacted Ron via social media and luckily he said yes! He listened to it and said "leave it with me," but then a few weeks passed and I didn't hear anything. So I gave him a little nudge and sure enough he sent back "How're You Holding Up?" which I was chuffed to bits with. John Robb was another one I'd been speaking to for a bit. He loved the idea of coming to St Leonards-on-Sea where I'm living now and was a big fan of Gargoyle as well. His knowledge of music is second to none; he's a walking encyclopaedia but also so humble and down to earth. We'd been communicating with each other since Gargoyle, then one day when he was in Hastings we met up and he asked if he could do a track for the Humanist record. So he came down to play on a track, which I didn't end up using, and we sat around chatting and drinking tea. Then we decided to write something new and almost immediately came up with "English Ghosts." It took just as long to record, which was about 18 minutes, and then it was done. So after he went away I edited it down and added a few drums but the bones of it were pretty much done and it's become the centerpiece of the album. Those two were the last ones I finished on the record, "Shock Collar" and "English Ghosts."

Were there any other songs written around the same time that didn't make the record? Will they see the light of day in the future?

Yeah, loads! This record's a double album yet it could easily have been four records. I must have written around 40 tracks in total. I haven't stopped writing since the start of this project right through to the two Lanegan records up to where we are now. I literally haven't stopped for such a long period of time. I have this process where I get up in a morning really early when it's dark, which for some reason works with me. Then I'd pick up my guitar or a bass and just write instantly. It just came out, so by the time it was the afternoon I had all these track ideas flowing it. It was about as mystical as it could get! I don't believe in God or anything but it's about as close to connecting with some kind of energy where time stops and you don't think of anything so end up giving in to this thing. So you go with it and come out the other side with this piece of music. Then the science comes in because you get more involved with the mixing which can be creative. But the real creativity in giving birth to a track is something else.

You're taking Humanist on tour at the end of March with a full band. How did that come about? I expect it will be challenging trying to replicate some of the songs live off the album.

It will, but then it was always my intention for the songs to take a bit of a different journey live. I'm all about the here and now, and you can't replicate something completely because it was done a couple of years ago. Nor should you. I don't want to be in a boring band and just play them exactly the same as on the record. It's all about energy and trying to create something in the room. I'd like to think we at least attempted to do that with Exit Calm. That's the way I am. So with regards to the band, I've played with Scott [Pemberton, drums] for nearly 20 years and we've become really good friends as well. So he was really up for getting involved in it. Then when it came to bass players, we'd played with Tatia Starkey's old band Belakiss before and she was really good so I asked her, sent over some tracks and she agreed to do it. The three of us had been rehearsing for a bit, and then I had the idea of getting a vocalist in. Me and James [Mudriczki] had been communicating for a while, and he'd shown a bit of interest so came down to the rehearsal room and it was incredible. It shouldn't work because most of the vocalists on the album are baritone whereas James is more falsetto but it really does. I thought it would be good to do something different and fight against that to show we're not trying to replicate the album live. James is the polar opposite of Mark [Lanegan] when it comes to how they sound, but at the same time both have this presence about them where as soon as they open their mouths people stop and listen. They're the real deal. It just comes out and you can't deny it. Even I was surprised in the room. He really took those songs and made them his own, so I can't wait to get out on the road and play them now to be honest.

Will you be playing every song off the album at some point on the tour?

We've not rehearsed every single track off the album. The main reason being because everybody lives in different places so it's costly to get together and rehearse. Scott is in South Yorkshire, Tatia's in London, James is based in Manchester, and I'm in East Sussex so you couldn't get more distance between us all if you tried! We're playing about 10 tracks off the record. I've pulled out the ones I think will translate best live. Then also taken into consideration the ones I think James could take on best. The majority is all live vocals. We've got a couple of little samples, for example "Ring of Truth," which will have Carl Hancock-Rux's vocals sampled on the verse with James doing harmonies. Then James also does the high vocals on the chorus. It's sounding good. I didn't want to make another big guitar record. I felt like I'd achieved everything I ever could have done with the first Exit Calm album in terms of trying to be a big guitar-sounding band. I wanted to do something different with this and there are some guitar moments there. But I'd like to feel these are more complete pieces.

Will any of the guest vocalists be appearing on the tour?

It's difficult geographically for most of them, so I'd probably say no. I wanted to pull in people through the Humanist featuring James Mudriczki angle. I don't want people buying a ticket thinking Dave Gahan or Mark Lanegan might turn up and then they don't. I am going to try and pull in a few guests, and they might not necessarily be people off the record either because the whole idea of Humanist for me was trying to keep it beyond that. So if there's a bass player from Manchester that might want to get up on stage for a track they can. I'm keeping it pretty open really. For example, Will [Lillejord] whom I've known for years and is tour managing us is going to be playing rhythm guitar every night on "Shock Collar." Weirdly it's the only song that has a rhythm guitar on it. I don't normally play rhythm guitar, even when I was in Exit Calm. The whole sound came out of the rehearsal room together so I was writing the guitar parts as we went along. The difficulty was translating it onto record. Whereas with this it's the opposite way round. I wasn't even thinking about playing live when I was recording these tracks. That particular track ["Shock Collar"] has heavy rhythm guitar running all the way through it as an overdub. I didn't want to use a click track live as would just sound shit, so I thought Will plays guitar so why not ask him to get up and play. Again it's that concept. There are no rules. Whatever works. It's just about making these tracks sound good live. If that means the guy who's driving that also plays rhythm guitar gets on stage for a song then why not! 

I believe the album was also partly influenced by The Living Room, a Shane Meadows documentary about the late Gavin Clark?

Again, when Exit Calm split I had no plans to make any music. Guitars were lying around the house and I didn't know what I wanted to do. Fast forward six months and I was knocking out the first Humanist tracks. My old manager that used to look after our first band Lyca Sleep—a guy called John Brice—was managing Gavin Clark at the time and my brother called me up and said I should watch The Living Room as it's a really good documentary. Being a big fan of Gavin and Shane Meadows, I started watching the documentary, then the next day I woke up and found out [Gavin had] passed away. I knew my friend John was looking after Gavin so I thought about dropping him a text to see how he was, but at the same time didn't want to be one of those annoying people. So I picked up my guitar for the first time since Exit Calm finished and started writing some music. I just pressed record and it was a guitar improv. I'm a big fan of Vini Reilly and The Durutti Column so I recorded this ambient piece that was about nine minutes long. It was just a guitar improv with no overdubs, one take and it was quite poignant. I'm not very good with words or explaining myself, so I just sent this piece of music to John with a message saying I'm thinking of you. Luckily, John received it well and it touched him so I guess in a way that was the start of me being creative again. So it's a loose connection really. I'd met Gavin a couple of times and I'd like to think if he was around maybe we'd have worked together but that wasn't to be. I'm a huge fan of UNKLE as well and I always loved the tracks Gavin had sung on, as I did Joel [Cadbury] actually. I've known Joel a long time from when Lyca Sleep toured with South many years ago.

For someone who's been making music for the best part of 20 years, what advice would you give to someone that's just starting out now?

Don't do it! If you're getting into this to make a living then don't bother. Without trying to sound like Tony Wilson there really is no choice. I just end up doing this. I've lost count of the number of times I've questioned myself why. I do it because I have to. When I was making this record—when I'm writing any track to be honest—I thought of it as being the last thing I was ever going to make. I just do it for me. I don't think about it being for anybody else. I try to make it as meaningful and put something inside of it that's me into every piece of music I write. It means so much to me, and that makes me feel better when I've done something. It's almost like therapy. I'm not looking to get anything out of it other than to please myself. Of course I want people to like it now I've finished the record. I really put everything I've got into this record. I'm just trying to make something that means something and resonates with people. Life's fucking difficult. It throws all kinds of curveballs at you so hopefully this record will make people feel something.

Will there be any more shows this year or even festivals during the summer?

I'd love to. We've just got Steve Backman from Primary Talent as our booking agent so we're hoping to get some festivals. I want to take it as far as I can. The tour's looking pretty good so far. Manchester's already sold out and London isn't far behind. I'd love to go to Europe again and do a tour. Being at home and writing music is an amazing thing but it's quite a lonely experience. You're left pretty empty at the end of it all. But when you go out and play in front of people it's such a great feeling because you see people react to your music, and that's very fulfilling. What a beautiful thing to have and hopefully with Humanist I'll be able to grow it and make it into something where I can go out and celebrate these songs with people. Because those people become like family. There's nothing more I've ever wanted.

www.humanistuk.com

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