Oxford four-piece Low Island tend to be classified as either dance/electronic or indie pop, two genres infused with distinct promises for the listener: grooves to move to, or songs to ponder. Both categories suggest a certain polish in the production and an emotional register that is not too messy. While these labels are not untrue – and help to situate the band’s four acclaimed EPs and forthcoming debut album, If You Could Have It All Again – they don’t fully square with a more nuanced, less predictable truth.
Low Island seem to have a penchant for doing things their own way. Take the growing number of alternate song versions they have released or posted online. Or their decision last year to form a record label and go full-DIY, with responsibilities shared by the four childhood friends: singer and multi-instrumentalist Carlos Posada, producer Jamie Jay, bassist Jacob Lively and jazz drummer Felix Higginbottom.
It could also explain why, an hour after their exhilarating set at Zurich Openair in 2019, Carlos ambled through the crowd and chatted openly with a couple of exhilarated new fans (guilty as charged). Or why he, in the thick of the first lockdown, offered to DM a private mini-performance of any Low Island song to the first 30 quick-fingered fans (guilty as charged). I can still remember how big that gesture felt on the screen in my hand, as he spoke about the origins of slow-burner That Kind of Love before launching into a few bars from the room where he had written it.
Just over a month ago, we had the chance to hold a proper two-way conversation through bigger screens. After reminiscing about Zurich Openair, we talked about the new album, the lure of imperfection and, of course, the motivation behind the Instagram video messages. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
Artist in the pandemic
So, what made you decide to send out the private video messages?
I guess at around the time, I just remember thinking that I was seeing lots of artists doing things to connect with their fans. I think we are in a luxurious position because, you know, we don’t have millions and millions of followers. We can be quite personal, and I enjoy that more. I also find – and I’ve bored people about this quite a lot – that like most people, I have quite a complicated relationship with social media. Sometimes I think it’s great and sometimes I think it’s terrible. I enjoy using it the most when it’s personal, so the more I can make it feel personal, the more I enjoy being part of that space. When the band becomes like a brand, just selling to you, then I really don’t have much time for it. I think that’s kind of why.
It was interesting to see how different artists responded during the lockdown. There were certain cases, like this one, which were so generous and heartening. I count Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties as part of that amazing spirit, or when Mike from Royal Blood taught us how to play “Figure It Out” on Instagram. With others, it sometimes seemed sort of manufactured.
I think it’s something that everyone has to do. Everyone has to engage on social media in some way or another. Whether you’re a fan, artist or, whatever, a politician, you have to find a way that you feel comfortable using it and ideally feels true to you. And also isn’t forced. The best is when it can feel natural, and you’re not trying to put on a front or be someone you’re not.
When you sense the industry behind it, sometimes it’s less fun. But, of course, now you are the industry because you’ve taken things into your own hands.
Well, that’s the thing. Sometimes, you can see a transparency in the way artists use stuff. It’s quite clear that someone said: You need to do this. Again, we’re in this weirdly lucky position. No one is telling me to do anything, and that’s very liberating. We do things in the way that feels natural to us and is hopefully enjoyed by other people. If you’re going to self-manage, at the very least you hope that will be the outcome.
You have some fun, hopefully.
Exactly, and you can do things in the way that you want to. Also, what I’ve loved about all of this over the last year has been watching artists outside of these glitzy settings. I think one of my favorite ones was seeing Thom Yorke play one of his unreleased songs in his basement on an iPhone. Seeing artists in those natural environments has really been so enjoyable, where there’s not all of the camerawork. Everyone looks natural and real, and I think that’s really important. The way we use social media sometimes feels unreal.
The debut album
I wonder if this is part of the impulse you seem to have, particularly with the new album, to put out more alternate or stripped-back versions than you have in the past. Is that a deliberate strategy, or were you simply unable to commit to the version you wanted on the album?
I think that increasingly, the way we consume art, music and culture is – it’s not just this one moment where, like, here’s the song, there you go, and then it’s over. For me, the art is the whole journey and context around it. Maybe there’s one version of the song, another version of the song and the version we chose to put on Spotify. A song has multiple lives, and it also takes us a long time to get to that point. To me, it seems way more exciting and fun that there are loads of different versions, and you can hear those as well and make your mind up about them. It’s also a lot truer to the way that we make things. It’s a very long process, believe it or not.
Yes, you’ve said before that you sometimes don’t know when to stop.
We all don’t know when to stop, so in a way, being true to the band is to let people in on that. This isn’t like someone bashes something out in a week and then we have the finished version. Some of these songs are four years old, so it’s fun to let people in on that – just in case you thought this was really easy and we were just kind of getting on with it. No, there’s, like, 30 versions of some of these songs, and none of this was easy for us.
So much living left to do
Is there a particular track or line on the new album that means a lot to you or you can’t wait to perform?
I think there are lots of different moments. One that comes to me right now is in the first track (Hey man). A lot of the record is kind of lamenting time that feels sometimes lost and that we didn’t make the best of. And it’s strange to say, but I’m probably in a much happier place now than when we made the record. So I think the line “There’s so much living left to do…” will resonate strongly. I’ll feel something singing that because I probably didn’t feel that line as strongly at the time.
I suspect you put a lot of thought into the track order.
We did. And when we were recording, we had about 20 demos or a bit more. Maybe there were two different albums that could have been made. There was a more hard-hitting, dancier-type record, and there was more emotive, melancholic stuff. We chose this route in the end, and sequencing it was really important. It was a very long process with a lot of stages.
In all of your EPs, you create these micro worlds. With the album, as you said before, there is a sense of lost time and youth as well as regret. If I think of This Other Life (2018 EP), this is a recurring theme, wouldn’t you say?
I think so, and maybe the album was for me – though maybe we’ll come back to it – kind of the peak. In a way, all of those songs are sound-tracking a period of time. I guess I am a bit of a broken record, but I’m thinking about writing new stuff now. I’m like, how can we move on from that?
You can look at it another way. The other day, a writer I know said, “Isn’t it all just love and loss?” – as in, what else are you going to write about?
I feel like that a lot. And that feels or at least has felt like the most inspiring place to write from. I think what’s exciting about actually making an album is to say, you know, I’ve really done my best and worked very hard at dealing with that side of things. And now, when we look to other things, maybe get out of the comfort zone and try to write about something else.
I guess you wouldn’t know this right now because you haven’t been able to perform, but are there certain tracks from your past catalogue that you wouldn’t want to perform or just don’t seem right anymore?
I think the live shows are a very different beast. Sometimes, you find that stuff still really works playing it live. Also, speaking as a music fan, I love going to see bands and the old catalogue is still there, even if it doesn’t feel quite right. They’ve gone somewhere else, and in many ways that’s even more fun because it’s almost like you’re watching two different bands. So I personally don’t have a sort of embargo on any of the old catalogue.
I read that That’s Right (from 2017 EP In This Room) was the first song you wrote together. I found parallels with Spaces Closing In on the new album. They both turn a corner you don’t expect and create space where you really didn’t have any.
With the way we write music nowadays, you often are writing in loops and then find yourself in a very satisfying loop. And the biggest challenge is always: How do we break that? How do we get out of that? The tendency when you’re doing that is to build, build, build, and the build has to deliver something. More often than not, at least I find it difficult to actually make good on that promise of the build. So the best thing you can do is just go somewhere else entirely, and I think that’s what happened with those two tracks.
On that note, here’s a little quote from Kim Gordon that taps into something you just said: “There’s definitely a certain smoothness about contemporary music today that I just kind of want to break.” You also seem to be playing with perfection-imperfection and keeping people on their toes.
I hope so. You know, I think we play with and explore the smoother type of pop music on the record. But I hope that we also have a more jagged side of it in certain tracks, where things aren’t expected and feel a bit shocking – like the drums in track one (Hey Man). That song started originally as just a little folk song on the guitar, and then it was like, how do we burn this track? How do we just completely destroy it?
I actually thought of Black Midi and that sense of disintegration, though it’s not as severe.
That was an inspiration for that track, for sure. We were thinking about those crazy outbursts in Black Midi that feel more like free jazz rather than something which is strictly prescribed. We are playing with that stuff I don’t think in any way as bravely as a band like Black Midi, but it’s sort of there, under the surface.
Do you think you would like to be braver?
I think so. Always, you know – you can always be braver as an artist. And I think the good stuff always comes from feeling a bit uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with yourself.
Our version of pop
When you spoke about pop before, how would you define it? And what would you like to do differently or the same, for that matter?
I guess pop can be so many things. Pop can be really brave and daring and bold and insane. It can also be very safe. Personally, I love both kinds, and we in the band are not musical snobs at all. We’ll be in the tour bus and someone will be blasting out the purest pop track you can imagine, and then the next second we’ll be listening to Black Midi. And sometimes, the brave thing to do is to say that you love the pop track! Our version of pop, I guess, sort of grazes the safety of the mainstream kind of pop, but I don’t think we ever quite get there.
You pull it back.
Exactly, we don’t ever quite commit to it. Whether that’s deliberate or not, I can’t really say, but it’s just what happens.
You once said you were terrified about the album release. How does it feel now?
I don’t feel scared. I feel very proud of us for sticking at it, especially in the last year when things have just been so uncertain and so difficult. So much of the time, we were skirting around the surface of making a longer-form piece of work because of the commitment to a body of work – I’ve always been very stylistically disparate. Now, my greatest feeling of excitement is to look at the next thing.
Inspiration from literature
You said you took your inspiration for the album from literature – from dark literature, you could argue, or at least anti-heroes – yet the music often retains a real brightness. How can you explain that?
I think contradicting emotions are at play all the time. And whilst often I have felt very despairing about things, there’s always been some kind of hope. I guess that whilst, yes, things can be difficult, whether that might be working out who you are or falling short of your or someone else’s expectations, there is always something positive that can come out of that. The record’s trying to capture that point of collision, I think.
I do have one last question. When we spoke briefly at Zurich Openair, you said you still had a lot to learn. Do you think you’ve learned anything since?
Yeah, a lot! I’ve learned that if you’re an emerging or young act, and you’re still trying to make things work and release your music, sometimes the best person to do that is you. I think that a lot of the time, we’re sold in the music industry that we need other people to get your music heard, or it’s not going to be good unless you have a producer, or if you don’t have a record label, what’s the point? So one of the main things I’ve learned is to trust in yourself and trust in your band – as a thing on its own.
If You Could Have It All Again is out on April 16th via Emotional Interference.