Getting Deep with Sea Pinks
Neil Brogan tells all about the Belfast band's seventh LP in eight years, from his surprise at their staying power to not succumbing to synths. Stream 'Rockpool Blue' below
Just like the inevitability of the seasons, so too we hear the news of another storming record by Belfast three-piece Sea Pinks. Rockpool Blue will be the band’s seventh album in eight years. The group are one of the most prolific around and maintain a catalogue of critically-acclaimed tunes. From sweet reverb melodies to rockin’ distorted blasts, Sea Pinks have a distinct sound centred around keeping a song tight and usually no more than three and a half minutes. No prog-rock sessions with this band.
Sea Pinks was started as a solo project by singer/songwriter/guitarist Neil Brogan back in 2010, single-handedly writing and playing every instrument on debut record Youth is Wasted. As the years and LPs have gone by, Brogan has introduced other members to the group. Presently, Sea Pinks also include drummer David Agnew and bassist Gary Cummins – their newest recruit. Before their new album launch on September 28 at the Black Box, Culture NI caught up with Brogan to explore the colourful sounds of Sea Pinks.
The new tracks in Rockpool Blue sound like you're still on top form. But after seven Sea Pinks albums, are you not exhausted? How do you keep writing a consistent body of music? Plus the promo and touring that goes along with being a band.
Neil Brogan: I’m not exhausted by making music, quite the opposite. I love making songs; writing them, then developing them at practice. The drawn out process of recording, where it can be a couple of months between days in a studio, then mixing, mastering and then moving onto getting it ready for release I do find very draining. If I could record and mix an album in a week, then pass it on to a label to do all the rest that would be the dream, but so far it’s never worked out like that. Touring can definitely be a grind, but it’s fun at the same time, for the most part. It’s always memorable anyway. Promo (stuff like this) is a piece of cake by comparison.
Sea Pinks' music is synonymous with spring, sunshine, outdoors, beaches, maybe a bit of drizzle – what environs do you think have influenced your sound? And in particular for your new release?
I always think of us more as an autumn band. I usually try to get the albums out in September or October, with a couple of exceptions. Watercourse was a summer album and Soft Days came out in January so ended up being a dead of winter record. 'Run & Run' was a spring single though and very much about springtime. I definitely feel affected by seasons in terms of writing songs, the kind of songs I feel like writing at a particular time of year. I think domesticity more than any outdoor environment probably influenced the new record.
Rockpool Blue involves songs about adult responsibilities; overriding the impulse to self doubt; and the masking of male insecurity. Could you explain the main ideas behind the words of the LP? Are you commenting on you growing up and observing the world around you?
I’d rather not go into the meanings of things. You’ve obviously read the press release. I hate writing those! I feel like such a fraud writing some spiel in the third person. I could pay some hack to write something but it would be just as excruciating. Its like seeing an artist’s statement, it becomes an obstacle between the work and the viewer. I did draft a much more vitriolic press release this time but went with the more safe, boring option in the end. The one I went with probably makes it sound a bit heavy but actually I think it’s a fun record, with plenty of tunes.
All those years ago when you first released Youth is Wasted as a solo-project, was it your intention for Sea Pinks to be a long-lasting band?
Absolutely not! I had no plan beyond doing our first tape, Youth is Wasted, in the first instance. At that time I was involved in a lot of one off projects and didn’t really think beyond doing one thing at a time. I didn’t follow the prescribed trajectory of a new band, building hype by putting out a few singles, touring, then a debut album after a couple of years. I just banged out an album and then played a few shows and it kept going from there. I did everything ass backwards in terms of hype and all that, and I’ve probably paid for that in terms of reach. I’m impatient I suppose. If you’d told me then that I was going to devote eight years to it I’d probably have spat in your face.
Since you first started, what have you learnt along the way? Musically and also personally?
I’m a better guitarist for sure. I’ve learned about recording and mixing records, and delegating things in a band. I now use some effects pedals, but not too many. I used to try and do everything myself, I try not to do that so much now. I still don’t know the names of the strings, or what note I’m playing or the names of any chords apart from the basic ones.
When you began Sea Pinks, you also said your 1966 Fender Mustang guitar pretty much wrote the songs. Why do think it influenced your sound?
It was the first offset guitar I owned, and the first Fender. I still have it, though I’ve modified it a fair bit. It marked the beginning of my obsession with guitars. I’d played for years prior to that with virtually no interest in the instrument itself. It had been modified pretty heavily before I got it, with a super distortion pickup in the neck, so it had a pretty fat sound. I didn’t even know the difference between a neck and bridge pickup when I got it. I knew virtually nothing. I just kept picking it up and playing it, and before I knew it I had a bunch of songs.
Sea Pinks has a new band member in bassist Gary Cummins. How did you find him? And how is he fitting into the group?
Gary is fitting in very well so far. I’m looking forward to playing these shows with him. I saw him playing with his other band The Dreads and was impressed, knew him a little bit socially also. He’s a nice guy and very quick at picking things up.
Why did (original bassist) Steven Henry leave? What did he bring that you might not quite get again?
That’s a question for Steven really, I can’t answer for him. I will say that his leaving was amicable, we are all still friends. It was a pleasure playing alongside him in Sea Pinks but I respected his decision to move on when he did. He definitely brought his own unique style of playing to the records and shows. And just his personality of course. I don’t think that we’re diminished without him though, just a wee bit different. The new record, which I think is our best, is evidence of that.
Each record’s artwork has a similar yet distinct design with pastel colours and paint stroke font. Who does the artwork for your albums? And before you start each new record, do you have an idea of what it will look and sound like?
I’ve done the artwork layout for all but one of the albums, which was Dreaming Tracks. A very good illustrator called Lucy Jones worked with me on that one and also the 'Minimum Wage' cover, which was an offcut from Dreaming Tracks. Freak Waves is a photo by Jodi Cobb from National Geographic in 1977 I think. I had to get a license to use it. I always end up doing the design in a rush once the album itself is finished. I can never afford to pay people so I end up doing it myself. I’m always a wreck by the end of it.
I’m lucky though in that I’m married to an artist (Hannah Casey-Brogan) who lets me use her work for free and also takes photos of us when needed. Hannah took the cover photos for Watercourse and Soft Days, and her work is on the cover and labels of Rockpool Blue. I usually have an idea of the sound I want and if I’m lucky one or two of the songs will end up conforming to that. I nearly always know the album title before I record it.
Bands tend to go into the direction of experimentation with synthesizers, why have you kept the sound of Sea Pinks focused on reverb guitar melodies and not digital sounds with beats?
Yeah, I kind of feel like that’s a bit predictable though. As if the only way to diversify your sound in a guitar band is with synths. Bands with synths get seen as somehow cutting edge, when they tend to fetishise the analogue sound of 40 years ago. I’d like to say our sound has remained guitar orientated because I’m such a purist about it but really it comes down to money. I usually have very limited time in the studio to track everything and there just isn’t the time to d**k about with synths and other instruments. If someone else was paying for it then yeah, maybe.
Your Minimum Wage LP is like a mini-best hits compilation of live performances. But the opening track of the same name was a new song. It stands out from the pack with its raw attitude and sound. What made you write and record that tune?
It was something we improvised at practice, so it’s quite stripped back and there’s no chorus. The words attached themselves pretty early on, again just improvising. It was recorded while we were on tour last year at an analogue studio in Amsterdam, on our day off. I was not really feeling the laid back smoke filled atmosphere and I think it comes across in the performance.
You said in an interview many years ago that there wasn’t really a scene in Belfast for music, but have your thoughts changed on that view? With the likes of Girls Names, Gross Net, Fears, Die Hexen, Ghost Office and more gracing gigs across the country.
I think what I meant by that was that there wasn’t a self conscious scene with bands deliberately working together to form some kind of movement or coalescing around a label, that kind of thing. There were good bands then and there’s good bands now in Belfast, but I still think it’s quite a loose thing in terms of their relation to each other. There’s a few bands in Belfast I feel we have stuff in common with, but equally I feel connected to bands like the Number Ones in Dublin, and bands much farther afield than that. It’s limiting in this day and age to talk about city specific scenes.
I definitely want to work on other things. When you concentrate on one thing it can end up taking over and I just want a bit more freedom outside that (self imposed) format. Bands need the support and belief and investment of a label, and I basically end up doing and paying for everything as a self releasing artist. So it would be nice to do something else, with someone else taking a punt on it for a change. If you’re reading this and you run or work for a successful label, give me a shout! As for Sea Pinks, it’s still an active thing. I think what I meant on Bandcamp was that we might not operate in the album cycle orientated way from this point on, but we’ll see. I’m still enjoying doing it for now, and it still feels like there’s something to prove.
Sea Pinks launch their new album Rockpool Blue at the Black Box, Belfast on Friday September 28. For tickets and more information go to: https://www.blackboxbelfast.com/event/sea-pinks/.