Tracer AMC Wear Their Hearts on Their Sleeves

Francis Jones talks to the instrumental act on trying to do something different

An initially reticent public is realising that, when done well, instrumental music can assume an emotional fluency that renders the need for a vocalist obsolete.

Conceived in 1999, Tracer AMC have been pivotal in the Belfast's musical vanguard.

Their second album Islands is a meticulously constructed montage of sound, multi-layered and textured. It is music with an exhilarating edge.

You must be fed up with lazy comparisons to other instrumental bands. How do you describe the Tracer AMC sound?

Alex Donald: We’re instrumental, certainly, but bands such as Mogwai are concerned with juxtaposing the really quiet and the really loud and there’s not that much more to it. With our stuff there are so many layers, you hear more with repeated listens, it’s not just here’s the quiet bit, brace yourself, here’s the loud bit. I think the songs have got a lot buried in them that people will only get to hear by listening closely.

Traditionally rock bands, no matter their particular genre, employ a vocalist. The lyrical content is the medium through which their songs relate a narrative. As an instrumental band what exactly are Tracer trying to express, is it about conveying emotion?

Jonny Ashe: Yes, it’s about feeling, it’s about emotion. I find that most lyrics are nonsensical anyway. We have put lyrics onto things anyway, but really it doesn’t make any difference.

Alex: If any of us wrote anything with a lyric that we felt strongly enough about then it would be used. But, I don’t think any of us sit down and go, ‘we’re gonna write a song for people to sing along to’. It’s not what we’re about and it’s not what we wanna do.

Did you ever find that your approach, the lack of a vocalist etc has been a hindrance, be it to getting gigs or getting airplay?

Jonny: It still is. I think we have that feeling of being that bit apart from the mainstream.

Michael Kinloch: Airplay on the radio is hard to get when you’ve got a 10 minute long instrumental song, but we couldn’t be three minute pop wonders even if we wanted to.

Alex: Even in terms of us getting shows, I think people are gonna look at our set and go ‘right they’re gonna have half an hour and they’re gonna play two songs’. I think that might put people off.

Michael: A lot of people are only into mainstream stuff and look at Tracer like ‘who are they, what’s happening?’ The people who do get it seem to really click onto it and the rest are, at best, indifferent.

Alex: It was like the Queen’s gig where there were lots of people really into it, but once you got about half way back in the bar the reaction generally was ‘what’s that?’ and people just continued their conversation.

Keith Winter: A lot of instrumental bands love to play up to this fact that they are instrumental. At the Sigur Ros gig I realised there was this new generation who had only just realised that music wasn’t only what you hear on the radio. We don’t consciously try to play up to any image or conceit.

You formed in 1999 and then in 2004 released the debut album Flux and Form. Why wait so long to put that record out?

Alex: Whenever we started playing it was just me and Jonny. We had no songs, we were just feeling our way. A friend of Keith’s drummed for us for a while before Keith joined us on a permanent basis. We did the first two singles before Michael joined. It just took us time to get the songs together and to get used to having that extra person playing. When we were ready then we did Flux and Form, we spent a long time doing that record and getting it right. We had recorded it a year before it came out. A few months after the release of Flux and Form we started work on Islands.

Alex: If we had have done the album shortly after the first single the simple truth is it wouldn’t have been very good. We recorded the albums ourselves and in 2001 we just weren’t ready to do that.

You have received a great degree of critical acclaim. Do Tracer have aspirations to garner wider acclaim, beyond being a respected Belfast act?

Alex: I think we would like to get our record out in as many places as possible. It has come out in Japan and done really well and we’re starting to get reviews out there. The label in Japan has been great, getting the record on the shelves and getting us magazine exposure. If we get to go there that would be great. Also there are things popping up in places where we didn’t have press for the last record. With the last record we got reviews in places we hadn’t expected, for example, The Wire and then you have the same people writing for other publications in America and giving us great reviews.

You mentioned about all the places you would like to play, but seem equally passionate about the recording process. Do you see Tracer as primarily a studio or live act?

Alex: I think to date we are definitely a recording act. What we do live is quite far removed from the record. The record has so many elements that we couldn’t even contemplate doing live. Where you are hearing two guitars live there might have been twenty in the recording. Stuff you are only going to pick up on when you’ve got the headphones on. I think that is where the records have been really strong. We do the live stuff because it’s fun and gets people to notice us. With the four of us on stage you’re getting a raw rock band.

Jonny: It’s funny because everyone who has seen the band after having heard the record comments on how good the live performance is and subsequently how they can then match that to the record. When Flux and Form came out you would have a few people at gigs shouting out the song names and clapping when things were played. It’s important that you can merge the recording work and live performance in that way.

Alex: It would be even better if we were in the position whereby we could bring some of those additional ‘recorded’ elements to the live show. For example, another guitar, or someone to play the glockenspiel part or a second drummer for the album tracks in which Keith utilised two drum kits.

Do you think that when you are performing live you have to work harder because you don’t have a frontman to act as the band’s focal point?

Alex: Not really, whenever we go up to play we’re gonna work just as hard, it doesn’t matter who’s in front of us or what the situation is. Sometimes our approach and the lack of a vocalist can be an advantage. At an Edinburgh gig all the other acts were singer-songwriters or indie bands. Then we came on and what we were doing was so far removed from those other acts that it stood out. In that context it really helped to be different.

You have your own label, We Love Records, and seem like a business-savvy outfit. Have you always had a grand vision of what you want to achieve?

Alex: From the outset we always had the intention that we wouldn’t sit about and wait for someone else to put our music out. You could end up with a bad deal and we just thought that if we’re gonna mess up it’s better to mess up ourselves. We’ve done two albums and I think that for the next one we might let someone else do it for us. Basically someone to do the stuff we don’t have the contacts, money or know-how to do. Provided we were happy with what was offered then we would let someone else take over that side of things.

Instrumental bands, the common conception is that they are very cerebral, that they are more about the head than the heart.

Alex: I don’t think we’re like that, but there are a lot of bands doing a lot of really limited, bad instrumental music. Soulless and clinical music.

Keith: I agree, I think that is the conception, but I don’t think it’s true about Tracer AMC. There’s a lot of heart in Tracer AMC.