Edinburgh, Scotland-based experimental pop band Half Formed Things spent three years writing songs and developing a creative process before releasing their debut album in May of 2019. They ultimately emerged from their apartment studio in Leith with To Live in the Flicker, a dark, multilayered record enveloped in a misty halo of ambience.
Along with grandiose piano and percussion arrangements, the album explores its lyrical themes–from mental health and toxic masculinity to the psychology of procreation–with high literary heft. You might expect that from an album that references Heart of Darkness in its title, pointing to the transience of human life and civilization. What you might not expect is the rare combination of book-smart ambition and aesthetic imagination that follows.
To Live in the Flicker captures the time of its creation, not only in the glow of its songs, but also in the haze of samples that surrounds them. Sounds of church bells and bustling streets outside the studio windows flesh out the atmospheric production. There’s a living, breathing feel to each track, whether in airy, contemplative pieces like “April” and “To Walk Freely…” or in the searing urgency of “February,” where distant, panicked drum rattling sounds like it’s about to shake the room apart.
Half Formed Things are currently preparing for a 2020 tour following the departure of singer/percussionist Nici Hosking from their live lineup. As they enter this new phase, singer/guitarist Matthew Bakewell, singer/pianist Morgan Hosking, and drummer Edwin McLachlan spoke to The All Scene Eye about the making of To Live in the Flicker.
Where does the name Half Formed Things come from?
McLachlan: It’s a reference to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, a gut-wrenching novel that explores horrific themes through uniquely hypnotic, lyrical feminist prose. When the band was initially coming together, I felt there was a real thematic connection with the music we were trying to make.
When did you start working on To Live in the Flicker?
Bakewell: It was shortly after Nici joined in 2017 that we felt we had become “fully formed” and realized that we had enough material for an album. We’d recorded a single earlier that year with Nici providing guest vocals, and it quickly became apparent that we couldn’t go back to being a three-piece. Edwin had a pretty solid vision of what the album was going to sound like and already had the track list planned, so it was just a matter of scheduling the time to get together and get started.
Hosking: In a way, we’ve been working on it since the formation of the band. One of the most special aspects of the record is that it acts as a timeline for our evolution as a unit. The first track, “The Flicker,” was the first tune we ever wrote together, and the following tracks provide checkpoints for our cumulative progression. “The Calm” was the last song written, and fittingly closes the record.
The title is based on a line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; what does it mean to you to live “in the flicker?”
McLachlan: Referring to human existence as a flicker is beautiful and truthful as an expression, but you could argue there’s aloofness and dismissiveness in it. The distinction between trying to position yourself outside of our experience versus firmly placing yourself within it is to me an apt way of illustrating what we’re about as a band; there’s very little by way of broad-stroke, third-person songwriting on this record.
What’s the songwriting process like for you as a band?
McLachlan: Our process has been pretty malleable from the get-go, and I’m interested in keeping it that way. I don’t think you could make an album like this one if you had, for instance, a single principal songwriter, nor if you were a band that just jams things out and passively assembles them. The absence of a rigid model means there’s no fixed direction and a constant push-and-pull between the four of us, which protracts the process but enriches the results.
Hosking: Some of what was recorded can be traced back over ten years ago, outside of Half Formed Things and our relationships as friends and family. We each brought in threads of ideas to build upon, giving the rest of the group freedom to deconstruct and rebuild. Now that the record exists outside of us, the separation and subsequent perspective we have is gratifying, but so humbling.
You recorded the album in a flat in Edinburgh’s Leith district. For those who aren’t familiar, can you describe the area a bit?
Bakewell: Leith is in the north of the city, near the shores of the Forth River, and is a pretty vibrant and diverse place with some amazing cafes, pubs, and restaurants. It’s a pretty densely populated part of town, so you’re constantly getting snippets of people’s conversations and day to day life.
McLachlan: It was hit uniquely hard by industrial decline throughout the 20th century, and there are still signs of this everywhere. It’s in a constant state of dissonance with relentless gentrification and the innumerable contradictions that arise from that. Edinburgh is very much a city that’s being feasted upon by private entities; living costs are spiraling and our local government displays little interest in preserving arts and culture. Leith, for the time being, represents something of a bastion of multiculturalism, community action, history, and art for a great many people.
What was the atmosphere like in your recording space?
Hosking: Band HQ had always been our place because it was located on the same street as our practice space. Our dynamic as a band is homey and domestic, with practice and band meetings usually being broken up with someone making coffee or cooking dinner and pulling wine out of the kitchen fridge.
Our orbit of each other is entirely familial, which meant that for Edwin and I, it was hugely important we managed our time and space allocation, as we essentially turned our entire flat into a recording studio for the album. We didn’t always succeed, and there were certainly times the work day bled way into the night after Matt and Nic had left and gone to bed. We were living where we worked, with our surroundings inspiring the record, and that made it difficult to detach and switch off, but the space is evoked at every turn through its ambience. You can hear our home–hear what we heard on a daily basis.
Bakewell: We tried to make it as comfortable and non-studio-like as possible, with everyone in close proximity when people were recording their takes. There was a lot of interaction and constant feedback to make sure that everyone was happy with their takes and that everyone was on the same page. There’s always a healthy amount of perfectionism going on, so it can take time to get something just right, but everyone knows that patience will yield the best results.
What’s your favorite memory from the making of this album?
Hosking: We spent New Year’s Eve together recording some furious group drumming for the heavy section toward the end of “The One You Hate,” and there was something special about us all coming together to play the same instrument for the same section of a tune. It was so unifying.
You said the album acts as a timeline for your evolution as a unit. How did you see the band grow throughout the process of writing these songs?
Hosking: Primarily in our creative process. We started out with very little direction, zero structure, and essentially threw stuff around until something stuck. It wasn’t until we began working on executing the tracks that we really felt the lack of foundation and had to do some heavy recalibration in order to do them justice. In that respect, the album was hugely ambitious, and ours was a steep learning curve. The way we approach the next record will be very different as a result.
Did you know when you wrote “The Calm” that it was going to close the record? How did that track come together?
Hosking: “The One You Hate” was originally the album closer. It’s existed almost as long as “The Flicker,” and our initial plan was to bookend the album with the two oldest tracks. “The Calm” wasn’t written to take its place–I had actually anticipated it’d be something for the next record–but as it started to take shape, it asserted itself into final track territory.
The instrumental skeleton of the song was finalized pretty quickly. Matt and Nici maintained a very healthy amount of scepticism in the face of my ideas for it; I’ll admit that throwing in trumpet and spaghetti western drums was a bit of a curve ball. The concept didn’t really come to life until Alex Sharples from Pronto Mama came through to record the trumpet. From there, it landed firmly in everyone’s minds as our closing track.
The story behind the song is of someone contemplating whether the decision to have children is theirs, or merely their biology talking. It’s about holding the need, expectation, and desire to procreate in balance with the knowledge there can be a profound, inescapable physicality to the urge, which is sometimes entirely separate from the personal goals and sensibilities of the individual. It speaks about a calm ensuing, surrendering to that biology–a quenching of the thirst for fulfilling one’s physical capabilities–and acknowledges a potential passing-on of the same struggle to the person to come.
Before the album came out, you released “February” and “April” together as a single. What can you tell me about the relationship between those two songs?
Bakewell: The original version of “February” was actually written in 2001 as “Blue February” and was about a serious trauma I experienced in February of the year I turned 12. Lyrically, the themes of trauma, guilt, and forgiveness in the original were almost identical, but we realised the melodies didn’t really work with three-part vocals, so I went about rewriting them. It was quite painful at first, as I’d been so attached to the original, but once the work was done I realised that it really needed to be reworked, and the end result was so much better.
April was originally just the ending of “Blue February,” and was a riff on the famous T.S. Eliot line, as I was a little obsessed when I was in my early 20’s. The traumatic event that “February” is about set off a decade-long existential earthquake, and once I heard that line, it felt like the perfect description. Edwin campaigned hard for it to be realised as a separate piece of music, and we made sure that it echoed some of the melodies from “February” in the harmonies as a satisfying callback.
How did you record the ambient sounds–like the church bells on “The Flicker” and “The Calm”–that run through the album?
McLachlan: The ambient sounds are all literally me walking up and down the street with a Zoom mic, for the most part. Most of the birdsong is from me sticking my phone out of my studio window–it really is the urban soundscape that surrounded us during the recording process.
The church bells were recorded from the doorstep of our practice room, next to the flat we recorded the album in. Aside from the obvious reference to Kate Bush’s Sensual World, the church overlooks it, and the bells soundtracked many a hungover Sunday morning rehearsal over the first three years of the bands’ existence, so it seemed like a poignant way to bookend the album.
I really miss my old home, and hearing the bells creep in at the end of The Calm, as well as the sound of our downstairs door slamming, gets me every time when I listen back to it. Not every record needs to directly reference its physical surroundings, but I felt that it was totally appropriate for this one.
What’s next for Half Formed Things now that this album is out in the world?
McLachlan: Nici actually just left the band; she’s gone back to her hometown in Australia, so we’ve reverted to operating as a three-piece for the first time since 2017. She’ll still be contributing to future music from afar, but we’ll be touring and recording largely as a trio from now on, which is a huge gear shift.
In terms of immediate plans, we’ll be touring the album in early 2020, and we’ve already started working on new material for the next one. In fact, we debuted a new song at an Edinburgh show in August, and I expect there’ll be more added to the set in time for the 2020 tour. It’s been an exhausting three years putting this album together, but we can’t wait to start the whole process again–it’s an obsession!
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