In conversation with Thieves Like Us’ Adam Griers.
Thieves Like Us are a band whose soulful basslines and groovy beats have the ability to transport you to a time of Bowie and New Order. And it’s evident that they soaked up every cultural reference they could in pursuit of their eponymously titled new album; frontman Andy Grier’s description of writing it in his shoebox apartment, which overlooks a cemetery, is certainly fitting for the music produced.
Andy describes Thieves Like Us as a “gypsy bastard band” always traveling and living out of suitcases, never really belonging anywhere. The band was a romantic affair, something that swept them away and took them round the country to discover new cultures and sounds.
We caught up with the vocalist and guitarist to learn more about the vintage style acquired for the video of new song “Broken Mirror”, and what exactly it means to be in a band.
Hey Andy! Can talk us through the inspiration behind your new album?
The new record is actually sort of a solo record. After our last record, “Bleed Bleed Bleed” my two Swedish bandmates wanted a break for other projects, so I assembled some fresh local musicians to go out and promote that record. Those shows were a bit sad, playing the songs you wrote with your best friends with different people by your side; it felt a lot like cheating. I returned from that “pseudo” tour at the end of 2012, I wasn’t ready to break from music, but I knew if I stopped making music then I probably wouldn’t continue. I was renting a tiny room with very low ceilings: it was a shoebox. However, the shoebox lay at the back of the apartment building and had a close-up view of a lovely cemetery. I spent the year strumming my guitar looking back and forth from computer screen to cemetery, developing these songs from scratch. I’ve always felt every Thieves Like Us record needs to be better than the previous, so the process dragged a bit. I wanted live bass and drums on this record (we used mostly programmed drums on the old records). After a year of song writing it took me another year to find Thom (bass) and Tore (drums) to act as my players. I felt a huge pressure to make a record which both the fans and my ex-bandmates would stand by.
TLU is known as a Swedish-American band. What do you think is so special about this combination of musical backgrounds?
I don’t think Thieves Like Us were ever really a Swedish band, or even an American band. I think we were given that Swedish-American label for branding purposes. We are (were) more of a bastard-gypsy band: we never lived in our home countries when we existed as a band, besides a very short stint in New York City in 2007. We were always abroad, always outsiders, always living out of suitcases; never part of any scene. In the beginning when we were living in Berlin and London we were fairly social, but as soon as “Drugs In My Body” was released in 2007, we pretty much toured or worked non-stop into 2012. I think we ingested a lot of R’n’B and pan-European music. We always tried to write good songs. Songs which could be covered by future musicians, even if you stripped away all the instruments.
How did you all meet initially?
I met Björn and Pontus in the park, I met the current members Tore and Thom through friends. I think everyone has different reasons for wanting to play in a band. For some it’s expression, maybe others like playing. It also changes all the time. It’s a bit like getting together with a romantic partner, you start your affair and it takes on its own inertia. Things play out from there.
You’re now based in Berlin, what’s the music scene like there compared to the UK?
It’s centred around electronic music producers and DJ’s. Not live music. I think the live music scene in Berlin pales to that of London. I keep hearing the word “synthesist” (it’s an old word actually) pop up. It describes an artist who gets on stage with a lot of modular synthesizer gear and makes soundscapes; I guess it is legitimate. There is a lot of that here, it’s mostly solo artists with their machines. For me most of this music lacks any melody or lyrical narrative. Amongst all these knob twiddling synthesists it’s very difficult to find musicians to play with in Berlin. Club culture is rampant.
“I spent the year strumming my guitar looking back and forth from computer screen to cemetery, developing these songs from scratch.”
New Order and Bowie are clear influences; who else were you listening to growing up?
We did take our name from a New Order song, but I don’t think we take so much else from them. I think that influence is limited to the twangy guitar we have on a lot of songs. That sound was on a lot of Cure tracks too, and “The Crying Game” by Boy George, or even the Twin Peaks theme song. All of those were pretty easy to play. Easy melodies. Not like macho guitar rock. I am an amateur musician, I frequently worked in record stores, and kind of just learned the classics from the 1960s. I do think UK bands like the Who, the Kinks, the Buzzcocks and the Jam were all really melodic, so I learnt from them. I got a large dose of R’n’B whilst working in hip hop clubs in New York City in the early 2000s. But to answer your question, growing up, I think I had only a few cassettes in my car… like Disintegration by The Cure and Heaven Or Las Vegas by The Cocteau Twins. I was heavily bullied in high school. None of the bullies would go near the Cocteau Twins, they acted like a buffer between me and reality.
What kind of sound did you set out to make with the new record? There’s definitely a mix of the ethereal but with these old school basslines…
I am glad you noticed the groovy basslines. I was buying Cocteau Twins and Cure releases in the 1980s, and I remember getting Slowdive’s Souvlaki when it came out in 1992, so that new romantic sound is kind of inherent in me. One could simplify the categorisation of these records as shoegaze or dreampop and just call them psychedelic. Once doing so you can connect the dots to other music. I find the current new wave of dream pop (DIIV) way to stiff. Sure they have authentic shoegaze production, but I find them boring. The beats are straight, you can’t dance to them. I do listen to a lot of R’n’B, so I think the drums and bass always land first on the tune. Do you know Prince was a big fan of the Cocteau Twins?
We didn’t! Can you tell us about the video for “Broken Mirror”?
Janus Martinez has been doing most of the video work for this new record. He is an editing magician. “Broken Mirror” has footage from four different 1980s films, we tried to achieve a coherent narrative, making four films seem like one. For Thieves Like Us video making is critical. We don’t have a big public image, so the characters from the films represent us in a way.
Finally, what is the best thing about being in a band?
You bond together as a family. Either healthy or dysfunctional. And time can’t really destroy that bond. Even if you fight and don’t speak for some years, you can’t really destroy history you put down on tape.