Glass Animals sing songs in character on How to Be a Human Being
Frontman Dave Bayley used people he met on tour as the basis for new LP’s narratives
When Glass Animals frontman Dave Bayley first uploaded some home recordings of his psychedelic indie pop online, his inbox was immediately awash with messages from managers, artists, promoters, agents, and lawyers. Rather than chill the Champagne, however, the young musician took a characteristically unconventional approach. He removed all traces of his songs from the Internet.
In the middle of studying for a prestigious medical degree at London’s King’s College, Bayley refused to accept any distractions. Dedicated to his neuroscience program, the budding producer decided to wait until graduation before re-launching his demos.
Luckily, his gamble paid off. The revamped tracks caught the attention of industry tastemaker Paul Epworth—the man behind international hits by Adele, Florence and the Machine, Cee Lo Green, Coldplay, and Bruno Mars. He swiftly signed Bayley and his four-piece band to his flagship Wolf Tone label.
After releasing its critically acclaimed 2014 debut album, Zaba, Glass Animals spent the next while selling out venues on both sides of the equator, rocking Late Night With Seth Meyers, and performing on The Late Show With David Letterman—a résumé that, despite being the envy of indie bands the world over, did nothing to boost the confidence of the U.K. musicians.
“If you think about it, our lack of self-assurance definitely made sense,” Bayley tells the Straight on the line from a Boston tour stop. “This is the first group that any of us have ever been in. Being on the road for Zaba was pretty much the only time we’d ever set foot on a stage, and none of us have made any music aside from this project. In many ways we were very cautious, and our music was too.”
Fastforward to 2016, and Glass Animals seems like a different band. Releasing its second full-length album, How to Be a Human Being, in August, the group has finally tapped into its creative potential. Trading Zaba’s light-touch synths and bouncy rhythms for rich melodic layers, the new record effortlessly juxtaposes cheeky lyrics and complex synth lines with a healthy dose of hip-hop–inspired swagger. With Bayley at the helm, the album’s slick production creates a new boldness, inspired, the frontman suggests, by his innovative composition process.
“All the songs on this album are character-based,” Bayley says. “While we were out on tour, the people we ran into would tell us their stories. I would record everything without them knowing, and it became the basis for the record.
“Each track is the voice of a different person, and they each have a unique narrative. All the songs started with the lyrics and vocal melodies—a couple of words or a phrase that came to mind, which became the first nugget. And then I sat around with a guitar and put some chords under it.
“I knew everything about these characters,” he continues. “I’d create diagrams that encompassed all aspects of their personality—what they do in their spare time, what they eat, what they wear.
“I found that when I fleshed out these personas and their traits, I could start incorporating that personality into the musical sounds we used, and begin to build a real theme song for these people. That gave me the conviction to do some really brave things with the lyrics and music.”
With his forensic obsession with finding the perfect sounds for each individual, Bayley’s commitment drives the band’s production in fresh directions. By imagining each storyteller’s environment and re-creating it through ambient noises, samples, and instrumentation, the singer achieves a unique kind of authenticity.
“I really tried to pay attention to the full experience of each character,” Bayley says. “One of the people is a homeless man who lives on the street, for example, so it seemed really obvious to go outside and build a drum kit out of the trash cans and garbage that we found.
“We recorded it on the side of the road, so there’s the sound of the buses going by and you can hear the background noise of other people talking. If you listen carefully, you can even catch a woman telling us to shut up. I find that kind of fun.”
Extending that commitment into the album’s visuals, Glass Animals hired a different model to play each character for the record’s artwork and star in the accompanying videos, and even created a number of eccentric websites to feature the quirks of the fictional individuals. But despite having released what is certainly one of the most cohesive records of the year, Bayley is adamant that How to Be a Human Being is not a “concept album”.
“I’d rather veer away from that term,” Bayley says. “I feel that records in that genre are about a central character, but there’s deliberately no one single individual that sticks out on our album.
“I think that approach allows a much broader range of themes than most concept albums might have. How to Be a Human Being is much more about people, life, and the world. It’s definitely something new for us.”
Glass Animals plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday (October 12)
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