erasing clouds

"A collection of abstract statements": An interview with Spencer Bayles of Last Night's TV

by erin hucke

Forget all the ostentatious production effects and loud instruments demanding attention; sometimes all you need to make a really good record is a group of friends and an acoustic guitar. Such is with the Leeds, UK, trio Last Night's TV. The band's newest record, Daylight Between the Blades, is a subdued, intimate album, gently layering guitar and violin with both male and female vocals. Last Night's TV creates their own brand of delicate British melancholia.

With obvious talent and lead singer Spencer Bayles' world record-setting appendectomy, LNTV are garnering some much-deserved attention. Recently, Spencer was kind enough to answer the following questions via e-mail.

With softspoken vocals and reserved instrumentation, your music (to me anyway) is unmistakably British. Who are your influences? Are they mostly from the UK?

I guess there is a history of quiet music in the UK, going back to folk roots. Certainly, everyone in LNTV owns at least one Nick Drake album, and there's a shared love of contemporary artists such as Unbelievable Truth, Tom McRae and Damien Rice. But then, thinking about softspoken vocals and reserved instrumentation, I immediately think of Elliott Smith (RIP), whose work has also been a major influence on me in the last few years.

As for the minimal instrumentation, the honest truth is that when we started out we didn't have much equipment, but as time went on we realised it made us a bit different to most Leeds bands, so we consciously decided not to go too far beyond our means... If we had more equipment we'd make a bigger noise!

Influence-wise, I'd say there are as many artists from Australasia (Neil and Tim Finn, Don McGlashan from the Mutton Birds, Bic Runga) and the US (Jason Falkner, Rufus Wainwright, Fountains of Wayne) as from over here who've had an impact on me. The songwriters that I rate most highly are the ones who can marry a memorable melody to well thought-out lyrics; once in a while I hear a song that totally stops me in my tracks, a song that ticks all the boxes in my mental criteria of what the 'perfect' pop song should contain - in the year just gone, that list would include "Comeback" from Josh Rouse's stunning 1972 album, and "Holiday" from Jason Falkner's most recent record Can You Still Feel. Stuff like that is *SO* life-affirming and inspires me to keep making music!

What led you to start making music? Did you ever take any formal lessons?

I loved listening to run-of-the-mill pop music when I was quite young, and was jotting song ideas down through my teens. It was only when I started listening to Neil Finn and Crowded House in about 1993 that I realised quite how powerful and amazing music could be. I spent the next few years tracking down everything the Finn brothers (Neil and Tim) had either released or been involved with, absorbed as much as I could, then got myself a guitar. I started to really write songs when I'd learnt my first few chords, playing along with the easier tunes in the sheet music book for Crowded House's Woodface album, stuff like "Four Seasons In One Day." I had toyed with the idea of taking guitar lessons at school, but ended up teaching myself. I want to do the same with piano soon... but we'll see...

Sarah had formal violin lessons at school, and played in numerous ensembles for a while. I tried to teach her to play guitar, but as with a couple of other people I tried teaching, she gave up shortly afterward. Must be my teaching method or something...

I realize it's a tiresome question to ask about the origins of a band's name, but I'm compelled to ask anyway. Where did the name Last Night's TV come from?

Owen Marriott (LNTV co-founder) and I were on a coach down to London to see a gig. We'd just recorded our first four-track demos, and having decided that 'Spence & Owen' (as that first tape was labelled) wasn't exactly the most exciting band name on the planet, we started scanning the newspapers we had with us. The shortlist included stuff like 'Three Sent Off,' 'Coach Crash Tragedy' (which I'm saving for any, albeit unlikely, forays into death metal), 'Unless You're In A Boat' (can't remember what inspired that one), and my personal yet rather cynical favourite, 'Limited Shelf Life.' Then, just as we were giving up hope, on the TV page there was a column commenting on the previous night's viewing, and 'Last Night's TV' was born! I always liked the fact that it had a cool abbreviation too, although I've since learned there's some kind of law information channel (or something like that) also called LNTV. Oops.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, I'm guessing making music is more of a hobby than a career for you? Do you have day jobs? What do you do when you're not playing music?

It's very much a part-time thing at the moment, which suits us all fine. When we first started out I had big dreams for the project but as time has gone on I've become more realistic. Ultimately it comes down to what an individual defines as 'success.' The fact remains that right now I'm able to record songs at home, press CDs and sell them to anyone who wants them, wherever they are in the world. Which is a pretty nice position to be in!

In our normal everyday existence I work in IT, Sarah works for a major cancer charity and Nat has just finished University and is weighing up various options for the future.

I love sad music, but I've never actually pinned down why I favor it over happier sounds. Have you ever given thought to why you write sad songs?

Personally, I generally find sad-sounding songs easier to write than upbeat ones. Not sure why - maybe I just like the sound of minor chords more... Either that or I'm incredible depressed... I think in some cases you maybe invest more of yourself in a melancholic song, as you're admitting that, yes, there are times when you're feeling down, and generally it takes a lot of guts to say it out loud. Not that sad songs have to come from personal experiences (although I'm sure there are as many songwriters who do it for cathartic reasons as those who do it for the sake of storytelling). On Daylight Between The Blades one of the songs I'm most proud of is "Things We Haven't Done," which was an imagined scenario where someone has been sent to jail after an uncharacteristic road-rage incident, and the story is told from the viewpoint of the partner who's sitting at home, trying to move on with their life. It's pretty sad, and it's not the first (or last!) time I've put an imagined character in a depressing scenario to see how they cope with it.

Certainly when you listen to some artists, it's in their sad songs that you feel you're learning most about them and their thought processes. Reading some of the obituaries for Elliott Smith made me revisit his albums and pay more attention to the lyrics - there are some truly heartbreaking moments in there. I think I tended to foolishly overlook the lyrical content on the whole because his melodies were always so beautiful.

Right now I'm going through a majorly upbeat renaissance in terms of the stuff I'm listening to - a lot of stereo time is being given over to American power-pop, people such as Jason Falkner, The Candy Butchers, Jellyfish. I'm hoping the influence of this kind of stuff will come out in the next batch of songs I write - I would actually love to make an upbeat pop record! But I think it would always have a slightly dark side too...

The line "When the future is something I'm seriously contemplating," strikes me as extraordinarily sad. Could you describe what went into the writing of "I Can't Think of Everything"?

I'm always jotting down fragments of ideas; sentences, words, things I've misheard on TV or in conversations or mis-read in a magazine, then amending them for my own needs. "I Can't Think Of Everything" is a collection of abstract statements culled from various notebooks to form a kind of disjointed narrative, told from the perspective of someone who thinks he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders when in all likelihood he probably hasn't.

Certain lines in the song are things I occasionally find myself saying - "You probably told me, I probably wasn't listening" - whereas other statements border on the (imagined) psychotic and depressive. I'm especially fond of the ultra-dark final few lines.

The line you mention could be taken in a number of ways. If it was an Elliott Smith song (sorry for indulging in yet more Elliott worship!) you'd know instinctively what he was talking about (and it would've been sadly prophetic too). In this one it's more about making decisions for the future - career, lifestyle choices, should I buy a house now or wait?, should I be saving more money for a rainy day? Etc etc etc. A lot of this album was written around the time a lot of our friends were finishing University and heading off to other parts of the country and in some cases elsewhere in the world. The album closer "New Maps For The Summer" deals with that in more detail.

As an American, I know almost nothing about the Leeds, UK, music scene. What's it like? Does LNTV have a following?

The Leeds scene generally is orientated towards metal and heavy rock for the most part, although there appears to be a presence by most other genres hiding out in random corners of the city - there's diversity, but sometimes you've got to look hard to find it.

Most of the bands who get a lot of hype and coverage don't do anything for me at all musically. The ones who jump on the bandwagon of whatever's cool at the time are never likely to get my attention. There *are* a few bands I like who are doing fantastic things but rarely get any press, and they play the kind of gigs where you don't find guys with wannabe-Strokes hairstyles. Maybe I'm just being harsh... Overall, I guess that as a 'scene' it doesn't particularly speak to me.

But having said all that, there are people - journalists, website editors and promoters - who have an unshakeable belief in the Leeds scene and think it can stand up to any other city in the country (namely arch-rival Manchester, which has more of a well-known musical heritage), so maybe I'm just being pessimistic because there's not much going on that appeals to me as a) a music fan and b) a musician.

As for LNTV, we have a small hardcore following who we very much appreciate!

All the songs on your latest album are credited to you, but do you ever collaborate during the recording process?

With the LNTV material to date, it's not been especially democratic. When Owen was in the band, he'd occasionally co-write some of the music. But now I generally write a song on acoustic guitar, record a rough version of it, add vocals and build up an arrangement from there. If it needs something added that I can't do (mainly violin or other vocals), I'll get someone to do it. It's not that I have a problem with people adding their own input, it's more that I usually know exactly what I want from a song. Especially on a song such as "Parting Ways" on the new CD, where there's a lot going on and everything has to be just so. I went through a major Brian Wilson phase a while back and his ideas and production techniques blew me away - I couldn't write or record anything for about 3 months after reading his autobiography - I just got into the mindset that anything I did could never *ever* match up to anything he'd done! It had a positive effect when I got over that, as it made me a lot more adventurous with arrangements.

You and Natalie are involved in a couple of other bands. What can you tell me about them?

I've been playing guitar in Nikoli for the last few months. They were a trio before I joined - Tim Hann, who writes the songs, on vocals/guitar, James Brunger on bongos/backing vocals and Chris Maunder on keyboards - and had only been a live unit for a short while. It's a nice sideline for me because I can take a back-seat and not be centre-stage. It's also nice to be playing someone else's songs, and as Tim's an excellent songwriter it's all worked out very nicely. The most recent Nikoli EP (which I didn't play on) has picked up some absolutely amazing reviews, so the next few months will be interesting.

Natalie's side project is an acoustic duo with a very talented guitarist/songwriter called Amelia Crouch, who's been playing with LNTV recently too. They go by the name of Amelia And Me, and were one of the shortlisted bands in Leeds' Bright Young Things project at the start of '03. They play very melodic contemporary folk which displays an impressive range and eclecticism, particularly when you consider it's just one guitar and 2 vocals. They've got a great collection of songs written, and the plan is for them to make an album fairly soon, with Tim (from Nikoli) and I on production duties. We're all looking forward to working on that.

The great thing about the side projects is that we've built up a collective of great musicians who are happy to help out on each other's projects. For instance it's likely Amelia and the Nikoli guys will help out on the next LNTV album, which will potentially lead to a very different sounding record than "Daylight Between The Blades."

What's it like to hold a world record you essentially had no control over?

Very strange indeed... When I had my appendix out, even though the doctors said it was the longest they'd ever seen, it didn't occur to me to follow up on it. A colleague at work just happened to check the Guinness World Records website and found that the then current holder's appendix had only been 6.5 inches, whereas mine was 8.26... so I sent in the application and back-up evidence from the hospital, and the rest is history. I now have the certificate on my wall proclaiming that the 'Largest Appendix Removed' was indeed mine! It's all very surreal. When I was young I occasionally watched 'Record Breakers' on TV, it was always people striving to break records - even the inane ones like a guy balancing the most milk crates on his chin - but always things that people had put in time and effort to train for, to work towards. Then I come along and all I had to do was miss out on my holiday and a gig in New York... Was it worth it? Hmmm... Still not sure about that, to be honest.

What's next for Last Night's TV?

We've had a lot of great feedback on the latest CD and will try and build on that by spreading the word further over the next few months. I'm also just starting work on the next batch of songs. I'm aiming to have a download single available on the website within the next couple of months. There's a song called "Goodbye London" which I'm very excited about and can't wait for people to hear.

I hope at some point in the not-too-distant future to play some shows in the States. The New York one didn't happen due to the appendix incident, which was just bad luck I guess, but I'm determined that one way or another LNTV will make it to the US for a gig or two at some point!!!!

What's the one question you wish someone would ask you? (And what's the answer...)

Hmmm... I'll go for this one, just so I can rip into The Offspring.

Question: "What inspired you to cover The Offspring's 'Why Don't You Get A Job?' for the BBC covers competition?"

Answer: I wanted to try and make the unlistenable listenable. I'd always believed that that song was one of the most horrendous musical crimes ever committed, and we thought it would be funny to layer it with acoustic guitars, harmonies, violin and xylophone. In an attempt to secure votes I signed up under various aliases to Offspring message boards and slowly spread the word about the competition - some of the feedback was hilarious, especially from those who hated it! It was all done tongue in cheek, and it was a massive surprise when we actually won...


Issue 19, January 2004

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Photo by Susan Porteous. From left to right: Sarah Jones, Spencer Bayles, Natalie Long