Milburn: “It’s all our old experiences and knowledge combining”
I think we’ve done well to compromise between what people might want and what we want to do from a creative perspective.
At some point in life you will more than likely be privy to a ‘Sheffield music moment’, a specific experience or moment in time which gives a measure of how much a band or musician means to the city’s people. I find they are handy pieces of evidence when it comes to separating the wealth of good local bands to those you could get away with describing as iconic.
For me, a Sheffield music moment is the instant swamping of wedding dancefloors during the opening chords of ‘Common People’, how couples instinctively nudge a little bit closer when they hear ‘Coles Corner’, and the way tipsy middle-aged women dance to Human League records on a Saturday night. It’s a special thing, that’s for sure, and pretty damn charming when you notice it going on.
There was a point during Milburn’s comeback gig at Don Valley, a thoroughly piss-soaked-through affair back in June, when they played seminal track ‘What You Could Have Won’ as the final offering on their encore. Shunted forward in the swell, I took a momement to look around at the pandemonium: thousands bounced and sang each word back at the stage with gusto; there was a kid with a pair of outstretched crutches held aloft on some shoulders just in front; elsewhere, groups of friends and families threw arms around each other to make mini-moshpit circles on the periphery of the carnage. It was genuinely moving.
A proper Sheffield music moment.
In fact, the reception at those return gigs was so impressive, what initially started as a trio of homecoming gigs to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their debut led to a wider tour, which was soon to be followed by the announcement of a brand new album for fans to get their teeth stuck into: Time.
On the subject of time, Joe Carnall is running a tad late for our meeting at The Greystones today. “He’ll blame it on the baby, always does nowadays,” jokes drummer Joe Green, who was admirably punctual and already halfway through a sarnie by the time I’d arrived. Ahead of first their album in ten years, Milburn have teamed up with Exposed: In Session to film a live track ahead of the release, but we decided to go one step further and hook up a cover interview a few hours before the cameras started to roll.
A few minutes pass and Carnall arrives with proffered apologies, we grab some drinks and jump straight into the album chat.
Time itself is an important theme on the record?
JC: Yeah, the passing of time overarches the whole thing – how time has passed for the band, our fans, us individually. It’s an obvious title in that sense.
Taking a step or two back, the full band reunion came around following the success of the Sheffield gigs. Is that right?
JG: I suppose it was just a case of when we got back to rehearse for those few gigs, we began throwing a few ideas around. Joe’s always writing, Tom’s always writing, so there was always stuff to go at.
JC: Following the Sheffield gigs we were bowled over with the amount of people that came to see us, and the agent who I’d been working with on my solo stuff said he could get us a tour at the end of the year. We said yes to that and eventually came to the conclusion that we should write some new material for it; we didn’t just want to do a complete nostalgia trip.
When you eventually decided on doing the album, did you all sit down to discuss where the band was at and where the sound should be heading?
JC: We probably should have, but we never really speak about anything seriously. You might get about six seconds of serious conversation before someone pipes up with something daft.
JG: Yeah, it’s a difficult one because all you can really do is go into the studio with the ideas you’ve got. If you sit down and write a brief that’s where things start to become a bit false.
Can having a specific blueprint for an album stifle the creative process?
JC: I think you can overthink it a bit, yeah. It removes the natural element from songwriting. For me, ‘Midnight Control’ was a really important song; it was the first track we wrote and if it didn’t sound any good, then I honestly think we wouldn’t have gone on to do a record. If anything was a blueprint, I think that track stood as a good marker for where we wanted to be.
Are there any tracks which stand out for you personally?
JC: The biggest one for me is ‘All the Love and Hate’, a slower track on the album, as I think it pushed us the furthest out of our comfort zone and I quite like doing that. It’s important to move away from what people expect every now and again. For a couple of weeks I was obsessed with Echo & The Bunnymen and that ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ track, just how amazingly put together it is and how good the lyrics are. I had this chord pattern and I felt we needed a slow mid-tempo track on the record because the fast stuff is quite easy for us, we can bash that out, but I like being able to slow down and plan something out properly.
JG: What’s the one we finished off at 2Fly [Studios]? ‘A.O.S.D’, wasn’t it? That’s a highlight for me because it was something we were originally going to lob away, but I feel like it stands out amongst everything else on the record. It puts another spin on things.
Are you ever conscious when making new music that in a way you’re up against your own anthems? You could write a strong tune, but it takes a lot to replace firmly embedded favourites like ‘What You Could Have Won’ and ‘Roll Out the Barrell’.
JC: I think we’ve done well to compromise between what people might want and what we want to do from a creative perspective. There are three or four unmistakeable Milburn songs on this album, but we’ve allowed ourselves a bit of progression too. I think ‘Midnight Control’ is a good example: it’s definitely us, but ten years down the line. ’0540’ is definitely a Milburn tune as well, but almost a bit too much like the old us.
There are definitely a couple of nostalgic nods on some tracks scattered throughout.
JC: Well, we decided that – let’s face it – we were back in the studio because Milburn fans came out and backed us. With that in mind, it’s really self-absorbed to go away and write a fucking techno record or something. It’s about finding the right balance so everyone can get something out of it.
Which track will you be playing in the session today?
JC: ‘Nothing For You’.
Tell us a bit about that one.
JC: That nearly got thrown away an’ all.
JG: Ah, it did. It was your stubbornness that got it back in.
JC: Yeah, classic frontman stubbornness. Tom [Rowley] sent me over a riff and the first line, so it started from there.
That figures because it’s a very Dead Sons-esque intro.
JC: It does start that way, but I think it’s a good example of how me and Tom can work well together. The first version didn’t quite work out; we took it to the studio, it didn’t really happen and I got quite despondent about it – but I just knew it had something. I added a chorus and I think you can hear the differing influences on the track.
JG: Yeah, it’s all our old experiences and knowledge combining.
Has anything changed in terms of the band’s dynamic over ten years?
JG: You would think so, wouldn’t you? We still have pretty much exactly the same arguments, or at least the same people have the same arguments.
JC: I’d say the biggest change is that all of us are a bit more willing to laugh at ourselves now. We also accept that arguments are going to take place and try to work our way through them, almost like grownups. Me and Tom argue about literally everything in the universe.
JG: Yeah, when you both agree it’s pretty shocking. But we let them get on with it, because if they feel that passionately about something to do with the music, we’re happy for them to have it out. Whoever keeps arguing the longest usually wins.
JC: And that’s usually me.
Bill Ryder-Jones came on-board for production duties. Is there anything in particular he brought to the record or the process of putting it together?
JG: He’s obviously a great musician and he’s very good at hearing what the song should sound like before it’s finished; he can write parts which really suit it and nice touches that really complement it.
JC: He was very good at refereeing the arguments. If we were disagreeing amongst ourselves about something, Bill would come in with his suggestion and 95% of the time we’d go with it.
And you’d all head up to Parr Street Studios in Liverpool to work on it in chunks?
JC: Yeah, we went up four times all together but whenever we were there it was literally like a stag do. I think because of everything we’ve achieved with the band, plus the fact that we’ve known each other since were six and for the most part really get on, it basically became a bit of a session. The atmosphere was great.
Is there a touch of nerves ahead of release date? Or are we over all of that now?
JG: It’ll be nice for people to have a chance to give it a listen because we’ve been sat on it for far too long now. I’m looking forward to putting these songs into a set now, seeing how they slot in amongst the others.
JC: I genuinely don’t care what number it might or might not get to in the charts. I think it’s entirely irrelevant and it doesn’t really mean anything.
I imagine it’s a very different feeling compared to the release dates on your previous albums?
JC: There was an awful lot more pressure even though we were younger and didn’t have the same responsibilities we have today. Looking back, I think we rushed the second album out in trying to combat the ‘you’re just a shit Arctic Monkeys’ accusations.
Were the Arctic Monkeys comparisons a genuine weight on your shoulders back then?
JG: Well, literally everything you read about us had some sort of reference to it. It was hard not to notice it; just the same sort of comments recycled over and over again by boring journalists.
JC: I guess with the first record you could see the likenesses because it was a time and a place where all these bands sounded a bit similar. It was how Sheffield music sounded at a certain time. My only gripe is this: if it was a bunch of bands sounding similar from Manchester, Liverpool or London then it’s just part of the scene, but Sheffield bands were hammered for it. I think everyone’s a bit bored of it now anyway, and we’ve proved that we’re a bit better than all that.
What does this record mean to you as a band?
JC: I think I can probably speak for Greeny and the rest when I say that you should never underestimate the importance of being given money to go into a studio and make a proper record, an album that people are going to care about. I’ve been lucky enough to do it four times now, if you include the last Reverend album, and each one is a big part of your life; you’ll always remember every record you make. So, first and foremost, making records is what a musician looks back to and hangs their memories on. And with this record – the first Milburn album in ten years – there have been a lot of questions about what we’d sound like today, and it’s this album. We’ve not fallen into the trap of trying to sound like we were 18 again, but it’s still good enough for people to identify that it’s still us. It’s a fine line to walk and I think we’ve pulled it off. We’re quite proud of that.
JG: Plus it’s better than half of the shit out there at the moment.
Joe and Joe on…
The first Milburn gig
JG: Bob Webster’s 40th birthday at Gatty Hall in Ecclesfield. It was covers mostly and Louis sang ‘Killing In The Name Of’ wearing a beanie hat. We had to play Free – ‘Alright Now’ because it was Bob’s favourite song, but there was also Bloodhound Gang, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Thin Lizzy, Nirvana all chucked in. It were a reyt set actually!
The band’s first song
JC: Tom would be able to tell you this.
JG: ‘High and Dry’?
JC: Nah, before that. I’d go with ‘Steel Town’ because that was our first “hit”. It were massive around Ecco, that track.
Their least favourite tune
JG: ‘Storm in a Teacup’. That song proper winds me up and we actually ended up dropping it from our sets.
JC: Probably something off the first album that I’m not a fan of anymore. ‘Lipstick Licking’ gets right on my tits nowadays. Right on my tits.
Exposed In Session
An exclusive online performance from some of the city’s finest musical exports, filmed live every month at The Greystones.