Welcome, friends, to your monthly In Session feature. Do take a seat. Feel free to edge a bit closer… All good? Today we’re unwinding with a frothy latte and stripping back into our acoustic undergarments inside the pleasant surroundings of The Steam Yard Café.
Joining us is Sam Genders of part solo project, part musical collective, Diagrams. At the risk of erring upon his distaste for the pigeon-holing of music, I will tentatively introduce Diagrams as folktronica with shades of synth-pop thrown into the mix at points. The latest album, Chromatics, was written after Sam’s move to the Steel City and hit the shelves earlier this year. We caught up with Sam beforehand to talk songwriting, influences and a musical excursion to China.
Hi Sam, wonderful to have you on board for an acoustic Exposed In Session instalment. Have you chosen which tracks you’ll be playing?
You Can Talk to Me is a song which works quite well acoustically, so I’ll be playing that. I’ll also be performing Phantom Power.
I’m glad you mentioned You Can Talk To Me, because that’s a bloody gorgeous song – and probably my favourite from the album.
Thank you! I actually intended to write that song for another person: it wasn’t intended for me or this album at all, which probably explains why it’s come out in a slightly different style to my usual stuff. But once I played it to my wife and manager they both told me that I just had to keep it for myself.
I suppose there’s a bit of irony there? It could be seen as strange how one of the most touching songs on the album was written for somebody else.
Yes, I know what you mean. You see, I do quite a bit of co-writing and I sometimes like stepping into another frame of mind when writing music.
I suppose a fresh perspective can be helpful at times?
Definitely, it gives you new ideas. That can be the main challenge in writing music: coming up with new ideas.
So what sort of ideas or narratives does your latest album explore?
There isn’t really a narrative running throughout the album. I don’t really think it matters whether an album has a narrative or not – it can still be good either way. For me, music is there primarily to have some type of effect, whatever that may be. I do like the idea of albums which have some form of narrative running through it, but for this album I simply chose eleven of the best tracks I had.
But surely there’s a thought process to be had when putting together the track listing on an album? Doesn’t that have an impact on the ‘feel’ of the record?
I does make quite a bit of difference, actually. It surprised me when I noticed how things could change dependent on the order of the songs. For somebody like myself, it is important that the first song has enough impact to draw people in and persuade them to listen on. There’s no doubt about the importance of a first track to an album. In terms of ideas, the album explores of a key themes such as relationships and the environment I was in when writing the songs. I did get married two years ago – which probably explains why relationships are a key theme.
A slightly belated congratulations on that! You also made the move from London to Sheffield about two years ago. How are you finding things here?
To be honest, I feel like I’m only just settling down! It’s been such a bonkers two years including trips to China, album recording, teaching, etc. – it’s like I’m only just starting to have a bit of time to get to know the city. I’m from Matlock originally, so the idea of moving back up North always appealed to me. Also my sister lives here, and it’s always nice to move back out towards the countryside. But it was largely a financial decision as well. I know it’s a cliché, but Sheffield is genuinely an incredibly friendly place.
You would have been in Sheffield while writing material for the latest album. Did you feel that the location had any impact on the final product?
Yes, definitely. Before I moved to Sheffield I was trying to write music in a small flat in which people were almost falling over each other. For example, I’ve now got my own little room inside my house where I can go to write music – and that space, albeit quite small, makes a huge difference. In some ways, I found that I could be myself a bit more. So, yes, being here has inspired the album.
It’s interesting, to me, how the city has inspired such a vast array of musical styles: the pulsating steelworks and mechanical sounds of Cab Vol, et al., over to gritty indie-rock, across to the warm, melodic sound of your album. I suppose it could represent a changing city.
Yes, I suppose it depends on what different people take from a place during certain times. I like music that has mixture of raw, electronic sounds and natural sounds. I suppose that fits the environment perfectly here.
Then again, you’re not a stranger to travelling. Last year you spent five weeks collaborating with local musicians in China as part of the British Council’s Musicians in China Residencies programme. Culturally, what were the differences – with regards to both music and lifestyle?
It was absolutely bonkers, if I’m being honest. I turned up assuming I’d be provided with equipment, the opportunity to rehearse with some Chinese musicians and a slot at a prestigious festival )laughs) – but it turned out that I wasn’t even booked to play the festival and had to negotiate some time on stage with a Chinese rock band as the second guitarist! Musically, the alternative industry is still very much in its infancy there; the network which we have over here doesn’t exist. In Changsha there was plenty of pop music and their take on alternative music was Red Hot Chili Peppers-style rock. There was a lot of interest in the music I was playing, and I predict – well, I hope – that there will be an explosion of alternative music over there at some point.
Words: Joseph Food
Pics: Timm Cleasby www.picturefoundry.com
Producer: Joseph Food @JosephFood
Director of Photography: Dave Galloway www.davegalloway.co.uk
Editor & Camera Operator: Johnny Harold
Lighting: Owain Wilshaw & Tom Wilshaw
Recording & Mixing: Paul ‘Tufty’ Tuffs