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Feature: Circa Waves

| March 7, 2023

Circa Waves (Photo: Lewis Vorne)

 

“Keep calm and carry on” was a mass-produced British poster from 1939 intended to help rally spirits in the face of a looming WWII and its attendant Blitz-strafing air raids. But it’s since become a much larger metaphor for the traditionally stoic, unflappable English constitution, in general, the type of personality that remains virtually unfazed in even the direst of circumstances. Liverpudlian Kieran Shudall reckons he comes from similarly brave genetic stock, which allowed him to pass one of his toughest personal tests, ever — he and his wife having their first child, Sonny, just as the pandemic constricted around not only home life for the guitarist/vocalist but his anthemic rock outfit Circa Waves and the touring world in which it could no longer freely operate. But he kept remarkably calm, carried on, and emerged with a healthy, well-adjusted kid and an incredibly uplifting, almost singalong album, Never Going Under,  Circa Waves’ fifth album and one of its best.

“It was three and a half years ago Sonny was born, and it was just something I really wanted to do, so I thought, ‘Why not?’,” says the personable Shudall, 35, who exorcised his dark lockdown demons in roughly 200 songs he cathartically penned for the record. “And he’s asleep in the next room, so that’s why I’m being relatively quiet. So he was a baby during the pandemic, and it was really hard, to be honest because my mum and my wife’s mother couldn’t hold him because you still weren’t allowed to cross-pollinate families at that point. So we had a baby that his grandparents couldn’t hold or play with, and it was crazy — just raising a baby in this weird bubble. But it was cool for me because I wasn’t on tour, so I got to fully appreciate everything that goes into raising a small child.” And his days began to seamlessly bleed into each other, he adds, as he’d wake up, fix breakfast for Junior, settle him back down in his wife-overseen nursery, begin recording, write new material, take time off for a calm round of golf, return to his home studio, and compose more last-minute material.” Then I’d make him his dinner and go and get him from the nursery, and that was how I did it,” he says. “You just have to become more efficient with your time, I guess, so I know how to make the most out of the hours in the day now.”

When the vocalist — who’d launched Circa Waves in 2015 with its rollicking “Young Chasers” debut, after years playing in a plethora of other eclectic outfits — finally reviewed what he’d written he distilled it all down to the survivalist theme exemplified in the pulse-pounding title track, “Never Going Under.” That kicks off the disc in grand defiant style, and it just keeps galloping, full tilt, dispensing witty social commentary along the way, as in the climate-change-nodding “Hell on Earth,” the social-media-empowered slams on self-entitlement “Electric City” and “Want it All Today,” and Oasis-monstrous anthems like “Golden Days” and a symphonic “Living in the Grey.” Released late last year, with a backing world tour finally underway, “Never Going Under” should prove inspiring to all who hear it, giving fans some renewed post-Covid courage to keep calm and carry on themselves, wherever they happen to be. Shudall certainly hopes so. “I’m just trying to write some decent songs that make people feel good,” he summarizes, before delving into his process in greater detail.

IE: So golf proved a good daily distraction for you during lockdown? How many players would be involved, or was it a solitary pursuit?

KIERAN SHUDALL: I tend to like playing alone. And I do play with friends, but often my friends have real jobs, unlike me, who’s a musician, so I’m often free in the middle of the day when no one else is. And it’s kind of cool. And it’s actually the only thing in the world that can stop me from thinking about music. Which is a good thing when you’re trying to get away from the trappings of constantly writing music because I would just keep doing it if nobody told me to stop. So golf gives my brain two hours to stop being obsessed with snare drums and guitars and all that business.

IE: Has a song ever occurred to you out on the green?

KS: You know, it never has! Golf seems to almost erase music from my life. I think that’s why it’s so great as a meditative thing because all you can focus on is the golf and nature, and being around the birds and the trees. And it’s great because my brain is cleansing my mind of music, and then I’ll get home, and I’ll be excited about creating something new again. So it’s kind of the perfect antidote to music.

IE: Britain is famous for its urban foxes. Have you ever seen any on the green?

KS: Absolutely! The foxes and the squirrels rule the roost, and it’s been nice to watch. And the older you get, the more you appreciate taking long walks in nature, I think.

IE: Well, you just passed the fabled Christ Age, 33, when your life is supposed to really open up, and the spiritual replaces the carnal of your twenties. Did you notice any changes?

KS: Yeah, and I definitely feel more comfortable with the world and just my own brain, I guess. I’m much more open to everything now. But your thirties are a very strange age. You’re in between being old, but you can still be in touch with what it was like to be a young man. And you are still young, But I’m sure when I’m 45, I’ll think 35 was very young. So now I have the benefits of youth, but also the wisdom of having a few years on this planet, so I feel like I’m in a really great place. And I think John Lennon wrote “Imagine” when he was in his early thirties, and I kind of think of that as the height of how good a song can be, so I’m hoping that maybe some of that magic will happen to me. But your twenties for the carnal, your thirties for the spiritual? That’s a nice way to say it. For me and a lot of my friends, we all sort of focus on our minds a lot more, and there’s more people doing therapy, more people doing meditation, more people playing golf. Everyone’s trying to find ways to quiet the mind, because in your twenties, everything is so loud, and the newness of life kind of covers all the things that might be troubling to you. And then when you get to your thirties, and you’ve done all that, your brain gets in the way of life and seems much louder, so you have to find new ways to calm yourself, I guess. So I’ve definitely felt that more spiritual side of things if you will. And certainly, writing to me is like therapy. And I’ve also definitely spoken to people who have helped me with certain things and stuff I’ve struggled with, which is a lot about being in a band and being the frontman and just having the pressure of all that — it doesn’t come very naturally to me at all, and it never has. But I’ve spoken to people about that to help me through it. But now everyone in Britain, in general, is getting really good about starting to open up to therapy. And the bravest thing you can say is, “I need help.” So I think many more people (during lockdown) are coming around that idea.

IE: Well, you wrote 200 tunes. 11 made the album. What about the other 189? Were there some really awkward ones that didn’t make the cut?

KS: Well, I’ve got my computer right in front of me. I may be able to find some (song) names….Let me look at some of these ideas…And there’s a lot of terrible songs — goodness me! But I had a song called “Double Denim.” And “Don’t Cry” — that was rubbish. “Cop Cars in Sumter” — I’m glad that one didn’t make it. And that wasn’t necessarily the lyric. Sometimes when I finish a session, and I don’t have a title, I’ll just write down what I feel, and that song probably felt like a “GTA,” or “Grand Theft Auto” themed song. But there’s a lot of shit, a lot of real bad music that I’ve got to go through to get to any good music. But I love experimenting, and if I can just keep experimenting, I will eventually find some good stuff.

IE: You once told me that the secret to your success was actually failure. As in the cavalcade of diverse bands, you tumbled through to found Circa Waves, like the Goth group Fly With Vampires. Or the all-girl Maroon 5 cover band you anchored.

KS: I think, again, it was John Lennon who said, “Wasting time isn’t wasted time.” And I sort of wholeheartedly agree with that. All the bands I was in when I was younger, like Fly With Vampires, we weren’t successful in the sort of selling-4,000-tickets-anywhere way. But we were successful in that we made our first demos at the time, and sold CDs and T-shirts for the very first time to anyone, and I I had not had that experience, I would never have ended up in this band. So if anything, those bands are more valuable than anything, because they’re the ones that created the person I am today. And without that education of how to press a record and how to go into a studio and how to negotiate with an engineer for how much it’s gonna cost to record a song? All of that stuff is so valuable, and I’m just so glad I got through all of it, ya know?

IE: We’ve talked about the negatives. So let’s focus on the positives. Everything on this album is chiming, and euphoric, with some occasional ominous overtones. So what qualified these 11 as a complete feel-good set?

KS: Ultimately, Circle Waves feel enough freedom to be able to put in songs that don’t feel like they fit in an obvious Circa Waves pigeonhole. Songs like “Do You Wanna Talk” and “Living in the Grey,” these songs I guess don’t sort of fit the blueprint of Circa Waves. But we were fortunate to have a couple of years off, to really listen to the songs I was writing and live with them, as opposed to being forced to rapidly pick songs in four months and that’s gonna be our record. So I would write, and then we could sit on it for almost a year, and then if you still liked the song after a year? It kind of must be an okay song. So that was what we did. I mean, the rules of an album are always just “What are the top 11, 12, 13 tracks?” But for us it’s never about what sticks together, but what songs really stick in our brain as being really good tunes.

IE: The “Do You Wanna Talk” lyrics sound like therapy-speak. “I’m not thinking straight/ I guess I’m gonna pay for this,” and then a nameless “she” iterates the title question. Would you and your wife have long existential lockdown discussions?

KS: Well, it’s not even necessarily about me and my wife, I think. It’s more like someone, say, drinking too much, and anybody saying, “What’s up with you drinking too much? What’s going on? We really need to talk.” And you not realizing it until it’s brought to your attention.

IE: I’ve been saying this for a while now, but humanity — via the pandemic — was given three years to reconsider its extinction-bound fate and change course. And we have learned nothing. And you pretty much say the same thing in “Hell on Earth.”

KS: Good point. But it just felt like every two to three months, there was a new thing that was in the news that was really depressing. In the UK, we had Boris Johnson, and in America you had Trump. Then there was Covid, and as Covid was finishing, there was the Russian war. And climate change is always knocking around, saying, “Hey! Just so you know — the world is gonna end soon!” And not only that but this stuff is delivered to you on a minute-by-minute basis through every social media app, through every news app. It’s not like you buy one newspaper a week, and it says, “Hey — bad times are coming!” It’s like every fucking minute of every day you get notified that the world is bad, and shit, so “Hell on Earth” was just about that. And I mean, I love my life, and I love my city, and I’m extremely lucky to be in a band and do that for a job. So it’s more just a venting of all the shit that goes on around us, and how bad I feel for everyone, really, but especially the youth. Imagine being 15 and you’ve got this happening, every minute of every day, realizing that the world might end. That must be terrifying.

IE: Lots of artists began lyrically revisiting their childhoods during lockdown. You sound like you were doing that in “Northern Town.” Did your father have something to do with your actual birth?

KS: He did, yeah. He was my ‘doctor’ who delivered me. I mean, he’s not a doctor at all — he’s an electrical engineer. And on stairs in the UK — I think you call them landings in America — but there was a second level of our house that dictated all the doorways. And that area, the landing, was where my mother couldn’t make it any further, so she dropped to the floor, and basically, my dad had to be the doctor for that for the birth of me. So he delivered me, and luckily there were no complications, and I came out I was pretty chill, apparently. So yeah, my mom and dad absolutely smashed it out of the park with that one.

IE: “Carry You Home” sounds like a warm wish for your son. But you also admit human frailty, as well.

KS: I do, yeah. And I think it’s an English thing to be extremely self-deprecating whenever possible. I mean, in my own mind I might be a relatively confident person, so I think it’s just a very learned habit to be self-deprecating as an English person. And I don’t know why that is. But that song is talking about being stuck in hospital when my son was born — he had to stay in for five or six days (he had jaundice) and every day I would go in, and they were like, “No, he can’t go home yet — come back tomorrow.” And then they eventually let me take him home. So that was mad. I mean, we were never super-concerned about (his recovery), but it was just exasperating to not be able to protect him and bring him home. So I was going through all the emotions of what being a dad is, and what being a man is, and I certainly didn’t feel anywhere near the father figure that my dad was to me. So I was trying to figure all that out in my head, like, “How do I be this man that I have only ideas of? When I just don’t feel like it — I still feel like a little boy, sort of, not a man.” I’m just a pathetic songwriter, trying to write some good songs. I’ve never ever had to fight for food or build a house, you know?

IE: “Living in the Grey” sounds like it could be your huge, symphonic set closer, and also quite reflective. Post-pandemic, who do you see in your mirror now, looking back?

KS: Well, when we got signed, I’d basically achieved all the dreams that I ever wanted. I’d been in a band since I was 14, I got signed when I was 26, and then we started touring around the world, and we got to 150 gigs or something. And we were in America, and I was so down and depressed, I found myself crying in the bathroom at the Rainbow bar in L.A. And I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “Who the fuck are you, and why are you obsessed about touring the world? You’re in the fucking Rainbow bar right now! What’s wrong with you?” I had achieved everything I ever wanted to achieve, and I wasn’t happy. And that was a very strange thing to contemplate, for my mind to even try and understand. So “Living in the Grey” is all about that, really, and how once you get to the point where you think you’ll be happy, and you’re not happy? That is a real mind-fuck. And it took me a long time to really enjoy touring after that. It took me a good couple of years to really relax and not take it all too seriously. So I could enjoy playing music again and not put too much pressure on myself.

IE: There’s a moment in “Hell on Earth,” though, when you shout in the chorus, “Oh, my God!” And you can just picture a packed nightclub chanting along.

KS: Yeah! We just did five shows in three days, and we did The Cavern Club in Liverpool. And that song? It was exactly what you just said — a whole sweaty room of people screaming, “OH! MY! GOD!” It was fucking great, man. It was everything I wished that song would be, a proper singalong. So it was so cool to write that in a time when I didn’t know if there were ever going to be gigs again and to be in an actual gig where it feels that special.

-Tom Lanham

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