On Monday this week the music website Idioteq began streaming Symptoms Of The Human Being, the debut EP from Manchester post-rock/post-hardcore band Pleiades (pronounced 'Plee-a-deez').
Each one of the four songs on offer provides something different to the last and the EP grows in length, intensity and complexity as it unfolds. It’s a significant achievement which deserves to do very well; the early signs are good as music sites Manchester Rocks, Already Heard and Thesoundnottheword all seem to be digging it.
Each song on Symptoms of the Human Being has its own character and something to recommend it, but the one that jumped out to me immediately was track #2 Only Second Cousin. The song features a catchy melodic chorus, poppy backing vocals, a delicate slow section and powerful climatic heavier section that all came together in a very dramatic way. I knew there was a striking music video there.
Earlier this week in my blog ONLY THE LONELY PART 1 I talked about how I had been itching to direct something that would challenge and excite me and how I had an ideal window in my diary this Autumn to take on such a project.
I was already considering diving from the high-board into my cardboard spaceship idea for the Jenny Got Famous song Loneliest Hour, although I was still in the stage of tentatively toeing around the edge of the platform and nervously peering over the side rather than actually committing to the plunge. So when Pleiades guitarist Andrew Packwood sent me a Whatsapp message about a music video the timing couldn't have been more perfect...
What Andrew Packwood didn't know was that I had already been serioisly plotting out how I would approach a music video; by this point my iTunes playcount for Only Second Cousin was well into double-figures as I had spent several long train journeys scribbling pages and pages of ideas, images and practical considerations.
I genuinely really liked the song and was very pleased that my friend had helped create something so impressive. Right from this early idea-conception stage this created a sense of pressure and responsibility; a song this good deserved a video to match! However far from being a burden, this pressure was empowering and gave me the courage to launch myself off the diving board and into the 2 music video projects.
Straightaway I gave myself 2 clear goals for Only Second Cousin. I wanted the video to include 2 threads:
- A unique and visually arresting band performance thread which would match the tone, style and subject matter of the track. I wanted the aesthetic to be a grungy DIY spectacle, something impressive and dramatic in scale, but grubby, accessible and fitting the world of post-rock and post-hardcore.
- A dramatic narrative thread which would weave throughout, amplifying the lyrical ideas. I wanted this to be the journey of one person's battle with their inner demons, set in an abstract world.
I'll Love The Habit Like It's Good For Me
My second process when developing the idea for a music video (after listening to the song until I hear it in my sleep!) is to consider the lyrics and the story they are telling. This is another aspect where this EP shines, as Andy Calderbank paints some fascinating and affecting pictures without ever being on-the-nose with its story. His lyrics vividly tell the story of somebody fighting to overcome serious personal obstacles, with each song exploring a different aspect of their journey. I knew that this story would be the basis for the narrative thread in the video.
In their feature on Idioteq the band describe the theme of this EP as:
The theme that runs through the entire EP is adolescent metal illness. Our family had a few years of one of us struggling with mental illness to a severe degree and we had no way of really being able to help so were were forced to observe it and I personally gained a huge understanding on how little control people suffering actually have.
One of the key recurring lyrics of Only Second Cousin is the phrase "I'll love the habit like it's good for me". I wanted to depict a character struggling against a habit that they have embraced for a long time. I tried to steer clear of cliche habits like alcohol, gambling, drugs etc because while these are obviously important issues in the modern world, this song seemed to be dealing with a habit whose harm was more subtle and insidious.
The next train journey I took between Manchester and London revealed the key image I wanted to focus on. I had my eyes closed and headphones on as I enjoyed a squirming trip down memory lane - deliberately recalling my various teenage habits and fixations - when I found it...
As a teenager I developed an obsession with rock, metal and punk music. Fortunately this is a fixation that has stuck but it was particularly alluring for the wide-eyed 13 year old who first heard bands like Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and System of a Down. As I would go through inevitable teen angst I would slam the door to my room and disappear into the world of my music. At that young pre-paper-round age my music collection was modest; once a month I would spend my pocket money on one or two carefully chosen albums which would then be at the centre of my life for the next 4 weeks (Spineshank's The Height of Callousness was a brilliant month, Alien Ant Farm's ANThology was not). However my greed for music outstripped my ability to pay for it and the resourceful 13 year old skinflint I was soon discovered a more efficient way to expand my collection; cassette tapes! I realised that for a fraction of the cost of a CD I could buy myself a pack of tapes from Woolworths and hand these out to my friends to record their CDs for me. I will be eternally grateful to Lofty (HolyWood), Frosty (Conspiracy of One), Sam Arthur (Infest) and many others. Cassettes were at the centre of my early teenage years and will always hold a special place in my ears.
The musical dexterity on display in Only Second Cousin felt like the work of a band really enjoying themselves and their craft, with the gentle mid-section and heavier climax feeling almost life-affirming and celebratory. It made me think about the love we all have for music and all those teen hours we spent in our bedrooms lost in it, whether through an instrument, stereo or pair of headphones.
I had found it. I wanted the band to be playing in a world that suggested a rabid obsession with music, a world that lovingly harkened back to a simpler format, a world that seemed like a great big magical cage. I wanted this visual motif to reflect the OCD that would be experienced by our central character in the narrative thread and tie the concept to the narrative.
I would build a room covered in thousands of tapes.
Much like getting hold of hundreds of cardboard boxes was the first pre-production job for Loneliest Hour, the first job here was to acquire as many cassette tapes as possible. The solution was the same: the internet. There was a 3 week period where I think I purchased every job-lot of cassette tapes being sold on eBay (except that damn box of 100+ audio books that I got sniped on!) and I also made several trips around Greater Manchester sweeping up anything being offered on Freecycle. Most of the tapes collected were old crooners, 80s synth-nonsense or 90s pop groups, but occasionally I'd open them up to uncover a treasure trove of old rock and metal classics.
I'D LOVE TO CUT THESE TIES
In ONLY THE LONELY PART 1 I talked about my decision to book the club space at Islington Mill and the benefits this brought with it for rigging scenery. Once Dave Cowley had built his wooden frames for the cardboard walls of Loneliest Hour we decided to mount the cassette tapes to panels of chicken wire and then attach these to the same wooden frames.
After measuring the room and planning the layout of our performance space I worked out that we would need 20 chicken wire panels (each holding 110 tapes) which would fix to 10 of our wooden frames
Chicken wire is a brilliant design material thanks to its versatility, durability and relatively low cost. It also allowed us to attach our cassettes through the mesh via a cable tie for each cassette (in an exhausting and fiddly slog that chomped up 2200+ cable ties and took roughly 70 - 90 minutes per panel). Mounting the tapes with a few centimetres space between them would then allow us to backlight the walls and the smoke from our smoke machine to drift through.
For all it's benefits, chicken wire's significant downside is that it is incredibly sharp, as my hands discovered time and time again!
Another grubby and grungy material I repurposed was VHS tape. Once cracked open a VHS cassette spews out hundreds of metres of deep shiny black tape that can be used to create some interesting glossy black shapes. You can also take the tightly-wound reels, rig them overhead and trigger their unravelling which creates a chaotic, messy and tangled shape like some sort of weird industrial ticker-tape. This was a trick borrowed from earlier pieces of work dating as far back as an A Level drama piece from 2005 and a first-year drama University piece from 2006! I'd always wanted to come back to this technique and reuse it in a different way (and this time in a film project, rather than theatre) and it was quite unnerving to realise that it had taken me a full decade to get round to doing it!