We sent a writer to spend an entire day with Glass Animals, makers of our September Album of the Month, while they headlined Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. Words & Photos By Brittany Hallberg
When you arrive to the festival grounds unexpectedly delayed at 7AM the day of your gig, you wake up at noon like a rockstar. Except, of course, if you're the band’s tour manager. Then you're greeting strangers, people like me, into your world around 10 a.m. with a smile and British-accented apologies. Suddenly, the band was up, gone in a flash of cigarette puffs, on a mission to a hotel for the necessary after-tour-bus-sleep showers, leaving me on the Forecastle Festival grounds in a whirlwind. A lot of things in Glass Animals’ world are like that right now.
I was sent to Forecastle to capture Glass Animals as they are; on the cusp of mega indie stardom before the release of their anticipated sophomore album, How to Be a Human Being. Their first LP, 2014’s Zaba shot them from semi-obscurity to that level of indie rock fame where they can rack up an impressive amount of Spotify streams, sell out shows across the UK and America, and still be relatively unknown.
Yet with their current success metrics and my I-memorized-your-lyrics giddiness set aside, spending a day on tour with Glass Animals was more like kicking it back with college friends vs being the coffee-runner intern. I found a friendly band that has the easier rapport and inside jokes of the schoolyard friends they are, seemingly unencumbered by the pressures that come with their anticipated sophomore album.
The band comes back from the hotel and are herded together by tour manager, Tom Allen, for introductions. I finally had the chance to do my highly anticipated "Hello!'s" to the band. I met Drew MacFarlane, keyboardist/guitarist, first; he’s an overtly friendly and welcoming character. We chatted, him with cig in hand, about the day ahead as the others made their way down one by one off the tour bus. I was quickly welcomed in as one of their own as I continued my intros to lead singer Dave Bayley who was repairing himself with superglue after gashing his finger - "It's the trick," another “Hello” to laidback and inviting bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Ed Irwin-Singer who made me feel right at home with a quick intro chat, and a final "Nice to meet you" to Joe whose stylin' summer-themed red bucket hat became another inside joke to the Louisville, Kentucky tour day. "I'm keeping it on because everyone hates it," he admits with a wink and a smirk.
Fresh off a three week Australian tour, the band regrouped with a new tour crew to hit the road in the US. Glass Animals + 7 were greeted with a tour bus with a “tramp stamp,” which would be the target of jabs all day and the hub in which each crew member would let their personality shine. Backstage at Forecastle, the band was pleasantly surprised and appreciative of their air conditioned trailer filled with their humble rider - Cheerios for Dave, Patron and Ginger Beer for all, (Drew teaching me that the two drinks combined is delightful), whiskey for Ed, and sprinkled fruit and candies. With your name on the door and a Talent Hospitality team dedicated to making sure you have a living room away from home – “Sorry, you guys need a tablecloth,” – is this what it feels like to be a rockstar?
When your friends from younger school days unexpectedly hit 10 million+ views on one of your first released music videos (“Gooey”) and reach 7 million listeners on Spotify just a few years later, there's an unspoken understanding that there is something crazy good happening to you all. How is it that a bunch of your friends are now touring the world as a popular rock band?
“It’s his fault,” drummer Joe Seaward would later say about Dave Bayley, the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist, and producer, responsible for bringing the band together.
“Maybe I can’t help it,” Bayley admitted. “It’s fun. I enjoy it a lot. I got addicted, totally addicted to it. It’s very, very interesting and very, very fun. I’ll never quite understand it fully, I don’t think. I’ll never quite understand why noise can make people feel a certain way. It’s very strange.”
Maybe not all addictions are harmful, as Glass Animals seem to know just the proper dose to a successful music career. Creating and owning a unique sound - where songs instantly catch your ear with tribalistic beat intros and with melodies that blend variations of mellow and upbeat electronics to steady rock rhythms - combined with the strong bond of friendship, has been the recipe to Glass Animals’ musical magic.
“I don’t know if I could do what we have to do with people I don’t know as well as them,” Seaward says. “...being able to trust each other, over the how many years it is, I guess makes it that much easier. It makes you care more because you’re letting people down that you care about.”
And it’s evident that these guys care. They care about their fans, stopping and chatting with any that stopped them on their walks across the festival grounds. They care about the world, discussing the latest news of what’s going on with sincerity in the tour bus on their down time over sips of English tea. They care about each other, as they each respect each other’s roles in the band and in the touring crew and acknowledge one another, out loud, complimenting them for their talents. And they care about their music, and maybe even more so, the progression of their music.
As we sit in their trailer at Forecastle Festival, it’s about two months since they released their new track and music video for “Life Itself,” also notably the first song on the record (and first song of their festival set). So, the cat is out of the bag that there’s a new visual and sonic direction.
“A part of what I like about albums... It’s like a newspaper,” Bayley explains. “It’s like a snapshot of you at that time. A snapshot of how a band is thinking at that period of time. Like a newspaper, you know, is a day, where that album is us at the beginning of 2016. And I find that really interesting.”
So what did the beginning of 2016 look like for this band of brothers? It looked a lot like that game you play at the airport, you know, when you watch a stranger’s behaviors and then start to imagine and dream-up their life, but played with focus and intent: observing, listening, and learning from their stories.
“We were traveling a lot, touring a lot, meeting a lot of people,” Bayley said. “All these people we’re meeting and telling us all these stories about their lives and learning so much about how people live... It seemed very natural to start writing about that, to start kind of creating our own characters.”
People ebbed and flowed in and out of Glass Animals’ lives, sharing pieces of their personal situations, talks about their families, and other strange quick tales in Uber rides, as Bayley made mental and tangible notes, sharing with his bandmates the underlining theme they all agreed would be their 2016 direction: human beings.
“I found the whole process really exciting because we had something to aim at,” Seaward shares. “I don’t know what it would be like if we didn't have such a clear idea of what we wanted to do. It definitely made, having a target like that – something to work towards - made the process really exciting.”
The end product is a Glass Animals-invented world: an album where each song shares a new person’s story, mostly from the first person point-of-view, sung with a unique voice recorded to sound like the invented character, and a musical world built around each persona. Bayley clearly painted every character's’ picture before diving into a song, with the band even taking the extra efforts to create tangible elements to make the characters come to life, like the “Life Itself” protagonist’s personal website, (they had me fooled), and the lady in "Youth"’s later published site. After working in producer Paul Epworth's studio earlier this year, the band completed their album, forever crystallizing these characters’ in audible form.
The band partnered with video director Neil Krug to introduce fans to their characters via music videos in what seems to be chronological order from “Life Itself” to just released “Youth,” to mentions of a possible third music video that Dave himself just might direct (if he finds the time).
“For each character, I have everything about them written down,” Bayley said. “Basically these huge poster size sheets with what their furniture is, what their house looks like, what clothes they wear, how they act, what they think about, what they do on their spare time. Everything for each one.”
With a clear vision of each persona described in the songs and even contemplating the undercurrents of each character’s life and how they relate to one another, the result is a world of human beings just trying to get through being human.
Trying to get through is what we did as a storm swept through Louisville causing a mandatory festival evacuation. We end up surviving the underwhelming drizzle and went back into the tour bus as we were informed there was more time to kill with all the set times pushed back.
“So wait, when do the headliners go on now?” Bayley asked, to an unanimous reply, “We are the headliners!” It was that moment that could have summed up the day. The coolest part about the Glass Animals’ journey might be that it came with no expectations.
In these tight quarters, I started to see more of each band member’s personalities and the ways they interact with each other. There were serious talks about the “end of the pineapple era” --the band always performs with a pineapple as part of the stage set up--- and moving “on to the watermelon,” and nerdy chats about upcoming detailed stage designs to correspond with the new LP. I could imagine each having their own songs with Dave-like poster boards showcasing charismatic traits and unique styles for inspiration.
As night rolled in, fireworks lit up the sky. Tom got the entire group together backstage in a huddle to do their pre-show ritual. All day their manager seemed to be working on something by himself, caught practicing some words by MacFarlane and only now did the full story come together. While the entire tour family works on their respected roles that are carried out during the day, it’s Tom who also has the finishing touch. He huddled the team together to rap his custom made lines about the day, amping up the band and crew, ending with a cheers and hands in the air.
With a pineapple sitting on the stage, Glass Animals were ready to do what they do best. Fearlessly kicking off their set with their newer track “Life Itself,” fans were blown away as the four talented, charismatic friends did what they love together. The audience sang back lyrics from songs off Zaba louder than Bayley’s mic and completely lost it in a dancing frenzy when he stepped into the crowd to sing choruses. The band tested their latest track “Youth” to a warm reception and encored their set with a louder live version of “Pools.” After getting to know the band throughout the day, watching them perform made me proud. It’s a beautiful thing when you observe people doing what they love and what you know they’re meant to do – It’s a little bit of magic.
And with that, my day spent as part of the Glass Animals team was over. I was sent to meet the artists behind How To Be A Human Being, which will be spinning on record players and streamed on laptops in countless homes in a few weeks, and I ended up discovering a lot more than album inspiration. I got to witness the side every fan wishes to see of the musicians we rock out to as they play on a stage or in our headphones- the human side. My mom warned me not to fall for rockstars, but when Ed offers you a cup of tea (proper, served with milk), when you get caught-up watching fireworks with Drew (that you almost miss stage call), when you hear the sincerity in Joe's voice as he switches gears from his public goofing-off demeanor and speaks from the heart about music, and when you see Dave brighten up with a sincere big "Wow" smile on stage as he's taken aback from the crowd passionately singing his lyrics loudly back at him, it's hard not to.
The band drove off preparing for more US tour dates before the release of their album, and I headed back home to the East Coast. All of us just living out our stories, going through life as human beings.
Glass Animals' How to Be A Human Being is our album of the month for September. Sign up by September 15 to receive our special edition of the album.