From the Liverpool band’s home inside a 160-year-old decommissioned school near the center of the city, the three members of All We Are—all immigrants to England—have been watching how the last four years have seemed to turn the world from its axis. In the U.K., it was Brexit. In the U.S., it was Trump. In many places around the world, it was nationalism. Some of that unease made its way onto the band’s 2017 album, Sunny Hills.
Ireland’s Richard O’Flynn (drums), Norway’s Guro Gikling (bass) and Brazil’s Luis Santos (guitar) still feel that unease, especially now that a pandemic has seized the entire world. But before that happened, All We Are had made the decision to focus on the bright side with their follow-up album, Providence, out on Friday, which seeks out happier times.
The band’s headquarters inside the school (since their start in 2011), which O’Flynn also calls home, is interwoven with the vibe of the album. Right before the band formed with three close friends from college, O’Flynn’s former girlfriend broke up with him, forcing him to find a new home. Then he saw an ad on Gumtree (like Craigslist) advertising a room in the center of the city for only 180 pounds per month.
“So I came to see it with Luis and it was just, really weird and trashed and grotty,” O’Flynn said. “Luis saw through it. He was, ‘Come on, think about what you could do with it.’ … We’ve always had this place to rehearse, to record, demo the tracks and stuff.”
The large room is the nursery annex of a school, all in beautiful Liverpool red brick. The rest of the school is occupied by either young professionals, teachers or artists—think stilt walkers, musicians and stand-up comedians.
“If you go a little bit farther back, there’s really tiny toilets,” Gikling said before O’Flynn gave a virtual tour by carrying a phone around the property. Outside, the band has a private south-facing patio. The grounds have started to become overgrown. It’s not for everyone—there’s no heating, so winters are rough. But the artists who call the school home have turned it into a community.
“All our gear is here; it has space, and you can make as much noise as you like,” Santos said.
After the trio recognized that the music it was making sounded tropical, the members went all-in, driving around town and collecting travel posters and knick-knacks to fit the vibe.
Perhaps All We Are could have released the album prior to COVID-19. The band had recorded much of it between late 2018 and early 2019. But in a twist of fate, the band’s music files were corrupted, and the three were forced to start again.
O’Flynn, Gikling and Santos took that as a sign and made changes when the songs were recorded again. Most of the songs evoke a humid, joyous paradise, with warm synths, bouncy percussion and funky guitar leads and bass. Some songs like “Not Your Man” drip with sexy friction. Yet others, despite keeping the tropical melody, face the prospect of loss. O’Flynn said that the midtempo “Beauty in Loss” is about coming to terms with the death of his brother, who passed away some years earlier but remained present in his mind.
“By the time we had to redo everything, we actually knew the vibe of the record a bit better, and we were a bit more rehearsed and practiced,” Santos said. “Pretty much everything that we did after the incident was actually better.”
RIFF: Where are the three of you right now, and how did you pass your shelter-in-place?
Richard O’Flynn: I think the U.K. isn’t far [ahead of] you guys. We’re allowed to kind of be in the same house, and we’ve just started rehearsing again, which is really cool. We had our first jam two weeks ago, and we realized that prior to that it was the longest in 13 years that we’d spent without playing music together. … We’ve all been kind of just keeping the head down, and it’s slowly getting back to a semblance of normality—presumably similar to you guys.
How has the pandemic affected your year, so far, in terms of your music?
Luis Santos: We started the campaign last year, before the pandemic. So it was all already planned and ongoing. It did get slightly pushed back. We never really pondered actually not releasing the album, but it is quite worrying, especially with not being able to play on tour, because it’s such an important part of promoting the music and even just for your own well-being. It’s our favorite part of it. We love playing shows, and it makes us really excited to keep doing what we’re doing. It’s the time you actually get to see people, chat to people. We really miss that, so that’s been a big impact on us.
O’Flynn: It’s hard not having that, but you know it’ll come. It’s like the pause button has been put on the whole world, really, so you know everyone’s kind of in the same boat, obviously to varying degrees. Different countries are dealing with it differently. But certainly, insofar as live music, everyone’s kind of dealing with the same thing. So there is a kind of certain solidarity in that respect. But yeah, fuck it. We’re really looking forward to getting out there and playing the tunes.
In what ways has it affected you in your personal lives, or your family lives?
Guro Gikling: I definitely went a lot more inwards and more solitaire, I suppose, but I don’t think it has affected me as much, because I haven’t had anyone in my family, or any of our friends or anyone that we know have had the virus. So, I think in that respect, we’re quite lucky that we just had basically a big time off, and a lot of time to reflect and read and paint and write music and have a nice time. It feels wrong to say, but I’ve really enjoyed lockdown.
O’Flynn: Initially, there was this acceptance, and that solidarity, everyone was in it. … This is like a really great time to spend writing music and stuff. But I’ve had very anxious moments and a lot of self-reflection and some quite important epiphanies, personally, I feel. Over the course of the three months, you allow yourself that time for yourself. Five months in—
Luis Santos: First month I didn’t mind it at all. Lockdown just made me feel quite worried that I am a bit of a hermit. I’ve always suspected that. But then I started getting more and more affected by it. I know of people who have passed away and a couple of people who potentially had it, but obviously my struggles are nothing compared to them. … I’m quite worried about the future, obviously, especially in coming from Brazil where the outbreak is also tremendous; just behind the States as far as infections. But I think there’s potential to get even worse than the States. It’s quite worrying for the country, and obviously not having as many resources and money to combat it.
You have described Providence as a balm to the anxieties you wrote about on your last album. It was 2017, so there was Brexit and Trump. Is that where those anxieties came from?
O’Flynn: As you said, Brexit, Trump—all these kinds of things that we found quite distressing and highlighted quite a lot of division. Obviously, all of us aren’t from Britain. We’re from different places. That year, there was a lot of anxiety there. But there was a lot of anxiety within ourselves. The songs kind of range from very personal, heavy subjects like ‘Punch,’ for example, that’s terrible subject matter for a tune. We were all expressing all these emotions. Then, touring that record and singing and living those songs night after night was quite exhausting. Providence, when we started to write it and record, it was just like this healing balm. We wanted to celebrate the really, really great things about humanity, rather than focus on the negative things. Both albums and those emotions had their proper space and time for us.
Gikling: It was important to do it when we did it. It was time to be a bit more joyous because there’s a lot of joy in the world as well.
O’Flynn: We’re just celebrating good things on this one, but it’s really good-time music. Lyrically in some ways, it’s kind of quite deep inside, but just kind of accentuated by this real bounce. The tracks got this really great bounce and just are fun.
The record followed a one-year break where you played with some of your friends instead?
O’Flynn: We started this band with two friends of ours, who are a Liverpool band, and it was called Jacuzzi. It hasn’t really gotten very far. We just did a handful of gigs and stuff. I feel it quite influenced the tropical vibe that’s on this record. As you can tell from the name.
Gikling: Jacuzzi was all about being poolside and drinking drinks and being a bit sleazy. It was great. And we pretended we were from L.A.
O’Flynn: We did this one gig; I was literally hanging from the rafters, and afterwards, I was talking to this girl, and she was like, “How come you’re all the way over here from America?” And I was like, “Oh, shit, honestly that just kind of a joke. I’m from Ireland.” We all kind of put on a California drawl and pretended to be from America. And it was all kind of part of the deal with tunes, but that was something that really influenced the [All We Are] record over that break.
How did you lose your songs after first writing them in 2018?
O’Flynn: It wasn’t the writing. We had started recording, and Dave McCracken, the producer [Beyoncé, Depeche Mode] went down to London with the hard drives—two hard drives, backed up, and then came back. Me and Luis picked him up at the train station. It was pretty weird.
Santos: He was quite reserved when we picked him up. We said, “Hey, Dave. So good to see you. How’s it going?” He was like, “Yeah, yeah. Good.” Then an hour later, he’s like, “Guys … the music’s gone.” His USB dongle malfunctioned whilst hard drives were connected and backing up stuff, so it corrupted both hard drives with the files and the backups. But it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise in some ways. So what we did before Christmas turned out to be pre-production. By the time we had to redo everything, we actually knew the vibe of the record a bit better, and we were a bit more rehearsed and practiced. Pretty much everything that we did after the incident was actually better. …
And you must really like your producer because you kept him.
O’Flynn: He’s a true friend, actually. He’s really, really great guy.
Santos: He’s a really talented producer, and he is quite a different style for us because the first two records, we wanted to make it quite as live as possible and try to capture the energy in the room; set it up and play all together. … [With McCracken] it was also all about deconstructing the songs to the essence of it and then rebuilding them bit by bit, because he comes from the pop world. … We learned loads through the process, and it’s the first time as well that we actually used bits from the demos, like really important bits, actual takes, like vocals and guitars. Dave was like, “Sounds great; let’s just use it.” So it is nice to do it differently.
There’s a tropical vibe to the album. You decorated with travel posters that you were able to find. If you had found other posters, for colder places, would this album be more Bjork-like?
O’Flynn: We actually consciously went out and found that kind of Caribbean posters and stuff on purpose because we were like, “This is starting to get quite tropical,” and then we were like, “Why don’t we just really go for it?” And we did.
Gikling: Most of the songs were written in summer as well. We went to Ireland and stayed there for a while, and the weather was there was really, really good. We were just in the sun, swam and then came in, played some tunes, and they all turned tropical. It was great. It was also World Cup.
O’Flynn: That was a good summer.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.