Graham Reid | | 6 min read
So you're travelling to the States soon and wondering about that new fingerprinting and high-security thing at the airport on arrival? Tell it to Gale Paridjanian of Turin Brakes. He's been down that path repeatedly, the first time almost a year ago.
"I was born in Iran," says the quietly spoken Londoner, who first sang with bandmate Olly Knights in the church choir at age seven . "Because of that I got put on a special register, which meant they refused my working visa for one of our tours two days before we were supposed to go.
"They said I could go for an interview with the FBI, but their office was closed, so we had to cancel. I saw them a week later and there was no problem, but I'm on the register, so when I go there I always get my fingerprints taken and have to tell them where I'm going and what I'm doing in America. And it's the same when I leave."
He's a naturalised British citizen who sang before the Queen in the 89 tribute concert after the Marchioness riverboat tragedy on the Thames.
"Yeah, my mum's British and we left Iran when there was the revolution, but the man who put me on the register didn't ask when I left there. When I told him he said, 'Oh, that's okay then. But it's too late now, you're on the list.' And I am, it's quite a fuss."
It certainly is, especially if you are in a band which has toured the States half a dozen times and recorded its last album, Ether Song, in balmy California.
But Paridjanian writes it off to experience, just another in a rapid learning curve which has seen Turin Brakes emerge out of South London three years ago with their Mercury Prize-nominated The Optimist LP, and be reluctantly labelled as part of the New Acoustic Movement alongside Ed Harcourt, Starsailor and Kings of Convenience (whose album Quiet is the New Loud gave the unofficial movement its slogan).
Paridjanian admits their career has been an occasionally rough ride, which started when he and school chum Knights started strumming acoustic guitars and writing songs together.
Their impressive, self-produced debut on the small indie label Source tossed them into the vanguard of similarly melancholy Britpop strummers - then everything changed.
Source was eaten by Virgin and the guy who signed them, once a friendly face in an office the size of a hotel room, is now head of Virgin UK "and his goalposts have shifted".
The band moved up a level accordingly, but were anxious to disassociate themselves from the New Acoustic Movement without alienating the fan-base they had built, especially in Britain where they have toured frequently over the past 18 months. To their detriment, says the exceptionally candid Paridjanian.
"Recently in London, our hometown, we couldn't fill the Hammersmith Apollo on the second night so they moved it to the Forum, which holds about 1800. The promoters were embarrassed and so didn't advertise it. On the night most of the audience was people we'd scraped together and begged to come," he laughs.
"The reason is we played a lot in England last year and started touring six months before Ether Song. Then we toured when it came out and just after, and then thought we'd do a goodbye tour to thank our fans for coming out so many times. But of course they thought, 'Oh c'mon. what are you going to do that's so different?' - so they didn't show up."
"In Australia it has worked out well, the people have been responsive. Of course America is still a bit of a struggle but we've managed to make it look honourable. Some of the venues we play there aren't massive."
"We're not going to break our backs and it's not a big aim, the gameplan is to do it slowly. It's definitely fun, and of course they speak English so get the lyrics straight away.
"We go around Europe and people don't understand what you are saying. That's kind of baffling. I don't know why they come."
The reason is because over two albums Turin Brakes have built a catalogue of impressive songs, sung by Knights in a powerful, soaring voice which has reference points in Jeff Buckley and their contemporaries, Starsailor.
If The Optimist LP was one of the great albums of 2001, Ether Song steps away from the two acoustic guitars approach and beefs things up with assistance from LA studio musicians who had worked with producer Hoffer regularly. The drummer had been in Air and the bassist with Beck.
They'd heard Turin Brakes' demos before the English duo arrived for three weeks of intense sessions, which had the band in the studio every day and catching little of that famed California weather.
But Paridjanian believes some Cali-feel seeped into their material: "The lyrics were written in cloudy London, but when I listen to it I definitely hear sunshine and the influence of Los Angeles. You couldn't help it, so songs like Stone Thrown shine a lot more than the demos and have a more beach-California feel about them."
Paridjanian also says there was an immediate enthusiasm and work ethic from the American musicians, a higher level of enthusiasm than he has found back home.
"England can be frustrating. In the studio you talk quite a lot, people drink tea and wait around. But there on the first day it was, 'Let's do it right now', which was great.
"They already knew the music well and it didn't feel like they were session musicians, more like this super band prepared for us. The drive from everyone made it feel a bit more urgent."
In an unusual move the duo relinquished control of their material to Hoffer. They met him in London, got on well - "He's just like us except from LA, it's strange" - and so gave him 30 demo tracks and let him choose what they should record for the album they hoped could move them forward.
"We didn't want to decide in advance how the album would be, but knew we'd done The Optimist LP and didn't want to do it again, otherwise we'd be making the same album forever.
"And it was good because he picked Panic Attack, Little Brother and Falling Down, which we might not have chosen.
"Anyway, we figured if it came out really, really badly we just wouldn't release it and we'd do something else. Or blame him," he laughs.
Paridjanian says they were conscious of the New Acoustic label but the decision to beef up the sound wasn't too deliberate. After touring with a five-piece band the sound of the songs on their debut was being pumped up live anyway.
"We didn't sound very New Acoustic on those tours. It's difficult not to turn it up and let the drums and bass carry you a bit more.
"The shows are therefore quite different, there's a different mindset. It's a more cerebral thing with just a trio but with the band it's like, 'Okay, let's just play rock'. So I'm looking forward to doing the three-piece shows, it can be quite a relief."
If their part of the equation - the recording and performing - is under control, they have also learned to be more assertive about the business end.
Confusingly, Ether Song has appeared in three different versions in Britain. The second, which they approved of, was a limited edition of 5000 copies with an extra disc of home recordings which they felt was good value and of interest to fans.
Then the record company said the album wasn't selling enough and needed another single added. They thought it a good opportunity to record something new, but had some qualms about how people might respond to yet another version.
"But we listened to our label and thought they'd been doing their job for a while. Now they've said it didn't work. Unfortunately it's not their faces on the record.
"Six months before the record came out they were excited and really thought it was going to be the next Coldplay and go stellar. Once it didn't they all got disappointed and saw it as a failure. Of course, it wasn't - it sold as much as the first album, and sold that many in a few months, whereas the other sold that over two years.
"That's not a failure, but they had this other expectation. You can't predict in music, but there's a whole industry based around the belief that you can.
"What we've learned from all this is if we believe something should be a certain way then, no matter what, we have to have it that way. Even if it means we don't sell any more records.
"You've really got to listen to yourself. Even if you don't have experience in that field, if there's something inside telling you not to do it, you just don't do it, no matter what they tell you. Every day is a new day and no one knows how anything is going to work out, especially with music. It's not a tangible thing."