For those out of the loop of modern music, I’ll let you in on a badly kept secret: we live in a digital age. And so, post-peak era for the recorded product, it can sometimes be easy to forget when or if a musical collective has released the mellifluous fruits of their labour outside of the world wide web’s virtual boundaries and into the tangible wild. One such musical collective is Manchester’s From The Kites Of San Quentin (FTKOSQ), who’ve previously self-released demo singles through the bandcamp blogosphere but never held their music in their hands.
The internet, of course, is just the latest in a long line of double-edged swords to have directly resulted in a physical music sales dip and subsequent major label accusations of ‘killing music’ (take a bow, cassette ‘home taping’, CD ‘burning’, et al). It’s a recent history which Kites’ laptop mix-maestro and beat merchant Phil Bretnall, aka Blood Boy, spends little time mourning. “As far as the major label industry goes... good fucking riddance. At the end of the day, they are just a glorified bank so, as much as they can give you exposure, now they just want to get their hands on things that are rightfully the artist's, such as a percentage of live show fees and merchandise. So, we would never rule out a bigger indie, but I think in this day and age being as self-sufficient as possible is the way forward.”
Indeed the internet holds a definite benefit for the self-sufficient. FTKOSQ’s forthcoming physical release – a split single with fellow local soundsmiths Borland – is a step along a path that owes a debt to their early demos’ circulation through cyberspace. It has also opened a time portal back, in part, to an earlier recording norm; that of the vinyl: “we love the idea of vinyl releases. The CD has gone the way of the cassette, so if you’re gonna have something physical to go with your download then it may as well be wax.” So, while the download has become in essence the primary release route for independent artists such as FTKOSQ, distribution outside of the vast, yet oddly restrictive, internet bubble represents a stride forward. You can only reach so many people through your browser’s bandwidth and at an often limited sound quality, as recent Now Then Manchester interviewee Tullis Rennie – of the Concrete Moniker label – would attest.
To add that up, the summation of FTKOSQ’s ‘Chet Beaverbrooke’ and Borland’s ‘Clockmen’ (plus mutual remixes) equals output that’ll be rewarding; not only for both bands, but also for folks who may be familiar with one but not so familiar with the other, suggests Bretnall: “It's our first proper release and we just wanted people to hear what we are capable of, which was why the full track and remix format really appealed. Plus it means peeps into Borland will check us out and vice versa. We love the Borland track and the remix they did for us is just awesome.”
Not that FTKOSQ have been tethered to a keyboard in a locked computer room. They’ve been performing as a reduced line-up of three, forced by the departure of Paul (Phil: “We had to change things around pretty drastically, so that took a bit of getting used to, but we’re good now. Live is where it's at for us to be honest!”). Regardless, the trio have infiltrated the forefront of many local promoters’ thoughts by virtue of a delivery lazily comparable with Portishead, but more complex than any one reference point.
A recent gig at Kraak Gallery, supporting Trojan Horse’s album launch show, sees Bretnall’s dystopian samples, wobbly FlyLo glitchstep and shifting synths align with his fellow Kites in their labyrinthine progressions. Turgid lilts from the belly of guitarist Luke Bhatia’s substantial FX soundboard set-up duel with warped, drowning vocals effusively transmitted through the added depth of Alison Carney’s dual mic dynamism. The former an oneiric harness to the latter’s jolting immediacy. Theirs is often a maze with Kubrickian looming threat; trip-hop amidst the streets of a Hunter S Thompson deranged urbanism. While there may be the vague hint of Tom Vek’s ‘Nothing But Green Lights’ trailing in the Kites’ slipstream, the gears quickly change; pedal floored in a blurry night drive through reds, while distorted inhuman voices hazily plume the flight away.
Influences are increasingly a non-event given the eclectic scope of the average mp3 player shuffle – another defining point of the fast-paced internet paradigm. But they can be an indicator. Although varied, a couple listed in the Kites’ listening habits stand out for their status as the great outsiders, namely prog rock stadium-fillers Rush and Yes. As bands much-maligned by magniloquent music journo types (the former in particular considered an easy – and fair – target, unfairly, although gaining recent unexpected kudos from a certain Manchester-founded newspaper), the implication by association is clear; their sound is their own – if you don’t like it then lump it.
Such a mentality perhaps fires Bretnall’s bluntness regarding the appeal of independence as an artist: “complete control and generally making things more exclusive.” You could lump it, but the chances are you’ll like it; the slow builds of ‘Chet Beaverbrooke’; the escapist harmony overwhelmed by discord around the midpoint; the glistening sonic polish of studio practise (Phil: “Our track on the split was mixed and mastered by our old friend Andy Giblin. At the time, we just weren't that great at getting a good final mix, so he helped us out”).
All of which sits within not only a first for From The Kites Of San Quentin, but also for Gulf Records. The label is the joint project of Borland’s Rob Gregg and Dubai-based Dan Fogg, who unwittingly join a UK music spectrum seemingly commercially welcoming of James Blake as the nominated figurehead of spliced future beats and post-dubstep downtempoism. But the Gulf Records timing shouldn’t be considered an opportunistic reaction. There’s no need for an exaggerated ‘I was there’ moment, à la Sex Pistols at Manchester Free Trade Hall; the pairing of Borland and From The Kites Of San Quentin represents a separate take as part of, not following on from, a burgeoning, efflorescent electronic music niche.
Borland as a live act are on a hiatus, which makes it all the better that Gregg’s time is freed up to continue their presence with the Gulf venture. And FTKOSQ themselves are no strangers to side projects, promoting and podcasting regularly under the This City Is Ours (TCIO) guise. Bretnall is quick to express him appreciation of his Manchester electronica promoter brethren. “Hoya:Hoya. Full stop, man. Best clubnight in the country, hands down, and we’re lucky enough that it's on our front doorstep. Probably the most forward thinking bunch of people in the UK right now with a residents crew to die for. Also, Mind On Fire. They have been at it for ages now and we have done fair bit together. We did a party with those guys at Islington Mill last year as This City is On Fire – we were turning people away at midnight.” He goes on to champion Drumclinic, Hot Milk, Norvun Sundays and Hit&Run, along with another freshly sprouted record label, Broken Bubble.
Manchester is certainly offering an enviable electronic selection; the future is promising. As far as FTKOSQ’s future goes, the short-term is the split single on 4th April with Borland, a record that aside from Kites’ tune conjures up Borland’s ‘Clockmen’ – a steady Balearic dreamscape overpowering the clicks and flickers of percussive minimalism – and swapped production credits to each other’s work. A launch night at Centro accompanies on 1st April, while further ahead Bretnall is planning for TCIO the label: “we mixed some other tracks with Andy [Giblin] that we’re gonna be releasing as a digital EP over the summer through This City is Ours, with the album being the first physical release on the label towards the end of the year. The plan is to release it ourselves as a limited marble/coloured vinyl run with a download and some lovely artwork. Totally not cost-efficient, but who gives a shit?! We’re not looking at making money from the label; we just wanna recoup and help fund the next release.” And with a listenership interest piqued by what has preceded, this independent, like it or lump it ambition can drive FTKOSQ’s digital beginnings into an actual reality.
Words: Ian Pennington
Images: Ed Sprake, except image #3: courtesy of Trojan Horse