Few things are as satisfying as an album that takes the listener on a journey, calling up images, sensations, and ideas. Until the Ribbon Breaks’ new album A Lesson Unlearnt does exactly that. Several songs are deceptively minimalist, setting an ambient dj vibe beneath poignant, smart, sometimes dystopian lyrics, while adding just the right effects that know their place. Other songs are collages of hip hop, R&B, edm, and a range of beats with guest performers for variety. All in all, it’s an album that is easy to enter, easy to stay with, and more-ish when it’s over.
I had the good fortune of speaking to James Gordon, the programming and electronics whiz of the group (with his dishy UK accent!) about how Until the Ribbon Breaks began, its process for song writing, and the new album’s creation
Rachel Levine (RL): Welcome to North America. How’s it going?
James Gordon (JG): I’ve been looking at my weather app, and we’re preparing ourselves for the cold there.
RL: I recommend an extra pair of socks.
JG: We put socks on the rider.
RL: How did you guys meet and get to know each other?
JG: Basically, we evolved over time. It started as a solo project with Pete [Lawrie Winfield] coming off the back of another project, and it was a strong source of inspiration of what he wanted to do. I became involved as an engineer and programmer on that. Around the same time, we were starting to discuss informally what happens with this music, how it will be performed, how it will be presented, how will the imagery work, and what kind of instruments it would use. I wanted to get involved in it. At the same time, Pete reconnected with Elliot [Wall], the drummer and a long-time friend of Pete’s. They had done projects together. That’s sort of evolution, all these things coming together at once. We moved fast, went to the studio in London and got a load of different shapes and sizes of equipment and worked out how we would perform the record. We deconstructed and reassembled it in the studio, paying no thought to performance.
RL: Is there a specific process the band has for creating the songs?
JG: Pete’s background is that his parents are classical musicians. He was brought up on Paul Simon and the really rich storytelling and imagery that comes with that, that sort of mystique and worlds created in those stories and songs. He reads a lot and takes influence from movies. Elliot and I add to that in our own way; we fill in. Pete gets to exist in this cool area of thinking about the song and story. In the studio, we have this big space in Collingwood. It’s a space where we rehearse and write music. We have all our instruments out, and we change everything up all the time, changing the equipment. It’s an evolving environment. Also, the name of the record, A Lesson Unlearnt lends itself to that environment. We’re always changing things. It’s so easy to get into habits. If you’re a painter and you always use the same set of colors or brushes, it’s interesting to think, fuck it, I’m going to change completely what I’m doing and paint with a different tool. That’s what we do in that crazy studio environment.
In sum, we mix it up, and mess it around a lot against the story telling.
RL: How does the live performance compare with the album itself? Do you stay close to the record.
JG: There’s no set rule. I would say earlier, when we first went out on the road, the music was close to the record. We would try and find a way of performing something that would be programmed on the record. Now, we’re adding more human elements to it.
RL: One thing I appreciated about this album is how eclectic it is, how each song is different both externally and internally. I especially liked the song Orca. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that particular song and how it came about. Do all the songs develop in similar ways?
JG: Orca is an interesting one. The whole inspiration behind that song is very personal. It’s Pete’s personal experience that he’s drawing on in that song. I’m sure he doesn’t mind me saying that. That’s not to say that it’s the same throughout the record. The songwriting and the inspiration and the journey changes from song to song. Sometimes characters and worlds are invented, sometimes the songs are commenting on the future of human race, or all this stuff around us. It can vary. The album is more like a mix tape. There’s not one single concept, but the concept is that it changes and evolves.
I think that this is down to the background of imagery, Pete’s background in film and Elliot and my own background in the visual as well that we learnt from Pete in some ways. Musically, we’re all fans of production and creating a different world, and a re-imagination of what we’ve done previously. We’re not remixing, but redesigning. It’s like different sections of a theme park with different parts of a world. We like to build a world that you can fly through in 3-4 minutes.
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RL: Are there any other songs you can tell me about?
JG: Absolutely. In Pressure, there’s a section in the middle of the song. We had formed a lot of the sound and programming of that one, and then we got it to a certain point and didn’t know what to do in the middle. We had this other bit, this other section, a little idea that Pete had worked up but it sat on the hard drive. Another producer we were working with – Rollo – his idea was to put this thing that was in a different key, with a different sound palette, in the middle of the track. It was a spontaneous, exciting thing. I remember thinking, “What? This is crazy, and it’s in this key, and we worked so hard, and the pre-chorus flows.” Yet, it’s the kind of thing where you put it in and you transition and drop it at the right moment and it’s this fresh, cool, interesting thing. When we do it live, it comes into a whole new life again.
Catch Until the Ribbon Breaks opening for London Grammar at L’Olympia (1004 St. Catherine E) on January 23 at 8 p.m. $35