To Arms Etc are Alex Esp, Sven Sauber, Miriam Grundström, Arvid Bjurklint and Charles Campbell-Jones. They’re given an exceptional though not dominating hand by Ben Thackeray, who produced to the band’s self-released album earlier on in the year.
Based in London, the band quotes Gemma Ray and Trost among their influences, though legendary rock acts like Black Sabbath, ELO and Genesis splice through their otherwise modern music like a galactic battleships cruising for a fight.
To launch their coveted slot as Featured Act, God Is in the TV’s Tiffany Daniels speaks to Charles Campbell-Jones of To Arms Etc about the past two years, their self-titled sophomore and prog rock.
Hello, congratulations on your win.
Hey, yeah thanks very much for nominating us, we’re really chuffed about that!
That’s okay, well done! The gig should be really good.
Definitely. Plus it’s cool because I know Mary [Epworth, God Is in the TV’s first Featured Act] – at various points we’ve both played in Gemma Ray’s band, though not at the same time.
What has To Arms Etc been up to recently?
Finding new members largely! Since September last year we’ve been re-building the band – the line up has changed almost completely. Not by design though. We’ve still managed to do some shows, and I’m really pleased with how everything’s going, especially at the moment, but because of all the disruption we’ve not been performing as much as I would have liked.
How long has the band been going on for?
That’s a tricky question to answer. Strictly speaking, To Arms Etc has been around for two-and-a-half years and released two albums. But really the first album [‘Corner Games’] was more of a studio project, recorded with a cast of thousands. Whereas the new [self-titled] album is the first one that’s been recorded by a proper band rehearsing week in, week out and arranging and writing together. To make things even more complicated, the current-album line-up started to come apart towards the end of recording last year. So, To Arms Etc is now a new band for the second time…if that makes any sense!
What original members are still in the band and what inspired the change?
Absurdly, no-one apart from me. Though there is a cross-over in the sense that Miriam [bass, vocals] stepped in to record several parts on the new album. I don’t think I’m a nightmare to work with…but then again neither probably does Mark E. Smith! Nothing inspired the change aside from a whole host of factors that meant people either wanted to leave or couldn’t stay. It would be unfair of me to explain more without them being here to represent themselves – suffice to say that some probably think I’m a dickhead, while others probably think I’m an alright guy.
If there’s been a line up change I assume different people are writing and contributing to your demos. How has it affect the band’s sound?
At the beginning of To Arms Etc, I was more or less a singer-songwriter. But then I realised that I’m not particularly interested in singer-songwriters. I do like some, but I’ve always been more into bands. I just think, unless you’re some sort of savant like Prince, music’s better when people mess around with it together – it’s more interesting, more exciting. And that’s even truer of music like ours, which has heaps going on rhythmically and in the arrangements. So even for those songs where I provided the bulk of the raw material, in the rehearsal room they pretty quickly ceased to be ‘mine’. And then there are songs like ‘White Rapids’, for which Tiia [Jaakola], our old synth player, came up with the chord progression, lyrics and melody. With this new line-up we’ve already come up with a bunch of songs, some of them together from scratch. They definitely sound different – poppier in parts, heavier in parts, maybe a bit less sonically thick.
What specifically inspired you to write your self-titled album?
That’s a good question, but I don’t know how well I can answer it. I can’t really answer for the others either, though I do think that hearing the songs take unexpected turns as we worked on them was a big motivation for all of us. Personally, I feel a compulsion to write – I feel weird if I don’t. So writing is just an ongoing thing, and whatever is around that’s good enough gets used, or changed somehow. Also I’m a pretty avid consumer of music – I get a lot of inspiration purely from how much I enjoy listening to it.
In your own writing is that something you specifically focus on, rather than lyricism? Do tempo and structure interest you more?
Lyrics are really important, and I hate it when I do a bad job on them, but they do come last in the songwriting process for me. The song arrangement comes first, and usually some sort of rhythmic idea too. Melodies almost never come first – my wife thinks I’m anti-melody! But I see them more as the dressing on an interesting chord progression and/or rhythm.
Have there been any reviews that you specifically disagree with?
While I don’t mind being compared to other bands – people can compare us to anyone they like – I must say I’m surprised by how much the old-school prog thing has been picked up on. I mean, I really like a lot of that stuff, especially Van der Graaf Generator, but it doesn’t dominate what I listen to. Take the Melvins or Fugazi, whom I both love: if by ‘prog’ you mean asymmetrical song structures and varying bar-lengths, then they’re just as prog rock as they are punk rock. But who knows? Maybe the Genesis comparisons are revealing – I do have a double-barrelled surname, after all.
So you don’t go in for specifically 60s or 70s music?
No, not specifically, and the rest of the band definitely doesn’t. With the reviews so far, what I’m pleased about is that no-one has really called us ‘retro’, because I’ve no interest in nostalgia. I love old stuff, but I don’t yearn for a bygone era. Nowadays it’s like there’s no middle-ground – either bands act like they’ve completely reinvented music, or they become a sort of postmodern tribute act. Either way, I don’t think it pays much respect to the listener’s intelligence.
How does your music translate onstage?
Well, we now have two guitar players [Arvid and Sven] instead of a synth player and a guitar player. So already that’s a big change – I think it gives us the potential for more dynamic range. Also, Miriam plays the bassiest-sounding bass ever, which is really cool. I think we’re becoming a better live band all the time. Ultimately I’d like our performances to be intense but without a focal point, where everyone in the band is part of a united front.
Do you record live?
We don’t record to a click track – that’s a big one for us, because the drums have to sound like a human is playing them. It would be great to record completely live, but that’s not always ideal when there’s lots going on in the music. Maybe one day we will. I’m no Aretha, though, so I don’t think I’ll be tracking vocals along with the band anytime soon!
To Arms Etc will join Mary Epworth, An Axe and Ed Tullett at God Is in the TV’s Featured Act showcase, Buffalo Bar, London on November 18th.