Based in the Black Mountains of Powys, Welsh psych-wizards Islet have returned with a new album, the homophonous Eyelet, their first in five years. A work of hypnotic dream-pop, by turns angelic, demonic and absurd, the album explores birth, grief and belonging – an exceptionally moving journey through the landscape and their most dynamic and personal record to date. A couple of days before the album launch we got on the blower to catch up with their leader, Emma Daman Thomas, to discuss vultures, drum machines, prehistoric humans, and the magical transcendence of playing live.
Emma Daman Thomas: (laughs) There’s no leader!
Emma: Alex is around in the house if I need to fetch him. It’s probably just easier not to because otherwise we’ll talk over each other and have a sort of stand-off.
CB: I wouldn’t want a band stand-off
Emma: When everyone’s too polite to speak
CB: Oh, that kind of stand-off. Anyway. Right, so, Emma, I’ve been living with your new album Eyelet for the last couple of days, well over the weekend really, and I still feel like I haven’t really taken it in properly, so I had a couple of questions and then we could talk about some of the tracks that are on it yeah?
CB: It’s been a while since your last album. How has it taken so long?
Emma: Well, we did have an EP in 2016. Which… I don’t know. When you’re making it, an album is not that much different from an EP – just in terms of length. But in terms of what people notice, it’s like it doesn’t exist. I suppose it depends on how you do it, whether you just have a song and some experiments or something. Yeah. We did that, but then quite a lot of things happened and a lot changed. JT was in the band and then he left. And Mark and I had a couple of kids as well so even though I don’t like to think that affected it… it’s more like stuff going on really. It’s not particularly because of the children but I suppose it played a part.
CB: And then I gather that the album was sort of made over quite a brief period?
Emma: Yeah, because we were working on some stuff as a four-piece and then JT left in December. He said he wasn’t going to do it any more. It was the same time that Alex’s mum died. He texted Alex something like ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore’ – in a nicer way than that! – and Alex was like ‘that’s fine, by the way, my mum’s died’.
So it was quite an intense period. We started working on something from scratch, but a couple of the songs we’d been working on as a four-piece. On the album, there’s three actually that we’d been working on with JT. We started in the spring, and Alex came to live with us, and he was here from spring to summer, so it went from being really cold to really hot. And then the album was finished.
CB: Yeah ok… so talking about Alex losing his mother, it seems like ‘Good Grief‘ might be about that? Because it’s quite a song. I hope you like playing it live. Because you’re gonna have to for the rest of your career.
Emma: Oh, thank you very much. But that’s one that we will never play live because it has JT’s drums on it.
CB: Oh no!
Emma: And he’s no longer with us. So yeah, we’ll never play that. Hopefully, we can make up for it in other ways.
We’d written it and we had the vocal melody and stuff but I nearly always end up rewriting vocals and sitting in a sort of panic with a pen and paper outside the room before going in and doing it. I think a lot of that time was poured into that song.
Have you seen the video for it?
CB: Yes. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yeah, it really affected me. It’s quite lovely.
Emma: Oh, thank you. Well, I think that probably explains a little bit more in the way of the kind of things that I was thinking about. But I wouldn’t say that anything is about something particularly. I’m probably not equipped to write a song that is about anything. Rather than just resolving parts of my life and experience into something.
CB: So is there like a typical Islet process? Like how a song takes shape?
Emma: No, not really. Everything comes together in different forms. This record was very much like a change from doing things in the old way. This was the first album that we’d written without being primarily a live band and being together all the time and playing. It was so different because we hadn’t played any shows or anything for a long time so we were making songs to be recorded rather than played live which was a completely different thing. So it was a nice challenge in that way. And it was good to think about the sounds, how it sounds rather than what we’re doing.
CB: Ok, so continuing delving into the album I like ‘Treasure’. The duet with you and Mark. It somehow makes me think of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood.
Emma: Oh wow.
CB: One of those weird old duets where it’s like a love story but there’s something a bit dark and gothic going on underneath
Emma: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about those references but I really like ‘Treasure’. It’s one of my favourites on the album because it’s so far from what we’ve previously done. It’s very different to how we usually write because there’s no rhythm track on it. So the rhythm came from the sample which is a loop of Mark’s keyboards and then I sang over the top. What we were trying to do was, you know those Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland albums? They just have this really amazing, dark atmosphere.
It came out sounding totally different, but that was a big influence on that song. And it was really exciting for us to not have drums. We put a bit of percussion on afterwards but it was really about that loop.
CB: And ‘Geese’, which I understand is partly inspired by the Raymond Williams book People of the Black Mountains.
CB: Do you want to tell us about that? I haven’t read that one.
Emma: Well, the book is historical fiction which takes place in prehistory. So it spans the time from the first humans in the Black Mountains up until nearly the Romans I think – it was years since I read it. So it’s like a really old passage of time.
CB: Why haven’t I read this? It sounds amazing.
Emma: It’s been a long time since I read it so that’s probably wildly inaccurate. I really like the idea of it because we live in Powys, looking out at these views and thinking about how many people, thousands of people over many millennia, have looked at these hills. I think we have a strange idea in Britain that and in Wales that there’s only one kind of person who’s ever lived here. Like so many many tribes and peoples have always lived here and largely farmed sheep and things like that for millennia. I find that interesting. Because I’m a mixed-race person – Indian – and there aren’t very many Indian people in rural mid-Wales as you can imagine.
But I find that in this time, this grim horrible time, I think it’s good to be reminded that this is only a kind of blip.
CB: The geese are quite a powerful image of that, aren’t they? Migratory birds that maybe we think of as British but which spend most of the year in Africa or something.
Emma: Yeah exactly, although I did find this really interesting thing about vultures. You would think that vultures don’t pay attention to borders because, that’s the whole point of the song, that birds don’t pay attention to borders, you know, they just fly where they want to. But the vultures at the border between Spain and Portugal were keeping to one side, almost exactly to the border. And it was because the welfare rules and the environmental guidelines in the countries differed and so the birds wanted to stay on one side to the other. I don’t know whether that makes the entire song fall apart (laughs). My argument crumbles into pieces.
CB: Well, they’re free to cross the border if they want? It’s the exception that proves the rule.
Emma: And also actually because I live in the countryside, I very rarely see geese actually. I see a lot of red kites and things like that. There’s plenty of birds but not really wild geese. But there was a time, I think there was some kind of meme or something, where people were obsessed with watching wild geese on their phone. I liked the idea that the geese aren’t really there, that you’re looking at them through the portal of your phone. It’s probably the best way to seek freedom at the moment.
CB: So I know Mark does things under his Farm Hand persona and I’m quite intrigued, do you guys literally live on a farm now? How rural is it where you are?
Emma: No. It’s very rural but we live down the road from the farm where his parents live. We’ve recorded some bits, like bits of drums and stuff up at the farm. But then everything else, Islet 2.2 as we call it – from the beginning of 2019 we just recorded in the house. We have a room that we have as a kind of a music studio rehearsal room and we just did everything in there. Rob Jones who produced it and engineered it came down and stayed with us. It was quite isolated. It’s like living on a boat. I feel like I live on a boat because I don’t really leave the house. I like, go out on these excursions to the outside world and then come back.
But if you want to talk to Mark about his Farm Hand stuff, he’s gone out at the moment but he’ll be back in about an hour. I could get him to call you back, but he’s kind of like put it to rest for now. I think he wanted to do it for lots of reasons but also because he wanted to keep doing stuff and it wasn’t happening with Islet.
CB: What is the song ‘Radel 10’ about? It sounds like a planet?
Emma: The Radel is a drum machine. It’s a tabla wallah – a machine that has tabla drum beats. So they’re really interesting time signatures and stuff like that. But the one on that song is like, setting number 10 I think, which works with a 4/4 drum beat. Because there’s many that don’t. So that’s where that name comes from.
CB: So what’s the story with it? It’s one of the ones that I haven’t really got my head around yet.
Emma: Well the lyrics, have you got the lyrics?
CB: No, actually (later CB will check his e-mails more carefully and find that the super-efficient staff at Fire Records sent the lyrics but he didn’t see them, because he’s a jack-ass).
Emma: Yeah, like have a listen to the lyrics and see what you think. Because to me, it’s quite obvious what I’m singing about. I find it a very difficult thing to answer because I’m not writing an essay.
CB: Er. (CB glances at the questions, most of which concern asking Emma to talk about her songs) Yeah, sure.
Emma: You know what I mean?
CB: (Persisting) So ‘Clouds‘ was another one I wanted to ask about. I read somewhere a couple of days ago where you said it was about learning patience.
Emma: Oh yeah.
CB: In what kind of way? Is there a life lesson there?
Emma: Well, I don’t think I’m properly placed to dish out any kind of advice but… I find it very frustrating going from somebody who’s working a lot and making a lot of music and then having small children. It’s really, kind of like, it’s great obviously, but it’s also very constricting. Also, I was in a quite difficult time of my life and always wanting to do more. And I wasn’t the only one in the band who wanted to do more, but other people weren’t as into it, which has resolved itself. But it was kind of a frustrating time for me, just wanting to be active and make our music and make our mark I think.
But I think as well that song’s about acceptance, especially with children, the period when you’re physically stuck to them. It’s over quite quickly. And the total exhaustion of pregnancy and all that. Then it’s over and things change and you become a human again. Not like a sort of baby machine.
CB: What about ‘No Host‘? It sounds like a song about not travelling, which is something I could probably get behind.
Emma: It’s up to interpretation but what I was thinking about was abortion rights. It’s something that makes me very angry with the way that women are treated as some kind of host vessel or something rather than humans in their own right, so that’s the places that are referenced in that song.
CB: I wanted to talk about Islet as a live band. You’re a fantastic live band.
Emma: Thank you.
CB: What are your best memories of playing live?
Emma: I think there’s some kind of transcendence that you can get when you’re playing, particularly the kind of like trashy rock that we were doing at the beginning but it changes all the time. I’m a real believer in live performance being a meeting point of audience and performer. Like it’s something that happens together, it’s not something that is displayed. I think its really important to treat every gig like it’s as important as other ones, you know what I mean?
It’s so important because it’s a connection between humans and you don’t often have that. You don’t often have meaningful connections with strangers in this world. So it’s a complete honour to be able to do that.
CB: I’ve noticed that you always use the whole of the space around the room, like the band go for a wander, or you’ll come in from… sort of towards the stage with those weird bells.
Emma: Yeah. I love bands, and I love all the kind of, I dunno, the indie music world, but I find it quite dull as well. It can be quite unimaginative. And I like to do those little things that push at it and make it a bit stranger and sort of reference that we are humans, we are all humans in this place and I’m not any more than that. We don’t want people to be looking at us and putting us on some kind of pedestal. We’re very much with the people. I think that’s what we want to achieve. And I want people to feel like they could do it as well. That’s really important to me. Like its the best thing ever if like a young girl comes up and says, oh I’ve started a band because I saw you. It’s just like the best thing that could happen.
CB: That does sound cool.
Emma: And I think there’s something magical about collaboration. Because I think there are fewer and fewer collaborative bands at the moment. I don’t know whether that’s because of the sort of obsession that society has with the individual or whether its because of the money or what. But especially as you get older, people give up and don’t want to work that way anymore, because it’s hard. But it is really magical to do something where you’re working together towards something, where you’re making something happen together. It’s not just one person’s vision that you’re fulfilling, you’re making something together.
CB: Yeah its always been very exciting that everyone in the band is doing something equally valid and that it is a conversation. I used to love how you would swap instruments often in mid-song it just seemed so fresh and yeah it is very unusual, you’re right.
Emma: It’s a lot of fun. Yeah and I think hopefully when we come together we know that we’re greater than the sum of our parts you know what I mean? There’s a strength and unity. And there’s a strength in collaboration I think.
But while some of my best memories of my life have been playing on stage but also I don’t want to dwell in the past very much and always look towards the future and imagine future gigs and performances and things that haven’t happened yet and I think that’s a good place to be.
Eyelet by Islet is out now on Fire Records.