Luminism by Martyrs Album Cover

Track by Track: Martyrs – Luminism

Martyrs released their second album Luminism on Friday May 10th. Vocalist and songwriter Michael Hall teamed with schoolfriend, musician and producer Jon Howells to become Martyrs, the world’s first self-described “Post-Yacht” band.

Originally hailing from Merthyr Tydfil, the pair actually started their first high school band together, reuniting many years later in Kent to pick back up where they left off. They say “Luminism is an exhilarating exploration of modern themes and retro sounds, sonically echoing the lush production of ’80s rock, and genre-hopping from disco, to soul, and from indie to electronica. Lyrically it projects a cautiously optimistic outlook on the future and casts a fond eye on the past, while tackling topics as disparate as mental health, social injustice, haunted music boxes and professional wrestling.”

Proudly DIY, the duo created Luminism entirely in their own homes, working with a combination of modern tech and old school musicianship to craft the album. The duo say the project started with the question: “What if, instead of making it in a multi-million dollar studio, we made Yacht Rock at home?” Below Jon and Michael talk us through Luminism, track by track.

All Intro

M: This is every track on the album, played all at once, for fourteen seconds. No idea why we did that. Probably so we could use that title? I wanted it to be longer but good sense prevailed, I guess.

J: It came, prosaically enough, from the fact that I pulled all the finished tracks together to make sure that they were all volume balanced. During this process, I accidentally left them all on and sent the subsequent chaos to Michael. It was, indeed, my sense that led to it being “only” 14 seconds long.

2. Sunset Thinking

M: This was the first single from the album and it’s a very personal one. The narrator is someone who finds themselves out of their depth, trying to help a loved one through depression, struggling to find a way to show that person some light in the darkness. It’s strangely romantic and hopeful, I think. We passed this one back and forth a lot, looking for the right structure, the right sound, it came together beautifully in the end, a few people seem to have connected with it.

J: Interestingly enough, sonically this came from an experiment with the next track, ‘Living Well’. One of the iterations of the intro to that song had no piano and just this beautiful, 1980s Oberheim synth preset with overlaid percussion and bass. It was such a mood, but there was no way of transitioning it well into the rest of the song.

The feeling was just too inspiring to leave though, so immediately after ‘Living Well’ was finished I set to work on developing a new song with that instrumentation. Harmonically, it is by far the simplest song on the album. Saying that, the arrangement of the orchestral parts is one I am incredibly proud of and the colliery band/Salvation Army-esque brass section at the end is a very clear nod to our childhood in Wales.

3. Living Well

M: I think this was the first song I brought to the table for the album. There’s a common theme on the record – we’re talking about resiliency, about recovery from mental illness, how there’s always hope and positivity to be found. Living Well is a lecture to myself about surviving and thriving.

J: Get Out of My Head was actually first, but to be fair, I rather rudely demolished and rebuilt that one, so yeah, Living Well was the first of Michael’s songs that I “extracted” from the demo. Something that Michael and I have really developed is our ability to know exactly where the other wants to go with a track, even at the stage where it’s just a vocal and keys, or percussion and a synth preset. Once I had laid down the “Early Hall & Oates” 8 th note piano chords, we were off to the races with this one.

4. Get Out Of My Head

M: Started out life as a Daft Punk “homage” which Jon completely reworked. I had just read both The Picture Of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in quick succession, and I thought a summery dance tune steeped in Victorian horror imagery was the way to go. We’re nothing if not accessible.

J: Yeah… I mean… All I did was take it from Homework era Daft Punk to Random Access Memories era Daft Punk. Did I completely re-harmonise it, change the feel entirely and make Michael re-sing it at a totally different cadence? Yes. Did I do all this, just because I came up with a guitar part that didn’t fit the song, but I really liked anyway? Also yes.

5. Where Did You Go?

M: A disco banger about the dangers of performing Pagan rituals in your attic. I tried to do a Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs) on the chorus, a noble effort I suppose. Jon created this huge, lush dance floor backdrop for me to tell a really eerie, unnerving story over. He lets me get away with a lot of that kind of thing.

J: This was born from me being really inspired by this big New York, classic era late night talk show brass section sound. I was playing around with the lead trumpet jumping up an octave to a note that you can barely play and that’s where the main riff came from. Having an instrument going to the edge of its capabilities is often a great way to impart urgency. Of course, then I had to go to Chic for some bassline and lead guitar inspiration and Giorgio Moroder for the strings.

6. Shadows

M: It’s a cliche to bring up the prevalence of tribalism and division in the modern world, but I’ll do it anyway. Surely we’re all tired of the wealthy and powerful exerting control over the rest of us and setting us against one another. The song is about growing up and realising that, like that Kurt Vonnegut quote, we’re the insects in the jar, being shaken up so that we fight one another. It’s about understanding where prejudice really comes from and who is benefiting from it. We’re fighting each other, but we’re directing our anger in the wrong direction. It’s a naive song, it’s child-like, you know, if we can all just put our differences aside and get together then we can make the world a better place. Overly simplistic. That’s how I feel about it sometimes though, because you’re just desperate for an answer.

J: This was one of the hardest tracks for me, because I knew from Michael’s demo (which was just vocals and held organ chords) *exactly* how it should sound and that it would require I level up my orchestration and arrangements. I laid down so many parts that sounded perfectly pleasant, but I had to ditch them because they weren’t “right”. Usually, I scoff at the idea of something being “right” because more often than not, I’ll let one idea inform the next, which informs the next and that chain of inspiration is the basis for the originality in our songs. But this time, yeah, I owed it to the song to translate it, verbatim, from my brain.

7. Deckchairs

M: Musically this might be my favourite song on Luminism. Mariachi – Electronica? Is that a thing? I don’t know. Jon has an incredible guitar part on here that, quite honestly, sounds unplayable. Or, at least, I definitely couldn’t play it. I’m very much a three chords and the truth player. Well, two chords realistically. Three chords is practically jazz. It’s about someone who’s living in denial of their situation, who’s not able to face the truth about themselves, and so they rearrange the deckchairs on their personal Titanic rather than addressing their problems. I used to be that person, I still know people stuck in that situation. It’s a melancholic song.

J: What was I saying about one idea informing the next? Yeah, this started as me playing around with an Amadou Bagayoko type riff, but when I added the horns to it, it went very Ennio Morricone, so I pursued that with an additional lead guitar part and the intro. There was a lot happening on the “On” beats during the chorus, so the rhythm guitar ended up falling on the off beat, which took it towards the Police. I didn’t want heavy fills because of the Stewart Copeland-esque drums being busy enough, so I ended up employing the She Sells Sanctuary trick of using an acoustic guitar flourish at the end of the bars for emphasis. Early verses use an electric piano sound very reminiscent of the Taxi theme tune and one of the later verses has me tapping into my inner Khruangbin for the guitar part. It wraps up with a horn part that harks back to Teardrop Explodes and a guitar solo that, by this point, is frankly overkill… Oh… And in the a middle 8 where we have that weird spoken word bit with the Deep Purple organs and so much echo… There’s just a lot. It was an arsehole to mix.

8. One Mile House

M: The rose-tinted glasses are back on. I love New York City. Everyone does. That’s nothing unique. But everyone thinks their NYC experiences are special, and I’m no different. The title refers to a specific bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where we spent some classic nights. It’s about gentrification in a way,
about losing parts of a city you love, whatever that city is. New York seems to be able to hold onto its identity whatever you do to it, though, and I love that about the place. I sent the demo of this to Jon and he came back to me with this vast, glorious, soulful soundscape and it was beyond anything I dreamed the song could be. I almost cried when the horns kicked in. Love this song.

J: We get it Jon, you like a horn section… Much like ‘Shadows’, this one for me was more craft than art. Not to say I’m not incredibly proud of it, but it was working towards a predetermined goal rather than exploring sonic possibilities. The lyrics dictated the sound. One thing I did enjoy was getting to employ the REM technique, used a lot on Automatic for the People, of using heavily layered, savagely distorted guitars very low in the mix just to add warmth. It’s so counter-intuitive but so effective. The street preacher was recorded during a work trip to Manhattan – It was unrealistically perfect how he was railing against the dangers of entertainment as I was literally just capturing ambient New York street sounds.

9. Summer, Half Moon Heights.

M: This is a cumulative song. Where you add a line to each consecutive verse, broken up by a chorus. Think ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’ or that Super Furry Animals one…Jon came up with the idea to try one. We did a song in rounds for the first album, was very challenging. This was more so. Adding a new line to every verse is one thing, but I decided to try to make a new word out of the last and first word of each line too. I regretted it. The song is about that space you inhabit between childhood and teen-hood, the magic that can exist in that space. It’s about growing up in Merthyr, to an extent.

J: I was trapped in my attic with COVID. I had to isolate from my wife who was just about to cycle at the world championships in LA and couldn’t afford to get sick. It was the middle of a heatwave and the only instrument I had was my Synthstrom Deluge. I had just watched a 1987 Madonna concert on YouTube and in between fever dreams, I came up with the bulk of the track. I later went in and added that 80s studio Stratocaster chorused guitar to finish it off. By far the “poppiest” track on the album but doesn’t feel out of place.

10. We Were In Gold

M: I saw a picture of a kid crowdsurfing. It brought back memories of those first few festivals you go to as a kid, that rush of the new, the excitement of experiencing live music and that kind of youthful camaraderie for the first time. It’s a feeling we all want to recapture, but we can’t, and that’s ok. There’s a lot of nostalgia on the record, this typifies it, but it all comes with a caveat – there’s no going back, cherish what you have.

J: I really like the drums on this. I knew I was going to use the piano and bass to drive the basic rhythm of the song, so the drums could be much quirkier and embellish the track, rather than move it along. This was another one where I really re-harmonised what Michael sent me because I wanted to use the movement of the chords to add to the character of the song and increase the dynamics.

11. Death of the Territories

M: Here we are. My favourite Martyrs song, I think. It’s about the rise and fall of the AWA, a wrestling promotion in Minneapolis. To overly simplify, the territory system in pro wrestling used to run like a loosely linked chain of independent businesses.

They all respected one another, helped one another, tried not to impeach on the other’s territory. Then this piece of shit Vince McMahon comes along and eats them all up for breakfast. Destroys all these companies in the name of nationalisation and greed. I’m always on the side of the underdog, of the little guy. Gagne stuck it out, he fought against insurmountable odds, and he lost. He knew he would, but at least he tried. People standing up to corporate power is admirable – even if I suspect Gagne was actually a bit of a dickhead. In this song, the past is everything to the narrator, the nostalgia is killing him. Why write songs about pro wrestling? Because it’s the Sport of Kings, that’s why. I wanted to give deadly serious treatment to a subject that not only would people find unusual, but most would find laughable. It ends the album on a really sombre note, but a resilient one.

J: What an awful, utterly unresolved, unsatisfying note to end the album on, eh? Literally, I mean. The last note is just left hanging there, mocking the final lyrics “I did not back down”. Savage… I intended to restrict my use of instrumentation on this song as a contrast to the heavily layered, sonic cacophony on the other tracks.

But even I had expected to end up with more than just one keyboard part. I had taken inspiration from Jeff Buckley’s (definitive) version of ‘Hallelujah’ and had various points in the song where I slowly dropped out the intensity, often to complete silence in order to make the return of even a simple chord sound like a power ballad chorus. The keyboard sound is maybe 4 or 5 of my favourite Yamaha DX7 presets layered to give that mix of smooth pad-like tones and that metallic electric piano sound that characterised the mid 80s.

Luminism is available now on Limited Edition CD and Download from Bandcamp, where all proceeds to go to Trussell Trust, providing aid to food banks across the UK.

Also available on all streaming platforms.

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