Like it or not, we’re all shaped in some measure by the place where we grew up. The issue is whether we embrace that connection or set ourselves against it. As you might expect of a band with such a charged and elemental name, LIFE chose to embrace it, but rather than just acknowledging the importance of their hometown to their development, they celebrate it in their music.
There’s more than a clue in the title of their third album, North East Coastal Town, which they describe as “our love letter to the city of Hull”. This is the place where LIFE’s members – singer Merrick (Mez) Sanders-Green, his brother Mick (guitarist), bassist Lydia Palmeira and drummer Stewart Baxter – live and work and whose sense of community has long inspired their songs. Explains Mez: “Originally, you want to get out of your hometown but then, on reflection, you realise how much that shaped you. And I do mean it – Hull itself has shaped us all as individuals: its geography, its history, its community and what we’ve immersed ourselves in outside of the band, as well.”
This theme of belonging runs right through North East Coastal Town, though it’s not an entirely new one for the band; they explored it on their debut, 2017’s restless and righteously angry Popular Music. It drew on Mez’s and Stewart’s years of working with local youth project The Warren and featured characters like the wealthy, right-wing “membership man” from Moortown, in the context of lives falling through the cracks in their corner of Yorkshire. Their second record, 2019’s A Picture Of Good Health turned their focus inwards, as lyrics writers Mez and Mick tackled the tough stuff of adult life – mental ill health, single parenthood and more. Now, they’re digging even deeper into their emotional lives, exploring everything from the cold comfort of consumer spending to the social dislocation of touring, 4am fears and the healing nature of loving relationships, against the broader backdrop of their cherished hometown.
These multifaceted emotions shape NECT with characteristic honesty, pin-sharp observation and a bolder intimacy, in songs that see them stretching out from their previous records sonically, as well as thematically. Their aim with the new album was twofold: most important was showing that they could write different kinds of songs that remained true to the lyricism at the band’s core, while refusing genre tagging. As Mez puts it: “I don’t like the idea of being pigeon-holed or a label put on [us] or being drawn around with a circle, because I like the idea of freedom.” In terms of sonics, LIFE wanted to “make the record sound massive, but also intimate at the same time”. To that end, the tracks were recorded through a vintage desk and in the studio, the band played together in the round, with just Mez in his own vocal booth. There were experiments with textures, while ambience and warmth were key: “We wanted it to be like the old, if you put a glass on someone’s chest and listen – just trying to make it sound… internal.”
Musically, LIFE have lost none of their characteristic dark intensity, as “Shipping Forecast”, a defiant bruiser of a song, and the wild and rowdy knees-up that is “Self Portrait” show. However, these songs also reveal anxieties and vulnerabilities – respectively, the kind that surface to fill you with dread when you can’t sleep (“fear chimes at night through the copper pipes”), and self-obsession and/or loss of identity (“I don’t know who I am/Who am I?”). The single “Friends Without Names” is similarly potent, an examination of modern social interactions set to a taut, driving tune. But several tracks show LIFE in a strikingly different light, instantly shaking off the post-punk tag that was pinned on them through their kinship with Idles (now friends, who remixed last year’s “Switching On”), Fontaines DC et al. With its playful, bouncing bass line and the way Mez’s voice winds around the chorus phrase, “concentration’s waning, conversation’s draining”, as he muses on touring life, “Incomplete” recalls Pavement’s modern classic, “Cut Your Hair”. “The Drug” is an unabashed love song from start to finish (“My head was stained like a bus station loo/But then I came and I fell for you,” it begins), that suggests Talking Heads, while “Duck Egg Blue” is startlingly tender in its declaration of love. Here, Mez’s vocal, which he says takes its cue from Leonard Cohen, is unrecognisably frail as he whispers, “Man, I’m shattered and I can hardly breathe” in a tune that nods to The Jesus And Mary Chain. He sounds too exhausted by emotion to even sing.
“That’s because we recorded that one at two in the morning,” Mez laughs. “What we called ‘the ambient tracks’ – ‘Duck Egg Blue’ and ‘Friends Without Names’ – were done in 1am or 2am sessions. By that point I’d probably have a little bit of whiskey and just sing. I really wanted it to sound like I was shattered because I was. There were moments where the take that you can hear on the record is probably vocally worse than some of the takes I was doing, but Luke [Smith, producer] was like, ‘No, I want it to sound like you’re cracking here – that’s the point.’”
NECT’s 11 songs were recorded with Smith over five days at The Chapel, just outside Hull, after writing sessions in their own studio let, off the river Humber. “I knew it was going to be a special relationship when we did A Picture Of Good Health with him,” says Mez of the producer, “because of his energy and what he brought to that.” The recording process was far less fraught than it was for that album, which saw the band relocating to London and living together while a deadline hung over their heads. Of the new record, Mez says, “Writing is always challenging, to a degree, but this process was very natural. With a lot of the songs on the second album, we were writing them and then recording them, so there was never any chance to develop out of that record. Whereas with this one, we wrote everything outside of the session and then went in and recorded it, so we really knew what we were doing. We were writing about exactly what shaped us and exactly what makes us get up in the morning and challenge everything and… live. It was very much a euphoric album to record.”
When they were making NECT, it was important that the band stuck to the “choose local and stay local” maxim Mez and Stewart espoused in their youth work, which is why every instrument is either from Hull or within a 40-mile radius. “We got a bit anal about it,” the singer admits, revealing that they used some old gear donated by The Beautiful South and some lent by Kaiser Chiefs. That they did so is telling of the band’s commitment and integrity – and of their desire to chisel their own distinctive profile, rather than be cast in the shadow of anyone else’s. “I think we wanted our own identity because our identity to us is so meaningful,” Mez affirms. So I guess this record was really to display ours and not just be put into categories. Everyone talks about genres now and I’m not into that.” As to what their hopes are for their third album, Mez’s answer is candid, refreshingly simple and true to LIFE.
“I’m proud of this record and so is all of the band, so I just think we want people to hear it. If it means it pushes us on, then that’s great. If it doesn’t, then we’ll still be proud. And I guess that is how a lot of the people in Hull are – they’re proud. It’s a community that’s often been forgotten about. I think Philip Larkin said, it’s a city in the world yet it’s sufficiently on the edge of nothing. So, if people can just embrace it and love it, then that’s great – we’ve done our job.”
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