A lot has been said of the current spoken-word scene – or ‘sprechgesang’, as it has become widely known – in the U.K.
To these ears, there’s nothing new or original. Just loss leader post-punk, manufactured, packaged and wheeled out straight to the bargain bins.
BBC Radio 6 Music has been a gateway for many of these lack-lustre tropes and, in time, the artistic landscape will (at best) remain unaltered. A cultural zeitgeist this is not.
A second wave of anything isn’t very good. If anything, sprechgesang reduces the legend of Sleaford Mods. True originals in this space, producing one shiny jewel after another. In the years to come, will they be heralded as a crucial reference point or suffer under the weight of cheap imitators? Only time will tell.
There are always bands that flirt between the lines and this is where London-based two-piece, Cassels, enter the picture. Brothers Jim (vocals/ guitar) and Loz Beck (drums/ vocals), are a different beast altogether (as Jim quite rightly points out later in this piece).
For a start, Cassels existed long before the Yard Acts and Black Country, New Roads of the world began queue-jumping to the top of festival bills. With albums Foreword /Epithet (2017), Perfect Ending followed in 2019, confirming Cassels as true outliers.
The fact is that Cassels aren’t even a post-punk band. They like riffs and dispense them liberally, blurring the lines with instinct and feel. In many respects Cassels are a punk band, unmoored and elusively primal.
It’s all showcased on A Gut Feeling – the band’s finest record yet and first for God Unknown Records: the Amsterdam-based label run by Jason Stoll, formerly of Liverpool hypnotic drone-rock odyssey, Bonnacons Of Doom.
With A Gut Feeling, Cassels are at their story-telling best. This isn’t some band lifting sound bites from Twitter, instead flashing the light on the working classes (Sarah Misses Them). There’s heartache throughout, led by the incisive Mr Henderson Coughs and Family Visits Relative, while the excellent Pete’s Vile Colleagues is a sharply observed tale seemingly sculptured from the corner of a bar.
The stories Cassels unfurl on A Gut Feeling are stream-of-conscious delights, illuminating something relevant. Something real.
In the lead-up to the release of A Gut Feeling (coupled with their show in Liverpool this weekend), we had the chance to ask Jim some questions.
Sun 13: Being siblings, did you always feel it was inevitable that you would make music together?
Jim Beck: “Umm… I’m not sure. I was in my first band (without Loz) when I was about nine or 10 with a few friends from primary school. The drummer’s dad was in a local covers band and used to let us use his gear. He became our ‘manager’ and helped us learn some covers of our own. It was sort of like School of Rock, albeit a way less glamorous version in a sleepy Oxfordshire village. I was the singer, and we played a few local weddings and beer festivals (our signature tune was a cover of I Believe in a Thing Called Love by The Darkness), but we’d grown apart by the time we got to secondary school, so I cajoled Loz into playing along with me as I perfected Paul Weller and Green Day covers in our bedroom. We’ve been playing together ever since.”
S13: A Gut Feeling feels like a really good progression from The Perfect Ending. Can you tell us about the writing process for the album?
JB: “I’m glad you think so – we agree. I think the songs for A Gut Feeling started to come together around the end of 2019. By March we had most of the album written, and then of course the pandemic hit. If things had carried on as normal, we would have headed out on a couple of long UK and EU tours, and I imagine the album would have been churned out pretty quickly after that. This is the way we’d always worked up until that point.
“Obviously everything got locked down and cancelled, which meant we were forced to sit on the songs for a lot longer than we usually would. I was able to obsess over them during the lockdown months – making small tweaks here and there and thinking about additional layers we could add during recording.
“Once we were able to meet up again, we rehearsed pretty intensively (helped by the fact there was nothing else to do) and then demoed the entire album – something else we’d never done before. All of the songs really benefited from this enforced period of focus and care. I mean, I definitely would have preferred no pandemic, but every cloud, as they say. If/when we get around to writing again I want to spend even longer on the next batch of songs.”
S13: Your observations go beyond the stock liberal tropes that a lot of other spoken-word-based artists are trotting out at the moment. Your music feels more street-level if anything (Charlie Goes Skiing, for example). Is this something you were thinking about when writing the album?
JB: “Not particularly. I don’t really have a sense of our wider place in the musical landscape, or to what extent the things we’re saying chime with prevailing trends. Writing has always been a simple cathartic exercise for me; a way to order my thoughts and opinions and amuse myself. I think our songs have always been a pretty accurate representation of my worldview at the time of writing.”
S13: What I also like about Cassels is that you’ve got riffs and hooks, which separates you from this current swathe of post-punk bands. Were you conscious about not being lumped in with this current scene?
JB: “At the risk of sounding like I’m tooting our own trumpet, we’ve been knocking around for a while now, and so pre-date the vast majority of (far more successful) angular sprechgesang-inflected post-punk bands. Were we doing it before it was cool? I couldn’t possibly comment. We’ve never really felt part of any particular scene, though.
“In fact, it often feels like we’re either too much or not enough for most people’s tastes; too heavy for the indie kids, not heavy enough for the metal/rock crowd. We just focus on making music we like and playing with other bands we like. Outside of that I’m not too worried about who we’re lumped in with.”
S13: God Unknown Records is one of the finest underground labels out there at the moment. How did you come to collaborate with the label?
JB: “We were introduced to Jason [Stoll – God Unkown Records founder] via a mutual friend. We were already big fans of loads of the bands he’s put out, not to mention the ones he’s in. He’s been great to work with. In many ways he’s taking the place of the School of Rock dad I mentioned above. Someone once advised me you should only ever work with people who you’d be happy to go for a pint with. Jason definitely passes the pint test.”
S13: I’d wager that you guys read a lot of fiction, too. Who would you consider to be your influences?
JB: “Not masses to be honest. I actually probably read more non-fiction – recently it’s been a lot of philosophy and sociology. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker springs to mind, and Gaia by James Lovelock informed a lot of the writing on The Perfect Ending. I guess there may be some elements of Kafka in the songs on A Gut Feeling. Or even Tim Key now I think about it. Again, it’s a relatively un/sub-conscious thing.
“We’ve never had a ‘who are our influences?’ conversation. That may have something to do with being brothers, developing our musical tastes in tandem as we grew up. We definitely got a lot of parroting out of our systems in our teenage bedroom, and existing in a vacuum meant we picked up fewer bad habits from other bands in the early days.”
S13: Your Humble Narrator is probably the outlier track on the album. Was it clear that you wanted to make this one the album’s opening song?
JB: “I think it was always slated as the opener, yeah. We’re opening our set with it at the moment too. Seems to work well.”
S13: Pete’s Vile Colleagues pretty much nails the aspects of financial services employment. It seems we all know someone in Pete’s position. Can you tell us about this one?
JB: “I think I wrote the ‘mottled carpet of salmon-pink and baby-blue’ line on my phone after walking through Bank in London one afternoon. Not sure what I was doing there, but it was a work day and the streets were filled with standard-issue finance lads knocking back pints over lunch. It seemed/seems like a pretty toxic environment, so felt like the right setting for a tale about a witless cuckold (Pete).
“As with a lot a lot of our songs, the original piece of writing was a lot longer and had to be chipped away at. Once I’ve written a piece of music and decide on some words to go with it, it becomes a bit of a square-peg-round-hole situation – wrestling the words to fit into the music, and/or moulding the music to fit around the words.”
S13: I’d say Family Visits Relative and Dog Drops Bone are the most heartfelt songs you’ve written. Is it important to weave this kind of tenderness in amongst humour?
JB: “I think so, yeah. When literally everything is arch and sardonic those techniques start to lose their impact. You need to include some sincerity otherwise irony becomes meaningless.”
S13: Then there’s Mr Henderson Coughs and Sarah Misses Them, which to me are the most inventive songs you’ve written. Do you remember sketching the ideas for these songs?
JB: “I’m pretty sure Sarah Misses Them was the first song we wrote for the album. We’d just moved into a new lockup (another reason why the songs on this album turned out a lot better) which didn’t have a working PA yet, so we had to essentially write it as an instrumental and add the words in later. That influenced the shape and structure of the song.
“Mr Henderson Coughs was one of the last songs we wrote. In fact, I think I may have even written it right at the start of [the first] Lockdown. The words had been knocking around for ages but I couldn’t find any music to put them to. I was mulling it over one day and realised, given they’re pretty densely packed, it just needed a really simple repeated thing. The single bended note idea came to me, and I detuned my guitar until I found the one I could hear in my head.”
S13: Social media is such a big thing for young artists. How do you find using it?
JB: “I fucking hate it. If it weren’t for this band I wouldn’t be on it. I think it makes people miserable narcissists. Anyone who refers to music or art as ‘content’ needs to have a word with themselves.”
S13: You’re playing Liverpool tomorrow night. What should we expect from a Cassels live show?
JB: “It will be good. It will be loud. People should come.”
A Gut Feeling is out now via God Unknown Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.
Presented by Moonfrog, Cassels play Jimmy’s tomorrow night, February 5. Purchase tickets here.