What a band.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last year of covering new music it’s that there’s a staggering amount of great music out there just mooching along under the radar. Even so, every once in a while you still find yourself taken aback by the sheer brilliance of something that lands in your inbox with absolutely no fanfare. Take, for example, South-Londoners Pushpin and their new single: Garden Cities of Tomorrow. I have said things like this all the time on here but, genuinely, I haven’t heard another song this year that’s left me buzzing in the way that this has.
Where to begin? Well, even with only a handful of tracks floating around the internet it’s incredibly difficult to nail down Pushpin’s sound. Their previous two singles – the awesome Folds and Apples – each have shades of the likes of Alt-J, Foals, MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Loose Fur, Talking Heads, Grizzly Bear, and Wild Beasts (just for starters), yet with Garden Cities… well, if you can imagine post-In Rainbows Radiohead making OK Computer-era B-sides I guess you’d be somewhere within the same galaxy. Throw in what sounds like a moderately diseased Yamaha DX7 and you’re getting even closer. It’s an absolute Frankenstein’s monster of a song; somehow bringing together harsh, almost industrial, razor-sharp digital samples, fuzz bass, huge cascading fuck-off drums, and delicate fingerpicked arpeggios and making it sound like the most natural fit in the world. I must have listened at least twelve times at the time of writing and I’m still marvelling at it.
Much like on the two previous singles, the lyrics are intriguing. I’d be lying if I said that I can decipher every word, but it doesn’t matter at all to me. As the title suggests, it really reminds me of the utopian ideals of the so-called new towns of the 1950s and 60s that promised a very different future to the one we’re left with. Lines such as ‘Now it’s all boarded up / Your utopia is us, all of us‘ hit with a blunt sardonicism that is entirely in keeping with the apocalyptic times we find ourselves in. I know I’ve already milked the Radiohead stuff, but it’s a point well and truly driven home by the oblique chorus of ‘Where I was born concentric circles filled my heart / ’til the time it fell apart‘.
The short of all of this is that Pushpin are a great, great band and your life can only improve by giving Garden Cities of Tomorrow a spin. As I said right at the beginning of this piece: there’s an inconceivable amount of music being made now (I’m sure I read something earlier this week about Distrokid processing over a million new tracks every week – far more than can ever realistically be listened to) and the frustrating thing is that a lot of shit seems to rise to the surface. Every once in a while though something bursting with ideas and vitality comes along and maybe, just maybe finds its way through all the noise. Pushpin are 100% one of those, and I hope they get the attention their talents deserve. Majestic.
A conversation with Pushpin
• Hi guys. Thanks for getting involved with the blog. First up, I’ve genuinely been listening to Folds, Apples, and Garden Cities… a lot over the last few days and I’m very much a fan of what you’re doing. To start with, perhaps it’s a good idea for you to introduce yourselves. Whenever I’ve mentioned that I’m in a band I’ve always dreaded the inevitable question ‘What kind of stuff do you make?’… but if you had to explain it somewhat succinctly, what would you say?
Laurence: Colourful DIY alternative music. Synthy, poppy, experimental, heavy, silly, serious… it’s all of these things and also none of them.
Arthur: We like to say we make pop music, even though that’s probably not true. But we’re always making the songs as short as we can for all the ideas we have, which is quite a poppy thing to do I think.. We record most of the song in one take and one room, so that excitement and overlap between us is part of it.
Adam: Our music has been described as ‘Filthy bunker-funk to shake your junk’ which is the best thing in the world, and I would agree with that.
• In terms of influences on what you do, I can certainly pick out some bands that I’m reminded of in places (Wild Beasts, Vampire Weekend, Alt-J, Grizzly Bear, Radiohead, Foals… to name a few)… Who, or what, are influences that you kinda return to? One thing that’s definitely evident is that you’ve got these clear ‘art rock’ elements going on – particularly with the production (more on this later) but also a real knack for pop hooks. Yeah, so it’s a long rambling question, but where does your sound come from?
Laurence: We got together as a four just before covid hit, so we didn’t have much time to form a coherent sound… so our sound on these tracks is a collision of four people’s very different influences at one point in time. Garden Cities I think drew on a mixture of Deerhoof, Tune-Yards, and probably Fiona Apple too. But then it changes from song to song.
Adam: We all listen to quite different stuff – we all bring very different interpretations and ideas to the table which can be really cool when it mashes together, or, occasionally, really cursed when it doesn’t – but it’s all part of the fun.
Ed: We do have really quite varied tastes as a group. I sometimes get typecast as the “soul guy” of the group and I guess it’s pretty true – I listen to a lot of proper 70s stuff but also absolutely love stuff that’s going on at the moment in LA and so on with Brainfeeder – Thundercat (a bass hero), Flying Lotus, the list goes on. In terms of Art Rock stuff though, Arthur and I have both had a long-term musical love affair with Grizzly Bear. I love how their stuff is so ‘art rock’ but always has such great melodies and hooks.
• The stuff you’re putting out sounds very well constructed, like every part of an arrangement has been really poured over – and not in an overwrought way. The arrangements are rich with detail, and I’m wondering how you get to that point. When you’re writing, how do songs develop, and what are the steps that take you from the moment of inspiration to the final mix?
Arthur: These songs were written over lockdown and not in a room together, which is really strange. We would send little ideas back and forth and layer them on our laptops and really think through each decision and little detail, and then see how that would come together in a room with some quick changes to make things click. In a way it’s fun because we’ve now been learning how to play them properly and they’ve been changing again.
Adam: I guess writing stuff together in a room has an element of trial and error that comes from quick decisions in the heat of the moment or the feel of the room or whatever. Well, writing music virtually, over the internet, is the opposite of that. The arrangement decisions come together bit by bit over months, with each little new riff or preset or section being demo’d as an mp3 or a phone recording to the rest of the band. It really exposes you in a way, it forces you to be really self critical, which has advantages and disadvantages. Anyway I think that’s had a big impact on how the songs sound.
Ed: I’ve learnt to love writing on Cubase or Pro Tools or whatever – I feel like you get loads of space to just throw idea after idea after idea at a song. Our last single Apples started as a bass and guitar riff over a looping backbeat on a drum machine, but since then it’s had so much added to it and taken away that it’s completely unrecognisable from the first draft.
• I’m interested to find out about your recording process too. For example, in Garden Cities… you’ve got these really kinda almost industrial digital sounds coexisting with the lovely arpeggios. Where do you record, and how do you tend to build your tracks in the studio?
Adam: We don’t really have a studio actually, it’s more like, bits and pieces of kit (mics mostly) that we’ve built up over time through monitoring ebay, studio sales etc. It’s cheaper that way, and it means the whole recording setup is a lot more portable, so we can record wherever we can make time and space.
Arthur: I lamely spend most nights looking up recording and mixing techniques. Garden Cities started with that opening loop and the drum beat. I think I was trying to do a Tune Yards song but only with guitar noises so it ended up heavier and more aggressive.
Adam (again): The DIY stuff is a big part of it for me – the billions of instruments and effects you can have immediate access to on your laptop are really tempting, but it’ll never be as fun as recording yourself banging a colander 15 different ways and using it as percussion.
Ed: I think a big part of getting Garden Cities to sound the way it does is all the layered percussion we have there. We played around for AGES with all kinds of different things to get a unique sounding beat… we do that with almost every song. The next single has some microwave stuff going on.
Laurence: lots of the drum stuff could only really be worked out in the room. I often make beats on Logic but there’s no replacement for the magic of a beat clicking in the room. When it works, you all know.
• I haven’t been able to find out too much about you, beyond a few reviews and features. How recently did you get together, and what brought the four of you together? The stuff sounds so assured and distinctive that I would’ve assumed you’d actually been writing and recording together for a good 5+ years…
Ed: Thank you so much for the compliment. Arthur, Adam and I have actually known each other through friends for a few years, and we did the odd musical thing together, but Pushpin really became a thing when we met Laurence last year. I guess as well, we’ve all been writing our own music individually since we were teenagers. I used to make dubstep beats as a way to learn how to use a DAW back in the day. One of them had Nigella Lawson sampled over it talking about ‘Chocolate Bass’. I’m pretty sure it’s still on YouTube somewhere.
Adam: I continue to make similarly dumb stuff, some of which they’ve let me put on the Pushpin youtube channel.
Arthur: That’s really nice of you to say! I think it helps being big nerds with this sorta stuff because it means it’s always drifting around our heads.
• What’s the plan going forward? I sense you might be the kind of band with an eye on making albums as opposed to singles/EPs. Are you thinking about that kinda thing, and also what does success look like to you guys?
Adam: The main thing is gigging, we really want to test these songs out in real life. We’re really proud of the songs we’ve released so far but none of it will really feel real until we’ve actually physically played them with our own hands to real people in a room. So in the short term we’re all desperate to make that live set bang. After we’ve got that to a good place, we’ve got around 200,000 other new song ideas we wanna work on and play at gigs. Who knows what will come from that, might be more EPs, might be a triple concept album – I guess we’ll see where it takes us. We do this whole thing ourselves so it’s really up to us.
Arthur: Yea getting to decide what we do ourselves is really nice, basically, we have lots of songs and no real plan, which is kinda great.
Ed: I would absolutely LOVE to do an album as soon as possible, but I think for the time being we are focusing on honing what we do, getting the music out to people with releases and gigs, and just enjoying being where we are for the moment. We’re planning an EP release this year (physical release fingers crossed!) and maybe more will come. We’ll see.
Laurence: Gigs, gigs, gigs. We’d love to get to the stage where people are coming to see us play. That would be nuts.
• Finally, one of the things that can put me off a band straight away is the artwork. I used to have an extended diatribe on my ‘About’ page that went on about it for way longer than was necessary. For better or worse I place a lot of emphasis on the cover, which I know is totally wrong but I can’t help it. Same with books – I literally judge them by the cover. I got really annoyed recently because I ordered a particular one from Amazon Marketplace and they sent one with a different jacket. I did read it, and it was a good book, but I hated looking at it. Anyway, my point is that I like your cover art for the three singles. Can you elaborate a little on it?
Ed: Ellie, (@SketchesFromMyBedroom), is a friend of mine from a few years back. I saw she had been getting into making art over the lockdown as a kind of response to the whole situation and just really vibed with a lot of it – think it has that same kooky vibe as we do in some way. We wanted to have these sort of anthropomorphic animals on the covers not only as a unifying theme, but I think it’s something that weirdly appeals to a lot of people. I think BoJack Horseman is an amazing TV series and there’s something oddly poignant about so many of the characters being represented as animals. Not to say we’re ripping that off!
Adam: We knew immediately that we wanted Garden Cities to be represented by a fox, I’m not 100% sure why, but it just sort of made sense. I guess it’s because they’re this mascot for urban life. They’re beautiful creatures too and we need to protect them.
Like what I’m doing with I Said Yeah? All content on here is free, however you can support the blog (and help sustain my caffeine habit) here.