It is a fact to say that most people haven’t heard of Dublin’s The Crayon Set. It’s also a fact to say that it’s a real shame, as they’re the kind of band that specialise in smart, hook-laden, melancholic pop reminiscent of the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and the Cardigans. Basically they’re very, very good and their new LP, Downer Disco, is a pretty flawless half-hour of warm, comforting, intelligent, tasteful indie pop with the odd surprise thrown in for good measure. Check it out below, as well as a Q&A with Rob from the band about writing, recording, and – refreshingly – why not everybody has to reinvent the wheel all the time. It’s worth noting that our exchange took place before the release of the album, around the time that the band put out the (excellent) double A-side single of Rock Star/Dream Girl and Summer Song.
A conversation with Rob Baker of The Crayon Set
• Hi Rob. I really like the kind of ’90s almost-Cardigans vibe of Rock Star/Dream Girl, and think the contrast with the more slick production of Summer Song really works well. Why those songs to launch the new record, and why both together?
Thank you – great that you like them. Funny you mention The Cardigans, I hadn’t really picked up on that until recently when Finn our guitarist mentioned it re. a few songs. I love their album ‘Life’ so clearly that influence must have crept in. In terms of releasing them together it was just an idea to give DJs or bloggers the option to play whatever they liked, kind of tying in with the idea of the band being about different colours and variety etc. It’s as easy to include two songs as one song when sending a press release out!
• For the uninitiated, how would you describe the kind of music you make?
To us it sounds like pop – with some minor detours here and there – but I guess pop means different things to different people. We try to write songs that have memorable hooks and to make something that sounds fresh and interesting to us at the same time. Ideally there need to be an emotional quality to them too. But we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or to massively challenge the listener or anything – pop isn’t a dirty word for us.
• You’ve been releasing music for the best part of a decade. How do you think your music has changed in that time, but also what keeps you together? From my own personal experience as part of a band for a good fifteen years or so, we’ve seen a lot of people that were in bands around us kind of taper off and fizzle out with mortgages etc. whereas we’ve just kept on working alongside life stuff… I know why we do it but I’m always interested in why others do!
Would be the same here – and lots of really talented bands as well have unfortunately gone by the wayside. I guess the writing and playing is something I enjoy so I have always tried to keep the show on the road. From relatively early on band members came and went, so although that was disruptive, it also meant early on we got used to the idea that it didn’t mean the end of the band when someone moved on. It could be a positive – if someone was no longer enjoying it or got weighed down with the kids or the mortgage or whatever – we could find someone else who’d bring some fresh energy and ideas into the band. This also helped the music to evolve.
From a songwriting point of view I’d also have tried different techniques to keep things fresh. There was definitely a naivety to the earlier songs and we’d pile hooks on to hooks and overload the harmonies and pile on the layers, so a lot of the new album has been about trying to strip things back to the essence of the songs. Not every song needs a pre-chorus and a post-chorus and an intro and an outro.
• What does success look like to you?
I think writing songs that will hold up and releasing music that we’re proud of is the main thing. But we are ambitious too and would like to tour abroad. We are proud of the music – we put a lot of work into it – and would like more people to hear it.
• How do you tend to write?
I write most of the songs but other members do bring songs in and there’s the odd co-write. I’ll usually bring in a fairly complete song and we’ll jam it basically until we’re happy with an arrangement. In terms of writing, I’m writing most of the time – writing down possible song titles, nice turns-of-phrase that I hear, progressions on the guitar or working over a drum loop. My new thing is starting with the chorus and then working backwards essentially. It’s so annoying when you have a good verse but can’t find a good chorus to go with it, so you’re better off just starting with the chorus!
• I’m interested in who your influences are. There are a few names that jumped out at me (Cardigans, Belle and Sebastian to name a couple) but I wonder what stuff you listen to. Also, do you think about other artists consciously when you’re writing?
Cool that you picked up on those – I love both those bands. I think any music that you love and listen to a lot will creep into the writing and the production – hopefully they’ll mix together and your own style will emerge and evolve. I listen to everything. If I was to list who I’ve listened to most over the years it would include lots of the usual suspects: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Dylan, The Doors, The Band, Bowie, Pavement, Teenage Fanclub, New Order, Phoenix, R.E.M, lots of 80s synth pop, 60s soul and lots of Brazilian artists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.
I wouldn’t consciously think too much about other artists when writing – in the past I have tried a couple of times writing songs ‘in the style of … ‘ other artists and it’s never worked. I think usually the less you think when writing the better actually – get out of your own way kind of thing. I might go “what would Prince or Paul Simon do in this section?” or something like that, just brain-storming to myself. But definitely when arranging and producing it can be helpful to reference other artists: “I think the vibe should be a bit Lou Reed” or whatever.
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