OnDeadWaves releases an audio "On the Road" for the 21st century with their self-titled, sun-drenched debut
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Reverb guitar, Western themes and California sunshine are exotic touchstones for many English musicians. Among them is onDeadWaves, a duo formed by singer Polly Scattergood, who has two albums of her own, and James Chapman, who records as Maps. As OnDeadWaves, they create a Western noir music that would be a perfect score for HBO’s “True Detective” or David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” Their debut album is the July CD of the Month. I talked to the band about their luxuriously melancholic album.
When Polly Scattergood and James Chapman recorded their OnDeadWaves debut, they sat in James’ home in Hampton outside of London. But interviewing them now via Skype, only James is in England. Polly is in Spain, under a blanket.
“If you could see the studio that I’m recording from now, it’s hilarious,” exclaims Polly. “I’ve cocooned myself under a blanket with pillows and a condenser microphone. I’m in a little house at the foot of a volcano. I’m basically on an island called Fuerteventura and I was in London last week, but sometimes London can get quite forlorn, so I escaped and came to the beach and yeah, just enjoying the sunshine.
There’s a lot of sunshine on their debut as onDeadWaves. It’s just sunshine filtered through smoke-filled barrooms and dust trails spewed out by a car traveling into the West.
“We both have that love of that kind of American deserted highway at midnight kind of vibe,” confesses James. “And I think we’ve followed it in a lot of the songs.”
With OnDeadWaves, Polly Scattergood and James Chapman have created a masterpiece of western noir. It’s a long way from the music they make on their own. James records as Maps and his music is driving electro-pop. On her records, Polly Scattergood is a moody, but energetic pop chanteuse.
But as OnDeadWaves, their sound is organic and their singing is hushed, like they’ve just smoked four packs of cigarettes, downed a bottle of whiskey each, and have an arm draped around you while they whisper in your ear.
“It was really strange because the first time that I did a vocal with James I was sitting in the chair, but normally when I’ve recorded stuff before, it’s been like standing in a vocal booth and doing a take,” Polly explains, adding “But with this album, I didn’t stand up for the take. I just kind of sat there and whispered. It was kind of a very free flowing process and the same for James.”
Both musicians are children of Britpop and shoegaze, but they take that sound West as OnDeadWaves, an album that evokes tumbleweed expanses, highway nights and dark dive bars. Depictions of America in film and art shaped much of their music.
“We both like David Lynch,” James notes. “The movie “Paris, Texas” is quite a big one.”
“James sent me a postcard which was a Edward Hopper postcard,” adds Polly. “I just remember thinking yeah, that’s a really beautiful image that would be nice to sort of have in mind when writing.”
Hopper’s images of mid-20th century urban America and rural landscapes can be heard in much of their sound. But there is also a sense of foreboding with songs of loss and obsession. Their lyrics seem to come from the desperate edges of addiction.
“I think a lot of people often use drugs and addiction as a metaphor for love, but it seems like a lot of these songs are actually about drugs and addiction,” I claim.
“…Well, I don’t think specifically,” resists James.
“Well, James, that long hesitation when I asked you that question seemed to tell me that I was actually on track here,” I interject. “Am I wrong?”
“To be honest, I think we’ve both, you know, we’ve both lived life and had experiences, and you know, some negative, some positive,” James admits.
The song “Dead Balloons” in particular is rife with narcotic imagery, talking about “burnt reflections on a spoon” and “vessels from my body puncture veins until they bruise”
“Yeah, that’s one of the darker ones on the album, for sure,” Polly acquiesces.
Even the livelier songs by OnDeadWaves have a dark undertow to them. The song called “California” is bristling with its namesake’s 60s vibes. But their California is different.
“The reason that we wrote about California was because there’s a place in England called California, which is like a holiday park in the south of England,” reminisces Polly. “It’s somewhere I used to go to when I was growing up. I got this really interesting kind of ironic vibe to it. It’s like an old English seaside holiday park resort, as you approach it’s got this big sign saying California. And in my head as a child, California was always this kind of wild, wonderful place, but it was not the California I knew, if that makes sense.”
“It’s poorly named,” laughs James.
Just to add to the layers of that song, the video for “California” is based on the movie, “Boogie Nights,” which was set in the 1970s pornography industry of Los Angeles.
The debut album by OnDeadWaves ends with what they feel is a song up happiness and optimism, despite its title, “Winter’s Child.”
“’Winter’s Child’ is really about finding peace and acceptance in coming to terms with sometimes letting things go,” discloses Polly. “The lyric talks about burying things under dead waves and it’s about letting things wash away. We wanted the song to remain positive and be powerful with a focus on looking forward, not backward.”
“It’s quite euphoric as well,” affirms James. “I think we wanted it to be a real kind of uplifting end to the album.”
Euphoria is a relative term with OnDeadWaves. Polly Scattergood and James Chapman have created an album for last call at a bar that serves lysergic gin cocktails. It’s an audio “On the Road” for the 21st century. OnDeadWaves is out on Mute Records.