DOORSTEP INTERVIEW: What We Call Progress | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Welcome to Doorstep Interview, where we find out more about some of the brilliant bands and artists in the north east. This time it’s the turn of duo What We Call Progress to tell us more about themselves.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you, where are you from?

What We Call Progress are David Young (midi controllers, iPad, laptop) and John Pattison (vocals, guitar). We’re from Whitley Bay and Blyth respectively. We have children and jobs and debts, but we dream of a world where the last two of those things might not be necessary for people to live. Our band name comes from a piece of writing by Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher and critic, who was commenting on the painting Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, and how we might view the passage of time not as progress but as an endless accumulation of wreckage and catastrophe. That might sound depressing but we’re also hopeful because by working together people have the power to change the way things are into the way we want them to be. We hope our music reflects this, even just a little bit.

We’ve been playing together on and off since we were in our teens. When we were younger (in the late 90s) we played in a Blur/Radiohead-influenced three-piece with John on guitars and vocals, a lead guitarist and David on bass. We didn’t have a drummer which was partly a stylistic choice and partly because it was bloody difficult to find a decent drummer who shared your music taste at that time – that’s why we rely on drum machines and computers these days. We’ve also played as an acoustic duo under John’s name and as a full four piece alternative-rock band in the mid 2000s. In between times we’ve shared musical ideas and influences and, when David moved back to the North East in 2012, we got together again to perform in support of John’s solo project. We enjoyed it so we decided to be a band again.

What inspired you to first start making music?

John: I remember being 8 years old and my dad, who’d just finished a 13 hour shift down the mines, picked me up from school – a complete surprise. It must’ve been autumn as I remember crunching leaves as the sun started to set on a clear, crisp day. We took the long route, his still coal-covered hand gently holding mine, past Jennings’ the music shop. I used to walk past that place two or three times a week, looking wide-eyed through the window, dreaming of owning my own guitar. I never dared cross the threshold, though, for fear of looking a fool. This time, however, my dad steered us both towards the door: “Son”, he said, “I’ve got a surprise for you”. And there it was, already placed in its case by Mr Jennings, my own acoustic six string. I never looked back.

None of the above is true. I’ve simply always been a creative and expressive person and think music is a pretty pure and immediate vehicle for that. I had guitar lessons when I was little but gave up when it got to scales – my guitar teacher had an 8-track recorder though and my “lessons” ended up just being two-hour recording sessions.

David: Initially, probably the desire to be appreciated. Every teenager who’s ever played air guitar in their room knows this feeling. Playing guitar/bass seems like a good way to achieve this and maybe make money. It’s probably pretty poor at both those things, but it is lots of fun.

Who would you say are your biggest influences?

John: The formative two for me are Radiohead and Blur. I was fairly obsessed with both of them as a teenager and when I first started singing I pretty much sounded like a poor Thom Yorke impersonator. It’s taken me a long time to try to come out of that (with limited success!) They’re both bands high on creativity who haven’t just stuck with the same formula – they’ve had the guts to come out with albums like Blur and Kid A after critical and commercial success with a certain sound. Plus they’ve managed to retain a level of accessibility whilst challenging themselves.

Our other formative influences are Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Mogwai, DJ Shadow, The Smiths, Joy Division, Nick Drake, The Prodigy, The Smashing Pumpkins, Neil Young and R.E.M. More recently we’ve been influenced by Four Tet, The Knife, Wild Beasts, St Vincent, FKA Twigs, Purity Ring, Holy Other and Sufjan Stevens.

“by working together people have the power to change the way things are into the way we want them to be. We hope our music reflects this”

How would you describe your sound?

Electronic/glitch/synth/house/experimental with a bit of alt rock and pop sensibility thrown in. Despite loving the expressive and non-formulaic sides of music, we’re still suckers for accessible vocals and a catchy riff.

Where do you see yourselves fitting into the local music scene?

One of the cool things that’s happened since we started on this electronic path has been meeting others doing similar stuff – a small, local, loosely-bound group of musicians who try to support each other and gig together. Our gig at the Head of Steam on 18th April, for example, has been organised and paid for collectively so we all have equal share. I hope this sort of thing continues – just don’t call it a scene!

Tell us a bit about your live performances. What can we expect from a gig by What We Call Progress?

John: I guess the most unique thing about us is what David does, and in particular operating the Push controller; it’s basically a big slab of buttons and knobs that makes the laptop do stuff. It also means David can actually give a live performance as opposed to just pressing the left mouse button. I think that makes us quite interesting to watch – David’s always triggering something, modulating something else, playing around with sounds. Throw an iPad and a nanoPAD2 into the mix and you’ve got laptop-based electronica with a genuine live performance that won’t be quite the same the next time you see us. On stage we haven’t deliberately cultivated a particular performance style (that’s just a bit too cynical for us), but we love the moments when we’re both really into the song – what happens to our bodies at that point is anyone’s guess.

David: I press buttons and hope I don’t screw it up.

Can you tell us what gigs you have planned in the region in the near future?

We’ve got 18th April at The Head of Steam with Emile’s Telegraphic Transmission Device, therunningchelsea and Worry Party, 24th April with Craig Clark and an ENDLESS_WINDOW DJ set and then on 23rd May we’re headlining Ernest in the Ouseburn Valley as part of Evo Emerging with Joe Ramsey, Melissa Rose and Lesley Roley.

What do you think has been your biggest achievement so far as a band/artist?

John: I’m chuffed that we’ve done a live session for BBC Newcastle. That was really cool. Also getting a headline slot at one of the Evo Emerging venues has to be up there.

David: I had to learn a lot about performing and producing electronic music in a relatively short space of time. I’m still learning, but I’m really pleased with what we’ve done so far. It’s good to be in a band with someone on a similar music wavelength. We are always bouncing ideas off each other and bringing a dose of reality to our flights of fancy (well, mainly mine…)

Have there been any major challenges so far in your musical career?

John: Just dealing with Dave’s ferocious ego. LOL, JK. Oh, is this the X Factor bit where I talk about my recently deceased nan? I was once through to the judge’s houses y’know, but I didn’t make the cut. It hurt me, but this year I’m coming back EVEN STRONGER (cue end of Fix You by Coldplay).

I think we face the same challenges as most moderately successful local bands – getting the word out, getting regular gigs, building a bit of a following. We don’t have any delusions of grandeur, but we’d like this band to hang around for a while and make the most of it.

What else have you got planned for the future?

We’ve started recording an EP which should be out in the summer/autumn. Our last EP was a bit of a trial in many ways, and we’re hoping this one is a more fun experience and shows how our sound has evolved over the past year. After that, it’s clearly complete global domination – right after we take the kids to soft play.

What We Call Progress play with Emile’s Telegraphic Transmission Device, therunningchelsea and Worry Party on Saturday 18th April at the Head of Steam, Newcastle.

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