Bad Sounds are here to help. Really, they are. Chuck out your crystals and your positive affirmations, because Ewan and Callum Merrett have the solution for what ails you. Well, -ish. Maybe. A bit.
Their debut album ‘Get Better’ opens with Ewan trying out his hypnotherapist voice, urging the listener to ‘take a deep breath, stop what you’re doing, and get better.’ Throughout the ensuing forty-six minute ‘sonic self-help guide’ (more on that in a second), Bad Sounds riff on disappointing paychecks, luck and conspicuously not-sulking, among other things. Everything falls loosely under the ‘Get Better’ theme, the title forming a purposeful uniting thread.
“The last thing we did before the album was ‘Mixtape One’, which was our second EP, and it was the first time we’d written something to be a cohesive piece of work. So we really went in hard on that, about wanting the whole thing to feel like it belonged together,” Ewan says.
“Rather than just, you know, eleven songs that we liked, we were looking for the songs that worked together and trying to see what was in there that could come out as a theme. Weirdly, it wasn’t an intentional thing, but we noticed a lot of the lyrics were based on poking fun at… I don’t know how to say it, but I guess that over-the-top, ‘self-help’ thing.”
He’s quick to clarify. “Not in like a derogatory way of the issue, but more about the industry, I guess,” he says. “When we had that we started to tailor a few of the things too so that it all came together. I think we were looking for something that could tie it all together and that showed itself.”
“The whole writing and recording the album was such a process of learning and literally getting better as songwriters and producers; I felt like it applied to so many aspects of what was happening to us that it was kind of fun that the lyrics managed to fit into that title,” Callum points out. “It just became really fun to riff off the whole self-help thing and ‘get better’.”
At the time, the online positivity campaign waged by laptop spiritualists felt relentless, they say.
“When we were doing it, all I was seeing on social media was shit about improving yourself, you know? Those Insta-quotes. And I really couldn’t give a fuck about that,” Ewan laughs. “I’m happy with my flaws.”
As a matter of fact, as album track ‘Another Man’ claims, Bad Sounds reckon they’ve “got more flaws than the ceiling sees”. If they were different, the track implies, if they were each ‘Another Man’ maybe, things would come more easily. But, they’re quick to point out, despite the title the track isn’t meant to be strictly gender-based or focussed on masculinity.
“There’s definitely nothing masculine about either of us,” Callum laughs.
Truthfully, ‘Another Man’ is more about insecurity in general, Ewan explains.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had this when you go into situations, but I always feel like I fuck up the first attempt of everything I do. Some people just seem to naturally walk into a room, and everything goes right,” he says. “I guess it’s just that kind of vibe, wishing you could be more like that. But in less of a bitter way.”
For his brother, the song also speaks to the sense of having missed opportunities that other people managed to catch.
“I think I’m naturally quite reserved, and I feel like there’s a lot of shit I could’ve done in my 20s that I didn’t do. Even though I’m still like halfway through. Never did the university life or anything,” he says.
‘Another Man’ is indicative of a more emotional side to Bad Sounds, and one that they delve into more deeply for the first time on ‘Get Better’. ‘Couldn’t Give It Away’ is one of the most affecting of these more quote-unquote serious songs, acting as an outlet for Ewan to sing about grief, loss, and the guilt of moving on.
“Lyrically, I don’t really like the idea of being too specific with the exact situation we’re talking about, but I like being specific about the events if you know what I mean,” Ewan says. “So. I guess I find it hard to toe that line with it because it’s obviously more of a personal track and I didn’t want to feel weird about it. D’you know what I mean?”
It’s clearly a tangled issue, and one that is not so easy to explain on a personal level, and so Callum picks up the thread.
“Ewan was dealing with some… obviously the track’s about loss, and he was dealing with some grief. It actually spurred on some of the tracks on the album. ‘Thomas Is A Killer’ is based around similar events,” he says. “It’s almost a prequel, even though ‘Couldn’t Give It Away’ comes before it on the album. Lyrically it was Ewan’s way of dealing with that situation and -“
“Getting better!” Ewan cuts in.
The eyebrow waggle is so blatant it’s practically audible down the phone line.
They both descend into hysterics. When he comes back, Callum says cheerfully: “It’s very easy to see already how awkward we are talking about the more serious tracks.”
No kidding. Still, Bad Sounds have got party bangers to spare and ‘Couldn’t Give It Away’ and ‘Thomas Is A Killer’ are a good counterbalance on the more serious side of the album. The latter is an emotionally raw track about exactly what the title suggests, perhaps a little bit more minimalist than Bad Sounds are known for but none the worse for it.
“The thing is, we’ve always had that side to us, but it feels like, for the first time on the album we can show it a bit more. It’s not just based around singles; there’s other stuff that comes with it,” Ewan says. “So I feel like we’re showing more sides to us than we had before.”
“Yeah,” Callum agrees. “I guess it gets me down sometimes that people think we’re these sort of happy go lucky, just like – I dunno, not really taking it too seriously and just fucking around.”
“Why don’t they notice how miserable we are?” Ewan cries dramatically.
Callum sagely chooses not to let that undermine anything he’s just said, though.
“It’s kind of nice to show that we are mature adults and hopefully people like that side as well,” he says.
Speaking of new sides, Bad Sounds found other aspects to themselves and their own work while making the record, too.
“How we’ve always worked is me and Cal will start a track – on our own or together – at home, basically. We get it about 60 or 70% done in terms of it being a song, and go in and flesh it out and turn it into something more polished. But it was really fun this time, cause because we were doing the album we got to go to a posh studio for a bit, which we’ve never done before,” says Ewan.
“I was totally against it because I’ve always liked the idea of doing it a bit more guerrilla, with a few mics in a not-purpose-built space kind of vibe. But then we were there literally a day, and I totally changed my tune and never wanted to leave this super nice studio.”
He laughs. Their recording methods and aversion to posh studios weren’t the only things that changed while Bad Sounds were working on ‘Get Better’ though. Since the early days, the Merrett brothers have been one anothers’ foil, with Ewan interested in hip-hop beats and production, and Callum drawn more to the songwriting side of things. These days, the roles are somewhat different.
“By the end of the album – as neat at this sounds – I feel like we are almost going in the opposite direction from each other, like we’ve crossed. Because Callum’s definitely comfortable with the hip-hop production stuff now, and very in that world, and I got more confident with the songwriting stuff as well,” Ewan says. “The stuff we learnt off each other when we first started, I think we both felt slightly incompetent in those areas, so we delved in to get better, and that’s how you become more interested in things.”
“Our passions have swapped. And even though, like Ewan said, I’m sort of focused on the hip-hop vibe of production, I feel like it’s still a different flavour from the stuff that Ewan was doing when we first started out. And the songwriting that Ewan’s interested in now is a different strain to what I was interested in. So even though we’re filling each other’s shoes, it’s a slightly different angle on it,” Callum adds.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no crossover points. They easily agree on the brilliance of the Dust Brothers, the iconic production duo behind Beck’s ‘Odelay’, Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ and the Fight Club soundtrack, among others.
“Their production techniques and style of that era had a huge impact on us when we were starting Bad Sounds, when we were sort of ‘finding our sound’ for lack of a more pretentious phrase. So I think that stuff is so deep in the origins of the band, that’s why the Beck reference comes up quite a lot,” Callum says.
“They are the kings at tracking in a really weird sample where you wouldn’t expect it. Like, you expect it to kick back into the beat, but they keep the break going on almost uncomfortably long, but it’s still so cool when they do it,” adds Ewan. “We try to take elements of what they do and apply it to what we do.”
There is definitely a touch of the Dust Brothers, and Beck on fan favourite ‘Are You High?’ which is conspicuous in its absence on the album. After the single premiered on Annie Mac’s BBC Radio 1 show, ‘Are You High?’ became popular so quickly that the band could see it gaining momentum in real time on their 2017 headline tour.
“That was a really weird one for us, because we did this headline tour and it came out literally the first night of the tour. We did the interview with Annie Mac and then 20 minutes later went onstage so it was like, ‘We might as well just play the new single’. Nobody knew it, but they were still enthusiastic, nodding their heads and it was really nice,” says Callum.
“Then by the end of that tour, everyone was singing it back to us and doing the ‘yes!’ sample and stuff. We literally saw that transition happen over the course of a week. It was pretty weird, to be honest. It kind of surprised us how much people liked that track.”
With the album release on the horizon then, can Bad Sounds feel a similar situation coming on the wind?
“I think it’s gonna be interesting to go on tour after and see which tracks people respond to that aren’t the singles. Me and Cal have our own favourites, neither of which are singles yet, so we’re kind of interested to see how those go down,” says Ewan. “Then there are tracks which are quite different to what we’ve done before, so I’m eager to see what people make of that. I know ‘Thomas’ is going to be a marmite situation.”
“Structuring our live show has always been a big thing for us as well, we want it to be a celebratory thing rather than people just coming to watch us play. So it’s going to be interesting for us trying to structure our set so that we can make room for songs like ‘Another Man’ or ‘Thomas’. Like, how are we going to do that? Are we gonna separate our set into different segments or are we just going to only play the upbeat ones? I guess we don’t know yet, but I’m looking forward to trying to figure it all out,” Callum says.
“The whole big thing of the album for me is showing sides to us people haven’t seen, so I’m looking forward to translating that to the live show as well, being able to have all these different elements going on rather than just bangers as soon as you walk in the room. You know what I mean?” Ewan agrees.
“Yeah,” says Callum.
Ewan doesn’t leave room for confusion, though. “Which it will be. Obviously.”
With Bad Sounds, the bangers are non-negotiable. It’s just that this time around some of them might break your heart.
Taken from Dork’s Big Album Guide 2018. Bad Sounds’ album ‘Get Better’ is out on 17th August; they tour the UK from 24th October.
Words: Liam Konemann