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W. H. Lung’s arrival at their debut album has been less conventional than most. A trait shared with the music they make, which weaves between shimmering synth pop and the infectious grooves of 70’s Berlin. The band never had any intention of playing live when forming, aiming instead to be a primarily studio-based project.
That approach was challenged when they released their debut 10” in 2017. The propulsive charge, pulsing electronics, glacial melodies and David Byrne-esque vocals on Inspiration!/Nothing Is meant that they were quickly in demand. Booking requests started to flood in and W. H. Lung found themselves cutting their teeth on festival stages that summer. “When we confirmed these performances we didn’t even have enough songs to fill a half an hour set,” Tom S. recalls. “The transition was exciting because we had to start from scratch. We had to write the songs, find people to play in the live band and put a decent set together in about three months.”
Though whilst some new bands may have let that interest change the course of the project, W. H. Lung stayed true to their original reticence and worked mainly as a studio band with live shows kept sporadic. Ironically, W. H. Lung have since become a formidable live unit. Their show is a fusion of loose, free form rhythms that unravel in glorious shifting waves with a taut, hyper-slick dynamism; the razor precision of post-punk meeting the strutting and sensual groove of synth pop.
The W. H. Lung method plunges deeper than the average referential framework. “I’m interested in moments within any genre that for whatever reason satisfy,” says Tom D., who name checks artists as varied as Thelonious Monk, Kanye West, Viet Cong, Julia Holter and Prince as influences. Structurally, it’s nice to draw from everywhere, from more complex arrangements within a conventional framework. I’m not saying the album is full of this stuff – we also like simplicity and brevity and intuitiveness – but there are definitely points at which we tried to be ambitious.”
The band took their time over this debut album which was recorded in stints with Matt Peel, who they credit as having a key role. “When we recorded ‘Inspiration!’ none of us had a clue about synths or drum machines,” says Tom S.. “Matt had his own modular set-up and we started turning to that more and more.”
W. H. Lung have allowed this album to naturally gestate over the course of two years, avoiding the temptation to rush a release on the back of a bit of buzz. The result is a remarkably considered debut. The production is crisp and pristine but not over-polished, the synths and electronics radiate and hum with a golden aura and the vocals weave between tender delivery and forceful eruptions. There is a palpable energy to all the songs which sound more like the offerings of a band at their creative peak, hitting full stride.
Because of the project’s patience and meticulous vision, the lyrics capture a relatively vast period in the life of someone young. “Looking chronologically, I would say that the focus has become increasingly introspective. If the earlier songs are ‘what’s happening?’ the later are ‘what’s happening to me?’” says Joseph E.. “I can see that a certain amount of self-reflection has found its way into the material and as a twenty something living now, there’s also a fair bit of lonely searching, frustration and self-doubt.”
Bring It Up captures the instance of a panic attack. And then panicking about it. A vicious psychological circle which is reinforced by the swirling synths that drive it forward. This track is also emblematic of the band’s desire to eradicate the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms: Joseph E. explains that “Bring It Up takes from Shakespeare, The Smiths and psychological study.” But there is humour amongst the despair too, and a tendency for the acerbic, such as on WANT: “God knows, Google knows / Moses wrote in lines of code / On a tablet in the Silicon Valley / Didn’t he go crazy? / Live on the TV / And murder his own algorithms?” It is also evident that the embrace of melody can be just as powerful as the lyric or theme, as Joseph E. describes when writing Second Death of My Face: “The chorus came to me as I fiddled on the piano in Manchester Central Library. It was big and unashamed and a little bit Bowie. My phone had died so I couldn’t record it as a voice note and I remember the panic of not wanting to lose the melody, of needing to try the idea out (out loud). I ran home with my eyes half closed, singing it over and over in my head.”
“I think it’s important to erase the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” reiterates Joseph E. This colliding of worlds not only exists in the potent mix between whip-smart arrangements and seamlessly danceable music but also in the fact that they are named after a cash and carry in Manchester. As Tom D. explains, “I thought it was funny juxtaposing those kind of austere associations with W. H. Auden and other initialed poets, writers, artists, etc. with the fact that it’s really just a Chinese supermarket.”
Activity, the Brooklyn-based band of Travis Johnson (lead vocals/multi-instrumentalist), Jess Rees (guitar/vocals/keys), Bri DiGioia (bass/vocals), and Steven Levine (drums), today announced their new album Spirit in the Room will be released on August 4th, 2023 via Western Vinyl. Produced by Psychic TV’s Jeff Berner, the band’s sophomore album is an emotional seance held through an unearthly haze of menacing trip hop, ambient electronica, and synth-based noise rock. The album’s darkly urgent lead single “Careful Let’s Sleepwalk” is out now alongside a video directed by the band’s own Levine. “Lyrically the song is dream fragments, nights that all left me with the feeling of something being really wrong (danger, shame, repulsion) without there being anything happening in the dream to obviously trace the sense of evil back to,” Johnson explains. “Just these internally grotesque and dreadful forms that are mundane on the outside. Everything seems calibrated to make us go insane now, and the feeling of the song corresponds to that.”
The band’s most collaborative album to date and follow-up to their 2020 debut LP Unmask Whoever, Spirit in the Room was written and recorded during the pandemic, “to keep from losing our minds”, as Johnson explains. The inherent limitations of lockdown meant that the band had to strip down the process considerably, relying heavily on processed samples and drum machines to sketch early ideas and begin to process the collective trauma. It was also around this time that Johnson experienced a series of personal tragedies, namely the loss of his mother to pancreatic cancer. “The grief was (and sometimes is) this colossal thing,” Johnson explains, “and I kept finding myself thinking of how I could find her or get in touch with her, like there was a phone number or address and I just had to find it.”
Spirit in the Room is no lighthearted journey, but the band’s playfulness and obvious natural chemistry keeps the collection from being burdened by its own solemnity. “Unlike the first album, where we’d barely played live before we recorded, we got to take some of the less electronic songs out on the road in the fall of 2021,” Johnson explains. “Some tracks had been incubating for over a year in our rehearsals. We could feel them change and open up in a live setting, so when we got back home, we went back to the drawing board on a lot of them. Some got scrapped altogether and we haven’t played them since. You get an idea in your head of what it is, but it’s something else when you’re trying to hold other people’s attention. Every part needed to feel earned or necessary.”
The 11-song set–also featuring tracks sung/written by Rees and DiGioia–ultimately reflects the band’s deep anxiety about the modern world while simultaneously displaying their immense gratitude and—believe it or not—joy. As Rees describes it, “One moment it’s bottomless shearing chaotic noise, and the next it’s a sweet melody. Sometimes at the same time.”
This dichotomy seems to set Activity apart from their peers in the noise rock world. On the one hand, Spirit in the Room is a harrowing journey through a Bosch-like landscape of illness, global capital, and human-caused destruction. On the other hand, it’s a room full of friends who are simply trying to make it through the day and process this world that we’ve created. When asked why this album needed to be made, Johnson put it best: “None of us can stand to not make music is all, really.”