A question: what's the perfect environment to make an album in? Here are a couple of choices. No 1: You're a new British band; you've been on the covers of the music press dozens of times in the space of a year, and your first album's just sold more than 1 million copies. Pressure? What pressure? (Well, quite a bit, actually.) No 2: You're a British band, Keane, Coldplay, James Blunt and others are at the top of the charts, your second album went platinum, but the media glare is on other groups now. Do you panic? Or do you make the record you've always wanted to make?
Starsailor have dealt with both these scenarios. They didn't much enjoy the first, but they absolutely loved the second. And when you cue up their impassioned new album, On the Outside, you'll see why. Or rather, you'll hear it. Its there, in the first bars of opener, "In the Crossfire," with Stel, Barry and Ben haring out of the traps, and James spitting out a quintessential Starsailor lyric: "I don't see myself when I look in the mirror; I see who I should be." It's there, too, on the future live favorites "Counterfeit Life" and "In My Blood," two gospel-tinged tracks that complete a devastating opening triptych. On the unmistakable, colors-to-the-mast "Faith Hope Love." On the epic "Keep Us Together," whose backing vocals are destined to be taken up by live audiences on the band's forthcoming U.S. tour. And on the heartbreaking closer "Jeremiah," a song inspired by the still unexplained death of the British student, Jeremiah Duggan, who died fleeing a far-right conference in Germany that he'd unwittingly become caught up in.
Can a band in their mid-twenties be accurately described as veterans? Perhaps not, but Starsailor, are, whatever their birth certificates might claim to the contrary, old hands now. There's a depth to their sound, their songwriting, their purpose, which attests to the benefits of stepping out of the limelight and into a less hysterical creative environment. And we're the beneficiaries too. Because the proof is in the longevity, rather than those fly-by-night, 15-minute firework careers that flare gloriously above our heads and then disperse and disappear into the night sky. The real test, the only one that matters in the long run, comes when the circus has moved on. What sustains a band is what happens in the studio, fine-tuning a song, eyeball-to-eyeball over the mixing desk, or full-throttle and high-decibel onstage. If that well has run dry, no amount of wacky re-mixes; headline-grabbing collaborations or greatest-hits packages will disguise the fact for long. You're as good as your songs.
Starsailor know about songs, and so do their fans. Watching a sell-out crowd sing along, word-perfect to "Fever," "Alcoholic," "Lullaby," "Good Souls;" to "Silence is Easy," "Four to the Floor," and "Music Was Saved," is a conflicting experience. It's an impressive back catalog, no question. But it's also, potentially, a burden. How, a band might be tempted to ask themselves, do we possibly follow that?
When James, Stel, Barry and Ben reconvened after the bruising experience of their second album, Silence Is Easy, they knew what they didn't want to do. And they knew what they needed to avoid. "It would," reflects Stel, with characteristic bluntness, "have been easier to self-implode than to carry on." What's more, with James relocated to Belfast, a geographical dislocation could, if their minds had been less concentrated, have become a permanent estrangement. But human beings are perverse creatures. If anything, the opposite was the case. "He lived around the corner from me," laughs Stel, reflecting on their days as near-neighbors outside Manchester, "and I never saw him." In fact, James's regular commute from Northern Ireland acted as the spark that reignited the band's fire. "We'd get more done in four hours," he says, "than in all the time I was living in the same area."
Those to-a-deadline gatherings saw the band moving on from the cap-off-the-bottle catharsis of the first album, and the make-sense-of-it-all upheavals of the second, and looking at the world around them, as if, they say now, for the first time. So when they flew to California to work with the producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, The Vines, Elliott Smith), they came with a new approach to the recording process. Out went the ProTools, in came straight-to-tape. Out, too, went the anxiety. The sight of palm trees through the studio windows, and of friends relaxing beneath them, both inspired the band and made them get the hell on with it. Working with an obsessive producer and engineer meant that it was often some time before they made it outside to those trees. But in the hothouse atmosphere of the studio, they found themselves being pushed harder and further than they ever had been before. "Rob's obsessive about guitars," says James. "He'd be, like, let's get a sound with a 1964 Gibson 335 through a 1962 Vox AC30. And he had all that stuff there." Stel, meanwhile, was finding it less easy to impress Doug the engineer than he'd expected. "I must have been in the room six hours," recalls Stel of one particularly fraught session. "The sun was shining outside. And I'm playing this part and thinking, yeah, got it, what do you reckon Doug? And he went, 'I could play better than that', which is when the red mist descended." A pause. "Mind you, he was right."
"With Silence Is Easy," James reflects, "we'd be recording the album and reading about ourselves in the paper or seeing a picture of ourselves or playing a gig, all at the same time. Whereas with this one, it was totally focused, totally inspired." Stel interrupts, as he is wont to do. "'Urgent' - that's the word for this record. Plus, we're probably the closest we've ever been as a band."
Some bands get to their third album and have you wishing they'd quit after the first. Others, though, only really come to the boil when they've got the brilliant but incoherent debut album and the high-pressure, written-on-the-road follow-up out of the way. With On the Outside, Starsailor prove emphatically, triumphantly, that they belong to the latter category. Their discography may read: Love is Here, Silence is Easy, On the Outside. But these 12 new tracks, and the confidence and verve with which they dispatch them, sound like the work of a band entering a recording studio for the first time. It's as if some invisible force has added a thickening agent to the pot. The Starsailor you hear on On the Outside - James's vocals and guitar-playing more authoritative and passionate than they've ever been; Stel's inspired, endlessly inventive bass-playing confirming him as in the very top rank; Barry anchoring the new sound with propulsive, euphoric Hammond; Ben powering the band forwards - are four people reconnecting themselves and us with what caused all the excitement in the first place
They've come through the highs and the lows, the limelight and the shadows, the self-belief and the doubt, to produce their finest set of songs to date. Honest, furious, impassioned and, like the man said, urgent. Old hands? More like first-timers.