Glass Animals: Becoming Human

Music Features Glass Animals
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Glass Animals: Becoming <i>Human</i>

Dave Bayley and Joe Seaward of Glass Animals have a lot to say about North America. The cereal brands are good, the politics are bad, and everything looms according to our supersized standards. Seaward quips, “Buildings are big. People are big. Palm trees are big. Lakes are pretty big here. Lake Michigan is bigger than England. Stuff is big.” As they barrel through the list, I have to keep in mind that this is coming from two members of a UK poly-pop unit who know a little something about making it big, too.

Frontman Bayley and Seaward, who operates the band’s drum kit, have known each other since they were 12 years old, but the longtime friends didn’t come together as musicians until about four years ago. “I just wrote some music in my spare time and showed it to these guys,” Bayley recalls. “And they said, ‘Put it on the Internet.’ And I said, ‘OK, but you have to be in the band.’ Then it spiraled out of control, and now we’re here.”

The modest show-and-tell spiraled into Zaba, the debut that made the quartet so distinct in their stylization, so technical in their superimposition of textures. It oozes and wobbles, at times sending you off on a soul-inflected safari through psychotropic quicksand previously undiscovered.

Even as you roll up your sleeves and wade through morasses of synth and non-sequitur, you never feel too bogged down by exoticism or Bayley’s poetic density. They laminated their sound with world music, trip-hop, R&B and outros that zoom like particle beams, ultimately making something that exceeds the requirements of a first effort.

Since Zaba’s release, Glass Animals have been touring regularly and traveling from city to city—immediately followed by the production of their sophomore full-length. Bayley comments, “We just started writing as soon as we got back from tour and went straight to the studio and locked the door. I guess all the ideas were bubbling, and we had demos within about a week and a half.” This time around, they’re taking a break as the landlords of a warped Amazonian vision and instead picketing into more familiar terrain to report on the human condition.

The band recently shared the album cover art on their Instagram—an apricot-washed, retro group picture featuring a modette from the Swinging Sixties, a greased-up version of Kip Dynamite in space age swim shorts, and a toddler propped on a three-wheel cruiser. “Basically, the idea of the record is each song is a different character, a different story made up about each character,” Bayley explains. “It’s a collection of short stories, really. We cast an actor for each of those characters and took a weird family portrait for the front cover.”

The new installment, aptly titled How To Be A Human Being, is a creative extension of the stories that Bayley was told by strangers while on tour. He was meeting new people all the time, from fans waiting right outside the tour bus at venues to the taxi drivers who transported the group to radio stations. “I’ve been kind of studying, not for the purpose of recording the album, but for fun,” he reveals. “I’ve been recording all these people’s stories that they’ve been telling me. Secretly.”

He points out that, while you can simply take note of these people and archive them in a subconscious inventory of missed connections, it is much more worthwhile to get the story. “I started recording them on my phone, because my memory sucks,” says Bayley. “I was listening back to them all one day and just started making all of these little connections. There are certain undercurrents that hold the stories together.”

As Bayley gathered this real-life source material, he learned to pay attention to the way people tell their stories—whether that is in articulation or expression. “In general, there’s people who tend to speak a cheeky, chirpy way. Saying all these stories, laughing a little bit or smiling. If you look past what’s on their face, there is a lot more happening,” he recognizes. “Some of these stories are really dark, really sad, really heartbreaking. You kind of wonder ‘What made that person want to tell you that story?’ and ‘What made that story become stuck in their head?’”

Once the songwriting process began, Bayley assigned specific characteristics to these people and fabricated their lives to the point where he knew exactly “what they eat, where they live, what their fetishes are.” As the lyrics materialized, he started to draw the personalities—detailing all the necessary assemblage of human beings: their clothing, the furniture in their houses, their neuroses, their behavioral kinks. He seems like a mad alchemist one experiment away from creating an eponymous monster, and he was playing God in a way—his new Eden far from the acrobatic jungle of Zaba.

How To Be A Human Being offers a dusty depiction of life as we know it—all the hilarity, the disillusionment in ourselves and others, and of course, the artifice of getting by. The narrative became clear once Bayley relayed his ideas to Neil, a friend who would direct the music videos for “Life Itself” and “Youth.” The group trekked to a desert where the character sketches came to life through a visual format, following a storyline performed by the same actors on the album cover. The entire band makes an appearance in the videos—sooty vignettes of everyday life gone manic with smoke bombs diffused in motel rooms and a little boy orchestrating the hysteria of his elders.

Bayley went to great lengths to accurately portray his characters, even replicating their specific tonalities when he sings. He elaborates, “When you sing ‘Youth,’ you have to pretend to be the character, so that voice is quite model-y. It’s quite falsetto and gentle. And then ‘Pork Soda’—all of those voices singing. That’s me putting 99 percent of the beat. It’s me trying to be kind of a heavy smoker. I did like 30 different voices for ‘Pork Soda.’” When all the vocal affectations were put together, it was no longer just him, but an entire host of individuals contributing to the track.

The album has a conceptual groundwork that translates to every small detail of its content, particularly the song titles. “I guess it’s a play on Album 2, Track 3,” Bayley says about the second track, “Season 2 Episode 3.” “And if you listen to the song, at the beginning, there’s the sound of a TV flicking on and off. Everyone knows a character who is just too damn lazy for their own good, but could do something great with their lives. Instead, they just sit on the sofa, watching TV or playing video games. It’s sort of a cheeky nod to that.”

As for the music, Bayley comments, “It’s definitely different. It’s a diverse record compared to the first one. Overall, I think the first record was quite shy. It’s ambient, quiet, and it was made at night in a bedroom. With this one, we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing, more comfortable with pushing things further.” The beats have a hardened, self-assured quality—one that became more apparent in last year’s collaboration with Joey Bada$$’s bars on “Lose Control.” They accompany melodic grooves and lyrics that are still fantastical in their otherness, but have found a way to fetter themselves to a sense of reality.

Bayley and Seaward might not see the appeal of America’s hyper-dimensionality, but they do find merit in the big-ness of music making. Bayley continues, “There’s so much going on—big drums, big chords, huge arrangements, and section changes we never would’ve done on the first record.” There’s even an altered spoken word track that has no music.

This is yet another measure of bringing obscured voices to the mix, especially the toggled version of Bayley’s own timbre that also makes an appearance in “Pork Soda.” “That’s me putting on the voice again, and pitching it down a little bit. No one really likes the sound of their voice, so I sort of tweaked it,” he comments. “I nicked that from a guy called Madlib who made all these rap records. He didn’t like the sound of his rap voice, so he pitched it all up a little bit.”

Seaward adds, “It took me less time to work out what was going on. I don’t think it’s any less complex, but it’s definitely more immediate to me.” This instant connection to the music is forged by the band’s post-debut maxim—perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be. If they learned anything from nonstop touring, it’s that they make little mistakes during live performances and have come to embrace them on and off the stage. “You capture spontaneity if you just put in the first take that you do,” Bayley insists. “A lot of the time, we tried to do better takes for guitar lines on this record, and we just couldn’t. We ended up appreciating that slightly gritty, slightly spontaneous rawness.”

Even though Glass Animals will not be slowing down with their production or tour anytime soon, Seaward wryly expresses that he would like to see his friends if he ever gets the chance. Bayley has a more artisanal agenda in mind—when he’s not writing songs or organizing album minutiae, which he describes as “a bloody handful,” he wants to keep trying his hand at woodworking. He has already built all of his mom’s furniture, but things aren’t as easygoing as he’d hoped.

“My mom banned me, because I almost cut a finger off,” Bayley says, laughing. “We just secretly built some keyboards and synths.” He pauses and gives me a half-serious look. “Don’t tell my mom.” All parental advisory aside, let’s just hope she’s not reading this.

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