The quartet that make up Sweet Billy Pilgrim; Anthony Bishop, Jana Carpenter, Tim Elsenburg and Alistair Hamer, have been part of the music industry for over a decade, delivering song after song of what they describe as “Thrash Pastel” sound to ears everywhere. As they prepare to embark on an eleven date UK tour which begins in Manchester on September 2nd, together they agreed to chat with me and talk longevity, influences and future plans.
You’ve outlasted a number of bands and artists during your time together, what do you think is the key/secret to your longevity?
That’s easy. We get to do something we love with people we love, whether they be our fellow band members or the people who come to see us. Don’t get me wrong; it is hard work, and sometimes the rewards for that hard work seem all out of whack, but whenever it all gets a bit overwhelming we just remind ourselves how lucky we are. Our shows tend to be a conversation – both literal and metaphorical – between members of the band, and between the band and the audience. I guess the aim is to achieve something approaching a feeling of celebration in the end, so a shorter answer would be that we basically became hippies.
How do you think you’ve evolved and grown as a band since you started out?
We’ve learned to communicate better, and the songs have opened up sonically and lyrically as a result. We love the first two records, but they were the sound of a band always looking inwards, and shows were difficult because we just wanted to get the notes and the sounds right. It was only when Jana joined that, through her background in acting and improvising, we really discovered how to tell stories; how look outwards and invite people in. Yes, the notes and words are important, but now we share them, where – in the early days at least – we might have just performed them.
Have there been any difficult lessons you’ve had to learn along the way?
Just that, really. That most people are less interested in hearing an album played accurately live, and more interested in being connected with. That, and the more obvious how-to-keep-our-heads-above-water thing that most of the musicians we know are grappling with from day to day. Oh, and making sure that when we’re touring Jana gets caffeine and breakfast within 15 minutes of requesting them. Missing that deadline was a difficult lesson to learn!
Do you have any favourite memories so far?
Walking onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall with a banjo and harmonium in front of a sea of very impatient people with feather cuts and fishtail parkas waiting for The Who to play ‘Quadrophenia’. That felt strangely liberating. We also did a house concert recently for a family where one of the parents was fighting cancer. It was humbling and joyous and emotional and drunken, eventually all at the same time.
You’re soon to embark on a UK tour in support of your latest album ‘Motorcade Amnesiacs’. Is there any venue or city you’re most looking forward to playing?
All of them. We genuinely can’t wait to get out there and play the new songs to people. Our only regret is that – without an agent – we weren’t able to persuade some venues to have us, so there are certain parts of the country we’re not going to make it to.
If you could play any venue, anywhere in the world, that you haven’t yet, which would it be and why?
Anywhere intimate, beautiful and with great acoustics. Preferably in a city we’ve never been to before, with a day either side so that there’s time to explore.
Which four bands or artists, who can be living or dead, would you most like to share a stage with?
Sonic Youth circa ’Sister’, making an unholy racket… maybe we’d do some three-four part harmony singing with Gillian Welch, The Band backing Jana and I singing something and Robert Fripp in the midst of his Bowie / Scary Monsters screamy-guitar phase, soloing over one of our songs.
What do you think sets ‘Motorcade Amnesiacs’ apart from your other, earlier material?
It was written to be played live. None of the previous records grew from that specific intention.
Has the song-writing process gotten easier or harder for you, or does it still depend on the subject matter you’re writing about?
It’s the same really. Drafting, redrafting, re-redrafting. Endless musical and lyrical possibilities whittled down, usually with some idea of a unifying theme at the backs of our minds as we move from album to album. We work really hard at trying to make albums that are a bit of a journey; that give you something back if you commit to them for 45 minutes. It’s a pretty old-fashioned idea, but we want to at least give people the option of listening to the music like that so that they get that sense of the sum being greater than the parts.
What, to you makes a good song, and which, in your opinion, is the greatest song ever written and why?
It’s got to have the hairs-standing-up-on-the-back of the neck moment.‘River Song’ by the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson is probably top because it seems to be entirely built out of those moments.
How necessary do you think it is for bands and artists today to be involved with social media? Have you found that it’s helped you?
It’s now an integral part of the relationship between the artist and the audience; another way to connect. We write songs; people weave them into their busy lives; people are curious about us; we’re curious about people… it’s a vital and almost always fun part of the to-and-fro.
You’re a Mercury Music Prize nominated band – how important is recognition like that to you?
Well, it doesn’t sell more records for a band like us, but it does open doors. It’s a great calling card.
Aside from your UK tour, what else do you have in store for the rest of the year?
Hopefully some European touring! We’re also working out how possible a series of deluxe reissues of the previous albums with bonus materials might be. That’s something we’d love to do because the label we’re with – Kscope – are so great at curating beautifully assembled and presented back catalogue stuff.
What’s your ultimate goal as a band? At what point would you be happy to say ‘yeah, that’s it, we’ve done all we wanted to. Let’s call it a day’?
Just to be able to keep doing this. Some of us aren’t great being ‘in the moment’ and so being on stage is probably the closest we ever get to that, so projecting forward sort of defeats the object! Just before work on this album began, there was at least one occasion where we almost gave in to cynicism and called it quits because the effort-reward ‘system’ seemed so out of balance. Then we soon realised that we weren’t going to stop writing songs, or recording them, or wanting to share them. That feeling never really goes away, so while we can still stand and carry our own amps we’ll be out there somewhere making music.