MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY
“I dug my own grave, whilst planning the resurrection” Loveless Marriage
Man Without Country aren’t your typical electronic act or your average band. Not that they’re an electronic act or a regular band at all, not really. At a time when genre boundaries have become effectively meaningless, Ryan James and Tomas Greenhalf fuse electronic precision with a love of timeless melodies and James’ hypnotic, fragile vocals. By the time you work out how to label their new album Maximum Entropy, chances are you’ll have already fallen under their spell.
Rarely since the dawn of synthesisers merging with pop music has there been a song as deliriously infectious as Laws Of Motion, nor one that burrows into your brain as effectively as the opening Claymation, whose giddy surface euphoria masks a disturbing undercurrent of identity crisis and paranoia. Similarly, the elastic bassline on Romanek underpins James questioning life’s certainties. Of course, while James’ lyrics have more substance than most of Man Without Country’s peers, you can choose to eschew them in favour of losing yourself in the chewy disco pulse of Catfish or Virga’s strident anthemics.
As unpredictable as these songs are, it’s an album whose cohesive vision is universally appealing, giving Man Without Country a varied CV that’s seen them remix everyone from Two Door Cinema Club and Band Of Skulls to Moby, Miike Snow and Active Child.
In one respect, Man Without Country are a traditional band: James and Greenhalf have the gang mentality of the best groups. Friends since meeting at Glamorgan University, they share a dry wit and eclectic passions. “We love bands like Blonde Redhead and The National,” says Greenhalf. “Electronic acts such as Trentemøller, Daniel Avery and Son Lux could also be considered an influence on the sound of the record.”
Their studio kinship means that, while James is singer and lyricist, it’s hard to establish who writes and produces what in their partnership. “The production side is part of our songwriting,” says James. “There’s no clear line where one stops and the other starts.”
Regular M83 singer Morgan Kibby provides the haunting female vocals on Laws Of Motion, instantly supplying ideas after being sent the track. “We instantly went ‘Woah, that’s amazing!’ after Morgan sent her vocals over,” laughs James. “It was a perfect example of not overthinking songs. The initial creative idea can get lost if you work at it too much. It can turn into a totally different song altogether if you’re not careful.”
Such differences as there between James and Greenhalf can be heard on their respective remixes of their cover of The Beloved’s dreamy classic Sweet Harmony, which recently lit up the blogs; where James’ version is contemplative and trancy, Greenhalf’s is a virulent disco monster. “Jon Marsh from The Beloved likes our version,” beams James. Adds Greenhalf: “We wanted to pay homage, not totally revamp the original. It sounds like Man Without Country whilst retaining key parts from the original.”
As the album title implies, Maximum Entropy is loosely themed around the notion of entropy. “For a long time, we sent loose ideas back and forth,” says Greenhalf. “We were just experimenting, trying different things out. Once the idea of entropy emerged from Ryan’s lyrics, it gave us a central theme on which we built the tracks. The writing process gained a lot more momentum once this was in place.” “The idea of entropy is really cool,” adds James. “Both in terms of physics and how you can use it as a metaphor for so many aspects of everyday life. It’s a powerful word.”
Not that James is happy to explain his lyrics in much detail. He’ll smilingly reveal that the throbbing Oil Spill is about “lust, adultery and temptation”, but prefers not to be drawn further on the songs’ inspirations. It is, though, more lyrically considered than the duo’s striking 2012 debut album Foe. “I was quite immature then,” concedes James, who cites John Grant and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard as his favourite lyricists. “Foe was very bitter. Maximum Entropy is dark, but more thoughtful. Our music is the most important thing, but a powerful lyric can make a song so much better, even though the lyrics seem unimportant in a lot of electronic music.”
James also sings the lead vocal on Röyksopp’s Sordid Affair, the first single from the duo’s forthcoming album The Inevitable End, due in November. James travelled to Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge’s hometown Bergen in Norway to record at their studio. “It was quite a surreal experience”, reveals James. “I’d only spoken to Torbjorn once via Skype prior to recording and I hadn’t heard any of the music they wanted me to sing on. I felt slightly out of my depth at first.” The Inevitable End also features acclaimed vocalists such as Robyn, Susanne Sundfør and Jamie McDermott from The Irrepressibles. James adds: “I felt privileged to be asked to collaborate with Röyksopp, and to be invited into their unique musical world.”
As captivating as Foe was, its successor is an example of a band honing their vision rather than any “difficult second album” cliché. Greenhalf explains: ““Being in a large commercial recording studio was a relatively new environment for us during the mixing of Foe. It wasn’t somewhere we felt totally comfortable. For this recent record, all the writing, mixing and producing was done at home. It was a place we were comfortable and felt totally free to try out ideas. Through this process, audio recycling and sampling became a big part of the sound. We would use different elements from demos or other songs we had and manipulate the audio to create new and interesting textures.” The compelling seven-minute centrepiece Deadsea is a prime example, its extended outro consisting of the song’s first section stretched and slowed down virtually a thousandfold.
While the pair lived in the same street for their debut, they now live an hour apart. “It gives you a different perspective,” says Greenhalf. “When you write in the same room together, you sometimes have a sense of how ideas will develop. When writing separately, the songs don’t have such a structure, and they can go anywhere. Ryan would send ideas back to me and I’d think ‘That’s totally different to what I would have done, but it’s great’ and vice versa.”
Since Foe, Man Without Country have developed into a formidable live force, having recently wowed Berlin Festival alongside Editors and Moderat. After supporting M83, they embarked on a lengthy US headline tour. “M83 made us realise touring is about performance, not just playing the songs,” James acknowledges. “You want to create different atmospheres within your show. It’s overwhelming, how much our music means to people. Fans would travel six hours to see us play in the US, when we’d never played there before. That’s so special.” He recalls a sixtysomething fan who came to a Newcastle gig, who converted his grandson into being a Man Without Country fan – and whose wife made an embroidery based on Foe’s artwork.
There’s no doubt that Maximum Entropy deserves to be recognised as a step up to see Man Without Country sit alongside their peers and potentially beyond. “We want to continue to develop and grow as musicians and songwriters,” explains Greenhalf.
Man Without Country have become men without limits.