“I suppose with Department M my aim is to give whoever’s listening – and there might only be ten people in the world who feel this way – a world to get lost in, a world of sound that is quite unlike anything else. That’s my aim.”
Owen Brinley has certainly created some absorbing sounds in his time, from the taut synthscapes of Department M’s self-titled mini-album (2013) to the majestic art-rock dynamism of previous band Grammatics’ solitary LP (self-titled, 2009). We’re sat over a coffee at The Clock Cafe in Leeds to discuss his latest endeavour – the debut full length album from Department M.
“Tommy (drums) and I spent the last two years jamming at our practice space in Leeds and then taking the songs on holiday to Bridlington, where we record with our friend and producer James Kenosha. We’ve been back and forth putting a new album together and it’s now at the stage where it’s just the final tweaks really. There are 13 tracks, and it’s very different to the mini-album – less harsh, cold and rigid - more soulful and melodious, even blissed-out sounding sonically. The songs still have a complex nature and dark core, but you don’t have to break through a wall of harshness to find the heart this time.”
Dark as his lyrics may be, Owen is cheerful company. I wonder whether any of that warmth has found its way into the new album’s lyrical content... “I’m typically inspired by negative events and phases in my life; for whatever reason they seem to hold more weight creatively.
During great bright times in life you’re out getting pissed and tearing it up, rather than crying into synthesizers in your room, so that’s probably how things come out that way! Songwriting for me is a form of catharsis and because of that a lot of the songs are focussed on issues like anxiety, stress and OCD, things I can’t untangle through any other means but pouring them into a song. There’s been some tough stuff to get through in the last couple of years but the
wonderful thing about songwriting is that it always has your back when you need it. Art is a beautiful way of turning negatives into productivity, the best form of therapy there is.”
Amidst the wrought emotion of Department M’s songs there’s a great deal of playfulness too; an obvious joy in experimenting with sounds and musical ideas. Suspecting this may stem, in part, from Owen’s love of gear (catch any Department M show and you’ll glimpse a panoply of effects pedals and vintage synths), I question him about the latest additions to his collection. Smilingly, he tells me, “I’ve gradually become a stone cold gear junky over the last ten years, constantly looking for new instruments, synths, pedals and stuff. I really enjoy the retail therapy part of music making, it keeps me from getting bored and you can find some absolute steals when you really get into it. The thing about buying new equipment, however cheap or expensive, is that you always get a song out of it. There’s this stage where you don’t quite know how it works and you’re naive with its operation - that’s where the magic lies, when you don’t quite know what you’re doing. Once you’ve learnt a machine it’s harder to come up with anything new, happy accidents occur less often. That’s how I write – some new bit of equipment that I don’t know how to use creates an accident, sparks an idea.
I’ve just bought a Fender Jaguar which I’m playing at the moment, a pretty odd guitar which forces you to play a certain way. I’m also massively into 70s string machines and have a beautiful Crumar Multiman-S in the repair shop which is all over the new record.”
Department M may well be invested in rescuing and repurposing archaic equipment, but some of the group’s current influences are pushing towards the future. “I’ve been listening to the new Chromatics tracks – I’m a huge fan of Johnny Jewel and the Italian’s Do It Better label, so that’s a constant. Kill For Love was an album you could really get lost in. Other than that, I’ve been listening to a bit of Northern Soul – mainly off the back of seeing the film and absolutely loving it. My partner has been into Northern Soul for years, so it’s always playing in the flat. I love Lower Dens’ new single ‘Ondine’ so I will definitely check out their new record. Also a lot of mainstream pop – I like really modern shiny pop with a hypersheen production. SIA’s new single ‘Elastic Heart’ is incredible, the production is just out-of-this-world on that track. There’s a glory, a spirituality in melodious pop-music which I find particularly addictive and euphoric.”
Department M more-or-less started life as a solo project, but it feels like since then the act has grown to become a ‘band’– lining up alongside our interviewee are synth player Wu (formerly of This Et Al), drummer Tommy (also now a member of Pulled Apart by Horses) and multi-instrumentalist Oliver. The line-up has changed – so has the song-writing process changed too? “It’s a constantly evolving thing within Dept.M – on the first record I wrote and played everything apart from drums, some of which were played by James Kenosha, but a lot were just distorted hits and loops on a grid. This time was a lot more collaborative, with Tommy and I thrashing out a lot of the arrangements together and giving the beats more of an organic feel. I’ve always written beats but not spared any thought to how playable they are for a human being... that can have interesting results but they’re often quite disjointed. This record definitely has a more human groove and feel to it due to Tommy’s input and playing.
“Another person who collaborated on the new record was a singer called Snow Fox who provides these kind of glorious 90s pop-house vocals on the record. That’s one of the curveballs with the new stuff that I’m really looking forward to people hearing.”
With coffee cups drained and the battery on my voice recorder running low, it’s time to go.
So before we part ways “I suppose with Department M my aim is to give whoever’s listening – and there might only be ten people in the world who feel this way – a world to get lost in, a world of sound that is quite unlike anything else. That’s my aim.”