Embrace: 'Being dropped was an amazing kick up the backside'

Gathered around a picnic table in the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, Embrace, the five-piece rock band who are one of West Yorkshire’s most successful musical exports, are in good spirits.
Embrace at Kirkstall Abbey. Picture: Emma Stone PhotographyEmbrace at Kirkstall Abbey. Picture: Emma Stone Photography
Embrace at Kirkstall Abbey. Picture: Emma Stone Photography

Danny McNamara, his brother Richard, Steve Firth, Mickey Dale and Mike Heaton are assembled here for a photo shoot and exclusive chat with The Yorkshire Post to publicise their forthcoming concert in the grounds of the former Cistercian monastery on the banks of the River Aire on Saturday July 27.

“It’s going to be an event, isn’t it?” singer Danny says of the show at which they will perform their biggest-selling album, Out of Nothing, in its entirety to mark its 20th anniversary. To further the sense of occasion, the bill also includes their 1990s contemporaries Ocean Colour Scene, Ash, Sleeper and Cud.

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“We did the Millennium Square for Out of Nothing when it came out and I remember looking at it and ‘thinking this is huge’ and this is much the same… The line-up is fantastic, so this is going to be another event. It’s great that we can do that after 20 years.”

The four guests are all bands that Embrace have shared stages with in the past. Keyboard Mickey gleefully recalls they “once tried to kidnap” Ash frontman Tim Wheeler. “We went to an Ash gig in Germany and we all got on brilliantly and we were like, what are you doing? and he said, ‘I don’t know’, so we said, come with us, and we bundled him into a taxi. Then his tour manager was like’ Get back to the venue!’ Whenever we run into him he says, ‘You tried to kidnap me once, you lot’.”

Released in 2004, Out of Nothing was Embrace’s second number one album in the UK, selling 600,000 copies. To coincide with the anniversary, the band are doing a “talk through” of the album for subscribers to their Patreon account. “We’re getting the master faders up and listening to the full 48 tracks,” Danny explains.

“We found a hard drive and Rik said, ‘I wonder what’s on this’,” Mickey says. “His computer wouldn’t open the files and I found a really old Apple laptop from 2004 and I connected the drive and it was like, oh my God, it’s the multi-tracks from Out of Nothing so we got together at my little studio and filmed it for our Patreon audience and it’s really interesting stripping back the layers and thinking what happens if you just play the strings and the acoustic guitar and the gospel choir? It was really fun.”

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“There’s so many things we’d forgotten we’d even done,” says Richard. “The backing vocal approaches and effects and howling and clapping and grunting.”

Embrace at Kirkstall Abbey. Picture: Emma Stone PhotographyEmbrace at Kirkstall Abbey. Picture: Emma Stone Photography
Embrace at Kirkstall Abbey. Picture: Emma Stone Photography

“Quite Beatle-y, sort of I Am The Walrus, ooh-ooh-ah-ah,” Mickey recalls.

“Loads of lyrics that aren’t on the original as well,” notes Danny. “Loads of different versions.”

“We never listen to the records, we just know how we play it live, so we’re used to those versions,” says Richard. “When you listen to the recordings it’s kind of an eye-opener.”

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Danny says: “We’re learning that, so some of the stuff that we’re going to do at the gig is stuff that we haven’t actually played since we recorded it.”

Embrace talking to Yorkshire Post music correspondent Duncan Seaman. Picture: Emma Stone PhotographyEmbrace talking to Yorkshire Post music correspondent Duncan Seaman. Picture: Emma Stone Photography
Embrace talking to Yorkshire Post music correspondent Duncan Seaman. Picture: Emma Stone Photography

Embrace arrived at Out of Nothing having had their contract with Hut Records cancelled following the comparative failure of their third album, If You’ve Never Been. Steve recalls they got the news on his birthday. “Our manager rang up and went ‘happy birthday, you’ve been dropped,” says Danny.

“It was an amazing kick up the backside,” Mickey remembers. “We built the studio at Rik’s and then every day for three years we were getting together and jamming, writing songs, demoing.”

“That was intense, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Richard.

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Danny remembers that the band wrote “over 100” songs for the album. To whittle them down to 15, Rik says they would “sit down at the end and give them all marks out of 10 – it was very studied”.

“You can lie to yourself but as a band you double check each other, and it’s a good way of working out if your instincts are right for everybody else,” says Danny.

“Back at the beginning of the process we were kind of going up our backsides a bit, that’s when we came up with the idea of limiting the palette,” says Richard.

Mickey adds: “Our influences are so diverse and I think at some point we said why don’t we just worry about sounding like Embrace, and limiting the palette of sounds rather than just being surrounded by so many toys and plugging things in. I guess if you’re Radiohead you can spend years doing that, but we just needed to focus on doing what we do best.”

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The band decided to go back to the producer Martin ‘Youth’ Glover, who had helped them finish their first album, The Good Will Out, which had reached number one in 1998. Mickey recalls: “He came up and laid on the floor in Rik’s studio and rolled a fat one and said, ‘Yeah, man, I really like that one’ and then he’d throw these curveballs​​​​​​​ in, and we put our trust into Youth steering the ship​​​​​​​.”

“And he was right most of the time,” says Mike.

“He put us in a rehearsal room in London to routine the songs,” Mickey says. “His fundamentals were is it in the right key, is it the right tempo, is the structure right. Why have you got two minutes at the start of the song before the singing starts? You can’t sing it in that key?’ Just fundamental thing that when you’re in a band you don’t always realise.”

“He did say that Glorious Day should be more like Busted, though,” points out Richard.

“He was wrong about that,” laughs Danny. However, he adds: “Then he came up with four-on-the-floor on Ashes and that completely transformed it.”

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From being a country ballad, the song became, in Danny’s words, a “massive stomper” and it remains one of their most popular songs live. The song had taken “about three years” to build from a catchy chorus to the finished song. At one stage Danny had “about 15 verses”, before Richard came up with a tune for them. He recalls: “I think I was listening to a (Paul) McCartney compilation that I’d made, and while I was mowing the lawn and I was about to change the grass box as you do when the melody came. It sounded like He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands but I thought that’ll do. I took it to the band and I don’t think Mike was right impressed, Danny like it at the start but when we started to work on it he fell out of love with it. I played it slow to him, like he would do, and then we went all round the houses.”

“But when we stuuck it with the chorus, I was like, that’s going to work,” says Danny. “I went away and wrote the lyrics for it​​​​​​​ and it was right, we can’t change our mind now because I’ve just spent ages writing the lyrics.”

Gravity, which was released as the lead single, was actually the last song that they recorded for the album. It had been penned by Coldplay singer Chris Martin who proferred it to Embrace, believing it would suit them better than his own band. “A different song was going to be where Gravity is on the album, it’s called Every Time I See Your Face, and then Chris rang me up,” Danny remembers. “He was really nervous, he felt like it was a cheeky question to be asking and his missus at the time, Gwyneth (Paltrow) was in the background saying, ‘Go on, just ask him’ and I was like, what? He said, ‘Well, you know that song Gravity that you really like’ – I’d heard a version of it – ‘do you want it?’

“Initially because we’d already finished our album I was really reluctant because I didn’t want the story to be a guy who plays enormodomes bails Embrace out and gets their career back. But then I had a word with myself and thought let’s give it a go. I went to the band and they all had exactly the same reaction, like no way, and then they all individually went away and had a word with themselves and we gave it a go and it just sounded really great straight away.

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“So then we were arguing with the record company that it was not going to be the first single...But as soon as we walked into (the meeting with them in London) and they said, ‘It’s got to be Gravity as the first single’ we were like, ‘Well, it’s their job to know these things’. We totally climbed down straight away, and then when the American record company wanted to go with Ashes first we said, ‘It’s Gravity, you idiots’, so we’d completely changed our minds on it, and we were right to. The album went on to be really successful both commercially and critically, which is great because we really needed it.”