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Leeds band Officers aren’t your average guitar and synths group. They have a big swirling sound that verges on the symphonic, and would be right at home behind an edgy indie movie. The band is also fiercely independent, releasing their music through their own Original Wall of Death label, with all the packaging designed, often in limited editions, by Stuart Semple. Music icon Gary Numan was so impressed with their music that he has had the band touring with him as the opening act, as well as recording with the band. We caught up the main forces behind the band, Jamie Baker (guitar) and Matt Southall (vocals and keyboard), before their show at London’s famed Forum in Kentish Town.
How did you guys meet?
Matt: It’s quite strange because I lived across the road from Jamie, but we didn’t speak for about six months. We just used to glare at each other from across the street. One day my car broke down outside the house, and Jamie just strutted past with a smirk on his face and I remember thinking, “All right. Cheers. Thanks for your help.” A couple of months later we happened to speak through a mutual friend in the pub, and I asked Jamie to join my band, without even hearing him play, cos we got on so well. It kind of went from there.
Jamie: It was odd, because at first you asked me if I could sing.
Matt: Because I didn’t want to sing.
Jamie: We were talking about this the other day and Matt said we’ve been using the term singer by proxy, but it wasn’t really. In my eyes, from meeting, I could always see the potential that was there, not just via a voice, because you started putting stuff down on demos, but the attitude and the way a front man should look, which is something I’d never really had being in previous bands before. You used to see your favourite bands and think there was a brilliant front man, or he looks the part, and not only that he could sing. But often it was one or the other; they were either a really good singer, or they looked good but were shit.
Matt: And I can’t do either.
Jamie: But he’s always been like that, with that self-deprecating attitude, which is quite nice really, but I could always see the potential, but it was hard to push him to do it, at first.
Matt: It was weird because one minute I was singing on demos, then three months later we were playing for Alan McGee’s club night, with him watching us, then a month after that we played to 6000 people at the Coronet in London. Then I thought to myself, I’m actually a singer now, which was quite strange.
So, did the band take off quite quickly? Or was it a ten-year overnight success?
Matt: Early on we got a lot of attention from working with Jagz Kooner, whose just remixed a track we’ve done with Gary Numan. He was a big hero of mine when he was in Sabres of Paradise. Jamie struck up that relationship with him, so he was a big supporter of us, which obviously gained us a lot of interest, both industry wise and from his peers, such as Eddy Temple-Morris and loads of other people. So early on we had a lot of heat on us.
Jamie: We removed ourselves from that situation because, like Matt said, it happened so quickly. When we first started, we started putting demos together, which was around the MySpace boom, and we messaged Alan McGee on MySpace and said, “Listen to these tunes” and he said to come and play his club night. At that time we hadn’t even got a live set together, let alone a band, or even ever hired a van to travel to London to play a gig. We’d never really done it, we’d just done stuff locally. All of a sudden we had something to deliver, but we hadn’t even time to write anything that we thought was of worth, really. So we had to remove ourselves, and a lot of people said, “What the hell are you doing? Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you doing that?” We could have taken a very different path, but if we had we wouldn’t be writing the quality of material that we are now, because we wouldn’t still be around because it would have been a flash in the pan kind of thing, which we never wanted to do. We wanted to build it slowly and foster those kind of relationships and…
Matt: …work with people that we care about, who respect us and who we respect back, rather than someone who is looking at the clock and being paid by the hour.
Jamie: We’re not doing it because a PR company said, “This’ll be a good hook up for you guys to do.” Or a record company that’s got another act on the label and thinks they’ll put these two bands on tour because they’ll sell more albums for our label. It’s never been about that. It takes longer when you do everything yourself, which is what we do. We put everything out through our own label. Matt produces everything. I look after the social networking, the visual and management side of things. We cross over at the point where it needs it, and finish each other’s jobs off. We’ve each got our thing that we do, but we can’t do it without each other.
Matt: It’s a real good relationship. I’m really lucky creatively in that I can pretty much say, “There” and Jamie will accept it and put a guitar part on, and that’s the song. It works quite well because we’ve both been in bands before. Since bands started they’ve always had the issues of creative problems, but Jamie’s good with the visual side of things, and it’s great that he gets involved with that with his friend Stuart Semple, who we’ve done the artwork collaboration with, and we’re going to continue to work with. It’s a really healthy way of working, and it creates a great product at the end of it because it’s all made completely in-house by myself, with Jamie and Stuart doing the artwork. We’ve got Tim and Dave Bascombe to mix the records, because it was a bit out of my depth at that point, in delivering a really good mix.
Your sound is very rich so it’s going to need a lot of work for it to come out how you want it to.
Matt: It’s very symphonic, in terms of lots of layers and loops, and very precise in terms of how things work with each other. If one’s out, the other might sound a bit odd. I’m sometimes guilty of overloading parts, where Tim and Dave made those parts sit in more than I could do – “You don’t need that in there, it’ll sound better if it comes in there.” That’s great and it’s real healthy, and those guys were fantastic and they did it for… compared to the fees that they usually get, it was ridiculous, and they did it out of love for the music, which was great.
Technology has come to a point where it is much easier for people to do it for themselves.
Matt: It does, but I think that with technology being so cheap, it has created a lot of bad music.
Not only bad music, but also bad movies, bad design…
Matt: Everyone thinks they can buy a Mac and Logic, and they’re a producer. Sometimes it’s not the case. However, 15 years ago, our band wouldn’t have been able to exist the way we do things. On the live sets it would be very different. We’d probably have to have ten people doing the job our synth player does with some sequencers, plus what I play live on the keyboard, and certainly the guitar chains that Jamie has, it’s about 16-17 effects. It’s quite intense.
Jamie: It’s quite in-depth now. We spent a lot of time on it. Being the kind of geeks that we are, sitting in our room.
Your music is very cinematic. Would you like to get into film scoring?
Jamie: Last night we were talking about something I’m trying to put the feelers out for at the moment, doing music for an animation is something we’ve both wanted to do for quite a while, and scoring for soundtracks, we’d definitely love to move into that kind of world. We find it quite easy to do that kind of thing. I don’t mean it arrogantly, it’s just that if you enjoy doing it, you get lost in it. Because of the way we write, the way Matt writes and I come up with the parts, it is always inspired by visual references, which is why we have such a strong relationship with Stuart, so I think it would transcend very well on to film soundtracks, animation and a lot of the stuff we have online that I’ve put together via our favourite movies, footage and art projects. I’ve got in touch with people online and said, “Do you mind if I use this footage to put together a video for ourselves?” Editing in that way gives a different element to what we create. It’s definitely something we’d like to get into.
Matt: When I first started I had an Akai S20 sampler, a Tascam tape machine and a Korg Electribe. That’s how I started off making electronic music, because I used to be a drummer. Because I had a bad hand, I had to stop playing the drums so I had to find something that I loved. Bladerunner was always a film I’d loved, and that’s how I got into it, starting off scoring very simple symphonic pieces, and that’s been a big influence on the sound of the band. I can’t play any instrument well, only to a standard that is suitable for a recording, but enough to write a tune with. That’s how the sound of the band evolved, in that it was very loopy because that’s how I worked. I’d play something once on my guitar and loop it, rather than having to try and play it. It’s actually worked out very well, and back from all those years ago that’s how the sound evolved.
Jamie: It was definitely a really good learning curve for me as well because I’d come from the background of, you learn to play the guitar and there’s all this theory that goes with it. All these virtuoso guitarists, but if you weren’t as good as them then you weren’t a guitarist, whereas the way we started to write, it was impossible for me to play like that. I had to learn to play in a completely different way, which again was using all the techniques, which I’d been told was the wrong way of doing things – making the guitar sound like a synth. That was really good for me, it improved me because I was doing something that I shouldn’t have been doing, and that’s formed the way we do things now.
How did you end up touring with Gary Numan?
Jamie: Eddy Temple-Morris, the XFM DJ and a long-time supporter of ours, invited us to co-host one of his shows. We were having a bit of a sound clash; he’d hit us with a tune and we’d have to hit him back with one. Matt dropped Melt, the Ade Fenton remix, and Eddy said, “Wow. Gary Numan. I haven’t heard that track for ages. I think he’d really love your album.” So I said, make sure you get it to Gary. Within five minutes, a few people online had started Tweeting about it with the hashtag #getittogary. So a bit of a campaign started, and Eddy did put it across, and Gary came back and quite liked it. Actually he corrected me the other day and told me off. He said, “I didn’t say I liked it, I said I absolutely loved it and it was the best album I’d heard all year.” He said the other night that the track we recently wrote with him, he told us it was his favourite song ever, or one of his favourite songs ever, which is crazy. That’s how the relationship started. He invited us along on tour, which has been great for us. It’s been brilliant. Not just because the shows have been great, but the atmosphere between band and crew is a really nice family atmosphere. It’s going to be really sad when it finishes.
Those guys have been around for ages, so they’ve nothing to prove and don’t need to really come over with attitude.
Matt: True. And Gary’s an absolutely lovely man, and his wife Gemma is absolutely amazing. She makes us feel so welcome and at ease. She comes to all the shows. She’s always Tweeting about how much she’s looking forward to seeing us. It’s been great.
Jamie: It has been odd, in a good way, because, like you say, they’ve nothing to prove, there isn’t that kind of competition element you get with some bands. You speak to some band members with other acts you’re touring with, and they’ll say, “Caught your set”, and you’ll know they didn’t because they’ve been in the dressing room all night. The venues we’ve been playing, Gary and the band’s been coming out onto the balconies, and you look up and see them all getting into it. They genuinely want you to do well, which is a lovely thing to have because you don’t get it often in this industry. Gary’s put his neck out quite a bit. He could have had anyone from any record label who could have paid him any money to promote them to his audience, but it was genuinely for the love of it, and mutual respect. In the industry climate that we’re in, it takes some balls to do that.
Matt: It sums up his ethos, which is very similar to ours in terms of being an independent record company and being self-sufficient. He really likes that in us. He’s Gary Numan, he’s untouchable. He’s an amazing man and we’re at the very start of our career and he obviously wants to help us and steer us along the right path.
Do you like touring?
Matt: Love this tour.
Jamie: Because we look at in a completely different way from when we first started out, it’s been an absolute blast, and it’s going to be quite sad to see it finish. It’s been work, but it’s been enjoyable work. We could have ruined it for ourselves if we’d gone out and hammered it every night.
But that’s part of being professional.
Matt: Five years ago I’d drink a litre of vodka before going on stage. Now I don’t have any.
Jamie: The difference is people come up to you at the end of the show and say how great it was, and you remember how great it was the next day.
Everything seems to be going great for you at the moment. Do you feel lucky to be where you are?
Jamie: We do feel lucky, because we know luck is in it, but part of me feels like we deserve it as well because we know how much work we’ve put into it. Everyone that’s doing it is because it is part of a relationship that we’ve got with these people. There’s a lot of emotional attachment to what we do. We’re not just some kids writing tunes that we want to put out and sell, it’s more than that to us. We do feel lucky, but at the same time, we’ve created it all ourselves, and we’ve worked damn hard to do it. We’re comfortable where we are, and we’d like it to grow even more.
In this web-obsessed world, there is surprisingly little to be found about you except your own pages on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Soundcloud, MySpace etc.
Jamie: That was always intentional. There’s so many bands out there and it’s oversaturated with, “We’re the greatest band in the world”…
Matt: To us it was, let’s direct our fans and a few likeminded people to a few places where they can see us.
Jamie: It’s there, and there’s something there for you if you want it.
Do you rely mostly on word of mouth?
Matt: This is the first time we’ve toured this record. The record was finished 18 months ago, and it’s taken us this long to get everything together. Something always comes from something, so we’re looking to take it as far as we can, but we wanted to keep things very simple for people, although they will always find thousands of articles on officers, of an army orientation, rather than the band. The profiles growing, so that’s great.
Jamie: It will grow, and it is one of those things where, because we’re self sufficient and we are just starting, we made a decision quite a while ago that we don’t need to chase a label. I think, when you’re younger and you’re inexperienced and a bit naive, from all the stories you read you think the way to become successful is to get a record deal, get an advance, become rich and that’s it. That’s not the way any more.
They’ve clearly been reading the wrong stories because if you do that you’ll be paying the record company for the rest of your life.
Jamie: When you’re younger, and you see these idols and you don’t even know what it’s like. As soon as we made the decision that it wasn’t about making the money, that’s not the end game. If we do, that would be absolutely brilliant. But if we can sustain ourselves making a living doing what we love doing. What we’re doing now, no one can ever take that away. We own it, and everything we make we put back into it to sustain what we think’s worthwhile and what people like. We can do that forever. We don’t need a record company to give us 150 grand to do it. We can do the record on a couple of grand. I don’t know if you’ve seen the stuff we did with the book sets with Stuart Semple. They’re a fantastic product, aesthetically pleasing and interactive. The person that buys it gets a really great insight into the creative process. You’re not going to get that from buying an album from HMV or downloading it, so we’ll always be doing that kind of thing.
You do need to do that now, so that people get a package that is something unique. The whole art of sleeve design has almost disappeared, but it can still be done in interesting ways, even with CDs.
Jamie: That’s one of the things we wanted to do with Petals, the track we’ve done with Gary. We could have quite easily put it out as a download, we wouldn’t have had to pay anything to do that, there would have been no overheads, and we know everyone would have downloaded it on this tour. But we didn’t. We restricted it to one hundred really special, limited edition copies. One track on three CDs, with information on how you can donate to a really important charity called CALM. We knew we could get press to raise awareness for this charity, and we knew that’s what it was for. Gary’s fans and our fans now have this really limited, special thing. There’s only a hundred copies in the world, there won’t ever be a repressing of that package. That’s something that’s really nice, and if I was a collector that is something I would love to have. We made it, we did it all and it’s there and they get a bit of the work we put in, for being a fan.
Do younger people coming into the industry need to look at why and how they are doing it?
Matt: There’s still an old school going around, and there’s a new school of people who are working in the industry, and the old school is panicking and struggling to catch up with all these new ways of doing things. As a young man, like Jamie was saying, we’ve both had record deals in the past that have gone belly up almost instantly. Having wasted six months of your life waiting for something to happen, there should be a lot more awareness that it’s not about that. You need to keep the band unit strong. The main thing is to get a core unit together. Know how it works. You need to know what to expect as well. Our management, Angus, has been great with us over the years; helping us, working with us, educating us and arguing with us about how to do it, or how not to do it. It’s a very volatile industry and it does ruin people’s lives because they get a taste of success or something, and spend the rest of their lives wishing, whatever. I think that if you do it all yourself it’s more organic and you can do what you want. It just depends at what scale you want to do it and what you’re trying to achieve.
Jamie: You’ve got to manage your expectations. If you think that because you’re in a band that you’re going to live that dream, get signed and make loads of money, you need to check in with yourself, and realise that happens to very, very few people. Even though the Internet has been great at giving people the tools to do things themselves, there’s so many more people doing it now, so the chances are even less. As a result of that there is even less money in the industry so there are less chances of being picked up. I remember when we first started, we were offered record deals and went to record company offices; Warner Brothers, Parlophone that have offices full of people, press departments, marketing departments. Now there are four or five people working in these companies. So you can see that everyone has had to scale it back, but like Matt said, you have to have a specific goal. There’s a lot of people out there that will help and give you advice, and help you get there…
Matt: You just need to build those relationships, with respect, and making a good product, and having a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve. If those people feel the same they’re going to help you because they’ll want to be part of it with you.
Jamie: Find out where the communities are, because they’re already established. There’s no point in becoming a rockabilly band and setting up in a rockabilly community because there’s already one there. Go there and find those people. There’s no point setting up a forum to do with guitar pedals, because there’s loads of them. Go and speak to the people in the places where these relationships are already taking place, and build your connections there. That’s how we did it. All the connections we’ve got are longstanding connections. We meet new people all the time, who are in to what we do, but the core of it is people who have similar outlooks, similar ways of working, who we met very early on. There’s a trust element. They’ve stuck with us and we’ve stuck with them. It’s like the relationship we have with Jagz, you have a period of time, like when we did the single with Jagz and you’ve finished working and that relationship doesn’t peter out, but you don’t see each other every day or every week, but you still keep in touch. Then, like now, as soon as you’re ready to do something again, they’re always there because you’ve got that trust with them. They know you can trust them and they know you’ll be there for them.
There’s a lot of musicians who have made a shitload of money over the years, do you think they should be setting up mentoring schemes for young talent so they don’t have to rely on the corporate side of the industry?
Jamie: I think it would be great because they are the real people. There are a lot of people that do it already. Jagz for one.
Matt: I think that’s the role of a producer now, in a lot of ways. To be a producer you need to have a lot of money and a lot of time to go and find these bands, and you’ve pretty much got to present a finished product. That’s certainly what Jagz and Tim Holmes did with us. They schooled us in the way of business, in the way of synthesis, in all sorts of different ways. If I could go back 15 years and do a course on music and law and music law and music management, and I wanted to be a musician, if someone had told me I needed to do that to be a musician, rather than be blasé, you’ll never be a musician. You just think. I’ll go and buy loads of guitars and loads of amps, and go and get a coke habit. There should be some kind of scheme, but, financially, is the government interested in the arts that much?
Not so much the government, but musicians that have more money than they know what to do with, to put something back into the industry.
Jamie: I see what you’re saying, but the people who have made a lot of money in the industry are coming towards the end of their careers. With the industry as it is now and has been for the past 10 or 15 years, it’s awfully hard to change culture or change a person if they’ve got their lot and feel they’ve worked hard. There are some good people, like what George Martin’s done in the past. I know he’s given a lot of advice to producers and people like that. There is a lot of information out there, but you’ve got to go looking for it: Musicians Union, PRS (Performing Rights Society), there are a lot of people that will give the advice. I do agree, some of the musicians and artists that have made millions of pounds should be investing in that. There are a few that do and a few that don’t. I think the people that are around now, our current peers, do what they can because they know it’s going to benefit them if they mentor someone who becomes successful. It’s such an unpredictable industry.
Where do you see yourselves going from here? Or do you just want to carry on as you are?
Jamie: We just want to carry on doing the best things that we can, for as long as we can. No one can take it away from us, so we’ll just keep doing it. We’re going to do our own tour, I think.
Matt: The second record is looking very strong, and a lot of the work is done on that already.