Bristol duo Poisonous Birds have just released their debut EP Gentle Earth. It’s packed full of their trademark cinematic, synth-rock and is set to put the group on the map. To mark its release, vocalist Tom Ridley explains why the do-it-yourself approach worked for them.
The most important DIY aspect of our work is a singular vision. The best art is focused. And whilst a focused idea probably can be the product of a few minds, it’s a lot more likely to come from only one.
Finn wrote and played all of the drums on the record. Sometimes he based rhythms off my early demos with sequenced drums, or completely tore them up and invariably came up with something unexpected that took the song in a new direction. With the first record done and vision set, Finn’s totally on board with what Poisonous Birds is and isn’t so I’d like to get him involved more in the early writing. He’s not just an incredible drummer – he’s a great songwriter in his own right.
Recording Our Own Music
I started making awful-sounding demos in my teens. Today, we make great recordings at home. And whilst powerful computers and affordable software can fix mistakes, you can’t substitute carefully chosen sounds, performed and captured well.
There’s actually pros and cons to being able to record at home. Some of the best work comes out when you just have to DO. Time constraint, on-the-fly rewrites, and a few days of intense focus heighten creativity.
On the flip side, there’s nothing more stressful than a recording where you KNOW you could have done it better. Studios are also really expensive.
I did get a close friend to mix and master the record. George Lever @ G1 productions has mixed a lot of my recordings over the years. I suppose I pre-mix – the sounds were working by the time I gave it to him, but he has such a great ear, analytical mind and a reliable-sounding space to work in. He knows me, I know him. We’ve grown together.
Making our instruments
It started out with building guitars from bits that i had lying around – all of the ones I use live I built up myself and they’re excellent. Then into pedals, making switching boxes to switch specific things in and out live. Then this super splatty fuzz that I made for a friend – and I couldn’t resist making another for myself. Most recently I redesigned the interface of a synth that I have called TETRA, by Dave Smith – it sounds incredible but is horrible to use. Breaking out the menu-diving into tactile knobs has made it way more enjoyable to play. Right now I’m working on a vocal delay and filter that will let me recreate some of the EP vocal sounds on stage.
Creating our own record label
We’ve both done the label thing. We’ve done the manager thing. We’ve had booking agents. At this early stage in a project, there’s plenty of people ready to take a cut, but it’s not necessary. Be Softly is our label. In fact it’s bigger than a label. It’s a collective of artists who share a vision. We’re collaborating, cross-pollinating, putting out the records we’re passionate about and growing together. We’ve got so much cool stuff in the pipeline – most interestingly a spoken word collaboration with American punk poet Sam Pink.
As a label, you need a distributor. Apple/Spotify can’t work with every label individually – definitely not every artist. I shopped around for distributors and was able to cut out almost all of the middle men. I couldn’t be closer to the source.
PR’s a full time job. I don’t have the time to maintain a relationship with hundreds of journalists. But the PR we had lined up pulled out in November. Timing is everything – I knew we had to get the EP out ASAP in 2017 to be well-placed for summer festivals, so I’ve wound up doing that myself too. (and it paid off – we’ve got a couple of really exciting things to announce shortly).
The secret has been keeping our ear to the ground and seizing opportunities. And some of the most low-key shows have turned into bigger things. You don’t know who’s in that room. Talk to people, thank them for coming to the show, see what they offer you.
Facebook is a festering, inspiration-sucking swamp. It’s not the environment that i want to frame our music, and it’s not the way in which I want our audience to follow us, or connect with us. So I don’t even give people the option. We built our own website with cold, hard code: POISONOUSBIRDS.COM. It’s a flexible canvas that we can do what we like with – like a digital expression of who we are. Just like all of the above, I learned HTML & CSS it because I needed to. It started with MySpace layouts back in the day. It’s not that hard, honestly.
My favourite place to interact with people is the mailing list. It’s still pretty small – under 100 subscribers. We make time for those people. Sometimes I just shoot little videos and fire the out to the mailing list to say hey and show them what’s going on. I usually get a bunch of emails back and we have some good conversations. In fact some of those relationships are turning into collaborations and releases on Be Softly.
My favourite collaboration so far has been with Simon Francis, famous for playing live bass for Ellie Goulding. He got in touch, and it turned out that he’s a fellow synth and coffee nerd. He plays the only bass guitar on the EP, on the closing track ‘I Understand But I Still Think You’re Wrong’.
Moving Against The Grain
It’s true, DIY gets in the way of the music sometimes. I have to adopt a lot of different personas throughout the process: creative, analytical, delivery, marketeer, web designer, artworker, recital, managerial, people person, cold hard hustler and VERY occasionally…accountant.
In time, I’d like to grow a team around the project, to allow me to spend more time writing music rather than emails. But the philosophy will always continue. DIY is a mindset & approach. I’ll always creatively direct Poisonous Birds – the vision will stay focused and singular. We’ll always move against the grain and carve our own path. We’ll continue to ignore everybody else & create fearless art that reacts to our experiences. And we’ll always approach it with humility, because Poisonous Birds just another piece in the great timeline of music created by humans – but what an honour to be a small part of that history.
Gentle Earth is out now digitally via Be Softly. Check out the teaser trailer below.