Whatever your favoured genre, you’re likely to find something that pleases you in amidst the 38 tracks that make up Nuclear Tapes, the eclectic new album from Charlie’s Hand Movements. Intrigued by the mix of musical styles and amused by their bio citing them as a ‘deeply unsuccessful Ayrshire & Essex based alternative pop band’, we felt compelled to catch up with them to find out more…
Give us an introduction to Charlie’s Hand Movements…
Lance: Charlie’s Hand Movements are Adam Gardner and Lance Keeble; an alt pop duo from Essex, now split between Essex and Ayrshire. Met in art college, bonded over mutual taste in music, discovered we were each making weird bedroom pop on the sly, started making even weirder bedroom pop together, released our first record in 2013, a couple of others and here we are now.
Your third album Nuclear Tapes is out today. Not content with just being an album though or even a double album, it’s a triple album with a whopping 38 tracks. Where did it all begin?
Lance: The desire to make a long record was in part inspired by the excesses of 70s’ prog double albums, but equally a nod of reverence to recent hip hop records like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Hip hop seems to really be paving the way for concept-style albums with an emphasis on overarching narrative told through diverse arrangements and production styles. Their willingness to throw in short skits to break up more complex tracks is something we’re fascinated by. We became pretty obsessed with 90s’ alternative rock band Mansun’s Six, with its spasmodic shifts in tone. I think we’ve always been interested in how humour and irreverence can lend a sort of relief to heavier themes too, and we’re not afraid to explore that, sometimes within the same song.
Tell us about the mix of genres involved and who or what has influenced you along the way?
Lance: I’ve always loved ambient music but for me it becomes particularly powerful when thrown into unexpected contexts. We use our quieter, atmospheric pieces as a tool to pull back the focus. They’re like little breathers I guess, little digestive aids for the more angular songs. There’s a silliness, a goofiness to a number of the songs, usually betraying a darker theme underneath. New Age Nuclear (which finds itself as an unfinished, truncated mix due to some kind of artistic mis-step in which we couldn’t capture its original energy) for example, was a kind of a Philly soul jam for an imagined evangelist church broadcast, set in the 1980s, complete with caustic gated drums and soggy synthesizers. We loved what The Flaming Lips were doing on Embryonic, throwing down some noisy jams and pulling songs out of the wreckage.
Adam: We were quite sure at the beginning that it was going to be some kind of ridiculously overblown concept album that, really, we had absolutely no right to make. Songs sprawling out and going wherever they wanted to, sometimes morphing into something else or just cutting out abruptly. Fleet Foxes put out Crack-Up around the time we were making this too – another big one for us – as they were really changing up what they were doing with song structures and the audience’s expectations for what a Fleet Foxes record should sound like. Not that we have ever come close to having an audience of course.
Some bands don’t stay together for as long as this project has taken, what’s your secret?
Lance: For us I think it’s always been about the thrill of recording, not knowing what’s going to transpire. Could be regrettable, could be beautiful. Some tracks like Suddenly…Fog! and Departures and Nowhere Near are instrumentally one-take improvisations. These moments have always acted as some kind of therapy for Adam and I; we just stop talking to each other, set-up a few instruments and just play whatever. Like actual musicians or something. Speaking of which – the brilliant Mick Gawthorp provided a number of saxophone performances, each illuminating and often steering the songs into new territories. 80% Bad Boy, for example, originally was a scuzzy stoner rock pastiche befitting of its title, but Mick’s sax left us no choice but to transform it into the haphazard slice of cosmic jazz you hear now.
So how will you celebrate the release – where will you both be?
Adam: Each time that we put something out into the real world we usually just message each other back and forth saying things like, ‘Is it crap?’ I mean, we barely have any followers and don’t shift many units so to speak, so it’s more just that anticipation and hope that somebody will connect with it. This is a project that has a lot of emotional baggage for us, I think more than each of us understood until very recently, so I’ll definitely be checking my phone. Knowing Lance, he’ll be in the woods looking at slugs or counting birds.
And how has lockdown impacted on you, in terms of making music and personally, have you found any positives?
Lance: In some ways the lockdown may have been the catalyst for us to release Nuclear Tapes, a project we had somewhat given up on due to the perhaps over-ambitious nature of it. These times of fear and uncertainty maybe forced us to reflect on the project and see its merits as a work of spirited self-indulgence. There are mistakes, scratch vocals, rough mixes, strong ideas which fell apart, but there’s some heart there I think.
Adam: My wife and I have a one-year-old boy so it’s kind of like two months (and counting) of being held to ransom in our own home by a teething, unreasonable dictator if I’m honest. Days are long and nights are usually longer, but it does have its moments too. Ha. In terms of music, Lance and I are about to start swapping files remotely for the next project, so I think we’re in a good place.
To Zoom or not to Zoom?
Lance: I’m a zoom, I think Adam is a no-zoom. He sees the bigger picture better than me. I’m a details man, but I get lost in it more often than not and Adam has to pull me out.
Adam: I think Lance has fundamentally misunderstood this question. He knows surprisingly little about what’s happening in the wider world at any given time. I think we’re in the minority that haven’t Zoomed yet though, although we did video call over Messenger a few weeks ago with mixed results. I’m open to Zoom, but we haven’t even discovered Snapchat yet, so we might Zoom by 2030.
Fingers crossed that all our favourite venues survive, where would you love to play when things open up and who’d be on the line-up – you & anyone else you want?
Adam: I’m sure there are plenty of people far more qualified than us to talk about this, but it seems independent venues had things hard enough as it was before the pandemic hit, so it’s an especially cruel blow. We haven’t played to a room full of people for a few years now though, so in that respect the lockdown hasn’t changed much for us, but there are some great small venues we’d love to play. In Southend on Sea – which is where we’re from – there’s a really vibrant scene based around a really cool venue called The Railway Hotel. I moved to Scotland in January though, so I’m looking forward to seeing what’s about once/if we come out of the other side of this. As for other people, Cool Thing Records have some really interesting stuff going on in Essex, and we’re big fans of a guy named MG Boulter who’s well worth checking out (he’s also got a new record out soon!)
And what’s next for Charlie’s Hand Movements, how do you follow Nuclear Tapes?
Lance: Now we live far apart, we’ll be working in a different way; sending skeletal song ideas back and forth, adding and subtracting remotely from our home set-ups. It’ll be exciting to see how this moves our sound forward. In the meantime we’re looking to release a much leaner, more compact album later this year.
Adam: It’s exciting though… and in the same way that this project was kind of a reaction to stuff we’d done before, we now have no choice but to approach things differently again. Definitely something more concise too – Nuclear Tapes was our attempt at making a maximalist blowout that followed every idea, even the questionable ones (of which there are many) and it got way out of hand. I mean, it’s long, pretentious, and completely self-indulgent at times, but we’re not Radiohead (as much as we’d love to be) so we’ve got to at least please ourselves. I like that we don’t have any idea of what the next thing will end up being though… I think that’s how it should be. Having said all that, there is another, more palatable, 10-track album that we made alongside this one that might see light of day soon in some form too. I guess we just want to make stuff that we think is good, and that keeps going to places we haven’t been before.
You can listen to and purchase Nuclear Tapes now:
Interview by Siobhan
Photos via Charlie’s Hand Movements
22nd May 2020