L-R: Danny Sanders, George Gardner, Jack Merrett / Photo: James Ogram

Interview: Famous singer Jack Merrett goes deep on their “quarter life crisis” mini-album The Valley

Today sees the release of The Valley, the new six track EP (I think it’s worthy of the ‘mini-album’ title) from Famous. A week before its release, I video-chatted with singer Jack Merrett all about it. As he settled into the early evening with a can of Camden Pale, a packet of crisps and his trusty vape, we went deep on its creation alongside bassist George Gardner, drummer Danny Sanders and a “corporation” of guests; as well as the influences and lyrical themes to be found within.

As expected from his exceptional lyricism, Merrett is a fascinating thinker and a candid interviewee. It’s a fairly long interview, but everything he says is gold. Enjoy, and make sure to listen to The Valley, which is out now on untitled (recs).

You guys have already made your live comeback with a couple of social distanced gigs at Moth Club, and more coming up at 100 Club. I know you guys are into comedy and with everyone sitting at tables it feels more like a stand-up gig. Do you like it?

Yeah, it’s nice. The seated crowd feels more attentive, rather than a mass of people doing whatever. It’s more concentrated. And also, a lot of the new material is a bit more understated, more low key than some of the stuff we’ve done in the past. But we still have that contrast between the the more dramatic songs and then the ones that are a bit more stripped down and sparse. And so I think it’s been nice to, at least starting off, try that material in a more intimate environment. It gives us the confidence to kind of be a little bit more understated, subtle,

The Valley definitely sounds like a studio production, there’s so much detail. Even though there’s fewer of you in the band now, I think you had a lot of other people coming into the studio?

Yeah, so we had about probably about 10 people who featured on the album. Some friends, like Jerskin Fendrix has done a lot of additional production and synthesizers and stuff, then some people just popping up and doing a bit of piano or little details. We’ve really come to enjoy the process where each instrumentalist no longer has to have a part. We like ripping up the rulebook with every new song. It’s quite liberating, in contrast to a more conventional band setup.

Do you already have an idea in mind when you invite someone to the studio, or do you figure it out when they get there?

It sort of depends on who they are. Some are people who I know musically so well, I’ll know the amount of direction they like to have to get them going, or I’ll know just to let them do whatever because it will be great. But when you’re starting new collaborations it takes a bit of experimenting. In my experience, telling people something too prescriptive sort of shuts down their creative process, and also makes it a shit experience for them as a collaboration. It tends to get the best results when you get the balance right; obviously having an opinion but also kind of facilitating whatever people’s talents are. I love that kind of loose kind of corporation style. Was it Kanye West who talks about a musical think tank? That kind of organisational concept suits me.

Which other collaborators are worth mentioning?

We’ve got Tiernan from deathcrash playing some guitar. We’ve got our friend Platonica Erotica, who is a great singer, singing on a song. We made the last couple of tracks on the EP with this guy called Scott Knapper who’s an amazing producer. He’s worked with Scott Walker and he mixed Kano’s album that got nominated for a Mercury Prize this year. He’s pretty fantastic. Those are the ones that spring to mind immediately. There are many more obscure, but no less talented people.

How would you describe the sound evolution from England to The Valley?

The sound of the two EPs is very much a product of the method that they were made. There wasn’t a particularly conscious sort of authorship of the sound on either EP. The first EP was very much like a live band with six instrumentalists. We worked on the songs together and recorded together, and we didn’t we have collaborations or extra features or anything. So inevitably, it has a degree of organic cohesion, because it was just six people – the six same people – doing the same roles on each song.

This time the process was far looser, so it’s a bit more eclectic, I guess. Now we just do pretty much whatever we like and hope it sort of sticks together. In terms of sound, I think it’s a very organic development out of our approach, rather than anything specific

Did you have a concept going into The Valley, or like a theme?

So there were a few songs written before the theme emerged, and there was a working title that got shelved for another day. Then we wrote the song “The Valley”, which came before the album title. It was less like a premeditated concept and more something that all we realised together that the themes of the songs could sort of hang off that in a way that we liked.

So what is “The Valley”? Why did that resonate is the title?

Well, I think originally the phrase came to me because for about a year I pretty much only listened to country music. I got totally lost in that lexical space.

Who in particular?

Roy Acuff. I’ve always loved Johnny Cash, but then that was taken to a slightly absurd degree. Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Willie Nelson. And then we as a band got we got really into the kind of strange meeting of worlds between pop and country that exists in the States today, like The Chicks; we were totally obsessed with that album that Jack Antonoff produced with them.

So, originally, I think the attraction to The Valley was because it just sort of sounds like a country song. But once you start fleshing it out, you kind of realise that if an idea if an idea sits well with you, it probably resonates on layered levels you’re not immediately aware of.

Now I very much see The Valley as like this kind of strange quarter life crisis album. It gets into the last throes of adolescence and that transition period between childhood and adulthood; the sort of deterioration of certainty, how wild and unstable that period of time can be. It’s weird as well, because, culturally, we have a lot of vocabulary to describe the turbulence of being a teenager, but being a young adult it doesn’t seem like we have the same language to describe the particular kind of despair that that often brings about for people. Even though I think everyone experiences the sort of classic early-20s experience of wondering what the hell this all means and where it’s all going.

Interesting, that period is “The Valley”.

Well, I kind of liked the idea because obviously a valley is like an absence between two peaks. But it’s also unclear, because the valleys evoke a feeling of calm and being nestled between two mountains. It makes me kind of picture a sort of beautiful Welsh Valley or something. There’s also that sense of calm and optimism.

‘Calm’ and ‘optimism’ or not two words I would necessarily associate with the music.

It’s a strange thing, people don’t really talk about this, but I would really like to – and the band feels the same way – get to a point where we’re making music that has a positive message. I think there’s a temptation when you write quite confessional music to sort of lionize your own sort of toxicity, to sort of blow your problems into this kind of grand, self-justifying myth, which I’d really like to try and avoid. I think there is an effort, though it may not always be obvious, to, if not be positive about things, to try and understand events and other people in a kind way, rather than in a callous way. I don’t know if it’s successful, but that’s certainly something I’m trying.

Love and friendship are a couple of the main themes, even though they are in the midst of a lot of despair.

Yeah, exactly.

You sound very weary beyond your years in this record. Would you say that these songs are like a ‘heightened’ version of yourself?

Well, it’s interesting. For example, you know I sing in an American accent; not always, but quite often. That wasn’t a very conscious choice, but I think the reason why I felt comfortable with it is because a lot of my musical heroes are American and have that thick performative American accent. When I do my weird garbled version of it, I sort of feel like I’m playing a character of myself, like a sort of Hollywood caricature. And so there’s inevitably a distance between the often very autobiographical material and my actual memory of that experience. It’s kind of put through the sort of filter of this kind of like performative character.

It’s almost like what a novelist does. Do you consider any novelists or writers as influences on your words?

I dunno. I like to read, but I don’t know. What they do is obviously more elegant. I’m far more influenced by Iggy Pop than by any novelists. I mean, I love George Eliot and Oscar Wilde, especially, and I studied a lot of theology, so I’m very influenced by that in my general thinking about life. But in terms of style, I see what we do very much in the tradition of pop music above anything else. There’s certain figures who have been particularly important to me. Iggy Pop being one. Joni Mitchell, Prince.

You mentioned your performance being like a Hollywood caricature. Is that sort of what “Stars” is about? Going off to become a star?

That song is the most straightforward attempt to force myself to be uncynical. I was aware that calling it that would have that kind of implication, and it’s not not about [going Hollywood], but I think it is maybe more about choosing to surrender to a degree of optimism about the future and possible ascendancy to a happier place.

But you set yourself quite big targets, you know; live a life that is not hollow, don’t let anyone down. These are hard things to do.

They are, but I suppose there’s that tension within the song. The title “Stars” and the name Famous imply a degree of shallow ambition. But at the same time, the deeper longing is for that kind of abstract simple contentment that must exist somewhere in the future. My favourite song of all time – it’s weird that I have a favorite song of all time, but I do – is “Disney Girls (1957)” by the Beach Boys. Just the lyrics in that song, there’s this longing for real, simple contentment. I think that runs pretty deep for us, but then we sort of mangle that by equating it to a desire for recognition and the trappings of celebrity. I think that’s why that exists in a lot of people’s minds.

Yeah that’s human nature, I think. I don’t believe people who say they don’t want to be famous. Maybe I’m just… I don’t know.

Yeah, it’s interesting. One of the rules I set myself for this EP was… it’s a really small thing that really triggered me one day when I realised that there are a lot of people when writing songs like, “everyone’s like this”, “everyone wants this”. And I realised how like, intentionally arrogant and misguided is to think that anyone you could ever really understand what it’s like for anyone else. So I’ve sort of I banned any kind of collective pronoun from the EP, so it’s all “I” and “you”, which is a very subtle little thing that sort of made sense to me because I just don’t want to pretend that I understand what it’s like for anyone else.

Very nice. Alright let’s talk about “Nice While It Lasted” – how does one become the “King of the Dark Times”?

It was about a particularly dark and hedonistic period of my life, I guess. I was trying to sustain a wholly unrealistic, inflated personality, while just being really unhappy on the inside.That song was trying to capture the feeling that precedes realising you need to get help. That kind of that final moment of chaos.

You open with the line “death in a car”, and, in terms of sound, it actually sounds like a car to me, powering up and like zooming along.

There was this guitarist who I met, we played a show together in Brighton, and they had this incredible pedalboard, it was literally the size of my desk – it was massive. And I just thought, ‘wow, this guy’s got something weird going on’. Mostly from a sort of metal background, very different kind of music. So I spent a day recording with them, and they just did these kind of outrageous, tapping solos, and “Nice While It Lasted” is just made out of various chopped up snippets of that and sped up and slowed down sort of blasts of guitar noise and stuff. And then Jerskin added some sort of metallic synthy clangs.

But yeah, I know what you mean. Part of the part of the difficulty with the way we’re working now is that, because there are no there are no rules, it can easily become quite undisciplined. Who knows if they sound like it in the end or not, but it takes an endless kind of ordering and reordering and stripping down and beefing up to reach a point where it sounds like a normal song.

What I like about this EP is it’s kind of been sculpted around your stories, as it were. Is that accurate?

Yeah, I guess so. It’s definitely attempting to have that effect, but sometimes the stories have been sculpted around the music. I’m sure a lot of people would describe their process similarly, but it genuinely does feel quite fluid and unreplicable.

So when you recorded those guitars for “Nice While It Lasted”, you had no idea how you would end up using it?

I had a chord sequence. I think a rhythm and I had an idea what I was gonna do, but it just turned out to be totally wrong. But I do think I’ve become more confident with, and we have collectively become more able to do, is just throwing shit out when it’s when it’s not working. I read a book about Prince, and they said that he was amazing for just finishing something that sounded amazing to the producer, and coming in the next day and trashing all of it. He wouldn’t just like leave it muted or something – he’d just delete it, empty it. Because he just had the capacity to trust the vision. I try to be influenced by that, not allowing any one iteration of a thing to be sacred in itself. You can get quite protective of a synth sound you’ve made, which can be really unhelpful. Sometimes I think you have to be able to let go, to realise when something isn’t working, scrap it and hone in on the little bit a little bit that does work.

You play the guitar on “The Valley”?

Yeah, I did. I recorded this guitar solo and then chopped it into bits. And then Danny put it on his drum sample pad and just triggered sounds and affected it and stuff. It was a really weird process. But now he’s doing that live. It’s amazing the kind of weird sounds he can create. It’s been a bit of a revelation as a technique. That and “Modern Times” are my favourite things we’ve done, because it feels like we’re almost quoting the classic things from which we take influence, but then warping them into something that feels a little bit more fresh and off kilter. But the actual sounds that we’re working with could be could have been recorded in the in the 60s.

I love the ending of “The Valley” where you mention Cosmo – is that a Seinfeld reference?

Yeah, kind of. Quite often when I’m writing lyrics it feels like quite an unintellectual process. I just I kind of just think something feels right, for some reason. It’s quite an unreal name. I don’t know a Cosmo. That would be where the name came from. We’re all massive Seinfeld fans.

Nice. What is it about “Modern Times” that makes it a favourite?

It’s probably my favorite lyric of any song we’ve done. It went through quite a few iterations musically; it started life as a sort of ABBA-esque upbeat piano banger sort of thing, then we just went down this total rabbit hole with the arrangement. I find it really amusing the way trap artists and some contemporary pop artists use the guitar like this totally alien thing. It’s like creating this new vibe by using kind of emo samples. Anyway, there’s this Young Thug album called Beautiful Thugger Girls, which is basically all based around this kind of comical use of acoustic guitar as a highly emotional thing. I’m trying to get into that mentality of reading the guitar as like fairly un-obvious thing to use in an arrangement rather than taking it as like the norm. So yeah, I was just I was just really chuffed with how that came out.

The part about wanting to be a children’s heart surgeon, is that a real desire?

I think the original lyric was “I want to be an actor”, and then I changed it because it’s trying to convey like, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to do something really honest and great?’ It sort of became a love song that was originally meant to be about performing and why one does it, but I guess like the children’s heart surgeon thing is like, ‘what would it be to escape this need for affirmation and applause and do something that’s just good?’

“Animals” is interestingly restrained in terms of the production. It’s pretty much voice and drums – did it go through several iterations?

We just wanted to do a drum song. There’s no great intellectual rationale. On the new EP, we liked creating really fun rules about what we wanted to be in the songs. We could just have bass and whatever Danny can achieve with this weird sampling effect, nothing else. On this we just wanted drums, and Scott was really helpful with this because he’s an amazing producer in the way he processes the sounds; he brought so much life out of the drums. But yeah, just having this rule going in, ‘it’s only going to be voice and drums, and whatever we can do within those parameters is fine’. Just trying to limit choice makes you innovate more within that space.

Cool! And then “The Beatles” is last. There’s so many musical references in it, is it like a love letter to music in some way?

Yeah, I think that’s part of it. I remember a friend of mine said something that stuck with me, which is when you really love someone, the feeling is so innocent, and like, you’re just capable of a kind of charity and an honesty of feeling in those moments. That is so at odds with the sort of normal cynical way in which people navigate the world.

It sort of made me reflect on the contrast between listening to music as a child and listening to it as a sort of slightly jaded 20-something musician. I had this experience with The Beatles, I was staying at my grandmother’s for Christmas one year, and my aunt bought me this book about The Beatles and I didn’t know any of their music. I didn’t have anything to do, so I read the whole the whole book that weekend. I still knew nothing about their music or anything, but I already had this weirdly broad understanding of their lives and the story and all of that. So when I eventually got home, I ordered Rubber Soul. I think I’d already sort of decided that this was going to be my thing, before I even heard it. And I just remember putting it on for the first time and just kind of being sort of confused and like… you know how people describe hearing “Rock Around the Clock” on the radio? You know, that sort of, ‘what is that?!’ It’s sort of mysterious. I’d sort of finish one album then get another one, and slowly got through the while discography.

So anyway, I just have a little nostalgia for that type of listening that was possible back then. That honesty of feeling you could have for music and the extent to which it could consume you, which is hard to maintain. So, yeah, I think I was trying to I was trying to write a uncynical love song that had that feeling of that honesty of feeling to it, and an optimism.

It’s great! I think it’s my favorite Famous song. That line, “I can’t even listen to Thug anymore!” and the way you sing it, so emotional. Did you take a lot of takes to get that right?

It is actually just totally out of my range. I’m not smart enough to remember to change the key of songs to make it to make it easy for me to sing like most songwriters do, so it’s just really high. It’s a real struggle every time, but I guess it adds to the feeling of exasperation that I’m not really hitting the note.

It sounds good in the recording. Generally do you do a lot of takes on your vocals?

Embarrassingly yes. Literally so many. I’ll do 10 takes then go through every sentence of every take and choose the best sentence and then do some amalgamation of it. It’s a totally stupid process, it comes from a place of of vanity. A place of deep, deep insecurity. It’s a fucking nightmare. Every producer I’ve ever worked with hates me.

What do your bandmates say?

They’re usually gone. Occasionally I’ll make them stay, but it’s very boring part of the recording process.

You can still listen to Thug though, right. You haven’t actually given up?

Yeah, I can, but when you’re sort of involved with someone, at least for me, I develop very strong musical associations with that person. And so it’s hard to hard to listen to them in the same way after a break up. You sort of lose it to them to some extent.

Yeah I get that. You can reclaim it, but not straightaway.

It’s kind of funny that it’s Young Thug for me,

It adds to the hilarity of the line. And I love the bit about “Jerskin slipped on my sofa / I guess we go back that far… I wish we went back that far”. I spotted that Frank Ocean reference straight away.

I do think Blonde is probably the best album of the 21st century.

Are you excited for The Valley to come out?

I am excited. I’m looking forward to someone else listening to it for a bit. However few people that is.

Are you annoyed that the new black midi is coming out on the same day?

I think we think we stand a good chance in that chart battle.

Famous’ The Valley is out now on untitled (recs). You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.