Freshly independent and happily so, Aquilo dive into the depths of their new EP ‘Sober’ – a return that feels as sweet and satisfying to them, as it is stunning to listeners.
Stream: “Moving On” – Aquilo
We’ve lovingly called them “two sad lads from up North” over the years, but it’s perhaps time to retire that name: Freshly independent and happily so, Aquilo’s Tom Higham and Ben Fletcher are all smiles these days.
When we spoke to the pair earlier this year, they were gearing up for a singles campaign around their new EP. Recently released on July 8 via AWAL Recordings, the four-track Sober EP is Aquilo’s first collection of studio material since 2018’s sophomore album ii, heralding a return that feels as sweet and satisfying to them, as it is stunning to listeners.
What is it you’re waiting for?
You got a chance to say it all
Tied your tongue and fucked it more
Glad you’re not me
Cornered by your self obsession
The hardest way to learn your lesson
(Is learning from me)
Just ’cause someone says it’s over
With their head upon your shoulder
And suddenly you’re sober
All the things I wanna show you (show you)
Don’t have the time to go through
It’s like I’ve never known you
And suddenly we’re sober
(What is it you’re waiting for?)
– “Sober,” Aquilo
“In hindsight, it probably was a bit wacky for us to want to get dropped,” Higham jokes. “There was nothing to say that we could do a deal with anyone else, anywhere else.” After releasing two successful studio albums through Island Records UK, the band found themselves in a rut – with pressure from their label to deliver a “hit,” but a lack of inspiration and support driving them forward. A change in management eventually helped them part ways with Island, and between that newfound “freedom” and a side project they had started with songwriter and producer Jack Sibley, Aquilo entered a promising new chapter in their career.
That side project never did pan out, but its music – unencumbered by expectation, internal or external voices – evolved into some of the songs we hear today.
“It took us to making a side project to subconsciously make the new music, just to not feel the pressure of having to make something that anyone would care about,” Fletcher explains.
Clocking in at just under thirteen minutes, Sober is a sublime and immersive sonic experience. Bookended by the title track “Sober” and the summery groove “Moving On,” the EP represents an exciting expansion of the Aquilo sound and songbook. The song “Sober” is itself one of Aquilo’s most moving musical milestones, an intimate and nuanced ballad capturing the gut-wrenching pain and unrelenting ache of heartbreak. It finds Aquilo building upon what they have always done best, and it fully deserves its title track status and associated recognition. In short, it’s a heartbreaker in and of itself – a breathtakingly vulnerable moment of truth that feels vividly, if not terrifyingly relatable.
But this EP is no one-trick pony. Recorded and produced with Jack Sibley and mixed by Grammy-nominated Andrew Sarlo (Bon Iver, Big Thief), the brief record seems to encapsulate the end of a relationship and all its associated turmoil. “Just Asking” is an evocative, delicate uproar; “Always Forever” is a hypnotic, mesmerizing indulgence that builds to a cataclysm of feeling.
And then there’s “Moving On,” a standout track and Aquilo’s most unique release to date.
Light, upbeat, groovy, and full of space to breathe, this is the song you’ll be blasting all summer long. “We always write sad lyrics; we always do, and our thing now is kind of experimenting subconsciously with upbeat stuff, but with sad breakup lyrics,” Higham says.
“This is where having someone like Jack involved plays a big role for the two of us,” he explains. “A sad song to us, or a song with more emotion, hits us harder. We’d never really made tunes with grooves like “Moving On,” for example. Because Jack was in the room, I think he wanted to try and switch things up. I don’t think he wanted us to make a sad song. He just set us off on this thing with this beat, and threw a good spanner in the works. And that, in a weird way, sets the tone for the album – we want to move away from somewhere that we’ve already been. We just want to try new things and experiment.”
The band call this song a “stepping stone” into their future; it’s more like a “dancing rock.”
Intoxicating beats and thumping bass set a feverish tone as rich vocal harmonies resonate on high; before you know it, Aquilo are spitting some of their catchiest lyrics alongside dazzlingly simple, sweetly seductive melodies. It’s the ideal singalong for sunny days and hazy ones alike – and while “Moving On” may not be “happy” in the sense that its lyricism is dark and as brooding as ever, it is without a doubt the band’s perkiest, boldest song in six years, and an outstanding achievement well outside their comfort zone.
It was clever when you told me
that you only ever see me on the roadside
‘Cause like I’m only really gonna
take a minute to be something
that you don’t like, you don’t like
‘Cause you could get all excited for nothing
And you could have the world in writing,
but that would mean nothing
You get so precious like you’re someone famous
I don’t even care, am I supposed to?
I know it’s only just beginning
It’s the feeling that you’re winning, now I hate you
I hate you
And it’s complicated talking to you knowing that I’m right
Every second counts and ounce
So happy not to start this fight
‘Cause we run and run in circles every argument we have
It’s beginning to sound pointless
I just wish you could relax
While its fellow tracks were dropped in advance of the EP’s release, “Moving On” is brand new for all; the “focus song” surprise at the end of the record – but really, its refreshing depth and bright energy so effortlessly usher in Aquilo’s fresh restart, or whatever we’re calling it. “Album three” is right around the corner, provided the pair can overcome the pandemic and get themselves literally together; either way, there’s no longer any shortage of new ideas and inspiration for these two “not-quite-as-sad-as-they-used-to-be lads from up North.”
That’s got a nice ring to it.
Perhaps it’s the fun of speaking across the Pond over Zoom, or maybe it was just the giddy excitement of talking about new material; either way, our conversation with Tom Higham and Ben Fletcher leaves no doubt that Aquilo’s best days are still to come, and that their present days – pandemic aside, of course – are pretty great as well. Indulge in Aquilo’s Sober EP out now, and catch up with the band in our interview below!
It’s storytelling, so the more you live your life, the more enjoyment you have out of it, the more things you have to talk about and write about!
Stream: ‘Sober’ EP – Aquilo
CATCHING UP WITH AQUILO
Atwood Magazine: Hey Guys! So we last spoke in 2018, around the time of your second album release. What’ve you been up to since then?
Tom Higham: We’ve been through a bit of an emotional roller-coaster. I think it first started when we were with Island Records – we’re not with Island anymore, but we were with those guys in a meeting, and they were like, “Look: We need the song from you – the hit.
Ben Fletcher: The dreaded hit
Tom: So they sent us over to LA and Nashville to go and write the radio single they were after. It’s quite difficult – when something’s not coming naturally – to force something to happen, especially when writing music because if the energy’s not there, the moment’s not there, so it’s impossible to form something like that. In our heads we were like, “We’ve got to come up with a catchy song that people are going to like,” and by saying that – by even thinking of that, you’ve completely failed in doing so – because I think the best things happen in the moment, randomly – especially for the band: The best songs that we’ve come up with have been the ones that have absolutely no pressure, we’re in a really good mindset, and there’s no one telling us what we need to do. We came back from LA and Nashville, having nothing.
Ben: It was horrible. It’s was like, the worst month we have ever had, musically. It was so bad. We felt like we couldn’t make music; it just kind of destroyed us, and we just didn’t know what was good anymore. We kind of lost the sense of why we even make music. You know, you don’t make music for anyone else; that’s not the point of making music. We went over there trying to find this song, trying to write – and it just doesn’t work like that! So we quite literally came back to London just like, “Fuck Aquilo, fuck music.” It was just really hard. So then we ended up kind starting a side project called “Trip the Light Fantastic” with our friend Jack Sibley, who spent a lot of time with Maribou State and worked on that album, and he sings on all the Maribou State stuff. We wrote started writing lots of different music and then we went away with friends to Bordeaux and countryside hideaways, with music friends, just making music –not thinking it would really be Aquilo. And then we asked the label if we could do it without them – basically, not as Aquilo. And they were like, “Eh… Yeah, as long as there’s an Aquilo album coming,” and then eventually they were like, “No, you can’t do a side project: We want Aquilo.” So fuck… And then we showed it to some friends and they were like, “This isn’t a side project; like, it’s not a side project – it’s just the new Aquilo.
It took us to making a side project to subconsciously make the new music, just to not feel the pressure of having to make something that anyone would care about. We’ve benefited massively from that. Subsequently, after that… We’d been trying to get dropped for a very long time, even after the first album. It’s a ridiculous story, really. They obviously wouldn’t drop us because the streaming numbers are quite good. The second album came along and it did well in the streaming world… We were asking to get dropped! Eventually we changed management and the record was let go. We signed a new deal with AWAL, which gives us total control, and we are now here! Prior to this coronavirus situation, we were surging forward towards making an album, in our minds. That’s kind of what’s happened since album two, and it’s taking us a long time to get there and get our heads into a place where we’re really comfortable making the music we want to make.
Did you really try to get dropped?
Ben: We tried to get dropped after the first album. We felt that some things could’ve been done differently,
Tom: Also, the team that worked with us was slowly depleting over time. Over the five or six year period while we were signed, all the people in our team were moving on. Slowly but surely, it whittled down to there being no one who was with us from the start of the project.
Ben: We were no one’s baby, essentially. Just as the second album was happening, it was just like, people who were working on the project hadn’t said, “I want to work on that project.” You just didn’t feel that sense… It kind of felt like they were just playing their role, and that’s shit – you don’t want that. So that was that, essentially.
Tom: As a result of that – and there was a new president at the time, we had a whole change of team… Our management asked, “Can you let the boys go? Nothing’s happening; it’s becoming a bit stagnant.” It was unhealthy for us, as well – we weren’t coming up with things, because no one was as excited anymore. That’s a massive thing – when you’ve got loads of people around you, pushing you to go forwards, that’s when you do the best shit. Positivity goes a long way, especially creatively.
You’re one of the lucky ones.
Tom: We’ve landed on our feet. I think it could’ve got really bad… In hindsight, it probably was a bit wacky for us to want to get dropped! There was nothing to say that we could do a deal with anyone else, anywhere else; we just knew that that probably wasn’t the right thing. Fortunately, we signed with AWAL… We’d been in negotiation since the day we got out of the deal, pretty much. This is how we wanted it to be, doing it the way we want to do it.
I heard you did a lot of studio sessions with “pop writers-for-hire.” What was that experience like?
Ben: Yeah that was really annoying. Not to discredit them – I’m sure they’re great songwriters, and you know they are music lovers. We felt like they didn’t know what we were about; they essentially just wanted to write a hit for us.
Tom: The problem is we got dropped in the room with someone who is a pop writer, and we’re not pop writers. So like, “Let’s do top lines!” We like to do our own top lines. We were just put in the room with a MIDI keyboard, a computer, and someone who write a top line. And it’s like, we have nothing to work with there. It’s a bad mix – and at the end of the session, like Ben said, it’s not that they’re bad writers – they’re probably incredible writers – but being put in the room with the wrong people can sometimes be massively deflating. You come out of it with absolutely nothing.
Ben: There were some good sessions. We found the good days were with people who were artists themselves. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the days that were good were the days that we spent with people who had their own artist projects going on. It’s like a level of empathy: “This is your thing, so I’m just going to help you with your thing; I’m not going to try and make it my thing.” We learned quite a lot from that, I think. In the future, … we’d love to work with other people, on other peoples’ stuff. I think we did learn a lot from that whole trip about how not to help someone.
That’s good though, you’ve got to go through that experience to know that it's not for you. How would you say the freshly-independent Aquilo of today is different from the band you used to be?
Tom: I think we’re a lot more mature now. We’re not babies.
Ben: I literally said the exact same thing. After the first album, even going into the second album, we were still like rabbits in the headlights. It was great fun: We were just making music, we had kind of an idea but, we weren’t thinking about what was going on. We certainly weren’t thinking about our careers; we just had time to think, and I think we’re just a little bit more level-headed now. We’ve just grown up a bit.
Is independence synonymous with freedom?
Ben: That feels like a really big question. What do you think, Tom?
Tom: No, I wouldn’t think so.
Ben: The feeling we got when we left Island Records was a really good feeling, and we started making really good music the moment we left… so yeah, it probably is the same thing without thinking it would be.
How have you begun to expand your own vision of who Aquilo is and can be?
Tom: I think in the future, we want to be touring a lot more because we haven’t seen any of that side of it for a while – we haven’t done a tour for ages. I think that’s something that we really want to kind of build up, because we missed a lot of opportunities by not touring when we were releasing music. I think that’s one of the things that we really want to concentrate on. Musically, it’s all just been about being inspired by other things that we’re listening to and where we are in our lives. It’s storytelling, so the more you live your life, the more enjoyment you have out of it, the more things you have to talk about and write about.
So, are you still two sad lads from up North?
Ben: Not really, no.
Tom: So bad… I’m a sad lad in Camberwell, now (laughs). No, I don’t think we’re two sad lads from the North. That was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek statement, I think.
Ben: We’re both quite happy now! Not that we were really sad – we’d had some breakups or whatever – but we’re both in a good headspace, musically. I feel like we’re almost at the most exciting part of our career. I feel the most exciting stuff is around the corner; that we’re building up to something here, and it’s really exciting.
Last time we spoke, Tom you said you were most excited about the song “Seagull” because you said it shows how you’re making more “than just sad, downtempo tunes.” Would you say you’ve followed in that direction?
Tom: A hundred percent. I think this is another thing; I think part of us evolving is kind of trying different things, and writing happier, happier stuff. We always write sad lyrics; we always do, and our thing now is kind of experimenting subconsciously with upbeat stuff, but with sad breakup lyrics. I think “Seagull” is exactly the same, and we’ve got a song called “Moving On” which is on the EP. It’s quite upbeat with a groove to it, but the lyrics – it’s still a breakup song; we just can’t help it!
Which of these songs off this new EP are you most excited to get out in the world?
Ben: I’m really excited about “Moving On,” but it’s more apprehensive – excited because a lot of people who do enjoy what we do will probably go, “Huh? What?!” I think “Always Forever” is great – in my mind, it reminds me of the moment we started making good music again, so I have really nice connotations with “Always Forever,” but I’m most excited about “Moving On” just to see how people perceive it! We might get lots of hate, but oh well!
Let’s talk about your new EP, Sober. You’re calling it a “stepping stone,” as I understand it?
Ben: Yeah, basically. We hadn’t properly released anything in two years, and in doing that, we need to get used to releasing music again. I don’t think you can just… it would have been a bit silly for us to drop loads of music. The idea was that we would be releasing music, and that we would start gigging again. Obviously this has happened, so it’s thrown a spanner in the works – but yeah, it’s a stepping stone into what will hopefully be the album!
Tom: With this EP, it’s all been co-produced with Jack Sibley, so that’s a new thing that we did. With the last album, Ben and I did essentially everything, so we wanted to change it up a little bit – step away from the computer. It’s definitely something new for us, getting what we do to a point and then letting this other producer put his spin on it, which is definitely different for us.
The word “sober” is so strong. What does that title mean to you?
Tom: The whole EP is based around, again, a breakup. So it’s this kind of sobering thought of not being with someone… I remember having a really bad breakup with someone and it was this realization of, “Fuck, I’m not with that person anymore.” Like, that’s gone – and it’s this kind of overwhelming sense of being sober from such a high of a relationship and good things. And I think that’s what the song kind of means, and I guess in a way we wanted to call the EP Sober because it was that moment of realization, and that we end the EP with a song called “Moving On”. They all kind of tie together nicely.
Ben: I also do think that, without entirely realizing it, we called the EP Sober because “Sober,” like “Always Forever,” we’ve had that song for a good two years now. So actually, it’s probably one of the first songs that we wrote coming out of album two that we were like, “This is great! We’ve got something good here.” And then it’s just kind of lingered in our minds for two years, and in a weird way we’ve been trying to write music that was as good as “Sober” – but you can’t do that. So it just kind of made sense to give “Sober” its own stamp, and make it the first song we put out when we start making music again, and make it the title track.
I really love the title track: It’s brooding with a deep, pulsing groove. Why did you choose “Sober” as your first new song in two years?
Ben: It just feels like it has a real place and time for us, because it marks the start of a new thing.
“The hardest way to learn your lesson is learning from me…” These lyrics could speak to a breakup, but I hear them more as an ending leading into a new beginning. What do these lyrics mean to you?
Tom: It’s so difficult, because I never like speaking about it. You’ve just proved my point here: You’ve got your own interpretation of what you think the song is to you, so if I ever speak about what the song means to me, which is so simply having that feeling of sobriety… I don’t want to say too much because then it ruins this kind of image you’ve got of the song. That sounds super cliché to say, but you know what I mean, don’t you?
Ben: I’ve noticed we have been writing more literal music as we’ve progressed. I think it’s important to not get too literal, for us anyway, because that’s something we enjoy – people being able to interpret the songs differently. Sometimes when you meet people after shows and they’ll talk about a song, and I’ll be like, “Oh my god, yeah – I didn’t even realize you could spin it that way.” I think there’s a bit of untapped magic in that.
“It’s been a while since you and I woke up, do I settle down, shut you out for good?” you sing in “Just Asking.” What’s this song about?
Tom: It’s just asking you to stay. Again, the sentiment of the song is normally the most simplistic thing, I think… I just listened to the Song Exploder episode of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” with Dan Wilson, and the song is not about closing time at pubs; it’s about his wife giving birth.
Ben: We wrote “Almost Over” from our first album with Dan Wilson from Semisonic.
Tom: Like I said, in special circumstances, it could be something crazy and random and obscure, but “Just Asking” is just asking you to stay. That was a really unintelligent way of asking your question –
Ben: I think it sounded really glamorous!
No, I think that what you've always been so good at is putting words and music to very relatable human emotions – things that we feel all the time. And I think that's what’s special about your music, is that it's very grounded in these real experiences and these real emotions.
You’re welcome! You really had some fun with the more “ethereal” sonics on this EP. Can you talk about how you approached these songs from an instrumental standpoint? What’s new here, compared to your last album?
Tom: Jack’s process of making music is almost like throwing paint onto a canvas. The more you add, the more kind of crazy it gets, and there’s then the process of taking things away from it at the end, when you’re left with a kind of magic. That can work in some times, and sometimes it can’t. You throw loads of stuff on a song, and it starts to become annoying or not as not as exciting as it was – you can ruin it, but I think Jack’s got a really good way of knowing when to stop.
Ben: It can be a very messy process with Jack. We’ve always written and produced as we go along; we sort of sculpt it, whereas Jack is very much, like Tom said, throwing paint at a wall… With all these crazy sounds running everywhere – people say it sounds like a synth, but it’s not a synth at all, actually. It’s all sampled stuff. Just the way it works with Jack is essentially we write as we produce, but it’s a very messy way, but it’s something beautiful in a way, that when he starts pulling the crap out of it, then you start to see it as a song. We’ve actually learned a lot from working with Jack… it kind of tipped everything upside down a bit for us. That’s probably what we needed.
The instrumental work in “Always Forever” is absolutely breathtaking. Can you tell me more about this song?
Ben: We wrote “Always Forever” by ourselves with Jack. Funnily enough, that was the first day we met Jack! He came into the studio at Bermondsey, started making these weird noises… there are these two teachers from New York who make tape noises – these twenty-minute songs of tape noises. Jack started playing it, and then eventually we worked out some weird chords, and then really simple chords, and then before we knew it, we were playing “Always Forever.”
I think the song is very “Aquilo” in terms of how you use that sample and the way you build to something. People have to sit and listen to this first minute of introductory sound building up to the rest of the song, and I think that’s really exciting.
Ben: We hadn’t even thought about that until we got the mixes back. It takes a while before the actual song starts – we didn’t realize it until quite recently.
Tom: It’s good though – I like that. I think in a lot of our songs, the vocals start quite quickly. It’s nice to have a little bit of a breather from me.
I think when it comes to music, I feel like that may not have been possible with the major label – that that's the kind of track that they might not allow, because it does have too much space and it does have more than you would want in a “pop” song.
Tom: I mean, in no way is it a radio track. It’s not the radio song they were looking for.
Ben: I don’t really think there is a radio song. People say they wanted “uptempo for the radio,” and if we presented them with “Moving On,” it’s uptempo but it doesn’t really have a chorus – so it’s not a radio tune, you know? It doesn’t really have that “thing,” and I don’t think there is a radio tune on this EP, and that’s quite nice. We quite like the idea that there’s no defining, leading track. Obviously there’s “Sober,” but it’s just the title track.
How do you know that a song like this is done? What is it you’re looking for – what is the bar you’re trying to reach, to say, “This is a complete work of art”?
Tom: That’s a really big question, because it’s impossible to know when a song is done. I think that’s an art form in itself – actually knowing when to stop. But I guess, when you have the same feeling you had writing it, and you listen to it, and you experience that same feeling every single time, that’s when you know you’ve got it to a point where you’re happy for other people to experience it.
You end this EP with “Moving On,” perhaps the most unique and standout of your repertoire to date. It’s not sad at all – it’s light, upbeat, groovy, and full of space to breathe. How did this happen?
Ben: We don’t even know!
Tom: It’s fun, isn’t it? I can’t even remember recording that. We must’ve been really drunk.
Ben: It’s actually quite a bitter song. “Moving On” came from when we thought this was a side project, and there’s lots of music that we made that is really quite far from Aquilo. We were really just messing around. Tom and I, we’re not “amazing” musicians – we can play lots of instruments, but we can’t play anything amazing. So like we picked up a bass, and obviously it’s a really simple bass line –
Tom: I actually do remember you coming up with that bit! Ben was like (sings the bass line) – it was just a groove, and it didn’t get boring – we were just so into it from the start, and things kept landing, so we put other bits on! It was a really exciting thing to do, because it was so different from what we were used to. It was nice to get out of the comfort zone.
This is where having someone like Jack involved plays a big role for the two of us. A sad song to us, or a song with more emotion, hits us harder. We’d never really made tunes with grooves like “Moving On,” for example. Because Jack was in the room, I think he wanted to try and switch things up. I don’t think he wanted us to make a sad song. He just set us off on this thing with this beat, and threw a good spanner in the works. And that, in a weird way, sets the tone for the album – we want to move away from somewhere that we’ve already been. Not to say we’re trying to do anything wildly different, but we just want to try new things and experiment. “Moving On” is, like I said, a stepping stone into whatever that could be.
I love the lyrics. “You could get all excited for nothing,” you sing. “And you could have the world in writing, but that would mean nothing. Look at me moving on, even I think it’s wrong.” That’s a strong statement and a great way to close this chapter. Is that purposeful – closing this EP with that song?
Tom: Exactly, yeah.
Ben: Well it only was later on, though. When we put the track listing in, and then “Moving On” was number four, we like, “Ah, that makes sense!” At first I think it was quite coincidental.
Could you have made these songs three years ago, when you were making ii?
Tom: No. If we’d made them a day earlier or a day after, they would’ve sounded different. It’s a funny old thing, recording and writing songs. The songs had been written for quite awhile before they got produced, so yeah – it might’ve sounded different.
It sounds to me like so much of what's shaping you right now, aside from the personal experiences that go into the music itself, are a couple different freedoms. You've relinquished control over the recording studio, and you also don't have any label pressure to produce something. So it's really just all coming from inside.
Ben: Yeah, it’s a lovely feeling. In a weird way, it’s kind of daunting that that’s kind of what it’s like, but it’s nice: That’s what we wanted, and now we’ve got it and we can’t complain. We’ve just got to live it, and we are – and I think it’s a good time as well, because now we’re mature enough pick our own days now and decide what we want to do, and be firm in our decision. I think it just comes with maturity as well as timing.
Aside from “mature,” are there any other words you would use to describe the band right now?
Tom: Excited. I think we just want to get on with it now. It has been a new lease on life with different teams surrounding us; I think the songwriting, I’m enjoying it a lot more. No discredit to Island, by the way – I think they’re a fantastic label! We just didn’t have the best experience. But I think we’re both excited; we’re hungry. We want to get on with it, we want to get out there, and we just want to keep on writing music.
What artists are you most excited about right now?
Ben: Big Thief have hit me really hard over the past two-three years. Funnily enough, we ended up getting Andrew Sarlo, who produced all the Nick Hakim and Big Thief stuff, to mix our EP. He’ll probably end up doing the record as well – but in terms of artist, Big Thief and Nick Hakim have been my favorites. The National, obviously; we’re big fans, too.
Tom: Top of the head, Sufjan Stevens has always been quite a big influence; I love his stuff. One of our really good friends whom we co-wrote “Sober” with, John Green, has just released a song. He calls himself REUNIØN, and it’s so good!
Well listen, I love that I have an Aquilo song I can dance to in ''Moving On,'' and a new EP to keep on repeat. Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations on the EP release!
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