One of the most interesting prospects in the new generation of British rock, Nothing But Thieves’ Conor Mason talks to us about ‘Moral Panic,’ one of the most prescient albums of the year.
“Is Everybody Going Crazy?” – Nothing But Thieves
Everyone’s talking about the environment, racism, and Black Lives Matter, which is massive. That’s why it’s so relevant now. It’s the same topics that won’t go away, and haven’t been sorted out yet.
Nothing But Thieves have existed for less than a decade, but are already one of the most interesting prospects in the new generation of British rock.
Each one of their songs is a definitive experience in and of itself, formed into a crisp product by high-end production. With three albums to date, the boys already have plenty of anthems, heavy head-nodders, and straight up ballads to choose from. They make the kind of music where every song is a potential chart assault. Their clean cut, structurally balanced sound straddles a number of styles, all of which get sharpened to a fine point through the lens of pop rock.
Released in October, the band’s third record Moral Panic is a late contender for end-of-year lists. Building on their previous albums, Nothing But Thieves have produced their densest work to date. Conor Mason is front centre of their set-up as always; his powerful voice guiding the band and providing most of the hooks. He has tempered his vocal performance with the maturity of someone many years older, offering triumphant altruism and vulnerable emotion in equal measure. Atwood Magazine spoke with him about the last year and the band’s creative process, and going in-depth about some of the key moments on Moral Panic!
Moral Panic is out now on RCA Records
Stream: ‘Moral Panic’ – Nothing But Thieves
A CONVERSATION WITH NOTHING BUT THIEVES
Atwood Magazine: Firstly, how’s the reception been so far for the new album?
Conor Mason: When the singles first started coming out, I didn’t know how to gauge the response. Normally I do that via shows or festivals. You play a song and there’s a reaction, it’s innate. But now you’ve got to do it over the internet, and that can be subjective. That’s the problem, you have to look at the numbers which is nothing you want to do, you want to see it on people’s faces and how they move. But it’s gone down really well, better than the last two albums, and I wonder if lockdown has had an effect on that, people have nothing to do other than discover music.
It’s interesting when you release a new album. You have your own thoughts about the record, what the message is, what the key points are, and then people listen to it and get something completely different out of it.
Conor Mason: I watched this Kurt Cobain interview where he keeps getting asked about how he feels about something, and he says, ‘Well what do YOU think about it, how does it make you feel?’ That stuck with me. The idea that once you’re finished, it’s someone else’s, and they can have a completely different experience with it. That’s the beauty of music, the way it hits you. There’s a couple of songs by Radiohead that I couldn’t live without – I don’t know what he’s singing about in Weird Fishes, but it’s my favourite song. Not for the lyrics, but the way it makes me feel.
Nothing But Thieves have never shied away from expressing how they feel about the sociopolitical state of the world. Moral Panic isn’t a concept album, but it has a theme of commentary on current events through personal opinion and observation. Somehow the band managed to strike a chord with many of the main themes and issues this year through an album written before it all happened. So how did you feel, watching it unfold?
Conor Mason: In March we released the first single and went into Radio 1, and I didn’t feel good about it. People were panic buying and freaking out. We didn’t know what to do; I felt like I was profiting off this dark time. I felt uncomfortable about releasing music and carrying on, when everything around us was crumbling and changing. But during lockdown I had to do so much self-discovery and realisation. I noticed how much music I was discovering, and I was so grateful for it. If this has helped me, it’s certainly helped our fans out. Music was holding everyone together at that point.
Moral Panic was released a couple of weeks before the US election, one of the most tense periods of the year. ''Can You Afford to Be an Individual?'' holds an impassioned rant where you lay down your thoughts on how things were developing in the USA in 2019. To see music you’d written so long ago become so relevant must have been exciting.
Conor Mason: At the time we thought it was blowing up and going insane, but it was just getting turned on. And when we released the record I was expecting a massive explosion from the Trump thing, thankfully that went our way, but it felt like that was going to be a massive explosion if he got back in. Everyone feels slightly calmer now! What we were writing about at the time, it was just simmering away. And now it’s more heightened.
Everyone’s talking about the environment, racism, and Black Lives Matter, which is massive. That’s why it’s so relevant now. It’s the same topics that won’t go away, and haven’t been sorted out yet. I’m really proud of what we’ve released. It’s something that people can look back on as a memory of this time, not a good memory, but a realistic memory.
And how have you and the other guys been dealing with lockdown - Have you spent much time in the practice room?
Conor Mason: We’ve not seen each other, apart from a few stream shows. We’ve been writing for three days max a week. It’s been good, in a sense. We’re supposed to be on tour, and we’d probably be writing the next record on the bus. I just moved to London and I’m close to the studio where we get together and write. It’s nice to have that freedom – I can cycle over there.
You must be itching to get out on tour!
Conor Mason: I do miss playing and traveling. I didn’t clock how much it was a part of my system. I miss playing to people, the energy of the crowd, singing. I could be happy just singing in a pub for the rest of my life. It brings me so much joy. I’m very much buzzing to get back out there. For the band it’ll be great, because everyone’s going to want to see bands play, it’s so much fun and there’s gonna be a lot of people at the show.
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Nothing But Thieves had released five singles prior to dropping Moral Panic, the first of which, “Is Everybody Going Crazy?” came out in March. It’s a groovy, bopping tune which dips up and down, Mason’s voice flowing through falsetto and mid-range hooks for one of the most complex pieces on the record. “Unperson” is another single release. The intro track to Moral Panic, it snaps through the air with stuttered guitar sampling and the repeated chant of “This is not what you think it is – it’s worse.”
“Phobia” was released just a couple of weeks before the album, and is one of the instant attention-grabbers on Moral Panic. Building to a neurotic climax, it opens with a couple of minutes of breathless, withheld panic, before the whole band come in and crank it up several notches. It’s a highlight in an album of big moments.
Atwood Magazine: Tell me about ''Phobia'' – what state of mind were you guys in when you wrote that?
Conor Mason: It’s character-based. I was listening to a lot of Marilyn Manson at the time. I wouldn’t say I idolise him, but I like how he shifts through stages of who he is as an artist. That’s where the headspace was at. The thing that I hate the most in the world is our dependency on external validation through social media, and the song is about that character losing the grip on what his reality is – Whether it’s online, in his hotel room, in his mind. It’s a study of this character’s downfall, whether it’s metaphorical or physical.
Musically, it has one motif. The melody keeps going, it doesn’t change. Maybe the odd rhythm change. It was an experiment on developing one motif. That’s what Dom (Dominic Craik, guitars and keyboard) is so brilliant at – building up songs. And this is a testament to that. The same chord, the same note that gets angrier and angrier each time.
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Nothing But Thieves bring a lot of influences to the fore as a group. While we were talking, Mason dropped in many different artists and genres as examples of what the band are into. Most songs have all the band members credited as songwriters, giving a glimpse into the collaborative nature of Nothing But Thieves.
Conor Mason: I really do love all music. Dom’s into finding the newest way he can push rock forward. Dragging it kicking and screaming from the 70s. And then Joe’s (Joe Langridge-Brown, guitar) got such a classic head, it’s a good melting pot between us.
When you’re 19-22, you have a bigger ego. You think yourself is more important. But then you grow up and realise – We’re a family. It’s about the music. Let’s split it the same way, and we just work together. We make it about the songs, and the love of the band, and it’s so much more creative. The songwriting’s better. There’s no stress, you just enjoy and make sure the song’s as good as possible. That’s what makes it so free and creative. I have a whole bank of ideas. Whether it be metal, disco, reggae. I’m always trying to push where we take our sound.
We’re a family. It’s about the music. We make it about the songs, and the love of the band, and it’s so much more creative. There’s no stress, you just enjoy and make sure the song’s as good as possible.
Atwood Magazine: In contrast to the band’s usual full deck of genres brought to the table, one of the finest songs on the album is ''Impossible.'' There’s plenty of subtle structural experimentation on Moral Panic, lots of nods to different musical scenes and mood changes, but this one is a straight ballad. So how did that come about?
Conor Mason: We’d done a lot of intricate songs and melodies, with pessimistic and dark themes. Impossible was quite late in the process. I wanted to do a simple song with a big vocal – a song for singers. I’m very hip-hop and RnB influenced, and I wanted to write a really simple, great big melody. The first part popped into my head and I thought this is exactly it, this is where I want it to go. Those first three notes.
Theme wise, it’s about stepping out of everything and zoning in on your head. I need a release. Whether it’s with someone else – That feeling of your love is the release. But I listen to it now and it’s self reflection, self love is my release. At the end of the day the only thing that’s real is the connection you make, that’s the overriding thing, everything else fades away.
Nothing But Thieves owe a lot of their sound to the belting vocal textures from Mason. Rock is driven by powerful voices. The mixture of raw emotion and the ability to carve out a melody that sits nicely between pounding drums and loud guitars is an essential element of any good guitar band. Mason is no exception, his voice soaring electric over anything the band is playing. So who are his singing heroes?
Conor Mason: Definitely Thom Yorke, everyday. Then Jeff Buckley as I got older, for so many reasons. Vocally Buckley is my go-to. The singers that resonated with me – People like Nina Simone could be singing an old classic, but when she sings it, it’s soul destroying because it’s eking something out of her. That’s what I’ve learned from those singers. It’s not about their technique – Obviously they’re fantastic. But you hear a part of them that they leave on the track. They’re not just saying words, they’re giving you a part of their soul. That’s what I try and do. Nina, Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke are my biggest idols.
People like Nina Simone could be singing an old classic, but when she sings it, it’s soul destroying because it’s eking something out of her.
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📸 © Jack Bridgland
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