Tom Hobden & Eliot James have been thinking a lot about popular music lately. Having met during the production of Noah and the Whale’s debut album, they’ve continued on parallel paths with Mumford & Sons (Hobden), Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs (James), and others. And they started to ask a question many have been asking in recent years: where have all the strings gone?
The last period of string saturation in popular music came in the 1970s. During that period, it was heard as the saccharine accompaniment of singer-songwriters, the drama of disco and the secret weapon of progressive rock. But then the landscape began to change. Perhaps the most telling moment arrived when Electric Light Orchestra abandoned strings in 1981. Slowly, over the course of decades, the violin and cello grew ostracized from their former companions, making more appearances in movies and musicals than on the pop charts.
But then a funny thing happened: they began to sneak back in. In some cases the strings were considered a novelty, but in others some serious talent was involved. One high point: the 2Cellos version of Thunderstruck. While people were still not buying stringed pop as a habit, they never lost interest in hearing symphonic versions of their favorite songs. Enter performers such as Joshua Bell and Lindsey Stirling, who crossed over to the light side. The stage was set for a comeback.
But just as things were looking up, a few successful bands began to head in the opposite direction. Ironically, Mumford & Sons was one of them, frustrating fans by switching strings for synths on their last album, calling it a “natural move”. Sigur Rós toured as a trio, without the string section that had helped make them famous. Now enter Hobden and James, two artists who know the pop world inside out, yet who want more than simple pop confections. Hobden plays violin, while James is a producer. Their shared vision: to write and record an album of songs that combine pop sensibilities with the intricacies of modern composition, without compromise. On Roam, they’ve succeeded.
If there’s an origin point, it’s probably Love Of An Orchestra, from Noah and the Whale’s The First Days of Spring. Not only is the central thesis laid out in this song, the chorus (“If you gotta run, run from home”) matches the title of the collaboration. Echoes of this track are present throughout Roam, albeit without lyrics. We applaud this decision, of course; the only question will be whether people catch on. We’re talking about a 33-minute, 14-track album that contains at least ten possible singles, the exceptions being the pieces under two minutes ~ these we visualize as accompaniment for video works. There is in fact a first single, a perfect radio length at 3:28. “Houseman’s Theme” is romantic and lingering, part meditation, part waltz, bursting into full color halfway through, demonstrating the distance one can travel in three and a half minutes. Contrast this with the recent hit Just Like This, by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay, a single-tempo song dominated by a repeated synth line. Is this the best we can expect from pop? Hobden and James prove that it is not.
In “The Entertainer”, Billy Joel lamented, “it was a beautiful song, but it ran too long, so they cut it down to 3:05”. No such worries here, as the longest track is 3:31. Amazingly, one of the best tracks is only 1:40. “La Madrugada” seems like a half-hit until we do a little research and realize that it’s three seconds longer than the shortest #1 song of all time, Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay” (1960). The track tugs on the heartstrings, establishes a mood, offers a tiny bit of choral vox (one must strain to hear it), then gets out. There’s no unnecessary second bridge, as heard in Clean Bandit’s otherwise decent earworm Rockabye, which integrates strings in a sensical fashion. As Sum 41 once bragged, it’s all killer, no filler. After a while, it becomes a different sort of earworm, although identification is made more difficult due to the lack of lyrics. Try singing it for Shazam.
It’s hard to pick favorites on an album so filled with highlights, but let’s pretend we’re the people in charge of such things. “The Long Mynd” is a contender, a swooning piece that inspires images of a cartoon princess singing as she dances around a red-carpeted ballroom in the throes of new love. The tender “Mixolydian” is probably too fragile to be a single, and the title is tough to remember ~ but it’s one of the album’s best pieces. Likewise the dramatic “Equal Spaces”, which boasts the huge swells of modern cinema.
Will Hobden and James be able to bring strings back to the pop stable? We’re not sure ~ but they’ve made a major effort to rejuvenate the conversation, and their pop pedigree guarantees an audience. If modern pop music were more like this, we’d never have needed satellite radio.
Congratulations on the new album! It manages to be quite catchy while retaining a sense of complexity. How did you choose the first single?
The first released track is ‘Housman’s theme’ which is a track we all felt encapsulated the essence and mood of the whole album in one track. It is a piece of music with a lot of variation in texture and mood and I suppose we all felt it was a mini version of the album in itself so seemed the obvious choice…a kind of album mini trailer if you like.
How long have you wanted to record a stringed set?
We have both individually written and recorded a lot of stringed & orchestral music through our other work but it is normally a process that is fairly auxiliary to the production, in that you do strings towards the end when all the other stuff is down. So the notion of writing music entirely for an orchestral set is something that has been lurking around for both of us for a long time now…for all of our respective careers really. When you do strings on a pop record you’re lucky if you get any more than about 4 players in a room and it is even sometimes done as overdubs to keep budget and time to a minimum. So getting 38 players in one room was like a dream come true for both of us. It’s an entirely different process too. We recorded the entire album in 6 hours after a month of scoring & planning, whereas when you make a pop record you spend more like a month in the studio, after a few days of planning, if any.
Has there been internal discussion in the bands you both work with about the role of strings on future albums?
In the context of a band, strings are of course just another instrument, like a guitar or a piano, and an instrument that can enormously change the mood and feel of a track. This is sometimes to the benefit, and sometimes to the deficit of things, so it is of course a flavour that comes and goes for artists.
What are your favourite pop hits of any era that integrate strings, and what artists do you think are doing a good job now?
When it comes to great pop string arrangements you don’t really much better than late era Beatles & ELO of course. The late nineties were a great time for big strings in pop music too, with guys like Craig Armstrong and Wil Malone doing amazing arrangements for artists such as Massive Attack, Unkle, Bjork & the Verve (to name just a few).
I suppose there is less use of dedicated string arrangement these days unless it is an integral part of an artist’s sound palette. Some of the neo classical/electronic crossover stuff going on right now with labels like Erased Tapes is really interesting in its re-refinement of the term classical.
You mention English Romanticism as an influence, but the English romantics were themselves inspired by nature and other forms of art. Apart from music, what other influences are brought to bear on Roam, and what would you like people to think when they see the cover?
The central theme of Roam is really landscape…most of all the English countryside. When we were writing we often used visual reference of certain places we both know and love as inspiration, to capture a mood or a feeling, and whilst we tried to be quite varied our own backgrounds tended to lead us back to the good old english countryside. We were also delving into a lot of early 20th century english composers at the time (Britten, Butterworth, Vaughan-Williams) and that period tends to invoke a lot of pastoral scenery which in turn became a bit of a theme. The cover photo was something that came up through us looking for landscapes that we felt would encapsulate the project. We stumbled upon Michael Kenna’s photography and instantly fell in love with his imagery. Whilst the photo we used has little to do with the english countryside (it’s actually a chinese seaweed farm) it seemed to represent the tone of the record perfectly.
Is Roam 2 on the way?
We are constantly working on new material and have the bulk of another record written already, but we are pairing things back from an orchestral setting a bit going forward. It was a wonderful experience writing for an orchestra but our focus now is to mix things up a little bit and try to write within a slightly more limited set of parameters. So watch this space, lots more to come!
A Closer Listen thanks Tom and Eliot for their time and generosity and congratulates them on their new album, due out this Friday!