Paul Castles talks to Phil Stiles, singer/songwriter with Leicester’s prog trio Final Coil about their new album, and a lot more besides…

ZT: Congratulations on the new album, The World We Left Behind For Others. How much planning went into it? Were these songs you had been playing around with for a while or was the process much quicker?

Thank you very much indeed. In terms of planning and writing, the songs came together both quickly and spontaneously in that weird hinterland where we were in the process of mixing the first record but not able to do anything with it. It’s an odd time because, really, when the album’s being mixed, it’s largely out of your hands (other than to give a final say), so this… thing that you’ve been working on for a year or more is suddenly gone. For some of the guys, that’s a chance to have some down time, but I had all this adrenalin from the recording going through my system still and I was also enthused because I’d watched the way the studio tracked the album very carefully, so I just started writing. I don’t think that I, or the other members of the band for that matter, thought that we’d have an album quite so quickly, but I love to write – it’s what I do whenever I have some free time.

So, yeah, this album comprises all new material that was written specifically as an album and, maybe because I had this very coherent piece in mind, it did come together far quicker than any of us might have anticipated.

ZT: So many of your songs are multi-layered, does this present more challenges when compared to the standard verse/verse/chorus pattern?

Yes it does, and there are times when I curse the way that the songs developed! The biggest challenge of not adhering to a straight forward verse-chorus-verse structure is that you end up with reams of lyrics. There was a lot I wanted to say on this album, so you end up with a song where there is no fixed chorus, just this lengthy narrative that flows in a linear fashion, and that’s totally fine until you have to remember all the words on stage.

Musically, the challenge is to make the piece flow. The whole concept of verse/chorus/verse is so ingrained that it almost sounds alien when you get something different, so it’s important that, if you do go down that route, you create a sense of push and pull independent of the verse/chorus/verse paradigm.

ZT: Clearly these songs resonate with you personally, the spark having initially ignited following some discoveries that were made when the family was sorting through your grandmother’s things following her passing?

That’s right. I was already sketching out musical ideas, but there was no narrative. The turning point was, initially, when my grandmother passed away and I started to sublimate the grief I felt. The act of creation is very therapeutic, whether it is art or music, but the key is to try to bridge the divide between what resonates on a personal level and what will resonate with others – if it becomes too personal, then it locks the listener out emotionally. So, although there is music on the record that pays direct tribute to my grandmother, that’s not the focus of the record.

What really sparked the concept behind the record was finding some letters that she’d long kept concealed. They dealt with some very personal matters, which I shan’t repeat here, but which were couched in a language that was very paternalistic and reflective of a fairly harsh, patriarchal mindset that many imagine had vanished by the mid-to-late sixties. Looking at those letters and thinking about the stories that I’d heard of her generation growing up in the shadow of both World Wars, I came up with the idea of a record that would tell the story of how the social events and attitudes of a particular time shape our own personalities and views. It considers how families, ill-equipped at the time, dealt with the PTSD of soldiers returning from war, the stifling social conventions and the effect they had and how, over time, these various things informed a very polarised world view with people edging sharply to the left or right in an effort to improve their own lot in a hostile world. The record is her and an imagined version of my grandfather looking back on their experiences and considering what sort of world it is they are leaving behind for others.

ZT: With the new album was it a conscious decision on a musical level not simply to repeat the previous album Persistence Of Memory but to actually explore even more creative possibilities?

I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision to not repeat Persistence Of Memory as such, although simply repeating the same thing would feel, on some level, redundant. It was rather the case that the experience of making persistence… changed us as musicians. Certainly, for me, in doing that record I became more comfortable trying out new things and, because the record is narrative-based, most of the things I tried were a direct response to the needs of the narrative.

If you take Ash’s as an example, the lead guitar there is slide guitar. I’d never played slide before, but there’s something about it that has this haunting feel that you can’t quite get any other way. I knew that it had to be a slide part, so I sat and worked at it until I could play what needed to be played. The same could be said of the piano and synth parts – they’re there because they felt natural to the piece, rather than because I took a decision to include things that weren’t so prevalent on the first record. The way I write is very organic, so no, I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision; it was just an evolution that came, in part, from writing a story rather than a collection of songs.

ZT: Were there any frustrations in the studio or did things flow fairly well?

None at all. I love being in the studio and the team with whom we work – Wao, Ciccio and Jonny – are great. As we had worked with them on the first record, they understood us much better this time out and they were happy to let us try all the weird things that we wanted to try. Ciccio did look a little askance when we were putting together some of the ambient elements – especially when I asked him to record a segment of guitar played with a hex key jammed between the strings – but he took it in his stride and he really helped us get all the pieces together in the way that we wanted. Those guys… really, I can’t say enough good things about them. As for the band, one of the advantages of having so detailed a demo well in advance of the recording is that we knew what we wanted to do and how we wanted to sound, so there was very little pressure from that end. I know it doesn’t make a great story, but it was really fun!

ZT: Persistence Of Memory was recorded in Italy so you decided to do the same on the new album.

Yes, in fact, we went one better because we drove over (well, Rich and I did), so that we could have more of our equipment to hand in the studio and it was the most amazing experience. It took just over two days to get from Leicester to Langhirano and it was such a memorable trip. We were camping, so that we could stay close to the car and all the equipment and, on the first night of our travels, we camped high up in the Alps just next to a mountain stream (in fact, we recorded a short video there). Driving along the Swiss border into the very heart of the Alps was so scenic and picturesque – just the experience of travelling like that, and with the pleasure of three weeks in the studio at the other end, was absolutely fantastic and a memory I will treasure.

ZT: How important to the final result is the producer and how do you work with him?

That’s a tough question because any record is a collaboration. If you have the wrong producer and/or the wrong equipment then you end up with a poor-sounding record. However, if you’ve got poor songs, then no producer in the world is going to make them sound good… Expensive, maybe; but not good. So, having a producer who understands the music is important and they become a part of the band for the period in which they’re working with you. For this record we had a team working with us. Ciccio and Wao engineered and recorded the album in their fantastic Real Sound Studio, but we then worked with Jonny Mazzeo for the mix and master. It was a great collaboration.

When I spoke with Jonny, the first thing we discussed was the importance of dynamic. It was crucial to me, and to the band, that the album sounded natural with a range of volume rather than a flat, very processed feel. Jonny got that immediately and he delivered an amazing mix and master. It was a tough job, and I’m pretty sure we drove him crazy with minor corrections, but what he produced for us in the end was pretty much exactly what we wanted. So, yeah, it’s a collaboration and I think that, on this record, we had the perfect team on hand to help us get what we wanted. Again, I can’t say enough good things about any of those guys.

ZT: Is it fair to say that Final Coil are a band who demand a lot of the listener – it’s not direct hit music, you need to really understand the ebb and flow of these songs?

I’d say that’s fair. I have no idea what it means to write a hit or how cynical a person would have to be to deliberately attempt to do that. It’s always been the case that I write the music that I would like to hear and, with luck, there will be people who are willing to join me on that journey. That said, particularly in the mainstream press, I think there’s a tendency to underestimate music fans. The charts (in whatever format) have always been about hits and, if you look back, there were always more transitory fans buying singles than albums, so I’m not sure that as much has changed as it might appear, it’s just easier now to buy a single track than it once was, so you get fewer people buying an album like, say, Appetite for Destruction, purely so they can get their hands on ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’. So, sales are harder to come by now and, of course, there is also a lot of choice out there.

However, I still think there are plenty of people who want to be taken on a journey, that still want that ebb and flow and I think it’s particularly visible in the alternative and metal communities. Just look at the anticipation of the new Tool album, or at the reception given to albums such as Gojira’s Magma, Sepultura’s Machine Messiah or Haken’s Vector – there is an audience out there that is every bit as ambitious and open-minded as the bands that are still producing albums… it’s just that that sort of positive message doesn’t make a terribly good headline!

Don’t get me wrong – there are still enormous challenges in music, not least the paltry sums involved in streaming – but there are also a lot of great bands out there who share the ethos of making music as art and a lot of fans willing to indulge that behaviour.

ZT: On the new album, ‘Imaginary Trip’ is a particularly haunting song…

Thank you. That was the first complete song I wrote for the album, and the melody from that song bleeds into a number of the other tracks, not least Ash’s. It’s the song that most directly pays tribute to my late grandmother and it’s basically a walk that we used to take together in the hills above Swanage, in Dorset. It was a really hard song to write because I wanted to pay tribute in a way that could be universal. Everyone, unfortunately, has some experience of loss and I wanted to capture that feeling of returning to a place where you felt happy and the haunting quality that it can adopt after loss has been experienced. I didn’t want to pay tribute in some pithy way, I didn’t want it to be too obvious, I just wanted to say goodbye in a way that felt natural and which would resonate with the listeners and allow them to interpret the piece however they wanted.

ZT: How have the new songs been going down live?

Well, due to issues with our drummer being quite ill (he’s on the mend now, though), we’ve only played the new material at three shows: HRH Metal, Fusion – Music Without Boundaries and a local show; but, so far, the new material seems to have gone over very well. It’s great to see it being embraced by very diverse audiences and I’m looking forward to playing a lot more in the coming months.

ZT: Are you scheduled to perform at any summer festivals this year?

Sadly, no. Due to the ongoing issues with our drummer, we were somewhat restricted as to the festivals for which we were able to apply, although now that he’s on the mend, we’re still looking out for any possibilities that might come our way. We are, however, playing our Camden debut at The Underworld with the legendary Shonen Knife on July 18. That’s a huge deal for us, because they truly are an amazing and influential band. We’re also happy because Pabst are on the bill. They’re a great alt-rock band on the awesome Crazysane label and I’m a big fan, so that’s going to be a great night. We’re also playing Ragefest in Nottingham in November.

ZT: With your appreciation of the Seattle scene and bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, did you manage to catch Alice in Chains on their recent visit?

Unfortunately, no. They’re one of my favourite bands of all time and I always make the effort to see them when I can, but I was already committed to a festival during the dates they were playing, so I had to miss them this time. A shame because the new album is absolutely fantastic

ZT: Who was the last band you saw live to really move or inspire you?

Another tough question because I get out to as much live music as I can, and it’s a very diverse mix. Suede, who played at this year’s Bearded Theory, were just phenomenal. Their new album, The Blue Hour, is a stunning conceptual work and Brett Anderson has never sung better. When he emerged from the smoke to sing as one, I had goosebumps – it was that sort of performance. At the same festival, I got to see The Wildhearts, who have a fantastic new album out. It was great to see them firing on all cylinders and I’m particularly pleased Danny’s back in the fold – there’s something about this particular line up of The Wildhearts that really seems to click, and it was great to see them again.

In terms of inspiration though… I try to take inspiration from all the bands we see. I think there’s always something to be learned, whether it’s in stage craft, musicianship or presentation – music, like any art form, is a learning experience and it’s always interesting to think about how different ideas can be incorporated into your own body of work. One show that was particularly inspirational this year was Massive Attack staging a reimagined version of Mezzanine. The way they wove a familiar album into a whole new performance, not to mention the social commentary they brought into it, was truly mesmerising and a live highlight of the year.

ZT: Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason popped up on the BBC coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show recently talking about his perfectly tendered garden. As a fellow prog performer, is this a fate that awaits you in 40 years’ time?!

Ahahahaha! Well, our bassist, Jola, is a trained landscape architect, she works in horticulture and I have just spent the last couple of weeks building a perennial border in our garden, so I’d say the chances are pretty high, wouldn’t you?

Thanks for dropping in!

If you’re here maybe you should think of adding Zero Tolerance Magazine to your arsenal of regular reading? We offer a 3-issue trial subscription to whet your appetite.