I think going to gigs has for some people just become a social event rather than a musical event that is there to provoke a bit of passion in people. I don’t know if it’s a sign of getting older or being more miserable but I’m sure when I used to go to gigs there was a real air of excitement in the room, a tension, with people so desperate for this band or artist to come out on stage.
BalloonMan are good people to have a beer with. Bright, engaging, cheery. Aside from this, they also make kickass music and put on a great show full of pounding rhythms and soaring guitar hooks. After three years of honing their craft and assembling a tight set of songs, they are releasing Aurelia EP on Pale Fox Records. Ben Petersen met up with the band to quaff a few pints near their North London home and explored with them what it was like to be a band trying to break through in 2012.
IN: Can we talk about BalloonMan in 2012. Where is it you’re starting from?
Dan: Well we’ve been together around three years, gigging solidly, and now we’re trying to build up our fanbase and playing bigger and better gigs, but I think for unsigned bands, there is a particular circuit that’s available to you and it’s difficult to break through it.
Laura: We’ve been playing some venues recently that we wouldn’t have got a look in with during our first two years, when no-one knew who we were. I think every band has to be optimistic about where they would like to be playing in 12 months time, but that kind of progress doesn’t really seem to work in a linear fashion. It’s not always ‘gig, bigger gig, biggest gig’. Rob: Yeah, they come in the wrong order; our first gig was in the Camden Barfly. Laura, who does the gig-finding, hit gold with that one. The next one was in some old-man pub playing to a dog so it can be really hard to measure how far you’ve come unless the moment of a real breakthrough happens.
Dan: So the hoped-for pattern seems to be you form a band, start gigging, and then the next step is you get a deal, but there’s a lot of grey area between those stages.
Laura: There is so much between that you don’t even think about.
Dan: As a band we are constantly moving forward. The songs are better, we are a tighter band and everything musically has improved. That’s great but sometimes it feels like you are going in circles and you just hope to suddenly find that breakthrough gig. Rob: We are now ready for the next step to happen.
IN: Just ten years ago, a good band that put some decent recordings together and found a way of releasing them would find themselves out in front of the pack. But now that the route to self-release is potentially so short (anyone can write a track, record it and have it up on soundcloud), does that handicap everyone?
Dan: It’s a double edged sword. If you are a band who has achieved success and you had your lucky breakthrough that route then that’s great – it’s worked for you, and you may not have had that opportunity otherwise. But now everyone can make their stuff available so a lot of great voices get lost amongst the screams. It’s a catch 22. There are lots of opportunities available now to bands, such as recording your own home demos to a reasonably high standard and then releasing them, which before the internet you could do but with real difficulty. That’s great, but everyone can do it. It’s difficult to make yourself heard when there are just so many bands out there.
IN: OK, so the obvious next question. How does a band make itself stand out and get noticed?
Rob: Its volume more than anything. If you look at bands that have a big presence in social media, it’s down to sheer volume. Obviously it has to be good volume…you can’t just stick a load of tat up.
Dan: A marketable package is much more of a necessity now. If you have a bunch of good songs but no personality and no real image for people to package and sell, then that makes it harder. But you can’t have the styling without the songs, which is why there are so many bands that have released one album and never been heard of again. There is so much fad and scenester stuff out there, and that’s not really our bag.
Laura: It seems these days that instead of people going out to discover new music, people have to wait to be told about new bands. And it’s understandable; you need some sort of guide, because otherwise the choice is overwhelming. But because of this it’s almost like you’ve got to make it in a mini way to just be spoken about by an influential person in the media rather than just being discovered by people who are out to look for new music.
IN: Completely, we need cultural filters. (don't kill me! - ed) If you go back to the days of punk or new wave, it was the case that in any given week there might only be 20 bands that had the capacity to self-release a 7” single. If you were one of those bands, NME would have been immediately interested in your self-assembled picture sleeve, which would almost receive a review in its own right.
Rob: It seems a lot of labels nowadays don’t care about what a band can put together themselves, we put a CD together before the Aurelia EP and had artwork, balloons, badges, stickers, etc and sent them out to all these labels and got one response, which just said: “you’ve wasted a lot of trees making this, please just send us a link next time.”
Dan: It’s quite a sad thing really. Perhaps we are the last generation of people who are in any way sold on the idea of physical releases. I love buying CDs and getting interesting artwork, reading the lyrics and holding something in my hand. There’s a real romance to it that just isn’t there if you just download something. That’s being lost, and that’s a shame.
Rob: There’s much more focus now on the individual track as opposed to the collection isn’t there? People can go to iTunes or even bandcamp and buy the one track they’ve heard of rather than the whole thing.
IN: It was always the case that you’d have people at gigs who clearly only knew the singles and they’d only become excited when they were played, but now it’s accentuated because fewer people are buying the whole albums.
Dan: I think going to gigs has for some people just become a social event rather than a musical event that is there to provoke a bit of passion in people. I don’t know if it’s a sign of getting older or being more miserable but I’m sure when I used to go to gigs there was a real air of excitement in the room, a tension, with people so desperate for this band or artist to come out on stage. Now through entire sections of the set you have people pissing about, talking with their backs to the stage and walking out every ten minutes. While for me, not only have I paid good money for this, but it only lasts for about 90 minutes and I really want to enjoy and experience it.
IN: There have been bands in the past decade that have made the same kind of massive impact as, say Blur and Oasis in the 90s or the huge bands of the 00s, such as Arctic Monkeys and Libertines. But they are perhaps the only examples that I can think of a mass tribalistic following, where clearly the young audience of fans felt that they had something that was really worth believing in.
Dan: Yeah, I agree with that. They were the only two recent bands who were making headlines and grabbing people’s attention like Blur and Oasis did; The Libertines with the whole controversy around Pete and his relationship with Carl, and Arctic Monkeys with their massively fast-selling debut album. That made ‘music’ headline news again, for the first time in ages.
IN: Bringing it back to BalloonMan. In 2012, how does a band capture people’s imagination and get them to believe that you are worth bothering about? Dan: There are lots of bands out there who achieve a ‘quick fix’ success with a gimmicky or scenester approach, but I think to have a more substantial impact you have to have brilliant songs. You just have to be a really good band first and foremost.
Laura: When it comes down to it, you can talk about image and what you can do to grab people’s attention, but for me personally, the bands that I’ve discovered and then gone on to love; it’s all because I’ve heard a song, and loved it. It’s as simple as that. For me the very bottom line is how good the songs are.
IN: Do you think though that, although things aren’t as tribalistic as they used to be, the niches still exist? Now, I’ve seen BalloonMan live three times, I’ve heard a lot of your stuff, and to me it seems that you have this very dancy, post-punk, rhythm-orientated sound, but at the same time there is darkness there as well. As much as I know you would hate to be pigeonholed, it seems to me that it might serve your purpose to allow yourselves to be labelled as a slightly industrial, gothy band so you can then effectively find and target that scene.
Dan: It’s a difficult line to tread. Obviously as a band you try to play venues that are suited to your sound, but there’s a danger of becoming too self-aware. We wouldn’t want to push our sound in a particular direction. Our sound is more organic than that.
Laura: We don’t write songs for a particular audience. We just write songs that we love. We’ve very selfish in that respect. If it comes out sounding like a particular style of music, that doesn’t bother me at all. If a fan of a particular style of music likes our songs and wants to talk about us in those terms, then that’s great, but we’ll continue just writing songs without any particular intention that they’ll go a certain way.
Rob: We’ve heard ourselves compared to so many different bands that people’s perceptions clearly remain fluid, and that’s how we like it.
The video for Call To Arms can be seen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiidVblntWI