Following in the footsteps of their previously successful 2 studio albums, Aquilo are set to release an EP which is unquestionably Ben and Tom. Set to emerge in July, Sober is an accumulation of two years of undeniable resilience for the duo which saw them leave their label and sign to AWAL.
Lead singles “Sober” and “Just Asking” are manifestations of their artistic and individual evolutions, showcasing their honed electronic sound for the first time. The duo sits down with us (in true lockdown fashion) to discuss the latest offering.
How are you staying creative in this current time? Ben: I’ve been playing a Formula One game, so much so that the other day I googled steering wheels. [Laughs] I wanted a steering wheel to go with it.
Tom: I’ve got myself a Nintendo 64 so I’ve been smashing that. It’s so sick. I’ve just completed Zelda: Ocarina of Time which is my type of game. Now I’m on Jet Force Gemini which is so good.
Ben: We’re both making music but for the past six years we’ve made music together. You’re working on something and then sending it over. We’ve actually just done a cover which we’re going to stick out today or tomorrow and we just tried to do something different. We wouldn’t normally do covers but it feels like you can do it. That creative element of having to write the song becomes hard when you’re not with the other person. Trying to play guitar with someone on the other end of Zoom is just annoying.
What drew you to create a cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”? Tom: It was a total accident. The whole cover is not a piss-take but it was a bit of a joke; joking around. I had this idea of a bit of drum, bit of guitar and in my head, I was like, “I know when that hotline bling.” I thought that could be the cover; we could do a cover of Drake’s Hotline Bling. It’s definitely a curveball because it’s nothing like our music at all, but I think it’s quite tongue n’ cheek and a bit of a laugh.
Do you think you’ve evolved as artists after the time working as a side project and the freedom from the label? Ben: We did actually try and get dropped from the label numerous times. Even after the first album which was a successful album; it did well by our standards. Hundreds of millions of streams but just the team around it didn’t feel right. So we decided to ask to leave but they wouldn’t let us as the streams were so good. We had the same problem after the second album as the streaming was still really good. After a while of complaining back and forth and letting our management go, the label was like, “oh, maybe this isn’t working out,” and we were like, “cool, great.” Then they dropped us and we signed straight away to AWAL. We had a little celebration.
When we’d finished the second album and toured it, we started making music and thought we found where we wanted to go for album three. Then we had second thoughts. We were sent on this wild writing trip to Nashville and LA which we found soul-destroying because we were just working with people who weren’t artists themselves. They were songwriters who just write songs and we actually found it quite hard to relate. We came back and I remember us just being sick of whatever we were doing at the time; this Aquilo thing.
We’ve been working with this guy called Jack Sibley who goes under the names North Downs and Pedestrianand did quite a lot of stuff for Maribou State. We thought we’d gone and found a side project basically, and it was a new lease of life. We were making music under a different name, not thinking anyone would really hear it and we got back into the flow of enjoying making music again. A friend of ourslistened to our side project and just said, “this isn’t a side project, you’re just trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It’s Aquilo; it’s the new Aquilo.” When people hear it, it is a bit different. It’s not different like we’ve been trying to be different; it’s an evolution.
Are you both happier? Ben: We’re always happy but there’s something not nice about going through loads of loops to have to put something out. Other people’s opinions make it easy to sometimes get a little bit lost. When you show someone something at the label and they don’t like it, you’re like “oh,” and it plays with your mind a bit. This deal that we’ve done with AWAL is different. It just feels like we’re in a better creative space now.
Tom: Yeah exactly, we’re in a team now who are excited again and that is the biggest part of it. Over the years with Island, slowly but surely people kept on leaving to go to different places. There was no longer our team in place.
Ben: We were no-one’s baby in the end.
Tom: Yeah, we were roped into working with other people. It’s amazing to be back in a situation where we’re starting something new with a different group of people whose hearts are genuinely in it. Big change.
Ben: I think if you’re trying to do something different, you’re going to lose it. I think it’s because it’s still me and Tom, it’s just us two and someone else is there who’s slightly steering it in a different way. We were under the illusion it was a side project but like they said, “it’s way better than anything else you’ve released but it’s definitely still Aquilo, it’s not a side project. Don’t put it out as a side project.”
You self produced your last album ii. Do you think that the process of producing has become more honed now that you know the ropes? Tom: We’re working with this other guy with Jack [Sibley]. Producing all our own stuff was great but we wanted to let someone come in who is not necessarily focused as much on the production side of it, but on the song-writing. It helps us within the creative process to bounce off production ideas. Jack might come up with something on his computer, like a sound or something, and then we’d bounce off each other. It’s the domino effect; it’s like having another person getting in the room to collaborate with. This has happened for one of the songs on the EP that it really worked well for, which is “Always Forever.”
Ben: “Always Forever” was the first tune we made with Jack. I think he comes from an old school sampling world which is something that we’ve never really paid any attention to. We were oblivious to it at first, but it’s really nice to focus on writing the song with someone who has a really tasteful understanding of the atmosphere.
Tom: There is a little bit of synth in it, but what Jack is really good at is manipulating vocals to sound like synth. What you’re hearing is Ben’s vocal really, really fucked with. Really compressed, and a lot of processing. It’s a unique sound as no-one else can make that because Ben did it.
What was the message behind the lead single title “Sober”? Tom: It’s about a relationship, not necessarily about being sober because we drink too much booze. It’s about a sobering realization that you might not be with that person anymore. I think that’s loosely what the song is about; that’s what it means to me and Ben. Obviously everyone has their own interpretations of any song, that’s quite nice.
Ben: Something we’ve always enjoyed previously is not being so literal with our lyrics. They can be perceived in different ways and people do make their own stories with them. There’s a song to me and Tom that means one thing and people at shows talk about what it means to them, and what they’re convinced it’s about. But it’s something completely different. I’ve already seen that with “Sober” with the comments. There’s something really nice about leaving it open enough for people to interpret it in their own way.
Expanding on that, how has it been received so far? Tom: I think it’s been received quite well. It got put into a really lovely playlist. It’s on “the most beautiful songs in the world” playlist. Officially the fifth most beautiful in the world. [Laughs]
Ben: We’re trying to do something slightly different and to us, it is still us and that’s all that really matters. If it can touch people then we’re happy.
Tom: I don’t think it’s a million miles off our old stuff as well. It’s very easy to be pulled into the trap of stuff you’re making that you think sounds so different because you’re making it. You’re there throughout its inception; then you show someone else who says it’s not that different.
It’s quite a lyrically honest EP, was this the intention? Ben: It’s funny because those songs weren’t written in a very close period of time. “Sober” was probably written two years ago now. It had been sitting there in the back of our minds whilst we’ve been making all the new music. It only felt right to start the new tracks with this. “Moving On” to us feels like Aquilo; it’s definitely an evolution, whereas “Sober” still has this blend of album one and album two. We didn’t want to scare people in a way.
Ben: We’d get bored if we were making the same shit all the time.
Tom: I think you’re absolutely right, we did get bored. That was the whole problem because we were just writing the same old stuff and getting pushed out to America with writers who didn’t understand where we were coming from. We were just writing the same old stuff; so that’s exactly what happened, we got bored of ourselves.
Ben: We have a big problem where we start songs and we don’t finish them. I know lots of artists start a song and make a real conscious effort to finish it. We’d have two or three song ideas in a day which isn’t really helpful if not one of them sticks. One of our own worst enemies is being able to get over the hurdle and finish a song. We’re just a little bit too self-critical. There’s a lot of songs; there are so many ideas. We’ve just got new laptops and we’ve been going through old hard drives and finding these ideas and going, “why did we ever leave this?”
Where did you record the EP? Ben: We had a studio in Bermondsey and that was close to our houses so we worked there for like a year and a half. We did our second album there and we kept it for a year and a half. Then we decided to go without a studio for a little while and just got between friends’ studios. We were in Hackney for a little while so it’s kind of a mixture of here, there and everywhere. I kind of like that. We only just got ourselves a new studio actually, and then this happened. It’s a little bit annoying.
We decided to start moving the studio around different places for a while, just to see what happened. We went to the Cotswolds and just invited some friends up, all music friends, and we made music and got really drunk. It went really well and some tunes came away from it. Later we decided to go to Bordeaux in France. We had a chateau on a vineyard and just set the studio up there. It was good hanging out with friends and making music with no pressure; no pressure of needing to make anything. Enjoy yourselves and if you come up with something good, then great.
Do you find that ideas come to you best when you’re not focusing on them? Like getting ideas in the shower. Tom: I don’t think I’ve ever come up with an idea in the shower. But I had on the toilet. I’ve got a toilet microphone that’s on an extendable arm and it leads through the kitchen.
Who helped you with the artwork for the new material? Ben: We worked with Phil Lee; he’s been Head of Creative at XL for the past ten to fifteen years. He’s done loads of albums that we love. We wanted it to feel slightly different, like an evolution of us and to be a piece of where we’re going; that was the idea. We really like the songs and want to put the songs out because it sucks having the songs on hard drives. They deserve to be heard.
Any alternative versions coming out from the EP? Ben: Next week there’s a live version coming out, we filmed it. It’ll be “Just Asking,” and we’re going to put one out for “Sober” as well. It’s just me and Tom at the piano and guitar, very stripped back.
Are you looking forward to getting out on the road again? Ben: I was on Instagram this morning and there were people sharing videos from our tour, and it gave me that urge to get out and play again. It’s not so much the playing side of it, but I really enjoy not being in the studio for a while. Just being with your music mates has something really nice about it. It feels like it’s all been worth it, you know. I haven’t quite had that pay-off yet. You get the pay-off from people liking the new music but when you play live it feels like the finished thing. Especially as we haven’t written the songs with a band; we’ve written the songs with just us two. Me and Tom have played everything and when you finally get the band together you can see it all actually there.
How is the full-length coming along? Ben: We’re still very much in over our heads with it. Very much trying to work it all out; we’re still not there yet. We need to get back into the studio together first I think. This has been quite good because it means we’re coming up with ideas but we feel we’re quite far away from having it done. We do like to set ourselves the challenge of having a date for it to be ready and you can go on forever if you don’t. Towards the back end of this year or maybe the start of next year we’ll release it. [The EP is]one of the only things that we’ve put a stamp on and gone, “bosh, it’s ready,” and let it go.
We confirmed the vinyl, got it mixed and mastered, and got sent off to be pressed. When we heard the vinyl it sounded really good, then we left it for about a month and realized that the mix on a few of the tunes just wasn’t quite right. So we went back and got the remix but the vinyl was already ready. What will end up happening is that the vinyl will now have its own mix that isn’t actually on the digital, so it will weirdly have two different versions of the songs. There’s something I quite like about that; to see that evolution.
It’s only been three years since your debut. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned as a band or as friends since that point? Ben: You’ve got to stick together. We are like family now, that’s the way it is. We will argue but we will argue because we care and normally over the same things.
Tom: Quite often we will argue over the same point. As you said, it’s because we give a shit. It sounds super cringey but we do have to stick together especially when it’s hard times like these.
Ben: It’s true though, it’s not easy to do this music thing. Especially when you’re at a level where people have an opinion and people are happy to say their opinion or comment if they do or don’t like it, or like the old stuff. I think if you stick together you become a bit thicker-skinned. Also, remember to enjoy it, that’s why you do it isn’t it. You’ve got to get up every morning and want to do it.
You can catch the duo on a short UK and European tour in September where they will headline London’s Lafayette on the 14th, Berlin’s Frannz Club on the 21st, with Amsterdam’s Bitterzoet and Paris’ Hasard Ludique following on the 22nd and 23rd respectively.
Aquilo’s latest single “Just Asking” is out now on all digital channels, with their full EP Sober following in July.