Before officially forming the Self Help Group in 2009, songwriter Mark Bruce holed up in his Brighton digs, clanking out organic melodies on a funky 12-string. The drive and creativity, and the bones, were already in place. He just needed a few more talented crooners and clankers and he got them: Ian Blisczak, Clara Wood, Sarah Wood, Paddy Keeley and Jamie Fewings.

By 2013, the Self Help Group had released their debut album, ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, on the Union Music Store Label. Their brand new release, ‘Dead Stars’, does not disappoint; the expected vivid writing appears, but, because it was culled from the excitement of their live performance, the resulting tracks are more colourful and textured than ever before. Their multi-layered voices, which recall the best of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or Seals and Croft, delightfully offset the often sombre, but compelling themes. The listener gets to gracefully sift through a tableau of stark black, blinding white and shifting grays, all performed vis a vis harrowing harmonies and old school instrumentation.

The video of the single ‘Luigi’s Waltz’ features masked children playing hide and seek amongst golden haystacks. Both visually and musically, the video opens another window through which the band’s sense of whimsy and camaraderie shines.

The Self Help Group can be found entertaining folk of all walks of lives, in venues, dimly lit or crackling with baristas or barflies. They bring their ambience and originality with them. They’re that kind of band.

In an interview with Pennyblackmusic, front man Mark Bruce dishes out the details and shares the amazing back stories that inspired many of their tunes.

PB: Please tell us how the six of you came together with a similar vision and how you broke into the Brighton scene.

MB: I’d been writing and recording music in my loft, and decided it was time to try to perform live for the first time in about twenty years.

I enlisted the help of a few friends and cobbled together a band. Of that original line-up only Ian remains, and we’ve lost and gained a few bodies over the years. The line-up on the album has been stable for about two years.

I write the songs and always have a good idea of how I want things to sound and thankfully we are all now on a similar wavelength about what is right and wrong for the Self Help Group sound, so things usually fall together quite easily.

PB: The Self Help Group’s early demos merged ambient sounds, clips of human conversation and conventional vocal lines. How were these early demos recorded and were they influenced by any particular bands or solo artists?

MB: In all honesty, I think a lot of the ambient stuff, although I like that kind of thing anyway, maybe came from a lack of confidence in my own voice and material to begin with. The first few tracks were instrumental with some vocal”Sounds” rather than words. I think I was trying to figure out what it was I was trying to do. I didn’t know what to write about at that point either because life was pretty good. In my earlier works, twenty years previous, there was a lot of angst and sadness kicking about so I had to find a new way to write.

PB: On ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’ the band did a great job introducing audiences to multi-layered harmonies and catchy hooks. Some critics say that ‘Dead Stars’ welcomes back those elements but evokes a darker sensibility. How would you compare the songwriting of your first album to this year’s release? And do you feel you’ve explored deeper terrain this time around?

MB: Yes, I guess ‘Dead Stars’ is a little darker. The world outside feels quite dark right now. I have two small boys and worry for their future. The songs aren’t specifically about that, but I’m always drawn to a certain kind of story.
I still feel that I’m growing as a writer and ‘Dead Stars’ is just a natural progression rather than a planned move.

PB: Was there a specific incident that inspired the early song ‘Needles’?

MB: ‘Needles’ is inspired by the story of Major Alexis Casdagli who took up needlecraft during his incarceration in a German POW camp during the Second World War. The German officers were taken with his work, and commissioned him to make pieces for their homes and to put up around the camp. Unbeknownst to them, he filled the borders with Morse code, spelling out phrases such as “Fuck Hitler” and “God Save the Queen”. He was never found out, and was an absolute legend of a man.

PB: On your website, there is an image of a child behind bars. Is ‘Prisoner’ about an abandoned child? “I’ve been here for four years but no one can remember me.”

MB: ‘Prisoner’ is a difficult one to explain as it’s formed from an abstract thought I had while watching a movie where a prison guard was knocked out and the escaping prisoner stole his uniform and locked him in the cell. I just tried to write the story of a possible outcome for the guard. one of the few songs we have that isn’t based on a true story but one that strangely evokes a lot of emotion when singing it.

The image is actually my son behind a stair gate!

PB: “We are dead stars looking back up at the sky” is a very strong lyric. Was it inspired by science fiction or a random glance out of the window on a clear night?

MB: ‘Dead Stars’ was taken from a video I saw featuring Dr Michelle Thaller. She spoke about the birth of the universe and of how every atom in our bodies is comprised of elements released during the death of a star. I found the line “We are dead stars/Looking back up at the sky” just lovely and very fitting to the themes of the meaning of life etc. I saw the video and BANG there was our album title.

PB: At what point in the making of ‘Dead Stars’ did you enlist producer Jamie Freeman? What strengths do you believe he contributed to the project?

MB: Jamie runs Union Music Store with Stevie, his wife, and part of our deal with them is that they record the album with us at Jamie’s studio at home. It just works. We don’t always agree on everything, but he makes us work hard and I think we both play to each other’s strengths. I know that in the end that he will make sure that we have a really strong album. He works his arse off for us. He has literally no arse left at present.

PB: There are a dozen songs on ‘Dead Stars’ based on a spectrum of stories. Can you elaborate on one or two songs and describe how the story was reimagined sonically?

MB: ‘The Box’ is the last song on the album and is about an Australian athlete called Reg Spiers who mailed himself back home to his daughter’s birthday party from England, as he’d run out of money. We wanted to try to capture the solitude of being inside a packing crate on an airplane at the start so soloed my voice and used no reverb. By the end of the song we wanted to try and make it pretty euphoric to reflect the fact that he made it, so the song goes from a very sparse vocal track to huge strings and drums and as much as we could throw at it. I’m very proud of that song.

PB: On the album, the band references three real or imagined places: ‘Trieste’ ‘Quintland’ and ‘Eddie’s House’. If you were a real estate agent, how would you help a buyer decide which one to purchase?

MB: I’d insist that they buy ‘Quintland’ and bulldoze the fucker. It is a horrible moment for humanity that place. Eddie is very happy in the garden so I don’t care much what happens to his house and, ‘Trieste’ is actually about a submarine. I’m an estate agent. I wouldn’t know how to sell a submarine!

PB: On the website, the band states that a major influence is: “Hunger.” The Self Help Group formed in 2009. Have you skipped many meals whilst recording EPS, two albums and touring?

MB: When I’m recording I can go hours without eating, probably a whole day. But usually I graze all day and have three good meals. In a fairer world I’d be a 20 stone wobbler.

PB: Where will you tour in support of ‘Dead Stars’?

MB: We have no immediate plans to tour due to Clara’s impending motherhood duties, but will keep things ticking over and all being we’ll have some dates in the diary for the New Year.

PB: Thank you.

Related Links:

Commenting On: Interview - Self Help Group

ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment

First Previous Next Last