IRREGULAR INTERVIEW - JAMIE BIRKETT (DOCTRINES).
Doctrines have gone pretty quickly from being that Replacements ripoff band that did the Replacements cover set at Manchfester 2 to being one of the most exciting and unique bands in the UK punk at the moment. Their weird and ambitious freak-punk is like nothing else out there, and they’ve been suitably plucked by Alcopop records for their last two releases, and hopefully many more. In many ways, this is kind of like a part two to the interview I did with Jack Pop recently, as I asked Jack about Doctrines and asked Jamie about Alcopop because I thought it would be interesting to hear both sides of the relationship between two of the scene’s most creative entities.
This interview actually started in the middle of April, and has been slow going due to the regular problem of real life getting in the way, and part of the inspiration behind it was due to the Doctrines album suddenly being available for free download despite having a label release. So we talked about that, and the band’s development, and so on and so forth. Jamie told me the NME once cut an interview they’d done with them in the past because they were too boring. Which is silly, because you only have to scratch the surface of Doctrines a tiny bit to discover endless hidden depths.
I: The first thing I wanted to ask was some boring business stuff. You recently put up ANX for free download because you’d ‘paid it off’ - could you explain what that means exactly? Is that just studio time, or pressing etc. as well? I was also wondering if you had any idea as to how much of that has come from downloads through Bandcamp and how much has come from physical sales.
J: It basically means we’d sold enough records to pay back Jack (from Alcopop!) all the money he’d put into pressing. The deal is that he puts up the money for pressing and we pay for recording, pretty straightforward. All sales up till that point, on his side and ours, go towards paying that off before we think about any profit, which is then split 50/50.
We hadn’t really spent anything because we’d recorded it ourselves at home. We had saved up enough money from shows and merch to pay for mastering and artwork. So we only had to worry about making sure Jack didn’t lose any money, and as soon as we knew he was all good I asked if he’d mind us putting it up for free on our bandcamp. He was well up for that and here we are now. I’m still pretty amazed how he’s willing to risk his own money on us without any promise of riches in return. He really is the greatest.
As for online vs. physical sales, I don’t know how it breaks down for Alcopop, but I’d say its about 70% physical for us. Quite a few people have been paying more for the download now that its free, which is pretty cool. But no one has ordered the vinyl option on there now they can get a free download, which I guess is interesting?
I: That arrangement is interesting to me because in all the classic tales of industry debt it’s the recording time that costs all the money. The kickstarters are always to record, never ‘cause someone’s made an album and needs to release it. Just goes to show that doing things the D.I.Y. way can be the sustainable option I guess?
Obviously though I’m sure it helped with you being a recording engineer/producer yourself, right? Can you share a bit about your background with that? Is there anyone who’s particularly influenced the way you record?
J: I should make clear that we were never ‘in debt’ to Alcopop! There’s no contract, no pressure to give money back. It’s all done on trust, and to me that means we are somewhat morally ‘in debt’ to make sure Jack, at the very least, isn’t losing any money on us before we start giving our album away. After all, he’s the one doing us a favour, and for that we’ll be eternally grateful.
But yeah, being a recording engineer definitely makes it much easier for us to release stuff. If you’re in a band without anyone who can do that kind of thing then it’s far better to get a few hundred quid together for some studio time rather than have a shitty sounding record. I love great sounding records and a shitty recording can often get in the way of me enjoying a new band. I’ve never been one for lo-fi.
Saying that, I can barely stand listening to the last two Doctrines records. We tried to do it so cheaply, with minimal gear in terrible sounding bedrooms that I just feel It could’ve sounded so much better if we’d spent more time and money on it.
So over the last year or two I’ve spent a lot on building up my own gear to a point where I felt comfortable taking on other bands recording projects. It’s a totally portable setup so I’ve recorded in churches, old mills, basements and a few bedrooms still. Just wherever we think will sound good and the band feels most comfortable. It also keeps it real cheap because you’re not paying for an actual studio, so it seems to work for a lot of DIY bands with smaller budgets. I just recently made the jump from working an awful job making sandwiches into being able to support myself from working in some university studios and recording other bands. So, to any bands reading, get at me.
As for influences, nothing too ‘out there,’ but I really like the old classics. Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, and Steve Albini have all made some of my favourite albums. James Murphy knows his stuff too.
I: Oh yeah absolutely, didn’t mean to imply that at all, it’s just that the cost of recording is usually put across as being the biggest. I think Alcopop are pretty well known and regarded for keeping it fairly D.I.Y. as they’ve become a bigger and bigger label and I’ve always loved Jack’s enthusiasm for everything he does. Which actually contributes to my feeling that you’re being pretty harsh on ZE there, cause I think it’s ace and he obviously liked it enough to want to put it out!
It’s interesting to see you lump the first two EPs together, separate from the album, in terms of recording quality, because in terms of sound it feels to me like ANX was a natural progression from ZE, which was actually a pretty big leap from that first EP in a lot of ways. I remember listening to ZE and it was pretty surprising, and it’s what really made me start to think of Doctrines as a band to seriously keep an eye on because you’re doing something really exciting and fresh. I mean, I’ve always thought you’ve gone from having a sound that’s really strongly rooted in some obvious influences to suddenly not sounding like a lot else that’s going on right now. What brought about the change?
J: Well actually, I was lumping ANX and ZE together in recording quality! The first EP was essentially my final project for half of my degree. It was done in a nice studio with some great gear without any limitations, whereas with the latter two I had to try get the best sound possible from a very limited situation. Working with limitations is really fun and creative, but I guess I’m just very emotionally invested in the Doctrines stuff and can’t quite remove myself from the recording process completely satisfied.
Musically though, you’re definitely right. I don’t think anything in particular brought around a change. It wasn’t calculated, thats for sure. We’d had more time to play together and figure out what we enjoyed playing as a band. With any band starting out, you’ve gotta have some songs to get going. So on that first EP a lot of the songs we had just learned from demos I’d made when I was 18/19. We just wanted a demo that we could try and get gigs with. I’m pretty sure Grey Home was the last song we wrote for that EP, and in hindsight I think it gave the biggest indication of where we’d go later. It’s the only song we still play live now.
We started working on ZE before we’d even put out the first EP. It started off as a ‘trilogy’ of songs that just fit together musically, then the fourth one came and it turned into a concept record. Rob was never really into ‘punk’ as such, he’s just a really good drummer who likes to play drums. So my thinking was that some stupid twenty minute song would keep him stimulated enough that he hopefully wouldn’t get bored. It’s really fun being a songwriter when you get to properly know the people in your band and what they like to play. Then you try to write songs with them in mind and get excited when you think, or hope, that a certain member is gonna love this part or they’re gonna bring something great to it. We’ve kind of had to learn a new dynamic with Olly and Joe joining the band, and I think the new 7” we’ve just started recording is gonna reflect that.
I: I think ANX sounds great which I guess is why I got mixed up – I think I read ‘last two’ as ‘first two’ - I think the important thing is to have a recording style that suits the band and it definitely suits Doctrines - it’s sort of simple and direct and a bit raw, but never in a way that’s to the record’s detriment. Cheap plug of my own work aside here, I’ve been working all year on an ongoing blog about The Fall, listening to their entire discography in chronological order, and when they started actually getting good and listenable, one of the first bands I thought to compare them to was you guys - weird as fuck post-punk that takes risks, does things a bit differently, and just sounds really fresh and raw. I guess being from Manchester helped as well - do you feel like Doctrines has the identity of a “Manchester band”, or do you think it’s not so relevant these days?
J: All this talk about ANX made me listen to it the other night and it sounds alright actually, I take it all back!
I think we have an identity as a Manchester band in as far as if someone asked me where we’re from, I’d say Manchester. People probably know us as a Manchester band but not in the same way that you’d say Oasis are, where ‘Manchester’ takes on some kind of genre signifier. We certainly don’t feel obliged to carry on any musical traditions. Although we all live here, and I’ve been here 6 years now, I still feel like an imposter when someone calls us a Manchester band because we’re all from different places. I’m from the Lake District which is as much a polar opposite to a big city as you can get.
It’s not so relevant now other than to give some kind of context, rather than define the band.
I do feel some kind of identity as a northern band. I feel like there is a difference. Whether that is based on some tangible difference, or just my own xenophobic fear of the south, I don’t know.
I: Haha, see, ANX is really good! Often you just need some distance from something before you can appreciate it again. Are you someone who’s generally very critical of their own work? Do Doctrines songs come together quickly or are they laboured over to make sure you get them right What’s your writing process like as a band and for you as an individual?
J: I dunno, I’m very proud of everything we’ve done but i’ll also quite happily admit when I think something is shit. With songwriting, it’s different for every song. But generally I’ll have some kind of riff or idea that wont go anywhere for ages until I get the urge to build a song around it. Then I’ll make a demo of it with midi drums and stuff before bringing it to the rest of the band. It all changes a bit when the other guys play it their own way and we have chance to arrange it together. Lyrics are usually the last thing to come because I like to know what the whole song sounds like before committing to anything. Up until that point I have incoherent placeholder lyrics for the melody.
Once we have an idea for what format the next release is gonna be it makes it easier to plan out what kind of shape the songs and lyrics will take. I like to think of each release as a whole rather than just a collection of songs. Like with the newest stuff, because it’s gonna be on 7”, which has a limited side length, we went for some shorter, straight up songs. I still need to write most of the lyrics for that though.
I: I think that’s really cool that you write with a format in mind and I definitely think you’re versatile enough as a band to do so, but I also like that you sort of mess around with formats a bit as well - you mentioned earlier that ZE is a concept EP, which is something pretty rare - I guess Bastions just did that, but they did two, so the concept was spread across the two (or maybe more to come?) releases rather than just being condensed in to that short space. Concept records tend to be big sprawling things rather than short EPs. Can you explain a bit about the concept behind it?
J: Oh god, I hate explaining this. It gets embarrassing and tedious, and also comes across very pretentious. But here we go…
So, it’s set in the year MMLXXXIV, or 2084 to sensible people, but roman numerals rhymes better. Jacob is a young adult human who lives in an unspecified English speaking country. This future society is still in a relatively early stage but has been mostly built upon principles of transhumanism and postgenderism. Everyone is born in an artificial womb. Family and gender roles as we know it today have disappeared, hence the use of ze as a gender pronoun. Love and companionship are gone too. Without the need for a family everyone lives alone, does their job and masturbates a lot.
Jacob works a shit job and is in a lot of debt (the government uses and encourages lending as a way to keep people under their control.) Ze is frustrated and fed up with the life ze has and, like many other people, is angry that the government hasn’t been able to keep their promise of eternal life for everyone by curing the ‘illness they call death’ yet.
With no religion, science is the new god and the transhuman ideals of transforming the human body into a hybrid of flesh and technology, once promised to everyone, is now a preserve of the rich and powerful. Jacob, sick of the limitations of zes own body, meets a character who explains a government military scheme that promises to rid you of any debt and transform your body into a mean lean mechanical fighting machine. So off ze goes to join the army.
The war Jacob has gone to fight in is a war between the current government and a group called the Luvvites (See: Luddites.) The Luvvites united in opposition to the current regime through their rejection of scientific and transhuman ideals and their hope to reinstate the ideals of family, love and community. It’s a pretty futile war as the Luvvites are practically fighting human tanks, but during this bloodshed Jacob sees a mother embrace a child trying to protect it from imminent death. Jacob, never having seen this kind of bond between family before, follows the urge to save them and defect to the Luvvite camp.
After learning the ways of the Luvvites, Jacob is amazed by the sense of community and family they have. Having been shown a photograph that shows four generations of one family together he longs for that kind of connection to history and feels like it’s what he’s been missing all along (Gender specific pronouns are intentional now. Its not just laziness.) Jacob falls in love with one of the boys and goes in for a kiss, but the boy is horrified and immediately pleads god for forgiveness. Jacob learns that the Luvvites are still bound to old religious ideals, meaning same sex relationships are considered sinful and so unholy that they would disqualify someone from entering paradise, etc.
The story pretty much ends with Jake feeling alienated by both sides, caught between two worlds with no place to call home. It doesn’t really have an ending, maybe because I intended to carry it on with the next release. Maybe I thought it was cool and like Kafka to end a story half way through, but it just comes across as lazy and stupid instead. Oh Well. Ta Da. The End. Read this along with the lyrics on bandcamp and hopefully it’ll all come together!
I: See that’s actually ace, and it reminds me a lot of Vonnegut-style science fiction like Harrison Bergeron. One thing I’m still curious about, though, is the recurring character of Ray Kay. Am I right in thinking he gets a mention on ANX as well?
J: I dunno? Does he? I can’t think of one right now, but maybe he does! He’s not really a character as such, it’s just a wicked cool nickname for Raymond Kurzweil. I tried reading his book, ‘The Singularity Is Near’, loads of times but couldn’t get more than a quarter way through because it scares the shit out of me. I got a bit obsessed with all that stuff at the time. So yeah, all of his ideas were the inspiration behind the techy stuff in ZE and the rest of the gender stuff came from The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.
I: Haha, maybe I’m wrong then, I dunno. But yeah, the concept is great and it’s a shame that more bands can’t pull it off with something worthwhile - I think the more I learn about it, the more ZE is becoming my favourite Doctrines release. I remember around the time it came out I saw you play the whole thing through live, would that be something you’d ever do again?
J: I’m not sure, probably not any time soon. With Oli and Joe joining the band it makes more sense to focus on new stuff. I don’t know for sure but I assume they prefer to play songs they’ve actively been a part of creating. Also, with us generally getting 30 minute slots, and ZE taking up almost 20 minutes of that, it’s a tricky one to fit in when there’s a load of other songs we wanna play! Maybe when the singularity arrives, we’ll do it. I’ve wanted to release it as a comic book too, so if that ever happens it’d be a good excuse.
I: Comic book? That’d be cool. I bet Alcopop would bloody love it too. Are you an illustrator yourself or would you have to find someone to draw it for you? Anyone you’d have in mind, or anything you’d want it to look like?
J: It’s not something I’ve seriously thought about to be honest. Just a ‘what if’ kinda thing. It would be pretty cool though! I cant draw so we’d have to find someone who’d want to do it, and I’m sure Jack would go crazy for the idea!
I: Feels to me like we’re coming to a close, so one last question - you mentioned a new 7”, how is that coming along? And have you been thinking ahead any further than that? What can we expect from Doctrines over the rest of the year?
J: The 7 is coming along nicely. Recorded pretty much everything but vocals so far. It’s 4 songs we’ve written since Oli and Joe joined the band and I really like um. My Dad texted me a review of the instrumental tracks I gave him, which simply said ‘Uplifting :-)’. I’ve never seen my Dad use an emoticon before so I consider that to be a smashing first review. Hopefully once the lyrics are there it will negate any uplifting qualities that might damage our cool cred.
As for the rest of the year, I really dunno! We should probably tour again. Maybe record some more music because why not eh? Joe’s moving to manchester which is pretty exciting and makes things easier. Hooray for Joe.
I: Jamie, thank you! I can’t wait for more from you guys. I need to stop being lazy and come out and see you again next time I get the chance.
You can get everything by Doctrines at http://doctrines.bandcamp.com/. I really recommend it.