British, guitar-driven rock foursome Temples talk to PKM about how they survive the Age of Trump and Spotify
There isn’t much room in today’s climate to toil in one’s own unique musical vineyard. The same is true about finding commercial success as a rock band. With the advent and expansion of streaming services, it has become exceptionally hard to stand out as in an age of hip-hop and electronic music, not to mention make a living from your music.
With the landscape turning to a singles market, most of what a band or musician wants to say has to be condensed to three-and-a-half minutes. Albums simply don’t carry the same weight they used to.
However, there are a few bands who do succeed. Temples, from Kettering, U.K., are a case in point. The band’s ability to speak at full-length on an album isn’t hindered by a community that would otherwise prefer a one-song thesis statement. Their 2014 debut LP Sun Structures set them up as a band that is succinct to detail, reaching #7 on the UK charts. Founders James Bagshaw and Thomas Walmsley paid attention to the minutiae and succeeded in elevating themselves to a cut above other bands that adhere to a similar palette.
Here is the first single released from Sun Structures, “Shelter Song,” neo-psychedelia at its best:
This became clear on Volcano, their second full studio LP, released last year and climbing to #23 in the UK. Details that might have been overlooked initially have been mastered with this follow-up. Perhaps it’s why Bagshaw croons, “I’ve got the picture and the details” on the album’s opener “Certainty.”
How does a band survive in the current climate, both musical and political? For guitar-driven music, it seems that the disillusioned are the lifeblood. Thomas Walmsley, bassist and co-creator of Temples, told me at Huckleberry Bar in Brooklyn that today’s bands are inherently on the fringe, ones that challenge the agenda of the mainstream right.
Walmsley said, “I think that’s the best place for [guitar-driven music], sort of on the periphery. It’s been a long time since it was mainstream and it’s not a good look for it in many ways. As soon as it’s there, you know it’s going to get chewed up and spit out and disappear again. Just being on the edge, putting pressure on [the right], being the underdog, it kind of works for it.”
Technology, too, has skewed what it means to be a band. Where record deals were doled out in the millions in the ‘90s and early 2000s (with one exception for Adele), now a record can be engineered in a studio built in the smallest confines of a New York apartment, and for half the price. The marketplace has become saturated with singles. And services like Spotify act as a pool for labels to aggregate their next signing, but only if the play count reflects it.
So, how does a band find relevance? Walmsley says that it ultimately comes down to the performances, the live shows in front of living, breathing human beings.
“There’s so much more of an emphasis on playing live now than there ever has been,” says Walmsley. “It keeps it real and keeps people in contact with a band. So it almost doesn’t matter if you’re played on the radio or not. Unless you have a huge debt to pay to someone, where it becomes an objective.”
Temples have embodied this ideology. They made an impact early on, performing on the late night circuit in America (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen DeGeneres Show) to promote their debut, then moving on to festivals like Glastonbury in 2014 and 2017 and Brooklyn’s own Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Their latest release (Volcano) was well received, but now they face audiences in Trump’s America, and the general discourse of music seems to be leaning toward topical issues. Rappers like Logic are singing about suicide prevention, television programs like This Is Us are tackling societal issues and the #metoo movement is gaining more traction with every takedown.
It would appear that the landscape has shifted toward the disenfranchised. If most of the voices in entertainment are spearheading the counterculture, then the counterculture has inevitably become part of the mainstream.
“It’s probably the most political time to exist since we’ve had the technology and the access that we have now,” Walmsley says. “There’s such a micro-focus on everything. And music speaks to people so it gets mixed up in all of that.”
Indeed some voices do get lost among the crowd.
“It’s like the ultimate dystopian scenario. Big businessman celebrity becomes ruler of the free world. There are many science fiction books that foretold this.”
“I can understand a song being written about [Trump],” says Walmsley. “Because it’s not just ‘the wrong team won,’ it’s like the ultimate dystopian scenario. Big businessman celebrity becomes ruler of the free world. There are many science fiction books that foretold this.”
But that isn’t to slam the internal politics of pop or rock music. It’s actually essential to guitar-driven music and the like to broach such topics.
“I think that kind of material works quite well in a song,” he concludes.
One of the singles off of Volcano, entitled “Strange or Be Forgotten,” might be seen as a narrative on such issues, with it’s refrain stating “Abstain from the passing fashion / If fame is really an illusion then / Be strange, strange or be forgotten.”
But, as Walmsley notes, the song finds its footing as a comedy. He says, “Our way of being more comfortable with writing a song like [‘Strange or Be Forgotten’] had to be a slight parody. We shroud things in comedy.”
Sure, there has been a surge of stand-up comedy lately, and political satire seems to write itself but there is a sense of urgency in Bagshaw’s words. Divisions are forming across all mediums; even Neil Portnow reinforced those divisions at this year’s Grammys.
But that’s Temples’ proverbial mission. While their music and accompanying visuals brand themselves as tongue-in-cheek commentary, it’s that comedic idea that separates them from others in their field and makes them serious in their delivery. They simply won’t abide by the rules of the majority. They will follow their own compass instead.
For the band, though, they found a nook that has taken to them famously, withstanding the divisive nature of musical fandom and finding a path that seldom works for other likeminded artists in this era.
There are no upcoming dates for the band at the moment but the group is recording material for their next release. Details have not been announced but pictures of the studio can be seen on the band’s Instagram account.