Kindly Joe Keogh spent some time with James O’ Sullivan of Underscore Part 3 as the band began to wrap up the UK leg of their tour. With the bands next steps being to fly transatlantic for another jaunt around America Joe took his time to reflect on what is important to him as a music fan that he brings to the Amber Run show, being realistic whilst still have aspirations and dreams and assessing his emotional connections with songs and how fans can perceive them. With no time limit set and no rush Joe allowed unprecedented access to the inner workings of him and Amber Run in our compelling interview.
You have three days left in the UK tour, and you fly off on Wednesday before your US tour starts on Friday. Surely that must take its toll, trying to make every gig incredible?
“it’s our job to make sure that everyone walks away from every single show feeling like they saw an Amber Run show and felt part of it, that it was worth being there and spending their time with us.”
“Absolutely – not every gig is incredible, I won’t lie, but every gig is equally important because people have paid the same amount of money and there are things out of your control that you can’t do to make everything great – say, someone in the band’s ill, or something like that – but there’s a perfect storm that turns up sometimes where it is just the perfect show. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s our job to make sure that everyone walks away from every single show feeling like they saw an Amber Run show and felt part of it, that it was worth being there and spending their time with us.”
About 18 months ago you played London’s, The Shard – which seemed bizarre; How did you find it? How did it come about?
“A band like ours doesn’t make a stupid amount of money, but what we do get paid in are the opportunities and memories that you get to create along the way.”
“That was fucking odd! I just remember being really cold – my hands being really cold, and not being able to strum my guitar properly. It’s a fun thing to be able to say you’ve done; a band like ours doesn’t make a stupid amount of money, but what we do get paid in are the opportunities and memories that you get to create along the way. So, I’ve played at the top of the Shard – not many bands can say they’ve done that! I remember it was at the end of another tour, we were all just quite tired. Acoustic shows like that are very different to what we do on tour, on a day by day basis; I just remember it being great fun. And my mum and dad were there, which was nice!”
So, mentioning how acoustic shows are different to your typical tour shows – do you prefer either of them, if you could choose?
“a specific song [Amen] we released recently is a song about my grandfather dying, and I often describe it as picking off a scab in front of people and it just bleeding again.”
“It depends on the situation really; there’s a lot more security for me in the live show, because I know it a lot better, the ‘rock show’, while the acoustic ones are more intimate. They’re great, and sometimes as I said there’s this perfect storm and it just turns out to be really powerful. A lot of our music is really personal, and when I can see the whites of peoples’ eyes it can be either really motivating, or really sobering and kind of makes me feel really naked. A lot of our music is about our struggle with depression; a specific song [Amen} we released recently is a song about my grandfather dying, and I often describe it as picking off a scab in front of people and it just bleeding again, but when you’re really, really close to people it feels less like a scab and more like…”
“like taking the stitches out of something you got sorted the other day, reopening and reengaging the feelings. The idea of catharsis is a really easy way for people to talk about emotional music, and there’s definitely a place for it, but I think if you’re singing it every single night, and you want it to be important to people, you have to channel what you were thinking at the time you were writing it. I find it disturbing, sometimes, that I could have been that sad, and that grieving, in such a shit place. I find it quite difficult to revisit those moments, but maybe that’s my problem and everyone else has it right by saying it’s cathartic. But I think in a performance perspective, what we’re talking about – if performing a song is deeply personal but cathartic every time, I’m not entirely sure you’re performing it right. (Amen).
In terms of tours, and recently released music – how are you able to decide which songs to play on tours? Heaven, for instance – a staple of your setlist all the way back to Spark EP!
“We understand that our fans have gotten us to where we are, and we’re grateful for that, so if they want to hear “I Found” five times, fuck it, we’ll play it for them.”
“Yeah, Heaven was a stalwart of our set for a really long time. It’s really important to keep changing, to keep changing the setlist up and trying out different songs and trying out different stuff; it’s a relationship between what you want and what the people who buy the tickets want, because if we just played those songs – without meaning to sound like a dick – you get quite bored of playing those tunes every time, and it’s really, really important to keep changing it up: if we’re enjoying it, and we’re finding the music that we’re playing engaging as we play it, the audience will find it a lot more engaging and enjoyable themselves. Obviously, there are some songs that we’ll just play forever because we’re absolutely dead-certain people will like them and want to hear them. I‘m not exactly Paul McCartney or anything, we don’t have that level of success or critical acclaim that I could go “I’m gonna play whatever the fuck I want” – we understand that our fans have gotten us to where we are, and we’re grateful for that, so if they want to hear “I Found” five times, fuck it, we’ll play it for them. I mean, I don’t find Noah super engaging anymore – I’m in a different place in my life – but we’ll play it, because we know that people really love it when we do play it. Songs like Heaven will probably come in and out of the set as we’re feeling like we can re-interpret and make them really cool for us again. And we’re in a really fortunate place where we have three records and there are quite a lot of songs that people quite like, so it’s difficult to choose.”
As we talk about how old songs, it brings me quite nicely to one of my main questions – Philophobia. First of all – you mentioned that you use your music as an expression of your experiences of depression. Philophobia, then, meaning fear of love – would you say that as a band you have experienced this too?
“Yeah definitely; in my life I’ve never really liked myself enough to believe that anyone would like me or love me in turn. So, thematically, with this record, I guess it’s come from that kind of sentiment – it’s the fear of falling in love, yes, but the way I think of it is this fear of affectionate relationships, whether with outside sources – friends, parents, significant others – or the relationship that you have with yourself, because if that’s tainted or not in a good place you’re not really going to be able to have long lasting, worthwhile relationships at all. That was some of the stuff I was looking at lyrically on the record.”
“[We’re in] an interesting cultural, social moment – there have been people that have said that, for this record, it’s a tired subject – but there’s a reason why certain things get spoken about quite a lot, and it’s usually because they’re quite important. It’s a really difficult time, for want of a better word, for ‘Millennials’, people who are our age; the world is quite tense, quite difficult, and there are serious issues coming up, so I see why people would bury their heads in the unreal, and the untouchable; but dealing with one’s self and your significant pool of important people around you is a large step towards being able to look further out and make actual impact – if you’re grounded in how you’re feeling, you know that you can say and do what you need to do to make an actual impact elsewhere.”
Would it be wrong to assume that that is where Entertainment came from?
“Yeah literally bang on, very insightful, fair play – yeah. And that’s crazy; when you get up on that stage or you write music, then you are basically the product. It’s very jarring, when you are a human being in your own right and you have opinions and thoughts on how we should all be living our lives; I do think that music and the people we respect have a role in shaping how we do things, like our thought processes and stuff. I’m uncertain though, at this point in my career – I’m 26 – whether it’s my place to tell people what that should be, so sometimes you do just feel like a clown.”
“The way you create the next huge rock acts, and cultural movements, [is] by giving the megaphones to those who are present and a part of it, not by giving it to those who have had their moment.”
“Artists all live at different points of social culture and thought, and different people attend different shows because of it. There’s a reason why every single tune that Billie Eilish or Stormzy play, everyone’s like “this is fucking amazing” – it’s because they’re at the forefront of the social and cultural wave right now. It’s one of my pet peeves that there’s an absolute menagerie of unbelievable English music, some unbelievable shit happening right now – why aren’t those people headlining those festivals? It’s the way you create the next huge rock acts, and cultural movements, by giving the megaphones to those who are present and a part of it, not by giving it to those who have had their moment. I know I’ll feel the same when I’m fifty – if you have something important to say, definitely still say it – but don’t be angry if people don’t want to listen, because it’s not your moment. You only get them once or twice in a lifetime, so be grateful for it if you get the privilege to have it. Don’t be a tosser if it stops.”
To go back to a wealth of English talent, a ‘menagerie’ – presumably that includes Stereo Honey – are there any other artists that you would say to look out for?
“Well, obviously the ones you already know who are doing ridiculous shit, like Foals and Royal Blood, and bands of that ilk. I think Yonaka are going about their business in a really good way, I think ISLAND are going about their business in a really interesting way – let’s leave it at that. But there’s so much great stuff if people would take the time to look, to engage with it.”
That idea, of engaging with music and coming to grips with it – in terms of each of your albums, each of the three was noticeable different, particularly Philophobia, which was both the lightest and heaviest of the three – is that just a natural tonal shift over time or something more than that?
“I guess so. Songs are moments in time, and these are the moments of time we have found ourselves in now. We’re not trying to find or push a particular sound; we’re just writing music that we think is fucking cool, and then lyrically and subconsciously they meld, because they’re written in one singular moment. So yeah, I guess you’re right, it’s a natural tonal shift. We love rock music; but I also love folk music, so there might come a moment on the next release where you go “oh, that sounds like folk”, and I’ll be like “yeah it fucking does, because it’s great”. Fans often lament past records, and past stuff, and I get it – but you’d be more annoyed if the bands that you love didn’t challenge themselves to create what they think is the best thing that they could create, and it would get very boring and tiring when making music if you made the same thing again and again and again.”
For best thing that you could create then, if it’s not too much like asking a parent to choose their favourite child, what would you say is your favourite song?
“At the moment? I’d have to say What Could Be As Lonely As Love. It’s fun to say, it’s fun thematically and lyrically to try and be different, for you the listeners, as well as interesting in the way that you’re putting it across, while still being able to say what you actually want to say, in a different ‘costume’ than what you’re used to. We really challenged ourselves with that one and I think it came out really really well, so probably I’d say that one.”
To change the topic a bit, thinking about different costumes and portrayals, and the images we put across of ourselves: with where we are – The Lemon Grove, the Exeter University Student Union – what’s it like playing to student dominated gigs, as opposed to typical crowds? Any difference?
“Um… people are a bit more drunk! I don’t really notice that much of a difference – but we try to cultivate our lives set in a very specific way, where it’s a relationship and a conversation between the two, between us and the crowd. There’s never any expectation for people to be quiet, or to sing back – we just play the show and try to read the room to make sure that people are having the best possible time that they can: sometimes you’ll turn up in quite an insecure town and they want to hear sad songs played sadly, and sometimes you turn up in a place where they want raucous rock music played loudly, and we’ll cultivate our set and our performance to best make them feel welcome, and give them what they want. So, student, non-student; man, woman, and those that are neither; old, young – it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re enjoying and want to be a part of what we’re doing.”
In terms of uni, given your own experiences – going back a few years now – when did you guys decide on music over your degrees, and know that you were talented enough to ‘make it’?
“Well, the concept of ‘making it’ is a tough one, because we’re still making this shit up, and there’s still stuff that turns up all the time that’s tough; but we were offered a pretty funky record deal, and it was at that moment that we realised that we were being given the opportunity to change our circumstance and really give our passion a go. That’s a real privilege that not many people get, so I think it was around that moment where I realised that you’re doing it for yourself but you’re also doing it for unheard voices of thousands, millions of other unbelievably talented people who didn’t get that same opportunity, so you just have to grab it, sprint with it and make the best possible art that you can. It was probably around then, which was right at the end of our second year; we all turned up at uni in third year thinking we’d give it a go, but maybe three or four weeks into that third year, where we had so much touring in the pipeline, and so many recording commitments – I’m a big believer of something worth doing is worth doing right – and it’s the same with uni. If that’s where you need to be and where you should be you should give everything to it, and we wouldn’t have been able. It was better to choose one, and we chose this one.”
What you mentioned about ‘stuff turning up that’s tough’ – is that related to the new album, in terms of ‘making it up’, or is more general?
“Those that know us know for a fact that we don’t have a fucking clue. But again, I think the naivety and innocence of that makes something more powerful.”
“I think I meant it in a more general sense, but making records is always a minefield of possibilities and difficulties; and if it wasn’t it would probably be a pretty shit record! I keep saying it, but we’re all just fucking making it up. As long as you make it up with purpose, with the intention of doing something meaningful, whether it’s successful or not you can walk away thinking ‘that was worth doing’. Those that know us know for a fact that we don’t have a fucking clue. But again, I think the naivety and innocence of that makes something more powerful. I know how to write – I know how to write a pop song, I know how to do it – but what’s the fucking point? There are so many other people that are way better at it than me; and I don’t think the world needs more of that anyway. It definitely doesn’t need it from me, or from my friends. It needs, in my opinion, thoughtful, caring, anecdotal explorations of important subjects that I have the ability to talk about. Maybe that’s not politics, or the climate crisis – which I do think needs talking about – but again, I don’t have the vocabulary or the street-smarts to be able to do that justice. Some of the things I do know about are human connections and hating oneself, so I’ll keep doing that until maybe I like myself.