A Silent Film
Article by: Jamie McCormick | Photo Credit: Luca Venter | Posted: 06/07/2012
In the experiential world of the arts, a fine line runs almost imperceptibly between kitschy and clever; between gimmicky and game-changing; between pretentious and prodigious. Brit alt-rockers A Silent Film traverse that line with carefully measured steps, hinting at its existence while simultaneously creating such an experience as to erase that existence from memory. Holding to a design perfected by Queen, music is not work for this quartet, but rather play -- pure artistic and creative enjoyment. All the better if it be multi-faceted.
“We played in old turn-of-the-century cinemas -- they were kind of knackered and falling apart,” explains front-man Robert Stevenson of the band's earliest stage shows, which packed out rooms with an aggregate approach. “We had this big book that had a big page of artwork and some words and pictures for each song, and we had a video camera over the book. Then I'd turn the page of the book and that would be on the big screen behind. It was kind of Harry Potter. The whole show was this colorful, multi-media experience.”
Epic and soaring, the pop tones and sounds in A Silent Film's music are combined as well with solid rock riffs, creating a bounding sort of arena rock that will alternately make you sway and dance, close your eyes and jump up and down. It is not pop, but neither is it easily recognizable as simple rock, and the lyrics maintain the quality and heft of folk songwriting. An elaborate and energetic stage show further complicates the formula. “The performance is sort of the spectacle of the occasion,” says Stevenson, who knows that performance is play, and the experience is everything. Even further demonstrating the connection between performance and play, the wide appeal and distinct sound of A Silent Film earned them a spot on the Rock Band roster. Stevenson, though, is yet to grab the color-coded guitar and jam. “I haven't tried playing it yet. I can't imagine it going well,” he laughs, audibly blushing. “It would be just pitiful.”
“It's not always about me,” Stevenson humbly asserts, explaining a shift in the performance paradigm of the band. “I used to get very greedy about tastes and how things should go.” But nowadays, the crowd is king, and the fans get to be greedy. To that end, A Silent Film makes high quality and compelling videos for most of their songs, and they do so immediately, in addition to collaborations and special projects. “We try to do that to give people every bit of the band that they want to see.” he explains.
Such a visual focus extends naturally from those early years when the band was playing old cinemas and making composite visual art shows. And that particular performance style won the group a record contract, a spot as “Best Live Performance of the Year” and No. 4 “Song of the Year” at the Sirius Alt Nation Awards, and a stint at SXSW, (where Stevenson bought a pair of authentic Austin cowboy boots that he wears everywhere, including into the studio). Unfortunately, the stage show had to adapt to changing demands in the industry and a more complex travel schedule. “We could not maintain that night after night after night, and on the road,” says Stevenson, explaining that the group wanted to adapt and grow their sound. But there are plans in the works to bring back certain aspects of that early interactive show.
Competing drummers in two different bands, Stevenson and co-founder Spencer Walker, (who currently spins the sticks), were not a shoe-in for easy bandmates, but the natural rivals simply found themselves drawn together. Even to today, there have been no auditions and no forced set-ups. The group just coalesced and meshed quite nicely, perhaps stemming from their easy-going Oxford, England roots. “It's very humble, and there's not much posturing,” Stevenson says of his hometown. “But everyone is very ambitious.” A Silent Film could be the poster child.
But not everything comes as easily as the band came together. “I like to struggle. I don't like things that come too easily,” asserts Stevenson, explaining, “We sit in our beds in our cozy homes with our running hot water, and we take it for granted.” Even growing up in a middle-class family where his basic needs and wants were provided, Stevenson realized not everyone has it so great, nor is life or art always so simple. “Sometimes I feel a little bit uninspired by that surrounding. I like to put myself in places where I have to struggle a bit, and fend for myself, and work a lot harder. I think good things come out of that recipe.” And work harder they do, putting out records and material with regularity and filling every moment with the work they love. “The album’s not even out yet, and we're back in the studio because we had a few days off,” says Stevenson. “What's time when you're not filling it with good old-fashioned work?”
The band's recipe has paid off for them, from their first self-produced EP recorded in a shed the group converted, blacking out the windows and locking all the doors. The tetrad practiced for a year in that shed before ever playing live, so it seemed like the natural, or at least the comfortable, place to record. “I didn't like the sound or the feel of it at all, but we were desperate and the space was just right,” explains Stevenson. “It was in the middle of rainy Oxford. We had tents outside where people would crash, and we'd just have crazy parties. It was a good place to grow up.” In the dark dampness of that shed, A Silent Film found their sound and their footing to launch themselves to new levels. “That release was pragmatic at best,” he laughs. “That was our baby EP. But now we're into a different territory.”
Newly relocated to Phoenix, (whose appeal is its beauty and proximity to major cities), the group finds themselves facing a new set of challenges presented by life on the road, such as taking turns sleeping on the floor in hotels. “I like my personal space – I'm not afraid to admit that,” says Stevenson. “I need time alone. I need time in the bathroom without someone banging on the door saying, 'It's my turn.'” Stevenson even finds himself compelled to write an exposé of the airline industry's gross mishandling of musical equipment, and his work-in-progress will be a non-fiction account of the unconcerned tossing and unstable stacking of luggage.
But the road can be a wonderful place as well, with beautiful views and interesting sights. For that reason -- not for money or size or appeal -- the band members drive themselves to shows on their own small van. “Why pay for a driver when you can drive yourself in this amazing country that I haven't seen enough of yet, and I've been around it twice?” In the end, the road is a wonderful place full of new venues, new sights, new skills, new wisdom. “It's super stressful, but we do it because we love the result; we love the end game,” he asserts.
Every once in a while, our own progress stuns us, breaking out of our peripheral vision and into the foreground. For A Silent Film, that moment came when they heard their song on the radio as they drove through Lincoln tunnel into New York City. They were blown away. “It's like coming into a city that's like a big brother, and big brother says, 'You're good. You made it, kid.’” But the innocence and hopefulness of that young band performing a visually and aurally stunning show in a classic but broken-down old cinema has not died. “I hope the part of me that absolutely didn't expect anything hasn't changed,” avers Stevenson. “I still go out there wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, waiting for something to happen.” Let's hope, for their sake and for ours, that many, many things continue to happen indefinitely into the future.
A Silent Film - "You Will Leave A Mark (MTV Brand New)"