Chatting with John Armstrong of UK band Speed of Sound

By Chyrisse Tabone, Rock At Night Tampa Correspondent

Rock At Night is happy to feature an interview with John Armstrong of UK band Speed of Sound.  Also, Speed of Sound is currently our BAND OF THE MONTH!  Please check out their new release of the double CD Everything Changes which will appeal to anybody that loves the 60s mod or psych rock sound–but with socially conscious themes.

John Armstrong

I understand that Speed of Sound just released a double CD Everything Changes and even a pressed vinyl album!  Where was the album recorded? Was it in one session or over time?  

Our recording process is a bit unusual; we record live with everyone in the same room so we can interact and give cues and play off each other rather than build it up a layer at a time. There are a lot of time signature gear changes involved so a click track isn’t really an option. The songs aren’t fully choreographed, they evolve and each run-through will be different, so we can’t cut and paste even if we wanted to. We then rerecorded the vocals and added embellishments at home on my own recording gear. The live recording was at Seed Studio (with some done at SSR and one at Riverside) here in Manchester. The studio sessions had to be weekday evenings because we all work. Spread over seven sessions between September and December 2015. We generally recorded multiple takes of three songs per session, adding the home recording element as we went along so the whole recording process finished in January. Which still left the mixing and mastering of 22 songs (the b-side of the 45rpm single isn’t on the album and there is an acoustic version of one of the tracks from the LP which I’m keeping in my back pocket for now).

Where did the album title come from? 

The demo of the third [this] album was finished in mid 2014, with different songs and obviously different recordings, the whole thing had two ‘start again’ Everything Changes points so it was a natural title. It fits with the themes of many of the songs and resonates with the title of Love’s Forever Changes album, which is not a bad thing to unintentionally reference.

Ann-Marie Crowley

A lot of the songs sound very 60s mod, psych rock and even a little like 70s Dire Straits. I love the harmonies between you and Ann-Marie. How would YOU describe the music? 

There are so many genres now, they’ve all become too fractured to mean anything and existing genres are changing their meaning over time; R&B and Garage certainly don’t mean now what they did 30 years ago. So if you use genre based terms you can’t be sure you will be understood anymore. The internet works on the ‘who do you sound like’ question and that doesn’t function well for us, because everyone hears something different in what we do. There’s a very clearly visible late 60’s foundation to our sound, we build on that and we’re still exploring where it takes us. We crunch and we float. A venue we played at described us as ‘atmospheric alternative rock’ and I like the simplicity of that.

What do you think about the future of mod music in general?  

It depends on your outlook really, there is a lot of “this is mod and that isn’t mod” arguing in the scene which can be a really narrow straitjacket – often ignoring the jazz aspect that started the whole thing off… Whereas, it had always been about pushing things forward, evolving, taking the best parts of other ideas and making them into something new. The old quote of ‘there is no mod music but there is music mods like’ is still valid. There’s a place for the re-creation approach and just because a record is old is no reason not to play it again, but it needs to grow and change or it’s not really alive anymore. I hope it does.

Speed of Sound

I was just dancing to the song “Karin B“.  What was the impetus for this song?

It is quite catchy, if a little strange – the idea had been floating around for quite a while; way back in 1988… there was a ship called Karin B, she was loaded with toxic waste and was repeatedly refused permission to dock at a series of European ports so had to stay at sea moving from harbour to harbour and being turned away at every one. The story reminded me of the legend of the Flying Dutchman – being doomed to roam the sea until redeemed by love – and it got filed away under ‘think about it later’. Twenty five years on, it bobbed up demanding attention. The themes of constancy and change echo through the whole album and is central to the band’s outlook on music in general. Evolution is a necessary part of life and only things that have stopped living don’t change. “The tide will change but she stays the same”. The “no one will ever find her unmarked grave” line is about the intentional sinking (sometimes with the crew) of ships laden with embarrassing cargo – the toxic waste trade of the 80’s involved a lot of disappearances… On another level it makes the listener look sideways at the song a bit, wondering if there has been a murder. So it’s a love song about loss and rejection but open to lots of different interpretations.

The songs are actually about things…

They are; we always start with the lyrics. It’s not all teenage love, angst and rocknroll whooping because we’re not teenagers anymore so don’t have teenage angst. They’re not all as obscure as “Karin B”, although I’m still not really sure what “Maid Of The Grey” is actually about… there’s ambiguity in them and they’re open to interpretation but something specific always sparks them off.

Paul Worthington

The album has 10 songs but the CD version features two CDs with 20 songs. This is unheard of nowadays! Have you been collecting songs through the years or were these freshly penned?

There is a trend to release mp3 ‘singles’ and not present a body of work, I’ve always liked albums and the extended time they get to form a dynamic musical shape, if people want to put it on shuffle that’s fine, but it is laid out to make sense in different keys and with pace changes as – is a live gig set list. Our current ‘live-list’ has 45 songs and we rotate them within that, the live-list itself also rotates slowly when other songs that have been ‘sleeping’ are revived. However; the ten on the vinyl LP were all written since the last album (2012), the plan had always been to issue an expanded album, and a cd of bonus tracks was the best way to do it. I don’t like download codes and to do a CD only format version would have doubled the artwork and production costs plus is a very user friendly way to transfer them to computer. BE Records is my own label so there is no suit-intervention from the accountant or executive saying ‘you can’t do that’ we have complete control.

What can a person expect from seeing a Speed of Sound live performance?

Each gig is unique. We’re about live performance and playing – which is why we record that way – and every gig is different. We rotate the songs and they evolve so there will be differences every time. We’ve had people talking to us after a gig and one of them say we sounded like The Stranglers and another say Jefferson Airplane when they’ve both just watched the same show… Everyone references music in relation to what they’ve already heard and because there are so many different influences going on in what we do everyone hears it differently.

Kevin Roache

I love the little video promo video for Everything Changes and the inserts in the album. Tell me about the artwork because it is awesome!

The photographs on the album front are taken from nearly the same spot, it’s a detour through the local park on the way to the post office and I take a picture every time I go that way. When I remembered I had one including sideways snow the sleeve front idea didn’t need much more thinking out. The statue on the sleeve back is a photograph I took in Vienna, she is below a statue of Brahms and is mourning the unheard music, which is very appropriate for an independent band. The wrap round photograph on the inner sleeve was taken in the green-room at Ruby Lounge in Manchester. As well as the LP sleeves there is a double sided insert carrying the front and back sleeve images and then the 297×297 square insert with the cartoonised pictures of the band by Maxine Green/The Chaos Bunny. I know Maxine, she’d been to some of our gigs and always sketches everything wherever she is, I knew her style matched what I had in mind for the insert, I’d wanted them to have a cut out paper-doll look to give them a different twist to just a band picture using their gear. I knew she’d catch onto the idea and I had a plan for what the insert would be like but when they came in I realised it didn’t need anything else with them. She did a wonderful job and as soon as I saw them I knew they wanted to move, so I animated them into the short album promo video using the coda from Chalk Circle on the bonus CD as the audio. We both picked up each others ideas immediately and ran with them, which is what collaborative work is about really, sparking off each other and getting it to go somewhere it wouldn’t have gone on your own. I’m really happy with that insert.

Where can somebody find the new album for download or ordering?

The digital version is distributed via CD Baby, so is on all the normal download platforms you would expect to find it on, and also via Bandcamp; which has the advantage of being cheaper and having a *pdf lyric booklet coming with the download.

The physical LP with the CD set (they’re actual glass stamped CD’s not burned) is on sale through Bandcamp and at gigs, its limited edition, all copies are signed, and we will ship worldwide.

The Speed Of Sound are:  John Armstrong – guitars and vocals, Kevin Roache – bass guitar, Paul Worthington – drums,  and Ann-Marie Crowley – vocals, percussion, guitar.

Photo by Paul Husband
Photo by Paul Husband



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Chyrisse Tabone, Ph.D.
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