It took Gengahr a while to figure out what they wanted to do with their second album, but they've hit upon a winning formula.
Felix Bushe is adjusting - in more ways than one. 2018 already feels like a year bound with importance, and it’s something he knows all too well. It’s the time for Gengahr lay out the answer to that all-important question every gliding new band has to answer - what comes next? It’s a question he found posed over and over as they came to terms with life after debut album, ‘A Dream Outside’. An opening statement with lush dream-pop oozing out of every pore, how they'd go about its follow-up was a weighty decision, and adjusting to their experiences over the past few years was something ready to be engulfed by Gengahr as a band. The other reason Felix is adjusting? Well, he did just fly back from Australia - that’ll do it.
"It all feels quite a bit different," points out Felix, contemplating the position the band of mates from Stoke Newington now find themselves. “When you put out your first album it’s all sort of fun and games; you don’t know what’s going to happen or what to expect or even what’s possible. Putting a second album out, it’s a pretty nerve-wracking time - I guess it does become a bit scary in a way."
It’s a brave and confident step that Gengahr take with ‘Where Wildness Grows’, a second album that does what every great second album nails - taking the heart of everything they first laid out on their debut and expanding it into a different beast; a bigger force. Led by storming thunderbolt ‘Carrion’, it’s a record comfortable in its skin, measured and immediate in a way that means it can pierce through mood or moment with ease. A step-up into something bolder, the band knew where they wanted to take it. "We wanted to take it away from feeling like a bedroom project," explains Felix. “We wanted to take things into the album that would fit when recording in a bigger studio; we felt that the songs had the potential to sound bigger."
“I mean, when I say sound bigger, we’re not thinking Foo Fighters here, but there is definitely a sense of finding something that’s comfortable for you as a band. For us what that meant was a fairly subtle change to the listener’s ear, but for us, it was moving into a bigger room and keeping things live. More of that energy we get from playing live and touring. It was quite an organic change, not a massive big move. It didn’t need to be, it had to be a natural progression and feel like once we’d done it in the studio, we could walk out of there and go straight on stage and it would sound bigger and better than before."
The live realm was exactly what Gengahr needed to experience with ‘A Dream Outside’. A record born indoors and gazing inwards, the moments travelling across the globe to play it live was a startling difference to the surroundings it was born into. It drew many a plaudit and meant a staggering amount to fans, and for the band themselves, it was an eye-opening look at success; they knew that the pressure was on.
"The way I see it," begins Felix, taking a breath to reflect on that initial step, “our success is still quite cult-y. We were more the type of band people liked because it was a cool thing to like our band, rather than being a mainstream choice. We weren’t getting smashed on Radio 1, y’know? Our success was relative and among what felt like a small, selected audience - but the kind of people that felt into our music were also the kind of people that I would like to talk about music with.
“It felt like we were in kinda a good place. I don’t know if that all makes sense, but it felt like the fans we were picking up were into the same music we were, which was quite a relief in a way. It’d be terrible if you suddenly realise that the people who listen to your music are also massive fans of loads of other bands that you don’t like or connect with."
‘A Dream Outside’ was an interesting breakthrough for the band, especially in its origin. “We didn’t get to play the first album before we’d recorded it,” notes Felix, “so when we came to playing live there were a few more gears that we could never really get to, because of the way the album was recorded. We’d end up changing bits to suit what we did live. What we wanted to do was work out how, on a second album, we could do soft and more intimate stuff like we did on the first album but also add a kinda angrier, more rumbustious sound that we were doing live and make things a bit more grandiose and huge. Trying to saddle the two things was something that was tricky to achieve - and I think we’ve done it relatively successfully."
There’s an unmistakable sense of beefiness and strength behind that progression into ‘Where Wildness Grows’. Still unmistakably raw and cut to the bone, yet more measured and powering in sound, it’s an album that knows exactly what it’s doing and revels in the world it creates. There’s a feeling and a sense of touch that comes with listing to a Gengahr record, one that pulls you close and whispers into your ear to start feeling every word. Yet, its beginning is an uncertain realm that even the band couldn't see coming.
Felix recalls: "There was such a big gap between writing the first record, and when we started writing the second there was quite a build up, a feeling that there was a lot of drive to start writing again almost as soon as we got off the road. I thought as we wrapped up the last few dates on tour, ‘Oh shit, I can’t believe we haven’t been writing anything for this long’. The whole experience at that time felt quite bizarre. As a result, we wrote songs quite quickly at first, but there was so much to sift through. We had to work out that we had that would be an appropriate step forward, rather than just accepting tracks for simply being good. We had to ask ourselves, what do we want this album to be?”
Tinkering with tracks, recording in different settings and dealing with the everyday struggles around them, Gengahr were in a period of transition. The success that came with their debut gave them confidence, but that ease never sat well with the band who creatively were bouncing off the walls. Those ideas spill and overflow with ‘Where Wildness Grows’, served with a measure of knowing in the band that they're realising the place they deserve to occupy. That vision for how it would all play out wasn’t always there, Felix acknowledges. “When we recorded the whole album the first time around, we did the tracks in a much more controlled and contemporary way, editing stuff and really making sure everything would be perfect. I think it ended up sounding quite big, maybe too big." When listening back, Gengahr got the feeling of a robotic band trying to serve up a by-the-book account of the big second album, when in fact the beauty in their first record came from the slight imperfections and roughness around the edges.
“It was not really human enough in the end,” points out Felix, “so we made that decision to throw it all in the bin and start again, and with that ambition, we realised that what we were struggling to achieve was probably quite easy to do all along. All we needed to do was play the songs together and get in a good room and allow it to sound a bit more human and sound like it’s being played by four musicians in a room, played well rather than fixing it all later. I think that’s why the record has that sensitive feeling and has that kind of fragility that comes from being played live and being pretty raw. We kept it to what we can do in a room together, and that was a shared ambition from the first record. We didn't want to chuck things in there that we didn't think we could do live - and that’s stuck through as one of the key elements of the Gengahr sound. That honesty and musicianship."
What was thrown in the bin ultimately is a blessing, because ‘Where Wildness Grows’ proves itself an impeccable statement of the future. Weaving delicately crafted cuts with emotionally naked songwriting, it creates a sound that matches the band's ambition. Reverberating live and born for those moments where you catch a band and think, 'Jesus, they’re onto something special'. ‘Before Sunrise’ is a shape-shifting chameleon that was born to be cried along to on a Reading weekend, ‘Mallory’ is an almost unabashed love song for nervous 2018 life, and ‘Is This How You Love’ is a pogoing firestarter ready to soundtrack youthful abandon - and that’s only the first three tracks. Being bold and being honest has proved indisputably fruitful.
“That songwriting process is always going to be pretty organic for us,” comments Felix. "We’re not gonna be plastered over billboards everywhere - it’s not the nature of what we do. It’s always going to be something where someone listens to it and then passes it on to a mate - it’s always felt quite grassroots-y in a way, right from the beginning.” That feeling is primed in all that Gengahr do, a band who are committed to creating the ideas and paintings in their mind and bolstered by the support they’ve seen so far - makes them even more determined to stick to that gut feeling.
“I feel less nervous now,” clicks back Felix, returning to the emotion that comes from the starting gates of a whole new chapter. “Now I think, well, whatever happens - happens. I don’t have as much pressure on myself other than to achieve. Such dizzying heights of fame were never something we wanted to achieve, we just want to create good albums, and that initial goal we set out to achieve hasn’t been lost. The first album was a really nice gig, it all sorta happened in a nice way for us, and it gave us this nice platform to carry on doing what we wanted and that didn’t get taken away from us, which is the biggest positive going into making another album. Having that vision and drive to achieve the same things you did on the first album but with a little more assurance that you’re doing something that other people are enjoying as well."
A record that places Gengahr in a realm of truly special British bands, ‘Where Wildness Grows’ deserves to be poured over and delved into for many a moon to come, ready for those late nights and lonely hours where you need to escape the world. In that vision and in that level of importance, Gengahr are stepping out into an assured playing field where they’re destined to hit it out the park. On the top of your skin, and in the bottom of your gut, there’s only one thing you can do - and that is to feel Gengahr.
Felix and the band? Well, they’re already writing the next chapter. “I’ve always got one eye on what will happen and what we want to do next,” explains Felix. “But really, a lot of the power is in the audience; they determine what a band can and can't do, so I’m interested to see how many people connect with the album and I hope it kicks us on further."
If nature has one unstoppable rule, it’s that evolution is the key and only those that adapt can truly run the roost. Gengahr have shifted into a special lane, and now they’re the prime attraction.
Gengahr's album 'Where Wildness Grows' is out 9th March. Taken from the March issue of Dork - order your copy below.