Wallflower's debut album, 'Teach Yourself To Swim', is all about facing up to anxiety and uncertainty and, in the words of frontman Vini Moreira-Yeoell, "going out there and teaching yourself how to deal with things better".
The artwork for the album, however, adopts a more literal translation to that title. Created by James Dowling with CGI and 3D rendering, it features a woman dressed in white suspended in motion between crystallised blue water of a swimming pool and the pink hues of the sky like an avant-garde tribute to expressionism.
And between the literal, visual, interpretation of the album and between the themes in the songwriting, there is a swimming pool filled with the blood, sweat and tears Wallflower have put into making this album a reality.
It has been years in the making. In fact, even the 2017 EP 'Where It Fell Apart' started life with designs on it being a more substantial offering but, as you'll learn, the band needed everything to be representative of their collective vision and include "a stamp of "Wallflower"" for it to work.
The following year came with the standalone single 'Magnifier' which signalled a renewed, more streamlined, more focused energy to the band's sound and towards making an album. The alternative single put forward was, in fact, 'Eat Away at My Heart', which was half a song, aired once or twice live to not much of a reaction (largely due to Vini "just making the words up every night and doing a different melody "). The track was put on the back burner only to be revisited when coming in with the final blueprints for their debut.
In the following months, the band - Charlie Pollard, Jake Reburn, Sam Woolley, Will Slane alongside Vini - found their stride with writing as they "went from two songs in the space of a whole month to 10 songs in another couple of months".
At the point of heading to The Ranch in Southampton (reuniting with Lewis Johns to produce the record) it was late in 2018. The regular commutes to and from South London to the studio were arduous but worthwhile as the band worked their sessions around their existing day jobs. The five of them could have made it easier - worked with different producers or in different studios - but, just like the artwork for the album, it was all part of the plan, and that meant only trusting those jobs to friends who also believed in the scale of 'Teach Yourself To Swim'.
"We really just wanted to get every single bit of it right so that there was a tone and a theme that we were hitting," Vini claims.
"There is so much that has gone into it, and I'm talking every part, from the songwriting to distribution of it - the emails that go out to record shops - and everything else is all done by us. We've been there every step of the way."
And beyond the time and effort put into their debut album, it's important to know that all of this is self-funded by the band too. There isn't a label pushing the band, pulling strings, and making this all possible. And that's maybe why the care poured into this release is so unmistakable with Vini keen to emphasise how they "didn't want to half-arse a release and put something out there and see it fade into the abyss but give it the support that it deserves".
On more than one occasion, the singer affectionately refers to the album as his (or their) "baby". And, like with any labour of love, there were times it was difficult. There was the quick learning curve of assembling the album by tracking instruments separately and the late nights to get it done around their day-to-day lives. And also the longer stretches in the studio and the cabin fever that came with it thanks in no part to bunk beds and TVs with limited internet capabilities.
"With such a long process you go a little bit crazy in a way," he admits.
And then there was the pressure of making "the vision" into reality and, despite making sure they could play the whole album live together before going into the studio, there were still a couple of issues with the songs.
"I definitely had my share of breakdowns in the vocal booth in trying to get things right. Things I thought 'this will work in the song' then getting to that point where you're actually recording and going 'hang on, I can't sing this melody' or 'this lyric doesn't make sense' and all of sudden you think 'what have I done?'
"There is a lot of pressure. You feel like you've got not only a responsibility for yourself but for other people as you're representing not just yourself but the rest of the band. There is a lot of pressure there."
It was mostly a self-inflicted pressure created by Wallflower's commitment to making an album that matched the amount of care they've put into planning it. 'Teach Yourself To Swim' is an album by meticulous design; a design so thorough that it even went against a few standard album-making conventions.
"We did something during the writing process which most people would say is a terrible idea when you're writing a record, and most people would say never do it this way. When we started writing a song, we were already talking about where on the tracklist it would be.
"It was like 'right guys, we need to write our track 3. We need to write our track 6. What is track 6 going to be?' I guess that gives an insight into how we viewed this as a piece. It was a case of "this song" has to be a quiet one. We know that "this song" is going to be about this sort of thing, and we want it to have 'this vibe' so let's make sure it has its place."
For all that planning, hard work and dedication, Wallflower have made an album to be proud of. And they are. It's an album that takes everything that makes them special, those expansive dreamscapes that they can build and destroy on a turn, and pulls them in 12 different directions.
Vini raves, "There is definitely a lot of excitement because I have been listening to these songs [for a long time], I enjoy listening to that record a lot. I can't remember who it was who said it, 'if your favourite band aren't your own band then why are you doing it?' and to a certain extent, I agree with that because I've definitely spent a lot of time listening to it and I really enjoy it.
"There is a part of me that is just like, 'what if I leak it?' because I genuinely just want people to hear it because I think what we've done is really really cool."
What they've done is attempt to break the mould of one-dimensional albums; albums which stick to one style and instead make a record that chops and changes approach with every track. And, not shackled by just 4-5 tracks like with their EP, it meant that songs that are 5-6 minutes long could be included to further explore the limits of the vast soundscapes they make. And, if they wanted to include a song that sounded like Weezer or Queens of the Stone Age, they could do that too.
Yes, 'Teach Yourself To Swim' is an album by design, but the songs are far from formulaic. There is the short, sharp, blast of 'Dread', the breezy, blissed-out 'Blood and Stone', the foreboding strain of 'Passer-by' and raw, furious, power of 'Hungry Eyes' to keep the album constantly on its toes.
A big part of what makes the album work is the self-restraint Wallflower learned. From their previous recordings and their live shows, the chaos - the unbridled noise - that they build and then release has been a staple of what makes them such a force.
But, it's obvious that would get pretty boring, pretty quick, if they did it every time. Instead, they learned to build that excitement and suspense by subverting the expectation for them to be explosive by withholding. Much like the camera focusing on the empty spaces in a horror film and then nothing happening, the suspense and expectation combined are just as impressive.
Inspired by the control bands like Radiohead and Manchester Orchestra have, Wallflower taught themselves about self-control. "One of the things we really learned from bands like that is that you don't necessarily need to be going at 100mph to get there. Sometimes, really holding back on those moments is really important.
"When we started this band, we've always had three guitars. We started influenced by Balance And Composure, who were so so good at making that noise, and we always have that in us. But I think one of the really big things in the songwriting for making this record was to really hold back on those really bit moments to make sure that when they did happen, it was earned from us. We didn't just all play at the same time, we really built it up to those moments."
He continues, "On the other side of that, one of my favourite songs on the record, 'Blood and Stone' that's probably one of the first times we've written a song that stays soft and doesn't jump and crescendo.
"It's that opportunity you've got with making an album to write a nice, slow, quiet, song that does everything without going to that real high, loud, point and, from a songwriting perspective, it's one of those things we were all so so proud of.
"Waiting for those moments is so difficult every time you write those songs. I'm quite guilty of going 'maybe we should go big on this bit', but Sam [Woolley] is pretty much a genius when it comes to composing and orchestrating some of these bits. He is so good at going 'no, we're not going to do it now. Wait for "this" moment because it makes so much more sense to have it here'."
The pay off is huge and well earned in the end and, ultimately, creates the uneasy tone that runs through the album where the sound teeters from unnerving dread to the completely unhinged.
That tension is impacted by Vini's more sophisticated songwriting too. "That's what comes out," he confesses, somewhat modestly. In truth, it's songwriting which has grown a lot from broken-hearted laments to a deeper look at all the anxieties and worry that sit beneath the surface of his mind.
While fundamentally therapeutic, the songwriting was a bold and personal dive. From the opener, which he describes as an "overture" to the album, 'A Parody Of...' strips all of Vini's defences thanks to lines like "I'm a parody of the man I'm suppose to be" and only gets more deprecating from there.
Sure, there are departures like with the politically charged 'Hungry Eyes' but, for the most part, the album is a battle of emotions with the track 'Further Down' the defining moment of 'Teach Yourself to Swim'.
"I think lyrically it's one of the best songs we have done. I think the music and the lyrics speak to one another well in that song. It's one of those songs where when I hear that song, I think of Wallflower.
"And its a song that's about coping mechanisms and finding help from other people and vice versa and if there was ever some kind of message that I've ever wanted to put forward in our band, it is making people feel a little less alone. That's what I've always felt when I listen to music I love, and that song gives me that feeling. I'm quite proud of what we achieved in that song. It's probably the best representation [of who Wallflower are]."
It's exactly "the stamp of Wallflower" they strived for when planning this album.
Anyone who knows Wallflower would know that Vini Moreira-Yeoell could mainline his deepest insecurities into his lyrics and that the band could craft songs that are intricate, layered, and meandering.
What couldn't be expected is the attentiveness they've taken into making their debut, and that's what makes it stand out. It's careful but doesn't play it safe either. It has soul-baring honesty without becoming contrived or self-indulgent. It's wide-ranging in its approaches to the tracks but still unified as a cohesive album. It's as fine a debut album as you'll hear thanks to the devotion Wallflower had to make an album exactly how they imagined.
They've even sat on it for a year and a half for the perfect moment to release the album too...or so they thought. Of course, the global pandemic has curtailed plans for touring the album immediately, but the album's release is still set for 5th June, and the plan is to celebrate it like it or not.
"The record comes out a day before my birthday, so maybe I will just guilt trip all my friends into listening to it and celebrating my birthday," Vini jokes.
But, in a way it's fitting that Wallflower have stuck to their plan, their vision - pandemic or not - because at the end of the day, we have to just keep swimming.
Taken from the June issue of Upset. Wallflower's album 'Teach Yourself To Swim' is out 5th June.
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