The first time I met Henry Tremain it was 2004, the year TTNG formed. Back then, the Oxford-formed “math-rockers” were known as This Town Needs Guns and Henry wasn’t in the band—he was simply answering an ad for a spare room in the house I lived in in Norwich. He was wearing a Braid pin, so I figured he was alright and let him move in. We lived together that year, and he started playing in a local band called Saleontomorrow. I was running a local zine called Backlashat the time, and released the band’s first EP as a cover mount. After a year, I moved to London, and some 12 months later he moved into a spare room that opened up. We spent about five years there, in which time he started playing in a band called Pennines before joining This Town Needs Guns as vocalist, replacing original singer Stuart Smith. Soon after, he moved back to Norwich in order to be able to afford to be the band, and I moved to New York. Since then, the trio—completed by brothers Tim and Chris Collis (guitars and drums, respectively)—have been over to the US a number of times and it’s a sheer joy to see them play to an increasingly devoted fan base. The release of the band’s third full-length, Disappointment Island, seemed like a good excuse to catch up with my old friend and see what’s up and what’s changed for him since he joined the band—besides the band name and the lineup, obviously.
Noisey: First things first. Why did you call this record Disappointment Album? Er, I meanIsland! Are you setting yourselves up for a fall?
Henry Tremain: Disappointment Album—that’s about right! But exactly. I don’t know. You can look at it in many ways, but it’s pretty funny making an album called Disappointment Island.
Is the band still fun, even though it’s become a more professional pursuit for you? I mean, you get to tour the States and Japan and other far-flung places, so that must be great.
Well, I still think my favorite part of music is the writing and the creative process. The touring thing is something I’ve come to learn to enjoy—or at least learn to not hate so much. But yeah, it’s still enjoyable, but I guess it’s very different to bands in the past where it was just jamming really. And it’s difficult, because we can’t be freely creative because we all live in different places in the country and can only get together when there’s an agenda, I guess. We actually have to schedule time to write or schedule time to rehearse or record.
But I imagine, with the style of music you play, that could almost be more liberating—you can do your own thing by yourselves and then send it to each other.
That’s a really good point. The first thing we did for this record was book a rehearsal space in Brighton, and there was a load of pressure for us to write. We moved into a tiny little room—like a bedsit—on the coast and every morning at ten we’d go to the rehearsal space and we’d be there all day and have a full working day until the evening. And I think because there wasn’t enough space, because we didn’t get our own time to work on things, it got stagnant very quickly and it felt like we were going nowhere. It was a pretty depressing time! But we ended up writing a lot of material that at the time we thought was absolute crap but then, having had months away from it and reviewing it, quite a lot of it was quite interesting—and we’ve used most of that on the record!
So actually it wasn’t time wasted after all!
No. But I think it was only allowed to be finished off by the fact that we had that space away from it.
So how much did that stuff change between when you were writing it down in Brighton and when you were recording the album in Chicago?
Lots of the stuff we wrote in Brighton got thrown away and at least half, if not more, of the record was written after. But there were probably two tracks which hardly changed since we jammed them in Brighton. And the rest of it was taking a riff, restructuring it and writing different parts for and around it.
Which songs were those?
“Bliss Quest” is pretty much unchanged from the jam version that we recorded, and “Empty Palms”.
I was hoping you were going to say “Sponkulus Nodge,” because I wanted to ask what the fuck that means!
It’s unchanged from a working title. Tim is an absolute riff machine—he just writes and writes and records them so he can tab them out so he can remember how to play them. So his computer hard drive is just full of all these riffs, and each time he creates a riff, he gives it a silly name. “Sponkulus Nodge” was a name we just enjoyed too much to use another one!
What about “In Praise Of Idleness”? It sounds like a hark back to the times we lived together in Norwich and London… let’s be honest, you spent a lot of time being idle. How’s your work ethic now? Is it better? Does it have to be?
I’ve got lots on, so I’ve been working constantly, but I wish I was working towards something that would give me some sort of financial stability.
Do you think that’s ever going to happen with this band?
Oh no! [Laughs]
Have you guys all resigned yourselves to the fact that this is just a passion project? Because a lot of people love you, and you do so well in so many parts of the world. I don’t understand how it’s not even a little bit sustainable.
Well, it isn’t! I always think there’s slight gap between the perception of the band and how well the band actually does. We played a show in Brighton recently with some friends of ours recently—Delta Sleep and Tangled Hair—and both bands made jokes about how the crowd should stick around to see us play because we really need the help, making the joke that we are an established, successful band. In the crowd’s eyes we are, but actually, last time we played in Brighton we played this tiny little bar and it was half-empty. So in the UK we just don’t have any following.
But then you come over here and it’s full of really devoted fans. I remember the first time I saw you at Mercury Lounge and the crowd was insane.
Yeah. We have really passionate fans and in a major city there’s enough people to fill a venue, but outside of New York or Philadelphia or Los Angeles or Chicago, we’re playing smaller venues to no people!
Well, it’s all about the art, not the money.
Given what you said about not making any money from this band, what are your hopes for this record? You’ve named it Disappointment Island, but you must have some hopes for it.
I don’t think so! I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t think it’s an ambition for the record to do well. I don’t know. Why do bands record music? What’s that all about?
Let’s ask that question. Before you joined this band you’d sit at home and you’d play these riffs and you had fun doing that. So there’s something in the art of creation that obviously stimulates you somewhere…
But why do we feel the need to record them and put them out there?
So you’d rather they’d just exist on a computer at home or something?
I don’t know. I’m obviously doing it, maybe for an ego thing or for attention. Who knows?
But it’s nice to have a record of the things you create so you can look back in 20 years and say “Hey! I made this! It’s part of my life.” It captured a moment or a series of moments.
Like a photograph. You get to record it and look back on it. But in that case you’d record it keep it on your computer. You wouldn’t publish it or get a record label. So I have no idea. But I certainly don’t have hopes that the record’s going to do well, if you know what I mean.
Let’s talk about your name change. In 2013, you switched to the abbreviation TTNG instead of using This Town Needs Guns. What effect did that have on the band? Was it hard to do?
In terms of success, like we were talking about, it was a dumb thing to do. I don’t think it was a commercially sensible thing to do because there are quite a lot of people who don’t realize we’re the same band.
And you did it just before 220.127.116.11.0. came out, which was released as This Town Needs Guns, but then you were touring it as TTNG. Which could be a little bit confusing if you’re dumb.
Well, I mean, who knows what TTNG stands for! I think it’s a dumb name. And I don’t think TTNG is an ideal name, but it’s a way of us not having that original name that I think is really not very nice and keeping a link to the older material. But it’s not ideal. I think abbreviation names are pretty dumb, generally. It’s weird how some bands like AFI and some acronym bands manage to do okay without needing to explain what it stands for. I imagine a whole lot of AFI fans don’t know what that stands for.
Did you find people were generally okay with you changing it? Or were there some purists who took offence?
Absolutely. I think there was an assumption that we were doing it for ulterior motives. I think there’s a lot of cynicism generally about bands and I think people assume that if a band is doing something it’s to make themselves more successful or commercially viable. I think there was an assumption we were under pressure from the label or something to be more PC and people would make these assumptions and write about them and not take the time to read what we’d said about them.
The funny thing, like we’ve said, is that this is the first record you’ve recorded all together from start to finish and it is the first record you’ve made as TTNG, so it is a fresh start in a way. But I love how the time periods of all those things totally overlap. It’s kind of making a mockery of that idea of changing things with a specific purpose in mind.
Right. And I think the band’s had a nice progression, and if you listen through the years to all of the band’s output, there’s a similarity that follows through it, but it’s clearly changed quite a bit.
I was going to say, this definitely sounds… not more poppy, because it’s not, but it definitely sounds less “math-rocky” even though those math-rock tendencies are still very much there. They’re not as salient—they’re a part of it, rather than the focus of it.
Absolutely. Time signatures, like any compositional device, the more you use them the more comfortable they become. They become second nature and it’s not a conscious effort, it’s just another flavor to songwriting.
By the time you get to album number seven, you’ll be three-chord wonders!
I do think the term “math-rock” is really elitist. I mean, bands like Radiohead are always messing around with time signatures, but they’re not considered to be math-rock.
So are you trying to shed that title?
We never embraced that title! It was thrust upon us. I don’t think it was appropriate, but I guess the meaning of math-rock has changed, so maybe it is appropriate!
I mean, everyone always calls the Kinsellas math-rock, and everyone always mentions the Kinsellas when they describe TTNG’s music, so you know! But that must get a bit wearing after a while, as great as they are.
I think a lot of those bands have been huge influences on us, but I do find the whole Kinsella band thing a little frustrating, because although there are a couple of dudes who have the surname Kinsella, there are other people and other bands who don’t have the surname Kinsella who are probably more influential.
You never know—they might start calling it Tremain-core soon. I quite like that.
[Laughs] I don’t!