Monday, 21 May 2012

"So much goes unspoken": An interview with 2:54

First published in Loud And Quiet

There's a moment in the Melvins track 'A History of Bad Men' when the white-hot riff-crunching collapses in a smoky haze of churning doom rock, like stones turning to molten lava. It's at two minutes and 54 seconds, to be precise, and it's a fitting moment of conception for the elegant but ferocious music of sisters Colette and Hannah Thurlow. Though that origins story has been repeated many times since the day in 2010 when 'Creeping' popped up online and became an instant blog hit, it remains an auspicious genesis for the duo who call themselves 2:54. Finding themselves with a whole lot of hype to capitalise on, they've spent every day since then honing their songs and shows, and on 28th May their self-titled debut will be finally be delivered to the world through Fiction.

Younger sister Hannah is the quieter half of the duo, with hair like a gothic Elvis and usually found moulded over her guitar, wringing out plaintive melodies shimmering with reverb. Colette, older by two years and the more dominant conversationalist, is the de facto band leader given to scarlet lipstick. Their synergy isn't obvious as first – they don't look especially similar, even up close, and they don't trade private jokes or bicker as siblings are wont to do. Instead, there seems to be a certain silent bond between the two – not that they have nothing to say to each other, but there is simply no need to say it. This quiet assurance is the core of every 2:54 song, where poise and balance underpin the windswept emotional turbulence and lovelorn drama of tracks like 'You're Early' and 'Scarlet'. No surprise that they often draw comparisons with the brooding darkness of The xx and Warpaint.

But in contrast to the music, in person the girls are nothing but polite and warm, drifting into each other's sentences and nervously tapping lighters and fidgeting in their seats. We meet in a flat on one of East London's more salubrious streets, in which the dark furnishings and black piano provide a suitably moody backdrop for the photo shoot. They make for quiet sitters, amenable to the photographer's directions but bristling at the possibility of a vintage stove creeping into the frame, keen to avoid situating themselves in a typically feminine domestic milieu.

With their monochrome grungy clothes and spooky videos to match their atmosphere of the music, it might seem they control their image pretty carefully. “Not at all!” they counter, speaking together. “My main thing is, it’s the last thing I want to think about, ever, but particularly with performing I just want to be able to move with my guitar – that’s my only thought after sitting in a van all day,” says Colette. But you know, two sisters, two leather jackets, people are going to describe them as moody gothic types whether they like it or not – yet nothing could be further from the truth, surely? They both laugh. Maybe the music is a conduit for a darker side of their personalities? “I think it's totally part of us.” “It's completely us.”

Their reluctance to self-analyse chimes with their songs – their simplicity and clarity cuts through the stormy clouds of guitar and drums, again mirroring the clean-cut sheen of The xx, but moving the scene from urban streets to rustic badlands. “So much goes unspoken. We don’t intellectualise what we do,” says Colette. But someone has to, so they'll have to accept whatever words we throw at them. Another laugh. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry!”

The moody poise of 2:54 is a distinct development from the sisters' previous musical project, a back-to-basics punk band by the name of Vulgarians. “I think the band we were in previously was sort of like a ‘my first band’ experience,” says Colette. “We played only 10 shows I think, and we didn’t really know what we were doing, which I guess had a kind of sweet innocence about it. The whole thing is sort of different to now, but the process has been very natural. I think it was pretty formative actually, having those first sort of tentative steps with a loud punk band,” she laughs. “It was a very natural progression. We started writing different songs together and it just felt natural and kind of evolved, and kept evolving, into this,” adds Hannah.

The next step was to recruit the necessary engine room. “From when we made the first demos, we always wanted the band to have a proper rhythm section live. We didn’t want to be a duo live at all,” Colette explains. They struck lucky when they came across bassist Joel Porter and drummer Alex Robins, previously of Jack PeƱate's band. “We met them through a mutual friend–” “Yeah, we still pinch ourselves that we managed to meet the boys–” “We clicked straight away,” they say. With the familial ties at the core of the band, it could've been tricky to welcome two outsiders, but instead the Thurlows acquired a pair of brothers. “The boys have very sibling qualities, which makes it work really well, there’s definitely a family sort of feeling. But it’s just been really natural!”

Riding the wave of interest after 'Creeping', the sisters packed up their guitars and hit the road – and then kept hitting it for over a year. Now a hardened touring band, they've played gigs with stylistic cousins Warpaint and Melissa Auf Der Maur, indie big-timers The Maccabees and Wild Beasts, and most recently Cali-gloomstress Chelsea Wolfe and Welsh-gloomsters Deaf Club, who provided support on 2:54's recent UK tour. “We’ve been fortunate enough for it to be a positive experience. It’s been educational really,” says Colette. “We’ve always just felt privileged to be on these tours. All those opportunities to play in front of people that might not like us, you know, it might be a static crowd – I think it’s just great experience. And most of it was really heartening, people were receptive...” “Welcoming crowds,” adds Hannah.

In March they even braved the industry hype crucible of Austin's SXSW festival, and lived to tell the tale. “I was expecting it to be a lot more intense and scary but I think maybe the humidity mellowed everything out,” notes Colette. “It was an amazing experience, we played four or five shows, stuck at the Thrasher stage a lot and listened to lots of metal bands. It was definitely worth it, they were great shows and a great response, but you hear horror stories of bands doing 18 shows a day or something, that sounds pretty brutal.” They've found their rhythm on the road, but has it had an impact on the music? “I certainly think the live show should be more visceral and ferocious, 'cos then the songs take on a life of their own, a different life,” says Colette.

Picking up where they left off with last year's Scarlet EP, the band returned to the studio with Rob Ellis, the quintessential safe pair of hands when it comes to committing dramatic lady-lungs to tape, having worked with PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi and Marianne Faithfull. Despite Ellis' hall-of-fame credentials, the sisters were determined to do things their way. “We were really hands-on from the very beginning because we have really clear ideas of what we want,” says Colette. “When we demo stuff at home the songs are complete, so really all we’re doing is bringing them in to professionally record them. But it’s amazing, Rob's heritage musically is incredible and he's really inspiring to be around. He’s also the most incredible drummer, so we were learning loads of tricks about drum sounds, stuff we don’t know anything about – we were walking round with a snare–” “Just capturing sounds in the room somehow–” “And it was just really educational and interesting,” they say, chipping into each other's sentences.

The album cover is a beautiful thing: a photograph that immediately captures the sense of wild danger lurking underneath the record. “It's where we spent our childhood summers, in County Claire in the west of Ireland, and it was a really special place,” begins Hannah. “We grew up and spent all of our childhood summers exploring the rocks, it’s wild...” “It's just this really turbulent landscape that feels embedded in our heads, the feelings of that place. It was amazing to go back and see it, it’s just kind of craters and boulders and wild sea,” adds Colette. Their sisterly status and shared love of music came together when Hannah picked up a guitar in her teens and they started playing together for fun, and since then they've never made music separately. They claim not to have been rock and roll teens, though. “Oh no, and I’m still a massive geek, I don’t think I’ve changed one bit,” laughs Colette. Geeky about what in particular? “Just... bookish,” she chuckles, while Hannah adds, “I’m definitely a gadgets and guitars and pedals kind of girl.”

The sound of 2:54 is what comes naturally to two people who've passed days, weeks and years together, who know each other inside out and barely need to verbalise their shared intentions. What sounds like a spontaneous, accidental writing process is not the kind of happy accident that could be recreated by a couple of musicians who lacked that silent undercurrent pulling them together. “I think, musically, there's never any set plan of how a song is going to sound or how they’re all going to sound together – each song is just something that needs to come out,” explains Hannah, before adding, in unintended accord: “With the album it felt like there were 10 songs that worked together as a family, with a thread running through them all, but each in their own little world.”

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