As far as places to see out a global pandemic go, a little cottage in North Wales seems like the ideal choice. According to Phoxjaw’s Josh Gallop and Danny Garland it also turned out to be the perfect location for capturing the band’s mind-bending and genre-defying debut, Royal Swan. Far from a serene and relaxing experience though; being cooped up for an extended period even in the Welsh countryside caused some side-effects. Gallop recalls, “There was one point where I walked outside and realised I hadn’t been outside all week. I think at one point or another we all had a meltdown in a real Jack Torrence from The Shining vibe. It was like our own mini-isolation before all this.”
After laying down the drums at The Ranch studio in Southampton, the band packed up all their equipment (guitars, sound desks, a variety of vintage amps and keys), and made the drive from their native Bristol to Devil’s Bridge to finish the album. “We wanted to go somewhere that had its own aura that would then be infused with the album,” Garland says. “Royal Swan has quite a lot of historical references in it so we wanted it to sound old and Sabbath-ey. What better place to do that than deep in Wales where obviously the most ancient culture in the UK comes from.” It only takes one listen to the finished product to hear what impact this rather strange recording environment has had.
There is an ethereal and out-of-time feel to Royal Swan. The opening seconds of intro-track ‘Charging Pale Horses’ immediately reaches for the arcane and unsettling but then this slowly morphs into something more beautiful with choral voices setting the tone for the next forty-five minutes. Within that time, Phoxjaw manage to cover a huge amount of ground both in terms of the influences they display and the types of songs they write. Singles ‘Triple AAA’ and ‘Teething’ fall straight out of the modern rock song handbook with big hooks and big riffs but in a similar way to contemporaries Black Peaks and Gold Key, Phoxjaw add their own unique spin. Whether this is through Garland’s at times off-kilter vocal work, or the use of various different keys arrangements or electronic sounds, it helps to set them apart from the pack, something that is incredibly important to the band and to Garland himself. “I want to push the sound into a different place every time but I also want it to sound fresh and new. I don’t want Phoxjaw to sound old. We do at times, but I want to create a sound that’s our own and for people to hear it and go, ‘Man that’s Phoxjaw!’“
Other times on the record, the band really do stretch their wings, showing a much more progressive side on ‘You Don’t Drink a Unicorn’s Blood’ and ‘An Owl is a Cat With Wings’. They experiment with layering sounds and really wear the influence of Pink Floyd and Genesis among other prog bands they cite as being a big inspiration in attitude and approach if not completely in sound. While the band talk of their love for the record’s singles, it’s the freedom of expansion in other tracks which gets them really excited. “I’m sure we’d all agree that, as much as we love the singles, some of our favourite songs are the deep cuts.” Garland says. “It’s where you get to push yourself the furthest and when people listen to the album hopefully they’ll be like ‘Wow I didn’t think they’d go there!’” In particular ‘Bats For Bleeding’ proves the point as half way through it opens up with an organ riff before heading into the more comforting familiarity of a swinging rock song reminiscent of later day Queen of the Stone Age, but just as you think you’re safe, back comes the organ for a full blown solo performed by 80s psychedelic musician William Blair (Apple Mosaic collective). This adds to the strange feeling around the record that makes it so hard to try and place in a very Twin Peaks fashion, but it works and the record is all the more interesting for it.
One thing that might not immediately be apparent among all the grandeur and the odd organ solo is how DIY the making of Royal Swan was. The record is astonishingly self-produced, a bold move for such a dense and ambitious album, especially for one as important as your debut. For Phoxjaw though, it was never in question. Thanks to Josh Gallop’s day job working at Stage 2 Studios in Bath as a producer and engineer, the band possessed all the tools they needed from within. Although they have collaborated with producers in the past, the band have a very clear vision of where they want to take Phoxjaw, and Gallop doesn’t plan on compromising. “We don’t like being told no! Some people will probably say that’s a bad thing but I don’t like to limit ourselves. We know our own music better than anyone and the fact that we can produce our own records opens that door to let us go out there and do some mad shit, hopefully it pays off.” Again the determination and vision of the band can be seen through this. This is a group who know where they want to get to musically and aren’t afraid to push themselves to get there.
Perhaps one of the most telling signs of this on the record comes on ‘You Don’t Drink Unicorn’s Blood’. During the first verse is the line, ‘Choking people with rattlesnakes / Hear it’s percussive tail,’ and just there in the background is a hiss and a rattle, immediately helping paint the picture in your mind. It’s so simple and small, but also so effective and shows the amount of thought that has been put into these songs. Gallop reveals once more just how far reaching the bands influences spread and why those finer details matter. “I think I know where that actually came from. I was listening to this Tom Petty record which goes ‘Chains that will jingle’ and then you hear them in the background and I always loved that. We want to have a bit of a deeper meaning in Phoxjaw. It’s a never ending thing where people that like the band will always be able to go deeper and get something new.”
That deeper meaning and intrigue also takes root through the often confusing but undoubtedly brilliant lyrics to be found throughout Royal Swan. When asked about the main themes and inspirations around the album, Garland talks generally about the overarching theme of trophy hunting and how his personal feelings around Brexit played particularly into ‘Trophies in the Attic’. However in the main the band prefers to leave listeners to find their own meanings, and sometimes this leads to even wilder ideas than the band ever intended. “We’ve had people come up to us and say, ‘This is what I think that means’ and it’ll be way fucking better than what we thought it meant.” Despite not always making immediate sense (or even make sense after some scrutiny) the words of Danny Garland always manage to paint some kind of vivid picture to help create the unique feel around the album. Take ‘You Don’t Drink a Unicorn’s Blood’ which obviously makes reference to the titular mythical beast in its chorus, but at the same time makes a pop culture reference to ‘Crocodile Dundee’ while seeming to decry the pointless and cruel nature of trophy hunting culture. Marrying that typical classic rock imagery with these more modern and often strangely specific cultural references creates a feeling that is uniquely Phoxjaw, and it seems like that remains the ultimate aim of Garland when penning these songs. ‘I think lyrics can create something in someone’s imagination. If you put certain words together in certain sentences it will paint a picture in their head and when the music is making you feel a certain way and the language is describing certain things, some of it might sound a bit nonsensical but it means something to me in my kind of weird head.’
Although not stated directly, the final and titular track of the album also seems to revisit the ideas around Brexit with the lines ‘For England’s spinning in a frenzy and it’s falling out with its mates / And nobody wants another pharmacy car boot sale / Where they’re grinding down narwhal tusks into magic dust.’ It seems to capture the chaotic and often nonsensical feeling which goes along with living in the UK at the minute. What really marks this track out though is how it evokes the exact same feeling not only through these lyrics, but the music itself. Rolling together elements of almost everything the band have released so far into one seven-minute long epic ‘Royal Swan’ is the perfect end to the album and shows exactly what Phoxjaw are capable of. Grandeur and heaviness are blended together and despite its sprawling length it is somehow one of the most memorable tracks on the record. When asked about the process of putting the song together, Garland seems to have a bit of a flashback, puffing his cheeks out and simply responding, “‘Ard work,” before going into more detail. “We had the song for ages and that was like a vocal session where we were writing the lyrics right up to where we were recording at the same time. We knew it was going to be the title track and the last track on the album and wanted to make sure it was this huge thing. Fuck knows how we’re gonna play it live! There’s just so much shit in it but we’ll figure it out.”
Phoxjaw have clearly put in a huge amount of work to realise their vision for Royal Swan. From the search for the perfect recording environment to the thought put into the little details and the lyrics, and even the stunning artwork by Peter the Roman, which so perfectly captures the majestic yet slightly haunting feel of the album. Yet along with all that there is definitely a fun and knowing wink and a nudge attitude from the band. Several times throughout our conversation, Gallop and Garland talk about mad ideas they have had about recording an album on a pirate ship or getting Elon Musk to do a guest spot. They talk of their love for the music videos of Foo Fighters and Queen, where huge rock songs are accompanied by nonsensical videos poking fun at the often po-faced and serious approach of other bands. “We like putting ourselves in ridiculous situations and then having to deal with it, and it’s another way to be creative. Dan will write a demo, I’ll ask what it’s called and he’ll give me this really long mental title and then that has to be it. That’s what happened with ‘Melt, You’re a Face Made of Wax’ , it just got said and then became the song title and Danny had to write lyrics for it.” Fans will soon be able to see this side of the band for themselves as they recorded their time spent at Devil’s Bridge and are planning on releasing a documentary surrounding the making of the album. Filmed by drummer Kieran Gallop, the footage aims to offer a ‘fly on the wall’ style look at the recording and offers a peak at some of the madness that ensued in the cottage. “Honestly it’s just the most bizarre shit. Cutting through it is hilarious, it’s what insanity looks like! Four guys in a cottage in the middle of nowhere just going mental.” The thinking behind releasing the footage comes as they see it as an important way of inspiring a new generation of bands talking about the influence of Metallica’s now infamous ‘Some Kind of Monster’ film. “Growing up watching that kind of stuff was one of my favourite things. You’d watch it and imagine what it would be like to go and make a record or go out on tour and that stuff was super inspiring for me.” Not content to just go down the expected route of simply releasing an album, Phoxjaw are constantly looking for new ways to make their band feel special and unique.
Royal Swan is a tremendous debut and shows what is possible when a band puts this much thought and creativity into their art. At its heart, it is simply a rock record, but one where the band making it has cast off any preconceptions or ideas about what that should be and replaces them with something that is uniquely and definitively them. Garland and Gallop reveal that they have already begun work on album two during lockdown, hinting that it is likely to take a completely different turn towards a heavier and more modern sound, citing Code Orange and even avant-garde electronic artists such as SOPHIE and Giant Swan as inspirations. Whatever twisted form this sound might take in the hands of these four Bristolians, it will still undoubtedly be Phoxjaw.