Having surprised us last year with a new, refined sound in their Big Water and Dirty Water EPs, experimental electronic rock duo Poisonous Birds are ready to bring us their first major headline show, coming to The Louisiana this January via their own Be Softly imprint.
Although their writing process has shifted further into electronic territory, the duo have found it hard to shake their rock backgrounds, resulting in a grippingly original sound with a smorgasbord of influences from techno to experimental electronic noise.
a grippingly original sound with a smorgasbord of influences from techno to experimental electronic noise
Frontman and multi-instrumentalist Tom Ridley and drummer and co-writer Finn Mclean met as teenagers, despite at the time living over a hundred miles apart in Malvern and The Lincolnshire Fens respectively, when Finn – a fan of Tom’s old band – uploaded a drum cover of one of their songs to YouTube.
The internationally successful, hardcore tech-metal band saw the video and sent Finn a t-shirt. He thought that was that, until one day he received a message inviting him to stand in for their drummer, who couldn’t make an upcoming tour. Finn ended up joining full time, where he and Tom discovered a close musical compatibility – both leaving the band in 2014, after tiring of the style of music and the politics that came with being in a signed band.
Tom soon began writing music for the project that would become Poisonous Birds and although it was a solo effort at the time, he says it was written with Finn in mind. ‘I starting writing some random music, I didn’t really know what it was’ Tom explains, ‘but it was always kind of assumed that Finn would be in it when it was ready.’
Their earliest tracks from 2017’s Gentle Earth EP were still largely Tom’s vision, bringing Finn into the fold to rework Tom’s percussion samples. However, when they wrote the track Big Water, something clicked. The song became the title track of their next EP and saw them make the jump from rock music with synthesisers, to the refined and complete sound they are proud to push now.
I wasn’t quite on board with the vision yet, but it was interesting enough to hold on to the tow bar of
‘[Before Big Water] I wasn’t quite on board with the vision yet, but it was interesting enough to hold on to the tow bar of’ Finn recalls. Although the track was in process in the months before Gentle Earth was released, it only fully came to life when Tom and Finn got into the studio together to re-write its percussive elements. They ended up rethinking the song in a much bigger capacity and from that moment on, Tom and Finn were co-writers.
this felt like a new thing – at least to us
‘I ended up making a weird noise on a synth on Christmas Day 2016 on my parents’ sofa’, says Tom. ‘And that became the song that really wasn’t like the first EP at all. The first one was rock music with electronics, but this felt like a new thing – at least to us.’
Finn and Tom now live together in Bristol, which has been key to developing their sound. As well as the geographical proximity meaning more time to write together, they’ve been able to absorb Bristol’s many-faceted music scene and its knack of breaking down barriers between genre.
‘We’re definitely a product of the city’ says Tom. ‘Some of our favourites are Spectres and Giant Swan, there’s definitely stuff they do that leaks into what we’re doing. Maybe the other way – I don’t know if they care’ Tom laughs.
We’re definitely a product of the city
Today, Poisonous Birds is a world apart from the hardcore, tech metal that originally brought them together, which by definition is anything but experimental. Finn explains how they made the journey from North to South Pole:
‘Tom and I are both classic thinkers, through and through. We come from scientific backgrounds and that was our way of getting inspired to pick up an instrument and learn to play music – it was completely mathematical, thought-out music. Not felt, all thought. But over the past four years, we’ve gotten into other forms of art much more – poetry, visual art – and finally we’ve linked a more romantic side to our very classical approach to music. We’ve learned to write more emotively.’
finally we’ve linked a more romantic side to our very classical approach to music. We’ve learned to write more emotively
‘I regret not being better educated in music,’ say Tom. ‘I’m just about starting to feel my own understanding show and I’m trying to read around stuff. It’s interesting that one might think that tech metal is a more theory-heavy style of music, but really you can kind of stuff anything into interesting patterns and it works. Whereas I feel like now the nuance is much more exposed. So that’s something I’d like to work on as we start thinking about the next record – start making some more informed choices instead of stumbling our way through.’
Although the electronic side to what they do perhaps now takes a more central role to their writing, the finished package still has rock at its core – whether you want to prefix it with art, post, noise or otherwise. Tom has been consistently reducing the amount of live guitars he’s using, and the track Little Puzzle sees Finn trade his drum kit with a sampler for the song’s entirety. Their Schwer series should be considered wholly electronic, but somehow retains a Sigur Rós-esque rock vibe, particularly when heard within the context of the EPs.
‘I think that rock aesthetic or at least that delivery of a bit of a wall of noise and punchy beats is just us’ says Finn. ‘That’s where we’ve come from, that’s the kind of music we always go towards, be it electronic or otherwise – it’s got to be quite aggressive percussion wise. That’s just inherent, so most of the time we don’t even realise we’re making rock music. Put it this way, if we tried to make a movie soundtrack for a romantic film, it might accidentally be a rock track.’
most of the time we don’t even realise we’re making rock music (…) if we tried to make a movie soundtrack for a romantic film, it might accidentally be a rock track
‘I’ve spent the last few years absorbing totally weird, left field electronic music’ says Tom. ‘From the more accessible end like John Hopkins, all the way to basically white noise. But rock music won’t leave me, so what leaves my body is all the shit I like, with rock drums.’
‘It’s seeking new texture and you can do that quite easily when you’re writing because you’ve got the software up’ says Finn. ‘And maybe that doesn’t involve organic instruments, but then that’s fun because it informs the sounds you seek on an instrument when you’re playing it live.’
‘It’s not a particularly conscious middle finger to rock music or anything like that’ says Tom. ‘It is just the stuff we’re interested in amalgamated with our background, I suppose.’
Their show at The Louisiana this January is their biggest to date and they’re bringing in an additional live guitarist, which leaves Tom to focus on vocals and manipulating sound, with Finn on drums and an occasional swap to synth.
Tom’s take on vocals is an interesting one. Sometimes they are absent and in vocal tracks like Big Water, Little Puzzle and Tangle, they shatter the typical intro, chorus, bridge format of traditional rock music; lyrics are sparse, chopped up and distorted.
they shatter the typical intro, chorus, bridge format of traditional rock music; lyrics are sparse, chopped up and distorted
‘My approach to lyrics has always been about condensing a lot of rich meaning into not very many words’ Tom explains. ‘If you read it, it’s not really prose. It’s a bit choppy and just vibrant words, but with mood and meaning.
‘We have a really good friend called Neema Askari who sings in a band called Fellsilent, and he’s always had this amazing flow – more like a rapper than a singer. It would be like another rhythmic instrument and that’s always really inspired me to not just crowbar in words, but find a word that has a musical quality to it. I think a part of poetry is the sound of the word, not just its meaning, so it’s similar in that respect.’
Something that comes across throughout the Poisonous Birds project is a sense of resistance, whether that’s against traditional ways of releasing music or how they promote themselves as a band. They’re firmly anti-Facebook, even if it means limiting their audience and ultimate success.
‘I definitely have a dislike for the accepted norms, I suppose’ says Tom. ‘If this is how you promote a record, let’s not do that. If these are the instruments used in rock music, let’s not use them…’
‘I think human beings have a habit of getting stuck in norms that if they were to reapproach with a fresh mindset today, they perhaps wouldn’t do anymore. So we carry that mindset through with everything’ says Finn.
human beings have a habit of getting stuck in norms that if they were to reapproach with a fresh mindset today, they perhaps wouldn’t do anymore
‘There is an antagonistic side to me that occasionally creeps out,’ says Tom ‘so there’s a part of that, but that’s not the biggest thing. I don’t really want to annoy everyone, I like to be nice to people. The only thing is that when we started this project we had a motto: “I don’t care”. If we faced a crossroads, “I don’t care, let’s just do that one”. Our last band got so pent up in the music industry and image and horse shit, basically, so we said we’re not doing another band with a Facebook page. If it means we fail, we fail.
‘We’re at a point now where if someone came along with a good offer that could take a load of work off us, I’m up for a record label. But for the last three years, we didn’t want to have anyone telling us what to do. It would be false to say we’re super rebels, but we just want to do things the way we want to do them for now.’
It would be false to say we’re super rebels, but we just want to do things the way we want to do them for now
Now that they’re happy with their sound and starting to gain momentum, the next thing on Poisonous Birds’ agenda is their debut album.
‘There will probably be one song out between now and then, which is ready to go’ says Finn. ‘Then we’ve probably got about seven started songs. But finishing things is a lot harder than starting things.’
‘There’s no shortage of ideas, but turning it into something real is harder’ Tom adds.
Fans can expect to hear the new track at The Louisiana this month, alongside live reworkings of the last two EPs. One of the reasons Poisonous Birds’ live shows go down so well is precisely because they don’t write with it in mind, which means they have to push themselves to their limits with new and interesting compositions for the live performance.
Tom and Finn will also be bringing their new, responsive light show with them to The Louisiana. ‘It will be bright and loud and hopefully better executed than ever’ promises Tom.
Photos by Dominika Scheibinger