Interview // North Atlantic Oscillation

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I originally conducted this interview with Sam Healy from North Atlantic Oscillation for the October 2014 edition of NARC magazine.

“I don’t even know if I’ve even heard us on the radio,” Sam Healy muses. This admission is almost hard to believe. Edinburgh-based North Atlantic Oscillation are a band that have the epic scope and ambition of some of the world’s most inventive bands and have been praised by countless critics and broadcasters for their energized, distinctive sound. Constantly compared to Grandaddy, Sigur Ros and The Flaming Lips, Healy and his bandmates Ben Martin and Chris Howard have already released two albums – their debut Grappling Hooks and follow-up The Fog Electric – and are gearing up to release their latest LP, The Third Day.

Creating The Third Day turned out to be a protracted process. Though the guitars and keyboards featured on the LP were recorded at home by Healy, the drums were recorded in Newcastle. Unfortunately, recording in a converted textile mill brought its own unique challenges. “Apparently it’s all fully insulated now but at the time it wasn’t insulated at all for sound so we weren’t able to use it until after 6pm because there are office units nearby and they would just complain about the noise,” Healy explains. “So we ended up working from around 6-7m until three or four in the morning. It was during a gale too, it was during a very, very high wind. It was very atmospheric, it was nice to do that.”

The slightly unusual recording locations of the album are only part of what makes The Third Day unique. A symphony of alt-rock riffs and slightly psychedelic synths, the album flows with an internal energy that is worthy of the band’s meteorological namesake. It’s also an LP filled with inventive flourishes and a fearless attitude towards composing. I asked Healy if he deliberately experimented with the music that he and the band creates. “Novelty and innovation are really important to me,” he stated passionately. “The worst thing a band can do is copy itself, you know. There’s this thing where bands think, well people liked Album A so let’s make Album B, which is really just a variation of the theme. I really think that’s the worst thing a band can do.” In the past, this has left some critics puzzled as to how to evaluate the complex and sometimes incredibly loose soundscapes the band create, though this isn’t something that particularly worries Healy. “I don’t need a piece of music to sound cohesive if it sounds good. Sometimes it depends on the song, depends on the track, but certainly I’m willing to try anything. I don’t have any preconceptions in the studio. It’s just one of those advantages about being self-taught.”

Seemingly, much of this freer approach to music-making stems from the influence of the artists Healy most admires. Though he professes a love for early-90s American alt-rock (“Pixies were my favourite band for many years”) and elements of Britpop (“albums two and three by Supergrass… Blur and Pulp”), it’s clear that Healy is attracted to chameleonic musicians. “The artists that I have the most respect for are the ones who constantly reinvent themselves. There are those who take that to such a divine artform like David Bowie, or Beck.” Healy adds that “the harder it is not to be placed into one genre the better,” but does he place his band’s own shape-shifting qualities alongside those of his idols? “Obviously we’re not at that stage because that also means a reinvention of your image as well as sound.” He pauses briefly before laughing. “We don’t really have an image to reinvent.”

One of the biggest inspirations for the album, though, was the second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. “The second half of Abbey Road is a kind of continuous thing,” Healy notes, shedding light on why much of The Third Day flows constantly from one track to the next. “It’s not the case that on our album there’s no gaps at all, there are gaps in between some of the songs but maybe half of the songs are kind of seamlessly flowing into one another… It’s not that the album sounds like Abbey Road but it was the first time I’d heard that particular technique.” I wondered if there was a particular reason why Healy was attracted to this method. “I just really like it. Because it means that the artist is treating the album as the unit of music and not the track, which I always believed should be the case, you know.”

Healy’s passion for the album form explains a lot about why The Third Day is such a pleasure to listen to. Its carefully crafted structure eliminates the possibility of there being filler material while giving the listener a truly immersive experience. Though it’s difficult to imagine where North Atlantic Oscillation can turn to next, Healy looks forward to the challenge. “I just love that idea of never becoming complacent, not resting on your laurels, always thinking ‘what’s next’?” For Healy and his bandmates, the future has limitless horizons.

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