Having just returned from a day spent surfing, Newton Faulkner joins the video call from the beach town of Newquay where he is on holiday, two weeks prior to the release of his seventh studio album Interference (of Light). This fits my preconceived image of the Surrey-born songwriter beautifully. In my head he’s been by the shore, riding waves, making necklaces out of seashells, and playing the ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ theme tune on a floral Ukulele to fellow surfers. But much like through the new record (released 20 August), Faulkner is quick to unravel these misconceptions.
“It was actually my first ever surf lesson, I have never surfed before in my entire life,” Faulkner admitted. He is on holiday with his family, choosing to surf since his son was having a lesson that day, the same son whose camo-style headphones Faulkner now rocks during the interview. It is clear the singer-songwriter is more family man than surfer dude, a label which has falsely stuck since his debut Hand Built By Robots over 14 years ago.
“It got so bad that a surf magazine interviewed me,” remembered Faulkner. “It was the most awkward interview of my entire life. I had literally touched a board twice, that’s about it as far my connection to the sport went. I heard [the journalist] flick through pages and pages of questions realising he couldn’t ask any of them”. With his archetypal ginger dreadlocks, relaxed demeanour, and acoustic-guitar-led back catalogue, it is not a stretch to see how this false conclusion was drawn. “I wasn’t going to write into newspapers and tell them to stop calling me a stoner surfer just because I do neither of those things,” continued Faulkner. With Interference (of Light), it is obvious Faulkner is making an effort to separate himself, sonically at least, from this ill-fitting surfer dude association.
The aptly titled, ‘Sinking Sand’, opens the album with a thudding, tribal-like percussion, which turns the tide on any acoustic association with him. “It was one of the first songs that I knew I wanted to finish and wanted to release because it’s just so far away from what people associate me with and I love it,” he said. “I wanted to throw people off balance with the song but also make it clear that it’s not going to be just a rock record”.
Following two years being held in the past promoting his 2019 greatest hits album (which does feature ‘Sponge Bob Square Pants’ as it goes) and the 2020 live acoustic version of Hand Built By Robots, Faulkner sowed the seeds early for a new sound. “I set myself a trap. When I was promoting the ‘Very Best Of’ record I went around telling every journalist that the next album would sound completely different and it would be the start of something new,” he said. “Once you have told everyone that, then you really do have to follow through”. And follow through he did, although he probably wasn’t anticipating how much would rest solely on his shoulders, with the pandemic restricting outside help.
“There were days where I could wake up at seven, and go to the studio with absolutely nothing recorded, but by the end of the day I had done vocals, guitar, bass, drums, piano, and programming,” Faulkner said. Like many of us have found throughout this pandemic though, motivation can be fleeting. “Sometimes though, I was literally swearing at drumsticks, and even bursting into tears because the whole thing was maddening,” he said. “I worked on one track solidly for four months which is insane. I learned more about my processes, and where I draw the lines during this time for sure”.
In a similar fashion to his 2013 album Studio Zoo, Faulkner recorded himself at intervals during the process of making the new album, although he makes it clear the circumstances were worlds apart. “Studio Zoo was so mad and it was such a weird point of my life in general, the main difference though was the timeframes,” he said. “Usually with records it’s all about speed, knowing things have to be done for a certain deadline, but this time it felt a lot more creative being able to dig deeper into my own skill set”.
“I learned more about my processes, and where I draw the lines during this time for sure”
Removing the majority of pressures allowed Faulkner to work through the track-listing with a fine-tooth comb, being creatively free to take risks where he may not have done so previously.
“The track-listing was really interesting to work on, there were some really weird elements to the album that I was wondering if I could get away with,” said Faulkner. “I really liked the winding down section at the end and the last track makes me really happy every time I come back to it”. The most painstaking part about working through the track-listing for this album though, was that Faulkner decided that each platform should have a different order of play.
“I wanted to treat each medium as a different because the way that people use them is so different,” Faulkner explained. “For me, vinyl is very much a dinner party sort of medium, but when some people came round and put on Hit the Ground Running (Faulkner’s 2017 album) it was just annoying to be honest, as it is spread out over two discs and one of them has three tracks on it”.
Faulkner went as far as to add and remove elements depending on the medium it was being played on. “You want to make listening as easy as possible, so things like interludes work really well on CDs but it’s the last thing that you want on Spotify,” he said. “Changing elements between platforms also means you are getting a very tailored experience, although it’s quite a lot of work”.
The next tricky step in establishing his new sound was figuring out how to translate it live. With Interference (of Light) being markedly grander than his previous works, there is a lot more to consider when it comes to performing the tracks. “I’m still working out exactly how to do it because it’s a lot bigger sounding than anything I’ve really done,” said Faulkner. “Previously it’s been the vocal and the main acoustic guitar with everything else tucked around. But for this album there’s a lot less tucking going on, there are massive parts that have nothing to do with guitar yet hold the whole song together”.
Despite his apprehension, Faulkner is clearly keen to delve back into live performing with a hefty tour coming up later this month through to November. Despite playing some socially distanced shows earlier in the year, he believes he has figured out why it doesn’t match the euphoria of a full crowd. “When you start splitting people into smaller groups with chairs and tables you’ll never get that same sense of unity and identity or the anonymity that comes with it,” he said. “Live music is an amazing thing and that’s really what I am in it for”.
Faulkner realised during virtual shows and socially distanced performances, that it is more than just the delivery of music that is important for him. “I always thought what I liked doing was playing to people, but you can do that on the internet,” he said. “I think it is that thing about bringing people together that really keeps me coming back, it’s quite an ancient thing that you don’t get in many other places”.
This primordial feeling can only be intensified when Faulkner plays at the Devil’s Arse Cave (also known as Peak Cavern) in Castleton on 25 September. The unusual venue just West of Sheffield has previously hosted the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley and The Vaccines, but it’s not the first cave Faulkner has ever played in. “I have played a couple of caves in my time, the acoustics are amazing,” Faulkner said. “It is really interesting trying to adapt my equipment to match whatever I’m working with, but it could be impossible with this setup when the songs are so much bigger,” he laughed.
The discussion led to other bizarre places Faulkner has toured including the alps and the remote Hebrides but he settled on one as the most memorable. “I once played in a hot air balloon, it was a live radio broadcast,” he said. “It was like a 16-person balloon which I didn’t know existed”. He concedes that the North often produces the best atmosphere for live performances, citing Scotland and Manchester as some of the wildest nights. “The last few gigs in Manchester have been really special, The Albert Hall was just one of my favourite gigs that I have ever done,” Faulkner remembered. “I’m not sure if it was the weather, the crowd, or the Venue – perhaps a mix of everything. I came off realising that it was one of the best shows I’ve ever done”.
“I am ridiculously proud of this album”
Faulkner will be playing the O2 Riz in Manchester on the 20 October before a further string of dates up until November where he says he is confident in how his future plans are being organised. “Because of the pandemic, we’ve built a good directory of where we want to be,” Faulkner said. But for now he is noticeably radiating about his new material and itching it to play it live. “I am ridiculously proud of this album,” Faulkner said.
He also tells me how proud he is to be gaining confidence on the waves, keen to squeeze in another surf session before his holiday is over. “I have only stood up three times so far though,” he admits. I have told friends at Surfer Magazine to hold back on that second interview for now.