04 August 2019

#thesefourwalls10 and no, they still don’t have jetpacks

In my last post here on The Practising Troublemaker, I wrote about Duran Duran’s John Taylor and his autobiography and how it had been 20 years since I had become a full-fledged Duranie. Today’s post is all about another big anniversary: 10 years on since the release of We Were Promised Jetpacks’ debut album for FatCat Records, ‘These Four Walls’. The Scottish band were in our country for the last month to play a celebratory series of shows in celebration of the milestone.

Last Tuesday night, We Were Promised Jetpacks (who will be known as WWPJ going forward in this post) played U Street Music Hall with friends of mine Catholic Action, also from Scotland. Summer shows in DC are always tricky propositions: unless the headliner is a long-established artist with many years under the belt, most of the fans attending shows in DC are college-age kids, which means you might have trouble selling tickets. Being in a basement on a DC summer night isn’t great, either. Years ago, I covered the Gaslight Anthem for DIY in the same venue in July, and the heat was pretty overwhelming. I was glad, though, to see that many people packed out the venue for a band who had come such a long way to play for us.

Weeks prior to the gig, WWPJ announced that lead guitarist Michael Palmer would be leaving the band after their North American tour wrapped. I had first seen them a decade previous, playing as part of Brighton, England indie label FatCat Records’ tour in the autumn of 2009. I hadn’t known much about WWPJ before seeing them play that show at the Black Cat, the first of many times I would see them play live at individual shows and music festivals. (Sadly, following the demise of PopWreckoning, that review and its photos are now lost to the ether.) It was comedian Patton Oswalt (you know, the guy who voiced the cooking mouse in Ratatouille) who, during an interview on Fuse TV, tipped them and their video for ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’. I hadn’t been with There Goes the Fear as their U.S. editor for long, but I knew in hearing the passion in tracks from ‘These Four Walls’ that these kids from Edinburgh were going somewhere. I just had to write about them! And we/I at TGTF wrote quite a bit about them over the years.

Ten years in our business is a long time these days. Many bands don’t make it past a few years, let alone a decade. I mean, consider Duran Duran for a moment. They’ve been doing this for 40 years. Any band with any sort of longevity in 2019 can credit the same few things for their success: hard work, great music, great songwriting, fantastic live shows, and devoted fans. In WWPJ’s case, I would argue that the rising of their own star in America contributed to a greater awareness of what was going on in the Scottish music scene for years to come.

It wasn’t that there weren’t Scottish bands worthy to be written about and covered by places like TGTF back then. In the early Noughties, Franz Ferdinand proved to Scottish bands that global success was possible. No, it was about having touchstones, reference points for those of us like myself who previously had next to none.

Three years after ‘These Four Walls’, WWPJ would close the rammed Scottish music showcase at Easy Tiger at SXSW 2012, the first of eight years I would attend the carnival of crazy. On the same bill were art-pop noiseniks Django Django, who were enjoying a wave of popularity thanks to BBC Radio backing. I met Django Django’s Dave McLean at that showcase, as well as BBC Radio Scotland’s Vic Galloway, who has since become a dear friend and resource. I have been to Scotland many times since, and I feel very at home there. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Scotland has, arguably, the most exciting music scene of all of Britain at the moment, and I don’t think I would have invested as much time in Scottish indie if I hadn’t watched the video for ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’, did my research, and found myself rocking out to ‘These Four Walls’.

I was well past any teenage or even twenty-something angst when I popped this CD on for the first time. Yet what struck me most was the aggression of the music, matching the tormented shouts of frontman Adam Thompson. I have never been the kind of music fan that enjoys the Bob Dylan-y, guitar-toting troubadour on a stool telling me stories about his life. The reason WWPJ’s debut album works so well is the immediacy of its singles: the aforementioned ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’, ‘Quiet Little Voices’, ‘It’s Thunder and Lightning’. These are songs to yell along to at the top of your lungs in a cathartic rage. I wouldn’t call the album punk, for there are songs like ‘Conductor’ that have that garage-y, folk-y thing going, while ‘Keeping Warm’ is an 8-minute opus with an extended instrumental. The album was a statement of intent: here we are, we are Scottish and proud to be Scottish, and we're going to make the music we want to make. They were young and hungry and more importantly, it worked.

I think it’s important to note, too, that despite receiving a 6.7 from Pitchfork, ‘These Four Walls’ surpassed the average music critic’s expectation, or perhaps I should say the band did with respect to music listeners. It was word of mouth and fan devotion that kept WWPJ viable as a band for so many years. I told so many friends about them and talked them up on TGTF, which I am positive ‘sold’ them to American fans interested in British music. How to break music in 2019 is very different than how it was done successfully in 2009. I’m definitely sad that Michael and his monster riffs will no longer be a part of WWPJ, but I am pleased they will be continuing as a band. They are truly lovely people, and they should be rightly proud of the legacy they have built for themselves and all the fans they’ve picked up along the way. Rereading my 2009 Bands to Watch on them, I feel honored that I played a small part in their journey, that I gave a helping hand to a band I heard so much promise in.

baby We Were Promised Jetpacks
(I'm gonna guess I nicked this from their Facebook at the time)

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