Music used to play a central role in our lives and “records” (as we always called them) sold in their millions. Artists become hugely rich and fantastically successful, often with the support of an army of agents, pluggers and record company big-wigs to help promote within the small number of press, media and broadcast companies that helped to form the nation's collective musical taste. When Slade, T.Rex, Bowie or The Sweet released a new single it would sell 2 million in a week in the UK alone. But the times, they are a changing. Gone are the nurturing large labels, replaced by a small number of passionate independents and a DIY ethos that whilst impressive, doesn't have the same reach or ability to influence en mass. Even the big beasts are suffering as music struggles to be heard above the noise of modern life. Recently Bob Dylan released his first album of original songs for five years, Neil Young put out another volume in his continuing achieve series and Paul Weller “dropped” a new album. Despite going to the coveted No.1 spot Bob only managed 50,000 sales, Neil only managed 25,000 and the Modfather, God bless him, could only shift 11,000.
Given that major artists sell such pitiful amounts nowadays, and with support for new artists at an all-time low, what hope is there for bands to get on that ever-elusive ladder to success? Getting noticed at all is hard enough, with everyone vying for online attention. Now factor in Covid-19, which has temporarily killed the live music scene, restricting the ways in which new music reaches its audience, and calling to a halt the relatively lucrative sales from merchandise.
It’s against this rather bleak backdrop that The Morning Shift, a busy six-piece band based in South East London, have spent two years making an album in a small university studio, and despite all the obstacles in their path, they’ve got a finished record that’s spikey, melodic, sad, thought provoking and wonderfully enigmatic. The band of Geordie-meets-Wilshire musicians have taken to social media to help spread the word, making a short promotional film and pulling together a bunch of videos for each of their seven songs. The Morning Shift blend the brass-infused arrangements of Belle & Sebastian, the melodic sensibilities of The Beatles and the warm soundscapes of Nick Cave. Their debut mini album, ‘Where Would You Rather Be?’ is out on August 1st and can be downloaded for not much more that £5 from all major digital stores.
I caught up with the six members of the band - Dom Johnson (guitar/vocal), Josh Wolfsohn (drums/vocals), Aidan Finden (bass,vocals), Josh Wilde (keyboards/vocals), Edward Cross (trombone/vocals), and Sam Loveless (trumpet/vocals) - via a Zoom link to a South London Park in early July, and we talked about general trials, tribulations, and the difficulties of getting things done during lockdown.
We talked about Covid, the value of sparsely attended gigs and the excitement of playing a gig at the lost and lamented Lime Bar in Folkestone where “everyone actually listened”. We talked too about where they draw influences from (“everything from Steely Dan, “weirdstreet noises” through to Phoebe Bridgers and a “weird artist called Rhye who sounds nothing likeus”) and about collaboration (“We all write, these songs are all Dom’s but Josh Wilde has some ready, the music is very much collaborative”) and then memories of some favourite live gigs by other artist - from Nick Cave at Victoria Park (Dom) through Courtney Pine (Josh Wolfshon) to Jason Romero (Aiden - "Lots of banjo - it seemed like every banjo player in London must have been there) and The Pixies, and the Northern Sinfonia playing music from Star Wars (Josh Wilde "It's not often you see Darth Vader playing the flute").
In terms of promoting something when you can’t really promote anything Josh Wilde told me that they’ve been keenly watching what everyone else has been doing and bringing it all together “We’re going to make a short biopic” (bringing laughter from everyone) “Then we’ll get everything up on social media. Josh and Aidan did a songwriters circle recently playing the songs acoustically and we’ll try some more of that”. Dom talked about the difficulties of trying to write a happy song that doesn’t just sound naff and says “It’s tricky to pull that off – Richard Thompson, one of my Dad’s favourite song writers - revels in miserable songs but is quite a jovial chap. I think I’ve pulled it off on some songs here – ‘Dying Embers’ maybe. Sometimes you have to fake it a bit, but all my songs are at least based on things that have happened to me.”
The album kicks off with a short, spiffing, honking ditty titled ‘Is It Worth It?’, that doesn’t even last two minutes and invokes God, and the inadequacy of words to convey real feeling and questions what life is all about whilst the brass honks away, but before you can draw a breath we’re into ‘Dying Embers’, an uplifting urban love song with joyful up-tempo guitars and virtuosic horn lines. Set amongst the grime and chaos of the bands beloved south east London home it’s a joyous uplifting song about new found love and spending time doing nothing with the one you love. ‘Raindrops in the Night’ is a smouldering poetic mini-epic with a rolling piano and an insistent patter of percussion and Dom’s gentle voice and smooth brass with some heavenly harmonies. ‘Like They Used To’ creeps in with a moody bass riff and some smoky piano and Dom’s dislocated robotic treated voice with a tale of a child locked into his parents dissolving relationship with financial pressure and taking away pain with the sting of alcohol. The guitars slash and the sadness is intensified with a shocking spitted out line - “I Hate You Now” that underlines a painful and hopeless real situation.
The centre-piece though is the highly personal ‘Highland Days’ that will tug at your heartstrings and your tears will roll. It’s inspired by Dom’s Granddad who passed at the age of 98. It opens with a recording of him talking with Dom’s dad about meeting his wife in the Lake District during World War 2 and getting married quickly. Dom told me “For my Granddad’s 97th birthday he took himself up by train from his home in North Yorkshire to Aviemore in the highlands of Scotland that he loved so much. He would also have no trouble taking himself off to London for the sights of the big city. In later years this was taken away from after a fall left him with severe memory loss, in a care home and unable to take even a short walk. This song was written as an attempt what he, in his slightly younger days, might have thought if he’s been able to see himself in the place that was to be his final home.” It begins with a lilting guitar, some gentle piano and Dom’s breathless voice trying to get inside his Granddad’s head and actually describe the indescribable sadness of losing something that you treasure and understanding that death is near. Blindingly sad but with enough good memories rolling through it so you know a life lived well is always worth living.
The penultimate track is the album’s title, ‘Where Would You Rather Be?’ seems to be a song about burn-out though you have to listen hard to pick up those subtle references alongside the punchy horns and the imaginative textures of 80’s style guitars and the cool doubling of brass parts with the Rhodes keyboard, The band all have good ears and are sopping up influences for every source and I hear subtle echoes of Steely Dan. A reference that really pleased Josh Wolfshon who was happy to be mentioned in the same breath as “such a cool band.” The band have a definite commercial edge, not surprising when you hear that Dom feels as though they can learn anywhere even from something as random as Top 40 arrangements. All these references and influences come together on the closing ‘New Shadow’ that begins with some chiming guitar and piano and Dom’s sensitive voice laments over a dying affair that builds into something of a tour-de-force with a circus of emotions crafted into a powerful brass laden song of dying love and the feelings of loss and anger we have all felt but with enough of a glimpse into a hopeful future with an almost mariachi climax of horns. Wonderful stuff indeed.
In a bygone era, this record might have sold in the 100's of thousands. We may have seen the last of such unit shifting, but I doubt we've heard the last of The Morning Shift. It’s heartening to realise that even in these most difficult and challenging of times, there are still young musicians plugging away, trying to get their music heard. If you fancy lending the band tourer, or indeed, some more tangible support, then head to tinyurl.com/tmsalbumlaunch at 7pm on July 31st for a live stream to launch the album proper.