By Rob Barbour
Will Gould likes to talk about films.
Throughout the course of one conversation about Creeper’s forthcoming début album, Eternity, In Your Arms, the frontman will liken the album’s production to that of Blade Runner, explain the concept for recent video ‘Black Rain’ as an homage to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and characterise the band’s multimedia approach to their art as them being “film people who for some reason make punk music.”
One film that doesn’t come up, however, is Back to the Future. Which is surprising, considering that Creeper are explicitly on a mission to turn back the clock – specifically, back to an era when bands weren’t so prone to oversharing.
“We talk about trying to build the barriers back up. Our campaign for this album was a reaction to how other bands have used social media – there’s something really tacky about a band tweeting pictures of themselves in a recording studio. It strips the romantic element out of music.”
Gould speaks to me from the band’s tour van; on a 12-hour drive across the California desert, he’s got time to kill and plenty to say – albeit through an enormous headset. “If you imagine what a pilot might wear,” he laughs, “those earphones that cover your entire ear, with a microphone coming out of it. That’s what I’m wearing to hear you over all the bumps in the road!”
The terrain through which the band are travelling during our conversation is an appropriate analogy for their journey over the last year.
By now, anyone with an interest in Creeper will be familiar with the mythology they’ve built up around Eternity… , but here’s a primer for the uninitiated. The album marks the final chapter of an arc started by 2015’s The Callous Heart EP. The Callous Heart is the name of the cordate logo which adorns the back of the band’s jackets when they perform, as well as that of a supernatural teenage gang who roam the streets of the band’s home city of Southampton. Its follow up, 2016’s The Stranger, refers to a ghostly, pale-faced entity – representing the passing of time. Years ago, this mythical apparition may or may not have snatched a man named James Scythe – also known as The Spectral Sceptic – from Room 309 of the city’s Dolphin Hotel.
If that sounds like a lot to take in, consider this: not only was this all manifested in a trio of music videos, a full-length Spectral Sceptic podcast and a co-ordinated ‘disappearance’ from social media (in which all the band’s individual accounts were deleted), but Creeper planned and executed the whole campaign themselves, designing it in their hotel rooms while on tour.
Not wanting to give their notoriously fastidious fans any indication that an album was on its way, Creeper recorded Eternity in fits and starts throughout 2016, diving back into the studio whenever they weren’t on tour. “We knew if we took time off, our audience would know we were up to something. We’ve never taken a break and with the amount of time it takes to make a record, it would have been really obvious.”
Reflecting on the campaign – which, at its height, saw Creeper fans roaming Southampton looking for the physical clues the band had dotted around the city – Gould once again evokes the ghost of rock’n’roll past.
“I guess we’re trying to do things that haven’t been done for a long time. For younger kids, they’ve never seen it before. They’re from a generation who didn’t grow up with it at all. Which is kinda sad, but it’s cool that we get to be that band for them.”
Then there’s the small matter of the band’s decision to record the entire album in secret – which was, Gould says, “a fucking nightmare.”
So the band continued touring. They honoured their increasing media commitments. And they started to stretch themselves to breaking point. “People wanting to do things with us is amazing. But at the same time, I’d just come off tour, so my voice was fucked. I’d go straight into the studio for two days to record, then in the evening I’d be up in London doing press because we didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities. We were all super stressed out.” But it wasn’t just their schedule which drove the band to the brink of insanity.
The Ranch Production House sits on a nondescript country lane on the outskirts of Southampton. It’s easy enough to reach by car but once you’re there, a sense of rural isolation descends immediately. The studio itself occupies several repurposed stables and there’s nothing in its outward appearance to suggest that there’s anything but livestock within.
But even in this remote confine, keeping the nascent album’s existence a secret wasn’t as easy as you might think. After all, The Ranch contains two studios and has plenty of other clients, many of whom were only too excited to run into Southampton’s fastest-rising band on their home turf.
“Every time there was another band in, we’d say hello. And then they’d tweet about meeting us, and we had to go through and tell them to take it down! It was ridiculous.”
Sealed off from outside interference and lost in the intensity of their creative process, the band – and producer Neil Kennedy – sent themselves into a spiral of solipsistic insanity. To demonstrate the extent to which their grip on reality disintegrated, Gould gives me a rundown of all the material that didn’t make the album. And…boy, is it something.
“Ian [Miles, guitar] and I had written a song, and we really went down the Meatloaf rabbit hole. Neil was with us, and Hannah [Greenwood, keys] had come in too. So there were four of us, really high on this song. We thought, ‘This is the best song we’ve written! This is the best Creeper song we’ve ever done!’ We worked on it for three days – honestly, three days. And then on the third day, we realised it was absolutely shit.”
Another song, with an Elvis Presley-inspired doo-wop middle 8, was cut because “the verse melody I’d written was just ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys, but also like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon”; there was a 2-minute instrumental track – “no vocal, just organ all the way through. It sounded like a funeral parlour”; and yet another, kicked to the curb for sounding too much like David Bowie but with “lyrics about drinking Kool-Aid.” For his part, the producer agrees that it was “stir-crazy madness. I feel almost hysterical thinking about it.”
Ultimately though, Gould feels that the self-imposed stress created by the secrecy, their schedule, and their escalating media profile contributed to the quality of the finished album. “It’s what makes the record worth listening to,” he explains. “You can hear the strain in my voice. When I listen to it, I’m transported back to all the late nights when Neil didn’t go home to his girlfriend because he stayed with me recording overdubs. But I think the best records are like that. If it doesn’t come with some kind of turbulence,” he asks, posing a question that could be debated for hours, “is it really good art?”
Throughout this diversion into Seriously, What the Fucksville – “we demoed one song where Ian had replaced every other snare hit with a thunderclap” – there’s a recurring theme which helps explain why Eternity… is a tight, coherent 11-track album and not an hour-long magnum opus of batshittery: their relationship with Kennedy.
Gould credits his performance-based production style with helping Creeper stand out from their glossier-sounding contemporaries – and when Creeper signed to Roadrunner, one of their stipulations was that they could continue to record with him. The label offered them enough money to go to any number of bigger-name producers. But as Gould says, with absolute conviction, “it wouldn’t have been right.”
This loyalty paid dividends. Whenever the band found themselves sucked too deeply into the vortex of creative craziness, it was always Neil who brought them back to reality. To utilise another of Gould’s beloved film metaphors – if the band are an auteur director, then Kennedy played the part of the meddling studio exec with an eye for what audiences want.
“If there was a Director’s Cut of Eternity, In Your Arms,” says Gould, “it would be a difficult listen.”
The pinnacle of Creeper’s relationship with Kennedy comes around halfway through Eternity, In Your Arms, with ‘Crickets’. A country-influenced acoustic ballad on which Greenwood provides lead vocals, it’s unlike anything else the band have put out. In the hands of a more commercially-focused producer, it could have been another example of the derivative, pitch-perfect bullshit you’ll find on any number of otherwise fast-paced punk albums. But with its un-sanded edges, it’s possessed of a fierceness that belies its gentle musical canvas.
But it very nearly found its way into the bin along with their Bowie, Meatloaf and weather-influenced cast-offs. “When I described it – ‘well, me and Ian and Hannah have come up with this song. A country song. For our punk band.’ – everyone was really, really against it.”
But the band fought for the song, in part because of Gould’s affinity for the male-female vocal trade-offs characteristic of classic 1970s radio-rock. We’re travelling back through time again, via one of Gould’s favourite albums (and objectively one of the greatest albums of all time), Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s this musical literacy which propels Creeper ahead of their more myopic peers.
“I feel like part of our job is to tip the hat and pastiche a bunch of different styles. It’s what Creeper’s always been about – there’s a level of nostalgia that we deal in.”
It’s not just the excitement of the music itself that Creeper are interested in reviving. It’s the necessary mystique that came from access to a band being limited, and strictly controlled. In fact, this idea of control – over their image, over their output, and over the way their story is told – is something the band have consciously cultivated from the beginning. By depriving their fans of a stream-of-consciousness social media presence – “We have to ignore people for their own good!” – Gould hopes he can recreate for them the experiences he had as a teenager, discovering music for the first time.
“You used to go to gigs, and before it started you couldn’t believe you were going to see the band on the stage in a minute. It was so exciting,” he says, his voice gaining speed and pitch as he recalls the feelings he’s describing. “That magic of ‘what happens backstage? Where are they gonna come from? I can’t believe they’re here!’”
“In this era, you know what’s happening backstage. Because they’ve tweeted a picture of themselves eating a sandwich by a laptop.” His voice has returned to normal now, sunk by the weight of the mundane. “I miss feeling excited.”
Creeper have been accused on more than one occasion of being pretentious, an assessment Gould acknowledges – and to some extent agrees with. “A certain amount of pretentiousness”, he explains, is integral to the band’s plan. “By disappearing for the social media campaign, everyone was talking about us without us having to constantly remind them something was happening.” He talks of returning to an age “where people would have to source out things. They’d have to find out what was happening themselves.”
Unlike some bands who see the direct fan connection offered by Twitter as an opportunity to bypass ‘the media’, Gould sees music journalism as an integral part of helping a band to tell a compelling story. As a child of the 90s, his developmental years were spent discovering bands through magazines like Metal Hammer and Kerrang!, and he thinks there’s much to be said for media gatekeeping of the band-fan relationship.
“It’s a power-shift,” he says of his decision not to reactivate his Twitter account. “It’s too much to expect a band to constantly interact with you. I don’t have a social media presence so if someone wanted to find out my opinion, the only way to do that is to read pieces like the one you’re writing right now. It gives the power back to the journos.
“That’s important. Journalists tell these stories a lot better than a fucking band member taking a picture of someone taking a shit by the side of a motorway.”
Pretentious or not, the way that Creeper restrict access to the minutiae of their machinations exposes the paradox at the heart of social media ‘strategies’. They may be off the grid, but Creeper’s music connects with people on an emotional level most bands can only dream of. That’s not coincidental.
“Other bands of this era,” Gould asserts, “are promising sincerity onstage; they’re promising sincerity in their music, and real heart. But what they really give you is pantomime. The records are tuned all thin. The production’s really inauthentic and there’s a rehearsed spiel onstage every night.”
So what’s Creeper’s counter-offer?
“The opposite. We promise you a pantomime and a massive, ridiculous, grand show that’s not realistic. But what we’re actually doing is putting something genuine in the bones of that. So you might be seduced by the pageantry, but hopefully you’ll find there’s a real heart under there.”
Their first album may not even be out yet, but Creeper are already looking to the future. It’s something the singer thinks about often. Operating in such a high-concept space, and with so strong an image, means constantly having to consider how long that image can be maintained before it veers into self-parody.
“I don’t want us to be prisoners of our success. I don’t want to feel like I have to constantly be who people want me to be. I’d rather not be successful and go back to playing The Joiners [a legendary, but tiny, venue in the band’s home city]” every week, than do something that isn’t true and that I couldn’t do with conviction every day.”
He acknowledges that he’s sounding “really fucking right-on and punk” and admits he might feel differently as the band’s star rises.
“Ask me again when I’m sitting in my jacuzzi in the Hollywood hills!”
But Creeper’s ambition goes way beyond being, in Gould’s words, “a spooky goth band.” The artists who inspire them aren’t the ones who maintained one consistent image throughout their careers, but ones who frequently took risks.
“My hero – which I say in every interview and really need to stop fucking talking about – is David Bowie. I grew up finding other artists through the genres he experimented in. He was bold and confident at a time when he could have destroyed his career doing the things he did.”
Creeper’s commitment to doing things on their own terms has led them to develop an incredibly dedicated fanbase. And like those artists, they’re reluctant to cede control to their fans. After all, Gould reasons, they only have that fan base in the first place “because we’re so focused on what we want to do.”
More interestingly, Gould strongly hints that Eternity, In Your Arms marks the end of the universe that he and his bandmates spent so much of the past year building.
“It came up in conversation recently – what are we going to do with The Callous Heart? Because it’s intrinsically linked to our story now. I feel like the EPs and this album are the first chapter of this band. The idea that we could do another record, with a different concept, is incredibly exciting.”
Of course, whether or not the story of James Scythe, The Stranger and The Callous Heart can be deciphered from its narrative-but-abstract lyrics will depend on the level to which the listener has bought into that concept. But it seems anyone wanting more of the same is going to be sorely disappointed.
As Creeper’s van rumbles across the desert, they’re conscious of the fact that it’s now just thirty days until the band’s fans will be able to hear Eternity, In Your Arms as it was intended. Because unlike so many releases, it feels like a cohesive whole. It takes the listener on a journey, each song making perfect sense within context.
That includes singles ‘Suzanne’, ‘Hiding With Boys’ and ‘Black Rain’, every one of which sounds better as part of the larger body of work. This is entirely by design, as the artistic intent behind the record is driven by Creeper’s perception of themselves as something of an anachronism.
“Our band would have fitted in better 10 years ago than it does now. We’re always trying to think of the record as one piece of music to be digested; in an age where people release singles rather than albums, that seems dated to a lot of people.”
For now, Creeper might be six South Coast punks crammed into a van, driving twelve hours a day to open shows to people who’ve never heard of them. But to anyone who’s heard the record, it’s clear that this state of affairs won’t last much longer. They may be rolling towards the Midwest and the next show today, but their ultimate destination is far, far grander. By virtue of staying authentic to their own vision, they’ve produced one of the best British rock débuts of the last twenty years, and show no sign of resting on their laurels.
“Bold, confident steps forward,” says Gould of the band’s next move. “And if it all goes to shit, then so be it.”
Eternity, In Your Arms is released on 24th March 2017 through Roadrunner Records.