by Rob Mair
“I thought – unrealistically – that we could just support Jimmy Eat World and then go back into our hole,” laughs Warren Mallia, while talking about the hopes for his new band. Sadly, the reality of making music in 2020 is far different from the expectations.
Something of an emo/indie-rock supergroup, Great Defeat features members of Alcopop! Records’ alumni My First Tooth, The Attika State, The Social Club, and Elephants. With a wealth of experience in the industry stretching back some 15 or so years, the thought of picking up some prime support slots on reputation alone wasn’t as outlandish as it might seem.
Despite maintaining some lofty goals, Great Defeat is very much a passion project for guitarist Mallia, vocalist and lyricist Ross Witt, drummer Stu Lloyd and bassist Owen Kimm; born out of mutual respect and a desire for the long-time friends to finally work together. Mallia and Witt’s friendship goes back to 2005, and the peak of the emo/indie-rock DIY boom in the UK. Mallia’s Attika State and Witt’s One Toy Soldier were two of the leading lights in the scene and found themselves frequently crossing paths in venues on the UK toilet circuit.
But plans for working together only really took flight when Witt’s My First Tooth project was slowly winding down. When Witt asked Mallia to join the group (“I wasn’t sure if it was a serious request for me to audition” jokes Mallia), the duo’s friendship was truly forged on the road – even if Mallia found himself winging some parts of these My First Tooth shows once they had started playing together: “I definitely did not know all the songs,” he laughs. “One song in particular, I remember having to absolutely fake it. I’d leave my guitar tuner off and just half pretend to play it.”
During the final days of My First Tooth, there was tentative talk around starting a new band. But these plans only coalesced into something more permanent in the last five years, although initial discussions took place as far back as 2013. Considering the glacial pace of getting the project moving, there was some doubt that it would ever find forward momentum at all. As if to emphasise the precarious nature of forming a band, Witt comments that he has created Facebook pages for 32 bands he’s agreed to join, which have subsequently amounted to nothing.
Great Defeat almost joined the scrapheap before they started, as the group struggled to even agree on a name: “I’d suggest a name which I thought might be good, then it would be met with 15 fucking insane responses,” says Witt. “I’d be like ‘Fine, I quit.’ This would happen every couple of days.”
“One time he left the group chat, that was a big deal,” continues Mallia. “We were like ‘Is this for real? I think Ross has left’. We hadn’t even played together.”
Another, more fundamental, hurdle came in the songwriting approach for the quartet. Witt acknowledges that in the past he’s been something of a “tyrant”, particularly with regards to the songwriting in One Toy Soldier. My First Tooth, meanwhile, were regimented on two band practices every week, with the songs existing in his head and simply needing to be teased out.
Mallia talks of collectively “wringing a song’s neck to death” workshopping it as a group with the Attika State to resolve any creative blocks. He also acknowledges that, with the egos involved in Great Defeat, that they’re not the type of people to just take direction and not have an input into the process. It meant concessions had to be made to ensure the group all found themselves pulling in the same direction – something Witt found himself unusually taken by: “It was hard to get used to this style of writing until I learned to step back and just let it happen, which is the opposite of what I’m used to. It got to the point – and Warren would agree – where I had no idea what the songs were any more, especially compared to the original idea.”
“Also I’m a bit impatient, so I wouldn’t even make it through an entire song before I’d taken apart a guitar part,” laughs Mallia.
An example of this clash of styles can be seen in a particular riff that made its way onto ‘Girlfriends’ – one of Always Goodbye’s most uptempo moments. Witt says that he’d never have allowed it on the record if the riff wasn’t good, but after arriving late and hungover for practice, he felt compelled to include it as a concession for his tardy behaviour. “It’s such a standout riff,” jokes Mallia – and he’s not wrong, considering it harks back to the more complicated, spidery galloping indie-pop sound of The Attika State. “I played it to people who know me, and they knew that it was instantly ‘my bit’ on the record.”
The idea of ego also manifested itself in how the group approached distributing Always Goodbye. With so much experience accrued from years in the industry, they were reluctant to self-release, even though such a route to market is now an established way to put a new act on the map. Instead, they called on their network of friends and colleagues for advice, conscious of the fact that they were unlikely to play 200 shows a year like they would have done a decade ago. Jack Clothier of Alcopop! Records suggested Rose Coloured Records, with whom Great Defeat ultimately teamed up with to release Always Goodbye.
“I think we got caught in that mindset of thinking ‘Well, we know loads of people at labels, maybe we should try them first because they will do a better job than we would if we were to self-release,” says Witt.
“And also, I think our egos wouldn’t let us just release it into a black hole,” continues Mallia. “We could have put it on Spotify and no-one would have listened to it, so I don’t think we could really get over that old-fashioned label mentality.”
Yet, in an odd quirk of fate, releasing a record in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t a bad idea for a band that can’t commit to touring as much as younger acts. Witt says that such a thing, in many ways, has proved a leveller, as it’s now all about the music – which reflects the group’s mentality for forming a band in the first place – rather than jumping in a van or risking playing to half-empty rooms in bars around the country.
Tellingly, the output of Great Defeat does stand up to scrutiny, drawing on the skill of its craftsmen to make an album that serves as an appropriate continuation and amalgamation of the work of their previous groups. Bookended by the sparse, almost haunting ‘Leaving Slowly’ and ‘Always Goodbye Part Two’, it’s also a record that looks to confound some of the expectations associated with four musicians who have made their names off the back of more immediate indie-pop songs. That’s not to say they fully tear up the rulebook – the rest of Always Goodbye is a much more familiar environment for the quartet – but it does display an element of risk-taking – bravery even – considering such a move might be the first introduction to the group.
Thereafter, however, Always Goodbye shines on the strength of its pop songs. Slightly off-centre, playful and effervescent, there’s a charm that barrels through songs like ‘Powerlines’, ‘Magazine’ and ‘Blood Sport’ which makes them hugely likeable and immediate, like Tellison fed on a diet of The Weakerthans, late-career The Promise Ring and The Good Life.
This is perhaps no surprise – it’s a record built on Witt’s experience of songwriting and storytelling – and there are nods to the styles of John K Samson, Davey Von Bohlen and Tim Kasher in the compositions on Always Goodbye – yet they are also songs that have been allowed to percolate and ferment over many years. Indeed, some of the songs here have existed in a rudimentary shape for more than eight years. Over that time, they’ve been workshopped and edited into their current form, chided into life by Witt but willed into bloom by Mallia, Lloyd and Kimm.
On the likes of ‘Money’ and ‘Always Goodbye Part 1’, where the musicality of Witt’s lyrics is strikingly obvious, Always Goodbye fires to some spectacular highs. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s not too much of a stretch to say they’re songs at which even the mighty Jimmy Eat World would throw envious glances. Maybe Mallia’s pipedream isn’t that far away after all…