More than ten years on from their formation as a group of friends playing music together at school in Edinburgh and three albums into a recording career which has revealed variety and progression, it’s the apparent sense of self-awareness demonstrated by Glasgow-based quintet We Were Promised Jetpacks that explains their growing popularity.
“We’re at quite an interesting point, we’re no longer young and new anymore,” says lead singer Adam Thompson with welcome frankness as the release date of their third album Unravelling approaches. “It’s an exciting time for us. I wouldn’t say it’s make or break but it feels like this is a point where we’re either going to do something or we’re going to plateau at this level.”
Ever since their arrival in 2009 with debut album These Four Walls (released by FatCat Records, a label with a strong recent history of breaking Scottish artists), We Were Promised Jetpacks have proved to be a popular group in their home country with ripples of small-scale success spreading to the United States and mainland Europe. Much of this has been founded on a live show filled with heat and energy, and Thompson is happy to admit they now know youthful verve can get them only so far.
“Before, we went very much on instinct with our songs, and that’s probably why a lot of them would build and build and get faster and heavier,” he says. “It felt good to play, but maybe not on repeated listens.
“The first album was very raw and off the cuff. We wrote those songs one at a time, we never meant for them to be an album. For the second album [2011’s In the Pit of the Stomach], we wanted to fill out our set with heavier, louder stuff. It did that, but on reflection we realised it’s thick with guitars from start to finish. It’s a dense, heavy album. Immediately that opened up an avenue for us to try and bring it back a little, and we wanted to take more time and do something different. We didn’t just want to do the same thing again with a couple of guitars blazing and bass and drums going for it through each song, so we took a step back.”
The result is Unravelling, which sounds like nothing the group has done before. The lead track, Safety in Numbers, is measured and understated, its toned-down post-rock shape founded upon a clean piano riff playing alongside the crashing guitars, giving it (to these ears, anyway) something of the sound of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.
Thompson, meanwhile, picks out the tracks I Keep It Composed and Disconnecting as his own favourites. The former is a lean post-punk groove which has him bemoaning the fact that “I’m forever leaving the party / making excuses and waking up early”, while the latter sees the band allowing themselves to slow right down and demonstrating great control, the slow-building bed of drums and guitars and fatigued reverb on Thompson’s voice recalling Arctic Monkeys to an extent.
It’s not quite a complete overhaul of the band’s style, but there’s a definite progression and maturity here, which isn’t altogether surprising in a group which survived their guitarist Michael Palmer’s successful battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma prior to the second record’s release. Thompson also attributes part of this change to their gaining a new member in keyboard player and guitarist Stuart McGachan since the last record.
“Having Stuart meant we all played a bit less, which gave the songs some space,” he says. “It was more of a groove, a new and different sound, and that was what we’d been aiming for. He’s been with us since the start of 2013, just before we started writing the album, when we felt we wanted something a little bit more.
“Just having someone else to talk about the songs with, it meant every one of us had to think about our part a bit more. He’s been our pal for years – we couldn’t just get anyone in! – and it’s changed the dynamic for the better.”
The album was written in the group’s small Edinburgh rehearsal room over the first couple of months, and unusually for them it was also demoed over ten days spent in a cottage near Loch Fyne, a process which allowed them to iron out the songs to a far greater extent than usual. “We sat and we talked them through, we changed loads of stuff, and that really helped the whole process,” says Thompson.
“Along with Paul Savage [Unravelling’s producer, of Blantyre’s Chem19 studio] we were very ruthless with the songs. We’d ask, ‘what’s the point of that bit?’ Or ‘can we play a different chord here?’ We’d sit and talk about it rather than just playing them and thinking, ‘that was good, but we don’t really know what else we can do so let’s just try it harder and faster.’ It was a really different way of writing, but it felt good.”
The sessions lasted for five weeks at the very beginning of this year, keeping strict nine to five, Monday to Friday hours. “That’s different to usual,” says Thompson. “We usually work 14 hours a day for three weeks straight, but Paul’s got a kid and he likes the more normal hours. So it was nice to have the weekends off so we could go and see parents and friends and do things like that. It was really nice, it wasn’t stressful at all. It was just like having a normal job.”
It’s this method which hints strongly at what’s changed for We Were Promised Jetpacks this time: they’re getting older and wiser, but they’re smart enough to bring their sound on with them while keeping what their longest-serving fans love about it to heart. “I suppose we’re all approaching our late twenties,” says Thompson, “and when we started this band we were all 16, 17.
“So yeah, we’re in a different place now. When we first started touring it was amazing, you would go travelling with your pals and play music, then as the years roll by you start wondering how long you want to do this with your life. The album’s about that point at which everyone’s settling into who they are as a human being and an adult.
“Unravelling not only refers to your mental state, but also how comfortable and relaxed you are with who you’ve become.”
Getting older doesn’t mean slowing down, though. When we speak, Thompson is in Germany, having just come off the back of a 450-capacity show in Hamburg the night before and with dates in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Paris and London to follow, then a five-week break, a tour of the States and a Glasgow homecoming at QMU in December. “I think for a band our size on a label the size of FatCat, the best thing we can do is just keep going out and playing great shows,” he says.
“I’ve no idea until the album comes out what the next couple of years might hold for us,” he adds. “The last couple of years have been really encouraging, though. We’ve had no new music out but when we go to places like the States or Germany, we still get big crowds out. People are still interested.”
On the strength of the new album, their interest should at the very least continue to be held.
• Unravelling is released on Monday; We Were Promised Jetpacks play Queen Margaret Union (QMU), Glasgow, Saturday 13 December, wewerepromisedjetpacks.com