MAKING your mark with a debut album can be a blessing and a curse. Just ask Turin Brakes, the London-based duo who hit the ground running in 2001 with their Mercury Prize-nominated debut The Optimist and only now, after a break of a few years, can liken the blur of activity that followed to “snowballing down a ski slope for years”.
“That first record established us so much and is generally considered our greatest achievement,” says singer and songwriter Olly Knights. “You can spend the rest of your life either running away from it or running to it. We’ve generally run away from it. But sometimes it would feel like we’d made another record almost by mistake because we hadn’t had time to sit down and talk about it, it would just happen.”
The crunch came for Knights a few years ago when the dreaded writer’s block descended. “I had this moment when I started to question what I was up to and as soon as I started doing that I had trouble writing. I would write something and just destroy it straight away.”
Two things helped. Rather than maintaining that runaway forward motion with a succession of albums reacting against what had gone before, Knights took a sideways step, then a backwards glance. First, he made a highly personal and stripped-back solo album, then Turin Brakes toured to mark the tenth anniversary of The Optimist and reconnected with the fearlessness of their early days.
“You need that beginner’s mindset,” says Knights, “so I tried to find a way of writing songs almost as if I’d never done it before and allowed myself to say things that maybe I would have refined too much a few years before.”
New album We Were Here is a testament to Knights’ rekindled confidence but also to Turin Brakes’ strength as a band. Traditionally, the group has been presented as an acoustic folky pop duo – Knights and his childhood friend Gale Paridjanian on guitar. But the pair have been accompanied on and off over the years by rhythm section Rob Allum and Eddie Myer, and it is undoubtedly this muscular, electrified four-piece unit that comes through strongly on the album’s blissed-out and searing moments, allowing Paridjanian to rock out as never before. This time round it’s all about harnessing that snowball momentum.
• Turin Brakes play the Pleasance, Edinburgh, on 9 November; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen; on 10 November and Oran Mor, Glasgow, on 11 November.