Interview: The Pirate Ship Quintet

Photo by Mikula Lüllwitz

The Pirate Ship Quintet, hailing from Bristol, UK, made quite the come-back when they released their first full album “Rope for No-Hopers,” which rapidly gained the band a lot of attention after they had disappeared for five years. We contacted them to tell us more about their journey, their inspiration behind the album, and their future plans.

Before we get to discuss your music, can you tell us a bit about how all of you met and found the band? What did you do before?

Alex (guitar) and Jona (drums) both grew up in Bristol and have been friends ever since they were little kids. They grew up playing music together, and before Pirate Ship they were in a band called We Were Nice Today. They both moved to the south coast to study and met Terry (guitar, vocals) and founded the first iteration of the band, which was called Pirate Ship. The number of members and instruments involved in the band has fluctuated over time, and we’ve had what seems like an innumerable amount of different headquarters and rehearsal spaces. At most there were eight of us, and at the moment we’re at a suitable-sounding 5 and work out of our studio in Bristol. The band currently includes Alex, Jona, Alphie (guitar), Sandy (cello) and Zee (bass). At a point in time which nobody can quite remember, and for reasons nobody has been able to recall, the name of the band was changed from just Pirate Ship to The Pirate Ship Quintet.

During the five-year gap between the first EP and “Rope for No-Hopers,” you were faced by a lot of struggles such as the distance barrier and personal obligations. What kept you motivated during this period to push yourselves to finish the album?  

I think a lot of us thought that we’d never be able to write another record or be a real band again during that time. Like you say it was really hard to meet regularly for various reasons, but fortunately we’re in a better place now as a band. It’s just something we missed, I think: being able to write and play music together. The times when we did manage to get together were still fun and rewarding, and we just wanted them to continue really. We still can’t get together as much as we’d like to, but having a permanent studio to meet at is a massive help. Those of us with less personal obligations have spent an awful lot of time holed up there recording, tweaking and mixing the last record.

Balancing between your personal lives, careers and keeping the band alive seemed to be really hard for you in the past. Did that change now, and do you have the ability to put your entire focus in your music?

We’re in a much better place now. We meet up, on average, once a week, and people tend to work on ideas for riffs and song structures away from the rehearsals themselves. So we tend to have an idea of what it is we’re struggling with at the moment, which parts might need more work and stuff like that. I wouldn’t say we’re all entirely focused on the band, as it’s not like a full-time job for any of us, but it’s definitely something we’re all passionate and care about.

Listening to your music and the ideas behind them: going from an imagined equine uprising to a track inspired by a rat you saw in your rehearsal room. It seems so random.

Yeah, sometimes I guess. We write mostly sad or angry music and we like using quite vague imagery and narrative. Partly this comes naturally because cliche is so easy to stumble into and because the less prescriptive the ideas are, the more people can make a personal connection to them in their own way. We are an English band and we have a tradition of surreal humor here—Python, Brass Eye, Greenwing—and obscure and dark subject matter is something that pervades most conversations among the guys in Pirate Ship.

Photo by David Roberts
Photo by David Roberts

Then how do you decide what is right to be in the album? Was this random flow of ideas intended?

We are big believers in quality control and trying not to keep writing the same songs over and over. We never shy away from throwing work out that we feel needs to be improved on—sometimes after it has been around for a really long time. The ideas on “Rope for No Hopers” are not random to us—even little references to bits of everyday nonsense. They are the document of some difficult years for Pirate Ship, and for us they are chronologically meaningful. Maybe that doesn’t come across, but we spend a long time organizing the order of tracks etc to give a record fluidity. The record we are writing now has a number of central ‘feature pieces’ and tracks between them which act as little threads moving through the appropriate key changes etc. We hope it will feel more like a score than a collection of tracks; that’s at least what we are trying to get to. Fingers crossed.

You describe your music writing process as continuously changing, and you adjust some parts through the recording process. Did you ever have that feeling toward a released track that you wanted to bring back to the studio and change it again?

I think it’s pretty difficult to know something like when a song is definitely done. We had a deadline to finish the last record by for Denovali and so that pushed us to make more final decisions and stick with things as we wouldn’t have time to keep re-writing and re-recording things. We were experimenting with small ideas in the songs right up until the last minute but the overall structures and main parts were set in stone by then. Personally there’s definitely aspects to our records that I would like to change given the chance. Maybe it’s a technical issue about how an instrument is mixed, or feeling like the composition in certain sections could be improved. But I’d expect everyone in the band would give you a different answer, and I’m sure some parts I might find bug me a little bit when I listen back to them are really enjoyed by someone else out there listening to the record. So in a way it’s cool just to kind of let those things that are, at least largely, down to taste go and figure that nobody else will hear it in the same way that you do. At least when the record is finished and released anyway. We’ll be constantly arguing and chopping and changing aspects of pieces before they’ve been put out for sure.

The last record witnessed the contribution of Moo on trumpet and Terrence as vocals. Will they also be around for the new releases or that was a one-time thing?

We may use some trumpet, though currently we have written no brass arrangements at all. Terrence will almost certainly be doing the heavier vocals which we are arranging as we write—we also have a plan to do some work with a second vocalist. It is someone you will know, but we’d like to keep that under wraps for now and see how it goes in rehearsals and writing sessions. Although we are old friends we have never written together and you never know if these things will work or not. It’s an exciting experiment for us and we will approach it with a very open mind. Hopefully something great will happen when we get in a room together. We’ll have to wait and see.

Five years have passed between the first EP and “Rope for No-hopers,” will we have to wait that long for a new release or can we expect some new material soon?

Ha, yeah we are not one of these bands that bring something out every year. That’s probably a good and bad thing, but we would like to tour more, so we’ll try to get something together as fast as we can. We did start working on new ideas pretty soon after “Rope for No-Hopers” was released. It’s a really long process for us actually writing these pieces of music. At the moment we have made some good progress and have a solid collection of skeletons and demos that we’re quite happy with and probably (probably) won’t throw away at this point. I think it’s been about two years, so I honestly doubt if it’ll be as long as a five-year gap again this time. I’d like to think we’ll have a relatively final set of demos for the whole album before Christmas, and then we can get onto properly recording them. But don’t hold me to that. Maybe just tell people who want to hear it that we’re aiming for a seven year gap this time—at least then the wait won’t disappoint them, even if the music does!

Last year was pretty busy for you guys playing ArcTanGent, Swingfest and Dunk Festival. What have you planned for this year?

We’re not planning to play anything in 2014. We may want to go out and try some of the new stuff live before releasing, so a couple of festivals next spring/summer would probably make sense. Once we have a new record we will do as much as we can fit into our other bullshit. There are still a bunch of festivals we have not done on the continent so we’d like visit a few of them for sure. We always like to meet new people and see new places—we are still completely stoked that our music gives us the chance to do that, even though we are such a work-shy band. These bands that play shows every night and constantly plug away at the social networking stuff completely deserve it, but we really don’t, so huge thanks to anyone who buys a record or asks us to play their show!

You can find The Pirate Ship Quintet at:

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