Ten years ago we called Rob Marshall’s former band Exit Calm the best British indie band we’d heard in years with a debut that still stands up as a cult classic with the guitarist's huge sound at its epicentre. But after two albums it didn’t quite happen for them, and Exit Calm dissolved in 2013. But Rob Marshall wasn’t done.
While writing for Mark Lanegan’s last two solo album he’s put together another landmark record with an incredible array of guest singers under the name Humanist. The self-titled debut is deep in dark atmospheres and dappled in moments of euphoria
The album is all the more remarkable because musically it’s all Rob – he recorded it with limited equipment and an unrelenting desire to see his vision become reality.
Humanist is released on 23 February (preorder here) with a UK tour in March and the immersive album features a diverse array of vocalists on its songs from Lanegan to Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, Ride’s Mark Gardener, John Robb and Carl Hancock Rux.
What shines through when talking to Rob is the affable Teeside musician’s firm belief in the magic of creating music – it’s inspiring and infectious, and there’s no better way to share how he made this record happen, and the lessons he’s learned from it than in his own words…
Moving from band to solo project wasn't a grand plan
“Coming out of Exit Calm I didn’t know even if I’d continue doing music, to be honest," admits Rob. "I’d been doing it for 12 years because before Exit Calm I was in a band called Lyca Sleep with three of the members and then Exit Calm was eight years. It felt like I’d been stuck in a rehearsal room all my adult life and for the first six to eight months I was scratching my head wondering, ‘What am I going to do?’
“One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to do what I’d done before, I wanted to do something totally different. So I guess that was the start of all this process really. Eventually I just found myself doing stuff again, I didn’t really overthink it, it just happened naturally. I started created and before I knew it I had six or seven pieces of music together. It was born from there really.
Working alone has been liberating
"It was totally liberating. I didn’t overthink the creation of it, it just kind of happened and I didn’t have to answer to anybody. I just created these pieces of music and swam with the tide with them.
“In the past I think I’ve been guilty of overthinking things too much - will people like that? and that kind of crap. Essentially it wasn’t a project, I didn’t have to control it so it came out very organically.
"And as this was created, it was recorded so it was very different from anything I’d done before in that respect.”
Recording requires perseverance
“Over the years, if an idea was coming from me I’d stick it on my phone. I’d come up with chord progressions. At the time MiniDiscs were amazing – they’d really capture a band in a room amazingly. So coming out of Exit Calm, I’d been in a studio a lot over the years but I didn’t have any productions skills whatsoever.
"My first thought when I started to write again is I’m just going to record everything I do on a computer with ProTools. I had a very basic version of ProTools, which is the free thing that you get with an M Box. I’ve got the [Digidesign] M Box 2 and it’s what I used on the album.
"I’m from a working class background, I don’t have lots of money and everything I’ve ever used is the most basic stuff you can think of.
“The idea in my head is that if your ear is tuned, you can manipulate and control anything to make it sound how you want, you just have to persevere.
"My approach to recording is very simple; I have this M Box, Pro Tools 7.4 [LE], which I believe is a demo version of ProTools – the free one, I have a condenser mic, an SM-58, a keyboard, my guitar equipment… and a blanket for the cab.”
Get out of your own way in the creative process
“I’d say don’t be afraid of that – go with your idea and don’t overthink it. I think that would be my advice to anyone, let an idea happen and then think about it after it’s happened. Decide whether you like it after you’ve finished it but don’t get in the way of the creative process by trying to question what’s happening while it’s happening. Because if you do that you’re just going to fuck it up.
"When I’m writing I don’t define myself as a guitar player. I don’t really think of myself as a guitar player, producer or writer – it’s all one now. My process is don’t think about it, I get it down and then after it’s done I guess that’s when the science comes into it.
Once I’ve got a track down and understand what it is and how it sounds, I might then think, it would be great if the drums on this track sound like an Eddie Kramer Hendrix track. Then I might quickly listen to Axis Bold As Love and then see how the drums sound in comparison to that. I think everybody does that but that is a process that comes after creation so it’s two separate things.”
ProTools and mixing were steep learning curves
“Pro Tools is a complicated system and if nobody shows you, you spend a long time fixing your mistakes. It’s not easy but over the years I just persevered with it. I think where it got really difficult was not getting the ideas down but in the mixing stage. That’s where I realised I don’t really know what I’m doing.
“It took me a long time to get things to the way I wanted them to sound. I had an idea in my head, a very strong vision of how I wanted things to sound. But getting it there took quite a long time. In a way that isn’t really the creative process. The creative process is getting the idea down in the first and getting a vibe, an energy and a feel. I can do that easily.
"How do I know when a mix is done? When your hairs stand up. It is. Literally. That’s always been the case from day one and with every single track on this I feel like I got it to a point where my hairs where standing up. And that’s the god’s honest truth. That’s my cutoff point. I’ll have a break from it and then listen. If my hairs are standing up that’s fulfilling me."
Mark Lanegan was a key reason Humanist happened
"Kingdom was the first song for the record. I hadn’t met Mark before, though I’d done a few dates with Soulsavers which Mark was singing in at the time, I never actually spoke to him. When my manager approached him about working on the records, he was the first guy and he just said yes. He said to me afterwards, “I listen to the music and I liked it. I don’t care what people have done before. Mark was the first person that said yes and it snowballed from there.
"He sent back Gospel and Kingdom and I sent a message saying, 'Thanks, hopefully we’ll do something down the line in the future again'. Then I didn’t hear anything back from him for a bit, but two weeks after that I got a message from him and he basically said to me that he was going into the studio in nine days and he’s not really digging the record that he’s got.
"He had this window, the producer Alain Johannes was going on tour with PJ Harvey so he was going to be out of the country for a year. Mark had this two week window with him to record before but he didn’t like the tracks he had.
“He asked if I had any leftover Humanist material. I said, ‘No but I’ll try writing something new if that’s alright.’ He was just talking about a track but in those nine days I locked myself away and wrote as much music as I could.
"I wrote so much stuff… if I fell asleep I’d wake up and go straight back to the computer. I wrote loads and loads of music and narrowed it down to eight full complete tracks I had. I sent him four through and he said, 'These are amazing, can I take them as is and just sing on them? I’ll definitely use three of them.'"
"So I thought, fuck it I’ll send him the other four and he replied, ‘God damn!’ He took another three because one of those tracks was Skull which came back to me because it didn’t fit on his record. So six tracks in all ended up on his album Gargoyle.
"It was definitely a moment and was a huge confidence boost. It could well have been the very thing to drive me on to finish my own record. Having someone like Mark behind you, telling you that things are really good, means a lot. And seeing the material being received so well on the radio and in magazines, it was quite a moment really.”
Rob had a wishlist of guest vocalists for the album
"Mark was on there, and I’d always loved Ride so Mark Gardener was there. He was really up for it and Carl Hancock Rux was suggested by a friend. I remember hearing him on Living Room, the David Holmes track and thinking he had an amazing voice.
"I really loved the collaborations that Carl and I did. I’ll probably do some more writing with him down the line. Joel Cadbury I’ve known for years, since South, I toured with him."
Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan appeared via Lanegan
"I’d been writing with Mark for his next solo album [2019's Somebody's Knocking] but we had a clash – my record was supposed to be coming out when his record was.
"His label had ringfenced a certain period of time where I couldn’t put a Mark Lanegan single out. Because the first single from my record was going to be Kingdom. It’s normal for a label to ringfence time because there’s only so much that radio will play.
“Mark asked if I had any other tracks that might make good first singles and I had this track called Shock Collar, Mark named it and I had a version with me singing on it. Every now and again I map out melodies. I sent it to Mark and within a few hours he’d sent back lyrics and a version of him singing it. He said, ‘What about my friend Dave singing on this?’ Luckily that Dave was Dave Gahan, and not The Hoff!
"So I had Dave Gahan on it which was a huge thing. I was so grateful to Mark for linking us up. What an incredible act of generosity, he’s that kind of guy.
"When it came to mixing that track, I thought it was best to get someone else to mix it to give it the best chance of getting played on the radio. Chris Potter did Urban Hymns and has worked with U2, I sent him the track and he agreed to mix it. He’s such a nice guy and he knew that the financial strings were quite tight but agreed to do it.”
A couple of the songs needed a different approach
"I’d have expected people to have come back to me suggesting can you make that verse twice as long but nobody did. So for the track When The Lights Go Out, it started and ended like that when Mark [Gardener] got it and he just sung over it.
“That kind of process is a bit more focussed for them I think, but also over the years I guessed I learned to [structure music for vocals]. We would rehearse a lot in my old band when Nicky [Smith, vocals] wasn’t there so we would kind of structure; that’s the verse, this is the chorus. It's probably old history and teachings coming into play there.
“But there’s a couple of tracks that were different; with Carl on Mortal Lies and Ring Of Truth there’s these long poetic verses in his style. That was probably the oddest one because I’d cut into his lyrics a little but I would always send it back to him and say, ‘Is that ok?’ because his lyrics and words are so profound.
“The other song was English Ghosts. That was a late addition to the record and it was edited. Jon [Robb] was in Hastings anyway, St Leonards-on-Sea where I live in East Sussex. He just kind of came round and we recorded that. It was probably 18 minutes long – a Krautrock jam!
"I edited that down and added some extra drums to it. But that was pretty much created in real time; the red button went on, John went off and I went off. Then we had a cup of tea and it was done. I think we were both quite blown away with that track because it was totally effortless. It just kind of happened – like the best things do."
Humanist showcases Rob's changing outlook as a musician
“Everything I’ve done previous to this has had the focus on the guitar and I just kind of thought, I’ve done that now, but I’m a guitar player so inevitably guitar will find its way through. But it wasn’t the main focus – I didn’t grab the guitar and make a track. Sometimes I’d grab the bass and find something that worked with some drums that I had.
"There was no thought process. I didn’t think, I’m going to make a big guitar album because I would be repeating myself and my own little history. I just wanted to make music and not overthink it.
“Beast Of The Nation, Shock Collar and Skull are quite big guitar tracks, but previously I tried to fill every space with guitars. I had this thing with Exit Calm, this role where I had to to totally fill the room with sound. If it wasn’t like that people would say, ‘I don’t know if it sounds big enough.’ I had to fulfill this role where it was a big wall of sound.
"Subconsciously I guess I must have wanted to focus more on the groove with the bass and the drums for this. Also the music you listen to changes. At that time I was listening the Bunnymen and Killing Joke and although the guitars are prominent, there’s still space.”
Live and programmed drums are mutually beneficial on the record
“They all start as programmed beats but I replaced about 70 per cent of the tracks on the record with lives drums. Scott [Pemberton, former Exit Calm] came down. For example, if you listen to a track like Kingdom, the programmed drums sound like they did before but you can hear the live drums when they come in with the high hat on the second verse.
"I think just having the two things, as soon as you put live drums it’s like you’re adding a different air into the records. It just opens things up a little more. I like having programmed and live drums working together."
Rob balances the analogue and digital worlds
“APx EQs, SSL are plugins I tend to use quite a bit… but again I’ve always fought between these two things because I think you can make things sound pretty analogue with digital. I’ve never been purist with this stuff and I think it’s because I’ve never had the luxury to be a purist. I’ve had to work with the gear I’ve got over the years.
"It’s the same with guitars – I’ve played guitars that cost thousands and some of them sound shit. And you can pick up a cheap guitar and it sounds great. I don’t know what that is but with a guitar I think you choose the shape you like and then you just get lucky.
“I pretty much stumbled across all the gear that I’ve got over the years. And I just make it work. If this is all I’ve got I’m going to make it sound good. One way or another.
"So I mess around with things until they sound good to me. I think that is my process with everything. You can mic up a box and make it sound like a kick drum if you play with it long enough.
“My advice to anyone is don’t get caught up with the idea that you need to have something – don’t use that as an excuse.”
Guitars need to be tracked loud
“I stick an SM58 and a condenser mic in front of the amp. The condenser mic should probably be four to eight feet away but I’m in a flat. It’s close mic’d with the condenser and I stick a blanket over it. The neighbours fucking hate me, man! [laughs]
“I’m afraid you do have to play loud. I’ve been under the blanket many a time! Hence the reason I’m not really liked in my building… no I am. I get away with it, I just don’t get away with it when it’s four in the morning which is my preferred time to record! If I have to go back over the guitars I choose my hours well. And it’s only ever for only 15, 20 minutes as I’m good at getting stuff down fast because I have to.”
“On every track guitar-wise I’m still using my [Roland] Space Echo through my rack gear into the cab. That setup is on every song, pretty much the same rig I had in the band but I’ve added an EQ pedal and a Death By Audio Supersonic Fuzz Gun. That’s on English Ghosts – the weird kid of siren noise at the end.
“I’ve got two Jazzmasters. I’ve got a Fernandes with the sustainer too that Nick McCabe recommended. I didn't use it on this record but will probably pull it out for the live gigs.
"I use humbuckers in the Jazzmasters – I think they’re quite hot pickups in one of them, it might be a DiMarzio in the neck. I like pickups that sustain, that’s key. I want to be able to throw them at the amp with loud volume and not get any microphonic squeals."
Why Rob made Humanist for himself, foremost
“People think it’s not right to say this but I make music for me. I don’t make music for anybody else. I’m fulfilling a need inside of me. It’s never ever for anyone else. Without getting too mystical it’s the only time that I get to feel some kind of connection to something else – an energy.
"I don’t necessarily believe in a god but I know that I feel something when I make music. Time stops and I’m no longer aware of what I’m doing. When I get to the end of what I’ve done I’m not really sure of how I did it. I think that’s about as close, apart from being in love, to something godlike that I’ve ever been really.
"This record was about being true to myself and trying to do something I felt would stand by itself, and a legacy in my own little tiny world. And I know that sounds probably arrogant but, as I said, it’s just for me."
Now Humanist is going on tour with a singer
“James [Mudriczki, former Puressence, current Nihilists vocalist] is quite a unique character and he’s not fazed in the slightest, deservedly so as he's an incredible vocalist. When he came into the room to rehearse he was just amazing. So powerful.
"I don’t want these tracks to be a repeat of the record because it’s a different time now, the whole live thing is supposed to be an interpretation with a different energy and experience. James isn’t trying to replicate and he’s trying to do his own thing there and he does it really well.
“There’s a couple of tracks that have samples – Ring Of Truth has Carl on the verses with James doing to harmonies and then it cuts through on the choruses but the majority James is taking on the vocal and doing it really well.”
Humanist is released on 21 February via Ignition Records and you can preorder it here. They play the following UK dates in March:
23 March – Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham
24 March – The Lexington, London
25 March – Sheffield Picture House, Sheffield
26 March -–Nice N Sleazy, Glasgow
27 March – Riverside 2, Newcastle
28 March – Soup Kitchen, Manchester
29 March – Prince Albert, Brighton
For more info head to humanistuk.com