When previous frontman David Jakes quit rising UK rockers Lonely The Brave to address mental health issues in 2018, it could have been the end for both of them. But two years later, and hot on the heels of Jakes’ own solo material, the Cambridge band are back with a new singer in Jack Bennett, a new album and a renewed sense of hope.
“After Dave left us, and Jack got involved, it was going to take time to get that right, and getting to this point has probably been a good two years in making,” guitarist Mark Trotter tells us. “I think we’ve moved the music on, and I guess we can describe it to people as the same but different, if that makes any sense.”
It will when you hear The Hope List. The band’s signature sound is still there, but it feels as though there has been a conscious effort to just dial things back enough to let everything breathe. Each member of the band brings what is needed to the music, but nothing more.
"That's the best description of it, I think. It's a maturity that comes from having done this for a good while,” expands Trotter, “but I’ve always thought the guitar is there to carry the vocal melody and support it and play off it, and that's fine, it's not a shouting contest. With Dave, you know, I always said that I would happily spend my life standing behind that man when he was singing. For me, the guitar is a vehicle for that, I’m not trying to blow everyone's heads off.”
Arpeggiated guitars have always been a key part of the LTB sound, but they seem much more prominent in the mix here. There's plenty of heavy overdrive on The Hope List, of course, but the gentler sound of those arpeggiated guitars being more in the foreground gives the record a different feel.
“I think the best way I can describe this record is that it kind of sounds like how we think we sound live,” says Mark. “So the first record, production wise, I still think is great. And I'm very mindful that it cost five grand, which was us scraping together every penny we had, you know, and sleeping on the floor of a van outside the studio because we couldn’t afford accommodation. I think it’s a great sounding record. I think that the second record is very dark, which reflects where we were at that point.
“But this time, doing it ourselves with Jack on the controls at his own studio, we had that luxury of really getting what we wanted and not being pressed for time. I think that has been massively advantageous for us; a new way of working that was very open and creative.”
The band’s two albums with Jakes, 2014’s The Day’s War and 2016’s Things Will Matter, catapulted them to the forefront of British rock, Trotter mixing power and beauty in his playing (alongside fellow guitarist Ross Smethwick by the time of Things Will Matter) while Jakes’ remarkable voice stood front and centre. Has it taken much work to adapt to a new vocalist and creative presence?
“To be fair, it hasn't really been that much of a challenge,” confesses Trotter. “That sounds funny, but I guess we've approached the writing process the same way we always have, so it's probably been more difficult for Jack than it has for us. The music has always come first with us, and we write pretty much full songs that usually change very, very small amounts in terms of structure or anything else when the vocal melody line comes along.
“So it’s quite interesting that we've always had a vocalist who writes to our music as opposed to the other way around, and it's always worked for us. So I think Jack, having been a solo artist [working under the Grumble Bee moniker], it's been quite a change for him I’d imagine. But he brings his own thing to the music, and that's exactly what we want him to do, so we’re very happy with where we are.”
With extra emphasis placed on studio recording in the absence of live gigs, and with access to their own studio for the first time, LTB have been taking their time an experimenting with new recording techniques – including digital amp modelling – on The Hope List, resulting in that increasingly mature sound.
“I guess the fundamental difference for me was exploring digital modelling, things like the Kemper Digital Profiler, that I've never really explored before. Don't get me wrong, and I really love vintage gear and valve amps, but to have that palette to work with all at your fingertips is great. So I think exploring kind of was really, really fun. There are still an awful lot of real amps on the record, but having the ability to A/B stuff is a really powerful tool. Sometimes we would replicate that sound with a real amp, but sometimes we would leave it as it sounded better with the Kemper. It was very inspirational.”
But Mark’s guitar arsenal contained some familiar names.
“The main guitars on this album? You’re going down the rabbit hole now,” smiles Mark. “I've got what we believe to be a very, very early 1970 Les Paul Custom. It has some ’69 appointments, but we think it's an early ’70. I say think because it's a player’s guitar, you know, the are things like the serial number missing where it’s been resprayed. Yeah, so that that's on there. I've got a 77 Tele Deluxe, which is on there a lot with the wide range humbuckers, which I love. That was a new addition for me for this record. I’ve had it for a few years, but this was the first time I've recorded with it. And that thing's very special, considering it’s a 1970s Fender, where the quality usually is pretty poor, but it sounds amazing.
“Otherwise, I've got my go to, which is still the best guitar I own, and that’s a John English Masterbuilt Stealth Esquire… that thing, jeez, it just destroys everything else. Honestly that guitar is the most versatile thing I own. It’s got the two hidden pickups in it as well, so weirdly if you're in the neck position it's much quieter, and I guess that’s because it’s going through the scratch plate and everything else, so you can go from clean to dirty just using the selector switch. It's got a five-way switch as well because it’s got three pickups but, yeah, that covers every base ever.
“Honestly, I know people always kind of think I’m mad when I say this but you can make it sound like a good Les Paul. And what I mean by that is like ’50s Les Paul: it has that bite and you don't have that boomy bottom-end. I know people think I'm mad saying that but I don't care. It's a great guitar, a phenomenal bit of kit.
“I've also got ’59 Les Paul Jr, as well, and that thing's just great. It's like a cannon and is an evil, angry little guitar, and I love it to bits.
“And then the other thing I guess I use quite a lot is a Jaguar Baritone. You probably won't notice it is there a lot of the time, but it just has this low end presence that sits between the bass and the guitars and just helps to fill out that register with those sections that you want to have a bit more impact.”
An old hope
It seems fitting to end our chat with a question about the future, and if the album is called The Hope List, what are Mark's hopes for it?
“All I want from any music, if I'm a consumer, or if it's music that we're putting out, is that you can take from it what you need. So, if this record helps people in some way, inspires them in some way, or just gives them something, an emotion or a feeling, that's all I want. That's what it's about.
“I'm not singing, so this is how I communicate, with my guitar, that's how I express myself. So if people can latch on to that and take from it what they need and have their own meaning and their own association with it, then job done. If it inspires someone, if it makes them happy, makes them sad, and it gets them through something, then brilliant. That's the whole point of art generally, that it evokes an emotional reaction. So that's all I can hope for. And that everyone just gets through this bloody year and makes it out the other side, and that things get better for everybody.”
The Hope List is out now via Easy Life Records. For more info visit Lonely The Brave