One of those darlings in the rough, three-piece Glasgow group Sparrow and the Workshop have, since their formation in early 2008, lived by a single fun-loving work ethic and ideology when it comes to their music. It has spawned two critically beloved albums, Crystals Fall and Spitting Daggers, with a new third destined to fall down the same path.
Their first on lovely indie label Toad Records, Murderopolis may spark the debate on how much they’ve ‘changed’. What can’t be denied is that Sparrow and the Workshop are your new favourite band; you just don’t know it yet.
With its release imminent the band has shown it off in sessions with BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley and BBC Scotland’s Vic Galloway and a full stream on This is Fake DIY. As a last stint before the album gets physical, Sparrow and the Workshop’s essential element, Chicago-raised singer Jill O’Sullivan, tells Drunken Werewolf’s Graham Ashton why this is the one bird that hasn't flown the tool shed.
So to start, let’s talk about the new album Murderopolis. It’s a fair departure from Spitting Daggers in that it’s not just heavier in places, but wilder with less soft moments. Is that vague analysis at all correct?
I don't know, I don't feel like it's that much of a departure. I mean, we certainly didn't feel like we were going in a new direction when we were writing it. Maybe just the time and work we put into it, combined with us getting better at playing together, makes it feel different. There are also production differences, we are really happy with Spitting Daggers but Leo Abrahams (producer) certainly gave the instruments a treatment that doesn't necessarily sound like our live performances, whereas for Murderopolis we wanted a raw, live sound and Paul Savage's (producer, former member of The Delgados) style is very much suited to that. When we play live we push and pull and sort of battle each other on stage and I think Murderopolis reflects that.
What in the writing of the songs made the music lean that way?
It's funny, I feel as if the songs on Murderopolis are less angry than earlier songs (certainly in the lyrics). I think we'd been through a lot as a band and we didn't have to write this album but we wanted to do it. We'd been playing together so intensely for a while and sort of living through the band but we all relaxed a bit when we were writing Murderopolis. We were back in Glasgow and we had time to reflect on the past 4 years and think about what we liked about playing together. I think it's the cathartic feeling we get in Sparrow that we really enjoy...but we've also gotten older and a bit more mature (maybe) so instead of a 'I will smash you' theme there's more of a 'I could smash you but I'd rather just give you a hug' vibe going on.
Was there anything in the essential ‘Sparrow and The Workshop’ formula, aside from the three of you being present, which you wanted to retain?
There wasn't really a shift; we're not a very considered band so generally we play according to our moods or interests at any point in time. I feel like the album was a natural progression, to be honest.
Were some of the more static, distorted and grungy parts of the album like the end of ‘Darkness’ or the guitar parts in ‘Shock Shock’ a result of working with Paul Savage and Iain Cook, or was it something you were consciously steering towards in the writing process?
The distorted, grungy guitars are certainly something we were steering towards in the writing. Nick has a pedal set-up that takes up a quarter of the stage and he uses it to great effect. I also rarely have my acoustic on a clean channel. I usually have overdrive going through a vox. Gregor had also started using a homeade synth bass thing that he incorporated into the songs before we went in to record. I mentioned before that we get a cathartic joy in Sparrow but maybe in the past we didn't know how to harness that. Over time we've learned how and when to let loose to make more of an emotional statement without just having a tantrum.
Does the album have a dark tone to it (as some have described), or was there a wider spectrum of emotions you were aiming for?
Hmmmm. I dunno, I see the album as a positive cloud wrapped in a rainbow but I'm aware that we have a dark side and maybe without realizing it we've made a pretty dark album. It's hard to really hear it objectively. It’s kind of like looking in the mirror, you recognize your face a certain way but it’s not necessarily the same way other people see it.
I liked the title track as just being this mass of craziness, especially with the hollering and ghost ‘woooo’s at the beginning. Was the track a bit of a fun extended jam or was it just as planned out as the rest of the album?
The track was a bit of an extended jam based on a guitar melody I'd been playing around with as a vocal melody, I suppose a lot of the songs started out that way but with Murderopolis, we liked the way the drums and bass meandered around the vocals and just cut about like some kind of cop car in a chase scene. It didn't feel right to give it a lyrical storyline or anything like that.
Before you released ‘Shock Shock’, did you think that because of the band name, some of your more softer songs in the past or the folk acts you’re associated with, people would have pre-conceived expectations as to what the new tracks would turn out like?
Ha, yes. Absolutely. We have sort of had that albatross hanging over us for a while, actually. Even in the earlier days we were surprised by the folk links. Not that we didn't have folky songs, but I always felt like we were dirtier than that and we would have been noisier had we had access to more amps and pedals. If there was a different scene that came about when we started, we may have been affiliated with that. Folk happened to be popular at that point and we were put into that category, regardless of our own perceptions of ourselves.
Are there any labels or genres you as a band dislke being lumped in with?
We've become used to people not knowing what to make of us. People can label us however they like as long as they don't write us off before hearing us. I fear that we've been written off as 'just another folk' band because of our name but in the beginning we never thought we'd get as much attention as we did so we didn't really care about our name, it was just something we came up with really quickly and never bothered changing, even though we did have chats about changing it when we put out our first EP, we could just never think of a name that sounded genuine. We put far more effort into the music than anything else. Perhaps that's to our detriment but, you know, que sera sera...
What prompted the switch in label to Song, by Toad Records?
We had completed our contractual obligations with Distiller and Matthew mentioned that he'd be keen to help us out and it seemed like a no-brainer. We'd been in touch with him over the years as a friend and we had been fans of his label, we liked the way he did things and he's a good toad egg.
Has the change affected the recording process and the way you’ve released the album?
It didn't affect the recording process so it hasn't given us any more or less freedom in that respect. Maybe the main thing that's changed is that it's brought a different audience to our music, which is great and exciting.
You recently had your first ever album party; what kind of experience did that turn out to be?
Braw! So many people came out to share the experience with us. I was pretty much in shock at the launches because there was so much love from the audience. I just wanted to give everyone a hug. We gave them party poppers and whisky instead.
That duet you did for James Yorkston’s ‘Just as Scared’ was great. How did he approach you about recording it with him?
Well, we wrote that song a few years before the album came out when we were doing a project in Perth for The Fruit Tree Foundation. I'd say James wrote the bulk of it but I forced the middle 8 on it and the 'you really got a hold on me' line, amongst some other lyrics. James is a folk pirate so he didn't even know there was a popular song with that line in it. I found this hilarious and the line went into the song. In true Pirate tradition he basically kidnapped me and brought me to Bryn Derwen to record it and then pierced my ears and sent me out to sea.
I don’t know if you saw The Pictish Trail sing it with James for his most recent tour. Can you easily imagine him singing your part?
I didn't see it but The Pictish Trail, aka Johnny 'silky' Lynch has a voice like butter so I can imagine no better person to sing it than him.
Given that you’ve lived at some point in Chicago, Canada, London, Scotland and perhaps others I’ve not read about, do the connections you have to all these places still feed their way into your music?
Ha, yes, I suppose so...but I played violin in all of my bands prior to Sparrow so I suppose Sparrow was a completely new experience for me in some ways. I began singing in a band called Fissure in Chicago-it was a pretty eclectic sounding band with influences ranging from Palace Records to Shellac so maybe I've always been a bit of a musical chameleon.
Finally, as a band, what are you guys looking forward to this summer?
SUN. Just kidding, I've learned to love Scottish summers.
We're really excited to play Insider Festival up in Aviemore on June 22nd and the Lexington in London on June 24th. We have more lined up but for now we'll focus on them....oh, and we're gonna be James Yorkston's band at the West End Festival on June 29th so that will be exciting (we're slightly bricking it).