Something To Forget: Inside the return of Basement

Substream #50 - Basement edit
photo: Rebecca Naen

There’s an Italian restaurant in West London that plays nothing but Michael Jackson songs. At least, on the day that four out of the five members of Basement go to eat there, the King Of Pop is singing in the background the whole time. For more than an hour, the restaurant speakers churn out hit after hit from his entire career as the four of them—brothers Andrew and James “Crab” Fisher (vocals and drums, respectively), guitarist/vocalist Alex Henery and bassist Duncan Stewart—eat pizza and chat. The restaurant is just down the street from the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, where the band spent the past couple of hours recording a four-song session for the world-famous public service broadcaster’s Radio 1 Rock Show, the most mainstream outlet in the U.K. for rock, punk and metal. That in itself is worthy of celebration, but for Basement (completed by guitarist Ronan Crix, who has to head straight to a driving lesson after the session), it means more than just a shot at success. Rather, it’s the next chapter of a story that the band had, soon after the release of 2012’s Colourmeinkindness, decided to bring to an end by going on hiatus. Yet the fact they’ve been here before—at the nearby studio, not this particular pizza joint—doesn’t make it any less exciting. In fact, they’re positively brimming with positive, excitable energy that they’re doing it all again, that they’re getting a second chance, thanks to the release of Promise Everything, the album they weren’t sure they’d ever get to make. Unsurprisingly, then, when asked what it means to them, and all four are more than eager to share their thoughts and feelings on the matter.

“For me,” says Henery as he peruses the pizza menu on this surprisingly warm mid-December day, “it’s just a relief that we’re still doing things. When we booked the recording, I said to everyone that we should at least record this album like we had ideas. I feel like if we didn’t do it, I don’t know if it would have been possible to keep going. We’ve always loved recording so to have new material just keeps the band alive. It feels good to keep the creativity going. We’re already excited to record again.”

“Yeah,” agrees Stewart. “This album is just pure excitement. We had the hiatus, and literally before that we recorded an album. So we hadn’t sat down and recorded a whole piece of work for a very long time. So to have it done feels really good. We spent all this time building up to something and we didn’t know what it was. Now we finally have all these tours and this album locked in, and it’s a very exciting time to be doing this band.” He pauses, then chuckles. “For me, anyway!”

“I’m just glad we’re being productive and creative again,” says James as the chorus to “Thriller” plays in the background. “It means that we’re doing new things and working together and coming up with stuff, and that’s my favorite part of being in a band.”

“It’s funny,” adds Andrew. “When we said, ‘Let’s do the band a bit more,’ we still said it would be next year, that we would start in January. However much we’ve done, this is not what we’re supposed to be doing. When we came back and played shows after the break, because of that gap we were playing songs that we wrote a long time ago. Now, these next tours we’ll get to play whatever we want. Like today at Maida Vale, it was great. It’s really exciting.”

“Exciting” is a word a lot of bands use as a stock answer when on the press trail for a new album, but watching Basement go through the process of recording their BBC session earlier, it’s clear to see they absolutely mean it. Over the course of two hours, they record four songs—three from Promise Everything and “Covet” from Colourmeinkindnessfocusing on one track after another. They play through each song a few times, Andrew isolated in a darkened vocal booth, and when they think they’ve got it, they head through to the adjacent control room to listen back to the fruits of their labor. Though they later all admit they find the experience surprisingly nerve-wracking, they don’t seem phased in the slightest. They’re fastidious and hyper-critical of their own parts, but they’re also happy to let tiny mistakes—ones which, largely, nobody except the person playing it can really hear—exist for the sake of the greater good. As such, the session serves as a telling insight into how Basement operates. There are five distinct and individual heads working together and interacting with each other, both on a personal and a creative level, but they’re always willing to listen, always willing to compromise, always aware there are more important things to worry about than the band.

“We’ve talked about this recently,” says Henery, “and the main thing for us is communication. There’s five people in the band and everyone’s completely different, even though we’re friends, so sometimes we’re not going to agree on everything. And so we compromise as a group. Perhaps I’m not 100 percent on something, but because everyone else is, I’ll meet them halfway. And once we do that, it makes everything a lot easier.”

“In the moment,” adds James, “something can seem like the most pressing, most horrible thing. But you just have to realize that it’s going to be fine, that it’s going to be positive and we’re going to get something worthwhile out of it.”

If that in any way makes it sound like Basement has suffered from internal conflicts, they haven’t. After forming in Ipswich—a town of 130,000 people in the east of England—in late 2009, the ball started rolling for the five-piece fairly early on. They released their debut EP, Songs About The Weather, in 2010 and followed it up with debut full-length I Wish I Could Stay Here in June 2011. Colourmeinkindness was released a little over a year later, in October 2012, and received almost universal acclaim for its restrained yet simultaneously heart-on-sleeve lyrics and the way it somehow channeled American influences such as ’90s Midwestern emo and grunge very naturally into an authentic evocation of the lives of five guys from Surrey in the United Kingdom. But the record barely made it into the shops before the news broke: Like so many of the classic emo bands to whom they owed at least a small part of their heritage, Basement was taking an indefinite hiatus, and a little less than a month after the record’s release, following dates in both the U.S. and the U.K., the band played what was billed as their final show in Camden, London, on November 17, 2012.

“Everyone thinks it was intentional,” chuckles Henery now, “that it was some kind of trick to annoy people or have some kind of marketing ploy. And I can understand why people would say it was really strange timing…”

“But we’d already decided that there was going to be a cut-off point,” interjects Andrew, “because I was going to start training to be a teacher. It was a week or so after we got back from recording, so it was just like, ‘We’re not going to be able to tour off this record, so let’s just say we’re going to take a break, play those last shows and then that’s that.’”

Yet that wasn’t quite that. Yes, the band took time off after those last shows, and Henery, who’s a British-American dual national, moved to Boston to work for Run For Cover Records—the label who has so far issued all of Basement’s music, including Promise Everything—but instead of fading away or dying down, Basement’s following began to grow. The vinyl version of Colourmeinkindness even hit the top spot on the Billboard vinyl charts, and even though the band had never said they were breaking up for good, people around the world were lamenting their demise before they’d even played that last gig. It was all a little bit confusing and surreal. Even once Henery had moved to America, he continued writing “riffs and melodies and sending them back and forth” with his bandmates.

“It didn’t feel like the end,” admits Andrew. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but it didn’t feel like the end.”

Three years later, it’s more like the start all over again. Both in the BBC studio and the restaurant, Basement’s members—all between the ages of 23 and 27—seem possessed by a zest and lust for what they do that wasn’t necessarily absent before, but which wasn’t wholly possible either. Because this time around—and for the first time since they formed—being in the band is no longer something they have to fit in between other work commitments or struggle to find the time to do. It’s their job now. Andrew even quit teaching—the reason Basement called it a day in the first place—to pursue doing the band full-time.

“It’s taking us time to get adjusted,” admits Henery, who is by far the most talkative of the four members eating pizza. “Before, when it was just a hobby, you’d take off time from your part-time job or you’d quit your part-time job to tour and then you’d come back and you’d be in that weird kind of rut where it’s cool, but you’re not really making any progress. We could never even imagine it as our full-time job.”

“But we couldn’t do it much before because we had jobs,” offers Andrew. “We looked at how much we could achieve if we put more time into it and we realized we were prepared to do that.”

“I left a secure job where I had a salary every month,” says Stewart. “I was nervous, because what if it didn’t work? How would I pay rent?”

“I didn’t worry about anything,” counters James with a wry chuckle. “Because if we quit our jobs and tried it and nothing happened and no one cared, then it’s like, ‘Okay, we tried it, we’re going back to work. Fair enough.’”

“We’re just seeing what’s going to happen,” says Henery. “And if nothing happens, fine. We have our careers, we have other things going on in our lives. And if it happens—well, we don’t really know what we’re going to do if it happens, but we take each day as it comes and we’re having a lot of fun doing it. I still think it’s unbelievable that I can do this as a career with my best friends.”

Like his best friends, Henery remains adamant that even though they now have to rely solely on the band for income, their motivation for being in the band and doing what they do hasn’t changed in the slightest.

“If it’s not fun,” he says, very matter-of-factly, “then we’re not going to do this. That’s the point of why we do this—being creative and having fun doing it. And so far, we’re having the most fun we’ve ever had.”

That’s for the best, because 2016 looks to be Basement’s busiest year to date. Not only is Promise Everything finally available, but the five-piece will be on the road, in both Europe and the U.S., from the start of February to early May, when they’ll finish up a headline tour in Boston. And not only will they be playing 800-1,000 capacity venues, but they’ll be supported by—yes, supported by—Turnstile and Defeater, two bands whose respective fanbases are nothing to scoff at. Perhaps it’s because there’s much more of an American tinge to their sound than an English one, but Basement has become a bit of a big thing in the States, much to their own bemusement and befuddlement.

“I think it helps that we have an American sound,” ponders James, “but because we’re British it confuses and excites people. Because just the same way that British people have a really weird obsession with America, American people have this weird obsession with England.”

While that conflation of nationalities has been compounded further by Henery’s change in residential status, there’s never been any affectation in Basement’s songs. They’re not trying to sound like they’re American. Rather, their music is a wholly authentic interpretation of the culture and music that has long inspired them, together with the more subtle influences of their surroundings. Rather than attempting to imitate a different nationality, they’re playing with the idea of national identity. It is, to a large degree, what makes them stand out from the rest of the scene—be that British or American—and which gives their songs a unique sense of individuality. It’s an odd kind of quasi-paradox, and one that’s nowhere more evident than on the B-side of 2014’s comeback EP, Further Sky: a cover of “Animal Nitrate” by ’90s not-quite-Britpop act Suede, one of the most quintessentially English bands since rock ’n’ roll began. A malleable mix of identities, it’s a song by an English band that’s been made to sound ever so slightly more American by an English band who sounds American, but naturally and authentically so.

“Recently,” explains Henery, “we’ve been wanting to channel something different into our music to see if we could be at all influenced by England as a country, or as the place where we came from. Which is why we did that Suede cover. It was a conscious decision to cover a British band. Yes, there are elements of our music that sound American, but Andrew’s voice, I would want that to sound as natural as possible. I don’t want him to put on an accent, because he’s English, and I want people to hear that. We draw our influences from predominantly American bands. However, there are also certain British bands that I want to channel and emulate.”

If their version of “Animal Nitrate” is a four-minute microcosm of what Basement is all about musically, then Promise Everything is the band expanding on their exploration of sound, identity and meaning. It’s still edgy and fraught with nerves and emotion like their previous work, but it’s also more assured, more confident. It’s the sound of a band who knows exactly what path they want to be on. Unlike before, it’s a path that has no end in sight, even if they don’t quite know where it’s going to take them.

“The only ambition I ever had for this band,” says Henery between bites of pizza, “was to play with hardcore bands. And one of the first shows we ever played was a hardcore all-dayer at the Underworld in Camden in London, so after that I’d accomplished everything I’d ever wanted to accomplish. So with that in mind, it’s not so much where we want to take this, but it’s about experiences—things we’d like to do. And there’s a few left. But we now have to think in the realm of stupid stuff: Be on TV [like U.K. show] Jools Holland or an American late-night TV show. It seems literally impossible, but who knows? Or do a tour with an arena band, like Weezer or the Foo Fighters.”

“We definitely don’t like to have these grand dreams,” says Stewart. “We just take it step by step, like ‘What’s the next thing we want to do?’”

“We still haven’t even really got to the point where we know what each other is capable of in the studio or writing-wise,” chimes in James. “And that’s something I’m really looking forward to—being together and writing as a band, because we’ve never been able to do that.”

“Right,” agrees Henery. “There’s no plan. It’s just, ‘Hey, it’d be kind of cool to do that—I wonder if that could ever happen.’ To be honest, I’m just a bit surprised that people still care, because we took a long time off and people could have easily forgotten us. It kind of blows my mind that they haven’t.”

As everyone takes their last few bites of pizza, the conversation starts to wind up. The band members, getting ready to drive back to Ipswich, begin joking around with each other, their spirits visibly high and energetic. But then, why wouldn’t they be? They’re a bunch of best friends who have the chance—finally, and for real this time—to do the thing they really love. Besides, Michael Jackson is still playing in the background. It’s a given that their career will never reach a fraction of the height encountered by the King Of Pop, but it’s also clear that they don’t care about that in the slightest. Basement isn’t a band without ambition, but that’s not what drives them. What spurs them on is passion and friendship and the desire to make music that has an impact on other people, however few or many that may be, and the chance to play together and stay together for a while yet.

“I just want us to be happy,” says Andrew. “I want us to be 100 percent like, ‘Yeah—we created something awesome.’”

“I mean,” adds his brother, “just being together all today—I went to the toilet earlier and I just thought, ‘This is a great day!’” S

A version of this story was originally published in Substream #50.