INTERVIEW: Lonely the Brave

A conversation with Jack Bennett and Mark Trotter

INTERVIEW: Lonely the Brave

By Yasmin Brown

Jan 27, 2021 17:13

Just minutes into our call with Jack Bennett and Mark Trotter of Lonely the Brave, the topic of conversation has changed at least four times - and as we delve into the last two years of the band's history, it’s looking like it's going to take some unexpected twists and turns.

Through no fault of his own, front man Bennett is a little late, and apologies are dotted here and there between a thorough introduction to a stray cat with a “cheesy pasta” nose that he’s hoping will remain ownerless for long enough for him to rehome it. Bennett – well known for his intense love of animals – is unsure whether to refer to it as male or female and asks if anyone knows anything about gendering in cats. The answer is (unsurprisingly) a resounding no and we move on with a laugh, acknowledging for the first time what we’re all here to talk about. The music.

At the time we speak, Lonely the Brave are just months away from releasing their album ‘The Hope List’, and while their media schedule is jam packed and they must surely be at least a little tired of repeating themselves, the excitement is still tangible in both Bennett’s and Trotter’s responses. At no point is it apparent that Bennett is a relatively new addition to the band, expressing his delight at being able to hold the album in his hands in vinyl format, and the potential to “assault someone with an album we’ve been a part of”, a prospect that’s mirrored by Trotter: “You can throw it across your garden in case of a zombie emergency”.

And given the turmoil this band has had to face over the past few years, combined with the current state of the world, that zombie emergency doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. 

“I think all the – such a typical Lonely the Brave thing – all of the adversity that’s gone along with it, like everything – even the global pandemic is trying to stop us. Usually it’s our singer quitting, or like, things exploding or whatever, it’s the most Lonely the Brave thing that could possibly happen – a global pandemic in the middle of us trying to record a record. But look, we still managed to do it and that’s something that we’re all really proud of.”

And they should be proud, too. Flash forward to today and the band – now well and truly completed by Bennett – stand tall following the release of their first album together, and with the release of ‘The Hope List’ comes a brand new benchmark for this Cambridge band. 

While it’s been more than two years since he joined, it’s hard to talk about this album without mentioning the addition of Bennett to the band. Initially popping down south from his hometown in West Yorkshire to take part in a few practices, even though he had to call to make sure the rest of the band wanted him (“Am I in the band then?”), it seemed to be a no brainer. As already mentioned, however, it’s been anything but plain sailing since then, as Bennett explains – pausing only to apologise to the cat and to “put a hat on, I look like an absolute salad. Go on, carry on”. It seems like two years is a long time to pull together an album, but it’s just not as simple as that.

“The problem though when it comes down on paper, it’s obviously been like two or three years of it so I always think the people at home will be like, ‘Oh you’ve been sat in the studio for two to three years? This fucking better be good’, sort of thing. And I’m like ‘No, no’. So yeah in reality we’ve been recording… not a long time. Like in the actual studio, sitting down recording – not a long time.”

Trotter expands, noting that the first song written for the album was the latest single and title of their mini documentary, ‘Keeper’, which has now been “knocking around” for a couple of years and – as often is the case with the best songs – “came from nowhere”, yet it somehow set the foundations for the whole album.

“It didn’t come from a blueprint for us to work from or anything like that, it was still very different from a lot of the other stuff and I think it was quite a bit of time between that and the next kind of bunch of songs that we were happy with I guess.” 

The time between ‘Keeper’ and the rest of the album didn’t happen by choice, but was instead forced on them by the global implications of the pandemic and the restrictions that followed. So while from Trotter’s perspective, guitars were done in a day and a half, it still took a long time to get to the point they were ready to record. With most of the band working full time jobs – Mo and Bush, for example, are on the front line for the NHS – they simply didn’t have the luxury of taking a block of time out to get the record done, as Trotter explains.

“We say it took two years and like Jack says it sounds like, ‘Oh you had all this time’, but that’s two years of having to work around everyone’s insane, normal life schedules, so if you actually condense it down to actual time together, it’s nothing in comparison to perhaps what we would have done in years gone by. But yeah, two years to get to where we were yeah, but that’s actually – in terms of actual work, what? A weekend a month? Maybe?”

He elaborates by explaining that, like many bands, they work better in a room together, and Bennett readily agrees, chipping in that on the rare occasions they were able to find a week together, everything “came together fairly quickly”. But while the circumstances weren’t ideal, they agreed that it “needs to be right – we weren’t going to rush anything”, and it’s a patience that anyone who has listened to ‘The Hope List’ can see has clearly paid off – not just in terms of perfecting the record’s sound, but also in allowing the circumstances to seep into the lyrics. You could easily argue that the title ‘The Hope List’ itself is a product of what it is we all need right now, too. 

And with so much time, energy and patience having been put into the album, there of course came some nerves. Not usually one to feel any kind of nervousness (“I don’t care very strongly about other people’s views”), Bennett admits they got to him this time, but he continued to take a measured approach as he reminded himself that you can’t and shouldn’t try to please everyone.

“I’m confident enough in my own ability to like – at one point you’ve got to be like, well a voice is subjective – it’s just tonality and frequencies, right so I can only do what I can do and if someone doesn’t like that, then not only is that fine, but I don’t even care.”

Nerves aside, though, the general response to Bennett joining the band has been extremely positive, and even those who had stubbornly made their minds up before hearing a single song found their negative preconception quickly turning on its head, embracing the new music with Bennett at the helm. Even when searching for criticism, which Bennett tends to do just for a laugh, there was little to be found. 

“Honestly I mean, I just searched for it – I’m not trying to blow my own horn or blow the band’s horn or anything, but – it was pretty positive.”

While some may have grumbled, a huge part of this positivity came from the existing fanbase, a collection of endlessly supportive people who – even from the very first shows where Bennett found himself singing someone else’s songs – would sing along, screaming “Go on, Jack!”. Trotter recalls it with a smile, not for the first time acknowledging just how “lucky” they are to have such unwavering fans – a fanbase that lifts them up enough that any criticism falls away, understanding that Bennett brings something to the band that wasn’t ever necessarily missing, but that completes the Lonely the Brave sound regardless. 

“We always said we didn’t want Dave mark II, we wanted someone who brought what they do to this band and this equation so that’s exactly what Jack’s brought, you know. And that’s the way it should be. You don’t want to try and copy someone else, it doesn’t make sense, you know?”

And even though Bennett’s vocals undoubtedly present a similar sense of power and urgency to those of previous singer, Dave Jakes, he stands out completely in his own right, never replicating anything that came before him. You only have to listen to the album opener ‘Bound’ to hear how he leaves his own mark on this band, but at the same time settles in seamlessly, building their sound to perfection. The musical chemistry is undeniable, and much of it stems from the fact that before joining the band, Bennett spent ample time on the same festival bills as Lonely the Brave, as well as checking out their live shows on a number of occasions. He took these experiences and built on them to ensure not only an easy integration into the band but also a strong production value, so that even with the vocals stripped out, this album would reflect the talent and the sound that made these guys great in the first place. 

“It doesn’t sound like a fully commercial, sanitised record, but it still sounds like the band that has the elements that you hear when you watch the band live. So I think that all producers of any level should have the opportunity to watch the band live – to watch an artist live, playing, to see what they do because that’s how they’re hearing it.”

If you have ever seen Lonely the Brave live, you’ll know they sound huge in that environment and, despite currently filling larger club venues, this is a band that’s made for arenas, their soaring choruses lending themselves perfectly to massive crowd singalongs and seas of arms raised high, suggesting nothing but pure emotion. This sound has always defined Lonely the Brave in a live environment, and they’ve always written songs that way, but Trotter admits that this may well be the first time this giant sound has really been captured on record. 

“You know, the first record, you gotta remember that first record was made with – it cost us five grand and we were sleeping on the studio floor, or sleeping in Mo’s dad’s van outside. That was done literally on a shoestring.”

With time, the opportunities that have presented themselves to Lonely the Brave have, of course, multiplied, and with this album – the band’s third studio record – they’ve exceeded anything they’ve ever achieved before, creating a collection of tracks that will evoke goosebumps and tears before you’re even sure why. It’s a physiological response that is beyond anything your mind can consciously comprehend, and it’s something Bennett is all too familiar with, delighted that he has been able to provoke this sensation in others.

“Sometimes it isn’t the lyrics, sometimes it’s just the melody and it’s like, oh it’s a bit groovy or whatever and I can’t dance but it’s a thing. Right? It’s a feeling, yeah? Oh my fucking god it’s just a thing. And you don’t have to describe it, you don’t have to know what you’re talking about so I totally get what you’re saying in that, yeah, it’s like an emotional record without being sort of… like it’s soppy emo without having to be like, you’ve got eyeliner on.”

Now, as they’ve finally found they’ve had the right combination of budget, time, and manpower, this “soppy emo” finally transpires on record as well as off, and while Trotter notes that while there’s probably no one “out there that’s ever been 100% happy with the record or how it sounds”, the final result is  “how I’ve always envisioned our band sounding. You know, just massive”. The only thing left now is to see how they translate back to a live environment – one luxury the band has been stripped of during this pandemic.

“It’s going to be so interesting to be able to play these songs live and see how they measure up to how we hear them on record and how [Jack] probably heard them while writing them. Cause it’ll change again, like we were saying – the dynamic and the sound will change again when we actually do get to play these. That’s what I’m trying to hear. That’s the bit we’ve missed so far.”

If the record itself is anything to go by, the live dynamic will be more powerful than anything we’ve experienced before from Lonely the Brave, and a huge part of that is down to Bennett’s production of each song as he worked behind the scenes on each song, always taking into account the different environments in which they might be enjoyed. He exudes passion as he describes the production process and his careful considerations around radio compression and purposefully not tuning guitars that bent out of tune, forgetting where the conversation started as he follows his tangent right to the end before concluding with an apologetic, “that’s my contribution to tech. Sorry. I’m happy with the album”. 

But it’s not just the band who need to be happy with this record. The fans are mentioned a number of times throughout our conversation, but Trotter takes a second to really hone in on what they mean to Lonely the Brave and what it is the band would like to see them take from this record (spoiler: the answer is whatever the fuck you want). 

“For me, my favourite song, I don’t care what they were written about – I don’t want to know what they were written about. I know what they mean to me and what I take from those songs, you know, and yeah, sometimes knowing what they’re actually about ruins it. You know, it’s like when you watch the film adaptation of a book that you love and it never lives up – it never lives up, does it? So, to me it would be people taking what they want from it. What they need from it. And that would be amazing.”

The chances of this happening are high, too, given the history Trotter continues to share with heart-warming humility regarding fans reaching out to express gratitude for how a particular song has helped them through a tough patch, or even just allowed them to feel less alone for a second.

“We’re so lucky and we’ve been so lucky for so many years that we get these messages from people all over the world like, you know, this song helped me through this or, you know whatever, and that’s incredible, you know? How lucky are we to have that?”

If their music alone isn’t enough to draw you in, Trotter’s endless gratitude for their fans and his unadulterated love for music certainly will be. Barely a filler word is uttered as he continues to express just how much the fans mean to him, and how his love of music is fuelled by their support and unwavering belief in what Lonely the Brave do, and in the same way that he has found solace in his favourite bands, he hopes that they can offer solace to others, too.

“That’s why I love music, you know, because, yeah, playing music is a way of expressing yourself but listening to music is a way of expressing yourself and knowing that you’re not alone because someone else has been through that thing. And that’s what’s beautiful about it so, for me, if it achieves that for someone else then I’m done. That’s it. That’s all I want.”

You wouldn’t want to interrupt Trotter when he describes the band’s relationship with their fans, and he continues to speak freely and without concern for his words as he delves further into just why they mean so much to him and the rest of the band, readily describing them as more than just fans, but sometimes friends, too, and always coming back to the humbling question, “How lucky are we?”

“It’s such a cliché but we can’t do this without anyone being interested or being attached to it or caring, you know? That’s everything. We’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and do this as our living for so many years because people genuinely care… We play a show and go out straight afterwards and just go and chat to everyone because it’s amazing. You’ve got all these people that are your friends, all around the world, it’s amazing! I can call up a guy in Switzerland that we’ve done shows for that’s just fucking lovely and I go stay at his house, you know, and he’ll come here and that’s amazing. You just make friends, all over the world. How lucky are we? It’s ridiculous.”

It’s a huge part of what makes the current situation so hard – not being able to tour and be reunited with these fans that have become such a huge part of the Lonely the Brave family over the years – but for Bennett, the struggle extends even further. The band were only able to play a few live shows before the industry was put on pause, and so for him, after only really experiencing a show that involves him perform someone else’s songs, the main thing he’s looking forward to with the resurgence of live music is finally being able to sing his own songs to a crowd that are singing them straight back at him. 

“It’s been really hard to have any confidence when you’re singing someone else’s songs – and he’s not dead by the way! – it’s like singing to someone at home and just being judged constantly, and whilst I’ve got a fairly thick skin, it’s fucking weird man… I’m sure that I will still play the old stuff or whatever, but to have an album’s worth of material that we can just delve into that’s like, cool – we actually wrote this all together and I’m that singer that’s singing on the song that you’ve heard of, hopefully. So to contribute in that way, it should be really nice.”

I think we can all agree that when that day finally does come – the day we can scream together, throats hoarse and sweat cementing our hair to our necks – it’ll be a little more than ‘nice’, and that this day comes sooner rather than later is certainly at the top of our very own hope list.