Lead singer Conor Mason talk about Nothing But Thieves’ self-titled debut album, breaking through in the States, his Jeff Buckley influences, being part of the new wave of British rock, and going big on the upcoming second album.
This year has been pretty incredible for you guys so far. What’s that been like to experience with everything that’s happened in the States?
It’s happened so quickly for us out here and it’s never stopped, truly. Having that Alternative No. 1 single really helped us. We can sell out shows and sell out whole tours because of that, really. So we’re really, really proud with how things have progressed.
On your first tour earlier this year you opened up for MUTEMATH, who are one of my favorite bands and one of the best live bands I have seen. What was it like getting to know them and being out on the road with them?
They’re wicked. I love that band. They’re such nice guys and the friendliest bunch you’ve ever met. We spent a lot of time with them and it was great. They were great shows, they’re great musicians, great crowds, so all around it was very good for us.
One of the things with being on the road so much this year and last year is your health. I know last time you were in the States you got sick and had to cut it short a little bit, and then you got sick last year as well. What’s that adjustment been like for you to try and stay healthy and keep that voice fresh?
Yeah, it’s not easy. I don’t think I realized what touring really is sometimes. If you’re in a bus, you’re with 10 guys in a tin can. It’s a good place for bacteria to hang out [laughs]. So I just got to make sure I’m keeping myself healthy. I eat well and drink well and all that stuff. I make sure I’m using my technique.
You know, it’s not easy. If I get a cold, I’m gone. If I strain my voice or something like that, I can still do a show, or if I’m tired. It’s just when I get a cold, it knocks me all up. I need to be wary of that.
The thing that immediately jumps out about Nothing But Thieves is your voice and how distinctive it is. I understand you grew up in a musical family and were classically trained in your teens. What was that process like, discovering you could sing like that and developing your voice over the years?
It happened very naturally. My dad is a great singer, very much a blues gospel singer. I listened to all his old records when I was a kid. It’s one of those cliché stories that everyone does. It’s something ingrained in you when you’re younger, what your parents listen to. So there was a lot of B.B. King and Sam Cooke in the house all the time.
That’s kind of where my voice naturally sits, and then I discovered over the years the people that I liked the most as well. People like Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley. It’s kind of a mixed match of all of that, really. But yeah, I found it very naturally.
I went to secondary school and I met the guitarist of our band, Joe. I was in my first band when I was like 13. Actually when I first properly started singing was the first time I was singing in a band. I had done nothing like that properly, so that really helped locate my love for singing in a band for sure.
You mentioned Jeff Buckley, who is one of your biggest idols. The first time I heard one of your songs that was immediately who you reminded me of. Growing up and listening to him, because he had such an amazing voice, are there things you took away and tried to learn from?
Jeff Buckley is definitely my main singing influence. I think I naturally have a similar voice, in terms of tone and range, to him. I just try my best to do my own thing. I think it’s really important to figure my own voice out and let whatever is within me come out naturally, and that’s what I try to do. But he’s definitely a huge influence and I learned so much.
I used to have proper singing lessons, but I’ve taught myself so much that you don’t learn in those lessons. Like, there’s so much to do with moving your own body that you can let out with your voice. That’s a skill I kind of taught myself, and that’s more important than anything.
Have you ever covered one of his songs live before?
No. When we first did the band, we jammed “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” but we’ve never done it live. We didn’t want to be like, hey look, we’re Jeff Buckley with a band. That sort of thing. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to that [laughs].
One of the things you first did when you were getting the band together, I think it was your managers who gave you this advice, was to work on getting a solid batch of songs first before going out on the road a lot or pursuing a record deal, and that’s kind of where you shaped the sound of the band. What was that period of discovery like and figuring out what you wanted to sound like?
Again, that just came naturally. We toured so much before we released the record, but then we also wrote so much before we toured. Before we released the first record, we were a band for about four years. We wrote for two years and we toured those songs for two years, and then we released the record.
It’s been quite a long process, and our sound has changed as we’ve toured. We figured out what sort of band we are. Especially for the next album that we’re writing currently, the sound has come out much more naturally because we know what we are as a band and what we are in a live setting.
Your debut album originally came out back in the U.K. in October, so it’s almost a year old now, and as you were saying a lot of these songs were written previously. Do you find that your relationship to some of the songs has changed over these couple of years?
Oh yeah, definitely. You definitely find songs you’ve grown out of in a way. For me, it’s like having a tattoo. That’s where you were at that point in your life and the memories, and then you move on and it’s the next stage. Soon enough those songs will become a memory about where you were, and that’s the whole point.
We’ve developed so much as musicians and as people as well. You look at us on the first album and say, “Oh wow, that does sound quite young there.” The next definitely sounds so much more advanced and bigger and gnarlier. That is an interesting question, but they always have a place within you because they were a part of you.
You mentioned “Trip Switch” going to No. 1 on the Alternative chart. I understand you were listening to a lot of rap when you wrote that song. Is that a fairly uncommon experience for you to write a song in that way?
No, I think we’re influenced by things all around us. For that, that was a different one. I was listening to a lot of Drake, a lot of hip-hop and Kendrick Lamar. Stuff like that. I really liked some of those bass lines and that kind of groove, so I thought we could do something with that. It kind of worked out in the best way, really.
I don’t know. We’ve definitely drawn from all sorts of different things in the band that you probably would be like, “What the hell?” It’s really good in that way.
Do you think maybe that groove and catchy guitar line helped it catch on as quick as it did?
I have no idea, but I’d like to thing so. That’d be nice [laughs]. I don’t know. I just wanted to do something that was cool and kind of like this hip-hop thing I was listening to. My mates back home were kind of doing it and I put it in our setting. It worked out, I guess.
You released “Wake Up Call” second, which has done pretty well over here. Are you going to be releasing a third single or will you just be focusing on writing the next record?
I really want to try “Itch” out in America, but there’s this whole logistics thing. That’s kind of the boring side of the music industry, sorting all that shit out. So hopefully, but I don’t know.
I understand Joe writes a lot of the lyrics. How does that relationship work between the two of you, figuring out the writing and vocals and all that?
Yeah, it’s this thing we’ve always done. We basically talk over what we want to write about and think about everything that we’re going through in our lives. Especially for the next album, I’ve jotted down loads of stuff that I’m going through, and then we talk about it and write about it.
He’s just got a really good creative brain like that, and my strong points are definitely meditative. He’s been my best friend and like an older brother since I was 11, so we’ve always had a strong bond with music. It works out really, really well for us and a good way to do it.
It’s always easy for you to relate to the songs and feel them on an emotional level then?
Oh yeah, absolutely. They’re things we both want to write about and I can really find my way within every song we write. I can put myself in that headspace, and especially a lot more of that in the second album.
An interesting thing I saw on your Twitter bio is you put you are a retired pessimist. Is that an inside joke or something? What do you mean by that?
Yeah [laughs]. The last American tour we were on I was going through a lot of shit. I was struggling with health issues. I think part of my problem is, because I’ve always known myself, I want to think the worst about everything. I do believe the music has helped. But yeah, it’s kind of an inside joke and a joke to myself [laughs]. I was a pessimist, but now I’m very much more of an optimist in some form.
So one of my favorite vocal parts on the record is that chorus part on “Excuse Me” where you go really high and then the second part sings underneath that. On something like that, is that just something you come up with through trial and error?
Yeah, it’s definitely a trial and error thing. I think that’s the best way to write, really. That was the first song where I experimented with my falsetto. We just really pushed that and tried to find that sound. That all came out very naturally as well. That was the first time we recorded my falsetto, so that was kind of cool.
The last couple years especially there seems to be so much good music and new young bands coming out of the U.K. scene, like you guys, Foals, Royal Blood, Catfish and the Bottlemen, James Bay, Wolf Alice. All that good stuff. What’s it like to be right in the middle of all that? Are you friendly with each another? What’s that scene like?
Yeah, it’s great. Wolf Alice, Catfish and bands like Royal Blood, they’re kind of a year before us in the U.K. I kind of look at it like school. They’re a year ahead, I guess. But we’re good friends with a lot of them and we play all the festivals around the world.
It’s good fun when you’re in a foreign place you don’t know. It can be a bit scary, but you have a bond and friendship with these bands. The fact that you’ve made it out this far to America is awesome. I love the fact that we’re one of those bands who is doing something out here, and I love the fact we’re one of the rock bands in England on this surge and wave of new rock music, because it was so dead and terrible for a few years.
Yeah, it was pretty much just like Artic Monkeys and then that was it.
Yeah, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.
When you first came out, people were always quick to compare you to these other bands, but there’s such a wide variety of songs on the album that it’s hard to pinpoint you to just one specific type of style. Is that something you really like, being hard to easily classify like that?
Yeah. Especially since it was our first album, we didn’t let ourselves have any boundaries on the songwriting. I think that was a natural thing for us, because we were finding ourselves and finding our feet as musicians and what worked. I was so young. I was 17 when we wrote this record, so we really went for it. That’s why it kind of sounds young in parts.
I think the whole point of the record was trying to stay outside of what we found ourselves in. There were so many records that were coming out at the time that all sounded quite similar. Every track just sounded the same. There’s merit in that. There’s merit in having a sound and having tones, but there’s also merit in giving the listener something new to listen to on each track, something weird and something unique on each track. I think that’s what we tried to do on the first record for sure.
Talking about the second record that you’ve mentioned a bunch of times writing for, can you say anything more about that and what kind of a direction you’re going in?
I can’t say too much, but playing live and listening through the record, seeing the reaction and seeing what we get the most out of – the next record is a big rock record. It’s just bigger and gnarlier and a bit nasty. That’s just what we’ve found in our sound that we really like. We wanted to write a rock record, you know?
I was reading through one of your older interviews and you mentioned “If I Get High” is one of your favorites that you’ve ever written. Is that a sound that’s also in the mix for the record?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of my favorites from the first record. That’s more of that ambient sound of ours, the acoustic and that big chorus sound. I do like that part of our sound too, and we definitely want to have a mix. That one’s such a great song live.
So after this fall U.S. tour is over, is that when you’re going to try and go back in the studio and flesh out all these songs?
Yeah, yeah. So in December we’ve got our biggest U.K. shows, Brixton Academy and stuff like that, and then in January-February we’re going to L.A. to record for a month. I’m so excited for that. We’ve done a year-and-a-half of touring, so I’m looking forward to having a tiny break from that and doing some recording.
Have you recorded in the States before?
No, never. We did our first one in the U.K. I’m looking forward to it. We’re working with a great guy. I can’t say who it is yet, but he’s out in L.A.
Looking ahead to that second record and to the future a little bit more, where would you like to see Nothing But Thieves go next and progress from here?
Our hope is that we can have the same progression as we did the last year and on the last record. In a way, it kind of worked out on this ride we’ve been having. Pretty much daily it’s growing. I just want to be doing what we’ve been doing already, but bigger venues.
It’s the best job in the world. I’m not going to tell you that I’m going to be playing Wembley Stadium next year [laughs], but I want to keep doing what we do, keep going and keep progressing. Never stop in that and never fall down. That’s the aim of the band, to keep doing what you love. It’s great.