Paying Lip Service to a polished electronic duo…
Electronic music seemed to be entering something of a renaissance period during the 2000s. New acts inspired by synth-pop were emerging, including a duo consisting of Matt Culpin and Sarah Heeley. Northern Kind demonstrated a talent for engaging electronic melodies that embraced a love of pop, showcased by their critically acclaimed 2007 debut album 53°N. The self-produced indie electronic act swiftly won over fans keen to embrace a 21st Century take on synth-pop.
Northern Kind also demonstrated that they could deliver on the live front. The duo’s rapidly growing profile would lead to spots at the 2013 Silicon Dreams festival (where they shared the stage with Heaven 17) as well as support slots for Gary Numan and Recoil (Alan Wilder) at the Postbahnof in Berlin.
Their 2013 album Credible Sexy Unit album also drew critical praise. The Electricity Club’s review concluded: “…the songs that make up Credible Sexy Unit form exactly what you’d expect from Northern Kind: retro-amped chipper tunes, superlative singing, enduring song writing, and a professional attitude that belies their indie sensibilities.” The album also garnered favourable comments from the likes of Erasure’s Andy Bell, who reported on Twitter at the time”: “Loving the sound of Credible Sexy Unit.”
Northern Kind were put on hiatus in 2014, following Sarah’s decision to put music on hold to focus on yoga teacher training and travel. But the welcome news that the duo were working together again last year sparked fresh interest. The revitalised Northern Kind heralded this return with the release of ‘Lip Service’, a tune which The Electricity Club review described as “a finely tuned slice of dance pop perfection”. That release was followed up by the release of a further single in the shape of ‘The Feeling’.
Northern Kind topped this off with a stunning live performance at Silicon Dreams in the summer of 2019 (see TEC review previously). TEC sat down with Sarah and Matt to discuss Northern Kind’s intriguing musical journey…
How would you compare the sound of classic Northern Kind vs the Northern Kind of today?
Matt Culpin: We had a seed of an idea that our first album could have been an almost forgotten album from the early 1980s, so it was deliberately produced with that in mind. There were hardly any chords used and instead we interwove lots of monophonic synth lines which typified the ‘Basildon’ style of synth-pop.
That defined our sound from that point onwards and created a blueprint which continued through to our last album. That was six years ago, so naturally, our influences and experiences have changed during that time. I’d like to think the sound is more contemporary and I’ve learned some chords.
Sarah, what prompted you to return to music with Northern Kind?
Sarah Heeley: No specific reason. It just felt like the right time. I’d kept my hand in with various performance projects, but I’d missed singing my songs and lyrics. I’m proud of what Matt and I achieved over the years and it seemed such a shame not to be sharing our music together.
What has your sabbatical from Northern Kind given you, in terms of perspective, on the outfit’s music?
S: I’ve been very lucky to travel a lot during our break, including studying yoga and mantra in India and the Himalayas. The time, space and inspiration, and all the amazing people and teachers along the way had a profound effect on my approach to everything – including music. I’d kind of run out of things to say (lyrically) when I left the band in 2014. I’ve re-stocked my creative pot! I feel like we’ve come back fresher and stronger than ever.
Your 2013 album Credible Sexy Unit (see TEC review previously) brought critical acclaim and also led to gigs where Northern Kind shared the stage with the likes of Gary Numan, Alan Wilder and Heaven 17. What are your thoughts on that period?
S: Great memories of those gigs. When you’re sound-checking in Berlin and you glance over to your right and there’s Gary Numan sorting his set out next to you…well you can’t fail to be proud can you? Sharing a stage with world-class musicians takes some beating.
Matt, Dancing With Ruby has been your main focus in the post-Northern Kind years. Did you find taking up the reins of Northern Kind again a jarring gear-change or was it quite smooth?
M: It was fairly smooth, the way I work with Sarah and Charlie is a little different. With Charlie, ideas would often come from her as little sketches so they’d be a lot looser in terms of initial direction. We also worked completely separately as Charlie can record her vocals at home. Sarah practically lives around the corner so the process is a little more collaborative when we’re working on ideas.
What was it like returning to Northern Kind live performances at Silicon Dreams last year?
S: Nerve-wracking. Exciting. Once we got on stage it felt like we’d never been away. I’ve never seen Matt look so happy…!
The way music is funded and distributed has changed drastically in the last 10 years. What are your thoughts, if any, on crowdfunding and the PledgeMusic collapse?
M: Without a following, crowdfunding was always going to be risky strategy for unsigned artists, and even for those artists who had a following I always felt it would be far better to sell directly to fans once you’ve created something.
I like the idea of Patreon, Dancing with Ruby dabbled with that, but of course, unless you’re churning out regular content and giving patrons value for money it is difficult to sustain. When I realised we couldn’t keep up this momentum I shut the page down. I see some artists are avoiding Spotify, presumably because of the low payout rates in preference of services like Bandcamp. For me, however, it’s far more important to reach as many people as possible, platforms like Spotify & Apple Music have that reach and we can directly sell CDs for those who still want a physical format via Amazon or our online store.
The musical landscape has changed significantly for grassroots electronic acts over the past 10/15 years. Do you think artists and bands are in a stronger position than they were back then?
M: For creating music and for advice on getting it mastered and released there are a lot more resources now. We relied on lots of advice from other artists. Schmoof (if you remember them) were incredibly helpful. Getting music on iTunes and Spotify was still quite a difficult task. AWAL who we use to distribute our music would vet everything when we started and offer advice, now I believe it’s much harder to release through them if you’re just starting, so we were quite lucky as they were just small team back then.
We were very proactive in engaging with people when looking for gigs, sending promo material out and generally promoting ourselves. MySpace was still a thing when we started, I think that helped us find an initial audience. We also played a lot of gigs; I think we did something like a hundred gigs in two and a half years. I guess it paid off with the support slots we got, that helped grow our fan base.
One of the issues with the continually changing music industry is the prevalence of outlets such as The X Factor and what you’ve described as “production-line pop”. What are your thoughts on this today?
S: I’ve no issue with shows like The X Factor as long as A) Musicians and performers realise this isn’t their only option, and B) Audiences don’t think that being on the show is the only mark of success. You can enjoy a successful, fulfilling career in music without appearing on Saturday night telly.
What are the challenges (and rewards) of running your record label?
S: Complete freedom in creative direction. If we have an idea that we like, we go for it. We don’t have to ask anyone’s permission – that’s very empowering.
What’s the technical side of Northern Kind looking like in 2019? Also, where does NK stand on the analogue vs digital debate?
M: We’ve come from being totally digital, our first album was produced only with software synths to now being totally hardware-based. I’ve always been a fan of hardware; I just didn’t have space or budget when we started out. Honestly, though, I don’t think it makes a difference to the end piece of music. After I while I found it quite daunting staring a blank screen in Logic when trying to come up with ideas. You end up pre-set surfing with soft synths and then run into the danger of sounding like a lot of other artists.
I prefer the ‘happy accidents’ I get from trying to make a modular synth sound musical, it’s just a different way to approach making music that I find inspiring.
We’ve stopped using a laptop on stage, instead, we have a sequencer and sampler that triggers MIDI and CV stuff so I can tweak a few more things. We also have an effects processor for Sarah which allows us to have live harmonies rather than having a backing track, just feels a bit more live.
Are there any particular current acts that have caught your attention?
What’s on the schedule for Northern Kind for the future?
M: We have two gigs, one in March with Parralox in Manchester at the old HQ for Factory Records FAC251 and then one in Scotland in June. We’ll also have a new album out in the Autumn of this year.
Northern Kind are performing on 6th March at Factory, Manchester. Also on the bill are Parralox & AXLS. Tickets via Chimera Events: https://www.chimeraevents.co.uk/future-events
Northern Kind are also performing at the Springkell event in Scotland 26th-28th June 2020. More details: https://www.chimeraevents.co.uk/springkell-live