Black Doldrums release new album ‘Dead Awake’
London-based group Black Doldrums are today releasing their debut album, ‘Dead Awake. Originally a duo founded by Sophie Landers (drums/vocals) and Kevin Gibbard (guitar/vocals) but now recently fleshed out to a trio with Matt Holt joining on bass, Black Doldrums deal in a dark, shoegazing psych that melds gothic post-punk with a leather-clad rock’n’roll spirit. Produced by Jared Artaud (The Vacant Lots, Alan Vega), the ‘Dead Awake’ LP is streaming in full and is available to buy on vinyl here.
Having already cultivated a die-hard following in the psych underground, Kevin and Sophie set to work on their long-awaited debut album in 2020. Their original plans were to travel to New York to record the album with Jared Artaud of fellow label-mates The Vacant Lots, however, the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns and travel restrictions inevitably put a stop to that. Instead, they recorded the album in London with Artaud producing and mixing the album remotely from Brooklyn.
“It made for an interesting collaboration as the distance could have been an obstacle”, Sophie recalls, “but it actually helped creativity as we were more inclined to stay in touch and have really decent phone calls at length discussing the songs in a lot of detail. We really enjoyed those conversations with Jared about music and all of our influences. I think you can hear on the record that it is a full collaboration.”
The more collaborative effort of ‘Dead Awake’ finds Black Doldrums switching gears and adopting a cleaner, more precise creative approach than that of their earlier material: “The idea was to be absolutely brutal with our songs and cut them down to what we only felt was necessary. Up until this point we had been experimenting and were happy with what we had created but we no longer felt the need to hide behind too much reverb and an excessive amount of guitars. It still sounds like us but it has all the elements needed to stand the test of time.” The result is an album that feels colder and more stripped back – the effects are still there but stripped down to their fundamentals so that the songs themselves take precedence over any wall-of-sound deliria.
‘Sad Paradise’ (which, like the band’s 2018 EP of the same name, takes its title from a handwritten poem Allen Ginsberg sent in a letter to Jack Kerouac) opens ‘Dead Awake’ and sets the tone with a tightly-wound spiral of gothic-psychedelic guitars, Kevin’s austere vocal and primal drums. Describing it as “a song about rejecting social norms”, they say that “Sad Paradise is about seeing people live their lives around you with little or no impact, just coming and going, wasting their lives away.” The driving ‘Dreamcatcher’ is similar in its counter-cultural intent, with lyrics like ‘I won’t follow where a fool drowns, I’ll see it through until the day I die’: “Dreamcatcher’ is about defiance against a sense of being held down, an idea which occurs constantly throughout the album.”
Elsewhere, the euphoric and slow-burning ‘Into Blue’ is one of the more romantic tracks from the boyfriend-girlfriend duo. Acting as a follow-up to an unreleased song he wrote when he was younger, Kevin says: “It’s an honest retrospective look at a certain period of time for me that’s brought right into the now with lyrics such as ‘And all the while as if to make me smile she was there'. That line refers to a twist of fate as it’s about a chance meeting between myself and Sophie after living and growing up right down the road from each other the whole time. The imagery of ‘Into Blue’ I think means to follow someone and be with someone into an afterlife or eternity.”
With its ‘Eyes dead awake’ lyric inspiring the album’s title, the anthemic ‘Sleepless Nights’ is “a song about insomnia and being in an internal battle with yourself. The intention here is to paint a picture of the early hours and a feeling of isolation.” Equally thematically gloomy is the cinematic, Mary Chain-esque ‘All For You’, which was inspired by the band’s stop in San Francisco as part of their US tour in 2017. “To our surprise at the time, it was raining and really foggy. Obviously being quite naïve we expected it to be sunny but instead it was dark and rainy and the image of the street lights on the wet floor with the skyline in the distance was used to inspire the mood and lyrics of the song (‘I find myself in city lights and the streets are soaked right through / A miracle for the chosen, a sight just for you’)”.
For all that the influence of groups like Joy Division, Bauhaus, Echo & The Bunnymen, the Jesus and Mary Chain and The Cure are written unapologetically on Black Doldrums’ sleeves, ‘Now You Know This’ is unexpectedly inspired by the outsider folk of Daniel Johnston. “Some inspiration for this came after watching a Daniel Johnston documentary, notably the song ‘I Live My Broken Dreams’”, Kevin recalls: “It always struck me as a perfect folk tune and I loved the delivery. It reminded me of an acoustic song I had written a few years ago called ‘Now You Know This’ which had a similar hook so I decided to play it with the band and it developed into a full song. The verses are intentionally put together to feel like a news-reel broadcast.” ‘Let me tell you now, the state of all things’, Kevin sings before describing selfish and greedy elites, fatal rioting on the streets that is met with media silence and underfunded public services leaving the sick and the poor ‘on their own to survive'.
Equally impassioned and angry is the album’s closing track ‘Sidewinder’, a piece of menacingly primal proto-punk that acts as the second part to ‘Dead Awake’s penultimate track ‘Runaway’. “These two are essentially part A and part B of the same song”, Kevin says: “They’re about the repercussions of someone’s actions and living with consequences. From one perspective it may sound like it’s attacking someone but it can also be a self-reflection of the writer.” ‘Runaway, from the life you knew / unaware of the lives you’ve burnt’, Kevin sings on ‘Runaway’ before karma seems to inevitably catch up with our protagonist on ‘Sidewinder’: ‘Got nowhere to hide, got nowhere to go / It’ll follow wherever you go / It’ll hunt you down”.