This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on April 3, 2015.
If you’re ogling the cover of Errors’ ace new album, Lease of Life, look sharp. At first glance, the sleeve appears to be a photo of lush potted ivy or some-such, but closer inspection reveals it as an entirely computer-generated image. Such uncanny ambiguity defines the Glasgow electro-prog trio’s fourth long-player.
Its capricious (yet cohesive) sonic palette is at once familiar and unsettling, as it journeys from the ghosts of pipe bands and ancient folk through Vangelis, Caribou, 808 State, Tangerine Dream and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. The album’s themes are similarly vivid yet uncertain: its dreamy kosmische-disco songs insinuate post-apocalyptic alien rule, information overload and cannibalism. But they might just be about human contact.
“The idea of not quite knowing what something is – if it’s real or synthetic – has always interested us,” says the band’s co-founder and co-songwriter Steev Livingstone. “We wanted the Lease of Life artwork to be hyper-real, so you can’t tell the difference, unless you really study it. And we think about that a lot with our music too. We used a lot of synthesised organic sounds – string sounds, choir sounds – and we wanted to play around with the idea of what’s real, and what isn’t, while also trying to come across as more organic.”
True to this, Lease of Life is created by technology and preoccupied by cyber-anxiety, yet rooted in a rural utopia: much of the album was written and recorded on the Isle of Jura. And the record contains, amid myriad surprises, synthesisers that elicit bagpipes (or vice versa) on the title track. “Oh yeah, I know the sound you mean,” says Livingstone with a laugh. “We’ve actually been accused of the bagpipe thing before. The last track on our last album [2012’s Scottish Album of the Year Award-nominated Have Some Faith In Magic] has got a bit of that going on.
“I think it’s partly because we use a pentatonic scale, which can sound kind of Scottish,” he continues. (It’s also a favoured musical mode of their Rock Action label bosses, Mogwai). “We use it because it’s a really easy scale to write with – you can play anything and it sounds good, basically – but I’d also been thinking about bagpipes in terms of world music instruments. I think other tracks like New Winged Fire were tapping into that kind of world music thing too, and ideas of Indian music,” he says. You can even discern some far-flung disco panpipes on the latter track. But it might just be a tech-illusion.
There are some entities on the new album which are, however, undoubtedly real – namely, voices, choirs, and saxophones. Livingstone’s own voice has increasingly come to light since the band formed in 2004, and the album also features Oliva Bek (Magic Eye, who also starred on their Relics mini-LP) and Cecilia Stamp, whom Livingstone asked to contribute after hearing her sing on karaoke.
The saxophone and choir meanwhile, give the album a sense of celebration. Livingstone nods. “I think we felt like it was make or break time a bit with this record. We’ve been doing this long enough, and the only people who can make these things happen are me and Simon [Ward; they’re joined in the band by James Hamilton]. So we did what we really wanted this time. And we wanted a saxophone.”
The saxophone wields an extraordinary power in electronic music – it’s loud, and brash, and alien – but it can work wonders, as it does on ecstatic electro-pop aria Genuflection. “Yeah, but there’s a really fine line with that sort of thing,” Livingsone offers. “For a lot of people, the saxophone comes with cheesy Kenny G references. When it enters into our record for first time, it comes as a shock or a surprise to people, which obviously I didn’t consider because it was always in my head as a saxophone part.”
Did he always envisage a choir for the album’s epic techno-gospel swansong, Through The Knowledge Of Those Who Observe Us? “Oh yeah, that was never just going to be 20 versions of my voice,” he says. “The Glad Community choir was amazing. There’s such a range of ages and voices, male and female. I was deliberately referencing religious music with the choir, and the euphoria that comes with that. I’m not a religious person, but I’m definitely interested in a group of people singing together. I think there’s something pretty powerful about that.”
The gospel and religious allusions echo the notion of rave culture as secular spiritualism – of ecstasy, worship and communion on the dance-floor – too. “Actually, I hadn’t even considered that, but absolutely – that’s what I’m going to say it means from now on,” Livingstone laughs.
“I suppose the thing is, in the past we’ve held back on doing things, like the choir and the saxophone. This time, we decided we’d actually make the record we wanted to make,” he says. It sounds like the real thing.