The Music Fix feature: Shield Patterns

It’s a drizzly Saturday in Manchester. We’re tucked up in the corner of a welcoming hostelry as the weekend punters slowly start to emerge. After (brief) discussion, wine and beer trumps coffee. And we’re talking arithromania. “It’s something I’ve done since I was a child,” says Claire Brentnall, singer with Manchester duo Shield Patterns, whose devastating debut Contour Lines due for release at the start of June, will surely set the standard for darkly atmospheric electro pop this year. “I don’t know what it is - it’s a combination of OCD and superstition – I’m not sure. When I was a child, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t do this. I sort of make little patterns with numbers and letters and words in my mind. I think it was borne out of worrying about people and generally being an anxious person.” She pauses to gather her thoughts. “It’s just kind of stuck with me, always. I don’t know, I’d be worried for people and in my child’s mind I’d be protecting them, like a spell. And now I can’t stop. It’s kind of ingrained. But the reason I wanted to call the project after that was because with music, making or playing or listening or whatever…it just goes quiet for a bit.”

Like any music that grasps almost unwittingly how to transfer from artist to listener, Contour Lines demonstrates an understanding of both the conscious and the unconscious world. It’s precision-tooled – layered, assembled, engineered. And yet, it speaks with heart and soul, deeply felt and compassionate, a defiantly expressionist work that manoeuvres its secrets tantalisingly out of reach and makes a lyric sheet feel like an intrusion, prosaic and unnecessary. As Brentnall talks quietly and frankly about the routine that’s followed her from childhood into the heart of her art, we fall silent for a moment. It’s quite a powerful footnote to the album. Suddenly it all makes (more) sense. “Yeah,” says Brentnall, and laughs. Her partner in Shield Patterns, Richard Knox (co-owner of pioneering Manchester label Gizeh Records, who will release Contour Lines on June 9th), nods soberly: “It’s quite a big influence on the record.”

The Shield Patterns story goes back to late 2012, when Brentnall started to piece together the songs that would form the spine of their debut. “I’ve been in bands since I was 19,” she recalls. “I’d always written but wasn’t always sure that the songs I was bringing to those bands fitted them. So I started this solo project. I was on my own and became obsessed with making these recordings – it was all I did for a while. I made six or seven songs and decided I wanted to play them live. It was really, really raw at this stage but I just wanted to get them out there.” Knox takes up the story: “She was opening for some friends of mine called Epic 45. I’d been tipped off about what she was doing. So I went down early and really liked what I saw. We had a little chat at the end of the night and we kept in touch. Originally I had it in mind that what Claire was doing would be good for the label. I just wanted to talk to her about that, and from there it’s just gone onto us playing together.” He smiles and tails off. “It’s kind of a nice surprise, but it came from a good place.”

“It’s been kind of disparate parts all coming together,” explains Brentnall when we talk about the process of recording the album. Its subterranean beats, throbbing bass, delicate keys, strings and Brentnall’s hushed vocals feel as if they’ve been crafted with care and over time. “Some of the songs are still based on the original demos but we’ve just built on them in our little home studio and then we went away to Wales, rented a cottage and did all the vocal recording there.” Knox: “That was nice, what we did in Wales, because we’d done all the recording up until that point at home, piecing everything together, trying new ideas and then we were just away for a week, nailed it all down, re-recorded some parts and mixed a lot of it in the middle of nowhere in Wales. Lots of alcohol, lots of food and we just didn’t leave the cottage for a week.” A case of the ‘Withnails’? We’ve gone on holiday by mistake? “Yeah! Pretty much. Really long days, but it was just what we needed at that time, just to take it out of the home studio environment and give it a new lease of life.”

Lesser artists might have sacrificed song craft for aesthetics, but rather than mere mood pieces, Contour Lines displays a skewed pop sensibility. You know, it’s not for the car, or your average dinner party, but attune to its unique voice and it’s hard to find a way out. Like, say, Julia Holter’s Loud City Song, it feels less recounted, more enacted. You suspect the writing process is similarly untypical. “Well,” begins Brentnall, “many of the other tracks, like ‘Ruby Red’, were more organic – sitting down at the piano and writing. The music came first – the music sort of fed the lyrics. The lyrics are all very personal and when I write the lyrics, I like to just have a stream of consciousness and write really fast. It all happens very quickly and it’s very cathartic – an outpouring, in a way. That’s how the whole album’s been written, I’d say. But the tracks that are more atmospheric, like ‘The Rule’, I made lots of piano samples, kind of obsessively picked them apart – so that was less flowing but more intricate. It was very much about finding the sounds I could picture coming next. It was about picking them out, chopping up samples and putting them back together in these kind of flowing piano phrases.”

On every level, Contour Lines avoids compromise. It’s selfless and generous. Its distinct mood and tone is defined by more than just its luxuriant soundboard. It’s a deeply affecting piece, even if lyrically it’s initially inscrutable. Somewhere within, you sense an emotional history being played out. Brentnall’s, Knox’s, yours. Written word go hang: it’s Brentall’s delivery that might just stop your heart. “I’m really happy that that’s how you’ve seen it,” she says. “That’s true with the lyrics. They’re very much esoteric in a way, which is what I wanted: to not make it so obvious what the songs are about. We thought about doing a booklet but I think we might just put them on the website and if people want to know then they can go there.” Knox is in agreement and likes the idea of people finding the record on their own terms. “Yeah we toyed with a few ways of doing it,” he agrees. “But for the reasons that you alluded to with your own experience with the album, the thing that I guess we were considering was - do people actually need to know the lyrics? Personally when I listen to an album, it changes from album to album, sometimes I do what you’re saying and that way you just come up with your own version of what everything is and how it speaks to you, and other times I think sometimes you’re interested in what the lyrics are, you feel like it’s a little bit based more upon a…like a related experience in terms of the narrative of the song.”

We move on, in agreement that with the right work, the writer inadvertently passes that work, and the responsibility for its growth, over to the listener, the reader, the viewer. Talk turns to the Shield Patterns live show. ‘Shade’, the album’s shuddering, almost formless overture, is warning to the unwary, but it’s the closing ‘Charon’, a collage of caustic electro that will see off the faint-hearted. That’s if they even attempt it live… “Yeah we do!” laughs Knox. “We finish with it! Yeah, the way it’s developed over the last six months or so with finishing the album and then starting to play that stuff live, it’s way more aggressive now than it was in the beginning. It’s challenging for the listener in a lot of ways and live it’s quite challenging as well. People may have a slightly different opinion of us before they actually experience what it is we do.”

He continues, keen to explore the possible divide between people’s preconceptions and the grittier reality of what, certainly on the evidence of their wrong-footing debut, Shield Patterns have eventually become. “Everything’s electronic but it’s all very organic,” says Knox. “It has an almost analogue feel, even though hardly any of it is actually analogue. The detail in the record is enormous. It’s ridiculous how much detail is in there. A nightmare to mix! I heard something last night when we were playing live, that I’d never heard before. I thought – What’s that?!” Much of the record’s drama comes from its scope. There’s a breadth that encompasses the sweeter, more lyrical moments and its heavier explorations. “Yeah, there are those kind of elements in the record, such as ‘Ghost Words’ or ‘Ruby Red’,” he agrees. “But there’s some really dark stuff on there, too - there’s some really kind of hard listening. I think we’ll surprise a few people. A close friend of mine said, after he saw us in Manchester last time, this thing is not what you think it is. People are going to find this really hard and if they’re not there in their head and they’re not ready for it, they’re really going to struggle with it.” He smiles at the thought. “We’ll see.”

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