Entertainment Times UK, April 2007


The first thing that strikes you about It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land, by Soulsavers, is what a classic-sounding band album it is. One of the best of this or any other year, and a shoo-in for the Mercury-prize shortlist, it’s impressive not least for its cohesiveness. The intensity of the playing and the atmospheres that are created proclaim Soulsavers to be a tightly bonded unit. Their music possesses a seamless, intuitive quality, particularly evident in the way their languorous, growling vocalist doesn’t sing the songs so much as inhabit them. Soulsavers sound like the sort of rock outfit who’ve been living in each others’ pockets for most of their adult lives.

So much for first impressions. Further inquiries reveal that the three members of this band have not, so far, sat down in the same room, much less played together. Their singer, Mark Lanegan — one of the godfathers of grunge, best known as the leader of Screaming Trees — lives in LA. The others, Rich Machin and Ian Glover, are based in the Potteries, near Stoke-on-Trent. The vocals of It’s Not How Far were recorded in commercial studios in LA in 2005 and 2006. The song arrangements and production were mostly done in England, at Machin or Glover’s home studios. Machin estimates that he met Lanegan on five occasions during the three years it took to make the album. Glover and Lanegan have still to be formally introduced.

Welcome to rock’n’roll in the 21st century, where the old notion that a record is, in essence, a document of a single performance is in retreat on all fronts. Dance producers have been e-mailing each other sound files for years, building tracks piecemeal without direct personal contact with any of the piece-makers. Now that idea is being adopted by musicians who play “real” instruments.

David Sylvian’s Nine Horses project is one of the most striking and successful examples of these long-distance virtual collaborations.

Sylvian and his songwriting partner and electronics person, Burnt Friedman (also known as Señor Coconut), live on different sides of the Atlantic. The pair did not meet while they were recording their recent Snow Borne Sorrow album. The result sounds at least as live as any of the records Sylvian has put out since he left Japan. Lanegan, another character with reclusive tendencies, clearly finds this hands-off method of group work highly congenial. For a decade, he has ghosted around, making temporary alliances, then moving on. He played on and off with Queens of the Stone Age, and has recently hooked up with PJ Harvey, Greg Dulli, of the Twilight Singers, and a couple of members of Guns N’ Roses.

It is performers based several hours away by jumbo jet, though, who seem particularly to appeal to the elusive Lanegan. While he was taking calls from Machin about Soulsavers, he was working with Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian, on the album Ballad of the Broken Seas. The fact that Campbell was living in Glasgow at the time might simply reflect Lanegan’s interest in the music of northern Britain. Machin says that his American buddy loves the Jesus and Mary Chain, and recalls him listening to Doves on his iPod.

On the other hand, there are clear advantages, for a man who guards his privacy as fiercely as Lanegan does, in working with musicians well away from his place. There are no plans for Lanegan to join Machin and Glover to promote their album, and my questions, forwarded to him in LA by e-mail, received replies that were almost laughably terse and uninformative. I learnt from these that Lanegan does indeed like British music, for reasons unexplained; that he decided to sing a cover of the Rolling Stones track No Expectations “because it’s a great song”; and that he has no particular favourite among the album’s other 10 tracks (“I like the whole record”).

Questions about the spooked religiosity of several of his lyrics, such as Jesus of Nothing and Spiritual, Lanegan simply dodged. His only remotely revealing comment related to the decision to work with Soulsavers, a duo few of his fans would have been aware of before this album. “I was drawn to this music by the overall feel of it — the space, mood, the darkness and light,” he wrote.

A conversation with Machin in a London pub disclosed much more about how and why this virtual band works so well together. The gist of it seems to be that, with personal contact at a minimum — the last time Machin met Lanegan was, he thinks, in January of last year, in LA — Soulsavers’ music-making is free of all the clashing egos that tend to hamper the progress of many bands.

Lanegan and Machin bonded before a gig in Sheffield in 2004 over a mutual love of John Coltrane, John Lee Hooker and the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. There have been no arguments over money, mainly because no record companies were involved in the financing of the recordings. Machin paid for the LA sessions by credit card and was eventually reimbursed by the V2 label, which has now signed him and Glover to a three-album deal.

If all this sounds rather casual, listen to the album and take note: Soulsavers will perform live in Europe this summer. Because they’re doing it differently, that doesn’t mean they don’t care.