Taken from my article for Silent Radio, published 13/02/2014 .
When the Red Hot Chilli Peppers wanted an unconventional setting to record highly acclaimed ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’, they chose the reportedly haunted former residence of magician Harry Houdini. The coolest location to make a record I thought, until I discovered where London natives Breton decided to record their follow up to 2012′s ‘Other People’s Problems’.
Breton’s Daniel McIlvenny (bass / keyboards) tells us “The studio was called ‘Funkhaus’ and was built by the German Democratic Republic government, originally to serve as one of hundreds of incredibly Hi-spec studios in which to create communist propaganda. The Funkhaus complex was basically the epicentre of GDR media and propaganda.”
Found in the highly industrial Mitte district of Berlin, Funkhaus Studios was a totally different place during the Cold War. Housing 3,000 communist workers who would write and broadcast propaganda in the form of news and drama to the entire Eastern Bloc, its glorious innards tell the stories of thousands. “It was like no other studio I’ve ever been to. Having been purpose built to serve as the headquarters for GDR propaganda, it has this visceral, sinister history. All the clocks on the premises, for example, had inputs for microphones wired into them, so the Stasi could keep an ear to the workers at all times, and there were busts of proletariat pride everywhere.
Steeped in history, the studio seems like the perfect place to record an album in – even if it might induce crippling paranoia “The studio was immaculately built; because the GDR were so obsessive about recording quality, and the quality of their studios and equipment was a matter of pride for them. There are some pre-amps and other bits of gear that are still used today, and still considered some of the best in the world.”
Whilst recording took place over a five week period last Summer, the writing of the album took a while longer, owing to the band’s constant touring schedule and massive year playing around the world. “It was basically written over 12 months and taken to the Funkhaus where we made quite a few final alterations… We would turn up at 10 am and record until 4 in the morning. On the weekends we’d be in the studio the same hours, then go to Berghain or Holzig, then go back to the studio the next day and carry on.”
Second albums can be tricky business (see: Stone Roses’ Second Coming) It’s make or break time as a band, and you’re answering the question of ‘was the first album just a fluke?’ Breton, however, are clearly the real deal, and when it came to making the second record, they took the bull by the horns. “As a second album, naturally we wanted it to be a progression from the first. It feels like a progression in many ways – it was recorded live, as opposed to being largely electronic, and I think it has much more physicality to it as a result.”
Taking on a different approach to their previous efforts enabled the band to open up. “The recording process was quite different to the first record. The first album was mostly produced and written on a computer. Listening back, that record sounds very introspective. This time round the recording was basically like a ‘classic’ album – everything is live, done in single takes. Obviously this is probably the most common way for a band to record an album, but to us it was completely novel! I think this record has more scope in the sense that it’s not as insular.” So has the gambit paid off? “It’s been interesting to see the reaction, to see what people expected from us and what they get from the record. It’ll be most interesting to see the reaction to the new live show.”
That the recording of ‘War Room Stories’, Breton’s highly anticipated second album, took place in such a historic, intriguing and downright cool location should come as no surprise. When the band came together, they envisioned themselves as an ‘art collective’, utilising different multimedia streams in their work and at one point working out of their own all encompassing media hub, the aptly named BretonLabs. But it’s not as Nathan Barley as it sounds. Working with the likes of The Temper Trap and picking up numerous awards for their short films along the way, the new album even kicks it up a notch, featuring a 44 piece orchestra. “At the start of last year we did a show for the BFI, which involved us soundtracking some of our films with the help of a string quartet. We decided that we’d get real strings on the second album, and ended up using the Macedonian Symphonic Orchestra. Roman composed the string arrangements, with the help of an incredible string-arranger called Ben Trigg. It was an incredible experience seeing the string parts be brought to life.”
In promotion of the album, the band have taken their social media output to new heights, placing posters up around London, Paris and Berlin featuring a unique QR code that when scanned gives the lucky punter access to an exclusive stream of ‘War Room Stories’ They’ve also hidden some posters around each city, encouraging fans to find them and get in touch with the band, which could bag them gig tickets, signed albums and more “We’ve always been into new technologies, and generally try to use them in any interesting ways we can if it means a release is a bit more memorable. Bands like Radiohead have nailed this type of campaign – they really made it an art form. I think the QR codes came about after thinking of ways to get people onto the street and using social networking as a means of creating an initial core group of listeners – if you really want to hear the record, you’ll go out and find the code!”
So with the new record out last month, Breton are currently touring the globe, making a return to dear old Blighty with a show tonight at Manchester’s Soup Kitchen “It’s been great so far, we’ve been in Spain and France, and we did a string of dates on the UK a couple of months ago. Naturally it’s been exciting playing the new songs and gauging the audience reaction. We’re really looking forward to the UK shows and seeing what our home country makes of the new show!”