After the autumnal melancholia of 2016’s Dusk, the title of Ultimate Painting’s fourth album – Up! – suggests a band leaving the past behind and ascending to another level, and to a certain extent that is the story of this record.
Now signed to Bella Union (after three records on Chicago’s Trouble In Mind), the record is a supremely confident and, at times, radiant example of their song-writing ability, but it also masks a more turbulent story. There were plenty of times when the question was not what it would sound like but would it even exist.
By the end of 2016, Jack Cooper and James Hoare – the band’s two equal but contrasting songwriters – were burned out and unsure of their next move. Releasing three albums in three years had taken its toll and they decided to take some time out to consider their next move. A good idea in theory but as it transpired a bad one in practice, as they immediately started to second-guess what to do next.
“We both initially had the idea that we wanted to make a record that had more of an electronic element,” explains James. “We thought we’d try to go slightly more in that direction. Drum machines, synths and so on.”
Jack: “We started to question what people wanted from us and in the process I think we briefly lost the idea of what the band was. We made the first three records so quickly, so no doubts had had the opportunity to creep in. It was all about momentum.”
The confused sessions around this time – all of which occurred in the band’s own recording studio in North London – were further hamstrung by Hoare’s on going issues with depression, something which made progress even slower. Eventually an enforced halt was called due to live commitments in the US and it was while they were there, sitting on a bench one morning in rural Pennsylvania, that the decision was made to scrap everything. It felt liberating.
Jack: “We’d started making an album that didn’t feel like us and when we took a step back from it, we realized the character and trademarks that we’d worked so hard on had been lost.”
“Bands used to spend five or six years making a handful of albums and you could see a gradual progression and once you got into one of them you could find four or five other ones that you liked. I hate it when I fall for a band and then realise they only have one record that sounds like the one I fell for. It’s usually because they’ve started to second-guess themselves or make concession to trends.”
Back in the UK in summer 2017, they immediately started over and with rediscovered confidence and momentum recorded a whole new album in just two weeks. The results convey something of that effortless spark as well as a reconnection with the bands’ innate Englishness.
This isn’t the midnight-black interior world of the third Velvets’ album (to which they’ve so often been compared); it’s a record that stretches out in different directions. One minute – on “Foul & Fair” – drawing from the 60s Brit-folk tradition of Fairport Convention, the next – on “I Am Your Gun” – channelling the luminous fairground psyche of the Pretty Things or Syd Barrett. It’s also the sound of a band obsessively honing their sound. They joke that it’s the most “Ultimate Paintingy” record they’ve ever made too. First single “Not Gonna Burn Myself Anymore” reflects that.
Jack: “I wrote it in one go and disregarded it as I thought it’d come too easy or that it was too much like something I’d obviously write. Over the next few days I kept singing it to myself. Sometimes the best songs are completely spontaneous and pure. I wrote the words to reflect that… not everything worthwhile has to be hard work.”
That’s not to say that just because it flowed easily, it lacks edge. A lot of the confusion and self-doubt that caused the first set of recordings to be scrapped reappears here in lyrical form.
Jack: “There’s a lot of anxiety on there, trying to make your way through life in the 21st century, trying to find meaningful connections with people. Most of my songs here are about isolation, feeling out of time or out of sync with the outside world”
James: “A lot of my songs on the record are about the depression that I suffered with; “Someone’s Out To Get You” is obviously very paranoid for example.
“I Am Your Gun” is different though. That song is about a show of solidarity towards someone. It’s not an aggressive thing. The first line is actually about Jack and the aftermath of the aborted record. It was a show of solidarity towards him. “I’ll stand by you…”
That spirit of solidarity saw them through the final jolt in the process of finishing this album. Having completed all the tracking, and armed for the first time with a recording budget, they decided to finish the record at Abbey Road.
What happened next is a testament to their typical single-mindedness and perfectionism. Having finished the tracking in the Beatles’ Studio 2 and spent two days mixing in Studio 3, they then immediately turned round and scrapped all the mixes. They finished them back at their base in North London.
Jack: “We were sat there mastering the record and we looked at each other. We both knew what we needed to do. The space had gone. The mastering engineer thought we were mad but we scrapped most of it. You could look at it as a massive waste of money but I prefer to look at it as just part of the process.”
When it was all finally done, though, they both realised all their tough decisions had been vindicated. Their best record to date, albeit the one that caused the most pain and indecision – they hope it will continue their steady ascent.
Jack Cooper: “If it ends tomorrow, I’d feel really good about the work we’ve done together. There’s a cohesion to it but most of all they’re records that we made of music that we wanted to hear. We don’t really have an agenda other than that.”