When the UK duo Nai Harvest first appeared on Bandcamp in 2011, they were among a growing movement of youngsters channeling the scorched-throat, nimble-fingered Midwest emo of Mineral and American Football. But as singer/guitarist Ben Thompson and drummer Lew Currie pursued their muse, it carried them away from their twinkly, bilious roots to the point that less than three years later, their punchy new Hold Open My Head EP sounds like the work of an entirely different band. The new and improved Nai Harvest draws from shoegaze, indie, and straight-up alt-rock touchstones as much as the emo scene they sprung from, and it boasts some of the most exhilarating guitar-based songwriting you’ll hear this year.
Hold Open My Head arrives at the peak of the ’90s revival and at a time when interest in throwback emo bands is on the rise, but Nai Harvest intends to outlast whatever wave they happen to be riding. They’re benefitting from a timely sound right now, but they’re well aware of how quickly fads come and go. Fortunately, Thompson and Currie have already proven their ability to evolve, and their music is becoming far too substantial to be catalogued away as part of a fleeting nostalgia craze. During a jovial Skype conversation last week, they discussed their apprehension about outgrowing their original style, learning to sound huge as a two-piece, their touring and recording plans, and why aligning with Topshelf Records is such a coup for a UK band.
STEREOGUM: I thought we could start off with a little backstory on how you guys started playing together.
BEN THOMPSON: We started the band in 2011. There was a little lineup difference. I started this band with my friend Jake and another guy named Sammy and we were just pissing around. Then Sammy moved away and Jake had a full-time job, so we never really did anything. We did a demo and played three shows and then we were ready to call it quits. But I knew Lew from other bands and just being around Sheffield shows and the punk scene. So we hung out and thought “This is cool,” and we carried on from there. I think us being a real band starts from the time that happened. What happened before with the three of us was just messing around in my friend’s bedroom. When we put out that Feeling Better 7-inch, that was the first thing we put out on vinyl or any format so that was our first real thing. We’ve been doing stuff ever since.
STEREOGUM: So this EP that you just put out — are those songs that have been accumulating for a while, or are those all kind of newer songs?
LEW CURRIE: All new songs. It’s almost like a fresh start, a completely new sound.
THOMPSON: Yeah, we were thinking that the Feeling Better 7-inch and the Whatever album as a “twiddly”-style emo band. Then, with Whatever we tried to break away from that but I don’t think we were brave enough to do it. We put a lot more chords in it and there were not as many twiddly riffs — it was more chord-y and the vocals were a little softer, but we still didn’t go all out. After the album, we went “fuck it” and do what we wanted to do for ages and be a fuzzy, indie band with some emo influences but not necessarily an “emo band.” So we just got braver and just fucking went for it. We wrote all the songs for the EP last year between July and September and recorded them in October. So three months, but we were on tour for most of the time, so it was just in between tours that we’d get together and just write the stuff. I listen to the old stuff now and I hate it so much. I just want to play the new songs. We wrote a couple new songs towards an album that are a similar vibe and have maybe even pushed further into that sound.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned inching your way towards this sound and eventually saying, “Fuck it, we’re just going to go all out and do it.” Why did you feel apprehensive about changing it?
CURRIE: I think it was because we weren’t really sure if we’d have any fans. If we changed, we thought we would lose everything.
THOMPSON: Basically, everyone liked the twiddly stuff we did.
CURRIE: Even when we put the album out, people were saying that it wasn’t twiddly.
THOMPSON: People were. We put the album out and it was sort of an indie rock/emo sort of thing. It wasn’t like American Football, which is what the first one was more like. We put more guitar pedals and distortion and cut a lot of the guitar stuff out — there’s still some in there, but nowhere near as much as previous. People were annoying, saying that it wasn’t twiddly enough anymore, and we were like, “I don’t know if I want to be pigeonholed as being a twiddly emo band.” It pissed me off. I hated that.
CURRIE: I think that’s one of our main things — we don’t want to be pigeon-holed as anything. I think we try to keep our genre as wide as we can. We play hardcore shows, we play indie shows, we play emo shows.
THOMPSON: That’s what we like most. We played a massive hardcore festival. We played with bands like Caldwell and Turnstile, all the hardcore bands that are out in New York and Brooklyn. We’ve played with all those bands. But we’ve also played with indie bands like Cloud Control, even synth pop bands and stuff. We also play with emo bands like Modern Baseball. I like that we can cross borders. Even more with the new stuff, I think we can really do that. I don’t know why we were scared. We were just like, “We wrote this 7-inch and people liked it, and if we make something different, people are going to hate it and we’re going to have to be like, ’Fuck this, we’re not a very good band.’” I think doing the 7-inch gave me a lot more confidence in my writing. Now the next album is going to be wacky as shit because I feel like we can do anything. Not too crazy, but I think we’ll be able to do a little bit more.
CURRIE: The most important thing is doing it for ourselves. If they like it, they like it.
THOMPSON: A lot of people have already said that they don’t like Hold Open My Head, but most people have said it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. You’re always going to get those people that hate the new stuff.
STEREOGUM: You talked about not wanting to be pigeonholed, and I know you released that statement about the EP — “This isn’t a grunge record, this isn’t an emo record, this isn’t a ’90s revival record.” Do you feel like you’ve been stuck inside of labels?
THOMPSON: The statement for me was more based on the “emo revival” thing.
CURRIE: It’s kind of cool that we timed it right.
THOMPSON: We accidentally have fallen into it. If I was a journalist and I saw that there were these emo bands coming up out of nowhere, I would 100 percent write about that because it’s interesting. It’s good that everyone is writing about it because there’s nothing else to write about. Being in a band that gets pigeonholed into that emo revival thing even though you’ve been around for three years… More than anything, I don’t want this emo revival thing to be really big in 2013, 2014 and then in 2015 there’s like a shoegaze revival and no one gives a shit about us anymore. We just don’t want to be a 2014 fashion band. We’ve been doing this for three years, we’ll probably be doing this in a few more years time, and I don’t want to be picked up as an emo band in 2014 and then thrown on the floor when it’s not a trendy thing to like or talk about anymore. Emo has been there since the ’90s, and it’s never stopped — it just has its ups and downs. It’s at an all-time high at the moment, and we’re happy to be on that. But that’s mostly what the statement was about. Some of the new songs are kind of grungy, but it is still emo in a way, but it is indie as well, and it has shoegaze bits in it too and whatever. I just didn’t want to be pigeonholed as being a ’90s band in 2014 because it’s cool to do that. We didn’t do it because it was cool, we did it because that’s what came out when we wrote it. We were just like, “We’re going to write whatever comes out,” and that’s how it came out sounding the way it did. That’s what the statement was about, just being pigeonholed into this little trend. We didn’t want to be the 2014 trendy band and then fucked off when it’s not cool anymore.
STEREOGUM: I haven’t gotten to see you in concert yet, but I was wondering what the live show is like. Is it just the two of you? Do you have as full of a sound live?
CURRIE: I think we’re getting better at it. When we first did it as a two-piece, we didn’t know what we were doing.
THOMPSON: Three years ago, we had no idea. I just played through a tiny guitar amp and had a tuner pedal and that was it, and we just hit everything really hard. It sounded so tinny. But now we’ve kind of nailed it.
CURRIE: Yeah, there’s ways to make it sound like a full band.
THOMPSON: A lot of people have said that our live shows sound like there’s more than two of us. It’s all an illusion because I play through two guitar amps and a bass amp all wired together so I’ve got the bass and I’m got a splitter pedal that controls the low end and the high end. I can turn off the low end anytime and I can turn off the high end anytime. I’ve got eight pedals that change the sound of my guitar depending on what part of the song it is. I’m going to buy an equalizer pedal — I’ve not got it yet, but that’s the next thing so I can equalize the bass and the guitar separately, so they’re on two completely different wavelengths, so it sounds like there is a bassist there but it’s all coming from one guitar. It’s essentially just nerdy guitar tech shit that makes it happen.
CURRIE: I don’t even worry about it. [laughter]
THOMPSON: Because if I turned up and played through one guitar amp, it would sound terrible but playing through two amps and then splitting signals… All it is is nerdy shit.
CURRIE: We have talked about getting a bassist for tours and stuff but…
THOMPSON: I don’t know if I like that idea. We had a talk about getting our friend to play bass for us and our other friend to play rhythm guitar and stand in the back just for bigger tours and bigger venues. But then I didn’t really want shows where it was just us two and then shows where it wasn’t just us two. It’s inconsistent. It should be either all or nothing. We’ve pretty much got our sound down. When we did our tour with Gnarwolves, we were at 400 cap venues with real sound guys and not just in a crappy basement, and that was our first real taste of doing 14 shows that were all legitimately sound guy and mic’d up. I think we got comfortable with just asking the sound guy what we wanted. At first, I felt nervous to say, “Can I have more bass?” Now I’m just like, “More bass, less vocals, pound the guitar.” I just tell them now and be sort of rude about it because that’s what we need to sound like.
CURRIE: I think it sounds good.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think it sounds good live. Hopefully you get to see it sometime soon.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I was wondering about that. I see European dates on your Bandcamp but do you have U.S. plans?
THOMPSON: Yeah, we have plans. I don’t want to say too much because it’s all still in the works, but Greg from Topshelf, who books everything, is working really hard to get us on a tour over there. He’s had a few tour offers already that have not worked with our timeline. For example, we got offered a tour when we were on tour in England already. And we got offered another tour that didn’t really suit us at all, so we said no to it. That was like six weeks in the US, but it was with a band that just doesn’t suit our sound very much, and we didn’t want to go on tour with a band that sounds nothing like us because it was just weird for us. October is meant to be the time that we’re doing it. We’ve got a couple of shows confirmed already, and we’ve got a show here and a show here and then work around that on the East Coast. We’ve got a band that said they want do it with us, and Greg’s trying to get a third one so it’d be like a three-band tour package. We’ll be opening every night on our first time to America with two bigger bands for about three weeks.
STEREOGUM: What about album plans? I know you said you’ve written a couple songs.
THOMPSON: We really want to push to get something out in the new year if we can.
CURRIE: As early as possible.
THOMPSON: We’re a couple of songs into the album right now, but we still have about eight more to write. We need to find time to sit down and do it since we tour so much and actually write.
CURRIE: We live in different cities, so it’s a lot harder to write.
THOMPSON: The cities are only an hour apart. I live in Manchester and Lew lives in Sheffield. But we have jobs to do and personal lives and touring as well. We try to figure out time to practice for two days and it’s like, “Aw, no, I’ve got work,” or something. We just have to find it. We’ve set down a week or so just to write. I want to announce it around Christmas, ideally.
CURRIE: What I’m worried about is that it seems like too long of a gap. The 7-inch is already out now.
THOMPSON: That’s like eight months. We can let that ride. We can let a 7-inch ride for eight months, can’t we?
STEREOGUM: I can’t predict how buzz waxes and wanes, but I like it so much that I’ll be ready for the album whenever it comes.
THOMPSON: And to be fair, we’re touring so much this year that the buzz is going to hopefully continue just by touring. We have got a new song that we’ve recorded that’s going to be a single, so we’ll put that out between now and September. One song is better than no song. That’s coming out at the end of April or the beginning of May. That’ll be something that will keep people going. Then we’ll probably record the album in November, have it announced in December, and out by January 2015 realistically. That sounds so far away but realistically that’s how long it will take.
STEREOGUM: How did you get hooked up with each of your labels, Dog Knights and Topshelf?
CURRIE: There’s a few select labels in the UK that are of a certain level and all of them were kind of interested to do Feeling Better. Dog Knights originally wanted to do our album but didn’t have the money at the time, so we went to them straight away, and we’re good friends with them.
THOMPSON: Yeah, the guy that owns the label [Darren Harvey] is one of our best mates now. He’s really involved in the band. He’s not just like a label head who is like, “Oh, we’re going to press 500 more records. There’s the money.” Everything we do we run by him — not because we need approval, just because. He helps a lot with merch. He’s a businessman. He’s really good and he loves it. He’s really involved with the band, and he’s someone we always want to keep with us. Dog Knights is such a big label — it’s them, Tangled Talk, or Big Scary Monsters and you’re on one of the three of those. Regardless of our future, we’d always want Darren to be working with us because he’s such a good dude and a good friend. We only get to see him every now and again because he’s in Brighton, but we talk all the time. We’ll stick with Dog Knights because he’s rad. Topshelf, I went to Fest last year and met up with the guys then and talked to Kevin a couple of times before and had sent him an e-mail asking if he had heard of our band because I’m just cheeky. I just did it because you don’t get if you don’t ask, so I was just like, “For fuck’s sake, I’m just going to send an e-mail.” So I sat down and wrote out this really formal e-mail that was really nice and kissass-y, and he replied back saying, “Oh yeah, we’ve heard of you. We play your records in the studio all the time.” And then when I saw him at the fest, we had the songs recorded already and I just showed them to him and asked him if he liked them and he said, “I like them a lot.” And then I basically pinned him down and said, “Do the 7-inch then.” And he said they’d do it.
CURRIE: Yeah, there was literally a period of about two months where we were just waiting for an e-mail.
THOMPSON: Yeah, he had said that he was going to talk to Seth and that he’d e-mail us. After I flew back to England, I couldn’t pin him down again so we had to wait.
CURRIE: We didn’t really have many options for an American label, but we really wanted one for this new 7-inch.
THOMPSON: And Topshelf is a label that we both really like and have liked for a long time. I’ve been buying their stuff for like five years. Me five years ago is screaming right now and so happy. It’s really weird because everyone in the UK is congratulating us on it because I guess it’s kind of like a big deal.
CURRIE: It’s probably way bigger here than it is in the US. Or people think it’s bigger here.
THOMPSON: Yeah, people in the UK really look to Topshelf and Run For Cover to share the bands from America that are fucking awesome. There’s barely any UK bands on those labels. There’s Basement on Run For Cover, and I think that’s the only one, or at least that I know of. And then Crash Of Rhinos on Topshelf, and then they broke up, so now we’re the only UK band. The UK uses Topshelf to listen to cool American bands, and you’d never think that they’d sign a UK band. I didn’t expect it either because I thought they only signed American bands. It’s a big deal for us. They took two months to get back to us too — I think they did it on purpose. [laughs] I think they left us waiting. I didn’t even pester them. I wrote so many draft e-mails and never sent them. Finally, one day I woke up, and I was hungover as shit because I had been out the night before, and I looked at my phone and had an e-mail from Topshelf. I thought, “I’m hung over and feel like I’m going to be sick. If this says no, I’m going to cry and buy a bottle of wine.” But it said yes. It was 10 a.m., and I had to go to university, and I was happy all day. That was really cool for us. We’re working with them on our album as well, so it’s really great. They do a hell of a lot for us in terms of PR in America, and Greg helps us book tours over there because he books for them. He’s there working his ass off trying to get us on tour with bands in America. It isn’t easy. It seems to be so much easier for US bands to tour England because there’s been so many DIY tours. We have a good music scene in England — it’s small and everyone knows each other in terms of emo and indie. So when bands like Football etc. from the US e-mail and ask to tour, I get an e-mail saying, “Oh, will you do the Manchester show or the Sheffield show?” And we all just say yes because we really want to see those bands. Whereas UK bands coming to America seems to be a little bit harder because you’ve got so many good bands in America to already see and so much choice and it’s so fucking big. You already have everything you need.
CURRIE: I don’t know how true this is but I was talking to some of our friends in America recently and they were telling me that we’d find it difficult because not many people care if you’re from the UK, it matters more who the band is. Whereas here if they’re from America, people are like, “Oh yeah, let’s go and see them.”
THOMPSON: For example, if there was a UK band playing down the road and they weren’t very good, we’d probably be like, “Oh, I’m probably not going to go see them.” But if it was an American band that wasn’t that good, we’d say, “Oh, I should probably go see them because they’re American and they came all this way.” There’s a really good attitude towards that in the UK. “I might not love them that much but they came over here so I may as well go see them to say I saw them.” Whereas our friend said it wasn’t much like that in the US. I don’t know how true that is but that’s what he said. Getting to America is something we’ve wanted to do for years and this is the year to do it.