Glass Animals and the Art of Being Human
For their second LP singer Dave Bayley turned other people's stories into songs, and in doing so revealed a little something of himself.
All photos by Neil Krug
At the core of every great song is a great story, and if there’s anyone who’s hyperaware of this, it’s Dave Bayley, frontman of Oxford-based indie rock quartet Glass Animals. The band’s sophomore LP, How to Be a Human Being, is chock-full of stories that ground the listener in visceral scenes. Not that their 2014 debut album, Zaba, didn’t communicate clearly. But songs like the psychedelic, abstract “Gooey” (sample lyric: “Right, my little pooh bear / Wanna take a chance? / Wanna sip this smooth air, kick it in the sand?”) are a far cry from recent singles like “Life Itself," an urgent, hand-drum-driven anthem rooted firmly in day-to-day reality. On it, Bayley proclaims, “I can’t get a job / So I live with my mom / I take her money / But not quite enough / I sit in the car / And I listen to static / She said I look fat / But I look fantastic.”
Speaking to Bayley at New York's Hotel on Rivington, it almost doesn't add up that the soft-spoken singer sitting in front of me is also the larger-than-life narrator of "Life Itself." In a white-and-yellow baseball tee with a lock of curly chestnut hair drooping just above his eyes, the 27-year-old has a distinct boyish shyness to him, but he's animated too, constantly gesturing with his hands as he explains why Glass Animals—alongside guitarist Drew Macfarlane, bassist Edmund Irwin-Singer, and drummer Joe Seaward—have evolved so much. It’s just like Malcolm Gladwell posited: If they haven’t hit it already, the quartet must be edging toward the 10,000 hours tipping point—from writing together and performing together, and probably just existing in a small space together—that surely has to counts towards the “deliberate practice” quota too. Although they've known each other since grade school, it wasn’t until 2012 that they formed a band. Before the year was out they were scooped by producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence & The Machine, Bruno Mars) and signed to his boutique indie label, Wolf Tone. Glass Animals have spent more or less two years on the road, cementing the buzz of early singles, and in support of their full-length debut. “Gooey” went on to become one of Spotify’s top five global viral tracks of of the year, and the band made headway Stateside too, booking slots on Seth Meyers and David Letterman.
The influence of this period on the road was truly formative when it came to writing their follow-up. “This time around, we were much more comfortable committing to bolder, more extreme ideas,” explains Bayley. “[As we toured], we also found ourselves playing [Zaba] faster, and heavier and wilder than it [sounds] on the record. It was a natural response to the energy of the crowd. Subconsciously, I think we really came to appreciate that rawer sound. This record definitely reflects that.”
Moreover, many of the albums lyrics are directly pulled from the people they encountered on the road. The stories Bayley heard from relative strangers—fans, interviewers, party-goers—began to consume him: “About a year ago I started recording [people’s] stories secretly on my phone, just because I didn’t want to forget them. Some were heartbreaking, some were hilarious, some were just fucking disgusting. I listened back to all of them at the end of last year, and started to think about the way that people tell stories: the words they use… what may have lead them to share these things. There’s a story on the surface, but behind that story is the person telling it, and their whole life. That made me want to create my own characters and write my own stories with all of that in mind.”
Each song on How to Be a Human Being is from the point of view of a different character, and each character is inspired by these overheard stories (with some of Bayley’s personal experiences sprinkled in). But these vignettes extend far beyond the songs. The cover art is a portrait of the characters, all of whom are actors the band cast specifically for the roles and these actors also feature prominently in the album's music videos. The band also built physical rooms for each personality: “Sometimes it was their living room, where they worked, or their kitchen,” Bayley says. And it didn't stop there. Bayley opens his laptop to show a website built for the character in “Life Itself”—yes, the characters also have their own websites. Soon he’s clicking around on his desktop, pulling up a document filled with lyrics and photos of houses, and furniture, and clothes. He’s made digital storyboards for every character. Why? “I could get into their heads,” he says simply. “And it would help me compose the music and finish the production and the sonics. I wanted real people. I wanted people to be able to dig deeper into these characters and find ways to relate to them or hate them or feel something about them.”
It’s a feat Bayley feels he couldn’t accomplish writing only about himself. “Other people are incredible,” he says, “And I’d rather learn about them than go on some journey of self-discovery.” And yet in exploring the world through the prism of other's experiences, Bayley inadvertently reveals something of himself. He describes the man who inspired “Life Itself” as a “strange dude who spends lots of time alone in his room not socializing and becoming stranger.” He continues: “We all do that these days—or, at least I do!—just staying in and watching Netflix for a whole weekend… You forget what it’s like to speak to people. Then you go back into the world and you feel a bit out of place.”
Naturally, there are anecdotes and tales that didn’t make the cut. Bayley recalls one shockingly resonant encounter with a NYC taxi driver cruising past a club. “This driver—let’s call him Clive—said something like this: ‘I was in love with a girl called Loretta. She was the most beautiful girl at school, and I’d chased her for years. One day, she finally agreed to come on a date with me, and I was the happiest I’ve ever been. We double-dated with my best friend John and his long-term girl that night at this club, here. We smoked a bit of Mary Jane, and then went in and danced. It was basically my dream come true. We finished clubbing and came back to the car. John was in the front, with his girl in the passenger seat—and they started smoochin.’ I was in the back with Loretta… a man came and tapped on the windscreen. John and his girl looked up and rolled down the window to speak to the man, and he pulled his hand out of his pocket…’” Here, Bayley pauses. “‘And [he] shot John in the head. And then shot his girl in the head. He pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger, but the gun went click—he was out of bullets. The man just ran away.’”
We sit in silence for a beat. Bayley lets it linger. He’s delivered an unbelievably truly tragic tale with great poise and ease. Storytelling in one form or other is an art he's learning to master, and despite his shyness, he’s a deft public performer too—which he proves again a day later, lighting up a sold-out crowd at House of Yes (in Bushwick, Brooklyn). Commanding the stage is one of Bayley’s greatest strengths. These days it’s his favorite part of playing in the band. But Bayley will always sweat the details: he teases that when Glass Animals sets out on tour across North America and Europe this fall, they’ll debut some brand-new set designs inspired by Human Being’s weird and wonderful cast of characters. Of course. What else?
How to Be a Human Being is out today on Wolf Tone Records.
Avery Stone is a writer living in Brooklyn and you can follow her on Twitter.