A.S. comprises Australian pianist & lead singer Nick McRoberts, and Algerian lead guitarist Idriss Halfaoui; Exile is the follow-up to their 2010 debut album Intimate Circles. It’s an album that often melds malaise and detachment into something darkly wonderful, channeling early Radiohead and sounding at times like a less synth-fuelled Keane.
During the album’s recording Nick was going through the process of a divorce whilst Idriss had some serious health issues. I was lucky enough to catch up with the band to ask them some questions about their new album…
Benji Taylor : Hey guys. Well done on the new album! I’m dying to know… What’s the inspiration behind the band’s name “A.S.“?
Nick McRoberts : Hmmm. This is going to be disappointing… but I can’t actually say. I mean it does have an important meaning but only members of the band know. It’s a bit of a secret… A kind of a blood oath thing and Idriss will kill me literally if I give you the scoop!
BT : Listening to Exile I hear echoes of early Radiohead, Coldplay, The National and Keane. Who are the band’s three greatest influences?
NM : Well you’re pretty much bang on. Those bands are all big references for us. I’d maybe just add Crowded House, Travis and VAST. But we listen to lots of other stuff too that you don’t hear so much in our music – Idriss listens to metal through to flamenco with stop offs at Pink Floyd and Supertramp. And I listen to classical and lots of practically unknown singer songwriters. But in terms if the sound world we’re going for… Early Radiohead with a little Coldplay and Muse would be our goal.
BT : How autobiographical are the lyrics on this album? They seem to have been heavily informed by Nick’s divorce… Nick, have you found love again since?
NM : Damn these questions are good! The quick answer to both questions is yes. But what I love about writing is you can take some really shit experiences and turn them into something good. I was listening to [album track] Pleasure and Pain just the other day and remembering the circumstances in which I wrote it. That was a pretty shit period. But the song, even for me, seems to get a bit above all that. The best revenge in a way is to be able to say that was a really shitty patch but here, look, now it’s a song. I’m over it. I can sing about it. Almost like therapy…
BT : The term ‘exile’ conjures up a lot of varied connotations. My impression was that it referred to exile from the woman that Nick was divoring- is that a correct interpretation? If not, can you explain what this exile refers to?
NM : Sure. It’s about that absolutely! But it’s also about my personal experience of living abroad for almost 15 years. And more generally about the pain of setting off on a journey of discovery, looking for something, never finding it and then realising that you can’t find the way home again because that place and time doesn’t exist anymore. Bittersweet knowledge that living your life the way you want cuts you off from all the other choices you might have made. And of course about lost love. There’s a great expression in French which translates roughy as “one person missing and the world seems uninhabited…”
BT : The two of you have been through some tough times – the divorce and the illness. A lot of that has seemingly seeped into the record… Do you feel the bad times have strengthened your songwriting and provided an outlet for the pain?
NM : I hope it’s strengthened the song writing. And yes, it’s definitely an outlet for the pain. During that period, the hours in the studio were pretty much the only good ones. A friend was saying yesterday that she would have liked to hear me break down a little more vocally… I get what she means but we were really trying to do the opposite and just hold it together! That’s why there’s almost a certain restraint about most of the songs. And I think we have made a progress in songwriting from our first album Intimate Circles.
BT : How have the times you’ve been through impacted your friendship?
NM : I guess when you’ve been through enough shit you don’t even need to talk much anymore. If Idriss needs my help he knows it’s a given and vice versa. And touring and recording makes you close too. More like brothers in the end than friends…
BT : There are some dark lyrics on the album and a lot of self-doubt. Nick, are you a melancholic person by nature? What do you in your spare time outside of music?
NM : [Laughs] I’m actually quite optimistic! But I like to write about the hard knocks and the melancholy. I think it makes better music. Some of the music that is most important to me, like the Bach G Major Cello Suite, seems to me to say life is short and brutal and unfair, but still there’s beauty in most of it. But often that beauty is fleeting or bittersweet. So that’s where I like to go musically. Outside of music I like renovating apartments, surfing and playing a little video games.
BT : Idriss, are you well now? Do you think that the things you went through helped inspire the “god you only live once!” attitude that seems to manifest itself on [album track] Why The Hell Not?
Idriss Halfaoui : Yes I’m much better, thanks. You could even say the worst is past and I’m out of the woods. It all just reinforced my certainty that you only live once and that you need to profit a maximum. So… leave my comfortable home and travel miles and miles to perform our music? Yes, and why the hell not… Leave everything else behind and just make music…. Why the hell not?
BT : Nick, there are some great lyrics on the album. What’s the greatest lyric that you have ever written?
NM : My favourite so far is in the chorus of Invisible Kiss – “And I feel your hair, as it brushes my skin, but there’s no one there, just the ghosts within”. That still conjures up that particular autobiographical moment with a sick feeling in the pit if your stomach when you snap out if a daydream and realise where you are and remember.
BT : For all the malaise on Exile I am sure you guys have had some fun times on the road together… What’s the funniest A.S. story from your time in music?
NM : There are quite a few possibilities involving bass players in the boot of a car or playing a venue that transformed into an underground swingers’ bar after our set! But the one that comes readily to mind was in Scotland doing some scouting for the photo shoot- the sleeve notes were all shot in West Scotland- and the night when the two of us were uncharacteristically camping and I discovered to my horror that what the French call a “summer tent” means a non-waterproof tent! I mean seriously! Literally 98 mosquitoes bites later, Idriss grudgingly let me share his tent until a wet dawn emerged and we trudged off in horizontal rain looking for a proper hotel!
BT : Haha! Ok…. The band are exiled on a desert island with one album released from before the year 2000 and one album released since the year 2000 – what would they be, and why?
NM : Pre 2000 : Jeff Buckley Grace. That album is perfect. Andy Wallace does things with the mix that still don’t seem possible even today. And Buckley’s voice… well. Not good for singers to listen too long to him or we all get a bit suicidal! Post 2000 is harder. I think I’d go for Agnes Obel Philharmonics. It’s rich and sophisticated and at the same time just works on a first listen. She’s also awesome live…
AH : The question is far too hard! Firstly because before 2000 there are lots of excellent discs and secondly because I am not really up to date with everything that’s happened since… But if I have to choose one from before 2000 I would say Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses and after 2000 I would say Des visages des figures by the French group Noir Désir.
BT : Are there any other bands you’d recommend people to check out at the moment?
NM : Yeah there’s never been so much cool stuff out there. Jericho’s first solo album. The band Sheeduz. Relay’s debut album. Benjamin Francis Leftwich. Lisa Hannigan. Matt Roberts. Owen. Princess One Point Five! Lots of stuff!
BT : Gents – thanks a lot. I look forward to catching you on the tour! Best of luck with this album!