The future is now: Songwriter John Armstrong on the Speed of Sound’s new album ‘The Museum of Tomorrow’
I met John some years ago when his inventive and long-lasting band the Speed of Sound and my Kite Collectors played the same bill in Manchester. He is a fascinating man with a remarkable insight into music history and concepts. Although we could talk for hours about all manner of subjects, our conversation this time concentrated on the new album ‘the museum of tomorrow.’
This album is great concept in which each song represents an exhibit in a future museum of sound and innovation. It is an outstanding set of songs and as a wonderful body of work. I found it uplifting. A wonderful mix of psychedelia and rock opera. Jangling guitars, thumping bass and solid drumming. Ann-Marie Crowley’s vocals are soaring and confident and when mixed with John’s distinctive singing the listener is offered a rich sound. Above all the speed of sound have created melodic, catchy songs that will fare well in the museum of all our tomorrows.
Why the museum of tomorrow?
when I’m writing an album I kind of see it as an album and I’m thinking about it not just the songs themselves but what the sleeves going to look like and what the label on the inside will look like and what kind of name for this thing is gonna be. I have friends in exotic places and stayed in Rio a couple of times and there is a museum of tomorrow there. It’s like a new museum and it’s kind of funky and loads of interactive stuff and it’s also quite expensive so I didn’t go in; but I just really like the concept. Long ago I was going to do a postgraduate degree in museum curatorship, my first voluntary job was at the museum, and that this kind of thing it kind of sticks with you. It’s the whole concept of past present and future existing in one moment. It’s not quite linear because we’re travelling through it and tomorrow will end up in a museum and it has ended up in a museum and it just struck me as a really good title. It coincided with a lot of the things that I was writing about at the time. Some of these songs were written on Copa Cabana beach because when you’re sitting there and you’re watching everything. I had pencil and paper and had a bit of time and it just all came together.
Is this a rock opera?
I think the short answer to that is probably ‘yes’. The long answer is the whole thing was conceived as album. Yes, I was writing individual songs, but I knew they were kind of going to fit together thematically on the album. I definitely wanted it to have an entity of its own and to exist as an album rather than just be a bunch of songs but don’t know if it’s in the same way as something with direct story or an operatic line.
Some of the titles are quite dark but I find the work to be really uplifting – was that intended?
It’s just a thing that I tend to do, it’s probably my natural way of writing. There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there and it’s difficult if you are in that conversation to just write about flowers and butterflies and stuff. You’ve gotta have that optimism ultimately though to think ‘yes, this is bleak but we can get through it.’ There are dark themes going on in the album but they’re dealt with in a playful way and brings the element of joy to it.
What is your writing process?
I always start with the lyrics. I’m trying to match words to an existing tune I just get garbage and I can’t do it that way round, so I start off with the lyrics. I’ll put the music to it later so that kind of two separate tasks. In Portugal in October 2019, I wrote 16 songs that week that had just been in my head. I’ve got a notebook where if I need to write anything down, I’ll just put it in there. It’ll be working its way through and percolating so that when I’ve got the space and the time, they just come out 3 or 4 daily sometimes. But then they’ll be months when I don’t write anything. With the lyrics and tune I’ll take that into rehearsal and the rest of the band do that sprinkling of fairy dust on it and yeah it comes out completely different. The thing about this album is it finished pretty much exactly as I’d imagined it the first time round when it was fixing itself together. The introduction of keyboards is the new thing this time round, Henry has been playing keys for years. He trained as an improviser and that gave an extra layer of character to it and helped with the linking aspects between.
So, you’re essentially writing poetry that you later put to music?
I’ll have a melody in my mind normally but it’s shapes and patterns rather than actual music, I try to leave that aspect kind of blank and then once it’s all there I get music that fits the feel of the song. Once I know what that is, it’s kind of a structure – but yeah, it’s essentially poetry first. It’s a kind of architectural structure for it – to be mildly pompous – musically I’m an improviser. I find it quite difficult to play songs with riffs in because my brain says: ‘you’ve done that before do something different this time’ and I do. It’s just my fingers do not want to play the same way. I’m not thinking insert bars and measures or even phrases, I’m looking way further ahead and building a bigger structure dynamic within it. Sometimes it can be a bit difficult trying to explain to somebody when they’re asking traditional questions
This really works as an album, it knits together lovely as one piece, but I also enjoyed going back and listening to songs individually.
It was entirely conceived as a natural album; but if you put it on shuffle that will still join together. I was very conscious that it was going to be vinyl at the time that we were actually putting it together and you are limited to 19 minutes and 20 seconds per side. We went four seconds over on side one. The pressing house said 4 seconds on one side is OK, the only reason we got that is because I thought they’d said 19.30. We squeezed some of the songs a little bit just to get that maximum usage out of the album.
What’s your favourite song?
The moods vary so much, it’s kind of difficult because it depends which ones playing. I think shadow factory is one of the most ambitious ones. Virtual Reality (Part 2) was ambitious too. None of the verses are the same in virtual reality the chords are actually different for each verse. It sounds constantly moving but it doesn’t feel as if it moves as much as it does. That was the complete intention when we set off – it was like a dirty trick I was playing on myself.
My personal favourites on this album are Opium Eyes, a fast-paced ride with some lovely harmonies that felt reminiscent of the mammas and pappas. Smokescreen is a catchy singalong – imagine Pete Townshend got the B-52’s and Mike Nesmith to write a song for Tommy…but know full well this is John and the band at their height. Leaf Blower – has an amazing vocal punch from Ann Marie and some clear blues/funk guitar riding on thumping bass and steady drumming. As ever, the lyrics are great. One to have on repeat in the car. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a radio friendly work of beauty in construction and concept. The keys on this track are fantastic, measured, subtle and distinctive. Ok, I’ll confess – this is my favourite track on the album.
Buy this album, listen to it in one piece from end to end – then go back and do it again.
Buy HERE now
Interview By Robby Allen