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On Writing: Ellis Jones Takes Trust Fund Into Reflective Waters With 'Bringing The Backline'

Tuesday, 26 June 2018 Written by Huw Baines

History tells us that writers love to write about writers, and writing, and cafés, and corner tables in dive bars, and coffee and whiskey, and notebooks and typewriters, and muses and boyfriends and girlfriends and crushes.

On ‘Bringing The Backline’, the new Trust Fund record, Ellis Jones writes about writing. His music has always had a self-reflexive edge, but rarely has craft been such a preoccupation. He focuses on the why of things; crossing out his reservations about self-indulgence with songs that are sweet, sincere, romantic and fun. This is writing about writing with a raised eyebrow.

Throughout, he has eyes for two apparent ideals: the perfect person and the perfect tune. The record is a thorough investigation of what music means to Jones, in both a practical and personal sense, loosely framed as a competition for his affections. “All I’m saying is sometimes you hear a song, and it makes you think: ‘I know the person I wish I was with’,” he sings at one point.

There are frequent echoes of Paul Heaton’s work, both in the LP’s melody-at-any-cost approach and its nutmegging of sincere writer clichés. In 1988, Heaton wrote the words “I love you from the bottom of my pencil case,” for Dave Hemingway to deliver on the Beautiful South’s Song For Whoever. Thirty years later, Jones sings on The Mill: “A song I used to pique your interest, a song I used to gain your trust. Grist for the mill of lovers...” It’s as though he is taking a leaf from Heaton’s book to remind us that not all declarations of love come from bleeding hearts, and that fires can dim over time.

“It’s one of those things with getting a bit older and struggling to find music that makes you feel special,” Jones says over the phone, while out walking his dog. “That’s absolutely not to say that it isn’t out there, or ‘where are all the real rock ‘n’ roll bands?’, but there’s a certain time in your life when you feel that your emotions don’t go up and down as much in a way that means music can fill a drastically important role in your life.

“There’s that, but there’s also the gradual thing about being a bit tired of playing shows and feeling a bit unsure about what the point of being in a band is. Those are probably the main themes: what music is for, and what do I do music for? And, also, the extent to which it’s always been about narcissism, you know?”

Recorded with Patrick Hyland, Mitski’s touring guitarist and regular producer, ‘Bringing The Backline’ is being self-released on July 2, and was ushered into the world with a tweet that said, in part: “I have bit of a phobia of playing live, no desire to be more popular (in music).” 

Some US labels passed, while Jones discussed releasing the record with UK indies before deciding that it would be a little unfair to do so if Trust Fund remained a primarily non-touring concern. But a couple of days after uploading Carson McCullers, the LP’s fantastically hooky first single, to Bandcamp he watched in surprise as it was picked up by Pitchfork and Stereogum, among other outlets.

“Generally, the response has been good,” Jones says. “We recorded it properly and, to me, it’s the most radio-friendly thing we’ve done. And yet it’s the one we’ve decided to put out ourselves. It feels a bit silly. I was a bit afraid of it failing, and I think that’s part of self-releasing it, in a way. If you make this record that sounds poppy, if I self-release it the stakes aren’t so high that it can really fail.” He pauses for a second and adds, with a laugh: “Cowardice.”

Jones spent three weeks with Hyland at JT Soar in Nottingham in the spring of 2017, building these songs piece by piece. They had toured together when Trust Fund opened for Mitski the previous autumn, and Hyland took a copy of ‘We Have Always Lived in the Harolds’, Jones’s self-recorded 2016 pop curio, away with him. “He felt like the songs didn’t play to their strengths or something like that,” Jones says. “I’m quite precious about that record, but I guess I took his point. It was a deliberate thing this time to try and show that they were pop songs.”

The idea that any Trust Fund record has contained songs that couldn’t broadly be termed pop is open for debate, but ‘Bringing The Backline’ is certainly Jones’s most ebullient, spick-and-span work to date. When compared to ‘Seems Unfair’, which was recorded with MJ of Hookworms at Suburban Home in Leeds, it makes that album look staunchly indie-rock by comparison. Its full band feel, though, is slightly deceptive.

“Patrick has a tendency towards maximalism and layering, which I think he’s really skilled at,” Jones says. Several regular collaborators subbed in and out during recording, but the album’s Jenga tower of peppy synths and piercing guitar lines, along with its drums, largely have only two sets of fingerprints on them. When their three weeks were up, Hyland decamped with songs that were almost there. And they stayed that way for a while.

“I think we worked hard, but a lot of it was just me and Patrick,” Jones says. “So it was one thing at a time and writing parts quite slowly. He went back with a record that was recorded, pretty much. But it was not really arranged in some ways. He goes back to the US and he’s got a Mitski record to finish, and he’s her touring guitarist as well.

"They’ve toured with, like, Pixies and Lorde, so he’s had less and less time. The record ended up taking an extra year, really, to mix and finish up. Some of the extra guitars he did at his house in New York. It took a long time, all round.”

A byproduct of this drawn-out conclusion is that the songs on ‘Bringing The Backline’ are around 18 months old. That gap has changed Jones’s view of them, and it also played a role in his uncertainty about how best to release this record. “Even though we haven’t really played them live, they do feel like quite old songs,” he says. “It feels slightly embarrassing. Some of the lyrics I’m like, ‘I wouldn’t write that now’, which is not to say that I think they’re terrible, but they don’t feel like me at the moment.”

That perhaps applies more closely to asides that are ostensibly personal than it does Jones’s feelings about music. The record’s discussions of band fatigue, inferiority complexes, waning thrills, and the longevity and importance of DIY spaces still ring true. But, from the outside, its many digressions about meeting new people, dashing off into the sunset, and the buzz of daydreaming about the person you like also land with a wistful, satisfying bump.

‘Bringing The Backline’ began life in a narrative arc before being chopped up and rearranged. In its finished form it unfolds like a collection of vivid moments, with Jones’s knack for specifics grounding the listener in the world that the songs inhabit. This is another element of the record that feels like he is writing about writing, with recurring musical and lyrical motifs popping up.

The ‘girls in the group chat’ are a Greek chorus of sorts on Carson McCullers and King of CM (a welcome support network on the first song, exciting outside voices after a first meeting on the second), while Jones is often on the move. He thinks while walking, spies buses that could transport him somewhere new and mysterious, takes a train past familiar sights, and traces the flow of rivers under bridges that swing open to allow boats to pass. The cumulative effect is feeling like you’re along for the ride, but not necessarily taking part. “When going for a run you ask what music you should listen to, I don’t know,” he sings on Embarrassing. “Pavement, maybe?”

“I don’t think someone could work out what was going on in my life from the record,” Jones says. “Maybe it’s the number of observational details in there being just that. They are moments, but they don’t necessarily tell you how my last six months have been. At this point that’s maybe just the way I write: finding lines that I think are funny or pithy. That might be stuff that’s made up as well. I’m not worried about that sort of authenticity if the line is a nice line. I’ve got quite a limited imagination, though, so usually it’s based on something that’s happened.”

A major pitfall with this sort of exercise is that end results can feel clinical. It’s form and meaning, not form or meaning. ‘Bringing The Backline’ works because we can see the care and attention that went into the record. From Jones finding a melodic cadence in the initialism PCSO to the tiered harmonies of Blue X, these are pop songs by someone in love with the idea of pop songs.

The attendant doubts and anxieties are the other side of that coin; the truth that adds shades of grey to Technicolor hooks. “I’ve been let down, I’ve been hurt,” Jones sings on Alexandra. “By bands that sounded like the future, but then weren’t.” Trust Fund’s future will perhaps always be up in the air due to the pressures and vagaries of real life, but these songs feel vital in the here and now.

‘Bringing The Backline’ is out on July 2.

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