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Less Matrix, More Truman Show: Inside the Sci-Fi Hardcore of We Never Learned to Live

Wednesday, 22 May 2019 Written by Matt Mills

It’s two hours until We Never Learned to Live are set to take the stage for the release show of their second album, ‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’. The doors to the Black Heart—one of London’s most iconic metal venues—are about to open. A small group of fans have already amassed outside, braving the elements on a harsh, drizzly evening in order to rush in and headbang the cold away.

“We did a release show for our first album, too, back in Brighton,” vocalist Sean Mahon remembers while eyeing the ever-growing queue from the warmth of his band’s tour van. “It was a pretty decent turnout for a hometown show, but this feels a lot bigger.”

We Never Learned to Live haven’t played a UK show in almost a year. For a lot of the people huddled outside, this will be their first time experiencing the sci-fi-tinged resonance of one of the most promising post-hardcore bands in the country.

“I think that they should expect us to bring an organic atmosphere,” Mahon adds. “We’re not this really crazy, heavy band; it’s very rare that people mosh to our sets. Our sound is more introverted and contemplative.”

Officially, We Never Learned to Live have been pumping out avant-garde, gritty-yet-ambient anthems for almost six years, starting with their self-titled EP in 2013. However, the band’s backstory actually dates back far further than that.

Mahon, guitarist Brett Houslop, bassist Mark Portnoi and drummer Gary Marsden have been making music together for at least a decade, jumping through numerous bands and projects in Brighton’s bustling hardcore underbelly. In 2012, the quartet christened themselves If Heroes Should Fail and released an EP called ‘First Light’: the first rung on the ladder to underground success.

Despite not being as sophisticated as their later material, the six-track release hinted at a number of future We Never Learned to Live pillars, like chord-driven punk guitar work and shoegaze-inspired segues. “That EP was the basis of what became We Never Learned to Live, except it was more grounded and slightly more metal,” Mahon says, stroking his long, blond moustache as he does so.

“I wince listening back to it because my vocal technique was absolutely diabolical. It was when I was first trying to get into heavier vocals and I was just doing it all wrong. I hate it but, instrumentally, it is a great EP.”

Despite Mahon’s retrospective distaste for it, he can’t deny that ‘First Light’ made its mark. Off the back of it, If Heroes Should Fail were able to tour, support other local bands and even nab one or two high-profile festival slots. The band added second guitarist David Kane to their ranks but, having matured beyond the metallic angst of ‘First Light’, soon found themselves itching to rebrand once again.

“We brought Dave on board, played one show with him and, after that, we all just hated the name,” Mahon says. The newly minted five-piece used the line-up change as an excuse to rebuild. They chose the moniker ‘We Never Learned to Live’, citing a love of bands like Alexisonfire and I Built the Sky, whose names “tell a story”.

Armed with this fresh start, We Never Learned to Live quickly got to work on a self-titled EP. The debut was a more patient effort than ‘First Light’, bolstered by nine-minute songs that ebbed and flowed between sweetness and dissonance. It didn’t take long for it to draw the ears of independent (and much-loved) alternative label Holy Roar.

“The self-titled EP was fucking crazy!” Mahon grins. “We were supporting a lot of Holy Roar’s bands at that time, like Bastions and Goodtime Boys. The label came up to us after a show and said, ‘That was awesome! We’d love to do a proper album.’”

That album materialised in mid-2015, in the form of ‘Silently, I Threw Them Skyward’. As We Never Learned to Live’s first full-length, it continued the masterful musical back-and-forth of their EP, but reaped the benefits of having even more time and songs to play with. It was also given added focus by Sean’s tighter and more metaphorical songwriting, which—even to this day—conveys dark, personal messages via the medium of science-fiction stories.

“I didn’t put too much thought into it,” the singer says of his space-age lyricism. “At the time, I was just watching and reading a whole load of sci-fi. Before that, my lyrics were raw and personal. They still are, but now I can frame them with interesting imagery, instead of just, ‘My life fucking sucks.’”

We Never Learned to Live’s exploration of dynamic post-hardcore continues on ‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’. It’s a 45-minute odyssey through clashing, wave-like soundscapes that occasionally dissipate into soothing quietness. Whether it’s with the concise Luma/Non-Luma or the metamorphosing dance of The Clocks, it’s a trip where every twist and turn is a pleasant, invigorating surprise.

Plus, We Never Learned to Live’s sci-fi overtones make a glorious comeback, resulting in a conceptual piece that analyses the dangerous relationship between humanity and machinery. “The narrative arc of this record is the idea of someone being trapped inside a simulation,” Mahon explains. “Think less Matrix and more Truman Show. Our interaction with machines is changing how humanity deals with economics, business and socialising. I’m interested in it, as well as terrified of it.”

‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’ comes four long years after the door-kicking ‘Silently, I Threw Them Skyward’. Despite its length, the period between the two releases was one of constant graft for the band, who initially wanted to write a follow-up based on what was left over from their first LP.

Sean recalls: “For about a year, we were going through this cycle of, ‘We should pick that out again, it was really good,’ and none of it ever clicking. We were foolish to try and tap into old material again because none of us were in the same place, emotionally. I got married; Dave got married. For a while, we were really struggling with that clichéd difficult second album.”

It wasn’t until Mahon’s wife made the life-affirming revelation that she was pregnant with their first child that the cogs began to assuredly turn. The singer was able to take time away from the band to focus on his newfound fatherhood, while other members spent time in side projects and as session musicians. Experiencing life outside of the bubble they had built around themselves for over 10 years was exactly what Sean and his bandmates required to reignite their creativity.

Now that ‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’ has finally been unveiled—and fans are clambering to get inside his band’s impending release show—Mahon exudes nothing but pride. That moustache on his lip regularly turns upwards as he speaks about his excitement for tonight’s show, as well as We Never Learned to Live’s subsequent UK tour at the end of the month.

“I love that we’re doing more headline shows,” he beams, before stepping out of the van, into the now-dry evening air. “I feel like we would really benefit from playing hour-long sets. We have that bank of material now, which we can cherry-pick from. It’s a really exciting place to be.”

With that, he strides away into the darkness of the Black Heart, ready to provide a sold-out crowd a night of beautifully cathartic heaviness.

‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’ is out now via Holy Roar.

We Never Learned To Live Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu May 23 2019 - BIRMINGHAM Subside Bar
Fri May 24 2019 - BRISTOL Old England
Sat May 25 2019 - LEEDS Temple Of Boom
Mon May 27 2019 - SOUTHAMPTON Heartbreakers

Click here to compare & buy We Never Learned To Live Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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