Let’s face it: It can be pretty hard to find a math-rock band that successfully balances chops-busting technique with tasty hooks and melodies. Most math rockers seem so busy intertwining polyrhythmic phrases with odd-metered measures that they forget the songwriting clichés—you know, choruses you can hum, finger-snappin’ beats, sweet harmonies—that keep us coming back for more. But one band that stands out from the rest is This Town Needs Guns, who manages to mix “catchy” and “complicated” without compromising either.

In fact, this Oxford, England-based quartet has done such an amazing job of making palatable yet technically impressive music that many fans will likely overlook the virtuosic guitar tapping, the odd-meter transitions, and the polyrhythmic wandering that’s happening just under the surface of their refreshingly-poppy outer layer. TTNG’s ability to balance it all just might save them from the certain extinction faced by other bands with their instrumental aptitude.

Animals (BSM Records, 2008), their first full-length, proves that TTNG have the makings of a band whose unorthodox sound puts them into a genre all of their own. Singer Stuart Smith’s vocals convey powerful emotions over the jaw-dropping, tapped guitar lines of Tim Collis, whose brother, drummer Chris Collis, holds down the complex rhythms with the help of Dan Adams on bass. This all might seem like an aural melting pot of complexity, but TTNG’s sound is simple enough for those who like poppy music while remaining intricate enough to keep the math-rock elitists happy.

The band, armed with new bass player Jamie Cooper, is just beginning to stoke their “hot buzz” status. We caught up with them during and just after their European tour to promote Animals to chat about their musical prowess. 

Congrats on the release and success of Animals. How does it feel to have this record done and out of the studio?

Stuart: It feels great. It was recorded this time last year, so it seems old to us already, but we're still really proud of the record. It was a bit of a risk to do a record of entirely new material for our first release, so we're pleased with how it has been received by fans and critics.

What was the writing process like for Animals?

Stuart: The writing process was pretty hectic. We started writing in January 2008, and we had everything written and recorded before the end of May. We had a self-imposed deadline on the recording—Tim, our guitarist, had to take time off from the band to concentrate on qualifying as a teacher, and Dan Adams, our previous bass player, was preparing for fatherhood in September of '08. We knew we wanted to write a record together before Dan left the band, so it was important to have everything written in just a few months. We were writing and rehearsing three to four times a week. It was pretty stressful, but ultimately, it was worth the effort.

Stuart, what was the studio process like?

We returned to The Lodge studios in Northampton to record the album. We were familiar with how the studio worked and we knew they would help us with the technicalities of recording while still letting us try out some experiments of our own. We already had a clear idea of how we wanted the record to sound, so we decided to produce the record ourselves (with more than a little help from the guys at The Lodge).

Tim, did you guys consciously decide to make the music complex or was it a natural progression of your writing?

We never decide to write in particular time signatures or purposefully make sections 'weird and challenging,' but I think that with the influences and style of music we play, it simply happens that way.

Stuart, how did you go about writing the vocals for this album, and what inspired you lyrically?

I like to let the music inspire the lyrics of the songs. It seems to work well. Once we have a few riffs knocking around, I'll start to work on melodies and structures. There’s almost always a natural choice for a chorus, and once I've written a few lines for that, the rest of the song tends to write itself.

Tim, how did you get your playing to where it is today? I assume you put in lots of practice time.

Well, I've been playing guitar for about 15 years now. When I first started playing guitar, I was listening to most of the typical bands of the time, like Foo Fighters, Incubus, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I was massively influenced by the guitarists' style of playing, especially Mike Einziger of Incubus. I hadn't really heard anyone doing anything 'different' on the guitar (not that six-stringed pioneers weren't out there, I just hadn't found them) and something about the way those guys played really stood out to me. The same thing happened when I first listened to Jimi Hendrix.

I think the first time I heard Ghosts and Vodka, my brain kind of melted and all the previous guitarists I had ever heard dissolved for a few minutes. It was like I almost couldn't compute what Victor Villareal and Sam Zurick were doing because I had simply not heard anything like it before. I think you get a lot more out of music that isn't completely 'instant' or 'immediate' and requires a few listens to make sense of it. You can hear the influences of all these guitarists on Animals.

Tim, when you write your tapping parts, do you think in terms of patterns or melodies?

Most of the time I write from melodies, but sometimes I have a rhythm first. An idea might not even start with the guitar at all; I might opt for the “pen/cup/spoon/whatever is on my desk” method. But I think the new material will have a more pattern-based approach; we’ll sit with our drummer, Chris, and develop the rhythms before even considering melodies.

Chris, how do you write drum parts that are extremely elaborate and even melodic without overplaying?

Chris: Usually, I’ll have a few listens to what Tim is doing on the guitar, as some of his parts can sounds pretty weird at first. Sometimes I’ll have to count over his riff so I can work out where I want my emphasis to go, or even just to find out where the start of the bar is! Then I decide whether to go with what he is playing or try and come from a different angle. Other times, I don't bother counting and just let how I feel come out in the playing without worrying too much about the time signature. Either way, the main thing is that I try and get my ego out of the way and let it just happen naturally. Also, a lot of the music I listen to doesn't have drums, which I think helps my playing a bit. I find myself thinking more about the song as a whole, not just the drum parts.

Jamie, how long did it take you to fully acclimate and mesh your playing style with theirs?

There was an initial challenge, purely because the bass guitar was foreign to me, much like lobster meat, which I have never tried. I play guitar in a band in Oxford and was friends with the rest of This Town Needs Guns so they asked me if I wanted to have a go at playing the bass with them. I guess my music style is not too far removed from the rest of the band; I play jazz guitar, and I like less obvious time signature shifts, so really it was a fun and rewarding experience. I was given the songs and told to learn as much as I could, so I locked myself away and played music for a week or so, occasionally stopping for some orange juice and pastrami on rye.

How did you guys form the band?

Stuart: I started playing with a few guys at university, mostly just wasting what little money we had on hanging out in practice rooms and jamming on songs we liked. That was pretty much how it went for a few years until we had a lineup of guys that were half decent and actually wanted to play gigs. It all got a bit more serious when we started got signed to Big Scary Monsters.

Does everybody bring up Radiohead when they find out you’re from Oxford?

Tim: Yes, but that's ok. They deserve to be mentioned whenever "Oxford" is. They're an institution in their own right.

What’s your favorite part of touring?

Stuart: We were on tour in Europe for my birthday and I was feeling pretty homesick, so I would’ve said that the best thing about tour is coming home. But most days, the best thing is going to strange new places and meeting nice new people. On this tour, especially, people have been very kind, welcomed us into their homes and shown us great hospitality. Witnessing these acts of human kindness is one of the best things I know of.

Name something wild or odd that has happened to you on the road.

Tim: We played with a band called Cabin Fever in Belgium. That was wild, odd, and one of the funniest things we've ever seen.

Stuart: On the last night in Paris, Chris went missing after the show. He couldn't find the hotel and his phone had run out of battery, but instead of calling home, getting his parents to call Tim, and having one of us come pick him up from the venue, he thought it would be a better idea to spend three hours walking the streets of Paris before getting the Eurostar back to London and a bus from there to Oxford. Ridiculous!

What is your most memorable show so far?

Stuart: The other night in Paris was pretty memorable. Not just because we spent half the night worrying where Chris was, but the gig itself was pretty amazing. It was our first gig in Paris and there were around 300+ people in attendance. It was great!

Aside from music, what are your main vices?

Stuart: Food. If we ever blow the budget on tour, it's because we've spent a crap-load on a really nice meal somewhere instead of opting for a limp sandwich at a service station.

What can we expect from your next album?

Stuart: We have just started writing new material. It's still really tech, but I think we're trying to put more emphasis on song structure. We've always tried to write 'pop' songs that have 'techy' musicianship...we just want to try to continue to evolve this idea. I think we're hoping to move away from the stripped back sound of Animals and try to bring back more instrumentation.

How did you guys choose your name?

Stuart: A friend wrote the phrase in a letter that I read. He was writing about how he'd like to exact revenge on the kids that had thrown a brick through the window of a bus at him. I didn't agree and had no doubt that my friend would never actively try to hurt someone, but it stood out as an interesting phrase and I thought it would make for a good band name. We also had one of our first gigs coming up and TTNG was the best thing we'd come up with.

What can we expect from TTNG in the near future?

Stuart: We're taking a bit of a break to concentrate on writing new stuff, before doing a short tour of the UK with Joan of Arc. We'll be doing some UK festivals this summer and have a UK tour planned for October. I think after that, we'll go quiet until we can tour the U.S. or until the next record is recorded and ready for release.


Photos provided by TTNG

TTNG: Stuart Smith (vox/guitar), Tim Collis (guitar), Jamie Cooper (bass)

and Chris Collis (drums)

Tim Collis displaying his virtuosic tapping technique

“Most of the time I write from melodies, but sometimes I have a rhythm first. An idea might not even start with the guitar at all; I might opt for the ‘pen/cup/spoon/whatever is on my desk’ method.” -Tim

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