I was first introduced to Aquilo as a moody teenager by a friend who claimed they were perfect for those lonely, late-night drives. Judging by their streaming numbers, it appears I was not alone in my melancholy. Originally from the quaint village of Silverdale in the North of England, the duo stumbled upon fame after years of playing in rivalling rock bands. It was when they entered the world of dream-Pop and electronic with the release of their debut single, “Calling Me”, that people started to really listen as Aquilo had found their sweet spot in blending emotive lyrics with ambient sounds.
With two albums under their belts, they set off to LA with big plans that turned into a frustrating two-year hiatus, before moving back home to the UK and to a new record label. With the pressure lifted, their creativity flowed freely once again and paved the way for a new era. Following last year’s EP “Sober”, they released “Out in LA” in June of this year, the first single from their upcoming third album, “A Safe Place To Be”. The model village in the “Out in LA” video fuses together their very own safe place of Silverdale with sprinkles of palm trees and their beloved 101 Diner, serving as a metaphor for there being no place quite like home.
FRONTRUNNER spoke to Tom Higham and Ben Fletcher about the making of “Out in LA”, falling in love with model villages, and more.
Can you tell me about how you guys started out? I read that you were neighbours.
Tom: Yeah, kind of. We lived on the same road back in a little village called Silverdale, and I was working at a factory and Ben was finishing school working in a coffee shop, and Ben just put out a song and I heard it on SoundCloud, and I didn’t really know Ben that well because there’s a four year gap between us, and he put out a song and obviously by this time the age gap had kind of closed because I was maybe twenty-something.
Ben: You were twenty-one, I think, or twenty-two, yeah.
Tom: Ben put this song out and I was like, “That’s so sick, I absolutely love it, we should definitely try and work together.” That’s kind of how it started, and we released our first single, “Calling Me.”
Ben: We put it on SoundCloud and then it just, I don’t know it was weird. It was like all our childhood, we’d been playing music in separate bands and really trying to make people listen. We were in quite loud bands: I was in a grunge band and Tom was in almost a metal band! Then we made a song together, that was “Calling Me,” it went up on SoundCloud, then it kind of did the rounds and went to the top of Hype Machine. It just kept going and we went from there. It’s like the moment we stopped trying so hard, the interest came!
Is home important to you? Was Silverdale a place that you were keen to escape when you moved away or not?
Tom: I think without knowing it, it was important to us. It’s one of those things, it kind of has this subconscious place in our minds. When you leave a place like that, you don’t really realise what it is until you’ve sort of left it behind. I mean, we both live in London now, so any time that we get the excuse to go out of London it’s kind of the ideal place to escape, because it is a real escape.
Ben: Yeah, it’s a really beautiful place. Also, when we first started making music together, we were making it in Silverdale. I think there’s the cliché of, “Ooh is this your sound because of where you’re from? So scenic and chill?” Maybe there was a subconscious thing, because since we’ve been in London for a while, I think our sound has changed. But naturally, it would. But yeah, miss Silverdale, always miss Silverdale. Might live there one day in the far, far future.
I heard you guys compare Silverdale to the town from Hot Fuzz!
Ben: Yeah, yeah everyone knows everyone. Gossip spreads like you just wouldn’t believe! We’ve just done this music video, “Out in LA”, and the whole concept of the album is all based around this village we’ve made. Some of my dad’s friends are in the Parish Council in the village and it came up as a discussion. In the video, we pick up the Gaskell Hall, we move it and replace it with a diner. Some people are offended, it’s just ridiculous! Quite funny. It’s one of those places.
You tweeted last December about model villages being the coolest thing in the world and that you wanted to build one and live in it. Was that the beginning of that process for the “Out in LA” video?
Ben: That was when we became obsessed with model villages! One of our friends, art director Charlie Drinkwater who we did our first album with, we basically got chatting to him again about how we had this album ready, sent him the music, and we had this concept for a music video that would be set in Silverdale. There were a lot of mine and Tom’s ideas – maybe a bit unrealistic, but it was a really good starting point. Charlie was like, “Well, because of everything that’s going on with COVID, we can’t necessarily go and shoot that video…we’d need loads of people to go to Silverdale and right now that’s a nightmare. But why can’t we shoot on a much smaller scale? Why can’t we just make a model village of Silverdale so that you don’t have to go there?” Then it took on a life of its own. It’s kind of mad, really, when you look at what it is now from the initial idea!
How long did the model-making process take?
Ben: We didn’t physically make it ourselves. There’s this lovely family, they call themselves the Postcard Model Makers, and I think it took them about four months to make.
Tom: Yeah, three or four months. It’s funny because it’s a family-run company. They actually went over to Silverdale, the father and the daughter, she’d be taking pictures of the buildings, but her dad would be in the pictures for scale. The actual attention to detail is incredible, they noticed things I hadn’t even noticed.
Ben: There’s meat hanging up in the butchers! There’s the tiniest of little details: there’s lights inside all the buildings, you can lift the roof off the buildings and there are things inside the buildings. It really is just insane, they really poured their heart into it. When we actually came to shoot the first video and they brought it up to London for the first time, one of the girls that had made it was saying she didn’t really want to let go of it because it had been during lockdown. For her, it was her escape from all the shit that was going on. Every day, she’d go into her shed, she’d work on this model village, and then once lockdown was finished, she had to give this amazing thing she’d created to us two. I think it was like her baby. I think that was their saving grace during lockdown. You can see the love that’s been put into it, it’s really unbelievable.
Lyrically, this song is about your struggles while living in LA when you were signed to Island Records, right?
Tom: Well, the song sounds like we hate LA. We obviously don’t hate LA, we did have a difficult moment out there where we had this epiphany that were we doing the wrong thing. We got sent out there to essentially write a radio single. Because there was that pressure on the trip, we really struggled to come up with anything decent. We were forcing it, and I think any songwriter will agree as soon as you set out to do something like that, you’re setting yourself up to fail. For me and Ben it definitely didn’t work, and we were just in the room with the wrong people. We were questioning it like, “Is this even the right thing for us now?” We weren’t enjoying it, and that’s the whole thing; we started this, we’ve had so much fun with every single part of it, and this was the one moment where we were just totally lost. We didn’t really know where to put ourselves. We felt completely deflated, we came back, and then it was maybe a couple months after we had a writing session with one of our good friends. He started doing these little piano chords and we were like, “Ah that’s so cool,” and the song just happened so quickly.
How has it been working on this third album compared to your first two? With moving and changing labels and the pandemic, a lot has changed in between!
Tom: I’d say the main difference is the fact that we actually wrote a lot of it in lockdown. We wrote and recorded quite a bit of it in between studios: in my kitchen in Camberwell, which is the worst place to record music, ever! So, we didn’t concentrate too much on the production, because we didn’t really have all the toys, all the synths and stuff that we normally have in a studio there to distract us. It was mostly concentrating on the song-writing, which was cool. It was back-to-basics, which was really nice for us.
Ben: It just feels more mature, in its own way. I feel like you can hear that, once we found our feet making this album, we knew what we wanted. I feel really free when I listen to it, and for some reason I picture myself walking through the model village when I’m listening to it. It’s all kind of blurred into that now. I wish I could live in the model village!
“Out in LA” is clearly very personal. Do you tend to write about your own experiences and observations, or does fiction ever play a part?
Tom: When you’re writing songs every single day, you’re gonna run out of shit to say about your personal life. It’s inevitable. So, we do like to put ourselves in the position of experiencing other people’s stories that we’ve heard; it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to happen to us, but it’s an interesting perspective to write about something that you’ve kind of experienced. It’s difficult because we don’t really like talking that much about lyrics – because everybody’s got their own interpretation – and that sounds cheesy, but they do with what we’re trying to convey. We’ve had messages from people saying that we’ve helped them in this kind of way and this kind of way, and I’m sat there thinking, “That’s a really interesting way to perceive what we’re writing about.”
Ben: I think he was Russian, but years ago we released a song called “Better Off Without You.” You’d think the title speaks for itself, but he asked if he could use it as his first dance with the love of his life at his wedding. We were like, “Uh, you can if you want, if that’s how it makes you feel!” Tom makes a good point about that; we actually try and not talk too much about what songs are about or tell people just because, often especially with our earlier stuff, the lyrics are much more ambiguous than they are now. They’re less literal. The moment we started listening to people like The National and Phoebe Bridgers, it slipped into our subconscious that we can’t help but drop literal things in there.
When you guys write music, do you find inspiration hits you randomly?
Tom: I feel like you have little breakthroughs with a song. You’ll be listening to it, and when you’re writing a song, you’re looping things all day long. It’s very easy to get bored of it, and that’s why you can move on quite quickly, which is why we have a billion ideas sat on hard drives. You’ll be doing something and it’s almost serendipitous: you’ll have little, happy accidents that you just randomly stumble into, like when you’re playing a piano part, you play the wrong note and you’re like, “Oh shit, that actually sounds pretty cool!” Not saying all our music is just an accident! But that definitely plays a part, a hundred percent. It’s trial and error. We’re so comfortable with a palette of chords that we know on the piano. That’s why it’s really good when we work with other people who come into the studio, we collaborate, they play the piano and you’re like, “I would not have thought to have gone there. That sounds wicked, that’s exactly what I want.”
Ben: They bring their own flavours that we don’t have.
Tom: We have no flavour!
Ben: We’re vanilla.
Would you guys say that ‘Out in LA’ is a good signifier of what’s to come in the future for Aquilo?
Ben: No, not necessarily. It was quite a bold move from us going with “Out in LA” first. We just had to, it felt like it needed its own little platform, just because of what we went through. Going to LA really fucked us up and sent us on this journey of making new music, but the rest of the album isn’t necessarily in that ballpark. We’re also quite happy for people to just find that out, and they’ll be like, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that!” There are some whacky moments in there, but I still think we’ve stayed pretty true to ourselves.
Finally, are there any bands or artists that you’ve been listening to and loving recently?
Ben: That’s a really good question. There’s this Norwegian band called Konradsen, I’ve been absolutely hammering their music. I’m pretty sure I’ve messaged them, but they didn’t get back. They’re a duo, and they’re just amazing. Holly Humberstone, I think she’s really good. She’s really, really good. Tom listens to a lot of Moses Sumney.
Tom: It’s such a hard question that, because I feel like I’m going to go on Spotify and just check what I’ve been listening to. I think the last thing I played was Doja Cat!