In the spotlight – The Unknown Brothers

In the spotlight – The Unknown Brothers

The Unknown Brothers are songwriting duo Andrew Harper and Ciaran Ryan from Swansea (UK). Andrew is the lead vocalist and primary lyricist. Andrew’s vocal influences include The Manics, The Beatles and The Kinks. Ciaran is all about the guitars. He taught himself to play guitar. His influences include Pink Floyd, The Manics and Arcade Fire. For this interview I spoke with Andrew.

You were good friends before you decided to make music together. How and when did you meet?

“We both grew up in sleepy suburbia in the Swansea Valley in South Wales, but didn’t know each other until we met through a mutual friend in 2003. Ciaran had just moved back to the area after a few years away. Nights out in the local pub often ended with a group of us going back to his place, where the acoustic guitar would come out for drunken singalongs of songs from our favourite bands.”

When did you decide to make music together?

“Pretty soon after meeting we realised we both shared a passion for music. On one of those nights I discovered him playing an original acoustic song he had laid down on a TASCAM 4-track recorder. I was intrigued. He took a little bit of convincing, but I managed to take a copy of it away with me (on tape!), and came back with lyrics that fit the music. That was the first song we ever wrote together. It was called ‘Frustration’. I’d describe it as a sparsely instrumented acoustic ballad. If you look hard enough you can probably still find it online. That lit the spark for us when it came to making music.”

In 2019 the Unknown Brothers released their debut double album ‘These Truths Remain Unspoken‘. They recorded, mixed and mastered their debut album on an iPad using Garageband.

“We had recently got back into songwriting after a break of a few years and didn’t have much tech to play with other than an iPad mini. It’s an amazing little tool. What we found great was what technical limitations there were, allowed us to focus more on the actual songwriting, and with less to fiddle around with, before we knew it we had twenty songs recorded in the space of a few months. It was as if the songs had been there bottled up waiting to burst out after our hiatus. It was cathartic.”

The sound of your single ‘All for Show‘ appears to be different from the first few singles. Are you still using Garageband or did you switch to a different DAW?

“Recently we have shifted onto recording on a MacBook, but still using Garageband. All For Show probably sounds a little different to our previous songs, because it has more going on in terms of layered guitars, and our knowledge of what we’re doing has come on a little bit through trial and error, so we applied some different effects and techniques. Every day is a school day for us.”

Ciaran Ryan

I also noticed you moved from acoustic guitar to electric guitar. Can we expect a new direction for future releases?

“With ‘These Truths Remain Unspoken’, we set out to make an acoustic album of sorts, and all the songs started out on an acoustic guitar, so that does naturally tend to underpin most of the songs on that album. However, we’ve always been quite eclectic in terms of our guitar sound and have never been averse to rocking it up. A lot of our earlier stuff (recorded under a different name) had more of a rock sound. We will never abandon the acoustic guitar entirely, but ‘All For Show’ is a manifestation of that, and it does mark a shift in the direction we will be taking from here on in, with a fuller, more electric sound. We may release some of our back catalogue one day. Some haven’t aged too badly. Others will stay confined to the depths and never see the light of day!”

Your single ‘All for Show’ is currently #4 in our Cool 20 chart. What inspired you to write it?

“Musically, it started out as the main guitar riff from Ciaran, which we felt had a bit of an 80’s feel to it with all that reverb. I put the vocal melody and lyrics on top and we then fleshed it out together to come up with the rest of the song. Lyrically, it examines what is quite a relatively modern culture, that probably dates back to when Princess Diana died, of grieving in a very public, almost slavish way. I feel this has been compounded by social media in the last ten years or so in particular. I find it fascinating. You’ll see hundreds of “sorry for your loss” posts on someone’s Facebook feed, but 90% of those people probably wouldn’t go to the funeral. It’s almost like the act of being seen to sympathise is more important than doing any of the actual heavy lifting of supporting a friend in their time of need. Humans are complex, weird creatures.”

You wrote that you’ve been writing songs despite not being able to meet up physically. Can you tell me about your songwriting process?

“Yes, that’s true. The pandemic has allowed us to focus our minds on what is important in life, and for us both we’ve realised that includes songwriting and music. We have both had several bursts of creativity during lockdown, and it has been quite a fertile period for us despite being physically unable to be in the same room. With regard to our process, traditionally the music came first, and I would take away demos of riffs and ideas Ciaran laid down and add vocal melodies and lyrics. That changed with ‘These Truths Remain Unspoken’, which started with me writing the lyrics for ‘Schadenfreude Junkie’ first, and the music came after. Now, there is no set way it works really, and everything is fair game. It’s a true collaborative process. Sometimes I will come up with lyrics to kick things off. Ciaran usually gets a feel for what those lyrics are trying to say and that creates a mood which leads to a kernel of an idea. Alternatively Ciaran will often come up with music and send me demos over the cloud.  Some of these will be snippets, some are more fully formed. Sometimes something clicks with me straight away and lyrics are done almost immediately. Other times it might sit on the shelf for several months before lyrical inspiration hits. Sometimes it goes nowhere. It varies. It keeps it interesting for us both.”

You mention the Beatles as an influence. The start of ‘Flaking Rust‘ reminds me of ‘Within You Without You‘. Were you inspired by the sitar in that song?

“I don’t think that song entered our thinking, at least not consciously. It came about from Ciaran experimenting with a GarageBand loop. He built the song around the sitar sample and it went from there. The lyrics and vocal melody line came several months later, randomly, out of nowhere. It had threatened to just sit on the shelf before that, as it’s a quirky little song that was hard for me to make work originally. We are really glad we persevered with it though. It’s one that gets a lot of attention.”

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

“With regard to our musical tastes, we have quite an eclectic range between us. We are obviously big fans of The Beatles, and other 60’s bands like The Kinks and The Velvet Underground. Ciaran is a Pink Floyd fan. Other shared tastes include Manic Street Preachers, The Shins, Brendan Benson, Red Hot Chili Peppers and (early) Radiohead. We’re constantly listening to a lot of indie music too, and have discovered loads of great unsigned artists since putting ourselves out there.”

You’ve released 2 singles on Spotify this year. What are you currently working on?

“We’re currently putting the finishing touches to our next song, which will be out before Christmas. It’s called ‘Little Things’ and it’s another melodic rocker – it’s heavier than ‘All For Show’. It’s the last one we had in the can musically and vocally, other than a few overdubs, before lockdown took hold. We’re excited to get it out there. After that, we’re hoping we can resume recording in the New Year to finish off all the ideas we’ve come up with during the last few months. We’re enjoying releasing singles at the moment for a change of pace, but we’re both album lovers and will be working towards another album soon. We’ve probably got the basis for another double album already actually in terms of songs, but we won’t be doing that next time. We’ll get a few more singles out and then follow it up with an album in 2021.”

Andrew Harper

Do you enjoy the process of creating? 

“We love songwriting as a craft. It is addictive and a creative outlet for us both, which has helped us get through some tough times personally. Even though recently we are enjoying getting our music out there and having people listen, the reality is we would still be writing songs if only the two us ever listened to them. That’s how we started out, and if we ever went back to doing that, we wouldn’t be disappointed. Our ambitions are humble ones. We’ve already exceeded what expectations we had in terms of success. It’s easy to get hung up on figures like streams but it’s a huge achievement in this day and age  to get someone to take several minutes of their time to listen to your music. We don’t take that for granted – we appreciate every single listen.”

Is there any chance we might see the Unknown Brothers live?

“There is. This is something that’s happened organically over the past year, with us managing to find a good drummer and bassist who are interested and are also friends. We’re excited about it. In fact, we were all set to take our first tentative steps into the live arena and meet up for a jam when lockdown hit and put a block on our plans. We’ve currently got some studio time booked in for December now things have eased slightly, so we’ll see how that goes. Live performance is probably some way off yet though, not least because of the continuing restrictions where we live. We will continue to record and release songs though. The Unknown Brothers will always be a recording project first and foremost. “

What’s your favourite song in the Cool 20 (or any of the Cool playlists)? 

“That’s a tough one. There’s so much quality scattered across all the lists. Even though it’s not a genre I usually listen to, I think everything Sophie Dorsten does is brilliant and she deserves to be huge. I also love ‘The Depths’ by GHST MDRN, or any of his music. But I’ll go for a new addition to The Cool Top 20 this week: ‘La Serena‘ by The Jobs. A great song from a great bunch of guys.”  

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