Second Album Syndrome, “Playing the Game” & The Art of Lying With IST IST

After stellar debut album Architecture, stark and sharp like a black and white filter, Ist Ist are back with their second offering. The Manchester group are independent and vulnerably confident on their sophomore album The Art of Lying, out 26 November. Ingrid Enache caught up with bassist Andy Keating. After an inevitable catch up over daily life and lockdown frustrations, they bonded over music, artwork and genuine impressions about the industry. 

Your debut album Architecture was released during lockdown in 2020. Did you get any time to test run your songs live?
We like to road test the songs before we release them. You don’t want to play all of the album, because then none of it is really a surprise, but we would play maybe four or five songs at the back end of 2019, as that’s when we recorded the album. And then before COVID hit, we played three shows. In January and February we played quite a lot of the stuff then which was already after we’d announced the album. And that was it! With the second album now, we’ve not played anything live because we wrote it all last year. I’m not saying it’s too late, because the reaction has been good to the single (It Stops Where It Starts). We sent some demos to friends but it’s not the same as playing it to hundreds of people on tour. 

Then it’s gonna be an interesting experience for everyone. But your tour now is going ahead. What will you expect from it? 
From an all encompassing perspective, I think it’ll be a massive release for us and the audience. I’m sure a lot of our audience are going to gigs already, so it’s not as if we’re going to be the first gig they go to. But we’ve got a good fan base, and I’m sure a lot of people really wanted to watch us. It’s been over 18 months since people have seen us, so I think it would be nice coming together.

What should people expect? 
Well, we’ve got two albums to tour. I think it will be great, everyone’s waited long enough. It’ll be a huge relief and a huge release to a lot of people to actually go and hear songs that they may have been wanting to hear for a long time, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who’ve got into us over the last 18 months – through lockdowns – who’ve never seen us live before either. 

You have quite a big fan base here in the Netherlands. How did this happen? Was it a surprising thing or a more organic growth?
I don’t think it was sudden, it was more of an organic thing. I think in the age of Spotify it helped to be on people’s algorithms or suggested music. If you have one or two people in the Netherlands who start listening to it who then share it about, the algorithms get involved with other people’s playlists. A lot of it came about from a radio station called KINK who picked up one of the singles from Architecture (You’re Mine) and put it on the main rotation. There’s a lot of physical copies [of the album] going out to the Netherlands – I think there’s a similar subculture with post-punk, alternative and indie music. 

You mentioned Spotify and algorithms. How is your relationship as a band is with social media and streaming? 
Well, if it was up to me, I or the band would not have social media. But you’ve got to play the game. You’ve got to have it because you’ve got to be present. You’ve got to release your music, you’ve got to engage with fans. But it’s almost like if we didn’t have social media, we wouldn’t exist. I think social media is a brilliant tool when it’s sort of a community. When it’s not, it’s the fucking worst thing in the world. But I think it has changed the game a lot. We’ve been together as a band for six and a half years, and in that time the way in which social media is used has changed massively. Now you’re expected to create your own content on the fly. If you’re not on top of it all the time, it’s almost as though people haven’t got much attention span. “If Ist Ist haven’t posted for two weeks I’ll forget about them, just go follow another band!” But that’s quite exaggerated, so I don’t think it’s quite like that. 

I don’t think people would do that, but the algorithm might not push you as hard. The people are not the problem.
This is it. If you’re inactive for quite a long time, it won’t push you into people’s feeds, which is going to have an effect on [things like] video views, less album or single orders; all sorts of stuff. Like I said, if it was up to me we’d be an ultra cool band who people hear about from word of mouth. But streaming’s a different thing, and I like the concept of streaming more than I like social media. Not for the money side of it; we’re not in it to make loads of money. The whole premise of it is that you can pay 10 pounds a month and listen to everything you want to listen to, but that amount is not gonna go far with all the artists you like. Streaming is good, though, because you can reach audiences you wouldn’t reach even through social media. I can go to my Daily Mix and it will suggest something I’ve never heard of before, along with a load of favourites. And I’m sure loads of people have found our music that way. But yeah, social media is a necessary evil.

That’s a good description. Maybe you’ve already answered that, but what are your most and least favourite things about the music industry?
My favourite has always been playing shows, and I think that’s become even more so. I love going to the studio, I love announcing albums, I love getting my hands on our vinyl, I love the friends that you make. But I think live shows are where the magic really happens. I think my least favourite is not social media specifically, but the certain games that you’ve got to play. Not that I’m not a nice person, but you’ve got to be super nice to the right ones; you’ve got to be extra careful. I feel like sometimes that spills over into losing artistic integrity. We’re quite stubborn in the sense that we know what image we like, we know what kind of music videos we want to go for, what sound we want. I could never imagine being told by a manager or a label to make our music sound a certain way. I think another thing I don’t like is the lack of exposure for smaller artists. But then again, some of that comes down to the kind of game playing that you have to do. We’re kind of old school, we’ve been around the block. We know what we like, and we just want to make music that we enjoy. If other people like it and come to shows, that’s great. But you’ve got to make music for yourself first and foremost; you shouldn’t go into the studio thinking, ”what do we need to do to get a top 10 record?” I’d much prefer it if the most successful artists were the best ones. I know ‘best’ is subjective, but there are some bands on festival bills who are unanimously shit. They obviously played the right game with the right people. I just think hard work should be rewarded the most. 

As an art student, I’m obviously curious about your album artwork. Both of your releases have strong works of art on them. What can you tell us about them? 
Both of those pictures were taken by Adam’s (Houghton, vocals) brother when he was living in Japan. For Architecture there was this outdoor sculpture park with mainly brutalist architecture. The eye on The Art of Lying was taken at a subway station in Tokyo – it’s called the Eye of Shinjuku. Both of these pictures were taken a couple of years ago, probably around 2017 or 2018, well before any of the albums were written or recorded. We decided that we wanted the picture on Architecture to be the front cover of our debut album before we even wrote it because it was so striking. For The Art of Lying we picked it after we’d recorded but we hadn’t decided on the title or anything. Architecture’s title is also mentioned in one of the songs, whereas with the second album none of the songs mention anything to do with the art of lying. It just felt like we live in a world where there’s always been an art to lying – fake news, false media, things like that. It’s difficult now to decipher between what is truth and what’s lie. You don’t know how much the government, the media and the people are lying to each other. That’s where the album title came from. The eye is sort of like Big Brother, watching you in a surveillance state. That subway station has been there since the 60s, so it’s not a modern thing to do with surveillance. The image was just so perfectly framed, and it felt like the right thing. 

Do you think art itself is lying sometimes?
It depends on the type of art, because what is now classed as art is so different from what it was 50 years ago. Obviously we have photography as an example, but editing was nowhere near as fast as it is now. Photo editing could be so advanced and deceitful. I don’t think that a lot of art, in its traditional sense, is set out to deceive though.

I’m curious about the sound of the new album. On Architecture there are certain songs which have a more electronic sound. Is this something you’ll explore further? 
Yeah, there’s more of that on this one. We’ve fully changed, but it still sounds like us. The opening track on The Art of Lying has a drum machine. There’s no live drums on it at all, and none on the closing track either. That was something that we wanted to push a little bit more without being alienating. Architecture was a deliberately cold album, quite harsh and icy. If Architecture was a square, then this one is very round. It’s maybe not as harsh and angular, but it still sounds like Ist Ist. With each album you want to push your boundaries, although not so much that you end up something that doesn’t represent you. I think everyone was expecting an album when Architecture came out. It was the right time, too – we were four and a half years in as a band. But then while making this album we were still in the promotional campaign for Architecture, so there was no pressure [to write an album]. There was no pressure to say, “well, we need to write a song that sounds a bit like this”, because when you come back to your first question about road testing, we didn’t really know which songs people loved. We just went in the studio and wrote until we had an album. 

That sounds great. Usually with bands you have this second album syndrome, and there are all these expectations. I guess your experience is also a result of what the pandemic changed, because you couldn’t test it and didn’t feel the pressure as much.
Let’s see how people like it. I think they will, because it’s the same musicians and the same producer, just in a different place in the world. When you listen to it, there’s some very different songs in there, but they still work together. They were all written in a fairly short period of time, whereas Architecture came together over years and years of playing together. The Art of Lying was written in the span of about five months. We just got our heads down and started writing and writing for ten to twelve hours per day. It was the best time, because we forgot everything else that was going on; it was simply us in a room rehearsing. It was our little bubble. 

I’m curious about your creative process. How do you go from a point of inspiration to the studio?
It can differ quite a lot. With The Art of Lying, a lot of the first ideas came around remotely when we were in a proper lockdown. We’d record a few ideas at home then send them back to each other. Around half of the album started that way, but it wasn’t fully written by the time we were in the rehearsal room, because what you do remotely might not work in a rehearsal room or vice versa. The first single, It Stops Where It Starts, was born in the rehearsal room. I just started playing that bassline and then Mat (Peters, guitar) popped a synth line over; it was done in a day. There’s also a song called The Waves made out of four very separate parts. When you listen to it there’s an electronic drum beat intro, which then goes into some guitars and a chorus. It does that twice before going into an outro which is very different to the start. We wrote all four parts separately and we got them to work together in the studio. It required quite a lot of listening back and discussions with the producer. 

One last question, the one I always ask. Can you describe your music with a colour, a smell and a taste?
If you had asked me about Architecture I would have said black. Maybe the new one’s yellow. But I’m not gonna say that, because people might think it’s a happy one. I will say purple. I feel like that’s a royal colour, and The Art of Lying has quite a grand sound. The taste is coffee – whenever we’re in the studio we drink so much of it. As for the smell…we rehearse in an old mill in Manchester and it smells quite industrial but I can’t quite pinpoint it. But I have a good one – there’s a song on the album called If It Tastes Like Wine, so there you go. The Art of Lying is due in November via Kind Violence Records / Scruff of the Neck.