Constable, a stop-start, slow-motion epic concerning the exploits of a surprisingly amiable corrupt cop, is five full minutes of everything that makes the band great. It’s dust-swept and it’s sun-battered and it’s perfect, largely because it sets out to embrace the imperfect.
Indeed, given its cracked, careening nature, it’s rather fitting that it wasn’t an easy song to write. “With Constable I had pages and pages of lyrics,” explains the band’s vocalist and guitarist Blake Scott. “It was more like a short story. Getting that to work was a little bit mind-melting. I mean that song, it was really truly awful for a little while.” He laughs. “It was like the Red Hot Chili Peppers: it was this horrible Chili Peppers bassline and I was kind of rapping over the top of it.”
In many ways, the song was just one risk recorded for an album defined by difficult choices. “We really did take it back a notch on Joy,” Scott says. “We were really worried that people might not be into it. It was a lot more indulgent than the last records. With the new sounds and the new instrumentation – the new keys and the synths and that sort of thing, and the pace of it with the slower numbers on there – you just don’t know how people are going to react.”
On top of that, recording Joy also meant that the band had to contend with the most difficult of obstacles: their own success. It’s always hard to follow up a second album, but it’s harder still if the second album in question is as beloved as Tales, the work that spawned arguably their best known song, Carol.
Indeed, the group were always conscious of not ripping themselves off; careful to buck away from anything resembling the familiar. “Because of the success of Carol, you always wonder if you’re going to get pigeonholed,” Scott says. “We tried to make sure that we didn’t try to follow that formula or be the Carol band. After Tales, we wanted it to be a different experience musically and make the whole experience of recording it … enjoyable for us, which it wouldn’t have been if we were following a formula.”
That enjoyment is palpable across the finished product – there’s a reason it’s called Joy, after all – and Scott argues that a lot of the record’s confident, well-oiled feel comes from the unity between the players. “To me it always sounds like me singing, Steve [Carter] playing the drums and Stewart [Rayner] playing bass,” he says.
“It always has that core to it. It always feels like The Peep Tempel. And with us, we don’t write many songs. There’s three albums, there’s ten songs on every record and I think we recorded 11 songs for each one. So we dumped a song every time. I think it’s safe to say we’re on the same page. We come up with ideas and if they don’t really work straight away, we don’t push them. It always sounds like the band.”
Joy has been out for a little over three months now. But it’s not some static product: its tonal variations and strange, deviant tricks means it never sounds like exactly the same record no matter how many times you listen to it. That, Scott says, was deliberate. “I really like those little things in a record,” he says. “You want a record to keep giving. I love it when you fall in love with a record and you keep listening and it keeps popping up with all these things. Something else always keeps popping out.”
The record has received a significant amount of critical acclaim since its release, topping end of year lists and even finding itself nominated for one of the country’s top honours, the AMP music prize.
“[We were shortlisted] before in 2014, which of course then was a huge surprise,” says Scott. “But even this time it still is a surprise. I guess we even feel a little more honoured this time. It is a really cool achievement. It’s been voted in by peers and people [we] respect, so that makes it special.”
And yet the awards and the acclaim pale in comparison to what else the group gained by making Joy. It’d be un-Peep Tempel-esque to say they found themselves as a band by recording the album – that’s too schmaltzy of an ending; too derivative – but it’s certainly true that it galvanised them. “It sounds like us,” Scott says, summing up the record. “So in retrospect, yeah. It’s us.”
By Joseph Earp