With an array of vocalists, their collaborative and dance-focused EP is a breath of fresh air.
Words by Rob Broadbent
“I like to imagine the EP is a street, and each house is a different song with a weird, strange neighbour poking their head out telling you a story,” I’m on a video call with Sam Abbo; brains and not so hidden hands behind quasi rock, quasi funk, quasi pop, quasi un-pigeonhole-able musical project Strange Neighbours, one of the latest musical embryos to emerge from the bosom of the Hideous Mink Records family.
The new self-titled EP of five tracks keeps you guessing at every corner, with a guest vocalist appearing on each song and an array of instruments – from lashings of sax to surprise 808s – sprinkled across the whole thing. It’s one of the most refreshing releases I’ve heard so far this year, and its creation story – having been written and recorded over the course of two lockdowns – was worth a write up. Sam talked me through the project and the EP track by track.
Sam, hello! So Strange Neighbours, tell us a little bit about the project
“Hello! The project started during the first lockdown, I had the idea years ago when I had first bought a laptop and was making beats and fiddling around with synths, to create a collaborative project where I bring in singers – with each song taking its own path depending on who I’m getting to collab with – that’s really where the idea started.”
Which leads me into my first question quite nicely – how are you approaching the process, do you have an idea and select the singer, or the other way round?
“It’s really varied depending on the track. With Black Cat Walking I had finished recording a track on my guitar and sent it over to Maisie (Banks) and said do what you want with it, she changed a few things but sent me back one amazing vocal take – which was sick, other tracks I’ve kind of developed in the studio, it’s been really varied – different for each one. Some easier than others, for instance with Johny (vocalist on The Shakedown) he was in our bubble during the two lockdowns so he was actually able to come to the studio and record there, which was obviously very different to pinging emails back and forth.”
So Johny is in Opus Kink [notice to reader: Sam is the bassist in Opus Kink] so that was more straight forward, but with others were you communicating with emails back and forth and such?
“Yeah, it was basically trial and error really with each individual song, someone will come back with a vocal take or some other ideas on instruments and we’ll build from that, it’s a weird way of doing it and not how I’d usually work but you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got.”
Even though there’s a separate recording process with different artists, I can still really hear the coherence in it all – lyrically I feel like there’s something pagan about it all – are you writing those lyrics or are people coming to you with them?
“Again its varied, some songs I’ve written with the vocalist, sometimes I’m in the studio and riffing over stuff – it was definitely like that on the first tune – if you imagine the EP is a street and each house is a different song with a weird, strange neighbour poking their head out telling you a story – that’s probably the best way I can describe it and that’s where I want to go with future EPs – all these kind of characters come out and tell a miniature story.”
Lovely analogy, now let’s run through the EP track by track – beginning with the first – The Shakedown tell us a little bit about the track AND how you went about making the video for it.
“So the instrumental for that track I actually made when I was 17, years ago. It was a completely different song, I dug it out over lockdown and thought Johnny would be perfect to sing on it – we got together and started riffing over ideas in the studio – because I could actually meet up with him – and we came out with that – we wanted to write about what’s going on in England, but in a comedic way, so we wrote about dragging an annoying Brexiter down to the water and cleansing his soul in the waves, and that’s also exactly what we did for the video.”
Solid concept, now the second track Black Cat Walking, you’ve got Maisie Banks on there – one thing I’ve noticed about this EP, is that it’s predominantly not ‘singers from bands’ or acts as such. So how did you meet Maisie and get her on the track?
“Maisie, before I start, has got an amazing EP ready which is going to be released soon on Hideous Mink so keep an eye on that. She’s a good friend of mine, as are all the singers on this first EP – I didn’t really approach anyone I didn’t know, I just wanted to make something with friends I know from around Brighton and London and yeah that was the ethos when I started it, I wanted to be relaxed and that relaxed me into getting it going, just doing it with mates was a good way of me kicking it all off.”
I know Jed of Opus is involved in the sax parts for this track – is that you and Jed on the backing vocals for Black Cat Walking?
“It’s just me on backing vocals on this one, but Jed is on every single track with his sax in some way, quite predominantly in this tune, you know he was there and it sounded so good – he was only gonna come in and do one or two but when you’re sitting there in the studio with these tracks and thinking ‘god that track could do with a bit of sax’ and you find that all over it.”
We were talking about this other day – you can tell when a sax is just chucked and it doesn’t sound organic – feel like every track here is bang on, doesn’t feel forced at all.
“Yeah it’s quite good doing this kind of thing because you can put it on just one tiny little bit, whereas if you had a sax player in a band you might feel inclined to put on loads of it, perhaps where it might not need it, but with this project – and it’s the same with the other instruments – because we haven’t got individual people playing them at the moment it’s just me, I can just pull at different things and I dunno, put a French horn sound at the end of one song and not have a permanent French horn player in the band, it really frees up your sound palette and you can whack whatever you want in there.”
Grand having no admin pressure around finding a French Horn player as well! Right onto the next Here to Teach I like this tune man, tell me more about it.
“This is me singing this one, and it started just with the music, I had that groove knocking about for ages before I put any words on it.. I was just looking around my room, and this was during the first lockdown when everything was a bit weird – and I imagined there was a little demon in the corner of the room saying “come on man, let’s find new ways of having fun” and that’s kind of what the whole thing’s about – it’s about going mad in your room.”
I think we can all relate to that, there’s another couple pagan-y lines in there too…
“Yeah it’s again another comment on everything that was going on, sometimes the lyrics were coming to me and they were shoved together, I wouldn’t say randomly, but thrown together quickly and it’s resulted in the fast moving imagery throughout the song – you know the kind of things that were going on in the news, things that were going on in my head, things that other people had said to me and I put them together as lyrics for these songs.”
It’s a nice exercise, even just for posterity!
“Yeah like a sort of strange diary.”
Moving on to That’s an Order I’ve just got written down here “perhaps as intense as the EP gets” – am I hearing some 808 sounds at the end there?
“Yeah it’s got some 808 sounds in there and you have Jed with his sax inspired by Comet is Coming, then you’ve got a chorus, do you know Mauskovic Dance Band? Fantastic band – it’s definitely got inspiration from that in there and yeah as you said it’s got some nice 808s at the end – it was another one where it was just really fun to chuck everything I had at it, interestingly the start of that tune was me actually trying to write something that could’ve been for Opus and then as it developed it just became far more suited for Strange Neighbours, but I think out of all of them it’s got the most Opus Kink kind of vibe to it.”
Aburrida our final tune on the EP “boredom” in Spanish am I correct?
“That’s it yeah, that’s sung by Katieeyo, she just came in and did an incredible vocal take on that – really excited about that one – it’s all sung in Spanish, heavily influenced by southern Spanish Flamenco songs, which tend to usually be about total devastating heartbreak – it’s about someone who is bored with their lover and is fed up, just your very classic heartbreak song set to this dark flamenco with some electronic elements in there, and again, that was a really fun one to make, really inspired by Buena Vista Social Club.”
Beauty, and before we finish I’ve got to ask – do you ever foresee a Strange Neighbours live situation?
“I would love to, it’d be very tricky at the moment – not just because of Covid but because of the amount I’ve chucked on every track, it’d be hard to put it together as one live concert – but I’m looking to do it one day – I’d love to work something out and do a big old show having each singer come up and do their tunes, get a load of the Opus boys to help me out – I think if we did them live they wouldn’t end up sounding like their recordings though, they’d all end up taking on a life of their own which would be really exciting – definitely one day.”
One for the future – so lastly what’s next for Strange Neighbours? How many volumes have you got?
“They’re gonna keep coming! I’ve already got a load of tracks on the way Angus (vocals, Opus Kink) is gonna be featuring on one, hopefully gonna have Jojo from Heartworms, and a few others – there’s all sorts going on within the Hideous Mink family which is nice – there’s lots to come!”