ABOVE: UNTIL THE RIBBON BREAKS IN NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2014. PHOTO BY SANTIAGO FELIPE.
When Until the Ribbon Breaks first came onto our radar in fall 2013, frontman and producer Pete Lawrie Winfield admitted he imagined this unique musical project as a one-off deal. Fast-forward 18 months, and it’s expanded to a permanent trio with Elliot Wall on percussion and James Gordon doing production and keys. On January 20, the now Los Angeles-based band dropped their debut album, A Lesson Unlearnt, with featured by bands like Run the Jewels, and have kicked off a North American tour with fellow trailblazing Brits, London Grammar.
Last we talked, Lawrie Winfield was prepping for his first-ever live show as an opener for Lorde. Now with the two-person expansion and regularity of live outings, the project—known for its soulful poetics, entrancing, breathy vocals, and heady, electronic R&B production—has become even more formidable. The three of them recently took a break from recording in L.A. to chat about the new LP, evolution as a band, and finding intimacy in the modern age.
BENJAMIN LINDSAY: My first question is for you, Pete, because in your first conversation with Interview, you admitted that Until the Ribbon Breaks was a project that you imagined as an shorterm project. Obviously that has not proven to be the case. Why has it stuck around?
PETE LAWRIE WINFIELD: I think the further it went on, the more it developed into a three-piece band and certainly a live band, and the more that that has been the case, the more we want to do it again—play more shows, make more records, do everything more. Basically, initially I didn’t know what it was or what I was doing. Over time it’s making more and more sense what it is and what it can and could be as a project.
LINDSAY: How is it that the three of you came together, then?
JAMES GORDON: It was originally a concept that Pete developed. He is the creative brain and lyrics man. He’s designed his own stories and world in which the music exists, but to cut a very long story short—Elliot has known Pete for a very long time, and he’s played drums for Pete on various projects in the past, and they’re good friends from home. I got to know Pete during the first batch of music that was made on this project. So when Pete first ventured down this road, he had a few different engineers, producers, and people that were helping him; I was one of those people. I think, to begin with, there was very little thought and attention paid to the idea of it being a live band at all, really. It was just focused in the studio. Later, it was this realization of, “Okay, this is going to be a real band now.” I was drafted in and really keen to help Pete—that was dissecting and remaking the record, in a way, because we literally pulled it apart, worked out who was gonna play what, what instruments and tech we used to do it, along with the visuals, etcetera. We spent about two months in the studio in London working out how that was gonna happen.
LINDSAY: What is it about the project that spoke you, Elliot, and made you want to delve further into it on a more permanent and personal level?
ELLIOT WALL: Pete called me. [laughs] No, I’d been in various projects with Pete and I was at a stage where I was like, “Okay, music isn’t really gonna make me money,” so I went on to start a building business with my father, and then Pete showed me the tracks that he just finished, and was like, “Do you wanna go for it again?” So I just dropped everything and moved over to the States.
LINDSAY: You first jumped on the scene with the video for “Pressure,” and that got as much attention for the music as well as for pulling these samples from David Lynch’s Lost Highway and for this cinematic aesthetic to the entire project. Do the three of you share that similar affinity for film?
GORDON: Yeah, I mean, we all have our interests, as well. The great thing about this project is that because of Pete’s relationship with film and kind of wanting this project to have such a visual element, it’s been a very interesting process. We learn from each other, so I think it’s become so. It’s become more of a unit. When we look at how this project can evolve in the future, things to do with film and sound, and the way that the art is presented in unique and original ways and all the possibilities within that, I think that just becomes stronger as we start to influence each other more in positive ways.
LINDSAY: A Lesson Unlearnt isn’t a record about love by any means, but with the song “Romeo,” I really love its exploration of power dynamics that happens in relationships—you’re being the seeker of love, or you’re being the object of affection. What’s the role that love plays on the album overall?
LAWRIE WINFIELD: I try as much as I can to avoid writing [love songs]. In my mind, there’s nothing that hasn’t already been said. I try to think of songs almost as little short films and narratives of their own, so I find that particular narrative of the end of a relationship or the beginning of a relationship is just a narrative that has been played out and played out and played out. There’s too much in the world already of a very specific theme. But you can’t escape [love as an] integral part of human nature and of life and of something that we all either feel, want to feel, or no longer want to feel. A song like “Romeo,” if there was a line that sums up that whole song, it would be, “You’ve been looking for meaning, did you like what you found?” because it’s actually about the chase for the feeling, the concept of love, I suppose, the constant need and almost addiction to it. It’s asking once you achieve that or attain that, what’s next?
LINDSAY: I find it curious that you mention it’s more about the chase of this love and wanting that connection, but then you look at a song like “Revolution Indifference,” which you’ve spoken on before as kind of the apathy that we’re headed towards and the technologically obsessed culture with the smartphones and the lack of human connection. Was that an intentional correlation of you exploring these two different facets of the modern human experience?
LAWRIE WINFIELD: Yes, in the sense that it’s just part of what I think about, but no, in the sense that there’s a correlation specifically between them. I’d never looked at the connection between those songs, but I suppose they correlate thematically because it’s about the search for something and did we ever find what we’re looking for? What are we looking for? I never want to directly say what I’m saying. One of my favorite lyricists is Paul Simon—within [a song], if you deconstruct it, you can attain a thing or what his personal agenda is, but you never quite know. There’s an amazing quote from Paul Simon that I read recently, something about the fact that if you take any sense of humor out of writing lyrics, then it’s over for you. If you become too pompous and aloof, then you’ve lost the listener. And that’s what was always amazing Paul Simon: there’s funny bits in there, too. That’s why “Revolution Indifference” references things like Kurt Russell, Escape From New York, and things like that. It was never meant to be so politically me ramming anything down anyone’s throat; it’s meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, too. It’s a tough balance, and an interesting one, but that’s the part of all this that I love the most: writing.
LINDSAY: Where does the title A Lesson Unlearnt come from?
LAWRIE WINFIELD: Basically, my first introduction to music was my parents, who are classical musicians, and my first influence was classical music. Their version of “pop” music was things like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and folksy kinda stuff—some soul, too. Then through my friends and influences I got into hip-hop, which was the first thing I fell in love with. Later on, I did more of a solo singer-songwriter kind of thing, and then I started making hip-hop beats… I was in a spot, basically, where I had all of these influences and all this music that I loved and no idea how to put them together because there was no way I was going to try and rap. Nobody in the world needs to hear me rap. [laughs] I also loved film. So A Lesson Unlearnt comes from the idea of having to unlearn everything you thought about how to make music and how to think about creation and just start again.
LINDSAY: And make something that works for you.
LAWRIE WINFIELD: Yeah, exactly. And just stop being so precious, really, worrying what genre it is and who’s gonna like it and where’s it’s gonna fit in. Just throw all your influences into a pot and see what happens.
LINDSAY: And now you’re taking it on the road with London Grammar. Looking to the last 18 months of performing live, how has your live presence evolved?
LAWRIE WINFIELD: It’s constantly evolving. We spent a lot of time even figuring out who was gonna play what instrument. The London Grammar tour will be the first time we’re using hardly any kind of track. It’s as live as we can possibly make it. I play horns and guitar; James does a lot of the programming, synth work, and bass; and Elliot plays real drums. It’s kind of evolved into an actual band, which is what it feels like now.
LINDSAY: Will you be utilizing video art like in the past?
LAWRIE WINFIELD: It’s interesting because the video aesthetic live is as evolving as the music in that the first version of us as a live band had visuals throughout, and I think, once again, we were trying to make it almost as something to hide behind; if people look at the visuals, they won’t look at us. So we’re using less and less visuals, but hopefully just in the right spots—more as accents now and as ways to make it more dynamic rather than just something that is constant.