Artificial Pleasure

After releasing just a handful of tracks, London quartet Artificial Pleasure are already inspiring glowing comparisons with the likes of David Bowie and Talking Heads. The band’s expansive sound defies categorisation with a cocktail of angular post-punk guitars, tight rhythmic grooves inspired by funk and rhythm and blues, and flourishes of disco-tinged energy.


“Bowie and Talking Heads get mentioned a lot,” says vocalist/guitarist Phil McDonnell. “They’re some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, so I’ll take it! But sometimes people over simplify those comparisons.”


Instead McDonnell picks influences from an eclectic range of music which he reshapes in a contemporary style. Funkadelic, The Clash, Gang of Four, The Beach Boys, JJ Cale and Sam & Dave are just some of the names he references with an evident passion.


The sheer irresistible energy of James Brown is another important touchstone. “We often have a central groove that other stuff moves around. Like with James Brown, the funky stuff is going on, the horns are going off and he comes in smashes the vocal, but underneath it all there’s a groove. For me it’s more like soul music.”


That’s reflected in the band’s debut 'The Bitter End', a collection that sets lyrical themes of urban anxiety to songs which burst with joyous exuberance. That apparent contradiction is actually key to its cohesiveness: the life-affirming sounds reel you into Artificial Pleasure’s world, but the outlook of the lyrics adds a layer of depth for fans to become fully immersed within.


“Everyone is comparing themselves to each other and everything is getting quicker,” explains McDonnell. “Everyone’s posting about how good their life is, but everyone’s worried about falling behind. So there’s this pent-up tension that you want to get away from. Most of it is about trying to escape in some way.”


That stance manifests itself in a variety of ways. Their killer anthem ‘I’ll Make It Worth Your While’ is about “escapism as opposed to pure enjoyment” according to synth player and producer Dom Brennan. McDonnell concurs: “People are so self-conscious about expressing themselves that they get wrecked just to overcome their inhibitions. Sometimes I need that escape too because I can’t fucking handle it.”


The album’s lead single ‘On A Saturday Night’ offers a different angle to that idea. People find solace in nostalgia, but such rose-tinted reflections ignore the wider context of what else was happening at the time. “It’s nice to think about happy memories from your life,” laughs McDonnell, “but I was probably going through an awful break-up at the time.”


Sonically the album brims with attitude and aggression, and is more than a match for any of 2018’s other breaking bands. You certainly wouldn’t guess that its creation has been of a scrappy, episodic nature in which the band’s scant resources demanded a self-reliant attitude. That, together with total determination and a willingness to ask favours where they could, meant the album began to take shape.


One such example was when the band adapted McDonnell’s uncle’s basement to use a makeshift studio in which to record Lee Jordan’s drum tracks. Brennan recorded Jordan’s performances in what the drummer calls “a freezing winter of discontent” in a room so small that McDonnell had to wait outside.


Jordan jokes about Brennan’s attention to detail (“He wouldn’t let us have a kettle in the room in case the vapour changed the quality of the recording, and he put socks around the guitars on the wall so the strings wouldn’t resonatewhen we were recording the drums”) but ultimately concludes, “We were really lucky that Dom had such a DIY attitude.”


“The whole process was very improvised,” says Brennan, “and everything was held together with string, basically. We hired some microphones for £100, borrowed a sound card from a friend and used every channel that still worked on my old mixing desk. On another occasion we got some discounted studio time through a friend, so we blitzed through some drum tracks in a session before finishing the tracks elsewhere. It was a little bit unorthodox, but we couldn’t do it any other way.”


The DIY approach also yielded some unconventional production techniques that really give the album character. The band might, for example, incorporate elements of McDonnell’s eight-track demos in the final production, or put drum machines through guitar amps to create an industrial snare without it sounding too digital. One of the album’s Eno-esque instrumental segues, ‘Stammheim’, was started when Brennan sampled the sound of a railing being hit with a bottle in a tunnel.


Artificial Pleasure’s roots can be traced back to childhood. McDonnell and Brennan have been for friends for so long that they don’t remember a time that they didn’t know each other. They didn’t play music together until adulthood however, when they formed the band Night Engine after previously producing niche electronica (Brennan) and playing in a Frank Zappa tribute band (McDonnell).


Their search for a drummer resulted in their early demo falling into the hands of Jordan. He’d always preferred to play in jazz or eight-piece funk bands, but was enamoured by the strength of their material. “I was listening to it on repeat, I absolutely loved it,” he recalls, “It was really exciting to be playing songs that I first heard on my iPod. It was like joining a band I already loved.”


Night Engine almost immediately ignited a wave of media attention. They released a couple of singles and gigged relentlessly, with sets at the Reading Festival and a tour with The 1975 among the highlights. Things pushed forwards until one fateful week. Proposed publishing and recording deals fell through shortly before they were signed and their bassist left the band, all in the space of a few days.


It was “traumatic” sighs Brennan. “But we never thought of giving up,” interjects McDonnell. “It was tough but the thought of not doing it… that’s a horrible thought.”


Soon enough, the Night Engine name was jettisoned in favour of a fresh start as Artificial Pleasure, and they recruited Rich Zbaraski on bass - “the best musician in the band by a million miles” they all agree. “They had everything I loved about Talking Heads, but with a Bowie soundscape and the angst of the L.A. punk scene,” enthuses the young bassist.


Since then they’ve been gradually building a following. Their live show features McDonnell’s theatrical in-your-face persona which one critic compared to a mix of Bryan Ferry and Sid Vicious. As Jordan says with utmost seriousness, “the way Phil fronts the band is something for crowds to both enjoy and be frightened of.”


Their visual presentation is also prevalent in their immediately engaging videos, which meld black humour, surrealism and body horror. ‘Wound-Up Tight’ is a particularly fine example, and depicts McDonnell being bombarded by an arsenal of everyday objects while being suspended upside down. He draws parallels with performance artists such as Marina Abramović and Ragnar Kjartansson. “They’re people who put themselves at the centre of the work. It was hideously painful to do, but artistically it’s me putting myself on the line.”


The release of Artificial Pleasure’s debut album is a landmark for the band, and one that they’ve had to battle to achieve. “This album has been labour of love for us personally, it’s good to be able to let go and let it stand on its own,” says Brennan.


“It’s all we’ve wanted to do. It’s a real artistic statement of who we are as a band,” concludes McDonnellwith pride. “I like to think of us a replicant soul band that could be in Blade Runner. It looks human but there’s something a little cold about it, a little bit off about it, and with a slight unsettling detachment.”