“I think there’s a certain amount of therapeutic catharsis involved in performance of any kind and I definitely think that just playing live music and having it be really loud in front of an audience is a good thing for me. I’ve kind of learnt to live without it, I guess, but if I could live with it then it would be a lot better.” Alex Kent, guitarist and singer of the experimental LA band ‘Sprain’ calls in from LA, somewhere with considerably better weather prospects than England, but suffering from the same gaping void of live music. Over a plate of waffles he reflects on the strange year he’s had, with the band’s last show over twelve months ago, and the way these changes have pushed the group’s music in a new direction.
Prior to the pandemic, Sprain’s songwriting approach relied heavily on performance as a test of which aspects of their music would be worth taking further. “We would make songs and have these big ideas… [but] we didn’t know exactly whether they would make the cut” Kent explains. “A good way to dictate whether or not that was going to happen was by playing live and whether or not you felt like an idiot doing it was the final judge in whether it was going to stay.” However, the past year has seen the process radically change as a result of the group’s time together being increasingly disrupted and difficult to maintain. The band even took a three month ‘leave of absence’, but as of the beginning of February have managed to begin to play together again. As a result, the music is “more obsessive and slower now” according to Kent, and the songs they are producing “sound less like music and sounds more like art.”
Sprain’s debut album ‘As Lost Through Collision’ was released in September of last year. When asked on the group’s hopes for the album Kent muses that his only aim “was to create something that would mildly satisfy the creative endeavours that I have set for myself and my friends in this project… I don’t think that we were out to necessarily work with a label or necessarily go on all these tours.” Instead, “ultimately it was just like a trial of the attempt of creating something artistically valid to us.”
Listening the the album it is clear that this is a confident and exciting debut. Not every band could smoothly progress from a well-received lo-fi EP to an album featuring multiple sprawling tracks that comfortably surpass the ten minute mark like Sprain have. Although that the group were “a little burnt out” by the time the album was released into the world, a result of the release date getting repeatedly pushed back, it is a promising and intense debut. “When it came out,” Kent reflects, “it was received really polarisingly… people either liked it or thought it was bullshit. I think that’s probably a good thing” he muses.
When asked about the pressure that comes with signing to a label like The Flenser with such a public image and following, Kent claims that his anxiety has worn off over time. That fear might have been present for their debut but, Kent reflects, “now that the world’s kind of collapsed, the ego’s been crushed, the self has been strewn flaccid on the floor more or less… It used to be a big concern of mine that ‘it has to be this perfect thing and I really wanna get this impression across’ but I think that putting the record out, suffering some of the consequences of some of that inevitably never happening and then also the pandemic, I think that its kind of squashed all those fears in a way.” In fact, Kent laughs, neither he nor anyone else in the group is “necessarily fearful of what people are going to say about it next time. We’ve already kind of been through the wringer.”
The feeling of having outgrown the sound of the album is also apparent speaking to Kent, he seems much more fixed on the music he is currently producing than that of the past. He comments that song writing is sometimes “very therapeutic and good for your self esteem and other it’s the opposite, and it kind of just comes and goes in waves. Sometimes you go through periods where I don’t really feel super good about what I’m creating and you feel lost like you’re blindly stumbling and sometimes you feel like you might just be the best damn artist on the whole planet. So I think it’s a little bit of both of these kinds of extremes that get mixed up in this primordial soup of emotion.”
In fact, as an artist who has previously described performing his music on stage as feeling like flashing, being separated from his audiences has allowed Kent to be even more vulnerable. A big part of this arises from Sprain’s resistance of ‘music culture’, something which is particularly prevalent in LA but the group view as a potential hinderance in their artistic process. The sociality of the music scene has good and bad aspects, Kent discusses, but sometimes “it can be distracting to artists who are just focused on their craft and wanting to create things… everyone gets caught up a little bit, I certainly did, and I think that having all that taken away at once was scary but I think that it was all for the best, at least for me.” Kent hesitates, “obviously I’m not saying ‘oh this pandemic happened and this has been good for me,’ that’s not what I’m trying to imply. There’s been a ton of suffering but as far as the learning experience I got from it, it has taught me to open up and be totally vulnerable, explore other avenues of creativity… it’s probably improved my artistry in general.”
However, the issue of lazy journalism and one dimensional portrayal is one that is particularly apparent as Sprain experiment with their sound. Like many of the ‘post-rock’ bands emerging in the past few years, Sprain have been repeatedly compared to groups like Slint. Kent discusses the way in which media constantly reduce acts such as Black Country, New Road and Black Midi to Slint tribute acts – something so rife it’s become a running joke for the groups. Sprain are no exception, in fact the title of their opening track from the album ‘Slant’ is a pun on this. “I don’t think that either of those bands [Black Country, New Road and Black Midi] sound like Slint. I think that the Slint comparison is contrived and I think that it comes from a place of people not understanding that dissonance and odd time signatures and spoken word exist out of a single band… [The journalists] don’t know any other music so it’s just ‘oh this is like Slint’.”
Slint’s influence is clear in Sprain’s sound, but the artists the group cite as inspirations are varied and often surprising. In fact, as proven by the playlist on their Spotify profile, the group listen to everything from expected names such as Duster, to Al Green and Alice Coltrane. Social media is a help in this, allowing Kent and other members of the group to display their influences and interests that inform their music. This breaks out of the one dimensional portrayal that is often shown in press, which Kent comments is not the whole picture. “So much bad shit happens with [social media]” he reflects, but it allows you to “be yourself and let people know what kind of sense of humour you have and how much effort you put into the logistics of putting out a record.” For the group this reclaim of narrative is a useful tool in proving their musical nuance and resisting the compartmentalising so many bands fall victim to.
Reflecting on their upcoming year the main focus falls upon the band’s upcoming record, something Kent believes will showcase these varied influences and the experimentation brought about in the isolation period. Though the release date is unclear, Kent reflects that “it sounds good and I’m excited about it, everyone’s excited about it.” In order for that to be achieved and delivered in a notorious Sprain live show capacity though, Kent hopes everyone will “be safe and responsible, so that eventually when things do come we can just hit the ground and go from there. I think… when things open up, there’s going to be a big ‘boom’.”
One thing is clear when speaking to Kent, Sprain are not a band who will be pigeonholed. They are not a Slint tribute act, their influences are varied and surprising, and they see this band as a project of experimentation. Sick of lazy companions, this is a group with a bright and intriguing future ahead of it. Despite the looming sadness apparent as a result of the absence of live music, maybe we can take stories such as that of Sprain as a silver lining. This is a band forced to adapt to changing times, who’ve learned about themselves and their artistry in the process. It seems fairly clear that they’re emerging out of this period with some of their boldest and most exciting music yet.