Live4ever Interview: The Rifles’ Joel Stoker talks new solo album The Undertow

Press photo of Joel Stoker by Patrick Ford

Joel Stoker by Patrick Ford

Joel Stoker’s latest record is out today.

Across their 20-year friendship and five studio albums, Joel Stoker and Lucas Crowther have built a loyal and enduring fanbase as The Rifles.

Now, Stoker is temporarily going it alone on his new studio album The Undertow. In an exclusive chat with Live4ever, the singer-songwriter tells us all about the new album, the music industry and why fans of his main band should have no fear.

How did the solo album come about?

It was never my intention to do a solo album, I just had a bunch of songs around the lockdown period – I’ve always got lots of ideas floating about – but I had 5 or so songs that were fully formed, all similar in subject.

They were a bit too personal for the band, so I wrote a couple more and fell into that vein. I thought, ‘If I do a couple more there’s an album there’. It wasn’t a planned thing as such.

How was it explaining the solo project to the other members of the Rifles?

It was a little bit difficult, but not really. Me and Luke chatted about it, and it was fine. The songs aren’t right for the band so what are you going to do with them? It was a little bit awkward but after 5 seconds it was fine.

To be honest with you, Luke’s been writing stuff for a long time with a sort of country sound, which probably isn’t right for the band either. I’ve been saying to him for a long time that he should go and do it.

It’s another outlet for us both, and it was enjoyable to make all the decisions and not have a discussion about this part, or that part.

How long has the album been ready?

It was finished about 6 months ago, but there’s a been long wait for th.e vinyl so that takes time. I’ve lived with it for a while so it’ll be nice to have it out.

It’s hard to put a timeframe on how long the album has been there because I didn’t go to the studio for two weeks I did it all at home and I was picking it off. I might spend a day putting the bass on, or lead guitar or whatever. Finding the time when I could.

The songs cover struggles with mental health and OCD. Was it challenging to write those songs?

If we’ve touched on (mental health) in The Rifles, it’s been in a universal way rather than a personal way. The whole album’s about it; The Undertow being something that pulls you under. It’s all about that but it’s not doom and gloom at all.

I think it’s about living with it and getting on and getting through stuff. It’s never as bad as you think it is. It’s a weird one because there’s so much of it about and it’s like, ‘are you jumping on a bandwagon?’. I really ain’t! I’ve almost not wanted to mention it, but I don’t see the point in not mentioning it because if you listen to it – and anyone who has suffered from anxiety or anything like that – I’m pretty sure you’d be able to get what I’m saying. It’s not like it’s a cryptic thing.

I just think talking about it is necessary, and that is the trouble. Anyone who is feeling low and doesn’t say anything, that’s the worst thing to do, but obviously it takes time to get to that point where you think, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care’.

If you talk to people, the more people understand and you think, ‘Everyone gets it’. Or that’s what it feels like. Life’s stressful anyway and the more you talk about it, the less big it becomes. It only becomes big when you don’t say anything and it consumes you. As soon as you get it off your chest, it feels a bit lighter.

How did the instrumentation come together?

I did all the demoing at home using computer drums, then I spoke to one of my best friends’ dad, Brendan O’Neill (who drummed for Rory Gallagher and Nine Below Zero) and asked if he would drum for me. He listened to the demos to get the structures and we recorded all the drums in three days.

Then I took the drum recordings home and did everything in my shed. I got Dean – who plays with The Rifles – to play piano, I got a friend who played some brass on some of the songs and another fella called Daniel Oates to do the string lines. Other than that, I did everything myself: guitar, bass, percussion, harmonies, production.

I didn’t mix it though, I sent it to Lee at Green Man studios in Leeds. He sent it back and it wasn’t what I was hearing but we didn’t have a conversation about it. He was obviously doing a generic mix but I wanted it to sound like a 70s album.

I didn’t want it to sound like it had been in a studio, I wanted flat drums and guitar solos. I had a sound in my head. After he sent me the first mix, I went up to Leeds and rather than try and tweak what he did we wiped the board and started again. Once we established what sound we were going for, I left Lee to it.

Tell us about the studio in Walthamstow that you’ve built.

That’s born from me recording the album. I think in this day and age rather than go and spend thousands of pounds for a couple of weeks in a studio, I just wanted somewhere to track drums.

That’s the only thing you can’t record at home as far as I’m concerned. Drums are a different animal because it’s noisy anyway and you need the room to sound good, but after the drums are down, I don’t see why you need to go to a massive studio to sing in front of a microphone. I’d rather buy that microphone with the money and do it at my leisure at home.

My studio’s not a big thing but I can do it all at home, and I wanted bands to be able to come here, track their drums and then do it at your leisure. You need to know what you’re doing with the song, that’s the only stipulation. You can’t do anything without the drums in my opinion. I haven’t really advertised the studio as such because we’ve been doing The Rifles stuff in there.

More and more people are finding alternative ways to record music. Is that because of the changes in the industry?

People getting music for free is game changer for artists. The only bonus from it is that you might get more people hearing your music and then they might come and see you live. It just seems unfair that you spend all that time working on something and you just give it away. I don’t know how to fix that.

It’s great to be able to get out and gig, but it’s expensive to go out on the road. I just think there’s certain musicians who are probably talented who just can’t do it because it doesn’t work for them financially. We’re lucky because we’ve got a fanbase and play gigs. To try and start up a fanbase by playing live, you’re going to get next to no money for doing. It’s probably going to cost you to do it!

What about live shows?

I’m playing the Trades Hall in Walthamstow on Saturday (the day after the album comes out) which is round the corner where I’m from, and then the plan after that is to play a gig every Thursday night. Pick a place then go and do it. That way I’m not on tour as such but just doing one-off gigs once a week. If I can, it will be indefinite, just playing every Thursday!

I won’t be playing any Rifles songs because it’s not The Rifles. I’d rather play Paul Simon songs. Because I’ve only got my album and Stuck Inside (released during lockdown), I’ve got to play covers or do a short set. A lot of my family are big Bruce Springsteen fans so I’m working on a cover for Saturday so we’ll see how that goes down. I might do some Chas & Dave…and I’m being serious!

What about The Rifles? Fans of the band may be worried…

Me and Luke are in my studio tomorrow and we’ve got the drums and bass down for the new album. We’re just picking them off. We’re going to finish what we think will be the first single tomorrow. We’re on it, it’s just finding the time. It’s very hard to find two weeks out of our lives, financially. If we could do that, the album would be done in two weeks. I don’t see how the solo album is a negative either way.

The Undertow is out now

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