Until now, Andy and Jez Williams have been best known as two thirds of Doves, whose four albums – including two Number Ones – took them around the world, including stadium-sized gigs with U2, Elbow and Coldplay. You can hear echoes of Doves’ expansive, emotional sound in their new band, Black Rivers, but it’s more electronic, more diverse, more brilliantly psychedelic, tugging at the heartstrings in a different, more kaleidoscopic way.
“We never said ‘Oh, we can’t do that because it sounds too much like Doves,’ says Jez. “Some bands are rooted in the reality of the here and now. I suppose we’ve always been about escapism: searching for something. That’s the link, but I wouldn’t want to think we sound too much like Doves. The exciting thing about Black Rivers is that we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted.”
With Doves on indefinite hiatus since 2010, the duo didn’t immediately think of playing together for a while. They’d grown up as brothers and spent over 20 years together in bands with singer/bassist Jimi Goodwin. After initially writing for white label 12”s in Manchester in the post-acid house boom of the early 1990s, they found themselves on Top Of The Pops as their first band, dance act Sub Sub, scored a Number Three hit with Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use). “On Top of the Pops and skint,” chuckles Jez. “We could barely manage enough for a cheese pasty at the BBC studios, yet we were going out across the entire nation.” Success – and being able to afford cheese pasties - became a much more regular occurrence as they regrouped as Doves and the Mercury-nominated 2000 debut, Lost Souls, established the mix of melancholy and euphoria that became a trademark. But by 2009 – following fourth album Kingdom Of Rust – they needed a break from each other, as a band if not as brothers. Guitarist Jez plunged himself into electronic music while drummer Andy formed a new band with some friends, until their jobs started getting in the way. Gradually, the brothers found themselves making music together once again.
“We just drifted back together,” explains Andy. “It made sense.”
What Andy’s referring to is the uncanny – perhaps genetic, but certainly musical – chemistry that existed between the pair in Doves and effortlessly resumed in Black Rivers, as songs started to flow easier than they had in years. The big change, of course, was the voice. In the studio, in Doves, Andy had sung the likes of M62 Song and Here It Comes, while Jez sang Jetstream, but live, bassist/singer Jimi Goodwin was the recognized voice and frontman. Playing together without him instantly meant the voice had changed, but the fact that either of them could sing meant they could sing in any key, high or low.
“There was no management, no record company, no anything,” explains Andy. “Really, there were no rules and no grand masterplan. We were just playing around and seeing what kind of stuff excited us.”
Because of the practicalities of playing as a guitar/drums duo, the computer became a “third musician” and – not wanting “the chaos of a studio full of musicians” - Jez played bass and keyboards while Andy contributed on piano. A renewed sense of liberation meant that their creativity was firing off in all sorts of directions.
The adventure upped another gear when – needing to get away from family commitments – the pair took themselves off to Angelsey, writing and recording in a remote rented cottage, which further impacted on the music.
“It was winter, stormy,” remembers Andy. “You could see the skies. That elemental atmosphere definitely informed the tracks. There was an atmosphere when we were writing and recording.”
Those sessions have thrown up some of the best and most diverse music the pair have made since Lost Souls.
“The similarity with Doves is that each track has its own microclimate,” muses Jez. “That’s part of who we are. We must have a low attention span. Sometimes, tracks arrive as a reaction to others. You do one thing and you want to do something completely different.”
Thus, Voyager 1, the forthcoming first Black Rivers single, is cosmic electro psychedelia, waterfalls of guitars tumbling around a cinematic chorus. The epic The Ship, the song to announce the new album and available as a free download from the band’s website, combines an electro arpeggio with a haunting melody reminiscent of a seafaring Nick Drake. The Forest – brimming with natural imagery and Northern soul – perhaps has been most impacted by their time in wintry Wales. Diamond Days – surely a potential hit – marries a killer lysergic Sixties pop melody to wistful lyrics about childhood: “when we were young”. The biggest curveball is the electronic punky rock ‘n’ roll of Age Of Innocence, which Jez describes as “quite an oddity. We wanted to do something fast, energetic and youthful. We weren’t just gonna do an old rockabilly track. It was about fusing things together to see what worked. We wanted to be able to say, ‘Yes, this is exciting!’”
If a connection emerges from them all, it’s an uplifting sense of travelogue, movement and yearning. Only after recording had finished, Jez realised that several tracks have a theme of “immigrants, I suppose, perhaps reflecting our Irish heritage. Trying to leave something in search of optimism, a better something.”
As for the only downside to working as a duo as opposed to a trio, they say they now find it harder to agree on anything, because no one has the casting vote. The name, it seems, was a particular cause of consternation. Jez wanted Help. Andy liked the juxtaposition of Black and River, and won the day.
“But there’s some Polish heavy metal band called Black River,” he chuckles. “We saw a photo of them and they look pretty handy, so we thought we’d better stick an ‘S’ on the end!”
As for their old band, Doves may or may not one day fly again, but the Williams brothers are adamant that Black Rivers is anything but a side project. It’s their third great band and they’re giving this their all, just like they did in Doves and Sub Sub.
“It’s funny,” muses Jez, “because we came up with Elbow and Coldplay people would always ask if we were jealous of that level of success. Not at all! We’ve been more successful than we ever could have imagined, and we’ve been able to make a living at this for a long time.”
“And after 20 years we’re still absolutely crazy about making music,” beams Andy. “We’re the lucky ones.”