It's a pretty special day that we turn up to our chosen studio for the day. There is an air of joy to be amongst people. After some obligatory Covid-19 testing, we collectively breathe a little easier and simply enjoy being in a bubble of creating.
As always, we end up in deep conversation. It feels like finally catching up with old friends. After speaking to Conor last summer during the lockdown, it's been a while since I have seen the rest of the guys. It is always a treat. These guys are firmly grounded, with a healthy dose of self-insight. Things flow with ease and I'm again reminded why their music keeps getting more and more impactful as the years go by. They have come a long way since I met them almost ten years ago, and we take some time to dwell on the journey before we deep dive into their new release.
Moral Panic Part II builds on the album Moral Panic, and is a direct result of the extended period and waiting we have all experienced. It's poetic in a way and also satisfies that need to sometimes dwell on things till we have processed and experienced them fully. It's a musical play with new sounds, whilst staying beautifully firm in the Nothing But Thieves universe. Both in sound and lyrics, it builds from raw vulnerability to an explosion of chaos and back again. It is the kind of music that must be experienced live to fully be lifted by it, and we'll get to do that soon, as the band is set to tour this fall. Part II ignites the heart, and I'm here for it.
'Moral Panic Part II' is out now including their new single Miracle, Baby.
I’ve missed you guys! Conor and I had a chat during lockdown, but it's been ages since I've seen you all. This is special.
Conor: It must have been Reading Festival.
Joe: This is a real moment.
And even more special because of the weird year we've had. How was it for you?
Joe: Stressful and boring...
Dom: Probably like everyone else's year; slightly unpredictable. The hardest thing was not having a light at the end of the tunnel for so long. When we went into this, we thought it was going to be for a month, two months, six months - and it kept going for longer and longer - until you accept that it's probably going to be like this for a bit. That's when we started writing and doing more work remotely, so we could spend the time a little bit more productively.
Conor: The first six months were good for a lot of people and the planet, to deal with their life and iron out things. Then after that, you do want to get touring again.
Joe: You start to doubt yourself a little bit. I felt an imposter syndrome for a few moments. Am I a musician now? I used to be. Normally, we'll have tour after tour after tour, and by the time you get to the big UK tour with really radiant, and the set is very warm. So we've got to try and recreate that feeling ourselves somehow before we get to the upcoming tour this Autumn.
I would love to see you guys perform. You know I'm your biggest fan!
Everyone: Yes, you're very welcome!
It's been a journey with us because I photographed you before the release of your very first EP, which is around 10 years ago.
Conor: That's why this is weirdly cyclical, because we hadn't played yet or toured then, and you did photos of us - and now it's like that again.
It’s been a beautiful journey to watch you develop as a band. When I asked you in our first interview what your songs were about, you said it was simply about everyday stuff and things around you. Your music certainly didn't have the multiple layers of depth your songs have now. With every release, you've gone deeper and deeper, more honest and more vulnerable. This is why you are my favorite band. I believe that you don’t get enough recognition which you deserve. Your songs are SO catchy and impactful. I'm going to call your music EPIC. Yes, I am. And now, with Moral Panic - the number of emotional buttons you are pushing and how you leave your songs open to mean a lot of things to different people is amazing. How has this journey been for you guys?
Joe: At the start, you're just a bit green. You don't really have any ownership of the craft at that point, so you just try to get some songs together to figure out what songwriting is and what sort of band you are. As the years go on, you can be a little more specific about what you want to say. Now, we can choose what songs we want to write and what we want the songs to be about.
Dom: Yes, and the more music you release over time, the more refined the identity of the band becomes. We were lucky that there was a lot of diversity within our music on the first record, which left various doors open for going more hybrid with the sound.
Conor: And I think, as you get older, you become more opinionated and conscious of yourself. We have discussions of things that happen in life, and that's where Broken Machine came into play and Moral Panic. It's an extension of what we want to talk about and what we've been going through. Whereas, when you're 19, you haven't really been through that much yet.
Joe and Conor: Haha.
Dom: I remember when we first got signed, we all moved into a house together. That was quite a nice moment because it felt like the journey really had begun. We had signed to a major label after a lot of groundwork of had quite a lot of songs. Moving into London and out of home felt like a big step into this whole thing. When I look back at the start of the band, that's the place it takes me to.
Joe: All our gear was in the house.
I remember. It was all over the floor.
Joe: Yes, of course, cause you came over to do a shoot.
Dom: All the carrying up and down the stairs probably wasn't good, but in the other sense, we could solely focus on the music. Because we spent so much time together, and it was all we were doing, I think that was instrumental to the growth of the band.
Conor: It kind of happened again during the lockdown. That's why Moral Panic Part 2 happened. There was no pressure to write, it just happened and we were able to play around.
Dom: It was really freeing.
Conor: It was completely freeing, and everything we wrote, we said to ourselves that it was some of the most favorite songs we've ever done.
Joe: It's also nice that we can pick and choose wherever we want to put the songs. There are way more songs than what we wrote for Moral Panic Part II that just didn't fit the project in terms of sound and what we were writing about.
Conor: We're always trying to be one step ahead of ourselves in terms of writing and what we're trying to craft.
Joe: It makes you think differently about the songs as well when you see an audience react live and we have not had that at all for Moral Panic yet. You can look at Spotify plays or YouTube numbers, but you really don't know before you see a reaction in a crowd. That's gonna be a real moment when we see: 'Oh, that's what people like'.
In terms of your personal journeys, how have you grown and what lessons have you learned these past 10 years?
Dom: That's a really good question.
Joe: We've all grown, but you two especially were very much younger.
Conor: Yeah, we were.
Dom: We were definitely kids.
Conor: It sounds really deep, but I didn't have any concept of pain or anything like that. Then the last eight years I've been going through a lot. It's all good stuff, you know, it makes you grow. We've both been through a shit ton of stuff and have grown up and feel differently.
Dom: What you value may change and I don't know if anyone ever lands on that. The lockdown, especially, highlighted things that were more important to me than I thought. When I first got out of London after being in London for so long, I loved being in an open space. I sound like an old person, but enjoying wildlife and being able to go for a walk through a field and go to a beach - small things like that, which I had never factored in as a priority for me. We also developed in how we write and make music.
Conor: I lived back in Essex for a year. You can feel the kind of close-minded energy a little bit, and that's really interesting to come out of for the second time. We live in a city that is so open-minded and diverse and that changes you. Traveling changes you too, and I think that's so good. Seeing other people's lives and respecting everyone, I think that's one of the biggest lessons you can learn as you get older.
Joe: I think we probably live in quite an unsympathetic country, in general. I've noticed it a lot more not being able to travel, that we get locked into that a bit more. The travel part is something I've missed loads, like hearing a different language and experiencing a different way of thinking. That's something, regardless of all gigs, I want to get back to.
Conor: I agree with that.
One impression I get with you guys is that there is a lot of support and respect amongst you - that you have each other's back.
Dom: I think the band would not be a band if one of us wasn't here. Everyone brings immense value.
Conor: We tour so much. We were on the road for five to six years, and all your eggs crack in different ways and you get to know each other. You think you're best friends when you are 19 - you wait till you tour. You learn everything, and that bonds you in such a strange way that you can't even imagine, you know. We have learned to be so open with each other. It's very healthy, and I really like that.
Joe: It's a juxtaposition, I think. The more you tour with people, comfort is quite important. Being comfortable around each other and learning each other's ticks. That's good. Also, there's a different side of it, as being in a band, sometimes you have a bit of chaos. You don't want to be too comfortable with your sound or how things are meant to work, then there is nothing new and you aren't creating anything new. So having a little bit of chaos is kind of good.
I've had the pleasure of listening to Moral Panic Part II.
Joe: One of the only ones!
Oh really? Well, now I feel special!
Conor: What did you personally think?
I'll definitely share and ask you some questions about it?
Dom: Oh, have you made some notes? Wow, you are prepared. Interesting. I'm not surprised.
You know I'm always prepared.
Dom: I know, haha, our mood board briefing was very impressive.
Musically you're mixing it up in Moral Panic II. There are some new elements and mixing of styles. You're also hitting so many emotional buttons and touching on issues that we all have gone through this last year: social issues, mental health, loss, and social-political disfunction. Your music expresses a lot of the anxiety and turbulence this period has held for many of us.
Joe: You could probably pinpoint where we were through the pandemic and certain points of what's going on in the country through the EP. Ce n'est Rien was definitely influenced by that scenario. That song is mostly about nihilism, a complete lack of interest in what it means, that it's all pointless. There is a bit of desperation infiltrating the lyrics.
As I was listening to it, I felt that each song has something different to offer and that they understand a different part of you or where your mind has been. And whether that's what you guys felt when writing it, it is very easy to tie it into my own experiences.
Dom: I think that's the magic of good lyrics, of Joe's lyrics. When people listen to the songs, it can mean whatever it wants to them. Not to get too deep, but art can be interpreted. So let people have what they want from it, as it may help them.
I think there are always two sides to it, right. What does it mean to you guys who wrote it and what does it mean to us who listens?
Joe: That, and there is also more. There are so many times I've gone back and thought I was writing a song about something, only to discover later I was writing about something completely different. "Oh, wow, that's what it meant!"
You released the album Moral Panic, and now you're releasing 5 more songs in Moral Panic Part II. It almost feels like when your favorite Netflix show goes on half break, and then part two comes later and you get really excited. This is really satisfying that part of me.
Conor: It's because we haven't been able to play any gigs with it yet, so we didn't want to go too far away from it. It's all linked.
Dom: We're still in that headspace.
Conor: Yeah, we want to play all of Moral Panic, so it's got to feel like it's still part of the same world.
Joe: From a selfish point of view, it's very rare that you get to go over a project again. You normally release an album and that's done and gone, and you move on to the next thing. So we've been given an opportunity to go over things again and join things together, and it feels more holistic and wholesome. You don't really get to do that ever.
There are some really epic songs. Yeah, but some really like, don't exactly want to know some of my favorite. Do you want to know some of my favorites?
In Moral Panic, we had Is Everybody Going Crazy? which had such perfect timing with everything that was happening in the world. I also loved Impossible - what an absolutely epic track! I can't wait to hear that one live.
Joe: Ah yes, did you see the version with the orchestra on YouTube?
I did. Beautiful!
Joe: That was amazing to do. Being able to play with strings a bit more and have that carry through to the album was really cool.
Conor: I was wondering if we were bordering on too much pop, but we got the balance right in the recording. Being able to work with an orchestra, we were like: 'let's just have at it and make it as big and cinematic as possible'. And people seem to prefer that version.
And that song sits next to songs like Can You Afford To Be An Individual.
Conor: Which is possibly more like the songs on Part II in terms of the grip and angst of it.
Ah yes, I love that song. It was so angsty but in all the right ways. I was so stressed about all the Trump stuff at the moment, and this song felt me.
Dom: It's a cool tune, and was probably the first song we wrote for Moral Panic. It was written years ago and was basically a riff, a loop and a rap, essentially. We hadn't written the whole song until we got to the studio, and it turned out to be an absolute monster. We got so excited by finishing that song.
Conor: We missed a bit of rock.
And there is some quite heavy rock in Ce N'est Rien!
Conor: Yeah, we're really going for it, haha.
Dom: We were laughing and laughing when we were recording it, and we laugh when we listen to it back.
Joe: It was a really conscious decision, and there was something quite freeing in writing a song and simply seeing where it went. We were like: 'Let's just write the heaviest song we've ever written'.
Dom: It reminds me of our collective favorite Foo Fighters record, which is Wasting Light. It's got some real gritty, distorted, trashy and just pure filthy moments in the vocals. It's not every song you get to push that far.
Joe: It should be fun. That's the thing. Writing a song should be fun.
I've got two favorite songs on Moral Panic Part II. Future Proof is definitely one of them. What a fantastic song, and it's very on point with everything that's been going on in the world. The Clash said this about it: “On Futureproof, the band pushes their sound to new territory, taking on hip-hop influences, particularly in their drums, whilst also being frightening and undeniably a Nothing But Thieves track."
Joe: Yeah, cool. That's perfect.
Dom: It's nice that the personality of the band can be recognised in our music. In a song like Futureproof, there is definitely some Nothing But Thieves DNA going through it.
Joe: We very nearly had a very different version of that song.
Dom: Yes, we recorded the song twice, so there's another version buried in my computer somewhere that won't see the light of day.
Conor: It's all about the blend of the production. We're so big into hip hop and R&B, and when it came to recording it we found a blend between rock and hip hop that's really hard to find.
Joe: Rich Costey, the amazing producer that produced this with Dom, worked with us as we tried to communicate that we wanted something that was quite new, which is quite difficult to do in words.
Dom: As a producer, you're always trying to work out what the band wants, and Rich 100% got it. Once he knew what we were after, the rest of the EP came out great.
There are some killer lines in that song: "There's poison in the water, and we deserve it. The future is a monster, and now it's turning. I wanna be futureproof". Wow.
Joe: Futureproof was almost the most universal title I've ever come across. It could literally mean anything to anybody. The lyric is mostly based in metaphor, so you're probably going to think it is about something different than what I think it is about.
Conor: I love that. What is your choice to be futureproof? What lengths do you go to? Some of my favorite lines are in those lyrics.
Joe: It could be negative as well, like if you want to protect yourself, but also it can be self-serving. It could be paying lip service to something you don't believe in but you think that you should.
Or it could be future-proofing the future for the next generation, and that part of current social-political discussions that are happening.
Joe: Yeah, there are so many interpretations. It works on a macro level of society, and it works at an individual level as well.
Dom, how do you want to be futureproof?
Dom: Fucking hell...
Dom: Do you know what, there are actually some severe insecurities of being in a band. If he gets hit by a bus, I'm pointing at Conor for the record...
Dom: The rest of us would either be an incredible karaoke band or we'd need to find a Conor lookalike. You want to future proof the band, so that's why we've got Conor insured.
My other favorite song on Moral Panic Part II is the ballad, Your Blood. I'm such a sucker for a good ballad and this one is really epic. I use epic a lot when I describe your songs because your songs really have that epic vibe. I love how this one really builds, which you guys are so good at. It starts almost fragile, and then builds and builds up to a climax where it takes you to another place.
Conor: That song was written in reverse. We had the big ending, riff section and worked out what we wanted to do beforehand to give that big release.
Dom: We sometimes write songs like that. I think that's one of my favorite vocal performances of yours, Conor, on Moral Panic II. We get to hear your voice almost naked. It's a very cool and vulnerable sound.
Conor: Nice. I love it, as well.
It's a really heartbreaking song. I felt sad.
Conor: It is sad.
Dom: Sorry to have done that to you.
But sometimes that feels good to go into it and stay in for a while. Your voice feels like fragile velvet and you end up in a storm of crying guitars.
Joe: It's an interesting way to finish the EP, ending on a sad note, but it also brings Morel Panic down again, as throughout the Moral Panic universe we have talked about big topics of social change. Your Blood talks about masculinity and toxic masculinity and how that's passed through father to son. So as an ending track, it brings everything back to an individual level again. We've spoken about all these huge changes but bring it back to the singular person again right at the end.
What personal experienced did you pull for Your Blood? It feels like it comes from such an honest place.
Joe: It is about...
Conor: Relationships with fathers.
Joe: Yeah, and male figures and what that means. Those relationships can be unhealthy. You inherit a lot of stuff from your parents, don't you?
Conor: It's generational change, isn't it. Their parents before them and their parents before them. It's not conscious, but it's a really interesting thing to talk about. What can you be conscious about in your situation and what you will pass down? I just think that as a generation we are all becoming so much more self-aware because of social media and the constantness of everything. We are confronted all the time with information, who we are and how other people see us.
Movies usually have a happy ending. Songs very often also have a happy ending, even if it's sad because it feels more comfortable to end up in a happier place. This song and EP does not have a happy ending, and I think that's really beautiful. The last line just hits me: "You know it’s your blood that I bleed. Tell me that there’s some way that I’ll get through the night." I love that.
Conor: That's nice.
It's like one of those art movies that ends without a satisfying happy end, but with an open question that really makes you think. And the album does the same, which is even more satisfying. I want to talk to Joe about writing lyrics because I think you're quite genius. Has your process changed in these past 10 years?
Joe: From album one and onwards it changed quite a lot. In the beginning, it was simply about what happened on the day and it was probably less thought out. Then with Broken Machine, there was a bit of a concept, which I stumbled upon. Moral Panic was much more conscious. There was so much happening in the news and on social media, so it was a different space to be in. I write all the time. I use my phone. I've got pages and pages in books. My process is to not switch off ever. I'm always thinking about it. It's a way of life now. If I'm watching a film, I'll write something down, or I'm reading a newspaper or am on the tube, I'm always writing things down, and eventually they become songs. A song can happen from just one line, or sometimes something I wrote a year apart can look really interesting together.
Dom: Sometimes we'll be in a room together or I'll have an instrumental, and we'll scroll through Joe's bank of lyrics and there will be something that really works with it.
Joe: Marrying lyrics and the way a song sound is so interesting. Sometimes it can take you by surprise.
What about your journey on the production side, Dom?
Dom: I would say that I have a broader understanding of production, and am more aware when listening to music what's going on in it. It's like a language, when you're building, you have more ways to speak when you have that extended vocabulary to pull from. When I listen back to the start I probably knew about three words, but now it's at least double figures. And also, I will say that we've worked with some of the best producers and mixers in the world.
Joe: We've been very lucky. We've had the backing of people that really get what we're doing.
Dom: And they're incredible with their craft and what they do, and we're just sitting there like sponges.
Conor: It's practice as well, though. It's a constant muscle that you're flexing all the time. You simply learn your craft.
Joe: A part of the charm as well is not getting too good, because songwriters who write all the time for a living can get a little soul-less if you get too clinical. So I think it's important to keep the art side of it live and not been too scientific all the time.
We must talk about your voice as well, Conor. You've got a band that really knows your voice, and I know they write songs to specifically fit your voice and what you can do. I find it amazing how it goes from the really fragile to the completely epic moments. When you go in to record or when you sing live, it sounds like you give absolutely everything of yourself and completely release.
Conor Mason: Yeah, I'm a perfectionist with my voice and am very hard on myself. Ever since I was 10 years old, I always listened to songs and asked myself: "can I do that? And if I can't, how can I teach myself to do it?". I had classical lessons at school and had the tools to be able to use my vocal cords properly. It's never changed, I will always want to learn how to do something.
When I record it's a different thing. Without getting too spiritual, I will try to forget anything else other than the literal moment and how it's making me feel. I'll sing from my most honest and present way, just going with how the music is going through me. And it's like that with some of my favorite singers like Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley - you can hear their soul and that's amazing to me.
And I do feel that with your music and it's why so many of your songs are on my personal playlist because I can feel the soul in the music and that's making an emotional impact in me.
Conor: That's great. It's not crafted to do that, but just naturally comes when it's created. It's not a button I can turn on and off. It's always there.
Dom: You're always getting better and always learning new tricks, which means we can start playing with it in different ways. Going back to Can You Afford To Be An Individual, it was the first time we had done something like that. And I think you sang the chorus for Impossible a million times. Then Real Love Song was one take. It's a really fun part of the process to see how many ways you can deliver something.
I have a deep question for you guys. Let's talk about hope. Is there any? It's been a tough year.
Dom: Yeah. We're probably in the most hopeful place we've been in as a world for a long time.
Joe: I think this band functions on hope.
Dom: Yeah! haha.
Joe: Fucking hell, I hope it's fine.
Dom: England is also going into the finals of the Euros.
Haha, you're ruining my deep question...
Conor: Hope is a loaded word for me. Hope can be in everything. I think what's got people through the pandemic is momentary. It's presence. What I have right in front of me and seeing that is just as powerful as going: 'Oh, can't wait for that thing a year ahead'. Hope is a good thing. But it can also be a negative thing if you're always constantly looking forward. You can find great things in what you have already. It's really powerful.
Whilst we are on profound things, you were talking about the meaning of life in a different interview.
Conor: I did?
Yes, you did. I'll remind you. You said that the meaning of life is...
Dom: Here we go...
Conor: Right now...
We're just giving everyone 'the answer', so nobody has to worry about spending time finding it.
Joe: Thank God.
Conor and Dom: haha!
The meaning of life is to truly be at peace with yourself and to be connected with yourself and others. How do we do this?
Conor: It's hard. It's about acceptance. About accepting the great things you have already and the things you don't have. I think acceptance is the best thing because it's knowing what you are and what you want and being cool with it. And that's how you live your life, being more carefree in that sense, you know? I have a friend, and we had a conversation recently where he said that he has learned to see himself as the person who opens the door for the generation that comes through next. His whole being and attitude seem to have changed and I really like that. He has realised what he can do and what he can't do, what he has and doesn't have, and he's just a door for the next thing to come through. It's obviously not the meaning of life for everyone, but I think that's so wicked.
Finally, let's not forget to speak about your upcoming tour!
Dom: Yes! We are lucky enough to play some of the biggest venues we have ever played as a band. One of which will be the O2 Arena, which is such a childhood dream.
I know, I can't wait!
Dom: That's the venue we would see coming up on the train to London. That is the venue we've seen so many of our favorite gigs.
Joe: We've only played the O2 with Muse before, we've never headlined, so this is the first time we'll be allowed to play the O2 without Muse. It's quite exciting.
Conor: It is exciting, it's definitely a childhood dream.
Dom: It's so personal because it's London, and it will feel really special because our family and friends will be there. It will be great.