Blossoms on Tour
In 2013, punters paid just £3 to watch Blossoms’ first live show at Night & Day Café in Manchester. What a bargain! Since then, the Stockport five-piece’s rise to the top has been exponential. Their self-titled debut record hit the top spot in the UK Albums Chart, earning them a Mercury Music Prize nomination along the way, and for the last 18 months, they’ve been touring non-stop around the world. With album two on the way, we talk to Blossoms’ lead guitarist, Josh Dewhurst, and the band’s live engineers, about touring life, top kit, and constantly striving for more.
These past few years have been a whirlwind,” admits Josh Dewhurst. “We’d generated this kind of buzz, as we have always been hands-on with everything; then the album came out, hit number one, we’ve been touring it relentlessly. It’s been pretty crazy!”
A good crazy, though, no doubt. The lads have come a long way since the beginning of 2014, when their fanbase was just 200 local fans. Now, it’s on a global scale. But Blossoms won't forget their roots. What’s the key been to this success?
“Honestly, we are just five very normal, happy human beings from Stockport,” smiles Dewhurst. “Each one of us is creatively involved: [bassist] Chas is great with photography and design, as well as music; [frontman] Tom writes the songs, brings them to us, and they become Blossoms when we put our own influences in.
“Each one of us is a vital cog in the machine, really. We’re still young, but the things you learn yourself when you’re on the road, like people trying to take advantage of you creatively, we have always managed to stay clear of; we’ve always been in charge of the creative process. We have great management and crew, and we have always stayed true.”
A wise attitude on young shoulders, five times over, then?
“A lot of people are liable to take the foot off the gas when they get a bit of success, but there has never been one end goal for us; we know it’s more fuel to keep us going, and to go further. We are never satisfied, and there are always so many more things we can be doing to improve ourselves.”
Dewhurst was the band member that pushed from an early stage to take the audio technology a step further on the road.
“I’m nerdy, so that’s what I’m into,” he laughs. “But yeah, I pushed for tracks, and in-ears; I was the one who was keen to try different mics out, that kind of thing, you know?
“In the studio, we work with Rich Turvey and James Skelly [of The Coral], and it’s like hand-me-down clothes, as we use a lot of their gear in the studio. Music is one of the best things to unite people, especially music of the north and north-west; the history is amazing, really.”
True enough. And The Coral story is an interesting one: Blossoms recorded their first single as a band in 2013 – Blow - in their old rehearsal room with just one mic. It was, Dewhurst insists, ‘dead basic and gnarly’, but it was enough to prick James Skelly's ears.
“James stumbled across it on YouTube, got in touch with us through his manager - who is now our manager - and invited us to Hoylake, where they have their rehearsal room; that’s where we started our relationship with James,” Dewhurst explains. “He is what we call a Jedi Master – so, a mentor – and The Coral were a hugely successful and amazing band, so to have someone like him on board withus is a massive part of our story so far, without a doubt.”
So the formula works in the studio and on the road. Where do you go from here, sonically?
“Well, we are far from perfect, but relentless touring is a great way to improve your playing and tightness,” states Dewhurst. “To live with five lads and crew together is gruelling and amazing at the same time. So I think we have evolved sonically, and the second album is sounding bigger than ever – we feel we’re on a whole new level now, really.
“And when we tour the new album, that’s a whole new journey in itself; and you never know where it’ll take you. We are in such a privileged position as people and musicians, so we need to make the most of that.”
Not all bands speak highly of their labels, but the guys at Virgin EMI seem to have allowed Blossoms to be themselves musically, which is great to hear. In control, in other words.
“No-one wanted to sign us back in the day! But [SJM Concerts] Conrad Murray and Dave Salmon co-manage us, and they’ve always been our guidance, and very supportive. I remember when Conrad sent the label Charlemagne, which we had just recorded, and that song fast-tracked us the album deal. Down to London, sign the papers, and that was it.”
So album two is Blossoms on musical steroids of sorts?
“[laughs] It’s definitely us taking on all we’ve learned, and we’ve produced the best album we can, and we are all proud of it, and can’t wait for everyone to hear it. It’ll be out this year, and hopefully the sun will be shining, so... [smiles]”
Two years ago, when working with Viola Beach, Cal Bate did a short stint with Blossoms working monitors. Dewhurst mentioned to him at the time that the band might need a permanent monitor guy in the near future, and three months later, he got that call. This was May 2016.
“You have to have a bond on stage, even outside of work, so we all go for meals, and it’s always a family feeling,” opens Bate. “A front of house engineer might have 50,000 people listening to what he’s doing, but I have five people on stage, therefore it’s very personal.”
21-year-old Bate is the youngest in the crew, and has a great relationship with the band. He started his career in audio engineering at just 16, working the desk for the likes of The Futureheads, Carl Barât, and The Libertines, at a venue called Friars Court in Warrington.
“It was a great education, and then I went to uni at SSR in Manchester, but came out before the end, as I ended up doing tours; I’d just turned 20 when I started with Blossoms.
The course at SSR was in studio and live music production, though Bate admits it was probably only 20 percent live.
“If you know it sounds good, you know it sounds good, really,” he reflects. “Lots of people dropped out of my course, as a lot were doing it by reading books, and a lot of the time, that isn’t ideal. I will have my EQ set up, and know my templates, but will never load something and then say, ‘that’s fine’, as it’s all about the ears.”
On this recent Blossoms tour, Bate has been working from a Soundcraft Vi2000 console with a UAD realtime rack, and Shure PSM1000s for the band’s in-ears.
“We are all on ears, there are no wedges on stage, and that is a massive thing, as it’s totally silent; we have five stereo ears, a butt-kicker for [drummer] Joe, and a new platform for the keys player, which is essentially the butt kicker, but you stand on it! It just gives him a bit more vibe, as the tracks run a lot of sub.”
Bate says the Vi2000 feels like an analogue desk in that it’s all set out in single strips.
“It’s set up how it should be set up. It’s also nice to have a monitor desk where you have your output slot bang in the middle,” he says. “I also love the fader glow; it’s just built for monitors, basically, and I think it’s one of the very best consoles I’ve ever used, and suits my workflow absolutely perfectly. I can’t see me changing this for a long time.”
He has similar views on the PSM1000s, too:
“The thing with Blossoms is, there is so much going on in every song, you have to push their mixes, especially the drummer; and with the PSM1000s, you can cram a lot of stuff in there, and they sound better the more you put into them. So if you’re slamming those units, and the pack is on high gain, they sound like you’re in a studio, like they’re coming out of a massive Neve desk. And that’s why we use them.
“And the Shure mics are great, as well: we have 52s and 91s on the kick; KSM8s on vocals, which sound really clean, and a KSM313 on Josh’s guitar – a ribbon mic – which is the best guitar mic I have ever heard. So powerful. Josh likes his guitars beefy - he’s not a fan of top end - and I don’t have to touch the EQ, as it gives off exactly what the amp is giving him.”
What's the key to being a great monitoring engineer, then?
“Think in a musician’s way, mix as if you’re playing - how you would want the mix. And keep a close eye on every band member. I won’t take my eyes off the band; I do all my EQ and comps in soundcheck, and won’t touch anything until the show has started.”
OUT IN FRONT
Chris Pearce works front of house for Blossoms, as well as fellow-Mancunians, Inspiral Carpets. He has also worked on various Shed Seven and Happy Mondays shows. A local lad through and through, then?
“There’s definitely a spark around this area with bands and stuff,” insists Pearce. “Then again, at the time I got the [Blossoms] call, I had just bought a splitter fan, too, so maybe that was the real deal maker? [smiles]”
Pearce’s musical journey began - and quickly took a different turn - when his mum and dad decided to buy him a tuba, as he was playing in a brass band.
“I didn’t fancy it, so I sold it, bought decks, and hired a studio where I live,” he laughs. “I bought the rehearsal studios off them, ended up with music practice studios, so I went from dance music to band music; and then Inspiral Carpets came up and rehearsed with us, then it all went from there, really.”
Pearce says he has never mixed a band he isn’t a fan of, which is why he sometimes looks like he is Djing when working front of house. He uses a Soundcraft Vi3000, and he's running a Waves SoundGrid.
“Every time I used one of those desks on tour, I’d have a great gig on it; it’s simple, and sounds great, and I always came away with a smile on my face,” he says. “I use the internal effects from within the console, and then I rely on the Waves kit to get the sound I’m after.
“Even if I took my dream analogue rig out, I would miss the C6 plugin! I’d probably still integrate it in there somehow! I am using it on my master buss, but the main reason is that it’s almost a dynamic EQ type thing; with Tom’s vocals, he has a biting point of about 3-4k, which sometimes becomes a bit harsh. So when he projects, I like to pull it down a bit to keep the vocals nice and smooth. You have so much control over everything with the C6, it’s just unbelievable, really.
“Other Waves go-tos include the CLA-76 on bass, then the dbx 160 I use on the vocals, and the API 2500 buss compressor on the drums for a bit of parallel compression. I will always put the CLA-2A on acoustics. Oh, and actually, the API 2500 is also on the synths as a separate compressor, to keep them all tame. So I don’t just use a few, I use a lot of Waves; and that’s because it’s easy to use kit, and I knew it before I started using it all live. The connectivity is pretty straightforward from the Vi to the SoundGrid, too, which is ideal.”
We chat a little about mic positioning, and like Bate, Pearce is quick to big up the Shure KSM313 on Dewhurst’s guitar amp.
“That ribbon mic is just phenomenal; all you do is chop 100Hz off it, push the fader up, and it sounds amazing,” he says, adding that he uses a 56a on his snare, and Beta 98a clip ons on his toms. “But when we go back out, we are hoping for an SE reflection shield with a 57 hole in it for the guitar amp as well as the ribbon... See what we can get out of it with that! We’re dead chuffed with the mic package, and the Shure lads are top lads – that’s often what it boils down to, really; they picked up on this band, and they embraced us. And we’re very grateful.”
Nice to hear. And here’s to wishing Blossoms and crew the very best of luck with the tour and the new album this year.