Turin Brakes on Pain Killer, The O.C. Effect and New Music: “We've had a lot of fun by not pinning anything down”

After breakthrough and unexpected TV-propelled success in the early 2000s, UK band Turin Brakes are back with their ninth studio album. The band’s lead singer, Olly Knights insists they’ve been winging it from the start…

Knights is in a caravan in the middle of a field in the UK’s Essex coast, and he’s breaking up. Think solar power, dodgy wifi – and intermittent phone signal. Four call backs later, and he’s found a spot outside where his phone just about works.

“It's lovely, but it's super limited,” he sighs, adjusting his position slightly to make sure the signal holds this time. “But I actually love it… until of course if I suddenly have to do any promo. Then it's a bit useless.”

He’s battling against bad phone signal today to talk about Turin Brakes’ ninth studio album, Wide-Eyed Nowhere, summer festivals and the band’s current UK tour. Formed by childhood friends Knights and Gale Paridjanian in the late ‘90s after initially bonding over Chuck Berry and the Johnny B. Goode scene from Back To The Future, Turin Brakes (“it was one of those curious names that hopefully pulls people in, rather than puts them off”) is a result of one of the duo’s experimental tapes being listened to by chance by a friend, who just so happened to be starting a small record label.

“And all without us knowing,” he recalls. “He got in contact and said, ‘Do you guys want to put out an EP?’ And we were like, ‘Okay!’ But we truly hadn't considered the idea of being a band, so we quickly made up a name and pretended that it had been the plan all along, and we just haven't stopped. It's been 23 years and that is literally all we've done. We’ve been winging it totally,” he laughs.

We truly hadn't considered the idea of being a band, so we quickly made up a name and pretended that it had been the plan all along.

The band (which is today made up of Knights, Paridjanian, and long-term collaborators Rob Allum and Eddie Myer) released their first album, The Optimist LP in 2001, including their first single to make a ripple on the charts, Underdog (Save Me), which peaked at number 39 in the UK. 

Knights admits that the first version of the song was “a bit throwaway”, painting a picture of a fantasy about “a British bloke living in New York

“The weekend before we went and recorded the first record we completely rewrote the lyrics in a fit of inspiration,” he says. “Then it became Underdog, and it turned into the first big crossover moment for us. It was an amazing thing because we had this slightly half baked fantasy of, ‘Wouldn't it be cool to hear a proper guitar solo on Radio 1?’ 

"And sure enough, it got playlisted, and we'd high five every time it happened, because we couldn't believe it! There were a lot of those moments in the early days. It felt like we got very, very lucky with our timing.”

Their big break wouldn’t come until 2003, when their single Pain Killer (Summer Rain) became their biggest hit to date, reaching number five in the UK singles chart. 

The song’s lyrics have become something of an in-joke over the years, with fans speculating as to the hidden meanings behind the sometimes abstract, sometimes very literal lyrics. Knights isn’t about to spoil the fun after 19 years.

“We definitely had a lot of fun over the years by not pinning anything down,” he says, still enjoying the joke. “I'm a big David Lynch fan, and he makes a real point of never fully explaining what things are, and I kind of agree with him. 

"I think once you've made the piece of work, it really doesn't matter what your personal function in it all was. It's got to be its own thing, and if it's ambiguous and then inspires weird ideas and images in people's heads – and even a bit of confusion – then great! 

"My favourite songs and art always does that; it's always curious and ambiguous, but hopefully, quite delightful and you keep coming back to it. So, yeah, we always stuck to that one.”

We’ve kept [Pain Killer] going for this long, it'd be crazy to give up now.

In terms of theories, they’ve heard it all:

“I mean, the best one was when an American guy came up to us at the end of a festival – off his head – and he was like [Knights adopts an American stoner accent], ‘Is Painkiller about having sex with a loaded gun in your mouth?’ We were like, ‘What?!’ Absolutely no holds barred, and of course, it has to be a loaded gun,” he chuckles. 

“But we kind of loved that he was saying that to us, because it's like, there you go: you write a song, and to him, that's what it's about. There's been some great stuff over the years like that. We’ve kept it going for this long, it'd be crazy to give up now.”

The O.C. Effect

It wouldn’t be too long before a further boost in visibility came in an unexpected form: American teen drama The O.C. first aired in 2003, and quickly became a pop cultural phenomenon all over the world. 

The soundtrack in particular is still regarded through a window of nostalgia as a standout feature of the series in its own right – capturing the indie zeitgeist of the show’s affluent and angsty main characters and changing the careers of many artists that featured on it. 

Those of a certain age will be unable to think of (spoiler alert!) season two’s dramatic finale when Marissa shot Trey without hearing Imogen Heap’s haunting, Hide and Seek (Heap became a household name after having numerous songs featured on the show), Coop’s tragic death without being traumatised all over again by Heap’s rendition of Hallelujah, or think of the opening credits without getting Phantom Planet’s California stuck in their head all day.

It's a really low-fi little homemade song that has no business having as many fans as it does. The O.C. pushed it into this other realm.

Before long, bands like Beastie Boys, U2, Beck, Coldplay, Gwen Stefani and The Shins were premiering their latest singles on the show, which also featured guest appearances by bands including The Killers, Death Cab for Cutie, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, The Thrills, Rachael Yamagata and The Subways. 

Turin Brakes' Rain City was used prominently in a pivotal scene in season one when main character, Ryan Atwood’s mother leaves him to stay with the Cohen family for good. Knights admits he wasn’t exactly the target demographic for The O.C. at the time, but can’t deny the effect it had on the band’s trajectory:

“We were just that little bit older,” he says, “but I do remember The O.C. really well – it was a big show! Weirdly, it's played a lot now; I've seen it on TV again recently, so I'm always keeping half an ear out for our song. It was so lovely – we still talk about it.

"We've had a few moments like that on American TV shows, and that was one of the best ones. It was on such a big scene and it was really heavily used. You could see that the filmmakers and the people behind that show really seemed to get it and appreciated that song. 

"All I can say is, it's like catching a gentle wave, and then it speeds everything up. You feel this force that's bigger than you, pushing you along for a while. Being in a band is bloody hard work. Most of the time you’re having to get up and drive it yourself, and when something else drives it for a while, it's just lovely. Like surfing a wave, you've got to enjoy that feeling when it's happening. 

"The fact that people still talk about it now…” he trails off. “I mean, it's a really low-fi little homemade song that has no business having as many fans as it does, but that pushed it into this other realm. It's one of those magical things that can just randomly happen, as long as you put the music out.”

You could see that the people behind that show really seemed to get it and appreciated that song.

People who watched the series as teenagers still find themselves coming back to the soundtracks today, pulling them back to a snapshot of a simpler time. Knights totally gets the nostalgia associated with listening to music you were into at that age:

“That age never fails. Whatever you were into at that age seems to have stronger colours when you remember it then than many other ages. I'm exactly the same about whatever I was into at 18 to around 23 – it’s like technicolour. It's weird, isn't it?"

Turning our attention back to the present day, the band’s new album, Wide-Eyed Nowhere was recorded at Knights’ garden studio over the summer of 2021, which allowed the band to take their time, being far removed from the constraints of a commercial space. 

Knights says they surprised themselves with what came out: a “sweeter, groovier” set of songs in no hurry to be anything but themselves.

“Every time we make a record, we see it as like taking a really high quality picture of the band [at that time]. Most of us have teenage kids now, which is crazy! But they bring influences in, like they got really into Stranger Things and they bought all the soundtracks. 

"That meant I was hearing all this wobbly synth music for the first time in years in the house, and the new record definitely has some wobbly synths on it. I love that because it keeps things fresh.

“We made it over the whole summer and took our time, so it's got this slightly homemade feeling to it, and that's different to anything we've done in years. In fact, some of it is slightly a throwback to things like Rain City, which was done at home,” he points out.

“It’s allowing that homemade feeling of the band to come back into it a little bit more, having gone away from that for a few records. So I'd say, if you were into that side of Turin Brakes, there's a bit more of that allowed back into things again. 

"We're fans of groovier, slightly smaller, but maybe more charming stuff than all the bells and the whistles and showing off. This is more introspective I'd say, and we like it when we go there.”

We always kept a hardcore fan base going for long enough to be able to survive the really difficult times.

Turin Brakes are currently on their UK tour until the end of October, and performed for the first time at Towersey Festival this summer, the UK’s longest-running independent festival.

“Because festivals and touring went away for a while, what we've noticed is there's more positive feeling from the crowd. Bands appreciate playing at the moment more than they ever did, because it looked like it might never happen again for a while – as absurd as that sounds. So festivals feel really magical and more important than they did before, and long may it last.”

Knights shares that festival crowds require a switching into a different mindset when compared to people coming to see them specifically at their shows:

“You have to be more dynamic and find a way to get into people's minds – you have less time to kind of hit the ground running,” he acknowledges. 

“You almost have to get festival fit as a musician, but it does sometimes take getting a couple of songs under your belt before you click and remember how to do that. You have to go into extrovert mode for an hour, which completely exhausts me, because I'm not that way at all, so I have to find that and pump it out as hard as possible. 

"Then I go and find a place to go to sleep for a while afterwards because, Jesus, I'm not used to being that sociable on that level,” he laughs. “But man, the payoff when it works and you get to the end of your set, the crowd has stayed with you and built up the energy, and they give it back to you towards the end. 

"There's not much better than that really. And the tour…it’s a big old tour! So hopefully we'll still be around by the end of it. We might be very, very old men by the end of it. We'll try our best.”

We're fans of groovier, slightly smaller, but maybe more charming stuff than all the bells and the whistles.

Knights is as normal and unaffected a person as one could hope to meet, and doesn’t seem remotely interested in fame. The band has taken the ups and downs over the years in their stride, and they are nothing but grateful that they still get to do the job they love – regardless of whether they get played on Radio 1 anymore, although that’s not to say they don’t still get a thrill out of hearing their songs unexpectedly.

“It never fails to get you excited, because it doesn't happen often,” he laughs self-deprecatingly. “Every time it happens it's a total victory for us and we're like, ‘Weird, oddball music is being played on a mainstream station; this is amazing’. We absolutely love it and we still get a massive buzz from anything like that. 

"I mean, we've been around a long time, so we're not the new band that we used to be, so you don't get that level of support, but that's just how it works for everyone – and we're still pretty happy.

“It definitely isn't easy to adjust to at first though,” he considers. “So many of our peers that we grew up with, the minute that they weren't fashionable, they seemed to stop, and we could never believe it. We were like, ‘Is that really what was driving it? Being fashionable?’ To us, that was just absurd. 

"We genuinely like and believe in what we're doing, and that never changed. If you have enough faith in what you're doing and if you're lucky enough to be able to stick it out, it can come right again in a new way, and that helps soften the blows of the ups and downs. 

"We measure our success by how long we've been doing it and by the quality of the work. To me, real success is if you can keep doing what you're doing and loving it pretty much 100% of the time. Then you're doing it right.”

Which is just as well, as he confesses he’d be unemployable if he tried his hand at anything else:

“It would be hard if there was no level of success and we were back to having to get part time jobs. We were really lucky that that never actually happened. We always kept a hardcore fan base going for long enough to be able to survive the really difficult times. I do always think we're quite fortunate, but the idea of stopping just doesn't occur to us because we've never stopped. 

"And also, I think we're totally institutionalised,” he laughs. “We'd be terrible at anything else at this point. I practically have a breakdown in the middle of Sainsbury's these days just doing that! I think we're all like that and we'd just be hilariously bad. Not having a Plan B is really important for us, because I think if we all had them, we'd have probably found excuses to do them a few times. Having no Plan B is the absolute key to success,” he decides.