Grammatics- Feature Article, Disorder Magazine

In 1974 Robert M Pirsig wrote a book called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance”. It ostensibly follows a father and son on a cross-country motorcycle ride across the United States, but buried beneath is a philosophical treatise on the nature of quality. Without giving too much away, it transpires that the lead character, a college professor, has recovered from a mental illness caused by an obsession with defining the concept of quality; something which he deemed to be impossible, as we all understand the term but can’t quantify it.

I mention this, as I was reminded of the book as I sat in the cold of my car, unable to find a quiet place to conduct a telephone interview with Owen Brinley, lead singer of Leeds’ band Grammatics. An alternative definition of quality is the creation of the best possible end result using all the tools that you have at your disposal, and this idea has been paramount in my thought process during every listen to Grammatics’ challenging, surprising and ultimately hugely rewarding eponymous debut album.

Owen and drummer, Dominic Ord, formed the band off the back of the popular indie night, “Grammar”, which also gave

them their name. As is often the case, they felt the need to produce something of a better quality than the mass of promo records that they received as a matter of course.

Again- quality. It is a concept that infuses the album. Owen’s foppish, introspective vocals (a result of relearning his art after getting nodules in his throat from a stint in a pure rock band) and Dominic’s crisp, experimental drums form the bookends of the band’s sound, but between them is a beautifully recorded selection of guitars, Rory O’Hara’s bass, the cello of former Stockholm Youth Symphony Orchestra musician Emilia Ergin, lilting verses, power chords and ethereal harmonies. The result is complex, but not prohibitive. A balancing act between epic and pop sensibilities, which is notoriously difficult to achieve and if wrong produces un-listenable Art-Rock. That this album is so carefully balanced is a testament to the attention to detail that the band applies to their work.

“That’s what we set out to achieve. We had a quite clear purpose to prove that we were capable of a lot more than people thought we were”, says Owen. This sense of ownership

of the record and the integrity of the band’s ambition may well be the result of a turbulent last year, during which they split with a “world-class” management team, who forced the band into recording with a superstar producer with predictably disastrous results.

Walking away, they became ensconced in a studio built in the barn of a friend and experimented.

“We wanted to elevate ourselves out of the normal band dynamic” said Owen, “We tried to make the best out of what we had there- if there was a piano we would record the lid slamming really loud and try and create sounds.” This willingness to push themselves and an autonomy from the egos of super producers means that they have created a sound that has the pomp and swagger of the best of the American Art-Rock bands (think vintage Janes Addiction and the assured rhythm tracks of Queen of the Stone Age) combined with a very English musical sensibility and knowing intelligence (think Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” or Bloc Party). It is a winning formula that takes us back once more to quality.

It is an undoubtedly well-crafted album and the sound recording is in parts astonishingly crisp, due to being mastered using the minimum of compression, that is normally only afforded to orchestral recordings. But the thing that stands Grammatics apart, makes them of a higher quality than others, is their ability to surprise. There is a deftness of touch at play, so that in a song such as “Relentless Fours” the mood can change from Radio 1 friendly pop-rock to a sudden onslaught of riffs and feedback without alienating the listener. A lot of this is to do with the reassuring, mournful quality of Brinley’s voice, particularly when he duets with local songwriter Laura Groves. The rest is because of their control over every element of their art and a combining of disparate elements into a unique and cohesive whole.

Lyrically Grammatics are equally dense and poetic. On the opener, “Shadow Committee”, Owen sings “We are all deluded with grandeur, our epic ambitions dragging us through the wars to the next birthday, now it’s only a crippling comedown away. And so you’ll pray tonight for the first time in years, call some anonymous being, confessing a longing you’re

feeling so filling”. The words are beautifully written and like the music skate close to pretension, but always manage to stay the right side of the artistic line.

Ultimately the narrator of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” pushed himself over the edge because of an obsession over quality. But it is just this ambition and lack of compromise that makes Grammatics an interesting band, and their debut a triumphant statement. At the end of the day there is nothing wrong with expecting quality and if people are willing to put this much effort into securing it, then we should celebrate it as an ideal.