Most music we love has a context: a girlfriend or boyfriend played it for us, we heard it in a movie, we saw it happen live in front of us. But for the life of me I can’t pinpoint where or when I first heard the Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks; it’s like a Memento-style mystery that will never be solved. Are moments like these pure chance or predestined? Pardon the existentializing, but with this band it can’t be helped. They were simply four lads (vocalist and guitarist Adam Thompson, drummer Darren Lackie, bassist Sean Smith and guitarist Michael Palmer) who dropped in like a meteor racing from the heavens.
Their first album, 2009’s These Four Walls (released on the UK label FatCat), was no foreign object, though, but a dizzying combination of sounds I’d grown to love over the years: the frenetic, patterned guitar styling of Fugazi, earnest, poetically vague lyrics belted confidently out by Thompson, and primordial, celestial tones galore. Jetpacks reminded me of a time when emo wasn’t such a useless word, but meant something along the lines of early Weezer, where the lyrics might expose a lonely, thoughtful protagonist, but heavy riffs and pounding rhythm kept the music from drifting into twee wisps of nothing or sinking into one’s navel. Their music looked to the stars instead—cold, distant, yet somehow comforting.
In the Pit of the Stomach (2011) continued these themes, with more polished production, thanks to Sigur Ros’ Sundlaugin Studios in Iceland. If These Four Walls was an atom bomb going off, this album was an ICBM, a million times more explosive. Tracks like “Hard to Remember” plumb the depths and ignite the atmosphere in the same song. In plainer terms, In the Pit of the Stomach found itself on endless repeat within my own four walls.
Now the Jetpack crew is back with their latest album, Unravelling, which continues the journey into the deepest recesses of the cosmos, or just the space between our own synapses. With the addition of multi-instrumentalist Stuart McGachan, the Jetpacks add one more dimension to their sound, much like the later, more experimental work of My Morning Jacket.
I caught up with drummer Darren Lackie as they embarked on a US tour that will bring them through New Orleans later this month. Admittedly, it was not an easy interview to prepare for. The Jetpack boys don’t hide a lot of secrets or meaning in their name or lyrics, they don’t claim a lot of influences, they don’t have a musical pedigree predating the band, and they don’t invite intriguing lifestyle inquiries. Their first show was a Battle of the Bands, which they won. We Were Promised Jetpacks haven’t looked back since. They’re just a bunch of nice young men making ear shattering, heart pounding, thought provoking rock’n’roll. This music thing, it’s not always rocket science, you know?
My first question might be kind of corny, but I’m not too familiar with Scottish culture, other than the movie Trainspotting. I know it’s 20 years old, but was that an accurate depiction of Scottish culture (minus all the drugs)?
Darren Lackie: No, I wouldn’t say so. We’re all fairly normal people. We’re not all like that. But actually, I was working at a bar over the summer, while we weren’t touring. And the bar was the bar from Trainspotting, the one where Begby snaps a pool cue and gets in a fight.
What about the Scottish Independence referendum. Was that important to you?
Yeah, we all voted on it; we all had opinions on it. Unfortunately, our opinions didn’t come through in the end. It was a huge deal back home. They had a crazy amount of people come out to vote, something like 87 percent of the population. We didn’t get the result we wanted… but there are a lot more people actively engaged in it now…
I think a lot of musicians and artists were very pro-independence. It was an interesting time, because everyone was talking about it. You couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking you about it.
Why do you think it didn’t pass?
There was a lot of fear-mongering towards the end of the campaign which sort of scared a lot of people into thinking that prices were going to go up and things like that. Which was all just a lot of nonsense. But a lot of people were unsure, and they were like “Well, we’ll just stick with what we know; we’re happy with how it is” kind of thing. Most of Scotland is a pretty old country as well, so I think most of the older people voted no. We’re an aging country… Ah well.
You all grew up together, in pairs. Who did you grow up with?
It was myself and Sean the bassist. We’ve known each other since we were four years old, since the first day of primer school. And then Sean and Adam and Mike and our new member, Stuart, they all grew up together as well. We’ve all known each other for years.
Did y’all do a lot of dumb shit growing up?
To be honest, we were fairly well-behaved boys… I mean, all five of us went on our first ever holiday together, without our parents. It was like The Inbetweeners movie. We went to a Spanish holiday island called Magaluf for two weeks. You just drink every minute of every day for 14 days and then come home and you have to curl up in bed for the next week.
That’s something New Orleans and Scotland have in common: a love of the drink. What’s your poison?
I really like Kracken rum with a soda water and a lot of fresh lime in it. That’s my poison. Everyone’s a bit confused but I really like PBR. It’s the cheap beer over here but I really like it.
What were some of the band’s first covers?
Our first ever show, we covered Jet’s “Are You Gonna be My Girl;” that song was pretty big back then, in 2004. We used to play that and we used to play Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me out.” We played a lot of British bands like Stereophonics; we did Feeder, “Just a Day.” Our first ever show we had three songs to play in the battle of the bands. Actually, we got cut to two songs because we were the last band to go on and everyone had taken too long. So we played one of our own songs and one cover.
Was that the battle of the bands that you won?
That’s crazy. The band’s story reads so strange, like you almost had it kind of easy. Do you feel that way about it?
I think that we’re just pretty dedicated to what we’re doing. We’re happy to spend the vast majority of the year out on the road. We’re all very proactive, we’re trying to get people to hear us. I wouldn’t say we’ve had it easy. We’ve done the long tours in the tiny, cramped vans where you’re sitting on top of each other. We’ve done some terrible tours in our time.
Touring together and living together off and on, how do y’all get along and cope with each other?
None of us take ourselves too seriously. We’ve all been friends for so long… I don’t understand what it’s like for people who are in bands who don’t get along or don’t like each other, aren’t friends. I think that’s just strange. I don’t see how you can do that. It’s not an enjoyable way to spend your life, sitting in a tiny space with someone for 6 hours for a drive, then turn up at the venue and sit in another small space for hours. We all hang out after tours. When we’re at home, if we’re going to do something, we’ll usually do it together.
What about Stuart? Did you initiate him or anything ?
[laughs] Not really. He’s been friends with us for years so we wouldn’t add just any guy, somebody random who could play an instrument. It had to be a friend. Luckily, he’s very good at playing instruments. So it was easy to get him in.
No ceremony or anything ?
No… His first show was a really, really good one. He got really lucky. He’s managed to avoid all the awful tours, terrible vans, and tiny venues with no one there. He came right in and we did two nights at a huge venue in Glasgow supporting Frightened Rabbit. It was their homecoming shows and he got to come on and play those shows. It was two-and-a-half thousand people both nights or something. And then we did our biggest US tour ever after that. He got to jump in on that.
The four of y’all have these grueling years but even with a good friend it seems like there’d be some catching up to do.
Well, at the moment we’ve got a really nice van on this tour, it’s like a nice Mercedes. It’s got four arm chairs in it and then just a bench in the back. So us four have got the arm chairs, he’s got to sit in the back. That’s his punishment. [laughs]
You named your live CD [E Rey Live in Philadelphia] after your tour manager, Esteban Rey. You don’t see that kind of thing a lot. What made him stand out to the point where you guys felt like you were going to name this live album after him?
We did a triple band bill of FatCat bands. Frightened Rabbit headlined, Twilight Sad were on, and we opened the show. That was our first ever tour back in 2009. He was the tour manger for all three bands for the whole tour. And he was just the nicest guy you’re ever likely to meet, ever. We had the pleasure of introducing him to his now wife, who is Scottish. She was a girl we knew from back home and she was working at this Scottish showcase [at South By Southwest]. He took us there and we introduced them. They got together, got married in Scotland, we went to the wedding… He’s such a positive influence on us when we’re on tour. Touring can be difficult, it can be long and strenuous. Sometimes you need somebody who can get you going again, make you feel positive, even though you’re so tired, you’ve been on the road for a month… you’re missing girlfriends back home or whatever, and you just need someone to pick you up and chuck you up on stage. And he’s one of the best at that in the world.
I read on mtvu.com that you were into the Walking Dead.
I was watching it. It’s all right. I like the first two seasons. It’s kind of a bit boring in the third. TV is a big thing for us. TV and movies is how we spend all of our time in the van… I’m behind a little bit.
So far, who is your favorite character?
Em… That’s a tough one. I hate the little kid. The little kiddie annoys me.
Yeah, Carl. I hate him. He gets on my nerves. He’s so whiny.
One reason I like the band is it reminds me of Fugazi. Are you familiar with them?
I have heard that a few times before, that we have a shoegazy type of vibe. To be honest I’ve never even listened to them. We don’t really listen to music that’s… I was going to say old music but not even that old. Everyone likes different things but it’s mostly within the last ten years.
Your band name is We Were Promised Jetpacks, and the name of our magazine is Antigravity. So I feel like there’s some kind of weird kinship there—also in the fact that I don’t know why the magazine is named that. It doesn’t really mean anything and I get that you guys are the same way.
Yeah, absolutely. We have no reason at all. It’s just four silly little 17 year-olds that needed to come up with a band name. That’s what we went with.
Do you remember any of the other band names you were considering ?
Yeah, the other ones just became song titles on the first album. I think “Quiet Little Voices” was one and “Moving Clocks Run Slow” was one.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever been asked or anyone has said to you about the name?
A lot of people think we really care about that. [laughs] A lot of people will tweet us things like “Look, they’ve invented them now. You have to change your name.” But you know, it’s all right. I guess that’s what you get having a name like that.
Last question: what do you think happens when we die?
Oohhh… Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
We Were Promised Jetpacks will be at One Eyed Jacks on Friday, November 14th, with the Twilight Sad. For more info, check out wewerepromisedjetpacks.com