Photo: Wolf James
Having caught the attention of Woody from Bastille when he supported the 'Happier' hitmakers last year, Ulysses Wells quickly signed to his label, Du Monde Records.
Last week, the Oxfordshire artist released his debut EP, 'Can’t Take It Much Longer', which is driven by soaring atmospheric guitars and Wells' distinctive gritty vocals.
It's the first in a series of EPs "introspecting deeply into Wells’ mania and resultant crawl back to serenity", and the first he's produced entirely himself.
The ambitious project of recording not just one but several EPs was a "happy accident" after a period of feeling uninspired.
Wells told Eline Joling about sharing the"gentler side" to the "wall of noise" we've come to expect from him, Woody Guthrie and Mark Knopfler inspiring the first EP and Tame Impala, The Black Keys and hip-hop influencing EP 2, as well as the "perks and flaws" of working remotely with his band and engineer via Skype amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Your debut EP, 'Can’t Take It Much Longer', is the first a coherent collection of EPs. What was the idea behind doing a series of EPs?
I was given three pieces of artwork titled ‘Contemplation’, ‘Fighting’ and ‘Freedom’, and I thought that was a great framework to work around. I was given the artworks when we were all in lockdown, but I was already planning my first EP beforehand. Some people were more productive than others during lockdown, and I was personally really struggling with writing anything, so I looked back at the work I had done before and this gave me a good parameter to work in. The artwork tied really nicely with the music I already had ready, and it was a fantastic way to separate it all out and give it all a bit more light. It was sort of a happy accident.
You’ve described the collection as "introspecting deeply into your mania and resultant crawl back to serenity", how does this first EP fit into that storyline?
I wrote a lot of these tracks over a long period of time and when lockdown started I pulled them out and went through them because I wasn’t feeling that inspired. I thought, how can I make some of these fit together? I chose to do a weird couple of songs that I wouldn’t normally have chosen, and that show people a much gentler side as opposed to the ferocious, angry, broken stuff that I’ve done before. I figured that that’s not all that this project is about, so I wanted to explore that serene approach more. I wanted to build more of a story and create more soundscapes as opposed to my previous walls of noise and it being quite aggressive. I guess that ties in with the idea of contemplation as well. I am constantly contemplating, it’s that devil and angel on your shoulder – one person is angry all the time, and one person is always calm and peaceful.
"I get a tingle down my spine which I’ve never had before, so I’m very proud of it."
Both sides are represented in the contrast in sound and feel between the first and second half of the EP as well, does the order of the songs reflect the way you were feeling when you wrote them?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a time map of current feelings, as it’s difficult to churn out music quickly enough to make it coherent with how you’re feeling at the time. That being said, there are elements on 'Can’t Take It Much Longer' that are now coming back around from how I was feeling at the time when I wrote it. No matter what mood I’m in I can listen to it and feel really peaceful and relate to it when I’m in a good place, but I can also really empathise with the more confused, angry, frustrated side. I get a tingle down my spine which I’ve never had before, so I’m very proud of it.
There seem to be quite a few different influences throughout the EP, what can you tell us about those?
I take inspiration from a lot of different artists. I am half French, so there is definitely some influences from those roots in ‘Can’t Take It Much Longer’. My grandfather used to play the accordion, and although I never met him, I thought that would be a nice tip of the hat to him. It’s got an almost Django Reinhardt vibe, it's more of a story than any of my other songs, and it’s definitely more of a journey in that sense. Another song, ‘Drift On Out Of Sight’, is much more of a singer-songwriter ballad in some ways, with a tip of the hat to references such as Woody Guthrie and Mark Knopfler. The second EP is coming from a completely different angle, where I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Tame Impala and The Black Keys, and a lot of hip-hop, old school records as well, so it will be very different again.
For 'Can’t Take It Much Longer,' you worked with the band and producers over Skype, rather than in real life. How has that been?
I did most of the work on this record in my own crazy madness, and then worked with a mix engineer over Skype to put the finishing touches on it. But working with the band over Skype was challenging to say the least, especially when you’re trying to record drums or bass for example. Luckily, we had tracked a lot of things all together before we went into lockdown, so I managed to sample some of that. At the same time, it was great doing it online, because when someone had done their thing they could just sign off and weren’t stuck in a room with me losing my mind. It definitely had its perks and flaws.
Would you consider working with producers and musicians over Skype again even when things will eventually be back to normal?
Yes, definitely. I think there is something to be said for spending thousands of pounds to get a flight over to Los Angeles to work with a top producer, when actually it’s more than doable over Skype. Obviously, it’s lovely to be in a room with someone and it’s exciting, but is it really necessary? I think this has proven that it isn’t.
How did you find working on most of the work on the record by yourself for the first time?
This is the first one that I produced myself and it’s my proudest body of work. I worked with an amazing violinist and a fantastic singer who sang over Skype, but everything else was more or less done in my sister’s little bedroom in West Ealing after I got evicted from my house during lockdown.
Does it feel more personal knowing you did so much more yourself?
Big time - but it is a lot. I had to pull myself away from it at times, just to give myself a little bit more room. I’ll probably end up getting a producer on some of the bigger, band-y numbers on future releases, because you do end up completely losing your mind and I want to focus on writing more material as opposed to the production of it all. Saying that, these are much more personal than ever before. There is a lot of love and hate for every single track.
Artwork: Chica Seal
"I’ll probably end up getting a producer on some of the bigger, band-y numbers on future releases, because you do end up completely losing your mind producing."
Your reputation was built massively on your live performances, such as your support slot for Bastille which saw you getting signed to drummer Woody’s label, Du Monde Records.
How has it been not being able to play live, have you considered doing socially distanced gigs?
I would absolutely love to do so. I did a lockdown festival on my own, but I haven’t played with the boys for a long time now. We’ve got a few ideas up our sleeves for when I get back with them, though. We’ve got ideas for socially distanced gigs, but also have an idea in the works to do gigs all over Europe like a virtual tour. When we all get back together, we’re definitely gonna put our thinking caps on and see what we can up with to keep it quirky and fun, and retain that live energy that we inject when we play together.
Stream 'Can't Take It Much Longer' here.