If you haven’t heard of Pola & Bryson’s latest album Beneath The Surface then what rock have you been living under? Clearly not the same one the duo have been hibernating under the last 12 months…
Representing their third album in five years (which is crazy to think), Pola & Bryson’s latest body of work is one they consider to be their most special yet. Centred around an album narrative depicting the four stages people go through during mental struggle, Beneath The Surface is a project many people will be able to relate to – especially after the anxiety-fuelled 18 months or so we’ve endured.
But it’s maybe not an album people know enough about – especially when it comes to the in-depth writing process involved. It’s fair to say Beneath The Surface was a mammoth project, and that’s why Shogun felt it was necessary to sit down with Jack and Harry for the first edition of our Deep Dives series where we dive into all of the details behind influential projects on the label. To launch the series, we spoke to Pola & Bryson about the journey they went on writing their latest album, and of course, made sure to find out what the hell Shinrinyoku is...
First things first, how was it celebrating your album launch at The Steel Yard with the Shogun family on launch day? Hopefully you remember it…
Harry: Haha! I can remember the set, but I don’t remember anything after it…
Jack: I don’t remember the set… It literally flew by! One of the things I loved about the event was being able to play the album tracks to a crowd. It was only the third restriction-free show we’ve done together. Obviously, we’ve had sit down shows, but even with things opening up, everyone has still been a little timid. I was very nervous before the Steel Yard show, but it was so good playing album tunes out. I’d never played Under or Never End to a room full of people and heard them sing it back… It was a euphoric evening.
It sure was a magical night! So let’s delve into the writing process behind Beneath The Surface. How did it all come together?
Harry: We initially came up with the idea on a drive to Bristol. We wanted to use images to help us write the music for our next project. Being in lockdown helped us, because like many others, we lost our inspiration for a while. We get a lot of our inspiration from travelling, so writing to imagery helped us to tap into deeper emotional states. We wanted to create a storyboard using those images, and that’s where it started. We spoke to Shogun and Army of Few – who designed the artwork – and the idea grew.
Jack: For us, it was pivotal the album audio was paired with strong visuals. They needed to work in tandem with one another. When we storyboarded those images, that’s when we began writing music for the album.
Harry: Some bits were written before, but the interludes in particular were written afterwards.
Lockdown significantly changed your writing approach then?
Harry: It gave us time. If we had been gigging then it would have been different.
Jack: Gigs aren’t a distraction at all, but not being at them did give us time to write to the album. However, one of the downsides to it – for me at least – was that it took all the way up to our second album, Lost in Thought, for me to gain the confidence to play our tunes out before they were finished. It took so many years for me to gain that confidence. But then when we began writing this album, that aspect of test driving our tunes to a room of people was stripped from us. So having the ability to write this album to imagery allowed us to take the concept in a special way.
And how would you describe the album direction?
Harry: The story revolves around going into and out of a mental struggle – such as a depressive state – and the feelings that come with it. We tell this story in four parts. So the initial stage of the album is all about tranquillity, then as it progresses it gradually gets deeper until you reach the third stage called Toska, which translates to depression and melancholy. It’s the moment when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, but then you’re able to come out of it.
Jack: It’s almost like you have to go through this journey and the struggle descending to rock bottom in order to have the realisation it’s all uphill afterwards. It’s a case of finding a point of self-acceptance, recognising the issue, and working at it. Like Harry said, the album is a journey through mental struggle. It could be depression, or it could be stress. The album wasn’t based on a specific experience either of us had, it’s just based on a difficult time.
Towards the end of the album it gets noticeably more upbeat, which makes complete sense now!
Harry: Yeah, from Yuugen onwards. That term translates to the understanding of oneself and the realisation of how small you are in the universe, and how much your problems don’t matter.
Jack: In a good way, haha! It’s a case of realising your self-worth by recognising your insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The album sections have quite obscure names, but there was a deliberate reason for that. We actively sought out technically untranslatable words from other dialects and cultures…
Harry: We wanted to find words that actually meant the feelings we were trying to communicate.
Jack: They inconveniently don’t have a single translation into English. With some of the words relating to a mental state, a feeling or an emotion, it takes a bit more effort to translate them.
We’ve been wanting to ask you about Shinrinyoku in particular...
Jack: There’s no English word for it! It’s the feeling you get taking part in forest bathing, which is essentially walking in nature and detaching yourself from the modern world. But it’s not so much the process of doing it, it’s the emotional state you’re in when you’re doing it.
Harry: It literally translates to forest bath… But in Japanese, they use it as a much more meaningful word.
Did you do any forest bathing during the writing process?...
Jack: I used it as my one hour of exercise every day, haha!
Very productive. It’s cool how relatable the album is – especially considering the amount of people who would’ve gone through a mental struggle during lockdown.
Harry: It helped a lot. It was like being a film composer and having a script to write to. But rather than writing to the story, we wrote to each emotional state of the album.
Clever! It’s funny to look back at your debut album and the way that was written about reflections on your first 12 months as a duo. You’re now six years in and have achieved so much more.
Jack: It genuinely feels like a lifetime since that first album came out.
Harry: I can’t even remember making it…
When you’re deep in the writing process and touring for gigs, it’s difficult to find the time to think about your progress. But when you do, you realise how much you’ve achieved!
Jack: It’s mad because no album has taken us more than 12 months to write. It’s mental to think that we’ve shoehorned in all this writing during those five years. How the hell did we do everything else in between those projects? Don’t question it…
Harry: Let’s just do it again!
Jack: It’s funny because the first album only came around because we were at the Silver Bullet in Finsbury Park doing a Soulvent event, and one of the fifty punters was Chris Marigold from Clinic Talent. He was like – you boys should write an album. We told him we weren’t ready, but he said no one was ever ready for their first album. Just do it. So we did! It’s weird because there was literally no Pola & Bryson and then we went EP – album in no time at all.
Harry: Straight up, haha.
Jack: I think that experience had a massive hand in why we love writing albums, because we were coaxed into doing it so early on. We didn’t have time to settle into the EP or single writing way. We just got thrown into it and loved it.
It’s good not to overthink it and let the music flow naturally.
Harry: Exactly. You can get bogged down in mixdowns for years trying to perfect them, but there’s only so many people out there who will care about that over the music itself, so we are trying to put our focus on the music.
You guys have always had a stripped-back, natural sound to your music. It shows you’ve stayed true to what you want your music to be.
Harry: We’re doing well at the moment to stop when we need to stop, rather than overcomplicating tunes with lots of sounds. Whereas when we started, we used to add in loads of sounds and gradually cut away.
Jack: Over time, you learn what’s necessary. Is anyone ever going to notice when you spend an extra eight hours on that snare? Probably not. Some of the most vibey music out there has some of the worst mixdowns, but it doesn’t matter because the vibe slaps. It’s vibe first for us, always.
If you haven’t yet had a chance to vibe with Pola & Bryson’s latest album, then make sure to cop the Beneath The Surface limited edition vinyl boxset for the full album experience.