Classroom Battles are a four piece collective based in Dublin. Andrew Darley spoke to lead singer Tigrane Minassian about the band’s debut EP, This Week’s Question.
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Based in Ireland, the band members of Classroom Battles come from all over the world. The new electronic collective, featuring Tigrane Minassian, Trish Kavanagh, Martin Clancy and Vasileios Gourgourinis, has roots in France, United States and Ireland. The beginnings of the band go back to 2007 when lead singer Tigrane came to work with Martin on a music project. As their initial idea did not work out, Clancy subsequently sent on some musical pieces which Tigrane and Trish began accompanying with melodies and lyrics. Over time the songs grew and band gathered momentum, with the recruitment of Vasileios, and live together under the one roof in the heart of Dublin. The four-piece are not only certain to raise eyebrows amongst their neighbours, but the music world alike.
The debut EP, This Week’s Question, explores the band’s electronic pop aesthetic fronted rich and emotional lyrics and imagery. Their music addresses what it means to live, feelings of love and the hope we must maintain to keep going. Lead single ‘Call To Arms’ recalls Violator-era Depeche Mode, as Tigrane sings of the oppression we can feel in life, as the electronics glacially pulsate throughout. Although it’s early days for them as a band, the strength in writing and production on This Week’s Question cements Classroom Battles as one band to keep an eye on in 2014.
You’re quite a multinational band, coming from Ireland, France and the US. How did you all meet? When did you decide to make it a band?
Initially I came from France to Ireland in 2011 to work with Martin Clancy. I had visited and worked with Martin before in 2007 and really enjoyed the experience. The music project that we had originally planned didn’t quite work out, so I started working on a lot of visual projects. As it happened, Martin had a few new and old instrumental tracks that he sent me. So myself and Trish got together and started messing around with lyrics and melodies. We realized quickly that there was something very organic and fun about the way we write together.
There is an underlying joyousness about the music in Classroom Battles that I feel is infectious. Trish and myself wrote a whole bunch of songs and demos and other crazy stuff in a six month period and we decided it was time to put a name on it and give it a home. Shortly after that, Vasileios Gourgourinis (aka Vas), came on board and started working on the sound with Martin. Now we’re all living in this big Georgian house in Dublin and we’re working all the time like some kind of wacky version of Warhol’s Factory or a messed up Brady Bunch. At least it keeps the neighbours curious!
As individuals, do your musical influences differ? If so, was there common ground with the band in mind of what you wanted the band to sound like?
One of the greatest things about being all from different generations and countries is that we all bring completely unexpected influences into the mix. I personally discovered so many bands and artists that are important influences along the way, just by talking to each other and throwing things at each other like: “Listen to this”, “You’d love that”, or even “Look at the lyrics of that song”. In general, we’re all very influenced by bands from the 1980s like Talking Heads, Talk Talk, David Bowie, New Order, Pet Shop Boys but we all have difference in tastes. What we were always sure of was that we wanted to express ourselves musically through catchy melodies and very good lyrics. We all hate cheaply written songs.
Where did the name Classroom Battles come from?
Funnily enough, that was the first name we ever thought of and we stuck with it! We found it in a New Scientist magazine: the two words ‘Classroom’ and ‘Battles’ were displayed in big letters on different pages and we thought: “That sounds great!”. You have this idea of youth associated with violence that we all liked. Like Childhood vs. Adulthood.
What has the experience been like being a new band starting out in Ireland? Is it a hard music scene to get into?
Ireland is a small country compared to France. The music and movie scene is small but amazingly vivid and exciting. You go to a club or a pub, you see a band playing and you feel that they could become massive, but even if they do they’ll always come back to pubs to play in front of 15 people. Music is in the Irish blood. It’s a very human and humble country for making music, if that makes any sense. We make the music in Ireland, but we started getting played on College Radio in the US along with some big sites premiering our videos such as Virgin Red Room, Zimbio and Noisey Vice. Ireland unfortunately does not the have the support on radio that homegrown acts have say in France. Which I think is a little sad because there really is so much talent out there that needs to be heard.
Can you talk me through how This Week’s Question came together in terms of writing, recording and producing?
All the songs on This Week’s Question were written at different times, not necessarily with the idea of linking them together on a record. We recorded a lot of demos for other songs and then went back to those four as an evident choice for us. The way we record is usually the following: Martin writes the music, or sometimes even digs up an ancient composition, and then sends us an instrumental track on which Trish and I work on lyrically. Then we record a “super rough” demo, just to get an idea of how it sounds. Sometimes the magic is instantly there, sometimes not, and you have to go back to work again. In the meantime, Vas works with Martin on the sound aspect. They meet for hours in the studio, discuss things, and try new instrumentations. Then, when all of us are sure of what we have in mind for a song, we record it again and again until we find the perfect thing we want. After that comes the engineering part, in which Martin and Vas are true masters. I mean, it’s really amazing what they can do. Sometimes they’re like: “Wait a week and then you’ll be able to listen to it”. Meanwhile, you’re so excited you can’t contain yourself and then they finally call you up (and I mean upstairs not on the phone) and say: “Wanna hear it?”. Sometimes myself and Trish are tempted to bring Popcorn!
The EP contains four songs. Are these the ones that you felt fit best together or were there any others you had written?
The first song that we knew was going to appear on the EP was ‘Call to Arms’ because we decided to release it as our debut single. It contained a lot of what we consider to be the essence of Classroom Battles. Then, once that choice was made, we picked the songs that fitted with it, musically and sonically. We knew that ‘Contender’ fitted with it perfectly, and ‘Cross-Eyed Horse’ was pretty close too, because it brought a darker side to the music. The toughest choice was whether or not to include ‘Sway’. We weren’t sure and we had a couple of different songs that we also loved. In the end, ‘Sway’ was a great decision. It makes the whole EP more light-hearted!
Would you consider the lyrics personal to your own life?
They do feel very personal to us because they express ideas and scenarios that we like and care about. I tend to write from the heart. The lyrics have to mean something or else we lose interest in the song. There are songs that we both have jettisoned along the way because we just didn’t feel they were real enough to us. The good thing is we tend to agree on most things when it comes to lyrics. Although we do have the odd argument, luckily enough we are close friends so most of the time we compromise. We do spend a lot of time writing and polishing the lyrics because we just want to challenge ourselves by asking “Is that the very best you can do?”. However in the case of ‘Sway’, we wrote the first draft in about 25 minutes, while cooking a risotto.
What is the lead single ‘Call To Arms’ about?
‘Call to Arms’ is sometimes hard to explain as we were trying to capture a feeling, an impression, rather than a story. We intentionally made the lyrics a bit abstract. But I guess it expresses a certain kind of alienation and a feeling of oppression (“A sickness spread across the land, I’ll hide it all in me”) We wanted it to sound eerie and claustrophobic at the same time, that’s why we didn’t include any chorus in the song. When we listened to it for the first time, we thought of this character being forbidden to do what he or she loves. The metaphor of the cake in the music video stands for that, for all the things you want to do but can’t because of life.
You have made videos for all four songs, which appear to tell a story and are a continuation of each other. How did this idea come about?
I think Martin was the first to mention the idea. Another thing we have in common is that we all like Stephen King; if you read some of his books, you’ll notice that even if the stories seem independent, they’re nearly all linked to one another by details. Linking the videos together was an unconscious tribute to King’s town of Castlerock, where most of his stories take place. On a more pragmatic side, it’s a great way of keeping the viewer on a cliffhanger at the end of each video, to give them the feeling that he’s watching a story unfold rather than another useless performance-based music video where nothing happens.
When you went to design the artwork for the EP, did you have a clear aesthetic of how you wanted to represent the record and the band?
I always loved simple artwork and designs, especially the ones using existing photographs, like The Smiths’ Meat is Murder album, or even the black and white work of Anton Corbijn, who designed most of U2’s and Depeche Mode’s covers. I guess what I wanted to do with the artwork was to make it look older and kind of ‘Classic’ without falling into vintage or retro. Trish found this picture in her family archives courtesy of her Aunty Margaret (the little boy is her cousin Robert) and we all loved the look of it.
How does it feel to have your first offering of music out in the world now and knowing people will hear it?
It’s so exciting I almost scare myself sometimes. It’s a great privilege to be living in the era of digital music and social media. I know it doesn’t sound very ‘retro’, and I love physical CDs more than anything, but the reality is that without the internet we wouldn’t be where we are today. And the idea of having our music played and heard in different countries is so gratifying. I mean, we’ve been played in Hawaii, in Alaska, in South America. That’s just crazy…
What’s on the cards for Classroom Battles over the next few months?
Work, work, work! More than ever. We have to prepare the next couple of EP’s really soon, and we’re in the middle of writing new songs and recording demos. We have to think very far ahead if we want to achieve things, but we all like working like this. A bit of pressure doesn’t hurt.
Have you thought about making a full-length album?
We’re hoping to release it for September 2014, but even that’s not definite. We have nearly two album’s worth of songs that we really like but we want to keep adding more. What’s positive is that we’re working on it. It’s always in the back of our minds. It’s daunting and scary but also terribly exciting. We really wanted to release a couple of EP’s first.
And finally… Is there a question you have been thinking about this week?
Haha, very good! I guess it would be: “When the hell is the new Game of Thrones season coming out?!”