Amber Run are a true Nottingham success story. After bursting into the limelight in mid-2014 following a fruitful support slot with Irish rockers Kodaline and a string of successful EPs, they’ve never shown signs of slowing down. Now back from their debut tour across the Atlantic, album number three, Philophobia, is on the horizon, complete with a smattering of tour dates spanning the country. Although living life at a rate of knots, The Mic was able to catch up with lead singer and University of Nottingham alumnus Joe Keogh to discuss the new album, the influence of social media, and what it means to come home.
Famed for their folky ballads and creative choruses, Amber Run endured what could only be described as a rapid rise. As the young lads left university to focus on the band, the future looked bright. Debut offering 5am was bright, chirpy, and overall a pleasant album to listen to – but there was always a sense of something missing. Forged out of anger, the release of sophomore record For A Moment, I Was Lost marked a strange period for the band. One almost wouldn’t recognise that the two albums had been written by the same two or three men when considering the change of energy and the displays of raw emotion visible in the second record. A mixture of chaotic, explosive tracks to more understated, artistic offerings – For A Moment, I Was Lost was a step in the right direction for the band, yet didn’t strike the right chord to propel them to chart, nor critical, success.
Credit: Daniel Harris
In an age where writing is coined as ‘cathartic’ for nearly every indie band out there, Joe was eager to discuss his experiences when it comes to writing such an emotive, raw album: “Fucking horrible really. You’re running at 100mph, and then you’re falling over, grazing all the skin off your legs, and then you sit picking at the scab until you stop playing it live.”
“Everyone endures their moments of suffering, but with this new album, and new era for the band, a welcoming arm is outstretched to those who need it.”
“Obviously, it’s helpful, but you either act out or engage with the pain.” No sugar-coated pill here, just hard-to-swallow truths. It seems like a maturation has occurred. While the heavier themes may have clouded the band’s artistic talents beforehand, now Joe seems ready to deliver a steadier album; a collection of songs that are both raw and honest, yet won’t sacrifice the natural songwriting talent that initially grabbed ears back in 2014. “Engaging with that stuff makes me a better person. I hate playing ‘Amen’ live. Not because I don’t think it’s a great song, but it’s just so overtly painful and that’s still relevant in my life. I would say it is cathartic, and important, but it’s not always feeling good.” As Joe spoke, I felt a sense of great volatility within the ethos of the band. The music they write grounds them - without it, they’d simply take off.
“Maybe I don’t live in a ten-million-pound mansion, but we get to really impact people’s lives. That’ll be the case with whatever record we put out.”
“You’re just blindly sprinting forward trying to make the best music and play the best shows. It’s not often you get to stop and think about it. You’ve got to be on the knife edge of ‘Is what I’m making good or bad?’ That’s when the most exciting stuff comes out.” A youthful vulnerability shines through every word. Joe was one of the friendliest singers I’d spoken to: chatty, fun, and excitable, yet the echoes of the student facing leaving his degree behind in pursuit of the big dream were still audible.
Without sounding too romantic, life as a frontman in a world-touring band was Joe’s destiny. From his youth, he had been in awe of those who could perform for a living, and the fact that this was now his life clearly still seemed unimaginable. “Some of my favourite bands ever when we were growing up would play shows to 50 people in High Wycombe, and I would lose my mind over it, like ‘Wow this is the best show ever, how did they get this many people along to a show?’ And we get to turn up and play Rock City in Nottingham? It’s only when people start saying things like that that it ever feels tangible.”
While being in a band still feels like something of a dream, Joe was happy to discuss the darker transitional period following the release of their second album. “When doing some of our hardest records, we distanced ourselves from people that liked our music,” he admitted. “We were just really angry, and we weren’t in a good place.” But like many artists enduring a tough spell in their careers, the band found an opportunity to create something good out of an initially rough patch: a Facebook group that enables them to connect them to the people who placed them on the pedestal all those years ago. “We started to realise on this record that we weren’t in that angsty place anymore, and part of what makes our band really special is sharing our experiences. Obviously, we can’t go handing out our mobile number saying, ‘Call me any time!’, but just as much as people like the music, we’ve started to realise that we can really play a positive role in our fans’ lives; they play a positive role in ours.” Albeit an untrodden path for many bands, but this is something that they had clearly thought through. A place for connection, not for promotion. Life in Amber Run seemed to be chaotic from the inception, but this is just another example of how, with age, they have learned to ground themselves. After years of distancing themselves from the fans who so loyally stuck by their sides, Joe, Tom, and Henry are genuinely giving something back to those who sparked their runaway success.
“You’re running at 100mph, and then you’re falling over, grazing all the skin off your legs, and then you sit picking at the scab until you stop playing it live.”
“Live music is the best thing on the planet, and sometimes the only reason is that they have no-one to go with! Some people still haven’t been to a live music show, and that’s fucking criminal,” exclaimed Joe. “We’re gonna police it pretty intensely, looking out for shady shit, but you’ve got to assume that most people on this planet are pretty good, with them respecting you and you respecting them.” It was touching to hear this change of tune. From a dark, lonely place - the feeling of camaraderie returned. Despite the more recent sounds of Amber Run still conveying deep, dark emotional experiences in their rawest forms, there is now a touch of the wholesome about them. Everyone endures their moments of suffering, but with this new album, and new era for the band, a welcoming arm is outstretched to those who need it.
“It’s always good to sell tickets, but the real currency of what we do is that we can affect people over a long time, with songs like I Found and Amen. We get letters about those all the time – that’s the real fucking currency. Maybe I don’t live in a ten-million-pound mansion, but we get to really impact people’s lives. That’ll be the case with whatever record we put out.”
“We turned up in New York, to a thousand-capacity show having never been there before, and it felt like a homecoming!”
With the words of compassion and companionship still fresh, Joe began to discuss the prominent themes of the upcoming album Philophobia. While FAMIWL touched upon a whirlwind of different emotions and relationships, Philophobia hones on the most important. “The record is an exploration of relationships you have with people around you, but mostly yourself,” Joe stated. “That’s the relationship that’s most important, but that people often forget about. You’ve got to put yourself out there, and you’ll get something back. That’s the lesson I learned. It’s been really gratifying and helpful to me so I hope it’ll be helpful for someone else.” It would be too simplistic to expect this album to be a self-help record, but building a genuine connection with the listeners has become of paramount importance to the band. While I won’t begin to name names, I’ve witnessed many bands lose artistic integrity in a bid to enhance transparency and open up to the fans, but I feel Amber Run won’t be at risk of this. Intense and melancholic tracks Perfect and Dark Bloom on the sophomore record were valid attempts at laying their hearts on the line but, despite being enjoyable to listen to, they lacked the lyricism of previous tracks. Lazy and lacklustre in construction, while they demonstrated the band was capable of conveying darker themes, there was an evident sacrifice of musicality. After almost three years to work on their sound, and after enduring a natural maturation which shaped the band’s vision, Philophobia should deliver the composure that was missed in previous offerings.
Despite going through dark times in the past few years, there is plenty to be cheerful about. As 2018 came to a close, the band found themselves in America for the first time, greeted with a string of successful shows. “It was almost all sold-out!” Joe exclaimed. “We turned up in New York, to a thousand-capacity show having never been there before, and it felt like a homecoming! The energy in the room was nuts!” As well as cutting their teeth in new surroundings, they have been testing the waters with some new material. “I’ve been really enjoying playing Neon Circus live, it’s a really fun way to open!” Joe cheered. “There’s a song called What Could Be As Lonely As Love which I love playing live. I feel like I’m in Talking Heads or something. I’ve been channelling a bit of the Byrne boy. He’s a loose boy!” Hopefully the pain they endure with performances of Amen will be dulled by the enjoyment of playing their new material, and they can reconnect with the excitable young twenty-somethings within them to thoroughly enjoy themselves once again.
“We’ve started to realise that we can really play a positive role in our fans’ lives; they play a positive role in ours.”
Spurred on from the successes across the pond, Joe and the boys are back in the UK, ready to embark on their first European headline tour in years. Joe, clearly warmed by the reception they’ve been given, was happy to share his feelings on the upcoming tour, and the all-important homecoming show. “It means the world. I remember the last time we played Rock City, it was a firecracker, like we played terribly the day before and we just thought: ‘We’re shit live’. We turned up in Notts and the energy turned us into the band that we knew we could be. There’s no other city in England that I’d rather be associated with. It’s such a great scene to cut your teeth in and be supported in and grow in, and I really hope that we can give something back to the city.”
While only here for a couple of years, the band’s affinity to Nottingham has far from burned out. After we’d discussed the upcoming tour, Joe fondly recalled memories of his Nottingham experiences. From his love for university sport, to his guilty pleasure: a night-out at Crisis, I sense that a part of Joe wishes he could have finished his time at the University of Nottingham. “When you get an opportunity like this you’ve just got to ride the wave,” he advised. Having endured some stormy seas over the past few years, Amber Run have reached softer surroundings. Sharper of mind, they are armed with a refined sound ready to be unleashed. The stage is set: Amber Run are ready to blow us away.