Over the past 18 months, The Grates dug deep in their adopted home of the Big Apple. Establishing the routines, methods and procedures that would become their “Secret Rituals”, they set to work on their third album. It was a challenging but rewarding period for the band – facing change and embracing a different perspective and writing style. Ultimately, these battles became a rite of passage to create a body of work that delivers on The Grates’ long-awaited promise.
After five years of touring the world with their first two critically acclaimed albums, “Gravity Won’t Get You High” and “Teeth Lost, Hearts Won” The Grates decided to take a different approach to their new record. “Previously we’ve always gone away and written and recorded our albums in a concentrated burst,” says frontwoman Patience Hodgson. “But this time we really wanted to live our lives while we wrote and recorded over a longer period.”
And so Patience and guitarist John Patterson moved to Brooklyn and waited for inspiration to strike. For nearly a year. Woody Allen lied; their muse was not waiting for them with ‘The Grates’ written on a piece of cardboard at JFK airport. “When we first went to New York I thought that I was going to be so turned on by things, so inspired and able to write music as soon as we got there, and that everything was going to be easy,” Patience says.
They had turned their lives upside down for the sake of music and it didn’t work. At least not right away. So they rode their bikes through New York blizzards, ate too much Mexican, joined a food co-op to stalk Entourage star Adrian Greiner and longed for New York to give them an album.
The plaintive ‘Turn Me On’ showcases Patience’s ability to write fun, slyly sexual songs with a deeper heart. “It’s a plea to get something more out of the situation than there is.” The pace of life in New York and starting from scratch creatively gave them a whole new lease on music. “But it took a long time. We had an initial writing push that was really difficult, because we didn’t have any of the (creative) rituals in place,” John says.
Slowly new routines emerged, and through them new songs and a new type of songwriting. The pair found themselves trapped in the studio –literally- by the ferocity of the North American winter and so started pushing in new directions, experimenting with feedback loops and vintage synthesisers. The Grates weren’t kidding when they titled their album “Secret Rituals”. And of those rites, the band are keeping mum. “I think I’d feel weird telling people some of the stuff we were doing, because at the time it seemed like it was such an important part of making the album,” says Patience.
Once those little life ceremonies were in place, the band quickly found they were ready to tackle the album. The song ‘Change’ provides a good indicator about The Grates’ new musical direction, and as Patience mournfully sings, ‘I don’t want to change/ but I don’t want to stay the same,’ it is clear why the band’s secret rituals were so important. “That became the theme to the album, that song,” says John.
Living in a new city wasn’t the only challenge that The Grates had to face. When original drummer Alana Skyring left the band to pursue a career in culinary arts, Patience and John suddenly found that the band room had become a whole lot quieter. “For me it was always really easy when we would write with drums, because I could always hide behind the cymbals at all times,” says Patience. “It was really, really confronting at the start because I knew that whatever I was saying and expressing was immediately being heard by John.” There may have been the occasional day when Patience made John face the wall while they wrote together, but the shift to a sleeker line-up turned out to be a pivotal point in the band’s development. “I think it forced us to be more focused on the actual songs, whereas before we were thinking about how full they sounded when we just had two instruments,” says John. “But when there wasn’t that space to fill, we could just focus on the songwriting.”
And it certainly shows. ‘Secret Rituals’ is a giant step forward for The Grates. There are still the infectious choruses, cheeky singalongs, and artfully addictive arrangements that characterised the band’s first two albums, but nobody could accuse The Grates of being ‘cute’ any longer. The band’s latest effort is broader and tougher in scope, more stripped back and bold. While a common thread links the record together, marking an album that is unmistakably The Grates, the individual tracks explore new depths. Without the luxury of having six weeks to finetune her lyrics while Alana and John figured out the songs, Patience was forced to take a more direct approach to her lyric writing.
“Everything had been hidden in metaphors on the previous two albums,” she says. “I don’t exactly know how I started feeling confident but it was probably to do with being in New York and being out of my comfort zone and how scary that is in the beginning, but then when you conquer it you’re left with so many more resources because you’ve got so much more to draw from.”
Patience wrote the lyrics to ‘The Night Won’t Start Without Us’’ in the middle of winter in a crazy, crazy blizzard, on one of the days the band was trapped in the band room for hours. But the only storm you’ll hear in this homage to the beaches of Australia are the whirling guitars and tumbling drums. ‘Welcome to the Middle’ is what Patience refers to as a “death lullaby.” No-nonsense drums punch through swirling guitars as she sweetly sings about life being a circle parade. “That’s the sort of song you’re not really going to want to sing to your kid, but that’s what I would sing to explain how life works,” she explains.
‘Secret Rituals’ is an album of many firsts for The Grates, including the use of bass on each track. According to Patience they were ready to start experimenting with the rolling bass sounds on this record after years of avoiding the instrument due to outside pressure to hire a bass player. “Then we got to the stage when people were comfortable with us not having any bass, that’s when I became uncomfortable. And then I really started feeling like I wanted bass on this album,” she laughed.
John reveals that adding bass to their line-up allowed the band to give the songs some necessary space. “Everything used to work around having the guitar and drums going the whole time, so any new sound we found we just piled … on top of that.” Patience adds “And with bass we could take things out and pare the songs back, where as before we could never do that. It was the kitchen sink approach.”
Once they emerged blinking from the writing studio with the new baby, The Grates recruited Brooklyn-based drummer Ben Marshall to add his magic on the record, and finally filled out the cast with bassist and producer Gus van Go and his production partner Werner F to help with production duties. With all the ingredients for “Secret Rituals” in place they took it to John O’Mahoney (Metric, Coldplay, The Living End) at Electric Lady Studios, New York, a hallowed place that has seen everyone from Chuck Berry to Jay-Z perfect their masterpieces.
Listening to the finished product, you can understand what The Grates discovered making it. That it is the secret rituals of everyday that inspire us, the way we live our lives. The things that happen as we eat dinner, struggle home through a storm, what goes on behind bedroom doors, inside rehearsal studios; all of it feeds the soul. Whatever rites of passage The Grates invented, they worked. Secret Rituals is as worldly and cool as the town it was written in, while steeped in sweet nostalgia for the band’s hometown roots.