Chat! Conor Mason of Nothing But Thieves
Many peoples’ tip to be the breakout band of 2015, I first saw Nothing But Thieves at The Great Escape. Seeing the Essex five-piece live at Coalition I knew I’d witnessed something special.
A few days before the band played Reading and Leeds, I caught up with lead singer Conor Mason to find out what life has been like for them since The Great Escape and learn a little about one of Britain’s finest new vocalists. If any evidence were needed that they are one of the hottest new bands around, on the same day I spoke with Conor he was also interviewed by Annie Mac and Zane Lowe.
Beyond speaking to Radio 1, Beats 1 and myself, it was another busy day for the 22-year-old as the band were rehearsing in Shoreditch. Considering that they’ve been touring almost non-stop since I saw them in May, it seemed odd that they’d need to rehearse, but as Conor was quick to explain, with Reading & Leeds just a few days away, they wanted to work on their set. Whilst they’ve played lots of festivals, this was clearly the big one for them. “We’re on the NME stage which is a dream stage for us. I remember seeing Everything Everything there in 2010 and now we’re doing the same slot. Reading means a lot to us, it was the first big festival we went to as fans and it’s the one we always wanted to play.”
But Reading wasn’t the only thing on their minds, they also needed to prepare for an upcoming Live Lounge performance. Back in May during Radio One’s Big Weekend, they found themselves in Norwich doing a Live Lounge for Fearne Cotton. That was a memorable day as they delivered one of the best ever Live Lounges when they covered Mumford & Sons Believe. As surprising as that was, the biggest surprise was that they mashed it up with Led Zep’s Kashmir.
It should never have worked, but it did and, more so, they made both songs their own. It turns out, like so much of the band’s story, it wasn’t something they had planned on doing. “We got called really last minute to do it and it was such an opportunity we couldn’t turn it down. We had the choice of three songs, two of which lyrically and melodically weren’t very us. We liked the Mumford’s song but thought it was a little bit wet so we wanted to beef it up and that’s when we came up with the Zeppelin idea.”
Led Zeppelin it transpires has been one of the biggest influences on the band and on Conor in particular. When asked to name the one vocalist that most inspired him, Robert Plant is one of the first he mentions. But there are others who are perhaps more surprising. “I grew up listening to jazz and R&B, and singers like Chet Baker and Frank Sinatra were the ones who inspired me me the most. For someone who has a voice that was recently described as ‘skyscraping’ that’s somewhat unexpected. So how did the singing start? “As a kid I always played instruments, but the only time I sang was in the car with my dad. He’s an amazing singer. He’s like an old R&B singer, he’s got a real bluesy voice with quite a big range.” But my focus was playing guitar.”
Things changed when he met Dom Craik and Joe Langridge-Brown at school. He and Dom were 12 or 13, Joe a couple of years older and a bit of whizz on guitar. They didn’t need three guitarists, they needed a singer. Conor remembers the first person who told him he had a good voice was a family friend. “They encouraged me enough that I decided I’d go for a few vocal lessons.”
Although Joe later went on to uni, the three stayed in touch and eventually added another two school friends to what became Nothing But Thieves. From the outset it’s clear the quintet had big ambitions, even taking themselves to America to for six weeks to develop their own sound. “We grew up listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd who were both huge, so naturally we wanted to emulate their success. We’ve always wanted to be the biggest band on the planet!” This summer they had first hand-experience of what that was like when they were invited by Muse to be their special guests in Rome. And it wasn’t just any show, it was a gig in front of 36,000 at the Stadio Olympico!
Conor recalls how it happened. “It was really random. Muse’s production manager saw one of our songs on YouTube and liked it. He convinced them to take us. We got an email saying would we like to play with them in Rome? We were all in a cab when we got it and we were just screaming. It was unbelievable and so was the gig itself.”
The Muse gig wasn’t the only memorable one the band played this summer. They also performed at the Monaco Grand Prix and at the Isle of Wight festival. And a few days before we spoke to him, they’d just got back from playing a festival in Tokyo. “Japan was brilliant. We’d never been anywhere like it and the whole culture shock was amazing. Everyone was so friendly and we didn’t expect to see so many fans.”
So has all the attention taken them by surprise? “It’s not something we worry about” says Conor “None of us think about the whole fame thing, I guess we’re just level-headed. To be honest, and I know it sounds really cliched, we get so much joy from playing on stage that for us it’s just great to be able to do that.”
As the lead singer, his intense soaring voice is the first thing that makes you sit up and realise this band have something special about them. His range is astounding and his vocal style impressive. “The singers I grew up listening to, people like Jeff Buckley and Robert Plant, their phrasing is just so behind the beat and bluesy and I think I’ve kind of fallen into singing the same way. I don’t consciously think about phrasing when I’m singing. It’s something I just do naturally.”
Those vocal influencers have also had an influence on the microphones he uses onstage. When he first started he bought himself an £80 Shure, but since then different sound engineers have recommended different mics that would better suit his voice. “At the moment, I’m using an Audio-Technica which is amazing, but what I really want to get is the one Matt Bellamy uses. It’s just so good. It’s by Neumann, but it costs about £900!”
Asked about the strain he puts on his voice and the fact a number of high profile young vocalists have had to cancel gigs as they required surgery, Conor is thankful for those singing lessons he had when he was 13. “I’m Grade A at singing and I’ve learnt how to use my voice correctly, even when it sounds raspy. I got taught how to use my diaphram, so even when it sounds like I’m straining, it’s all under control. Of course what happened to Sam Smith and Jess Glynne is scary and I’m sure they were really scared when they found out they needed surgery, but you shouldn’t be putting your voice through any kind of strain. Obviously, Sam’s got a fantastic voice, but without sounding arrogant, he doesn’t give it as much force as I do.”
To ensure his voice is at its best, Conor has a strict regime when he’s on the road. “I have to be so careful. I treat my voice like an athlete would treat a muscle. I warm up and warm down. Before a gig I only drink lukewarm drinks, especially honey and lemon. Because alcohol dries your throat, when I’m on tour I don’t drink. And of course I don’t smoke. I know it’s a little bit un rock n roll, but that’s what you’ve got to do.” Not only that, but once a month he has a massage to make sure all his muscles are loosened. “That’s important for a singer as every muscle is connected.”
With their rehearsal about to get underway, attention turned to October which will see the release of the band’s self-titled debut album and their first UK headline tour. What were his memories of playing The Great Escape? “Coalition was an amazing gig. The crowd were great. I’m a massive fan of Slaves who followed us so I just had a wicked night and, I’m not gonna lie, I got a little bit drunk that night In fact I was so drunk I ended up tweeting about Staves rather than Slaves!
And what of Brighton itself? “It’s a great place. I’ve only been twice, but I’ve walked around quite a bit. I don’t know it that well, but being by the sea there’s some similarities to Southend. Both have got piers, but I guess Brighton’s is just a better version. By the way, I’m not from Southend, I’m from Rayleigh which is close by.” Today, home for Conor and the rest of the band is East London. “It’s only half an hour away by train, so whenever I have a free day I go back home to see my family. And if I’m not seeing them, I try and keep fit by working out.”
Having played some huge stages, it’s always interesting to find out what’s more daunting: playing a big festival or stadium, or playing an intimate room. “It’s weird, playing to 400 or 40,000 is actually quite similar because you can’t see everyone and all you know is there’s a lot of people out there, but when we’ve done acoustic shows to like 20 people I find that much harder. Regardless of how many in the audience, it’s all about feeling the energy of the crowd.”
It just left time for one more question and given their name we couldn’t resist asking whether they’d ever had anything stolen from a gig. “We have. Once! We were on tour with Twin Atlantic and they took one of our guitars. It turned out they took it by accident. They’re lovely boys, but at the time we thought they were nothing but thieves!
“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”
Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens using available light only. This was quite a challenging shoot as the band were playing on a tiny stage in a crowded night club and there was no photo pit which meant I was stuck in one spot throughout their performance. Shot in Brighton on 15 May 2015.
This interview originally appeared in BN1 magazine
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