Aquilo have never been keen on convention, an asset in todays shape-shifting pop world. Since bolting from the blocks in 2013 with their spellbinding bedroom recordings to finding their feet as global streaming stars, the former Lake District neighbours have always fiercely followed their own agenda.At the start of this year, with multiple songs already playlist staples, Aquilo released their acclaimed debut album, Silhouettes then chose not to tour it. What seemed strange at the time soon began to makesense. As Silhouettes took off on streaming sites, Tom Higham and Ben Fletcher bunkered down in their newly-built South London studio to start the second phase of their career.Had we toured Silhouettes straight away, it would have been like going backwards, explains Ben. Some of the songs were several years old they didnt represent where we were at musically anymore. The plan was to first find a new sound, so that the tour would feel like a fresh start rather than the culmination of something that began in our bedrooms when we barely knew what we were doing.The result is ii (Side A), five new songs due out in November as an EP, which will also form the first half of Aquilos second album when it appears next year.Again, were doing things differently, says singer Tom. Rather than release a couple of singles, we wanted fans to fully immerse themselves in our new sound. Streaming has changed how we all consume music. We still love the album format, but it definitely needs updating. Releasing an album in two halves is our way of doing that.Fans of Aquilos trademark widescreen sound neednt worry the new songs are every bit as bewitching as their beloved predecessors. But theyre also tougher, sparser, more focussed and more mature. They still shimmer with otherworldly beauty, but this time they began on real instruments rather than laptops. On ii (Side A), the sampled strings of their debut were shelved. For two tracks they hired Bonobos brass section.All of these songs began on acoustic guitar or piano and developed organically, says Tom. Instead of using sample packs, we played around with sounds we created ourselves. Wed slap a guitar with our hands or record pen clicks on a crappy microphone and sample them. For the percussion on Thin, we hit wine glasses with different levels of liquid inside. On I Could Fight On A Wall, youll hear us hitting a keyboard that wasnt plugged in.There was, laughs Ben, a lot of hitting going on!What began as a fun experiment inspired a new way of working.Because of the way we created the samples, every song started with a unique identity and we didnt want to lose sight of that, says Ben. In the past, weve thrown everything at songs to create a big sound. This time, the sense of size comes from the space. There are more musical pauses and more instrumental parts. And a lot less singing. The skill we learnt was knowing when to stop.Lead track I Could Fight On A Wall was released just before Aquilo began their first headline tour of the States atthe start of October. At once crisply clear and woozily warm, its strength is in its depth and, as ever, in Toms beguiling, transportive lead vocals. Lyrically, Aquilo have also moved on. Silhouettes was recorded when both Ben and Tom were going throughbreak-ups, hence its songs were steeped in melancholy. Work on ii coincided with both beginning new relationships, although some of the lyrics concern friends in crisis.
Were still mostly writing about relationships, just not necessarily our own, saysTom. I Could Fight On A Wall is about what youd do to hold on to someone. Its a scenario that could go either way. A relationship on a knife-edge, if you like.Elsewhere, for the first time, Aquilo become observers. The spectacular Thin, which opens with folky acoustic guitar before the (wine glass) percussion kicks in, boasts their most direct and emotional lyrics to date. The listener stands alongside the band, watching someone 'smoking in the kitchen, drinking wine thats not your own and dancing alone for too long.Thin is about a friend of ours who was going through a terrible time, says Tom. Its a real close to home song. Wed been away playing shows and when we came back, we could tell hed changed. We tried to capture the guilt we felt at not being able to help.The gorgeous Ghost details another friends strange, post break-up situation, while Six Feet Overground is a spellbinding piano ballad about life moving on. EP closer Who Are You? is both triumphant and traumatic, as Aquilo probe a partner to reveal their real self over lush instrumentation that boasts beautiful live brass.Something in the synths we used on that song suggested brass, says Tom. So we mailed some ideas to Bonobos fantastic brass section, who sent us back what we asked for and more. They also play on Thin. We loved having real brass. Its a sound we had never considered before. Our default was always strings.Aquilo are currently busy withthe tour they delayed for eight months, which will arrivein the UK and Europe at the end of the year. Weve played shows and festivals in the past, obviously, says Ben, but really its streaming that has taken our music all over the world. We played our first headline show in New York at the start of this year and the crowd was crazy. Thanks to streaming, were popular in places we never dreamed wed even visit.Aquilo, to their surprise, are even big in China.We only found out when British Airways booked us to perform at a private function in Beijing, says Tom. It was tolaunch a new cabin crew uniform. Until we arrived, we had no idea why theyd asked us.But within 20 minutes of landing, it was all over the state social media that Aquilo were in Beijing. BA even arranged a meet and greet with some of our fans after thegig. The next thing we knew, we were being whisked to the Great Wall of China.Laughing, Ben adds, Where we forgot to film ourselves posing and possibly strumming guitars! Were still kicking ourselves about that. It was only when we got home we realised we could have been the new Wham!