We had a chat with UK alternative outfit National Service following the release of their deeply personal new single ‘Milktooth’
Since the release of their 2017 debut single ‘A Little More Time’, alternative rock trio National Service have been a steady presence in the UK music scene, earning acclaim from fans and critics alike for their emotional and contemplative writing and the raw, authenticity of their sound.
This is a theme that is sure to continue following the release of their latest single ‘Milktooth’. The track is entrenched in an emotional, vulnerable energy that creates an unmistakably unique and disconcerting atmosphere. There is a palpable intensity throughout the track, whether from the captivating vocals or the increasingly anxious instrumental, the track takes a tight grip of you as a listener as it moves through themes of mental health, childhood and growing up. There is a lot to unpack within the track and the outfit’s sound and style itself, so we had a chat with National Service to find out a bit more about the project and the men behind it.
Who TF are National Service?
You’re talking to Iain. I play the leady noisey textural guitar parts and sing the falsetto backing vocals drowned in reverb that sound a bit Lord Of The Rings-ish. I met our singer Fintan at uni in London in 2009 and our drummer and engineer Matt is an old school pal of his. Our buddy Max plays bass with us when he can, although it’s just the three of us at the helm for now.
How long have you been making music?
We’ve all been lifelong musicians. I started singing in vocal group at school, playing piano at age 7 and guitar at 13. Fintan had a band at uni that sort of mutated into something else around 2014. Matt was doing some engineering for them at the time. Their original guitarist left and I took his place. Shortly after, their original drummer also quit, and Matt joined. The music became very different from that point on and we didn’t really have a name for a while. It was a really difficult time for us all personally, which I don’t really feel like trying to romanticise. It sucked. There was a lot of double shifts, sore feet and having nothing to show for it at the end of the month. Not a unique story, I know, but it wasn’t fun and I think it did everyone a lot of damage. The one positive thing was that after our lengthy and stumblesome gestation period, we figured ourselves out in almost total isolation, and our first single came out in the summer of 2017.
Why do you make music?
Biological compulsion. I’ve attempted to give up songwriting in the past when things haven’t been going well, but it’s not possible. I always wind up drumming on the table or singing in the shower etc. I notice if I ever spend any time over at someone’s home where there isn’t something to pluck or a piano or whatever, I do get a little tense. I love singing, it never fails to cheer me up. I think music has always been the most powerful thing to me, and I guess maybe I like the idea of wielding something that potent. I loved Jeff Buckley’s notion of music being his first ‘plaything’ or something similar. It still fascinates me like a toy does a child. It has the ability to explain things that are profound, confusing, joyful or painful, that we may not even be able to articulate, even to ourselves. A good song is like having someone read your mind and put it into better words than you ever could. Some sort of clarity etc. Because if feels like someone understands you, it provides solidarity and a kind of communion, and ultimately can comfort or heal. It helps us all make sense of the brainwreck it can be to be human sometimes. Of course, it can also just be something fun and lighthearted like The Bee Gees, and that’s also cool too.
What are your biggest influences?
Individually, I’d say mine are probably Pink Floyd – David Gilmour is my favourite guitar player. I also love Jeff Buckley’s use of extensions and chord voicings. I think some of my more noise stuff comes from maybe Sonic Youth or Black Flag. Probably some early Queens Of The Stone Age too. Vocally, it’s probably Tracey Chapman, Chet Baker, Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone and Thom Yorke. Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) is one of my all time favourite musicians. Tracy Chapman is one of my favourite songwriters. Same for Tom Waits. Same for Shane MacGowan. I used to love Ryan Adams and Damien Rice. My favourite Beatles album is ‘Abbey Road’. Sigur Rós are magnificent. We all adore Radiohead, so they’re a monolith for us. Their new project The Smile were great live, and I really enjoy Thom and Johnny’s film soundtrack stuff. Johnny is also an immense influence on me as a guitarist. Fintan is a big lover of The Strokes, Arcade Fire, The Maccabees, Bombay Bicycle Club, Foals etc. I don’t think he’d mind me telling you that he’s also a huge fan The Darkness, but we’ve not given him 64 bar solo just yet. I think Matt enjoys similar indie / Pitchfork / KEXP type stuff but is also into a lot of grime.
The band generally has pretty self evident roots in Joy Division, The Smiths, later grunge stuff, maybe Hüsker Du, probably Blur or James in there somewhere, The Cranberries, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, possibly Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, then things like Interpol, The Strokes, Death Cab, Editors etc. We’ve got a huge Radiohead influence. I definitely think a lot of London music that came along on the back of The XX’s first album, that included, had a big impact – Daughter, London Grammar, Ben Howard, To Kill A King etc. We used to listen to a lot of DIIV, Beach House, Youth Lagoon, Laura Marling etc. I think a big part of our sound actually comes from dub reggae and that idea of using trailing reverbs and use of a space as an instrument. I used to run my guitar through the mixing desk when I didn’t have an amp and get this horrible digital clip reverb which was kind of formative – sounded like a cave-in and we all really liked that cacophonousness. Our most frequent comparison is The National, and whilst we do love them, I think it’s more just people noticing that band names share a word. I don’t feel we’re very similar aesthetically or musically, and the band name isn’t related to theirs. We have a huge amount of affection for Glasgow bands like Man Of Moon, Mogwai, The Twilight Sad, Arab Strap and Frightened Rabbit. Scott Hutchison was an immense talent and it’s awful that he’s gone. We need to make sure we keep playing his wonderful records nice and loud. More recently we love things like Bon Iver, The War On Drugs, Sufijian Stevens, Tame Impala, John Grant, Lisa Hannigan, S. Carey (Sean Carey from Bon Iver’s solo project), Protomartyr, Son Lux, Fontaines D.C., Loyle Carner, Cloth, Squid, Shame, IDLES, Sleaford Mods, SNAYX, Kathryn Joseph, Just Mustard etc.
What would you say has been your best moment so far?
Can’t think of just one per se. It’s always just nice to be listened to. I enjoy talking to people in interviews about what we do and it’s nice that someone’s interested. I do definitely enjoy the comedown of silence after a good show. I never talk to anyone after gigs for at least 30-45 minutes. I’m not really around for the “that bit was good, that bit wasn’t” etc. when I’m still tremulous from what’s just happened. I usually just go outside or on the roof or something and sit with a bottle and breathe hard. Some things are better felt through than verbally evaluated. That’s when I feel the most content and spiritually in-sync. I love swimming in that stream.
How would you describe your sound to somebody unfamiliar with it?
We got dubbed once as ‘divorcecore’ and it seems to fit quite well. Noisy, cavernous, confessional, slightly mathy, murky, chamber-choral melodic grungey postpunk or something like that. Equal parts ugly and uplifting.
What’s your dream “I’ve made it” moment?
Getting paid. But generally I’m quite sceptical that there will ever be one of those “you’re all done now” moments. It’s all a constantly changing thing. Contentment, like all emotion, is fleeting. I want to keep making it, but part of that is realising that you’ll never arrive at an end of anything, and trying to enjoy the ride. I guess for me that means remaining friends with my bandmates, looking after ourselves and each other, not acquiring any awful self-sabotaging habits, continuing to make music that makes us feel proud, representing ourselves accurately, and trying to not do anything too horrendous to our fellow apes along the way. I don’t really mind about winning an Oscar or having a pint with Taylor Swift or anything. I mean, I would, but I’d have a pint with her as a person, as opposed to her global status or trade name etc. I wish we could all stop using the word ‘brand’. Deep down I am still that 12 year old kid who wants to headline the Pyramid Stage, not really for any fame or notoriety, but just because I know that playing shows and making records is what we’re meant to do. It can be dangerous to have expectations where creativity is involved. I’m wary of ‘results-orientated’ art. I think I would like to get to the stage where the band can self-sustain economically and we could just enjoy 5-10 years of touring, continuing to improve as a band and still be pals at the end of it all. I think we would all just be satisfied with doing the band full time and being to able to dedicate ourselves to it fully, just to be actualised as an entity and as individuals. I’d be fine with that. I don’t know about the other guys, but the only one I’m really competing with is myself. I’m not a huge gusher or trying to get a selfie standing next to whomever. They’re just people. That kind of idolatry or adjacency type thing is just not for me. Same goes for how many ‘Likes’ or ‘Plays’ someone may have. It’s just not a real thing and ultimately it’s not where our attention should be. I always loved when NWA said of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ that they “just wanted to make a record for our neighbourhood” – to me, that rocks. I have my musicians who are huge in my life but there’s also amazing musicians in my neighbourhood who play to a few dozen people in Hackney twice a year and they shine easily as bright a light to me as anyone on the telly or whatever. I think there’s stars everywhere.
We love your new single ‘Milktooth’, what more can you tell us about it?
Kind of you to say. ‘Milktooth’ was basically recorded by the three of us in a tiny, acoustically horrific rehearsal spot in North London. It’s not the greatest studio, but it’s ours and feels quite relaxing to work there. I think Fintan would be a better person to ask, but lyrically, it’s a sort of coming of age type thing, confronting the responsibilities of adulthood, questioning one’s worthiness etc. and feeling like whilst the world is intact outside your body, the internal world inside your head is a maelstrom. It suits his voice really well and I think demonstrates how good and unique of a singer he is. I remember the original demo Fintan wrote was a more straight down the line almost Motörhead-like version of the song, and I liked it as it was. I think it’s important to say how collaborative our writing process is. Traditionally, Fintan was the root point for the start of songs, but nowadays, things get put through the mill and can often end up very different to the original idea. I remember the point where Matt wrote his jungle break type drum beat, which totally unlocked a completely new song within that original demo. Those are always exciting moments, when we all get really excited and the tails start wagging. I like the idea of having ‘lead drums’ in a song, which this tune kinda has. I think the song itself showcases the broad sonic and emotional palette of the band quite well. It’s kind of our business card tune. If you like this, you’ll probably be in all the way.
What else do you have planned for the near future?
‘Milktooth’ is the first single from a big body of recent work that is going to be released gradually over the next year or so and eventually consolidated into our debut album, so, for the foreseeable future, we’ll be working hard on that. With any luck, that’ll allow us to continue building our listenership to the level that a UK/ROI tour is feasible, and a bunch of our favourite festivals.
And finally, who is your biggest fan right now?
Probably us, at the moment. I think we’re all feeling very proud of this single, and the forthcoming album. I don’t really understand when musicians feel the need to apologise for or dog-in their own stuff. I feel like a lot of that is falsified in order to be cute-endearing or whatnot. We do sometimes get a nod from someone in say Thailand or Peru or whatever, which is fun. I’m wary of the culty connotations of the word ‘fan’, but in terms of people who enjoy our music, the ones who do come talk to us at the merch table are always really really into it. That’s a lovely feeling. The more of that, all the better.