Always back up your work, they say. Well, what about if you don’t? In the summer of 2019, William Doyle had learned to stop worrying and love the chaos. Enjoying a period of quiet reflection after the release of that year’s emotionally draining ‘Your Wilderness Revisited’, he took to recording freeform, spontaneous electronic pieces in his own time and on his own terms. Recording them, that is, but not backing them up.
When a colossal hard drive failure struck, nothing remained of the loose, improvised tracks, save for some scratchily preserved cassette tape sketches. For William - a meticulous sonic perfectionist - the idea of releasing such hastily recorded music was anathema, and yet he had begun to consider these tracks amongst the best work of his career to date.
Eventually, however, he was convinced to suppress his innate compulsion to fine tune and to send these tracks into the world largely as they were. ‘Great Spans of Muddy Time’ is the result: his most direct, personal and idiosyncratic release so far.
“If I’d have worked on these songs more, I might have even bludgeoned all of the greatness out of them,” he says now, with the benefit of hindsight. “I’m used to overworking stuff, so it’s a really nice lesson to be able to trust my initial instincts a bit more. I don’t think great art has to come from that slog mentality. A lot of great art does come from it, but I don’t think it’s always because of that.”
It’s all a far cry from ‘Total Strife Forever’ and ‘Culture of Volume’, the intricately arranged duo of works he released under the East India Youth guise more than half a decade ago. “They have this strange quality to them,” William says about the new songs. “They’re unrefined, not as sophisticated as ‘Your Wilderness Revisited’ or any record I’ve made; it’s a very immediate process. I hoped in doing that that the experience for the listener might be immediate as well.”
“There’s this imaginary Englishness that doesn’t really exist that’s ended up creating a lot of very interesting music.”
The serendipitous nature of the album has allowed for his personality to shine through more than ever. It’s easy to picture him as the latest in a proud lineage of maverick English sonic miners heading to the nearest middle of nowhere, armed with nothing but a synthesised toolbox; the echoes of Syd Barrett, Delia Derbyshire and Broadcast are never far away. It is a particular musical tradition that William has long romanticised.
“There’s this imaginary Englishness that doesn’t really exist, but nonetheless is woven into these people’s music in some way,” he explains. “I’ve always felt that I’ve wanted to be part of that tradition. There’s something about it, some sort of eccentricity that has ended up creating a lot of very interesting music that I feel like couldn’t have come from anywhere else. I’ve wanted to make a record like this for ages, but it was only through not really trying to do it that it happened.”
Above all, there’s a sense of fun on ‘Great Spans…’ that had perhaps previously been suffocated out of his work. The intense period of success and acclaim that came his way in his early twenties, when the first East India Youth album was nominated for a Mercury Prize and included on countless end of year lists, led to a period that he now admits sent him down a wrong path. “There was a momentum that everyone was thriving off, including me,” he says. “I was already signed to XL so the next part of the chapter was already written. You can see quite clearly how that would just become too overwhelming. It ended up making me not very happy in the end, and it meant that I had to come to this more grinding halt all of a sudden.
“I feel beyond that now, I’m on a new momentum,” he continues. “I think this record is going to start this phase where I’m just going to be making and putting out a lot of stuff for a long time. I feel more in control of it, now that the heat’s off and I’m not the hot young thing.”
"Monty Don was a very important part of the process. He was our lockdown obsession."
This record, like the last, will be released under his own name, the East India Youth moniker now permanently in the rear view mirror. “The name change has certainly made some sort of career longevity more difficult,” he quips, with a typically self-deprecatory tone. The record’s title, however, comes from an altogether more unlikely source.
“Monty Don was a very important part of the process,” he explains without a hint of a smile. “He was our lockdown obsession; we got into watching Gardeners World. I don’t know why I’d never really watched it before, because it’s exactly the kind of show that I like to watch. It’s just so gentle and peaceful and hopeful, and I just found Monty’s manner so inviting. Everyone loves Monty, don’t they?”
William read a quote of Don’s in which he described periods of depression in his life as “consisting of nothing but great spans of muddy time”. “I thought it was such a brilliant, poetic phrase; to sum up so much in so few words, the economy of it,” he says.
“I have an idea involving him for a video. There would have to be a lot of leaves involved so it would have to be set in that bit when autumn starts to come in, and I just want him to chuck autumn leaves into the air and they would just rain down on him in slo-mo. I wonder if he’ll be terribly offended. I don’t know if he’s into melancholy, alternative, slightly avant-garde English art-pop...”
In the meantime, William has been working as a producer for Anna B Savage’s recent debut album ‘A Common Turn’ and, fingers crossed, will be going out on tour with her later in the year. After a decade of highs and lows, things appear to be finally working out for him in a way that he feels fully in control of. Maybe backing up your work isn’t the be all and end all after all.
‘Great Spans of Muddy Time’ is out 19th March via Tough Love.
As featured in the March 2021 issue of DIY, out now.