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Diagrams may be an unfamiliar name, but the voice will be instantly recognisable: this is the new project of Sam Genders, former co-frontman and songwriter of experimental folkies Tunng.
Diagrams bears all the invention and imagination of the band Genders founded with Mike Lindsay, who has led Tunng since Genders’s departure, but channels it in a different direction. This is crisp, minimalist pop music that fizzes with electronic effects, synth-bass, programmed beats and low-key funk grooves, bringing to mind the leftfield pop of Arthur Russell, Metronomy, Hot Chip, Steve Mason and Peter Gabriel. It’s a new, playfully eclectic side of Genders’s songwriting, but one that maintains the colourful and impressionistic lyrical imagery he’s famous for – Antelope talks of a girl with “Tiny ants under her skin, sending messages to her mind.”
A solo project of sorts, Diagrams sees Genders working with a rolling cast of collaborators including Danyal Dhondy (string arrangements), Laura Hocking (vocals), Hannah Peel (backing vocals and trombone) and drummers Matt McKenzie and Tom Marsh. Live it expands to an all conquering nine-piece who made their debut to an ecstatically full tent at this year’s End Of The Road festival. It’s named Diagrams for the defining sound of clean, sharp production and programming Genders has cooked up with co-producer Mark Brydon. “I feel like this music is less lo-fi than the music I’ve made in the past,” says Genders. “It’s quite precise and angular in places, so Diagrams felt perfect.” That idea extends to Diagrams’s visual side too: graphic artist Chrissie Abbott has created Flatland-inspired imagery incorporating clean lines and polygons.
Diagrams marks Streatham Hill-based Genders’s return to performance. After quitting Tunng, his professional focus fell on production and writing for artists such as former Gomez frontman Ben Ottewell and Brazilian chanteuse Cibelle. Personally, he’s been preoccupied with getting his life back on track. “I was in quite a dark place personally before and, to an extent, during Tunng and I needed to stop and take a break to work on myself a bit and find my self-confidence,” he says. “I cured myself by working in an inner city primary school for three years! I’ve come out of myself a lot and the music has come from that.”
That period of reinvention ingrained itself in 2012’s Black Light. The riff-driven Ghost Lit is about, “How relationships can bring up all the ghosts from your past and reveal all your worst insecurities;” the reflective Night All Night is about, “Fighting off your demons and trusting that it’s ok to be in a relationship.”
Most tellingly, Appetite is inspired by Genders’s experience of getting his life back on track. “I read a lot of psychology and self help stuff and I’ve found it very helpful,” says Genders. “I think it’s helped me to change from an insecure and unhappy person into someone who genuinely enjoys life. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt inclined to keep those books in a brown paper bag in a cupboard underneath the sink. Appetite is either a tongue in cheek parody of the self help mindset or it’s my attempt to write a song that celebrates the sheer ‘bloody hell what an amazing experience’-ness of life. I’m more inclined towards the latter view these days.”
The title, Black Light, summed up Genders’s experience: “I like the idea that good and bad or dark and light aren’t always so clear. Sometimes the most difficult experiences can lead to the best things in life. Life is full of good and bad, dark and light. That’s just how it is.”