Based on the work that went into Glass Animals' sophomore album, How To Be A Human Being, you'd think that they were writing a feature film or penning a novel rather than a record. But after two years of touring, playing gigs across the globe and at festivals like Glastonbury, and meeting countless characters along the way, the Oxford-born band built a collection of stories—secretly recorded on frontman Dave Bayley's iPhone—that were just waiting to be told.
"I have almost no short-term memory," says Bayley. "It's really bad, so I just wanted to remember these stories."
Like a mad scientist of sorts, Bayley took his portfolio of charts and diagrams, each mapping out a different fictional character that he created based on these recordings. He then headed into the studio with his childhood friends and bandmates Drew MacFarlane, Edmund Irwin-Singer, and Joe Seward to bring them to life in the form of an album.
Despite the fact that their debut album, Zaba, achieved surprising commercial success, Bayley admits that the band had "pretty low expectations" for the follow-up, How To Be A Human Being. Between two sold-out shows at Terminal 5 in New York, we found some time to sit down with Bayley for a less than light conversation about being on the road, their latest record, and, well, life itself. Dive into the conversation, below.
How did Glass Animals form?
We’ve been friends since we were 12 and we used to go to see a lot of shows together. Then, we all went to school in different places, and I was DJing at night to make a bit of money. When you get back from a DJ set, you’re kind of buzzing and you can’t sleep because you’ve had a Red Bull and the bass. So, I bought a little synth, started messing around, and made some songs. I showed them to my friends when we were all back for Christmas, and they said, "You’ve got to put this on the internet." And I said, "If I do that, you’re gonna be in a band with me." That was it.
What do the other band members bring to the table?
They’re very different personalities. I write the songs and do the production stuff, but it has to be liked by all of us; it’s definitely a tough filter. Ed is really into classical and jazz, Drew is really into very, very abstract electronic music, and Joe is into '90s R&B. So, it's got to fit that all.
What was the recording process for this album?
We’ve been touring a lot, meeting all these people, so I started recording all of these stories they were telling me. I listened back to the ones that I had, and you start to notice things the way that people tell stories, what they exaggerate, what they leave out, the kind of phrases that people use, and what that says about who they are and what that says about the world that they live in. I just liked the fact that all of these stories were multifaceted. On the surface, they’re just a little tale, and then you think about their life and then what their life says about everyone else’s life and the state that the world is in.
So, I thought it would be cool to make my own characters and take some of those themes and take some of these incredibly sad, incredibly distressing, incredibly disgusting, or hilarious stories and take away some of those emotions and those sentiments and make these new characters. I didn’t know it was going to be a music album, I just started putting pen to paper and immediately felt like, "Oh, I can put this all to music." So, I went straight from tour to the studio, and that’s when it started.
Is there any story that sticks out to you?
There are a lot. How dark do you want to go?
As dark or light as you want to tell.
Okay, I’ll tell you a medium-dark one. I was in a taxi in Atlanta with my little brother, and we were driving to a bar to meet some friends. We drove past a strip club and the taxi driver—a middle-aged lady—turns around, and she’s like, "I’ve got a story about that strip club," and we were like, "Oh, okay, tell us." So, she started telling us the story. She used to drive trucks back and forth across America delivering packages, and the best way to make money doing that is to not sleep, takes lots of drugs, and just drive. You can get there and back in a week. She would take crystal meth and cocaine and other amphetamines and stay awake for days on end delivering packages. Once, she overdosed, or she blacked out because she took too much and woke up in the strip club. She looked around, talked to a stripper, and was like, "Hey, where am I?" and she was like "You’re in a strip club," and she goes, "No, what state am I in?" She didn’t even know what state she was in, she had lost her truck full of goods, and she had blacked out for roughly 30 days.
She has this incredible guilt that she thinks she murdered someone, and she can never prove it. She just feels that way, and I can’t imagine living like that. It’s bizarre. Those are the kind of feelings I was trying to convey with music and soundscapes and things like that.
The first single was “Life Itself,” what's the story behind that?
It’s a made-up character. He’s a bit of a loner, a bit of a strange personality because he’s never really been given a chance to integrate into society. I think everyone has probably felt like that a little bit at some point. Have you been to university?
You end up writing your paper, and you don’t see anyone for weeks, and then you go out and everyone sort of looks like an alien, and you feel really self-conscious. He feels like that all the time, this guy. He just doesn’t go out. He spends a lot of time in his mom’s basement, inventing weird things, researching extraterrestrial life, and working on his website. He’s raygun123.com.
Tell me about the artwork.
It was fun. It was a lot of work, I did it myself. Each song is a different character, so while I was writing the songs, I was doing these big diagrams or charts about these people with the lyrics. There were all these lines coming off of them, with what clothes they wear, what they do in their spare time, what their house looks like, what kind of furniture they have, their friends, everything. So, it seemed pretty obvious to cast them all as actors. And that’s what you see. We did a casting in L.A., we chose the actors, we gave them these big diagrams, they embodied these characters, and that’s who you see in the videos, inside the album, outside the album. We thought about using models, but then we thought actors would give it depth because they're acting and interacting with each other. You can tell them little things about each other.
What was that like to see your characters come to life?
Absolutely mad, but so exciting. So exciting, I couldn’t choose a final cover. So each format of the album has a different cover. Each one has a slightly different version of someone’s personality. It was so much fun.
What would you say the central theme of the album is?
I think people are the definite core and then you can draw themes out of that. There are things that are holding all these people together and there are things that are pulling them apart. There are things that these people are saying about the world and there are things that these people’s lives say about the state of everything.
I don’t like telling people what things are about exactly because I think people maybe, hopefully, will make their own opinions and find a little bit of themselves in the characters, and that song will say something specific about life to them that maybe it doesn’t mean to me. But it’s not wrong.
So, you wrote the album, and it’s called How To Be A Human Being. What’s the right way to be a human being?
There’s no right way to be a human being. Every one of the people on this record is different—some of them are assholes, some of them are really lovely, some of them are very sad, some of them are very angry, but they’re all human beings. Maybe that sounds really hippy dippy but there is no right way to be a human being.