Maribou State on How They Beat Writer’s Block

Maribou State Photo by Alexandra Waespi
September 14, 2018
The electronic duo discovered that a fancy big-city studio was not the key to making beautiful music.

If the UK duo Maribou State’s breakout album, 2015’s Portraits, offers an especially organic take on electronic music, perhaps that’s no accident: It came together in a garden shed.

Like many electronic producers, Liam Ivory and Chris Davids started out working together in their bedrooms. But when the chance to work with a vocalist arose a few years into their career, they realized they needed to step things up a bit. The solution lay in a small structure in Liam’s parents’ backyard that they converted into a cozy creative workspace—not a real studio, perhaps, but a step up. Dubbed “the Shack in the Back,” it became Maribou State’s headquarters—and the place where their vision of soulful, downtempo electronic music fully came together.

But halfway through touring Portraits, the two decided it was time to leave tiny Berkhamsted, where they had grown up, and move to London to begin work on a new album. That’s where the trouble began: Uprooted from the cozy confines of the Shack in the Back, they found themselves at a creative impasse. But they couldn’t exactly go back to Berkhamsted, either; the solution lay in looking further afield and finding ways to create new possibilities around them.

Ivory tells Spotify for Artists how the musicians navigated their way out of the creative rut.

Spotify for Artists: What happened when you moved to London? You set up a new studio there; I’d think that would be pretty creatively stimulating.

Liam Ivory: You would assume that, but we spent so long getting the studio ready—and we bought loads of new kit—that when we sat down to write, nothing really flowed. We were too wrapped up in touring, and moving to the city was a big distraction. We didn’t get anything done for quite a while and actually started to resent the city. There was talk about how the countryside is quieter and more inspiring, and maybe this isn’t right for us.

What steps did you take to rectify things?

We’d pack our whole studio up and drive out to the Cotswolds and rural parts of England and set up in a little cottage. We stayed there for three weeks and wrote loads of music. We did that three or four times.

The first time you did that, once you got there and got all your gear set up and plugged in, what changed?

I think it’s that work mentality: We’re here to write music. You switch off your phone, and you work much longer hours than normal because there’s nothing else for you to do and no friends to see.

After that first trip away, when you got back to London, did you find yourself feeling stuck again?

A little bit, but we also had ideas we’d written on those writing trips to work on, so it became more fluid.

Did you keep going back to the same place in the Cotswolds, or did you experiment with different places to see how that energy affected you?

We moved to different places. We got more into the idea of it, and each time we would upgrade to a slightly better and bigger place. There was one particular property where we went on two occasions. The third trip was so successful—we wrote maybe three or four tunes that are on the new album—we felt we should go back there, that it was a really good spot. Sadly, we didn’t really get anything the following time.

Sounds like a fishing trip. Did you feel pressured to create when you went away?

Yes, it was very real. Back in the city, or back in the Shack, you have your space that’s just there for you to work in, but this was costing us money. We were away from friends and family for the purpose of writing music, so if ideas didn’t come, that made it even more important to reach some kind of goal. It resulted in just working all hours. We shifted our sleeping patterns so that we were waking up and having breakfast at 3 p.m. and then working all night because we just couldn’t rest until there was something in the bag from that day. Those trips were exhausting—especially moving the kit. We’d pack everything up, put the cottage back to normal, drive back to London, set the studio back up, and you’d have to rest for three days afterwards.

Your new album, Kingdoms in Colour, seems to draw inspiration from all over—you’ve talked about it as a kind of sonic collage that incorporates field recordings you made while traveling.

That was an idea we had even before Portraits was written. We wanted to travel and capture different parts of the world. Luckily, because we had some success, we were able to do gigs abroad, and that’s when we started just absorbing everything we could on those travels. So field recordings, and we’d also hire studios in different places and work there. Anytime we saw a musical instrument shop, we’d stop and sample the instruments. The album draws upon a lot of those experiences. A lot of the album was finished abroad, because we were doing our DJ tours. We wanted it to feel otherworldly, like it was from all these different places in the world.

Having been through this process, what advice would you give to a fellow musician who’s feeling stuck?

I think changing surroundings was really important for us—moving around and opening up to different places and experiences. Also collaborating with other people. It’s such a perfect way to push yourself—getting in the room with somebody else and rising to their ability. You feed off them and you learn. They’re going to show you different inspirations and they’re going to approach things in a different way, and that’s really key. That’s something that took us a while to realize. We used to think we didn’t like collaborating, that we were happy just doing it on our own. But one of the highlights of this album was working with other people and developing songs together and having another set of ears on everything.

—Philip Sherburne

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September 14, 2018
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