Oblivion Manifold – Exclusive Interview with Indifferent Engine

Indifferent Engine (L-to-R): Ellis Hale (guitar), Adam Paul (vocals), Alister Gibbons (drums), Alex Wheatley (bass).

Southeast England’s most intense live band need to take a break from the stage. Singer and producer, Adam Paul, worried spectators at the band’s Metal 2 the Masses semi-final in Hertfordshire on 12 June when many in the audience thought he’d suffered a nervous breakdown. You can understand why once you’ve seen the thirty-six-year-old artist bash his forehead with the palm of his hand like a person trying to control his Tourette’s impulses. A typical performance will see him writhe on the floor like a man with a gut wound, but it can also see him assault his bandmates in a moment of mania.

Bassist, Alex Wheatley, admits that he needs to be on guard when his singer gets into performance mode on stage. “I have to, like, keep an eye on him at all times to make sure he doesn’t fucking drop kick me again or something. When he starts grappling me, I can be like, ‘Right, He’s coming.’ I’ve got to angle myself correctly so I can keep playing.”

I put it to Adam that many fear for his emotional health after an Indifferent Engine show. “We find that quite funny because, to us, it’s just our show,” he says. “Like, that’s just a normal show to us, but it’s definitely the kind of show we want to do. But yeah, it’s very, very emotionally draining. I feel pretty destroyed for the next few days, both kind of physically and emotionally.”

Above: Indifferent Engine at Hitchin’s Club 85 for the Metal 2 the Masses semi-final show on 12 June 2022. Photo by Danny Robertson.

For the record, the frontman does not suffer from Tourette’s syndrome, nor does he have an intense form of ADHD. But an Indifferent Engine performance is like having access to the dark incongruity of a person’s stream of consciousness and watching it influence the irrational spasms of the body. His bandmates feed on this neurotic energy and find themselves lost in the moment during a live set. Alex uses the live stage as a form of therapy. Often, you’ll see him roar the lyrics while plucking away at his bass strings. Drummer, Alister Gibbons, admits that he can watch a re-run of a live performance and feel as if it’s somebody else up there behind the kit. “For the most part, it just doesn’t feel like I’m watching myself,” he chuckles.

It’s tempting to fall for the cliché that the band members enjoy an outer body experience during their live set, but it’s the opposite for Adam. “We’re kind of desensitised to it because our shows are always like that, right. It’s a very conscious decision to make the show that way,” says the frontman. “One thing I’m usually kind of unhappy about is that it always looks a lot tamer than I want it to be. Like, I always want it to be… more.”

Anyone who has seen a live Indifferent Engine performance will be horrified to learn that the band have untapped reserves of energy that can make you squirm even harder. Surely, there is no further to go in terms of intensity. Are their rehearsals just as ferocious? The band members nod their heads. Sometimes, Alister will drop a drum stick under the physical harassment of his singer and will continue to bash his rack toms and snare with his bare hands until he can grab another pair of sticks. Guitarist, Ellis Hale, tries not to smile when I ask him how he responded when Adam first yanked him by the neck during a rehearsal. It’s a mystery how he keeps his sunglasses perched on the end of his nose during a customary onstage assault from his frontman.

Ellis Hale joined the band in 2018 after Adam showed him some demos. The guitarist cites Tool and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine as two of his biggest influences, yet he avoids the standard power chords and chunky drop-tuned riffs of his peers in favour of a more obtuse math rock approach. As the most taciturn of the band members, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the presence of an English gentleman officer. He has the perspicuous Cambridgeshire accent and the build of a rugby player. I ask him if his unorthodox chord formations are a product of theory or chaos – his smile widens when he talks about the theoretical aspect of composition. “I’m not like Kurt Cobain, making things up, you know. There’s a precise theory behind everything.”

Above: Bassist, Alex Wheatley, is a walking encylopedia of music.

Only after multiple listens, does it become clear that Indifferent Engine write complex music using standard structures. Adam is the main songwriter, though he plays no instruments on stage. “I went through a number of different guitar players and drummers and this kind of stuff, but nothing really worked out,” says Adam, recalling how he met Ellis. “People wouldn’t stick at it until I met Ellis. And Ellis was really into it. And I think we clicked really quickly because we have very similar influences. Like, we’re both massive At the Drive In fans. We’re both really into that emotional post-hardcore kind of thing.”

Categorising the band’s music is harder than an advanced Sudoku puzzle. “We have metallic elements to our music, but the way we perform is much more like a punk band,” says Adam. Alex adds his thoughts: “We’re kind of falling between genres a little bit where, if we’re playing punk shows, we’re very, you know, maybe a bit too strange. On the metal side, we’re not true enough… We’re not, you know, quantized guitars and Kemper helixes and all that.”

Alex is the musical encyclopaedia of the band. I first met him at the Tombstone Takeover Festival in Stevenage in June. The thirty-one-year-old Letchworth Garden City native studied Chemistry at university but has the memory recall of a history professor. His grew up watching his dad play guitar and learned the blues rock of Led Zeppelin and Dire Straits as a teenager. These days he listens to The Cardiacs, Japanese new wave, the post-rock experimentation of Talk, Talk and just about anything that can challenge him as much as a Rush record. You could put me and him in a room together for twenty-four hours, and we’d still be talking about musical genres and favourite albums. He also handles the line ups for their DIY shows, while Adam concentrates on the venue side of things.

With the band taking a break from live performance over the next few months, they can concentrate on writing a follow up to 2021’s Canis EP. They recorded this four-track record at the old Laburnum Lodge – the house where Adam lived until the council sent in the demolition crew to knock it down as a safety hazard. He does not seem bitter about this, but he dodges my question about the financial settlement he received for the compulsory purchase order. The band had studio time booked but cancelled it during the second Covid lockdown. “We were like, oh, we’ll just convert my old falling down derelict house into a studio, and we basically set the master bedroom up as the live room,” says Adam. “The kitchen was directly below. So, we just took a hammer to the floor and, like, smashed a hole in the floor to run all the multicore down and then set-up the desk and interface and everything in the kitchen downstairs. And then we had the drums upstairs in the bedroom and just tracked it all like that, basically.”

Canis is a chaotic record, full of strange guitar chord formations and unhinged scream vocals. Alex’s basslines keep the low-end in focus to counteract the higher range guitar patterns. How they extrapolate melody from this noise is most remarkable. You can hear the urgency of At The Drive In’s classic album, Relationship of Command, among the carnage, but Indifferent Engine have their own unique take on post-hardcore that has just as much in common with art rock as it does punk.

“Every blog that we sent it to, hated it, but we were very happy with it,” says Adam. “I think it’s very powerful sounding… You play [opening track] ‘Tachikoma’, and it almost feels like it’s quite thin, but then as you turn the volume up and your ear acclimatises to the spectral balance of it, it starts to feel really powerful to me. And it sounds exactly like how I wanted it to sound. The only thing I’ve mentioned is that I wasn’t happy with the snare sound, and I think that was only really because we should have tuned the snare up higher.”

All members of the band bring their own cerebral approach to the music. Alister grew up listening to prog rock and jazz drummers but cites Leprous and Architects as two of his favourite contemporary artists. He also loves the energy of Texas hardcore crew, Portrayal of Guilt. Adam surprises me with his admission that Steve Vai is one of his heroes. “I was a big fan in my day because I was a guitar player,” he reminds me.

The remainder of the year should be a good opportunity to write and record new material, but the band don’t know if it will culminate in an EP or an album. As for playing live again, it might be 2023 before we see them on stage. “We don’t really think we deserve more than what we have,” says Adam with characteristic humility. “Most of the shows we’re playing are mostly empty rooms, right? We’re not, like, successful by any measure, but we just really wanna make a push to be able to play some bigger and better shows.” The thought of no live shows for the rest of the year is a depressing reality for Alex. “I’m gonna be insisting on weekly band practices to just write stuff because, otherwise, I’m gonna go mad,” says the bassist.

Two things you can guarantee with Indifferent Engine are passion and an obsessive attention to detail, whether that be in their audio output, their stage set, or their visuals. Nobody in the Hertfordshire scene sounds like them, but their lonely mission could be a fruitful one if they continue on their current trajectory.

JVB


*** Indifferent Engine self-released their Canis EP on 8 January 2021. You can stream it on Bandcamp all other good platforms.