William Doyle at Headrow House

Wednesday night at Headrow house saw the return of William Doyle – idiosyncratic, experimental, advanced electro/indie-rock guru, a genius at work.  

It’s been five years since William last played at Headrow House, the very first artist to play there on its opening night.  Building work was actually still going as the renovation project was behind schedule.  William was booked, though, and he didn’t want to let people down.  Back then, he battled his set through various surreal moments; in particular (apart from a few issues with helium-filled party balloons) builders occasionally passing through wearing hard hats.  His East India Youth set still blew everyone away.  This was no mean feat considering the builders were still drilling holes in adjacent walls, fine cement dust wafting over the stage and crowd.  Who needs a fog machine?  

Move forward to tonight’s gig: the builders have gone and all is quiet.  A very unassuming Mr Doyle walks onto the stage alone, just with his Martin guitar.  ‘Hello’ he says in a very soothing way, a bit like when one of your favourite actors is hosting CBeebies bedtime stories.  A strong chorus of ‘hello!’ comes back from the crowd. 

 

Behind him is a set up comprising of saxophone, bass, two synths – one of which modular, drums, and to the far right a complex cluster of trigger pads, keyboards, a midi performance controlling board, MacBook Pro and analogue modular rack.  This is certainly not going to be an acoustic all-nighter, but a very versatile array of instruments that will feature in William Doyle’s eclectic set.  

‘I think the last time I played Leeds, it was the opening night of this venue….. so I’m here to tell you tonight that this venue will be closing, seems like a natural circle.’ he said with a wry sense of humour, harking back to the Fawlty Towers feel of the builders still being on site for his last gig here.  Thankfully, all is calm now and William starts with a powerful cover of Bowie’s Buddha Of Suburbia The tone of his voice is still as striking and perfectly bright as it was five years ago.  The crowd were very happy with this song as the opener.  

William then introduced his band to the stage, and as they settled in, he said that they’d be playing the entirety of his latest album Your Wild Revisited, and everyone affectionately whooped and cheered in anticipation.  

To give you a little background to William Doyle, five years ago as an artist he was known as East India Youth (this diverse electronic/techno work is definitely worth looking up).  Around this time, although he was making incredible music, he was struggling personally in many ways.  He was enduring panic attacks, was drinking far too much, suffering depression and anxiety, still playing gig after gig after gig.  The perfect recipe for disaster and permanent burnout.  

He got help though, thankfully.  Things have completely turned around personally for Doyle – he’s now rebuilt himself into a healthy state, mentally and physically.  His newfound confidence pushed him to choose to disband the East India Youth moniker, now simply going by his own name.  Coping with the potential vulnerability of using his own name, is testimony to him becoming much stronger as a person, and as an artist. 

 So here we are, listening to the whole of his album Your Wild Revisited live.  It was beautiful.  Stand out tracks for me were Nobody Else Will Tell You, Millersdale, Design Guide and Continuum Hearing these tracks on the album is one thing, and that’s beautiful.  Hearing them live though: astonishing.  With mosaic-like tracks such as these, so articulate in structure and sound, they are studio masterpieces.  You’d think though that live, somehow corners would have to be cut.  How many times have you been at a gig hearing one of your favourite songs live, you have that slightly let down feeling while thinking  ‘Aw no, that bit’s missing’?  Well, with William Doyle and his band, all the sounds are there and they’re very much authentic; there’s no cutting corners.  He’s formed a band with people you know are very gifted and skilful musicians.  

Saxophone was played in a very cool way, not that schmoozy kind of way that’s evocative of pastel-suited Brian Ferry, nursing a whisky while staring though his floppy 80’s bangs.  No, Alex Painter played with a delicate punch that really lifted the live sound.  Turns out his backing vocals are quite something too.  

Bass, keys and modular synth were looked after by George Hider His style is effortless, soothing, and when need be, it packs a very strong groove indeed.  The track Continuum live is quite something; how he leads into that hook that forces you to move, constantly flitting between what looked like some kind of Arturia/modular synth, another synth and his bass guitar.  It’s always good to see a bit of bare hands organic plate spinning, rather than someone stomping on a loop pedal for five minutes, which is getting a bit cliché these days.  

Holly Hardy looked after drums.  The feel of what she played was astonishing.  She played with timpani mallets, so the range of what she played and how she played was captivating.  Sitting beneath a very comfortable looking grey beanie hat, Holly gave a delicate build up to her start in the set, layering a gentle swell on the cymbals that intensified and then suddenly launched into seriously complex drum fills.  Reminiscent of that heady jazz that makes you think ‘How does anybody ever keep locked in playing those kinds of time sequences?’ but man alive, Holly did.  Throughout the whole set she varied the articulation and velocity in such a way that the whole set had a very strong, rock solid dynamic indeed.  

Tony Njoku had a duel role, both supporting William on his tour and also playing in his band.  Tony’s electronic IDM/experimental music is abstract, late night, uplifting and on a personal level, it’s really good dissecting the textures he’s created.  Live and in the flesh it’s something to behold, just from a technical point of view, let alone the incredible soundscapes he builds up.  His sound is very elegant and thought-provoking.  Tony layered William’s set with some amazing, flowing synth pads and also spectrums of high-end digital percussion.  At least I think a lot of that was him; it was hard to tell really as there was another guy next to him…..  

On the far right, kind of hidden behind a mini-tower of rack gear, sample trigger pad, MacBook (three MacBooks on the go for this gig, corralling a vast array of gear into sync), also a guitar, stood Pete Darlington I watched and scrutinised, but it was genuinely tough to see what he was creating or doing!  Occasionally I could see clearly, yeah, Pete’s got his guitar now.  Then he’d dive down out of sight, most likely throwing an eye of newt, hair of black cat and the leg of toad into his digital rack cauldron.  I’ve no idea!  But some of the gorgeous textures and beautifully lost reverb on his guitar were incredible.  It was hard to tell his and Tony’s sounds apart though really.   

All in all, it was a very relaxing and heartwarming gig.  Before one of his songs, there was a moment when William got the beachball of death on his MacBook that he was running his guitar effects through. No big deal.  He laughed, the band and crowd laughed.  In one of the song intros there was an almighty analogue synth blast way too high in the mix, that shook the place for a second and sounded like a demented dalek.  No big deal.  The band were still relaxed and smiling.  There was never any of that tension or that awkward feeling you get when things go wrong.  It was all just go with the flow and enjoy the structure and technical brilliance of what they were playing live.  

William Doyle is a very understated, unassuming, yet brilliantly gifted artist.  His voice live has that perfect lilt and power that catches your attention.  His song composition and structuring is so detailed, rewarding and beautiful.  I was discussing with the photographer for the gig beforehand how much William’s sound in some tracks picks up where Peter Gabriel left off, with his eponymous album number three, an intensity of detail while somehow remaining uncluttered with space still in there.  Very difficult to do, but William has certainly done it with his latest album.  If you haven’t already heard Your Wilderness Revisited, you should be very pleased when you have.

All photographs by Mark Wheelwright.

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