Interview: Building studios, community spirit and the importance of lyrics with Mellah

In more ways than one, it can be said that Mellah makes music ‘for the people’. On recent singles ‘Family Fun’ and ‘Habit’, the songwriter has shown prowess in being able to create radio-friendly pop tunes, but has managed to instil a sense of urgency through cutting political statements within his lyrics.

Having already had two EPs to his name, capturing two very different sides to the artist, Liam Ramsden has embarked on recording for his debut full-length where the ambition is to allow all of the eclectic elements that have characterised his music to date to coalesce within the same space.

Discussing everything that has gone into the project so far, we spoke to Mellah about the importance of being able to express himself through his lyrics, bridging the gap between sickly pop and raw punk energy and how building a series of studios in London used by the likes of Nilüfer Yanya and Mica Levi has helped create a valuable community spirit for him.

How have things been for you over the lockdown period? You’ve been involved in a number of streamed live shows lately, how have things gone with those?

So-so, it’s been up and down. The live shows have been good and I’ve enjoyed them. Once you get over the lack of applause or any kind of audience, it isn’t that bad. It’s quite nice to have a little bit of control over the sound and I kind of like the surrealness of being watched by a lot of people but being on your own. I kind of like the chaos of playing live anyway, so when it goes bad it can end up being more fun.

How did your involvement in the streams come about?

I have three small studios in Peckham, and Quarantunes was started by one of the bands that I rent one of the rooms to, so I sort of helped them set it up and got involved in the technical side of it. From there I managed to jump on that and perform on it. Then through the label I did one for 4Music and one for La Blogotheque which was a lot of fun. 

Do you find this as a good thing to keep you ticking along while you’re unable to play shows?

It’ll never reach the high bar of playing a live show, but it’s still really interesting to see what people have managed to do with it. Some of my friends have built a whole software that means bands can play together in isolation from different houses and stream it. You can kind of tailor a live show as a movie in that way and it’s been fascinating. Sometimes these limitations bring out the creativity within people, but obviously I’d prefer being out and playing live shows. Plus, you don’t get paid for streaming so there is that as well. For me personally, it was quite good to take a step back from live performance. I felt like I was really scrabbling to get the show together and it’s been good to have some time to send new stuff to the band. It’s always so many different parts that have to be learnt and you’ve only got so many weeks to rehearse it so it’s been good to have a bit of time to reflect on it.

The live set-up is quite big, isn’t it?

Yeah, usually. The label and everyone else have been trying to get me to hone it down to a core band but it’s impossible. Everyone’s in so many different projects which I think is such an amazing thing, but the way I work, there isn’t a core band in there. I play with lots of different people and that’s the way I like to record as well. That’s why I built the studios as well, I like working with different people and having people come through. I don’t see music as monogamous, if you like.

Currently working towards the debut record, what can you say about what you’ve done towards it so far?

The process so far has been a long one. My main process has been trying to differentiate between personal and emotional songs, and then social songs about the city I live in or things going on outside of me. Historically those have been two different projects; Mellah was my ‘emo’ band, and Middle England was the political band – much harder and more outward looking. That’s why the first two EPs were so different, they were touching on very different subject matters. The album has been me trying to merge those two worlds and bring them under one roof and it’s… getting there. It’s been difficult though because of how different they are, but I’m getting there. I’m trying to get a balance where it obviously feels like a record and not two bands trying to squeeze into the same thing. I’d say I’m about 80% of the way now though, there’s about 8 songs I’m pretty happy with.

Have you been working with varied personnel on this as well?

This one has been more just myself, but I have been working with some other producers. I think when I first went with the label, I was very caught up in the whole thing of putting myself in a room with big producers, so I went with that for a bit. I think these days I’m a lot more certain of what I want to do, so I’m less willing to compromise. Also now I have my own studios, I can access that easier and my ability has got way better than it was. I think I’ve always known what I’ve wanted to say, but it’s a little weird for me as the music almost comes second to why I started Mellah. I wanted to make accessible music with a kind of subversive message. I don’t understand why subversive always has to mean punk or underground, or why pop has to be so fucking vapid and either about falling in love, breaking up or going to the club.

Your music does have a pop edge to it, but with the political messages and dark sense of humour – do you feel it’s necessary to make it balanced in that way?

Like I said, what I’m trying to say is more important to me than the music is. It sounds kind of fucked up, but it’s sort of true. ‘Family Fun’ is a song I probably wouldn’t even listen to normally; it’s so saccharine-sweet and super pop, but I kind of made it radio friendly to get into people’s heads but then have them actually listen to what I’m saying. It’s almost sacrilegious to say, but the music is essentially just a vessel for me to say what I want to say.  Then again, a lot of the songs I’ve been working on lately still don’t have real words yet.

Would you say that one element carries the other in that sense?

When it works, yeah. If you’ve got a good topline, when you hum it you hear the words and when you say the words out loud you hear the melody. So yeah, I guess they do.

The studio you run seems like a very community-focused project, what was the initial motivation for setting it up?

Initially the ethos when I built the first one it was just as a space for me so I could rehearse with a band and not have to pay £50 every time. I had some carpentry skills and so I just built that for myself and another band I was sharing the space with at the time. Gradually it got to a point where a lot of my friends’ bands wanted to use it so much that I could hardly get in there myself, so I built two more rooms. I guess it was just to give them a space after they’d been pestering me to use my room, and then also so I could have a place of my own. I also wanted to be able to have a bit of a community of other musicians around me, which was kind of a bit selfish in a way. I think it’s really important for bands to have a space that they can keep all of their stuff for a month at a time, because when you’re serious enough about becoming a proper unit as a group, it’s important to really be invested in something together. Not having to lug gear around everywhere is quite nice as well. I guess in a nutshell, it was unselfishly to give back to the community within my life, but selfishly to give me people to hang out with.

You also direct your own videos, does it ever feel as though there is a potential for Mellah to be realised as a multidisciplinary outlet for you?

Yeah, I think especially so now. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a musician anymore, it’s just ‘artists’. Everyone is pretty multidisciplinary already. With some songs, ideas for videos can come at the same time but generally they’re two separate entities and they don’t come together at the same time. I’ll usually write and record the song, narrow it down to the simplest element of what it’s about and try to present it in an entertaining way. Mellah to me isn’t exactly visual or stylish; it isn’t a cool band, but I think visually the only way I can convey something is with a narrative or a storyline. I could never make a video where I’m moving about and looking cool, I can’t do anything else. That’s what people absorb most. Maybe I’m quite cynical but people don’t actually listen to the words or take in what things are about. Even with the videos I’ve put up – one of them has a family eating a dog, but you’ll still get people saying how they liked one of the actors’ clothes or something. I think people just like pretty colours.

Other than working towards the record, what are you looking to work towards?

I wish there was something else but at the moment that’s the only real thing on my plate. I’m just trying to get that out and finished. My plan is to put out a bunch of singles until I feel like the album is ready, maybe put one out in the next month or so. It takes up a lot of my brain at the moment though, so I don’t know if I’ve got the brain power to do anything else.

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