UK-based Prog newcomers Gravity Machine are multi-instrumentalist Niall Parker and drummer Bob Shoesmith, the duo combines a vast range of influences, with the cornerstones of heavy rock, progressive rock, electronica, and acoustic styles all adding to the band’s distinctive sound. Debut album ‘Red’ was released in 2020 to great critical acclaim, and the band ended the year in the top-ten unsigned bands in Prog Magazine, as voted by readers of the magazine. Niall and Bob were on hand to talk us through the formative years of Gravity Machine, the background info on ‘Red’, and how humbled they were by the reaction to the album. If you have yet to discover Gravity Machine, then dive into the emotional tour-de-force that is ‘Red’, and marvel as the album unfolds around you.
What are the origins of Gravity Machine? How long have you been playing together?
Niall: For a very long time GM was essentially just a collection of demos which grew out of Bob & I’s previous band that played its last show in 2009. Life intruded for the following 8 or so years, although I added bits here and there, and lots of basic ideas to the stack, so GM only really activated in 2017- I’ve had to re-learn how to play guitar at least twice since 2009, what with everything that’s happened in that time. Then there was a huge burst of creativity in 2017, and the rest is history. Bob and I have been playing together since roughly 2000.
The debut album: ‘Red’, was released earlier this year. You must have been humbled by the reaction that it received? Also, being voted in the top-ten unsigned bands in Prog Magazine must have special?!
Niall: Humbled, yes, but also surprised. For one thing, I’d kept my expectations low, as for the most part making the album was something I did for myself and my friends, to celebrate my wife, and capture some of that process; musical therapy if you like. There were definitely points where I almost didn’t release it. But we did, and it’s been a slow rise since then. Being voted into Prog’s top-ten unsigned list is a huge accolade because that’s a lot of people who took the time and trouble to vote for us (or even vote at all!). I’m still processing that, as well as other things that have come after that – several blogs and radio stations have voted “Red” the album of 2020 – that’s pretty humbling and frankly a pretty strange experience, especially without the organic input of a live audience. So, yes, a pretty special experience all round.
Bob: The impact that the album has had on others, around the world it seems, has been totally unexpected but incredibly rewarding. We have both done the whole ‘rock band’ thing when we were younger and know how much of a minefield it is to release original music, get it heard, and for it to register with people outside your own circles. At this time in our lives, this album was never made with popularity in mind, the sole purpose of it was to make the most fitting and lasting dedication to Niall’s wife Sophie (‘Red’) that we possibly could. Our view was that if nobody heard it but family & friends but we had made something worthwhile, we would have been ok with just that. We now have rather unexpectedly found that when the people hear it, it really resonates with them. They get the real-life emotions and grief behind it, and the response of listeners – even without knowing the back story – has been incredible so far and keeps growing which is both strange and wonderful to us in equal measure.
Now that it’s been out for a while, and no doubt some of the songs were on the go for some time before, have you revisited ‘Red’ at all? Or is it a case of – it’s out there now, onto the next one?
Niall: I haven’t listened for a while to the whole album; I actually revisited it on reading this question, and it’s great to listen to. But mostly I have been working on new stuff, it always takes a long time to get songs so that they pass muster and I can be fairly prolific in writing, so it’s definitely been more focus on the new material.
Bob: I think ‘Red’ is what it is. It’s a stand-alone body of work and apart from the odd remix for radio (Standing Stones) or live interpretations, I doubt we’d change it much. However, during the writing process, it was like taking a cork out of a bottle for Niall, dozens of musical ideas & lyrics just poured out. It was definitely a cathartic process for him and it is still happening. We now have a large pile of demo’s & ideas waiting to be developed or recorded. At least two more albums worth I’d say. ‘Red’ was just the first wave.
What went through your head in the run-up to releasing your debut album? Were you excited? Nervous? – Both?!
Niall: Mostly it was administrative overload! Getting everything in place for the release was just lots of “stuff needing to be done”. I didn’t have much in the way of excitement and certainly not nerves- I’m not sure I had time for that (my day job is fairly intense and I have a family to look after as well, and that doesn’t leave much time for nerves or excitement). There were definite moments though where I felt upbeat- seeing comments from people in Italy, the US, Brazil, Norway & Holland, and I felt a degree of excitement creep up. I’m probably more excited about it now than I was back then. Especially at the prospect of doing it all live…
Bob: I have to say, I was fairly relaxed about it. I knew it was a good body of work, but as there was nothing riding on it. If nobody liked it or listened to it we would still have achieved our aims to create something good for Sophie. We weren’t releasing this album as any kind of vanity project or have any desire to be popular or for financial return. We released it because of the reaction it got.
The cover artwork for ‘Red’ is absolutely stunning, who created it?
Niall: the vague concept came from me – my wife loved Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, so I imagined a wispy image of that. But it’s really Harry’s doing [Harry Duns] – he’s a visual genius, responsible for most of our photography and all the videography; I’ve known him for 10 years and he really grasps what I’m imagining and then just takes it to a whole new level. The internal photography on the album cover is all Harry’s design, with some photography from me and some from him.
Likewise, the video for the current single ‘Standing Stones’ is also stunning, very evocative, and goes a step further than just a band in a rehearsal studio somewhere. I believe it was filmed on Dartmoor? What is the theme behind it?
Niall: Yes, it was filmed on Dartmoor. The thinking behind it is just backreferencing that circularity of life, and how deep those roots go back. The people who built those stone circles had the same emotions and feelings as us – people would have stood there, feeling grief, or community, or passion, unrequited love, acceptance – all those things. That the stones still stand (or were restored) is testament to that. It’s very grounding, which is the core theme behind the song. History can come across badly in music videos – cheesy, or shallow, or thrown in “because it looks cool”- it’s very hard to evoke things that are authentic within the framework of a four-minute visual, but that’s exactly what I was aiming for. My friend Sarah, who appears in the video (and who knew my wife) is extremely authentic – a powerful person who’s grown in her own right – it’s highly appropriate that she starred in that video. Likewise, the blanket she uses in that video was woven by my friend Eloise – another extremely strong person. So, although these things might be details, the authenticity of that is definitely something that I’m trying to reach for in all this. It’s very exacting, but I don’t think I can do it any other way. I certainly didn’t want to do another “band in a rehearsal studio somewhere” – I’ve no need whatsoever to “be seen” in that way; I’d rather create some kind of narrative or imagery. Tool’s videos are probably the highest expression of that – works of art that stand in their own right and in which the music is entirely supported by the visuals. I have zero illusions that I can attain that kind of heights, but that’s no reason not to attempt it with the resources we have.
In terms of a similar audience: who would be the ideal act for Gravity Machine to support?
Niall: I haven’t a clue. Probably a band that has an understanding and camaraderie around what both bands would bring to the table. They’re not touring anymore but in terms of interesting energies Auf der Maur?
Bob: I hadn’t even thought about that as the tracks on the album don’t sit neatly into any one particular genre, and while we’ve been warmly embraced by the Prog scene, we do cross musical styles but for me possibly, Robert Plant or Peter Gabriel, Tool or A Perfect Circle maybe. In reality, I would probably play to any audience who wanted to listen.
What are your first musical memories? And what was the lightbulb moment that made you go “I want to do that”?
Niall: I was about 15 I think, and someone had given me a cassette copy of Rush’s “Permanent Waves” album; in the same week, there was a kid at school, older than me, who played guitar at school – he lit into a solo and that was that. But I’m also left-handed, so instruments were a problem, so I actually started out playing drums for quite a while. I can’t play real drums at all anymore, but rhythm stayed with me (and that was only reinforced when I lived in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa). I also have earlier memories of seeing “Games Without Frontiers” and Joy Division on TV when I was very young…
Bob: I have been into my music from an early age and I bought recorded music religiously, but one of those ‘lightbulb moments’ for me and actually wanting to play was seeing The Led Zeppelin movie, ‘The Song Remains The Same’. Totally blown away by the band’s power & versatility. They were a game-changer for me. During a time of disco and glam rock, you had these god-like rock musician’s streets ahead of the times.
Personally, who has been the biggest influence on you becoming a musician?
Niall: that’s really hard to answer. I know who I gravitate towards in respect of each instrument I play, but overall? Hmm. Probably either Bowie or Peter Gabriel, with a lot of input from Neil Peart – less as a drummer, and more as a kind of Zen master of creative integrity. I’m also finding surprising influences popping out, people I wouldn’t immediately have thought of, but that DNA is there in my playing – guitar-wise, Prince & Niles Rogers, for example.
Bob: John Bonham was a monster drummer, the drummers-drummer. A one-off original who set the bar incredibly high. I can remember being open-mouthed at seeing him for the first time. Having been playing for a long time since I am still in awe of how he played.
What was the last gig that you attended as a fan?
Niall: Tinariwen in Bristol last year- absolutely outstanding. Or John Paul White in Bristol- both amazing shows- I can’t remember which was most recent…
Bob: It’s been a very long time. I have spent a lot of my time in recent years, when not playing live myself, taking my teenaged daughters to gigs instead. The one that sticks in my mind was Queens of the Stone Age in Brighton. Absolutely fantastic gig
What current social issue are you particularly passionate about?
Niall: Inequality, the environment, and the very urgent need for humanity to collectively evolve toward some kind of social maturity very very fast in order to address these challenges. They’re also interrelated – it’s unconscionable that homelessness even exists in one of the richest economies in the world. I can get pretty intense about a lot of this, pretty quickly.
Bob: The increasing inequity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ definitely. The majority of Western countries have an obsession with ultra capitalism where fewer and fewer people are seeking to grab more and more wealth. While the number of billionaires is increasing the cause and effect is juxtaposed to the rise in homelessness, food banks, poverty, and greed. As a business model, constant profit is untenable and invariably leads to disorder, so I do think we, as a species, really need to refocus and learn to care for each other first and fore-mostly. I know this is highly unlikely and idealistic, but you can but hope
What album do you have in your collection/Spotify playlist that would surprise most people?
Niall: Oh god, where do I start? Probably My Bloody Valentine, or William Orbit? Heilung? It depends on who’s looking – anyone coming to Gravity Machine from a prog background might be surprised to see the Sisters of Mercy, or Type O Negative, or Jean Michel Jarre, or Still Corners…or Emma Ruth Rundle. The Civil Wars or John Paul White? He’s an outstanding musician. Low?
Bob: Probably Depeche Mode: Songs of Faith & Devotion or Parallel Lines by Blondie for starters but more than likely James Brown – who has the funkiest drummer ever! At first glance, people see me as a 6’2 tattooed rock drummer and assume it’s all about Sabbath & Motorhead (which is true but…) I enjoy anything that evokes feeling or movement
Although 2020 was a year to forget, there had been some great music released; what would be your album of the year? As well as you’re own personal highlight?
Niall: Album of the year? I’ve not actually listened to a huge amount this year as I’ve been working hard on the follow-up to Red. Ed O’Brien’s solo album, probably. I’ve also been listening to The Post War. Oh…Martin Grech’s “Hush Mortal Core” – that’s an album of genius – I view him as David Sylvian’s successor for cutting completely new imaginative ground. The highlight of this year? The reception “Red” has had, hands down. A close second is the amount of work I’ve been able to do on the second album.
Bob: My album of the year is The Kingdom by Bush. I spent a large part of the 2020 lockdown reviewing albums for Musipedia of Metal webzine. From first hearing to now, a brilliant return to form for the band after years in the wilderness & being dismissed as “Nirvana clones” early on. A really great album!
The highlight? Selfishly, the first official reviews of ‘Red’. They were so complimentary we did start to wonder if there was another album of the same name! We were blown away.
Who would you class as an underrated songwriter?
Niall: OMG….where do I even start? Emma Ruth Rundle? Imogen Heap? John Paul White? Sel Balamir? I could keep going all day…
Bob: I found this a tricky question to answer as how do you define “underrated”. Lack of sales? Lack of popular recognition? But maybe Fish’s latest (and last) album ‘Weltschmerz’ there is some simply amazing, heartfelt and emotionally gut-wrenching songwriting that will probably be confined to the dusty corners of the Prog Rock basement. I should say as well, my Gravity Machine partner Niall (who will probably hate me for saying this, but…) – his songwriting that came after the death of his wife was absolutely extraordinary. The final song on the album, ‘Nightfall’ practically reduces me to tears every time I hear it and I can’t remember any song that has ever done that before.
What are your plans for 2021 should COVID ever disappear?!
Niall: Live shows and album #2.
Bob: Musically? We have a stack of songs almost ready to record that we’re very excited about and would like to get into the studio with, but as an independent/unsigned band, finances, unfortunately, play a large part in influencing our ability to do that. Live? It’s still a bit too early to say as the pandemic seems to be dragging on forever! Getting a gigging band together & rehearsed is an ambition but so far, its been practically impossible
How active are you on social media and where can people connect with you?
Niall: I’m not that active on social media – Bob is the frontman on that arena; I pop in from time to time. For one thing, writing songs takes a lot of time, and I figure that producing quality songs for our fans is more important than social media. On top of that, I’m very much an introvert, to the extent that I completely understand where Neil Peart was coming from, and I’m very conscious of not wanting to upset anyone or disappoint anyone, and it feels awkward sometimes. I also have a family to look after and a pretty intense day-job…
All images – Harry Duns, except bottom black and white – Sarah Clarke