Plastic Mermaids: ‘The concept of what a band should be is a bit stifling’

Plastic Mermaids: ‘It’s just that a lot of the songs were written while I was in the midst of a fairly acrimonious parting of ways' (Siobahn Devlin)
Plastic Mermaids: ‘It’s just that a lot of the songs were written while I was in the midst of a fairly acrimonious parting of ways' (Siobahn Devlin)

Plastic Mermaids play gigs with two goals in mind. “We want people to dance and cry,” says guitarist Chris Newnham. “I like to think the music we make is quite emotive so hopefully someone feels something listening to it,” Douglas Richards, the main vocalist and de facto frontman identifiable by his baby-pink bowl cut, adds. His brother and bandmate Jamie, sums it up nicely: “We just want people not to be bored.”

The group can rest easy knowing the word “bored” has likely never been associated with their music. Eccentric and shifting, psychedelic and euphoric – these are the words that listeners typically use in their efforts to pin down the Plastic Mermaid sound. Boring, definitely not. The six-piece Isle of Wight outfit likewise struggle to define themselves (“A bit folky? A bit electronic?”) but they have no real desire to. Their 2019 debut Suddenly Everyone Explodes whipsawed between soaring guitars and filigree fingerpicking, baroque-tinged synths and choir-style harmonies. The Flaming Lips emerged as a frequent – and welcome – point of comparison. “If we were getting compared to Hansen, I might be worried,” laughs Douglas, as we ramble down a canal in east London, dodging angry midday cyclists.

It was a debut that suggested nothing was off the table for its creators. Now, their newly released follow-up fulfils that promise. The band have funnelled their technical mastery and omnivorous listening habits into twelve tracks that oscillate, with kaleidoscopic speed and intricacy, between genres – including but not restricted to psych-pop, atmospheric rock, and smooth groove. But It’s Not Comfortable to Grow is a more emotional affair. There’s an invitation to get deeper, and darker. Much of the record was written mid-lockdown, in a recording studio that used to be Douglas’s bedroom.

It’s Not Comfortable to Grow is a breakup album. Douglas, who writes most of the lyrics, will cop to that. “There was no intention of it being one,” he says. “It’s just that a lot of the songs were written while I was in the midst of a fairly acrimonious parting of ways.” Writing a breakup record, however, isn’t as cathartic as you might think. Maybe in hindsight, he shrugs. For instance, he says, some of the songs “fell out” of him – like “Epsom Salts”. The track sees the singer lament residual memories over spaghetti western guitar strums and plodding keys. “I didn’t even try to write it. We were just having a little jam and I asked Chris [Jones, on drums] to play the most depressing thing he could and then I just freestyled some words.” It was the opposite of his usual process, which typically entails five hours trying to get the perfect live take of a synth part. “I get a bit obsessive. My girlfriend will tell you it’s because I’m a Virgo.”

As disparate as their music suggests, Plastic Mermaid don’t exist as a single homogeneous globule like some bands do. Every member feels perfectly distinct with their own interests outside their shared one. Tom Farren likes drum’n’bass. Newnham runs marathons. Jones reads Neil Gaiman. Douglas is an avid ornithologist. Jamie makes and sells bespoke effects pedals. A couple of them play in other bands, even. Like Fox Rawding, a one-time fan who joined Plastic Mermaids on tour last November: “I worked my way up from tambourine to maracas, and now they let me do more things – like getting involved in interviews.”

“I feel like the concept of what a band should be is a bit stifling,” says Douglas. “I wonder if you could have a band, which isn’t about the people in it but more to do with the product. So members can come and go as they please.” In 15 years’ time, he says, Plastic Mermaids could have a completely different line-up. “I love the idea that you can have two bands gigging as Plastic Mermaids in different places.”

We’re strolling past the Princess of Wales pub in Clapton when Farren pauses and gestures to the canal, “This is where the album cover was shot.” Sunlight floats across the ripples, rays bobbing up and down every crest. Douglas happened upon the spot in the throes of a bad comedown. “I was sat here, and it was just so good.” He came back another morning to take the snap. Only the lighting wasn’t quite right, so he returned the next day. And the next. And four more times after that until the conditions were perfect. The resulting cover zooms in on the ripples, refracting the water in a fuzzy monochrome reminiscent of TV static.

Plastic Mermaids have always had a thing for DIY. They direct their own music videos and shoot their own album covers. Jamie – a technical genius, his bandmates gush – made a lot of their equipment, himself, including a famed special effects pedal. “It is the most incredible invention ever,” says Newnham. Jamie has since also sold the machine to Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips and Slipknot. Bon Iver, Chvrches, and Arcade Fire are also fans. You can hear why. Take “It’s Pretty Bad”, a woozy, slow number that is temporarily engulfed by a gorgeous cacophony of brass.

Plastic Mermaids during a live set (Elliot Selwood)
Plastic Mermaids during a live set (Elliot Selwood)

The nature of their songs means Plastic Mermaids are an acquired taste. BBC Radio 1 isn’t exactly on the hunt for six-minute songs with prolonged instrumental moments. “Having to do radio edits is just horrible,” cringes Newnham. “We should probably write some music that is actually three minutes long.” His bandmates cackle at the thought; they would never. “It’s such a silly thing, because who’s listening to a song that’s 30 seconds too long and getting fatigued? Even on Spotify now, if you’ve got a shorter song, people are less likely to skip it and if you have a lower skip rate, you’re getting more playlists. Where does that lead to? Are we all going to be making four-second-long tracks?”

Even so, Plastic Mermaids still get their dues on 6 Music and earlier this year, they packed out their tent at Glastonbury. Their rambunctious on-stage antics and ability to “pump up the pathos” earned the band a five-star review from The Independent. But that wasn’t even the most momentous thing to happen that weekend. Douglas also got engaged. It was four in the morning when he popped the question using a Haribo ring he’d found at the bottom of his backpack. It was fitting that his girlfriend, now fiancée, was wearing a big, white wedding gown at the time. Douglas was, too.

With Glastonbury checked off the bucket list, Plastic Mermaids are looking to the future. They have no grand ambitions to play the O2, mind you. Their goals are typically atypical. “I was thinking that it would be cool to play one-person shows.” It’s a declaration that begs explanation. “So, we set up around the edge of a room with strings and a choir, and people would pay to come in for a show, one at a time. We play a single track and then they leave.” He’s met with several raised eyebrows. “Or, you know, we saw Hot Chip playing Brixton Academy the other day. That would be cool, too.”

‘It’s Not Comfortable to Grow’ is out now – tickets to the band’s Village Underground show are available here