Walking the myriad of corridors backstage at The Scala, there’s a dichotomy brewing. On one hand, there’s an almost eerie sense of calm and quiet and on the other, an unavoidable sense of occasion. Not without good reason, as later that evening the venue would play host to Allo Darlin’s final show, an event with enough gravity to sell out in half a day and necessitate two hastily-arranged shows at Moth Club for the previous Saturday to meet demand.
Moreso, it would prove enough of a pull to have attendees from both South and North America, as well as Europe and Australia – including singer and songwriter-in-chief Elizabeth Morris’ mother and sister, who travelled over especially from the familial homeland on a four-day fleeting visit. Amid the backstage stillness the main space a motley crew are attempting to host an enormous net filled with balloons bearing the bittersweet motif ‘Goodbye Darlin” up to the rafters.
But if there’s a certain degree of weightiness to proceedings, it hasn’t reached the dressing room, where for the best part of the next hour Morris, drummer Michael Collins and I will spend as much time raucously laughing as we will discussing their career in what will prove to be their last-ever interview. Otherwise engaged on the night, guitarist Paul Rains and bassist Bill Botting will contribute via email after the event; the former genuinely regretful to miss out on the night itself, the latter walking in to grab a drink halfway through an especially probing question, offering a stunned ‘woah!’ and swiftly turning on his heels. With the night in question recalling LCD Soundsystem’s documentary ‘Shut Up And Play The Hits’ – and their subsequent performance that night taking the film’s tagline of ‘if it’s a funeral, let’s make it the best funeral ever’ to heart – it seems only fitting to echo Chuck Klosterman’s iconic opening question of: ‘when you start a band, do you imagine how it will end?’. All will answer in the negative, with Morris adding a mischievous “although I have thought about that with relationships before. It was kind of my rule – if this could end badly, then I won’t do it!” “It was weird,” adds Collins, ”because I never really thought about the start of the band, it just sort of happened and sort of arrived – in those situations you don’t really think that a band’s starting and something’s happening and even when it was happening there certainly wasn’t any time to think about it ending.”
It speaks volumes that all three band members can all distinctly remember the first time they heard Elizabeth’s songwriting, having all seen her in the earlier musical project, The Darlings. Rains and Collins recall having them support their old band, Hexicon, with the latter recounting how Morris left one of her bandmates moved to tears playing an early iteration of a song in the toilets. Botting, then one of Morris’ flatmates, still has footage of the first time he saw he perform and recalls how “I remember hearing songs and being really, refreshed by them. I had just moved from Brisbane and that scene was very macho and rock and roll oriented – or at least the scene I was in was – and there was an honesty and simplicity to Elizabeth’s songs that was so appealing. And lyrically, she was able to do that thing where you write a song that’s very specific but is at the same time universally relatable. I wanted to be a part of it from the second I heard it.”
And get involved Botting, along with Rains and Collins, did and in doing so wrote the next chapter of a story that began with a young Queenslander leaving home to come to London. While Morris accepts that her to a move, to a degree, was borne out of the romantic desire to follow in the footsteps of the great Australian musicians who’d done likewise in years gone past (“of course I just wanted to copy the Go-Betweens!”, she concedes) she’s equally quick to point out that it came equally from a more prosaic place, in that it “had as much to do with wanting to become a singer and songwriter as it did with needing to see the world. It just so happened that at that time it was very easy for Australians to come and live in England for a couple of years, and my sister already lived in London, so it was an easy decision.” While many songwriters would find it difficult to trust other people to play on their songs and make their vision a reality, for Morris it would prove to be the opposite, as she humbly says that “I was just stoked they wanted to be involved! I remember being very surprised that anybody wanted to be involved, especially those guys, who I saw as being a lot more pro than me.” The stage was set for them to record their debut album, one which is often described – likes Morris would do during our conversation – as “the sound of a group of people falling in love with each other”.
“I would finish work, cycle over to Soup Studios underneath the Duke of Uke, stopping at Tesco on the way to buy bottles of beer and those little miniature bottles of wine you get on aeroplanes…” recounts Botting, detailing his memories of the recording process of what would become that first album “…then Elizabeth would teach us the song we were going to record that night, and we would rehearse it until we were ready to record. Then after we finished recording we’d play records through the nice studio monitors and have a party in this little control room, listening to Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac and all sorts.” Viewing the album through the circumstances in which it was made, it’s suddenly easy to see why it fizzes with effervescent, buoyant joy and presents an unashamedly hopeful world. It presents the city as a blank canvas ripe for romanticising, even managing to frame cold nights, public transport and financial insecurity in an appealing way. “I felt very much like London was my town by that point” says Morris, further explaining the album’s positivity and how it avoided being defined by the uncertainty that (relative) new arrivals to a city could be forgiven for feeling and documenting “I was 26 and in love with the world! It was a magical summer, and, we had so much fun making it. Every night was a celebration.”
Given he now runs a recording studio, Michael Collins is in a perfect position to witness how a recording environment can affect a band and the record they make. “I see bands pick themselves apart,” he reflects, “because they’ve identified someone played a late snare in the second chorus on the 17th bar. That’s not really a positive way. But sometimes you can have a lot of fun and try putting quadruple vocals and basically all the things on. And that’s kind of what making that first Allo Darlin’ album was like. You were suddenly free to have all these ideas or to do all the fun stuff – it was a positive environment to be creative instead of ‘I’m the drummer, this is how the beat goes’ or whatever.” “I think that all comes from the boys though because they were all frontmen to some degree or other,” adds Morris, “and were all songwriters in their own right so it was very much like I was the least experienced. It meant that from the beginning it was very collective because I had no idea and these guys were such brilliant players and had such brilliant ideas about what to do.”
“It was one of the happiest times in my life,” claims Botting. “I remember being really excited when we were making it. I knew that it was the best thing I’d ever worked on and that I felt lucky to be there. We had no idea anyone other than our mums would ever hear it.” How wrong they were. A sleeper hit which effortlessly charmed all who heard it and backed up by relentless touring it was an album which rapidly built them a loyal and organic fanbase. A year after release – “ We were in an off year because it was 2011 so we didn’t even have an album out”, notes Morris – they’d play a pivotal show at End Of The Road, opening the big top to an enormous crowd estimated to be over 1,500 people and leaving label boss Sean Price in tears. “We were on early but the upside was we got to soundcheck with no-one in the tent,” recalls Collins “but it meant that when we walked out we were ready to run and we hit it really well. I think that when we realised we could all start relying on each other to raise our game because we’ve done a few big shows since and everyone in the band has the skills and musicianship to really bring the A-game when it matters. Being in a band it like a belief system and you all have to believe that you’re making something and that was a moment for me when I realised ‘this is something, we are a band’, which is silly because we were a band way before that day.” Morris smiles, taking a moment to savour the memory, before adding that “it felt powerful to win over that many people.”
“It was a magical summer, and, we had so much fun making it. Every night was a celebration.”
That breakout performance – and that extra dose of confidence it inspired was one of two things that happened in the latter half of that year which would shape the next chapter of the band’s journey. The other – a trans-European series of shows still referred to those close to the band as ‘that tour’ – would do so in other, character-building ways. The general précis is as follows: the band decided that instead of hiring a van they’d buy one for the same cost and then having something to show for it at the end. On the first day of the tour, a faulty cigarette lighter plug socket and subsequent trip to get a new fuse would see the van strike a car park gatepost, stoving in the side. Leaving it to get repaired and armed with a loaner van, the tour would continue without incident until Sweden, where the original van was substituted back into touring duty. Thereafter, mayhem resumed. Wiper failure in the middle of a Madrid rainstorm, causing their driver to jump out and mop the windscreen at traffic lights. Failing glow plugs that couldn’t be replaced owing to the band’s tight schedule and scarcity/delay in getting parts, requiring daily jump starts. Band-wide nausea suspected to have been gradual carbon monoxide poisoning. Finally, on the tour’s final day, it cried ‘enough’. But having kept going and having not missed a show, they weren’t about to give up. Having gotten the venue to provide backline and with the band having sourced a hire car just big enough to accommodate them and bare bones gear, they set off on an ultimately successful (and heroic) mission to make that last date at speeds probably best not documented in public. Or, as Paul Rains once said during one especially memorable retelling of their adventures: “if we’d been stopped by the police then fine, that would have been it, game over. But until that point…!”. Morris – who wrote a more detailed version of the saga for the band’s blog – ruefully says of her enduring thoughts of her time in Allo Darlin’ that “I have no regrets…apart from buying that Leyland DAF van.”
Ten days after this ordeal, the quartet descended upon a studio in Manchester to try and nail down the clutch of new songs that they’d been playing nightly throughout their adventures, and which would form the basis of second album Europe. It’s a move which everyone, looking back, views as a mistake (though they’ve long conceded their approach was a contributing factor with Botting recalling in 2014 how he learned “not to just book ten days in a studio and drink a lot and expect to have a record at the end of ten days unless you’ve really got the songs ready. I think that was a massive comedown for me. I went in there with the expectation that we were going to make this amazing thing while we all got drunk and partied and had a nice time in Manchester…”). “We all felt a little bit of pressure,” reflects Collins. “We were all inexperienced because while we’d all made records we hadn’t really made one with an audience to consider and to please – when we started I was just hitting drums, safe in the knowledge that it didn’t really matter. Trying to record so soon after touring and having the knowledge that the first album had captured this naïve magic leaves you considering how you’re going to capture it again while also showing that you’ve grown a bit.” “We weren’t that ready on reflection,” says Rains philosophically, “and after a few weeks we decided to scrap about a third of it and rewrite, then rerecord a bunch of stuff as well. We learned loads doing it, I think we had to go through that process.”
For Morris, the whole experience was a roller coaster, both within her musical career and outside of it. She recounts how “I’d turned 28 and was confused about what to do with my life, after realising that we weren’t going to be able to become pro musicians. At the same time I was a lot more critical of my own songwriting” For her, the whole experience of the release and album cycle was a smorgasbord of emotions as she candidly details how “I actually expected Europe to be a failure, even though I loved the songs. Sean [Price, Fortuna POP!] wasn’t that keen after the first sessions, so we recorded it again. We did make it better and he was happier with the second version, but I suppose my hopes had been dampened by having to re-record it.” But her dampened expectations were proven to be well wide of the mark, even if they then offered up new problems as “all of a sudden we were getting press in the US and people were asking to be our booking agents and it was Rough Trade’s best selling album of the year. It was all very confusing and I became suspicious of the whole thing! I only knew what it felt like to be unfashionable, so suddenly being fashionable felt very strange. I felt like the fall was coming soon.” Just as things start getting deep, Collins admits to having only listened to Europe on vinyl for the first time recently (leaving him pleasantly surprised) and questions if he even owns their début. Soon he and Morris are enacting a comedy slapstick routine of miming throwing out records with a theatrical “this. Is. RUBBISH!” that leaves the three of us doubled in laughter.
But if there was a fall due, it would take its time as Collins recounts how “I think Europe did get us to a slightly wider audience,” before admitting that “making it wasn’t plain sailing, and I’m not sure it felt jubilant at the time but we had faith in each other and in Simon [Trought, producer] and that ended up being enough. I think I felt that the songs were really good and it really felt that we were a band.” Thinking back over his experiences of the Europe period, Botting adds “our shows were getting bigger, and our tours were getting bigger. It was great. I always wanted the band to grow and grow.”
But between the release of Europe and eventual third album We Come From The Same Place, changes were afoot behind the scenes, the biggest being in Morris’ personal life as she fell in love, got married and moved to Italy. Reflecting on that period of her life and how it changed her relationship with her songwriting, Morris describes it as the “only time in my life when I have found writing songs to be as easy as talking. I was so grateful, because at that point in my life I needed an outlet. I started writing those songs to try and impress the guy I’d fallen in love with. He proposed a couple of months later so I guess I did something right! I am incredibly attached to that record, and it makes my heart beat faster to listen to it.” Morris’ relocation would make the ensuing recording session a logistical challenge, which didn’t always make recording the easiest of processes. Having made reference to how it affected him during the album’s press cycle, Botting is even more forthcoming this time around as he details how “I had a hard time making [the album]. I struggled. We were all living in different places and different countries and life generally was harder then than it had been. I felt a bit like it wasn’t the same band anymore – or at least I felt a bit outside of things rather than in the gang. I still felt like we were making a great record, but it felt sadder than I was ready for. I think I was hoping we would get to hang out together and pretend like nothing had changed since 2009. But that wasn’t really realistic!”
We Come From The Same Place also saw a move away from the bright, technicolour sound of Europe with the record instead aiming for a sparser sound that made use of space and put the focus firmly on musicianship and songwriting. “We wanted as much as possible to go down ‘live’ and talked about the sound of old soul records where you could hear and feel the room and ambience of an album,” explains Collins. “We’d played together a lot by this stage and felt like we would be able to do the songs and ourselves as musicians justice making a record in this way. Having done an album – our first one – which was like a drunken party and another where we’d tried to take ourselves seriously and had gone to a big studio and had it layered I think it felt natural to make a record where we relied on our musicality.”
“I’m really proud of the songs,” says Morris of the album that documented both her inner uncertainty of whether she’d found what she’d been looking for in life, and her newfound confidence upon discovering that she had. “There are some songs that are better than others, of course, but I also think there are some songs on that record that are some of the best I’ve ever written and that we ever played.” For Paul Rains, it’s an album which “feels to me like there’s a slight element of distance to it”, something which he chalks up to “maybe being reflective of the geography and distance thing. I’m not even sure if that was conscious at the time – I’d never really thought about that before.” He goes on to summarise the three albums with the following flourish of musicians’ poeticism “We Come From The Same Place is sort of like looking at a black and white, beautifully photographed postcard, Europe is like witnessing a blazing sunset, the self-titled début is like walking in the rain with headphones on and seeing your own reflection in the puddles.” Back in the dressing room, it’s an album that clearly still resonates with Collins as he admits that “There were some songs on We Come From The Same Place that I can’t stop myself singing. ‘Crickets In The Rain’ is one my favourites and it’s one of those songs that when I’m drumming I get taken to another planet and on that planet I’m singing it!” Unable to help herself, Morris offers a teasing “you’re welcome to give it a go, darl!”. As is becoming customary, the three of us descend into fits of laughter yet again.
Throughout the band’s journey, be it at the point where they were a band doing little more than celebrating being in love with being in a band, one having to face the reality of having an audience and growing as a result, or one having to rethink how they made an album there have been constants. Namely three people: label boss Sean Price, producer Simon Trought and tour manager/sound engineer Al Harle. Or, as Paul Rains puts it “fifth, sixth, seventh members of a band, that’s the kind of level of importance we’re talking.” “Having all of them around sort of grounded us,” he continues, “and enabled us to do more than we could have alone, and the continuity was essential to us functioning as a band, without doubt.” While Collins admits that the band gradually took control back over the course of their career on the live and studio side compared to when they started, he quickly adds that it’s a situation “only as a result of being taught very well by Al, and on the production side by Simon. I definitely think you need someone who recognises the potential and can steer in that way. We needed people to recognise that in us when we didn’t have that perspective ourselves.”
And what of Price? For Botting, having him on board during the band’s early days was an enormous boon, and something that he describes as “instrumental in growing us as a band early on. I think that early stage of a bands life is when he’s at his best actually – he takes a band that no-one’s really heard of and manages to shout out loud enough that 6 months later, say, everybody is excited about the new Spook School record.” “He’s the guy you want in your corner, isn’t he?” add Morris, though in the interests of balance adds that “it’d be dishonest to say it’s been a happy marriage all the time without a single argument. There’s been a few rough patches due to us all trying to manage expectations…because he tended to get more ambitious than even we were and he was just willing he was willing us to succeed. I can be quite a stubborn person and so can he – we were both born in May! – but it was only ever out of the love for it.” And for anyone still questioning just how big an impact he had on Allo Darlin’, it seems Fortuna Pop!’s dissolution also had a bearing on the band’s own decision to stop as Morris details how “he’s been there from the beginning and him finishing, and this isn’t to make him feel bad at all…but we had a deal with him for three albums and him shutting the label made us think that things are difficult enough and to try and find another label – as well as with everything with Bill [Botting, who’s since moved to Australia] – was something that I just didn’t have the energy for.”
But while those three key figures have proved something that Allo Darlin’ carried with them throughout their career there was another, less positive presence that followed them around – namely the way they were habitually mislabelled and categorised. While on the ground those who bought the records and saw them live got the underlying narratives, messages and joy to the songs there were those who were all too keen to take one look at the effervescent young songwriter (sometimes) wielding a ukulele and work backwards to form their own aesthetic. While Botting is able to see that “some people just thought we were shit, and that’s fair enough”, he also recounts instances where he felt that they were unfairly treated, citing how “one year, a festival program had written a description of us, that felt like, whoever wrote it hated us and everything we stood for. Something utterly dismissive and reductive like “twee ukulele pop with big smiley faces”. And I remember thinking, well, if I didn’t know us and read that description I would walk fast in the opposite direction. Maybe towards Bo Ningen. And NME always seemed desperate to shit on us…” “You can read some things that can be very insightful and helpful,” concurs Paul Rains, “and you can read things that are the most total load of bollocks you’ll ever read. Thing is,” he adds philosophically “as soon as you put out a record, it’s not yours anymore. It belongs to fans to obsess over, listeners to get to know, writers to write about, they get to write what they like and that’s the way it should be.”
Not that it’s all been bad news, with Botting pointing out that on the press side that “where it’s really counted we’ve been understood and heard right. Robert Forster heard us right. That was so encouraging. The New York Times heard us right. That was unforgettable. So, you win some and you lose some.” For Collins, in hindsight the way that things panned out were arguably more in keeping with the band’s spirit and ethos as he attests that “when you subscribe to the mainstream you get the highs of that but you also get the lows. Perhaps we might have been playing Shepherd’s Bush instead of here but I wonder what quality of fan you’re going to get. The people who are going to find it have found it and maybe we could have flirted with the mainstream but while you think it’s growing exponentially you’re actually losing people along that road as well. In a way, maybe we’ve dodged a bullet.” With almost perfect timing, the previous night a fan had showed Morris their band-related tattoo and, as she recounts how “it’s not the first one. I can think of several, without wanting to sound boastful. But it goes back to what Mike was saying about a different type of fan, and people don’t get tattoos of bands lightly. Or I’d like to think not anyway, I’d hope a degree of thought was involved! We’ve been in a privileged position in that we’ve not had to pretend to be anything we’re not.”
“We’ve been in a privileged position in that we’ve not had to pretend to be anything we’re not.”
Therein lies the crux: Allo Darlin’ were the ultimate fan’s band, a point only hammered home by the fact that they sold out that night’s show at The Scala in five hours. On paper, the fact that Morris’ personal, specific songs resonated so widely with people might have been surprising (as undoubtedly brilliant as they are), but to a band who’ve spent the last eight years watching them develop, it’s anything but. Standing shoulder to shoulder in awe with them stageside as they customarily evacuate the stage to allow Morris a solo turn performing the devastating simplicity of Tallulah, and hearing them join the masses in singing along, it’s clear the songs have proved as meaningful for them as it has for their audience. Collins has long likened Morris’ songs to Tom Waits’ ‘Johnsburg, Illinois’, where the protagonist lists what’s in his wallet, and how you find yourself questioning what’s in yours and whether you have someone you care about enough to have in the picture window. He makes mention of it again, going on to describe how Morris’ songwriting “draws your attention to the things in your life in a different way. When someone points out those signposts to you, like night buses, then what happens is you start recognising those things in your home town. It gives you room to transpose your own life over the top, despite being very personal, and I think that’s great songwriting.” “We’d all hoped the songs would mean something,” says Morris, “as does every band. I think it’s always better to be specific because it makes it easier to write it. Using a broad brush can make it quite hard and can lead you into the realms of the cliché but if you’re specific then you can find the greater in the small.”
A lot of Morris’ specificity lies in place, be it the warm climes of her native Queensland, cold nights of London or kaleidoscopic depictions of Mediterranean Europe. Or, as Botting summarises: “Elizabeth has a talent for capturing whatever it is about a place that makes it special to her, and turning it into something that everyone recognises.” “She is always moving and has lived in many different places in the world, theorises Rains “and I think really is trying to find where home is through her songs. Her places seem to be there to frame moods and emotions and moments of time.” Though they’re worlds that have charmed a legion of fans for a number of years, Morris is quick to admit that they’re all something of an idealised version of her experiences as she says that “’Capricornia’ – be it the song, the giant whale or the super 8 footage of my family in the video – is not the version I’m thinking about when I go back there! It’s not necessary real, it’s almost a heightened version of itself – the London in my songs full of the underground and night buses is almost the dream version of itself where I like to hang out I suppose! It’s got a basis in reality but it’s certainly not gritty.”
But gritty has never been something Allo Darlin’ fans have sought. Instead, it’s been a place of warmth and compassion where positivity reigns supreme – it’s somewhere that has suited Morris’ idealistic depictions to a tee. Though it might surprise many to learn that that appeal wasn’t something she’d ever considered as the overriding appeal of her songs. Turning to me, she says “What was lovely in the piece you wrote, Gareth” referencing a tribute feature published two days before their finale, “and what I’d never really understood was that what people loved about Allo Darlin’ was the optimism of it – it had just never occurred to me that that was what people thought was nice!”. By now she and I are doubled up laughing in disbelief at the fact that the overriding take-away from her songs was something that had escaped her, “It hadn’t crossed my mind! I just thought everyone really loved indiepop and that’s kind of what we sound like – I just didn’t understand the positivity aspect of it at all.”
But if the fans’ take-away is one of joy and positivity, what about the band? Though they’ll all skirt around a number of possibilities – touring, standout gigs etc – it all lands back on one topic: friendship. It’s a running theme throughout all four band members’ answers, too frequent to document each and every instance, and for a window into just how close they are it’s worth remembering Botting, Rains and Collins were Morris’ bridesmaids at her wedding. Rains, for one, describes the gang that went into a studio in the summer of 2009 and remained inseparable through challenges and geographical boundaries as “all my best friends for life”. “The friendship of the four of us is the thing that’s changed all of our lives irrevocably,” says Collins. “I don’t think when we got together what we’d go through and what we’d share, and the resulting love is like being in the best surrogate family that you could possibly imagine.” The dressing room feels the most emotionally charged that it’s been throughout our time together, seemingly catching even Morris off guard. “Awwwww!” she eventually summons. “It’s always said that friends are the family you choose for yourselves but we had no idea that it was going to be like this. For me the friendship is the most important thing.”
The band will later that evening get one final chance to demonstrate that togetherness, and while for some in the crowd it was an inevitably emotional occasion – with songs as meaningful and personal as theirs, that was always going to be the way – there was an overriding sense of it proving to be the perfect distillation of everything they ever stood for. As balloons rained down and friends joined them on stage for the encore their finale was a piece of fittingly euphoric closure, even down to the gang (including Morris’ sister and mother) that descended on the Lexington afterwards for a post-show session of drinks and memory-sharing. It was a time for celebration, not sadness.
A final, defiant showing of joyous force as the world turned to shit, it all felt like the most Allo Darlin’ parting shot that could’ve ever happened. Back in the dressing room, Collins unleashes his surreal humour once again as we wrap things up. As if a premonition of the underlying mood of the evening that we were about to all embark on, the tape finishes – wonderfully – with he, like Morris and I, releasing yet another burst of raucous laughter.
As Morris once sang, “bitterness has no place here”.