Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #130. Subscribe to our print edition here!
With the experimental (and aptly titled) VI, British pop-rock trailblazers You Me At Six have reached their strongest point in 14 years. Matt Doria gets to the bottom of how they managed to do it with lead guitarist Chris Miller.
Reviews are a fickle little demon in the rock scene. Defenders of them will argue that critics help music lovers decide what new records are worth their time, while naysayers are adamant that what’s printed in a magazine is pointless, because ultimately, what matters is what the fans think about the music. But regardless of your stance, the reviews for You Me At Six’s 2017 effort, Night People, were undoubtedly blinding. A daring leap into a more thematic and radio-friendly realm for the poster boys of the UK’s pop-punk revolution, cynics of the record largely found it tacky, lifeless and overproduced.
“I think with Night People, we just tried a little too hard to be a rock band,” admits lead guitarist Chris Miller. “After releasing four albums previous to that, I think we started to notice where people were putting us and what people thought of us, and how people wanted us to sound. And I think we just thought way too much into that. I have no regrets whatsoever – I love all the songs on that album – I just think we might have gotten a bit lost along the way there.”
With album #6 (fitting titled VI), You Me At Six found a sturdier balance with their intentions and ambitions – ironically enough, by loosening up. “We’ve sort of just written whatever we wanted to,” Miller quips. “It didn’t matter what genre a song was, or whether one song went with the other song. On our first two albums, we weren’t really paying attention to whether it worked as a whole piece of work – it was just about getting 12 or 13 songs that we thought were great in their own right and shoving them together into an album. With VI, I feel like we had that same sort of approach.”
Though that raw, reckless authenticity courses through VI at every turn – a suave crooner will twist into a synth-laden dancefloor anthem, before twinges of hard, booming guitars burst through the mix – the LP is impressively cohesive. It presents an incarnation of You Me At Six that is unanimously comfortable with itself and where it stands in the music industry. The band have earned this distinct lack of inhibition, where after five albums of varying success and levels of experimentation, they just don’t give a f*** anymore – and that’s why, although it’s all so risky, everything on VI works so damn well.
“I think as we’ve gotten older and grown as songwriters, we’ve gained a bit of clarity,” Miller says. “On the first few albums, you can hear there’s a lot of gain and a lot of playing really, really fast, whereas now, Max [Helyer, rhythm guitar] and I are into creating these sort of atmospheres, and a specific feeling in a song. Take something like ‘Predictable’ – that’s a song driven by bass and drums, and we used the guitars to create this atmosphere, whether it’s far away or close to you, using delays and trems and reverbs.
“We pick our moments a lot more carefully now. Certain sections or certain chorus lines will include a big, gain-y riff, whereas previously, it would just be riff, riff, riff, riff, heavy, heavy heavy. But now we’re thinking more about the bigger picture and allowing Josh [Franceschi, vocals] to really shine with his lyrics, and Dan [Flint, drums and synth] and Max have more of a chance to sort of groove along.”
While their guitars are somewhat restricted on VI, Miller and Helyer are far from under-utilised. Where prior records would see the blokes tear their fretboards to absolute shreds, VI has them working more dynamically. Miller is unafraid to dive headfirst into a mountain of effects, because to him, the guitar isn’t this sacred tool of rigid craftsmanship where his legitimacy as a player is defined by how unscathed his tracking is. The guitar is an instrument, and in 2018, instruments demand experimentation.
“Back in the Hold Me Down or Sinners Never Sleep eras, there’d be a whole chat about whether someone was going to put a phaser on their guitar or something,” Miller chuckles, “Whereas now, it’s like… We can’t even believe the amount of effects we managed to slip in without people saying anything! If you listen to the verse of ‘3AM’, there’s about four different guitar parts on there, and they’re all just completely f***ed up sounds that you’d never even think would be a riff. But when you put them all together, it actually works really well because you’re just taking four different octaves of the same riff, f***ing them up and putting different sounds in each one.
“I feel like we’re sort of at the age and of the experience with songwriting now that everyone doesn’t immediately discount anything straight away. We’ll try any idea someone has, and if it isn’t working after 20 minutes of playing around with it, then maybe it’s not the right thing to do. But for us, this is the age of just throwing shit at the wall – if something sticks, it sticks!”