Earlier this year, when the Liverpool band Ella Guru played a gig at the Water Rats, in London, the venue's manager did something unusual. Once the support band had finished, he came on stage and politely asked if the audience could keep it down a bit when Ella Guru started to play. Rightly so, too. Want to yack? There's a pub over the road. "They're very special and there's eight of them," he said, "but they play very, very quietly."
Of course, coming from some bands, such talk would be too precious by half. Some of us remember Belle and Sebastian's early gigs, which really didn't give the idea of library-pop a good pitch. But Ella Guru are special, and not only because they're probably the most modestly volumed live band around. At the Rats, they matched their uncommonly gentle songs with poised and brush-stroked soundscaping, steering their melodious muse away from any fears of mimsy and mithering toward something precarious and fully realised. It's music to pull you under, in the softest way, like Nick Drake's warm pastoralism mixed with some of the deep-blue immersiveness of Tom Waits's Alice album, and precious only in the positive sense of the word.
They're not at all precious in person, mind. Modestly bemused that someone has travelled from London to Liverpool to interview them, yes, but once we're started, the band's singer/guitarist, John Yates, warms to the possibilities of playing softly. "People like to say we're quiet, and, well, yes we are," he says. "But there are lots of dynamics in the band, and I think people miss that when they just focus on us being quiet. It's like you're starting from nothing when you've got so many people and you play quietly; it gives you more to play with. And every gig feels like a challenge, because of the kind of noise-level the room would normally be at. It's a dangerous thing, in a way, because it's on the edge. It is so quiet sometimes that it could all just fall apart."
The band's live potency depends in large part on a crowd's willingness to be immersed, but their richness of instrumentation coaxes you in as few other bands can. On their debut album, The First Album (the best UK debut album of the year, and a balm to these not terribly Keane- or Franz-fancying ears), Yates and his co-singer, Kate Walsh, trade cooing vocals as cornet, ukulele, double bass, brushed percussion and pedal-steel guitar flit in and out of earshot like fireflies. It's what Yates was looking for when he formed the band two years ago, having tired of three- and four-piece set-ups.
"I wanted to forget the traditional band set-up and play big songs with people who played great instruments," he says. "Once you open your eyes to that, it's amazing what can happen. Nick [Kellington] turned up to play ukulele on one song, but we found out he could play cornet and sent him home to get it. People came along to play bits and pieces, and just ended up staying. And the demo was the single we released last year."
Things came together for them fairly swiftly. They found a manager after their first gig (supporting Simple Kid in Liverpool), who pretty much set up a label, Banana Recordings, to release their work. "Our manager would talk about the way The Smiths were for Rough Trade," Yates says. "The band that launched the label, that sort of thing. These people changed their lives round for us, basically. But I didn't want to be on a label where we would be on the bottom of a roster of bands, where you're always going, 'Hi! We're still here!'"
The first single made Ella Guru's singularity clear from the off. The tracks on 3 Songs from Liverpool sound nothing like the Liverpudlian Sixties psych-pop resurgence of two years back spearheaded by The Coral, even though Ella Guru's location, combined with the reference to Captain Beefheart in their name and the contribution of the former Mothers of Invention singer Jimmy Carl Black to their album, suggests that such shenanigans are afoot. "There's only a couple of places you can play in Liverpool," says Bren Moore, the drummer, "and most of the bands congregate there. They all know each other because they've been in bands for a while. But the noise bleeds through the walls in those studios, so we had to go off by ourselves, away from all that." ("We're not saying the others are inbred, though," Walsh chips in, brightly.)
Comparisons to Americana acts such as Lambchop and Low pepper their press more firmly, but Yates is no less keen to lose them. "I like those bands and I know Americana is getting mentioned," he says, plainly befuddled, "because it's the term that now crosses that whole genre. But I don't think we sound like them at all. You have a pedal-steel in a band and immediately people think you're alt.country. When did the term come about, anyway? We love country music but we're not tagging along the back of those bands."
Indeed, far from being rooted in or referring to a specific sense of place - and many bands on this side of the Atlantic have tried to capture the smell and scale of America, from U2 on The Joshua Tree to the stetson twang of missing-in-action electro-acoustic eclecticists Scott 4 - The First Album creates its own world, evoking an internal sense of transport. "Most of the songs conjure up images away from where you are," says Walsh. "You can't write beautiful music when you're somewhere beautiful."
"It is dreamy," Yates adds. "For a lot of us, when we play a song we drift off. You're meant to open your eyes and look at people at gigs, but I just forget that. We don't finish a song and go [in rock'n'roll voice], 'Yeah! That was great!' It's more like [slowly opens eyes, exhales], 'Ah... okay.' Like you've created something for four minutes that's beautiful."
"It's about a willingness to listen, too," Walsh adds, "'cause on some songs a few of us only come in for a tiny bit. Everyone else waits with their eyes shut."
"And being prepared to leave space," Moore nods. "Just because it's there, doesn't mean you have to fill it. The main thing is the song. People think it's easy to play that quietly, but it isn't. I was playing a lot of indie before, and you can hide a lot when you play loud."
That generous, naked band dynamic is infectious live. Supporting A Silver Mt Zion at the Scala earlier this year, Ella Guru pulled off the mean feat of silencing a London crowd that wasn't their own.
By all accounts, the Sunday-afternoon crowd at Glastonbury were no less transfixed. You could put that down to a Saturday night too far for some punters, but the band surely had a hand in it. "The only review I've read of us at Glastonbury," says Yates with incredulity, "said something like, 'They don't even seem to mind that people are sitting about listening.' And it's like, well, of course we don't! Some people had brought chairs and you could see them sitting with their eyes closed. They weren't sitting and chatting - they were into it because it's just not normal."
Whoever wrote the review, too, should note that this was one of the less extreme reactions the band have been getting. "I like it when they cry," says Walsh, puckishly. "Like, big men crying at gigs. It gets kind of serious!" So is Ella Guru's tippy-toed gentility really a cover for a more fundamental cruelty? "No," she says, laughing: "It just means they get it as much as us." Well, all you have to do is listen.
'The First Album' is out on Banana RecordingsReuse content