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Guillemots - A band back in fine feather

After a second album which took them away from the warm hues of their lauded debut, Gillian Orr finds Guillemots going back to basics

Music is not limited to certain instruments; I think that's bullshit. The rules are irrelevant; if it makes an interesting sound then why shouldn't it be used? What about all the sounds around us?"

Guillemots' guitarist MC Lord Magrão is explaining spiritedly the band's unique approach to making music, one that's won them some dedicated fans and garnered a Mercury Music Prize nomination since they first formed almost a decade ago.

Since then it's been a bit of a rollercoaster for the four piece, whose members come from England, Scotland, Brazil and Canada. When they first appeared they seemed destined for huge things but have since struggled to deliver on the initial promise.

Back in 2005 they were the toast of the music industry, relaying in interviews tales of being wooed by several major labels and asking for increasingly ridiculous things from companies they had no intention of signing for. They were confident and excited and they had every reason to be.

Guillemots' 2006 Mercury-nominated debut, Through the Windowpane, spawned several festival favourites, such as "Made-Up Lovesong #43" and "Trains to Brazil", and their penchant for flamboyant outfits and idiosyncratic performances, which saw them introduce non-instruments on stage, such as typewriters, led Rufus Wainwright to call them "a super-sexy pack of nerds who aren't afraid of being possessed, Linda Blair-style, by the music", before promptly whisking them off on tour.

Their second release, Red, however, failed to win over critics and audiences quite like their debut and many felt it was an overly ambitious, muddled affair which lost its way somewhat.

So 2011 sees them a modest band, not a huge one; a somewhat confusing band, not quite a great one. As they prepare to release their third album, frontman Fyfe Dangerfield, Magrão and drummer Greig Stewart (bassist Aristazabal Hawkes is absent from our meet) are only too aware that there is a certain amount of pressure.

"To a degree I feel like we need to prove ourselves because Red certainly confused some people," nods Dangerfield. "Of course we want people to like it, we'd love to be a big band and I think we're making music that does reach out. You know, we're not trying to make arty music, we're trying to make something that's really beautiful and dreamlike, but we want it to be universal."

Their new offering, Walk the River, is filled with their signature mix of dramatic orchestrations, moving melodies and uplifting anthems. But it's noticeably stripped down compared to previous efforts. "It was certainly defined by the restrictions that had to happen," explains Dangerfield. "There was a much lower budget for a start, so straight away it's like, 'Well we won't be having a string section or brass stuff because we can't afford it'. We've always wanted to do a record that is more about how we play live anyway."

Recorded in a converted country manor in the mountains of North Wales, the atmospheric environment seemingly informed the final product. "Even though we were only there for three weeks, it permeated the whole thing," notes Dangerfield. "It was very magical and there was something really quite special about the place."

While they were working on the music together, they found themselves moved by certain words and imagery. "It felt like someone waking up abandoned in outer space," explains Dangerfield. "Not in a sort of prog-concept way, but we tried to think what that would feel like – to come to and everything you know is gone, but you're certain you have a home somewhere and the only thing that keeps you going is this hope that you're somehow going to get back there." Sure enough, the lead single, "The Basket", begins with the line: "Wake up, nothing is where it should be, why do these things happen to me?"

"That feeling became the focus for everything," Dangerfield continues. "It was the bulb in the middle which everything had to gravitate towards. I think we all wanted to make something that sounded quite big but not overblown."

With their adventurous lyrical vision and out-there approach to songwriting, have they ever found themselves conflicted between their desire to push boundaries and the commercial demands of their label? "There's definitely a tension in the music or in the process of making the music," agrees Dangerfield. "There's always a push and pull but I look at the people I like and grew up listening to, like The Beatles, and I think there was that tension there. A great pop song is the hardest thing in the world to write. I'm conscious of the fact that it would be a lot easier for us, in a way, to go off and make out-there David Lynch soundtrack-style records. Part of the challenge is trying to write melody and lyrics that anyone can get into, but to then colour it in with the sonics of something that can take you away to places. I'm aware we're on a major label and there's going to be a certain expectancy." He pauses, before adding, "I know it's very fashionable to bitch about your record company, but they've actually been really good to us. We handed in a 65-minute record with eight- and nine-minute songs on, and I was gearing up for the fight, and then... not a word."

There's evidence that the band has been bruised by some of the criticism thrown at them in the past, and throughout the interview they are self-conscious about some of their answers. They're aware that they have irked people with their perceived quirks. "We feel like outsiders in a way," says Dangerfield. "I think we're still seen as a bit of an oddity, and I'm not entirely sure why. It only takes you being called wacky a few times for you to get a real hang up about it. I'm conscious of the fact that I've done stupid things at gigs in the past, like silly dances. There are definitely some things I wouldn't do again, but they were never really preconceived to try and be theatrical."

"I think it's really unfair," Magrão interjects. "There are those bands that are pretentious on stage – they think they've got to do the whole cool thing because they're in a band. When I'm on stage I just feel like I'm in my bedroom – and if we do some weird shit, actually, we're just being ourselves."

Guillemots' new album, 'Walk the River', is released on 18 April (www.guillemots.com)