Most music today is available on demand streamed through tiny electronic windows, while album art and live performances have been reduced to a tiny part of the experience. So projecting an image to listeners has become even more important.
But if you looked at my band, four middle-class, white guys from London playing slightly poppy alternative guitar rock, it was far from obvious what we could do to stake out our place among the millions of other aspiring guitar bands out there. Admittedly, we had largely defined ourselves in terms of what we’re not. Not metal, not fashionable, not punky, not angry, not ‘cool’. After a few years of playing together, Ollie, our former drummer, once called us the ‘Lib Dems of music’. Not exactly a flattering parallel.
The challenge is all the greater since band ‘branding’ is harder to pin down by necessity. Most successful alt-rock bands don’t have a strict ‘brand’ in the business sense of the word. They have a ‘zone’ which forms the basis for the visuals they choose to go with their music (think Strokes, with their retro video game stylings, or Radiohead, dwelling in their slightly disturbing Stanley Donwood universe). This is exactly what our band needed to find. Look too consistent and things end up looking corporate, no matter how playful you make it.
Over the five years we’ve played together, our look has lurched from one extreme to another. The survey below of the various identities we’ve given ourselves over the years reveals just how erratic this journey of partial self-discovery has been.
Colours for the Blind was the first name we really ran with. It’s evocative, but very grandiose. We were still getting to grips with writing our own songs, we were experimenting and trying out different musical styles, and we thought way too highly of our own efforts! Still, we had lofty ambitions for our creative project, and it’s fair to say the grand-sounding name and the operatic, showy visual style I paired with it reflected our naive and starry-eyed hopes.
I think, had we been experienced songwriters and had definite musical success, we could have worn this ‘look’ with no problem. After a couple of years, however, as we started to develop musically, and work with our limitations, we grew increasingly self-conscious of the mismatch. It was time to adopt a look which was more humble and paid more homage to our musical influences.
Enter Snail Bandits: kooky and boyish, and in line with the tongue-in-cheek band name tradition that seemed to characterise our musical influences: Pixies, Pavement, Grandaddy. The look changed too. No more moody, operatic, multicoloured layering. We were going to be grungy, DIY, and a bit silly. We even came up with a hand signal (a fisted left hand on top of the right hand making a peace sign but with fingers held horizontally – a snail! Get it?). I won’t even go into the pixel art ideas.
But it was too much. We didn’t want to go that way. It was at around the four-year mark that we finally decided to try and record something properly, and our musical style really began to surface. It wasn’t kooky. It was contemplative and relatively slow-paced, with moments of dramatic ‘bigness’. It was at the same time we took this photograph. It looked cool and cinematic, and probably was the first visual thing where we all went ‘yes’.
After one of the most intense rounds of name brainstorming we had had to date, we came up with… Fever Trees. Great name. So great it had already been taken – by a drinks company. Back to the drawing board, but now with a clearer idea of the kind of ‘feel’ we were going for. The assonance of the ‘Fever’ and the ‘Tree’, the slight mystique of the phrase. We followed this trail, and eventually settled on ‘Trees on Venus’
Of all the ‘identities’ we’ve had, this feels pretty comfortable. It’s still got the slightly geeky nature of the Snail Bandits days – it’s just been pulled back a bit. There’s a slight sense of humour, but it’s not all-out irreverently punky. It feels like an identity we can ”wear’ comfortably and improvise around. From now on, when it comes to our ‘look’, hopefully it’s now a matter of evolution rather than revolution. We shall see…