Understanding London-based duo Joe Wilson and Tom Kingston aka Solomon Grey requires ditching the usual definition of a band. No neat genre exists in to which they fit. No sound is out of bounds. You’re as likely to find them capturing field recordings as being in the studio sculpting beats. Think of Solomon Grey as a sonic brand rather than band and you’ll grasp how they can be both acclaimed soundtrack producers (recently, of the BBC’s three-part drama The Casual Vacancy, based on J.K. Rowling’s book) and a boundary-pushing pop act (Zane Lowe described their debut single, Gen V, as the future of Radio 1). Solomon Grey don’t differentiate between the roles – each inspires the other, often they grow from the same stems, with the aesthetic the same. Read More...
Understanding London-based duo Joe Wilson and Tom Kingston aka Solomon Grey requires ditching the usual definition of a band. No neat genre exists in to which they fit. No sound is out of bounds. You’re as likely to find them capturing field recordings as being in the studio sculpting beats.
Think of Solomon Grey as a sonic brand rather than band and you’ll grasp how they can be both acclaimed soundtrack producers (recently, of the BBC’s three-part drama The Casual Vacancy, based on J.K. Rowling’s book) and a boundary-pushing pop act (Zane Lowe described their debut single, Gen V, as the future of Radio 1). Solomon Grey don’t differentiate between the roles – each inspires the other, often they grow from the same stems, with the aesthetic the same.
Most of the music on their recent mini-album, Selected Works, featured in The Casual Vacancy. Two of the tracks, Firechild and Last Century Man, had already been released to widespread wonder on label-of-the-moment Black Butter. No two songs on Selected Works sound the same, but all are instantly, obviously Solomon Grey. Rich atmospherics, a cinematic shimmer, classical and orchestral influences and a meticulous attention to detail are their trademarks. The ability to draw the listener deep in to their sumptuous dream world is their genius. From the sensual, soulful, female-fronted Twilight to the hypnotically soothing Choir to The Wild via haunting, honeyed, strings-soaked new single Miradors and the propulsive beats-backed Firechild, Selected Works is best described as beautiful music that doesn’t play by pop’s regular rules.
“Sonically, it’s certainly a varied album,” says Joe. “But it’s a body of work that ties together and reflects where we are right now. We would never have made a record like this had we not done the film jobs and discovered that it’s okay to put an opera singer with futuristic electronic music. Doing the soundtracks gave us a lot more licence.”
“We’re both big fans of Air and the way they can incorporate elements of film noir, Pink Floyd and classical music in to one song. The music we’ve always made has lots of elements that shouldn’t go together. Doing soundtracks just made us more experimental and more aware of what we are capable of.”
Solomon Grey first came to public attention at the tail end of 2012, when Firechild appeared online, with no information about the band behind it. The ecstatic reaction to the track led to a deal with Black Butter which, in 2013, released two double-sided singles, including Gen V, that saw Solomon Grey hailed one of Britain’s most exciting new electronic acts, although still no one knew who they were, or what they looked like. Neither appeared in any of their mesmerising videos, though they did persuade actor Andre Royo (Bubbles from The Wire) to go crazy in the video for Firechild.
Their hidden identities were partly to keep the focus on a sound Solomon Grey had spent four years perfecting. But there was more to it than appearing mysterious. By the time Firechild arrived, the pair had been pushed to breaking point. Tom was living in rural Australia, recovering from a long illness helping his soon-to-be wife run a 2300 acre sheep and wheat farm following the death of her father. Joe was in London, trying to scrape together the money to visit Australia on a regular basis to finish what the pair were so close to completing.
“It was a crazy time,” says Tom. “There I was, a vegetarian, in the outback with 3000 sheep, with no idea how long I’d be there for. My wife was expecting our first child and I was waiting for Joe to come over. There was a moment when we wondered if we could carry on. But we both knew we’d made music that was worth pursuing. Plus, my illness was a wake-up call. I wanted to throw all the energy I had in to the one thing I always wanted to do with my life. We refused to give up.”
Solomon Grey’s two stubborn, like-minded souls first met in Oxford when Joe was still at school and Tom was at university studying philosophy. Both had long studied music and been brought up going to classical, jazz and rock concerts, Tom by his hippy parents, Joe by his stepdad. They met when Joe joined as the singer of a covers band in which Tom played piano and trombone. The band – which still exists – had the Oxford Ball scene sewn up and the pair stayed for several years, earning good money. They moved to London and began making music inspired by Drum’n’bass and British hip hop (Portishead, Massive Attack, Zero 7, early Ninja Tunes). However Solomon Grey only started to take shape at the end of the Noughties, when they found their sound with Last Century Man. “It took us years to get that song right,” sighs Joe. “We wanted a sound that was… sexy and emotional. It had to be our own voice. It was an amazing moment when we knew we’d found it.”
By then, however, both were exhausted and Tom was ill. They left London for a lighthouse in the south west of Ireland, where they set up their studio.
“I’d become obsessed with the idea of disappearing somewhere to write,” says Joe. “And it was a stunningly beautiful place. But being in middle of nowhere can get maddening. We had some great experiences, but it was hard.”
Those spells in Ireland and then Australia, from where Tom returned for good last spring, fuelled the romanticism of their music. Or as Joe puts it: “A lot of the imagery involves the transient city life we’ve both experienced quite heavily. It can be comforting to paint a picture of where you’ve been rather than where you’re at.”
The release of Gen V was supposed to begin the slow build to Solomon Grey’s debut ‘pop’ album, but their soundtrack work put paid to those plans. First, the Irish Tourist Board – having heard Gascarene, Gen V’s B-side, written in the lighthouse – hired them to soundtrack a film of The Wild Atlantic Way, a 2500km continuous coast road up the west coast of Ireland. Next, they recorded the soundtrack for a BFI-funded film called Gozo, due for release this year. Then came The Casual Vacancy call.
For The Casual Vacancy score, Solomon Grey made field recordings in locations where filming took place. Capturing the sound of a river that runs through Pagford, they picked up a lawnmower in the distance and decided to keep it. They recorded Morris dancers whacking their sticks, then spent hours in their studio trying to coax it in to a sound they could use.
Selected Works documents some of Solomon Grey’s journey so far. Later this year, they will release the album they initially intended to be their debut. They will get around to playing more gigs – as a three-piece, with a bass player and sometimes a string quartet.
“Getting the album out soon is important,” says Joe. “We only make soundtracks that sound like us, so we have to keep creating our own music to innovate that sound.”
“The plan,” adds Tom, “is to keep both up, so they can influence and pollinate each other. That’s the secret to Solomon Grey.”
- Solomon Grey performing “Choir To The Wild” at Sofar London [Live]
- Lane 8 performs "Hot As You Want" with Solomon Grey [Live]
- BBC speaks with Solomon Grey about creating the music behind The Casual Vacancy
- ITV's "Unforgotton" trailer features music by Solomon Grey
- Solomon Grey premieres video for "Twilight (Night Mix) ft. Imogen Rose"
- Solomon Grey's Weekend Mix featured on Hunger TV
- Solomon Grey's new track 'Miradors' is premiered on Clash. Show it some love on HypeMachine!
- Solomon Grey teams up with Google for an interactive video of 'Electric Baby'