In January of 2014, when the new, fourth album from The Rifles arrives, it will be a full decade since their first ever gig. The venue at which it took place – the Bull & Gate in Kentish Town – is no longer with us: just like so, so many of the bands who began their journey around the same time. Most of those bands enjoyed a couple of months of hype, managed to get an album or at least a single out, then felt the hype die down and the magazines, blogs and radio lose interest, and so packed it in.
The Rifles did not. Because they were never in it for any of the above things, and still aren’t. The radio doesn’t play them, people don’t write about them, but they’re still after all of this time making a very powerful connection with a certain type of person.
“It’s our fanbase that’s kept us going, totally,” says bassist/singer/songwriter Joel Stoker. “We can still play to like, a couple of thousand people in London, and all around the country. We’re almost like a cult band: to our fans we’re “their” band.”
The last Rifles album, September 2011’s ‘Freedom Run’, saw a lot of changes for the band. For a start, the original rhythm section of Rob Pyne and Grant Marsh had gone. “There was no bad blood or anything,” shrugs guitarist Lucas Crowther, “We just got to that point where we couldn’t sustain it, all four of us doing it full time. It’s just a financial thing. It was pretty harsh, really, them having to get jobs and that, but that’s just where we are at the minute.”
The bigger change, though, was in the sound of the record: the Jam-esque power-pop of the first two albums traded in for a fuller, poppier, more lush-sounding aesthetic, best exhibited by the strings and keyboard-assisted ‘Tangled Up In Love’, and ‘The Sweetest Thing’. Some of the hardcore fanbase may have baulked at such a radical change in direction, but it’s credit to The Rifles creative core that they felt they had to go there, and did. “We didn’t ever want to get bogged down in just writing a song in a certain way,” says Lucas. “We don’t want to be just, like, a “Jam” sort of band. I mean we love The Jam, obviously, but there’s a lot more to us than that. It was just about broadening the palette a bit.”
“To be honest, it was a bit of an anti-climax for us, that album,” continues Joel. “I mean, it got really good reviews, but it felt like it could have crossed over a bit more. I’m proud of it: I think it’s got a really good quality running through it, and that we did something a bit different. And although a lot of people might want to just hear the first album again, it was important for us to go there. Although maybe, in hindsight, it was a bit too out the other way. We needed to pull it back in a bit.”
All of which brings us to ‘None The Wiser’, a fourth album that has evidence of the band that made ‘Freedom Run’, but is also a much-more unmistakably “Rifles” record. There are obvious reasons for this, as Lucas explains. “When we started doing the new songs, they just sounded like they would suit having Rob and Grant playing on them. We were going in to record with the producer who we did the second album with, Dave McCraken, and he could hear that, too. And he just went why don’t you just get those two back in to do these?”
But this return to the original line up is symbolic of something bigger, of a band who are now comfortable with what their classic sound is, and how to expand upon it rather than completely change it up. So opener ‘Minute Mile’ may bring in slightly more jagged, art-rock guitars, but the soaring melody and soft harmonies of the chorus are unmistakably Rifles. “I think for me,” says Lucas, “I’d started to miss that original Rifles sound a lot, so we wanted to get back to that on this record.”
Second single ‘Heebie Jeebies’ as well is exactly two minutes of perfect power-pop, a simple tale of the amazing night before. “I feel much better when I realize life is sweet,” goes its closing line, “I think we all agree, you’ve gotta have a good time.” Without pause for breath, you’re into ‘Go Lucky’ – another classically Rifles-sounding tune – and the chiming, acoustic guitar-driven ‘All I Need’. These kind of simple, direct, positive sentiments are reflective of where The Rifles are at now. Rather than sounding like the work of a bitter, cynical band who have been through the mill, it has the freshness of a new band.
“We’re a bit older now, and we’ve got kids and all that,” Lucas notes. “And it’s been hard for us at certain times, but it’s like now we’ve just gone, ‘F**k it!’ and we’re just doing it to make music that we love. I still feel we’ve got it in us to do a perfect song that people just will not be able to ignore.”
Joel: “None of us want to be U2 or anything, but it’s just a thing now that we think these songs are really great, and we want more people to hear them. If they hear them and don’t like it, fine, but I think a lot of people will really like these tunes and this album if it got given a chance. But it’s just the buzz of writing songs, and when they come to you that keeps you going.”
There are more acoustic guitars out on ‘You Win Some’, a song that builds into a kind of tribal rhythm, and is a great example of a song that retains the Rifles sound but pushes it further into new ground. And while the more melancholic likes of ‘The Hardest Place To Find Me’ (“There’s a line upon my face and a new one that awaits me every morning”) and ‘Eclectic Eccentric’ (“My life is fast going nowhere”) may quite literally deal with the unavoidable truth of getting older, a song ’Catch Her In The Rye’ shows that this is still a band who are capable of venom, its lyrics taking aim at the kind of fly-by-night people who are only interested in the hot new shit, or what’s happening this second, without ever really being committed to anything real. Similarly, ‘Shoot From The Lip’, where Joel pipes that “nothing quite says it like a four letter word”.
Harnessing the power of The Rifles’ obsessive fanbase, ‘None The Wiser’ was also put together with the help of PledgeMusic. The band are fortunate in that they have a long term mentor in the shape of Paul Weller – Joel: “He’s such an inspiration to us, still” – who lets them use his studio for free, but they were also able to raise funds for the record through the fans. One particular Pledge package included a day in the studio watching the record evolve, and the 20-or-so fans who shelled out for this got their money’s worth, with The Rifles utilizing their voices as a ‘Give Peace A Chance’-style gangland choir on the album’s closing eight-minute epic ‘Under And Over.’ With so many twists and turns, it’s probably the band’s most ambitious song ever, and so it’s fitting that the fans who have kept this band going against the odds are involved in it, and a fitting end to an album that is more than enough reason for this most special of British bands to keep on going, no matter how hard it gets.
Truly, The Rifles story has only just begun.