There’s something inherently off-putting about clowns—the creepy over-exaggerated smiles, the unnatural make-up—but they’re generally supposed to be a sign of fun and happiness. Which is why indie band Circa Waves decided clowns would be the perfect symbol for their upcoming release Sad Happy. “A clown was always an image we thought represented [the album] quite well,” says vocalist/guitarist Kieran Shudall. “Sad Happy is two stark emotions stuck together—I find clowns ultimately terrify people or make them really happy.”
When I catch up with Shudall he’s sitting in his Liverpool home with a fresh cup of tea. “It’s very British of me, it’s very cliche,” he laughs. He deserves a nice bit of relaxation, the band has been working hard—they’ve just finished a tour supporting Two Door Cinema Club and are gearing up for the release of Sad Happy, followed by a string of shows. Not to mention the fact that Sad Happy is an ambitious two-part album that releases less than a year after their previous record, 2019’s What’s It Like Over There? For Shudall, the decision to put out new music so soon came from a deeply personal place, the birth of his son last fall.
“Basically I had to write as much as possible before I had to start looking after another human,” he says cheerfully. “We were going to do an EP but I just kept writing…we had about 40-50 songs. When we looked at the whole thing, we decided to split them emotionally in two.”
Happy came out this past January while Sad was given a March release. “We wanted to have the first one out and let it sit for a little while,” explains Shudall. Splitting the album release dates gave Circa Waves time to let fans sit with one half before hitting them with the other. “You can push each album as its own thing. I enjoy making people wait,” he adds with a laugh. “It gives it a sense of ceremony. I like the idea that people have the record but there’s a big chunk missing and there’s a wanting to collect the set.” The other, less exciting reason to split the album? “Logistics. It’s very boring.”
Making the record knowing that it would be split in two made the whole process very different from past Circa Waves efforts. “We did it in chunks in between festivals,” says Shudall. “I did a lot of the producing at home and collated it all together in a bundle so when we went out to the studio we could hammer out the rest of the instruments. It was about four weeks, very efficient.” It also allowed Shudall time to finish the album before his son was born, giving him the space to enjoy his new fatherhood.
This time around, Circa Waves also broadened their usual sources of inspiration. “A lot more pop stuff like The Weeknd, Drake…electronic music like Gorillaz, songwriters like Joni MItchell and James Taylor. It all went into a big melting pot, old music and new music combined to make Circa Waves sound the way they do.”
“You don’t have to but ultimately [Sad Happy] was intended to be listened to as a whole,” Shudall explains. “From the start to finish, it’s like you’re at a party and all these different moments are happening—it feels to me like all these different moments could be all in one place. Each song emotionally stands on its own, there’s no continuation so you could take each song separately.”
At this point, Shudall is still too close to the record to decide which song he loves the most. “The mixing process was very stressful, you’re listening to the snare drum for like four hours,” he laughs. “In a year’s time, I’ll have a proper perspective but for now I’m currently enjoying [closing track] ‘Birthday Cake’. If you think about birthdays, it’s a celebration and you’re happy but ultimately you’re a year older and that’s kinda scary.”
“It’s unlike anything we’ve done before, lyrically it’s very honest from me which I’m proud of. Hopefully, people will find it a beautiful piece to end the album.”
But if he had to pick a song to introduce new listeners to Circa Waves, Shudall chooses “Move to San Francisco”, one of the singles (and, incidentally, the same song that sparked my own interest in the band). “It’s an amalgamation of everything,” he says. “It’s got big hip-hop sample drums which is a thing we’ve really worked on in the last few albums. It’s got interesting textures, typical high guitars in the chorus—a lot of the ingredients to a Circa Waves song. There’s sadness in the song but it makes you feel summery,” he adds, referring to the sound as “melancholic euphoria”. “We want to evoke emotion and keep you upbeat—it’s a bit of a juxtaposition, it confuses people emotionally.”
For Shudall this sense of “melancholic euphoria” also revolves around his newborn son. “Leaving my kid to go on tour is really difficult, that’s the hardest thing currently because I feel so connected to him—he’s my blood, it’s pure animalist protection,” he says candidly. “But then coming home to him is the happiest I ever am. Those two things are quite strange, they obviously didn’t exist for the whole of this band and now it’s a big part of it. I’m sort of navigating my life around my son but I’m very happy to do it.”
Mid-March sees Circa Waves playing a couple of small release shows before they headline several venues across the UK. In early April, they land back in Liverpool for their self-curated festival, Circa Fest.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Shudall proudly. “We just picked a load of bands we liked….it turns out if you ask people ‘Do you want to play in front of 3000 people?’, most people will say yeah,” he adds with a laugh.
Circa Waves is no stranger to the festival circuit. They’ve played Reading & Leeds multiple times including just last year. “It’s a legendary festival, it goes down in history as being one of the best rock festivals…though it’s not as alternative as it used to be,” he admits. A few weeks before our conversation, The 1975—in response to the festival’s 2020 line-up—vocally advocated for gender-balanced line-ups, encouraging festivals to bring on more bands with female or female-identifying musicians. Shudall agrees with this wholeheartedly.
“It’s something we spoke about a lot as a band,” he says and thus for Circa Fest, Shudall and the rest of the band made a conscious decision to approach more female-fronted bands and ask them to take part. “At the end of the day, young girls need to see other women play live to be able to imagine themselves doing it too,” he says. “I see a lot of promoters saying there’s not enough women acts but you need to push harder. Just because there’s some bigger male acts, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying to grab these female-fronted or female-centric bands anyway. The only way it’s going to balance out is if you fully represent women.” He’s optimistic though acknowledges that it will take time before we can actually achieve equality at festivals. “It does need to come from every band, everyone needs to talk about it and eventually the tide will turn and it will be easy to book those festivals where it will be a 50/50 split.”
But while Circa Waves is continuing to make progress in the UK and Europe, there’s still another continent they want to break into: North America. “America is something we’ve never really concentrated on or got our foot in the door but I always think about making some sort of headway there and building our fanbase, playing bigger venues or a festival. That ‘American Dream’ of a British band going over…it still keeps me awake at night.” He laughs. “I just want America to accept me and give me validation!”
“We’re in the midst of trying to sort it out, potentially booking [North American] tours this year,” says Shudall. “It’s up in the air but we’re trying our best—it’s a big negotiation and it costs a fortune. We do love playing America and we’re very excited to come back and eat all the American food and drive in a small van and play the best shows possible!”
It seems a good sign from America that just as Circa Waves decided to use clown imagery in their new record—both on the album cover and in the video for the latest single, the title track “Sad Happy”—Joker came out and took the world by storm. Shudall refers to it as the “biggest film of the year” adding “We liked the imagery too much to [change]. ”
“It tends to happen with art,” he says thoughtfully. “You’ll come up with an idea and something big in the world will also be using that idea. It always seems to happen to us when we come up with something, like an outside influence snuck into our head.
Here’s hoping that some sort of outside influence will work in the band’s favor again and help them on their quest to achieve that elusive “American Dream”.