Modern Rome have a rather unique sound, one they have studiously built up through the last couple of years. Their 2020 releases to date show their slow evolution, with three singles that seem to nail what the band have worked towards. There’s an authenticity to the four-piece Belfast band’s music, Vocals, keys and arrangements that stand apart from the typical indie band in Northern Ireland, taking in elements of alt and prog rock, not afraid of the quieter moments. Last month saw the release of ‘Cracks and Hidden Spaces’ that combines many of their signature sounds in a more delicate track.
Modern Rome’s Danny and Tom got together to give us an in-depth look into their musical influences from Radiohead to local hero Duke Special.
Elbow – Kindling (Fickle Flame)
Elbow have had a significant influence on Tom and I when it comes to songwriting – we’ve been hooked since we saw them live at Belsonic all the way back in 2011. We greatly admire their talent for blending intimate and expansive sounds, delivered on this track through the acoustic guitar introduction that sounds like it could have been recorded in the room next to you, washed away by shimmering layers of piano. John Grant’s feature contributes incredibly meaningfully to the track, demonstrating their aptitude for selecting complementary melodies and vocalists (previously displayed with Richard Hawley on ‘The Fix’), and the way the voices weave in and out of each other before uniting to deliver the chorus is something that has definitely impacted our approach to writing music for two voices.
It goes without saying that Guy Garvey’s level of wordsmanship is something we can only dream of coming close to.
Jellyfish – Russian Hill
The sophisticated power-pop tracks that comprise the majority of Jellyfish’s two albums have certainly pushed me to experiment with more interesting chords or flowery melodies, but I think this track presents a more delicate side that maybe is missed on their more anthemic tunes.
The ethereal slide guitar, lush strings, and various instrumental flourishes converge to create a captivating dream-like soundscape, which has impressed upon me the power that a good arrangement can have. The angelic refrain sung by Roger Manning is a thing of beauty, and the way it contrasts the slightly harsher main vocal in line with the dynamic of the music has made me consider how the vocal style that I use complements the instrumentation.
Ben Folds Five – Philosophy
This track really impressed me with the versatility of the piano, and it has led me to be more ambitious with the piano arrangements in my own songs, giving parts to the instrument that I maybe would have reserved for the guitar previously. The range in dynamics is a highlight, with sparse verses and relaxed choruses towards the beginning of the track culminating in a raucous outro underlined by fuzz bass (with a sneaky ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ reference made by the piano) ending the song on a high.
There is a certain vulnerability to the almost hesitant sounding vocals, which gives the lyrics a certain level of emotion that I think would be lost with perfectly produced and performed lines. The delivery is reminiscent of musical theatre songs – this is certainly something that has been identified in our music, and I think this too is because we strive for that sense of exposed authenticity in the vocals.
David Bowie – Word on a Wing
I am always mesmerized while listening to this track, with all the different emotions it manages to evoke. The verses are led by melancholic piano lines (reminiscent of the outro of ‘Layla’ by Derek and the Dominos), which sit above spiraling guitar lines that drip with passion, and Bowie’s murmuring contemplations. All of this is underscored by a looming sustained string note which gives a real sense of foreboding to the track, perfectly leading into a dramatic key change where the vocals ascend to become a desperate plea. I could gush over every aspect of this song, but suffice to say it is an absolute emotional rollercoaster, which is definitely something I have tried to capture in my songwriting.
Duke Special – Mockingbird Wish Me Luck
Every performance in this song from the vocals, the piano, to what sounds like a melodica, are executed with such a delicate touch and give this song a beautifully reflective tone. The track has a wonderfully organic sound, which the upright bass greatly contributes to, and we wanted to emulate this timbre in our most recent single ‘Cracks and Hidden Spaces’.
We greatly appreciate any Northern Irish artist who doesn’t compromise their natural accent, and I think Duke Special’s use of it really consolidates the genuineness of his vocals, and we certainly have decided to lean into the accent as a way to communicate authentically.
Oasis – Slide Away
Oasis were the first band I truly loved. I know it’s become a bit of a meme nowadays, but hearing ;Wonderwall’ for the first time as a ten-year-old kid was a real epiphanic moment for me – it turned me from someone who liked a few songs here or there into a total music obsessive. I’m ashamed to say that I became quite the snob in my early twenties and kind of turned my back on them, but I’ve really begun to appreciate the brilliance of Noel Gallagher’s songwriting again in the last couple of years. More than anything, it’s taught me the power of simplicity – that, at the end of the day, a strong melody and sheer passion is what really matters. I think ’Slide Away’ – my all-time favourite Oasis song – perfectly exemplifies that.
Radiohead – Pyramid Song
Radiohead were the second band I fell in love with – in regards to my musical development, they sort of acted as the yin to Oasis’ yang. While Oasis were all about rock ‘n’ roll, Radiohead provided my first introduction to the sounds of experimental rock, electronica and jazz. Similarly, in regards to songwriting, while Oasis used fairly conventional chord progressions, melodies and rhythms, Radiohead have done things that I still can’t get my head around to this day. However, saying that, I think what makes Radiohead so special is that while they utilise these unconventional compositional techniques, their tracks almost never sound like aimless experiments – they just sound like great songs. ‘Pyramid Song’ – a track with a seemingly shifting time signature and lots of odd chord suspensions – is a great example of this.
Joni Mitchell – A Case of You
Writing lyrics has always been the most difficult part of songwriting for me, that will probably never change, but in my late teens / early twenties I really couldn’t get past it – I could never write anything I was happy with. However, delving into the work of Joni Mitchell about four years ago provided a real breakthrough – hearing someone put their life experiences into song in such a raw and honest way was just so hugely inspiring to me. While I knew I had nowhere near the poetic sensibility of Joni, it gave me a clear sense of direction with what I wanted to do with my lyrics going forward. ‘A Case of You’, in particular, is one of the songs that hit me hardest and still does to this day – it’s just so beautifully evocative.
American Music Club – Sick of Food
In my opinion, American Music Club are probably the most underappreciated band of all time – I suspect that one of the big reasons is issues keeping their early (and best) albums on streaming services. I discovered AMC about four years ago through their association with fellow San Francisco-based slowcore act Red House Painters, and I have been obsessed ever since – in fact, they have probably been the single biggest influence on me musically since starting Modern Rome. There’s just so many things I love about their music: the fantastic songwriting, the innovative and atmospheric guitar work, the stylistic variety – I could go on forever. However, the aspect that has inspired me most has to be the vocals of Mark Eitzel – they are just so incredibly raw, powerful and impassioned. ’Sick of Food’ – which is on streaming services, thankfully – is an excellent showcase of this.
Katie Malco – Creatures
I actually have a selection that isn’t from over fifteen years ago, believe it or not! I first became aware of Katie Malco around this time last year after seeing her support Bob Mould in London, and I was completely blown away. I just couldn’t get over the emotional weight of her songs and the intensity of her vocals. Since that gig, I found myself listening to her music constantly – even more so after she released her debut album Failures, which is easily my favourite album of 2020 so far. Not only that, but I can already feel her work influencing my own – a good lesson to always try and catch support acts if you can! I could pick any song from the album really, but the fantastic lead single ‘Creatures’ is the one I can remember most vividly from that gig.