A transatlantic electronic indie band with bases in London and Los Angeles, Firebird Union. Brothers Ross and Matt Churchill modernize the sounds of their influences, such as Noel Gallagher, Fleet Foxes, and HAIM, by fusing the best of British and American synth and guitar music. Check out the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
Matt: We’re originally from Watford, just north of London. We’d always spent time playing music together for as long as I can remember. One of my foremost memories was our mum making us do a treasure hunt round the house and the prize was a Queen Greatest Hits VHS (that’s a big cassette that goes into a box that plugs into your TV, kids) and that kind of got me into music. Ross learnt guitar and annoyingly he was much better than me. From that point we were always making music, first on our own then in a band.
Ross: Even before we had any sort of band it was me and Matt playing guitar together. Once I got my hands on a 4-track cassette (that’s like a mini VHS) machine we were away. We’d record covers and our own stuff. I think those tapes are still out there somewhere…
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
Matt: I had maybe three guitar lessons at school but gave that up. I basically just wanted to sing my favourite songs so I watched what other guitarists did and taught myself chords and basic tab.
Ross: I’m classically trained in piano, guitar, and cello, but I was an awful student as I just wanted to make my own stuff. I’m 99% self-taught on every other instrument and production.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘FIREBIRD UNION?
Matt: Queen, Kirsty MacColl and The Beatles because that’s what was on round the house, but then when I started to form my own opinions I Should Coco was the first album I owned and I then went head first into Britpop. I still have the cassette (see above)! When we came up with Firebird Union, I was amazed nobody had used it before. There’s a lot of levels to the name but ultimately it’s Ross and I unifying to make music.
Ross: My earliest memories are of Queen, Elton John, and The Beatles. Vinyl is a magic toy when you’re a kid. I initially used Firebird Union as a solo name, until I decided to keep it in my back pocket for a band. I have a theory that audiences respond better to names that are real, simple words instead of made-up waffle. Like, it makes the name more legitimate. Plus it’s a good challenge to find word combos that haven’t been used yet. I wanted an animal in the name to align with my Hyper Lion solo work. I liked Firebird because it comes with a lot of cool mystic folk imagery that suits our sound. As Matt said, Union was chosen as I always intended this project to be collaborative. Matt and I would be the core, but I’d like to leave the door open for guests.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
Matt: We’re trying to blend the best of British and American electronic indie, with a little sprinkle of other influences here and there. If you’re listening I’d hope that you take away this is something that’s genuinely been crafted. I agonise over lyrics to try and avoid repeating phrases – when I hear artists that use similar lyrics in different songs I think it’s so lazy. There’s so many words and an infinity of ways to construct a phrase, why repeat yourself?
Ross: When I hear artists that use similar lyrics in different songs I think it’s so lazy. There’s so many words and an infinity of ways to construct a phrase, why repeat yourself? As for the music, there’s a constant tug of war between the nostalgic and the futuristic which I think is compelling for an audience.
5. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style?
Matt: I come at indie from the perspective of late 80s early 90s bands, representing themselves or working with tiny labels, putting their own shows on, creating their own scene. Indie for me is rolling your sleeves up and trying to make something happen. Franz Ferdinand are the last band primarily driven by guitars I can think of who did that. So I think my development has gone from just writing songs for the sake of it (which is an important step) to trying to develop different ways of writing so that each time the end result is creatively different from anything I’ve done before.
Ross: I hate labels. That’s why I love pop. It’s the only genre that cannibalises the subculture to shift the mainstream paradigm. I’m always chasing sounds that have never been made before, that’s why I’m so invested in the electronic side of production. But I’m a guitarist at heart.
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative, and entertainment?
Matt: It’s the glue that binds all those elements together. It’s why when artists’ songs are used by politicians they don’t agree with, they refuse permission to use the track. I’m absolutely on the train for music as a societal enabler. Ohio by CSN&Y was written, recorded and released in a week and became the lightning rod for that moment. You can probably do that through art and poetry, but music transcends and brings people together unlike any other art form. Thematically, we tend not to be biographical, Firebird Union songs are about those bigger existential questions. What happens when the planet decides it’s had enough of us? Who should be responsible for ensuring satellites aren’t poisoning the atmosphere? Cheerful subjects like that.
Ross: Normally I would say I’m only interested in the technicalities of songwriting, but as I’ve got older I’m definitely mining inspiration from the world around me more. I think as a songwriter if you’re highlighting issues then there’s some weight of responsibility to provide a solution, otherwise you’re just moaning. Music has always been inherently tied to social issues and the counter-culture so there’s no escaping it really. Just look how average BPMs change in line with the general public mood over the course of years.
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfillment as the amount of work you are putting into it or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
Matt: It’s a creative process, it’ll only give you back as much as you put in. It’s got to be fulfilling to you in some way, whether that’s simply through the act of making, or because someone in the street has heard your song and tell you they enjoy it. I do it because it’s my outlet and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m terrible at drawing.
Ross: If we like it, that’s the starting point. If I can listen to a final master and have absolutely zero notes on how to improve it, then I’m satisfied. Then if friends and family hear it and don’t turn away in embarrassment then I know we’re good.
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do you usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
Matt: From my side it’s switched up. I used to be a “noodle on the guitar and find some chords then write a tune and do some words” merchant, but now I’m always collecting lyric ideas, my phone and notebooks are full of them. So I’ll piece them together when i’ve got an idea for a theme and then see what music demos I’ve got knocking around that might fit them. Saying that, there was a story in the UK recently about a remote Welsh village that keep having their signposts stolen for no apparent reason, so I’ve written a song about that. It’ll probably be a B-Side.
Ross: It changes for me. Usually I’ll have my nugget of inspiration, whether a lyric or a melody or a sound or whatever, and then the game becomes how to turn that into a completed song. It’s like a giant logic puzzle where everything feeds into itself. The lyric dictates the mood, which dictates the chords and rhythm, etc. Form meeting function. That’s what I enjoy.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
Matt: Musically, probably when our original band ceased. I’ve spent 16 years playing solo gigs and it’s really only the songwriting aspect I enjoyed. There’s no better feeling than when you’re working on a track and it clicks for the first time – you’re all on the same page in that moment, and it will never happen again. It’s spectacular.
Ross: I snapped a tendon in my left hand, so I couldn’t play guitar for about 2 years. That’s what shifted me into electronic music. But I got impatient, so retaught myself how to play without my index finger, which was actually a decent exercise in dexterity.
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
Matt: At the start of lockdown I’d had this idea to do a covers EP. I contacted a couple of friends from the Watford music scene, Minnie Birch and Roberto from Lakes, and we ended up releasing a record where we covered each other’s songs and raised a load of money for the local foodbank. We worked to turn a half baked idea into something that actually made a difference to people’s lives. That’s the power of music.
Ross: My other band Pariis Opera House have achieved a lot with getting our tracks played on the radio or synced in films, etc. Without those accomplishments I don’t think I’d have had the vindication that what I’m doing is high enough quality commercially, and I probably would have given up long ago. There’s a lesson: Never give up, unless you suck.