When was the last time you really looked at yourself and thought about your life? Asked yourself if you are who you truly want to be? Questioned the world you’re living in? For Essex-based five-piece Nothing But Thieves, finding answers to those very same questions has been what has been driving them from day to day the past couple of years and months, like a dark, insightful mission. It doesn’t come to anyone’s surprise then that their latest release ‘Moral Panic’ is the epitome of just that. It’s an album about the dread in the world, the question marks we all share. It’s about them and us. And about finally finding the light at the end of the tunnel.
“This record is like a mirror for people. It’s about asking questions like “are you comfortable with this?” and “do you want to live this way?”. We were feeling quite disturbed and hardened by what was going on, what we were witnessing and seeing. It’s an album for people and about people and about us and how we reflect and react to everything. Which a lot of the time is anger. But there’s also sadness, resignation, and a kind of melancholy to it. Where you go, this is it, this feels like the end,”, sighs Conor Mason, frontman and guitarist of the enthralling quintet, hinting at the recent tumultuous disasters that have ripped and torn at the fabric of society unlike anything before. Be it racial injustice, the climate crisis, the endangerment of democracy in our polarised world, or the pandemic that has put the planet on hold in a global blackout – it’s the sheer endless amount of catastrophes that have, according to Mason, brought us to a final point of no return: “When we recorded ‘Moral Panic’ a year ago, everything felt horrid and tense, but maybe more confusing than anything else. Back then the kettle had been just turned on, and now this record fits so well because the themes we are talking about are still going on, have still not been resolved. They have boiled to a point of explosion and there is this sort of spiritual and moral awakening that needs to happen. That is what the album is all about.”
Listening to their third record, you would think it was written one day before lockdown and not a day earlier, with their first single ‘Is Everybody Going Crazy?’ being the perfect embodiment of a time filled with uncertainty, destruction, and people looting supermarkets just to get their hands on the last roll of toilet paper. A strange mark in society’s history, which made the idea of releasing a dystopian track that could not fit it any better even more alien for the Southend-On-Sea-based rockers. “When we first released new music, I didn’t want to. I felt like we were profiting of this miserable time, while people were actually dying,”, Mason explains with a thoughtful look. “People were panic-buying pasta and loo-roll and I remember thinking “why are we doing this?”. I felt genuinely upset and foggy about it.” Still, the group decided to go with the release, and what at first felt like a choice of discomfort, almost like an exploitation of people’s distress, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for both the band and its fans, the song now boasting over 17 million streams on Spotify and having been crowned the ultimate lockdown anthem. But that was just the beginning.
“People who have sport, They run and they feel better. I sing and I feel better.” – Conor Mason
Now, over half a year later, the world has once again gone into lockdown, real gigs are still fairy tales one needs to dream about to come close to, and hugging your friends feels like something someone once made up and wrote in a book for fun. Nothing much has changed. Except for Nothing But Thieves, who have come out at the better end, flying high on the release of their album that took the charts by storm, and glancing back at the last couple of months with more of an optimistic smile than a disappointed frown. But that is what makes this band and their music shine brighter than any other – they are individuals that look at the world through the lenses of their records that are forever intertwined with what is happening around them and with their own experiences as musicians and as people. So while others fell deep into the dreadful hole that the lockdown posed as, singer Mason used the silent alone time to reconnect with music, his band, and himself. “I think sometimes silence makes the best creations. People just needed to stop running and look at their cracks and absolve them. It’s been really good to focus in and be present,”, the young frontman utters. “Obviously, it’s been awful on so many other levels, in terms of actual life situational problems, but in terms of your emotional life, it’s been really good for a lot of people. It was the first time I got off the hamster wheel and had time to listen to myself and make changes that I really cared about. I’m the first person to hold my hands up and go “I don’t like this about myself and want to change”, and I’m really, really, really hard on myself. To a point where it’s noticeable with other people and I didn’t realise that for a while until recently. It gave me the time to re-love myself.”
It’s this relentless urge, this strong desire to constantly better themselves and to become the best band they can possibly be that has moved this talented bunch of 20-and-30-something-year-olds to the highest ranks of today’s alt-rock-heaven. Ultimately, it’s what gives their music its special glow, its aura of endlessness, like their stories will still be timely and prominent even when COVID is long gaining dust in our history books.
“This is the whole point of being in a band – it’s not caring. We’ve never cared before, so let’s speak out on something that we feel really strongly about.” – Conor Mason
With ‘Moral Panic’ serving as the creative peak of the rock wonder’s musical career, it’s no surprise that it feels different, unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Like a surprise laid bare in front of the world’s eyes. “When we recorded the album, I for the first time completely and utterly let out what I was dealing with and what I knew was about to come. Listening back to it, it’s like listening to someone else’s band, like listening to another singer,”, Mason observes. “I have this stupid problem of keeping everything bottled up even though I’m a really emotional person. I’m the first to listen to someone, but not the first to tell someone. I knew I was in a world of shit when I went to record, and I thought, well, let’s just work with this. I was basically going into freak-mode and used it as my therapy. People who have sport, they run and they feel better. I sing and I feel better.”
It‘s clear that being open, honest, and at the same time daring has always been one of the most poignant characteristics of Nothing But Thieves, with their seemingly roughest track yet, the sensational ‘Can You Afford To Be An Individual?’ putting the metaphorical courage-cherry on top. With Mason’s hypnotic voice roaring “Are you a walking contradiction in a MAGA-hat” and “So who are you to tell us where we do and don’t belong / And who are you to tell us who to love and who to not / Because your mother told you, you would win when you were young”, a lot of bands would’ve probably been cautious about releasing a song that politically charged, one that has such a direct message. But NBT wouldn’t be NBT if they didn’t take the leap. “This is the whole point of being in a band – it’s not caring. We’ve never cared before, so let’s speak out on something that we feel really strongly about – online tribalism, denialism from certain members of the US parties – and be angry about it and put it in a song. It’s one of my favourite tracks we’ve ever done, by far,”, Mason proclaims with a proud smile on his face. And many fans would agree, the song being praised as one the band’s best pieces of music to see the light of day ever since its release.
As with many things, that kind of freedom didn’t come by itself and is a monument of the long way the band has already come. It’s a sign that the group has finally found a place of ease, where they feel like they can just be themselves and not have to adhere to society’s rules or the guidelines of today’s music industry, which is again underlined by lead-star Mason introducing them as a musical project. “Because we are so genre-fluid, calling yourself a project is a great way of not pigeonholing yourself, not boxing yourself. To see it as just about the music, it can keep on being this shape-shifting, ever-growing, ever-evolving thing,”, Mason states, illuminating the process behind the ‘Moral Panic’s creation with his bandmates, the guitarists Joe Langridge-Brown and Dominic Craik, the latter also taking on the spot as the record’s co-producer next to the legendary Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys, The 1975). “Dom musically is the forefront of the band, he’s the fingers on the post. But if we let one of us do it all solely, it wouldn’t work. If it was just me, it would be all emotion and soul. And if it was Dom, it would be clever and intricate. And Joe is really classic. The three of us are completely different people with different personalities and emotions. And that pushing forward from those three different places creates this unique music, this melting pot of us.”
Despite the group’s successful history and resulting en masse of confidence, there are still milestones to reach and goals to achieve. The kind of events that you never forget, no matter how famous or popular you are. In the case of Nothing But Thieves, one of those defining moments came in the form of a recent live performance of their heart-wrenching ballad ‘Impossible’ at the monumental Abbey Road Studios together with a 50-person orchestra. A place frontman Mason purposely had never visited and held sacred until then, always waiting for their own invitation to come around. “That recording was a dream, a bit of a daze, really. You’re in this place with all of this history that is literally in the oils of the 100-year-old furniture you’re sitting on. It’s like “who the fuck sat on this before me?”. It’s unbelievable,”, the singer remembers, quickly turning onto a new page, his next milestone – their headline show at the famous O2 Arena in London, scheduled for October next year. “I don’t know what I’ll be for that show, I’ll be a huge ball of emotions. I was thinking about it the other day and just thought, Jesus Christ, I’ll probably be crying my eyes out. Because it is the childhood dream for me. For most bands it’s Wembley, but being from Essex, it’s always been the O2. It’s where I saw my first concerts and I remember being there when I was really young and going “mum, I can do this, I can do it better than that”. I really believed in myself and I still do. So to play the O2 will be the end of that childhood dream. I’m going to have to go and get myself a new one after that.”
“I THINK THE BEST THING YOU LEARN IN LIFE IS THAT IF YOU CAN JUST BE COMPLETELY AT PEACE WITH WHO YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU HAVE, THEN YOU’RE WINNING AT LIFE.” – CONOR MASON
And what would that new dream be? “I guess it would be to be able to do all these amazing shows and to keep it alive and together while also having a family. Because in the end, the only thing that matters is the connections you make, whether it’s with yourself or other people or love and loved ones. But people forget that. All of their stupid lives and their distractions will get on top of it like dirty laundry. So my message to people would be – you have a real connectedness with someone, whether it’s with your friend or a loved one or a partner or a pet or family, so don’t let the commotions of your life get in the way of that, because that’s the only thing that actually has any substance. Everything that you can see in front of you will physically fade away, whereas the connections you make can’t unless you make them do so. Anything materialistic, financials, it doesn’t matter,”, Mason explains, while also coming back to the importance of self-love – a topic the artist has spent a lot of time thinking about during lockdown, inspired by stoicism, a philosophy that revolves around minimising the negative emotions in your life and maximising one’s gratitude and joy. “I think the best thing you learn in life is that if you can sit comfortably in peace alone without anything, without having to watch the TV or having to go to the pub or having to be around someone else, if you can just be completely at peace with who you are and what you have, then you’re winning at life. That’s really the meaning of life, it’s having that self-peace and connectedness with yourself and then hopefully connecting with other people.”
It’s a level of wisdom and profoundness that you usually wouldn’t expect to come from a 27-year-old guy, sitting there in a baggy jumper and playing around with a tin of Vaseline. But that is exactly why the talented Brits have been able to break through the walls and endless amounts of bands out there – it’s their sense of self-awareness, relatability, and utter originality that cannot be imitated. It has to come from the heart. And if there is one thing this group has, it’s that. In a world that couldn’t possibly be any darker than it is right now, they have managed to create an expressive little work of art that serves as a monument for the time it was birthed into. And while it might feel like the end, Nothing But Thieves know it’s not. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, you just need to break through the fog to see it.
Nothing But Thieves’ third album ‘Moral Panic’ is out now via Sony/RCA. Follow them on Instagram, Twitter and Spotify.
This interview was part of the second issue of GEM Magazine – grab your free digital copy here or support us by purchasing your own exclusive print copy here.
Written by Laura Weingrill // photo by Jack Bridgland