With “Seasons In Exile,” Their First Studio Album in Nine Years, the Belfast Rock Band, Unquiet Nights, Discuss the Album’s Creation and Concept

Through their union of cerebral and contemplative lyrics and hooky and explorative instrumentation, the Belfast rock band Unquiet Nights stood apart in the Irish, British, and European music scenes since their 2010 formation.

They made their name with their 2011 debut album, 21st Century Redemption Songs, which opened the doors for them to appear on Irish, British and Italian radio and television, support Bloc Party in London, and tour Continental Europe and North America.

That album was then followed by their acclaimed 2015 release, Postcards in Real Time. For the rest of the decade, the band focused on releasing singles; a sign of them adapting to the changing musical landscape and its expectations.

In 2022, to celebrate their first album’s decadal anniversary, the band released a compilation of songs from the first two records (in addition to their singles that were not featured on any album and a new track) for their First Ten 2012-2022 album.

While Unquiet Nights are known primarily as a trio, currently the band only features founding members Luke Mathers on guitar and vocals and Rodger Firmin on drums. Last year, they released the single “Diamond and the Missing Son,” which was a teaser for their first studio album in almost ten years, Seasons In Exile.

Released in January, Seasons In Exile is a concept album that the two recorded in their then-newly-finished studio, Credential Sound, during the COVID-19 pandemic before Rodger moved to Thailand.

Back in April, Post-Burnout spoke with Luke about the album and its making, the concept behind it, how the musical landscape has changed during Unquiet Nights’ lifetime, his production work, working with Rodger as he lives abroad, his songwriting processes, and much more.


Hey, Luke. How’s it going? It’s really nice to meet you!


Yeah, I won’t take up too much of your time; I just had a couple of questions. The first thing I wanted to ask, between this album and the previous album, there’s been an almost ten-year sabbatical, and the last single prior to [“Diamond and the Missing Son”] was in 2019, so it’s been about half a decade since we’ve heard from Unquiet Nights. I guess, what have you guys been doing in that time, and who’s in the band now, and that sort of stuff?
Well, there was a single that we released in 2022, called “Despite It All,” that was to accompany a compilation of singles called First Ten [2012-2022]. We put out a single in 2022, but between the second album and now, we’ve mostly been releasing standalone singles, just because we thought that it benefitted the way the music business was now, to get more traction over a longer period of time. But, yeah, the band kind of exists as a recording project of mine. Whenever I get to be in the same country at the same time as Rodger, we always plan to do something, but we don’t live in the same country anymore, so it’s not a case of constant touring or anything, the way we did some years ago.

Yeah, and I think it’s interesting, thinking about how music has changed a lot. You guys have been around for over a decade now, do you find now, with the advancement of technology, with Zoom – as we’re doing now – do you find this has benefited people? Because, obviously, I think a lot of people kind of adapted to a remote means of working during the pandemic, but, in this circumstance, it’s a case where two people are in a different country.
Yeah, well what happened in our case, mostly, was that I had been building a studio in the, say, 2016-‘19 period, and it was more or less finished by the time that the pandemic happened, and Rodger was actually locked down here. So, whenever we were allowed to move about and that kind of thing, I kind of had him captive and I made him drum on as many different tracks as I could, so I probably got about four albums worth of stuff down in that time period, so we don’t really collaborate online in that way; we just kind of chip away at this, eh…

Back catalogue? [Laughs]
Archive, yeah. I mean, the whole Seasons In Exile album came out of just a small portion of what was done in that time, but anytime that we were back in the same country again…and he’s going to be drumming on more stuff, whether he likes it or not! So…

[Laughs] How do you find the changes in music and output since you’ve been in a band? Because I think, now, everything is so digital. I mean, obviously, we still live in a resurgence of vinyl – and, actually, cassette tapes, recently – but I think, generally, for most people, we’ve moved, in that time, from CDs still [being] kind of in vogue then to everything being digital, really, and I think that’s beneficial for people who are self-releasing. You know, technology is always going to continue to grow and become more affordable and accessible. I was wondering, from your perspective, how do you find being a musician now differs from when you began the project?
Well, the death of the CD would probably be the storyline over that time period. I mean, some people still want to buy CDs, but I think that they’re just doing that as a means of being charitable, almost. Like, “We really want to support you; where can we get the CD?” But they don’t have to do it, because everyone knows you can get it digitally. So, I would be hesitant to warn other bands about printing too many CDs and being stuck with inventory, because it’s a big amount of capital that way, for a band starting out. Actually, I would rather…The means of digital delivery, I like a lot, and I wish people spend more money on having decent speakers, rather than spending a lot of money on vinyl or even CDs, but you don’t even have any good speakers to play it through. We put a lot of work into getting masters with a good bass response and everything, and then you hear people saying, “Oh, I checked out the album on the phone. It sounded OK.” That’s the part that I find annoying about the current way that music is consumed. Vinyl is obviously a very beautiful medium and we would love to have it, but I can’t seem to make the numbers work.

Yeah, but that’s always been, I think, the thing, ever since .MP3  – and even .WAV files, which are meant to be a lot less compressed – is I think people are going to be first introduced to music – even if they decide to buy the album later – through AirPods, where, particularly the bass, a lot of that information disappears, you know? But it’s a weird thing that, when you’re recording, you still have to have consideration for: “What’s it going to sound like on the worst speakers and the best?” You do a lot of production work, […] how do you find finding that medium ground?
Well, that’s probably what the art is, itself, you know? The way that my production style – if there is one – a lot of time involves leaving space for the guitars, which means that my basslines or the basslines on Unquiet Nights don’t have that much top, and what that leads to, sometimes, is whenever people are listening on their laptop or a phone or whatever, they just don’t hear the bassline at all. Whereas, I always hope that someone either has a decent set of speakers, or they listen inside a car, or something where they can actually hear it. But you have to accept that people are not listening on good speakers, most of the time, and try and make it…I mean, I always reference on the worst speakers that I can find. If it sounds like an OK record on bad speakers, then you’ve probably got something OK.

Yeah, [Laughs] actually do you think it’s worth investing in shitty speakers, just to have that frame of reference?
Well, everyone’s got a phone now, so I don’t really need to! Now, my…I have a gaming laptop, so it doesn’t really have good speakers anyway, so I’ve got a good point of reference. Whenever I get the chance to hear our own records through decent speakers, I get quite surprised, myself.

Even then, a lot of the time, you can have high-quality headphones in particular and…I know, for example, Beats get a lot of criticism for having too much bass and stuff like that. I don’t know, I can go on a huge tangent about the kinds of equipment you can use, and how the limitations of equipment and stuff can really have an impact, and you can never tell with a hundred per cent certainty what everyone else’s listening experience is going to be like, but I do think there’s maybe some level of a centre, in the sense that, you know, lots of people are going to be listening to it on their phone with AirPods, so if you can kind of replicate that, you can get a general idea of what, I guess, the majority of people will hear, but, even then, you never know for certain.
Yeah, Beats Audio – I had a laptop, before this one, with Beats Audio on it – and they do process the signal chain, somehow…I don’t really know what it is, but I was referencing it in the studio, in Manor Park Studio, and the producer said to me, “Your laptop is bending that track, sharp,” and we couldn’t figure out what it was, but it turned out that the native Beats Audio was doing something to the file, trying to make it sound better or whatever it does, but it wasn’t our reference, it wasn’t our mix; it was doing something else to it that it wasn’t really given permission to do, but it was doing it, anyway!

[Laughs] That’s always a nightmare, when the software tries to correct what it is you’re doing!

Rodger Firmin (drums), left, and Luke Mathers (guitar and vocals)
Photographer uncredited
Courtesy of Unquiet Nights

I want to talk, then, about your new record. So, Seasons In Exile came out at the beginning of the year, in January. There was, obviously, a single for it, last year, “Diamond and the Missing Son.” And it was kind of a reintroduction, I guess, to the band, kind of bringing back the studio album – obviously, there had been, as you mentioned, a compilation prior to that. I was wondering, what was the process of making this and did it overlap with COVID?
It absolutely overlapped with COVID. We decided to do something for the ten-year anniversary of our first album – which came out in 2012, the start of 2012 – and we did a bunch of sessions, and the first thing that seemed to come out of it was that track called “In Spite of It All,” which we put on the singles compilation because we had three other singles after the second album that were never on any CD or any album, so we put them out as part of the First Ten compilation, and I think we realised after “In Spite of It All,” we did try that “Diamond and the Missing Son,” which was an older song, and sort of in a throwaway method, we were just [like], “Let’s try that,” and, weirdly, it sounded better than most of the stuff we were working on. So, whenever we heard the mix of that, we decided to go through the COVID period of just jamming. They weren’t even really songs; they were just set to a metronome, and I had this riff, “What are you going to play back to me when I play this?”, and then we had these big, long, extended jams and some of them started to sound like songs or whatever. So, after “In Spite of It All,” for the next couple of years, the Seasons In Exile thing started to come together and sound like it would make an album by itself, and here we are!

That’s very interesting because I was reading some reviews for the record – and it’s been getting really good reviews – and a lot of people have been calling it “Cinematic,” and to have it sort of gradually built, piecemeal like that is very interesting because, in a lot of ways, it seems like a record that, initially, you would’ve went into with a concept of what the cohesive whole would be, but it wasn’t like that at all, it was more gradual?
Yeah, the song “Diamond and the Missing Son” – you might’ve read me saying this before if you’ve been reading the reviews – but someone close to the band linked their iPhone to the database, and then “Diamond and the Missing Son,” as a song title, came up years ago, even though there was no mix or anything or we hadn’t recorded it. And we had this guy who kept asking, over and over, for a chance to hear the song, so that’s why we ended up trying it in the studio. And then, whenever we decided we were going to go that way and release it as a single, I thought it might be interesting to extend the story of the two characters in that song over an album. So, we had already recorded most of the tracks, as in bits of music without lyrics and stuff, so it was a case of writing the songs or finding ways to continue the story using the music – whatever excited us, musically, that we had already done. In 2023, nearly all year, we were working on it, but it wasn’t really a case of conventional songwriting, it was more…It was a totally different thing, of trying to finish the album to spec, the bits and pieces we needed to make the story full, then. So, a lot of music kind of got jettisoned that would’ve sounded good but it didn’t necessarily fit this project.

Yeah. Actually, what was the recording like? You mentioned that a lot of the drum tracks were already laid down prior to it, but was it done in isolation or was it done collaboratively? Did people send in their pieces? How did the actual recording of the album come about and, actually, the writing, too, for that matter?
Well, Seasons In Exile was only just me and Rodger, essentially. We were the only two musicians on it. We just set up a metronome and this is where we recorded, in our own studio, called Credential Sound, and we just built it at the time of the pandemic, and this was like testing the equipment to see, “What sound can we get? If we leave the drum mics set up the way they are, what sound can we achieve?” And these were just kind of trials, and then we put down all these songs – I say “songs,” they weren’t songs, they were just, “Here’s a riff. Let’s get an A section and let’s get a B section” – and we’d come out of that. A lot of the time, Rodger would…We’d be playing in a pretty straight time signature or whatever, and then, at the end of the song, I’d be like, “That’s all I’ve got,” and I’d just look at him, and he’d just keep playing, and he’d just try and bend the rhythm, or just play a completely different time signature, and we’d just go off, and these moments would happen that weren’t planned. And then, a lot of those turned out to be actually better than the thing we were working on. The bits where we agreed [to use], a lot of those would end up being a track rather than a song, and then I’d go away and think about how the lyrics could go over it, to keep this story running. For Seasons In Exile, I had the first song and the last song, which were kind of two bookends, and then it was a case of filling in the eight songs in the middle, to make the story work.

That’s very cool! So, when you were working on the songs, did the overall story come naturally to you or was it something that you really had to give a lot of consideration to, and was there a lot of rewriting? How much of it was instinctual and natural and how much of it was an editorial process?
I don’t know if it was more editorial than the way we’d normally do it or the way I would normally do it. I would be kind of obsessive about that stuff, so it did take me all of ’23 to get together, but some of the songs did come pretty easily. I can think of a couple, two or three songs, where I really laboured over them and tried to make sure that there wasn’t any wasted time on the album, that everything flowed song to song, and that every song had a purpose. But, yeah, I did edit some of the songs, quite a bit.

Yeah, and, actually, that’s one of the major benefits too, I guess, of being the engineer and kind of having that creative control, too, on the postproduction side. Were you still editing the music up until that late stage, or how much of it was done in preproduction and the production itself, and how much of it then was brought over to postproduction to kind of, I guess, trim down to what you wanted?
There are some songs I can think of, like, let’s say, track eight, it’s called “High Conviction Play,” and it’s more or less a link…because I had this song, track nine, it’s called “Just Another Sun Going Down,” [Reading the tracklist] so I’m going down, and those last two songs were already in place, and I just wanted a link. So, “High Conviction Play” was…Rodger was already away back to Thailand by that stage, where he lives, and I just took some drumming that he’d done on something else and pasted it together and made this link, which actually turned into more of a song, and I know that some people have felt that it’s one of the better things on the album. So, that would be an example.

[Laughs] That’s really cool, man! I love that idea, of still songwriting in postproduction! That’s so cool! [Laughs]
Yeah! I don’t think of it like that anymore, about “postproduction” and all that. Whenever you’re involving other people, I suppose the process has to be more like that, but what we wanted, in terms of building our own studio to use was kind of…I like to watch documentaries about the way Genesis put together their albums, and they built this studio called The Farm – and you can find bits and pieces on YouTube about it – and then they just started recording in the middle of the countryside, and they weren’t involving all the music industry people, and they were just kind of doing it, themselves, and, instead of recording a demo and then going somewhere to professionally redo the demo, and track it and all that, and then you involve six, seven, eight people in the process and putting mics in different places and all that, you lose all the spontaneity of the record. I don’t really like making demos; I like to wait for something to…a mood to arise, and you’ve already got the record button, it’s already flashing red, so if you do something good, you don’t lose it, it’s right there.

That’s so cool. So, everything you do is, as you were mentioning, spontaneous, but I think it’s really interesting to have every process of what you’re doing potentially be recor…potentially end up on a final release, because when I mess around [Laughs] with my own instruments, I like to do it far from the madding crowd and just have my own space and my own time, and I think if there’s something of merit, I will then record it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for you; like, anything, potentially, can end up on the final piece, it seems?
It seems to be that way now, yeah. Whenever you’re starting off in bands and things and you don’t have a definite project you’re working towards and you’ve got a lot of…The more people you have involved, obviously, the more complicated it’s going to be because everyone needs to stick their oar into it and, you know, even if they’re not involved, they need to make themselves more involved, just to justify so many people in a band, but this is just me and Rodger, so I wanna…We have that freedom to just record and use bits and not use other bits. Also, if you’re paying for studio time, the way we used to do it, you’re under a lot of pressure to go in for, say, eight hours and you have to come out with something that’s going to get on the radio, otherwise you’re just wasting your time and wasting your money, more to the point, but now that we can spend as much time as we want, jamming on something, and if doesn’t work, it doesn’t work; nobody’s going to hear it. So, the output is totally different because of how we do it.

And one other thing I’d say is, we don’t have anymore, really, those kinds of centralised forms of having music released, like television, like radio. I mean, obviously, they still exist, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of getting your music out there; I mean, there are so many alternative avenues which are available now. Do you find that has changed the way that you guys have approached music, in the sense that you don’t have to have consideration for what radio will like, as you were mentioning? Definitely. For every release, let’s say every album, I’ve put pressure on myself to try and make sure that there are two or three songs that are going to draw attention to what we’re doing through media exposure, but that leaves room for some tracks where you can just say, “Well, this is the statement I want to make, musically or lyrically or whatever” and just throw it out there, as long as these other songs get played on the radio or get whatever it is with the medium of the time – get on a Spotify playlist, or whatever it is today – these other ones, people can like them, eventually, when they get the chance to hear them when they dig into your whole album. Going the independent route as a band allows you to do that as well, because whenever you think of yourself as an unsigned band, to me, that seems that those bands’ output is determined by what they think the music industry wants, so everything that they record then is to try and impress some A&R man or whatever. Whereas, if you own the term “independent” and you’re actually releasing records and doing it without permission, then it’s a totally different process, where you can put out material that isn’t designed to be commercial.

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I guess the final thing I’ll ask is, do you find now with… – as we were mentioning, the kind of decentralisation, and culture, in general, seems very atomised and very dispersed; people don’t really have a lot of  the cultural epicentres that they once had – do you find that to be liberating or do you find it to be a lot more difficult to get the spotlight?
I suppose it’s easier to get a little bit of a spotlight, to get some kind of avenue where you’re going to be exposed to some people. I even remember a time in music – being involved, myself – where particular radio stations, or TV channels, or whatever, if you were lucky enough to get on them, you were going to be heard or seen by so many more people, so you could get famous overnight, where it’s not quite like that [anymore]. It used to be a case where an act – say they got on Later… with Jools Holland or something – they’re just going to blow up and they’re unquestionably going to be one of the biggest acts in Europe or whatever, but it doesn’t even feel like that now. I don’t remember someone telling me, “Oh, I saw this great band or singer on Jools Holland.” I haven’t heard that in ten years.

Yeah, it was also, it was that and…oh, what was the other one? Arte in France. If you got on those two, your profile would blow up. But you’re right, I think it is just the times we’re living in, I guess. I guess the final thing I’ll ask is, the album came out in January, [but] what does the future hold for Unquiet Nights, and are you thinking ahead or are you just going to let whatever happens happen without much preplanning?
There’s planning in the sense that, for the rest of the year, I have a promotional cycle for this Seasons In Exile album and different spots on the calendar where I’m hoping other singles will come out and then there’ll be a whole rake of interviews and things to do with that. But the enjoyable part of it, which is the recording and turning out songs, I know that we have some good material and I’d like to put out a fourth album but I’m not really working on that that much, at the minute.

Well, thank you very much for your time, Luke. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up, or…?
Oh! Well, I’d like to add that I’m very thankful that you’d want to talk with us and that is where anybody can find out more.

Unquiet Nights’ latest record, Seasons In Exile, is available now on all streaming platforms. As Luke mentioned, you can find the band’s music, tour dates, social media accounts, et al. on their website.

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