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Careful Chaos: bdrmm on ‘I Don’t Know’, evolution and signing to Rock Action

New single 'Be Careful' is the latest preview of the Hull shoegazers' scintillating second album

By Joe Goggins

bdrmm press shot, 2023
'I Don't Know' marks bdrmm's Rock Action debut. (Photo: Katherine Mackenzie)

Having the NME label your first album “a modern-day shoegaze masterpiece” is not, as it turns out, a universal positive. In 2020, bdrmm found themselves riding the crest of a meteoric wave, having evolved with alarming speed from a bedroom (hence the name) solo project for frontman Ryan Smith – which, by his own admission, he had almost forgotten about before he heard he’d been played on Radio 1 – to a fully-fledged four-piece that, with their incendiary self-titled debut record, became one of the British underground’s hottest properties.

What followed, though, was their own version of the difficult second album. It was clear after the success of bdrmm that the Hull outfit might need to move out to move up, leaving behind Sonic cathedral for a label better equipped to handle the higher demand they are anticipating for LP2; enter a months-long period of being courted by various labels. “You come to realise that about 90% of being in the music industry is doing things you don’t want to do,” says guitarist Joe Vickers. “It’s a tiring process, having all these Zoom calls with people telling you how great you are, and then you never hear from them again.”

“It’s hard not to become upset or angry when you can tell some of these people aren’t taking you seriously,” agrees Jordan Smith, Ryan’s brother and the band’s bassist. “There was the guy from one fairly big label who listened to what we had and said,” where are the singles?” You could tell he was having the same conversation with ten other bands that day.”

The group were crying out for the kind of natural home they’d had with Sonic Cathedral, who were genuine friends of the band; it arrived in the form of Rock Action, a logical next step after bdrmm toured Europe with Mogwai last year. “That already felt like a kind of mentorship,” says Jordan. “They were very good to us, just totally genuine. Little things, like we’d mention to Barry [Burns, Mogwai guitarist] that we liked the idea of getting into film scores, because Mogwai have obviously made some amazing ones, and he’d take the time later on to sit us down for a chat about it.”

“And then, after we signed, there was a moment where [Mogwai drummer] Martin [Bulloch] came over and said, “welcome to the family”, and that…I mean, we very nearly called the record that.,” says Ryan. “It just meant so much.”

Instead, though, record number two is entitled I Don’t Know and represents a chaotic, thrilling evolution; the four-piece have drawn from a wide range of influences to serve up an intense shoegaze opus that, unusually for the genre, is rooted in social consciousness, with Ryan’s lyrics on singles like ‘It’s Just a Bit of Blood’ and ‘Be Careful’ tackling such topics as addiction and mental heath struggles in unflinching fashion.

The band’s higher profile, though, has changed Ryan’s relationship to his lyrics. “I struggled finding the words at times,” he admits. “On the first record, I didn’t think about it; I was being honest, and so they came naturally. But this time, it was a bit daunting, wearing my hart on my sleeve. I found little things helped, like changing “I” to “we” on some of the songs; that helped me to not feel too vulnerable. It’s cathartic, for sure, but I’m definitely thinking all the time, “can the next album please be instrumental?”

bdrmm fielded a number of different possibilities on the production front before finally, after failing to find the right fit elsewhere, returning to Leeds to collaborate with Alex Greaves again, as on the first record; Jordan likens the relationship between the band and Greaves to that between Radiohead and Nigel Godrich, as a de facto fifth member. Between them, they set about melding a diffuse set of ideas into something cohesive; key to the development of their sound was a considerably heavier implementation of electronic elements.

I think the last song on the record, ‘A Final Movement’, is a good example of how far we came,” Ryan explains. “If I listen back to the demos for some of these songs now, they’re just completely different. That last track started out as like a slowcore jam, probably influenced by Duster, and then by the time we were done, it’s more in the style of Oneohtrix Point Never. So the album has ended up like an impression of all the influences we had while we were making it.”

Now, the band are looking ahead to their biggest UK tour to date later this year, as well as their own headline dates in Europe; it’s bound to represent another step up for the band, although they aren’t mapping out the future too meticulously. “It just feels like we’ve been having a party for seven years,” laughs Ryan. “And now, people are starting to pay us to fly to their country to play daft music? What the fuck? It’s ridiculous, but it’s a total joy.”

I Don’t Know is available via Rock Action on June 30th. bdrmm play eleven UK dates from November 12