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More expansive and ambitious than ever before, Gengahr are a band reborn. A testament to going it alone, Sanctuary is the experimental North London alt-pop four-piece’s finest body of work to date, a DIY triumph which welcomes old friend Jack Steadman of Bombay Bicycle Club as producer, adding his distinct brand of symphonic sparkle to Gengahr’s complex, layered sound.

Born of an epic journey, the follow-up to their acclaimed 2015 debut A Dream Outside and 2018’s Where Wildness Grows sees songwriter Felix Bushe tapping into personal pain but coming out fighting. “I was picturing myself as Odysseus in this captive journey where I was just trying to get back to where I wanted to be in life,” he explains. After the release of the band’s second album things weren’t easy. Not only did he have to face the sudden passing of his mother, but then the woman who had become his rock returned home to Australia as her visa had run out. “My girlfriend had stopped me from going completely off the rails – then I suddenly found myself basically just on my own.” It was hard going, but Felix channelled his pain into more than 60 new songs. Yet at this stage he wasn’t sure where, what or even who this material was for. “I wrote a lot of that stuff thinking it would be a solo album,” reveals Felix, who, alongside bandmates John Victor, Hugh Schulte and Danny Ward, had no idea if Gengahr were going to get back in the studio. “I didn’t know what the other guys would want to do because the experience of the last album was quite rocky and turbulent.”

Of course it was impossible for any of them to say no to the prospect of doing it all again and while collaborating on the new tracks decided they were down to try something a bit different... Recorded without a label or management and with Gengahr paying for the sessions out of their own pocket, Sanctuary recaptures the magic that the four guys felt back when they were making their debut. It’s vibrant, intoxicating, intimate and alive; the product of friends having a good time and seizing control of their own destiny. As such, it’s also way more banging than anything that has gone before.

It all began with the groove-ridden one-off single ‘Atlas Please’. Recorded at Jack’s parents’ place in Highgate, it was the most lo-fi recording of Gengahr’s career so far, and marked the first time they’d all properly hung out with Jack since their days of teenage house parties and smoking weed on the heath. “There was no pressure and no clock - it just felt good,” says Felix. Even though they’d only just put out their second record, Felix wanted to keep up the momentum and asked Jack if he’d be interested in a bigger project. He was, but he’d also just started work on the Bombay Bicycle Club comeback album. “He said ‘if we do it, we have to start now…’” So they did. They began firing tracks at Jack, who then pulled together the most cohesive ideas. “We’d never really worked with a producer and having someone else working with us kind of blew our minds,” explains Felix.

Jack’s ruthless editing also meant they could go into the studio quicker than anyone in the band could have imagined. Recording took place at the brand new Propagation House way out in Bude in Cornwall. In a further attempt to bring back the same energy which’d gone into their debut they also called up A Dream Outside’s engineer James Bragg. “We were aware that we all felt better about our first album than we did our second,” explains Felix of their plan to focus on fun rather than clockwatching. So instead of hitting up the Cornish local pubs they’d spend all evening in the live room, replaying their youth by cranking up the volume and listening to Aphex Twin, Deftones and old school hip hop, their nightly nostalgia trips hyping them up for the next day’s sessions.

Bringing his musician’s touch to the sessions, Jack would add samples to boost the new songs, like the dreamy loop that opens up stunning, floor-filling first single ‘Everything & More’. “He is very, very astute when it comes to the arrangements,” says Felix, who let Jack push the band further into all-out pop territory than they’d ever dared stray before. “We had discussions in the studio where I’d say ‘I think that’s pretty cheesy and bit too pop’ and Jack would say ‘if you wanted a cool album why did you ask me to do it?!’”

Yet with additional production work from John Victor, things still sound distinctly Gengahr. It’s heartfelt, sophisticated and no matter what Jack says, kinda cool too, the 10 tracks on Sanctuary all revolving around that quest to feel normal again. Homer’s Odyssey was constantly in the back of classics buff Felix’s mind when writing, acting as a constant guide. “It’s certainly not written as an ancient Greek man, but I’ve tried to create this new, modern version of what it might be and that narrative is what holds the album together in my head,” he explains. His own modern take largely deals with the fact that his girlfriend, now his wife, is still living in Australia while Felix is based on the opposite side of the world. The highs and lows of such a long distance relationship have all fed into the album’s rollercoaster of emotions. “We’ve seen each other maybe three months in the past two years,” explains Felix of his own personal epic journey. “The Greek tragedies are the same as watching EastEnders now. It’s the same thing but in a different time and with a different backdrop. It’s all about retelling stories that are still relevant.”

Mixed by the hugely in-demand Nathan Boddy (James Blake, Nilufer Yanya, Shame), Sanctuary runs the full gamut of human feeling, with the disco-inflected ‘Heavenly Maybe’ heavy with ennui as well as a powerful melody, detailing Felix’s experience of partying in order to distract him from his real life problems, while the soaring ‘Icarus’ sees him further opening up about the “world of pain” in which he found himself. Yet the beautiful, twinkling ‘Moonlight’ hints at a positive future. “I do want the album to be hopeful and ‘Moonlight’ is all about that,” he explains. “It’s a harmonious ending of unison and togetherness.” Written while in Vietnam with his wife, its lyrics turn Felix’s self-doubt into a lush, low-key eulogy for the bad times.

“I genuinely believe that this is the best record we’ve ever made,” says Felix. It looks like another epic journey is just about to begin…

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