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‘Smart Casual’: Aled Phillips Talks Kids In Glass Houses’ “Fresh” Debut Album
Bethan Miller

‘Smart Casual’: Aled Phillips Talks Kids In Glass Houses’ “Fresh” Debut Album

A youthful debut album, ‘Smart Casual’ still has ‘a bit of a timelessness about it’, Kids In Glass Houses frontman Aled Phillips tells Dig!


In the spring of 2008, Kids In Glass Houses broke away from a bustling live music scene in South Wales and quickly caught the ear of the industry. A gutsy blend of power-pop and pop-punk with mosh-worthy hardcore graft, their debut album, Smart Casual, was a vibrant amalgam of 80s new wave influences and post-Strokes-era spikiness that dug its claws in while the “New Rock Revival” was in full swing. By combining the raucous energy of US pop-punk with the angular riffs of indie rock, Kids In Glass Houses smashed through the sound barrier.

The band’s breakthrough single, Give Me What I Want, had been playlisted by BBC Radio 1, a moment that marked a huge turning point in the group’s fortunes. Going from relative obscurity to acquiring national radio exposure “was obviously just such a huge, huge feeling” Kids In Glass Houses’ lead singer, Aled Phillips, tells Dig! “It kind of took us away from just being like hobbyists and then actually becoming something that was a bit more universal.”

Now, more than 15 years after Smart Casual was released, Phillips reflects upon the group’s debut album with an understandable mixture of nostalgia and pride. “I think that album’s got a bit of a timelessness to it,” he admits. “I think it’s because it is just five people playing music. There’s no bells and whistles. It’s quite honest.”

Listen to ‘Smart Casual’ and buy the 15th-anniversary vinyl here.

The backstory: “We grew up going to hardcore punk shows”

Back in 2004, Aled Phillips formed Kids In Glass Houses after finishing his GCSEs, naming the group after a lyric in the song Tip Your Bartender, by Glassjaw. While he was growing up, Phillips had mostly been inspired by US pop-punk acts such as Green Day, but when he discovered the Welsh post-hardcore scene unfolding on his doorstep as a teenager, he soon found himself diving headfirst into the local gig circuit.

“In the earlier days we were kind of listening to a lot of the rock music that was happening around the time,” Phillips tells Dig!, citing Funeral For A Friend, whose debut album, Casually Dressed And Deep In Conversation, had spearheaded a new movement in Welsh music, as a formative influence. “We grew up going to hardcore punk shows and stuff like that, ’cause there’s quite a big scene for that in Wales.” It was at these shows that Phillips crossed paths with many of the local musicians who, in time, would eventually go on to play on Smart Casual.

Forming Kids In Glass Houses: “We didn’t necessarily fit straight into that sort of American-sounding lane”

In those days, however, Phillips had an entirely different set of bandmates playing with him, but as early members dropped out and Kids In Glass Houses kept on going strong, new members joined, such as lead guitarist Iain Mahanty. “Iain was just a friend I knew who was in another band at the time,” Phillips says. “We grew up probably like a hundred yards from each other but somehow never hung out.” In time, the band coalesced with the addition of rhythm guitarist Joel Fisher, drummer Phil Jenkins and, later, bassist Andrew “Shay” Sheehy.

Gigging their way through their late teens, the formative Kids In Glass Houses had already begun to write some punk-inspired material, but they were keen to push against the usual pigeonholing their genre tends to be associated with. “I just think there’s a level of defiance we had musically,” Phillips says. “We were always a bit sort of independent and rebellious in the way we wanted to go about being in a band. Sometimes we were almost stubbornly ‘anti’ doing what was going on.”

It’s for this reason the upbeat flavour of 80s pop acts such as Prince and Michael Jackson started to creep into the group’s hardcore-inspired sound, as did new wave acts such as Blondie, Talking Heads and The Police. “As a band, we were way more influenced by The Police, a huge influence,” Phillips continues. “Andy Summers was a big influence on the way we played guitar. And I’m sure our drummer is a huge Stewart Copeland fan to this day.”

It was this mix of US pop-punk energy and 80s-inspired British power-pop melodies that quickly forged a distinct sound for Kids In Glass Houses. As their local fanbase grew, the group’s self-released 2006 EP, E-Pocalypse!, saw them gather more momentum, exhibiting a unique fusion of emo-tinged punk and 80s pop hooks that instantly set them apart. As Phillips explains, “We didn’t necessarily fit straight into that sort of American-sounding lane because I think our influences were a bit broader.”

The recording: “Romesh was just streets ahead in terms of the sound he was getting”

For much of their early years, Kids In Glass Houses would often practice and record at Long Wave Studios, in Cardiff, with a friend of the band, Romesh Dodangoda, acting as producer for their music. “We were just like a gang, really, he was our mate,” Phillips tells Dig! “It was definitely a case of him being a very good friend.” As it happened, Dodangoda’s production clout would undoubtedly pave the way for Kids In Glass Houses’ commercial success.

“Romesh was just streets ahead in terms of the sound he was getting,” Phillips says. “Music just became more and more polished, especially for the kind of sounds we were going for.” At the time, Kids In Glass Houses were still an unsigned act without a record deal, but their close relationship with Dodangoda meant they were able to record their debut album, Smart Casual, throughout 2007 largely free from industry interference. As Phillips reflects, “There was like a level of trust that I think maybe another producer wouldn’t have given us.”

As their fame grew on the live music circuit, and various A&Rs began sniffing around, Kids In Glass Houses were fortunate enough to attract the attention of Roadrunner Records, who courted the group over a period of several months. Phillips admits they were reluctant at first, largely due to Roadrunner’s pedigree for repping heavy metal acts. Eventually, however, when they finally met the team at the label, a relationship formed which persuaded them to sign a deal in late 2007.

As luck would have it, the group signed with Roadrunner the day after finishing work on Smart Casual. “I remember vividly we signed the record deal on 8 December 2007,” Phillips says, “which was the first day of a tour we were doing with Funeral For A Friend.” Only three months later, in March 2008, still reeling from supporting one of their post-hardcore heroes, Kids In Glass Houses would finally release their debut single, Easy Tiger.

Speaking about that moment with Dig!, Phillips reflects on how incorporating 60s-era influences into their established sound successfully laid the groundwork for the release of their debut album. “It was very much a sort of British power-poppy thing, and also a bit of The Beach Boys in the ‘do do do’s,” he says of Easy Tiger. “A lot of music at that time was quite aggressive – and we liked aggressive music – but we were like, ‘Why don’t we just do the complete opposite?’”

The real sea-change in the band’s commercial prospects, however, truly began following the release of their second single, Give Me What I Want. Issued in May 2008, the song was a dazzling dose of angular pop-punk with a new wave twist which gained support from BBC Radio 1. Surprisingly, Phillips confesses to Dig! that the song’s spidery guitar riff was originally inspired by an attempt to play a Justin Timberlake song. “With a song like that, it’s just a different feeling in the room,” he says. “We finished the song completely within half an hour, so it’s just one of those bottled-magic kind of moments that I wish we could create on demand.”

With Give Me What I Want being played regularly on radio, and with only a week to go until the release of Smart Casual, Kids In Glass Houses found themselves poised to make their commercial breakthrough. As Phillips explains to Dig!, however, the whole experience seemed to come about quite organically. “We just went in and blasted the album out in 20 days or whatever it was,” he says. “It was just amazing, to be honest. It was loads of fun.”

The release: “There’s a carefreeness to that album that just allowed us to make exactly the record we want”

Released on 26 May 2008, Kids In Glass Houses’ debut album, Smart Casual, peaked at No.29 in the UK and instantly injected the tonality of US pop-punk into the bloodstream of the UK indie-rock scene. Lyrically, Aled Phillips pulled from his school days and infused each song with diaristic candour, while Iain Mahanty’s guitar riffs fused the off-kilter precision of math-rock with the heaviness of hardcore punk. It was immediately clear why Kids In Glass Houses had amassed such a strong following, and with explosive songs such as Give Me What I Want entering heavy rotation on MTV and The Box, the band went supernova.

Still a fan favourite to this day, a notable album highlight was Raise Hell – a propulsive rocker with an almost Killers-esque strut – which, Phillips tells Dig!, was originally written back when he was studying for his GCSEs at age 16. “I wrote it in the common room in school,” he says. “That’s kind of what the lyrics are about: just looking around at all the different people I knew in school, and what they were doing in that moment. It’s kind of cool that’s just eked its way on there.”

The next Smart Casual single, Saturday, was released in August 2008 and proved to be another reminder that Kids In Glass Houses were as much inspired by Andy Summers’ guitar work for The Police as they were by the Vans Warped Tour line-ups of the mid-to-late 90s. With lyrics recounting the band’s early days as an unsigned act, Saturday was, Phillips says, “a tongue-in-cheek recollection” of when the group were being wooed by an army of A&R scouts (“We spent the last half hour in the backroom celebrating me,” he sings). As he tells Dig!, “It’s basically about being in a band at that time. Getting into a van and then entertaining these different A&Rs and kind of feeling a bit like a dancing monkey.”

With Smart Casual receiving a positive write-up in Kerrang! magazine, Kids In Glass Houses set out on a UK headline tour that saw them perform a memorable show at the London Astoria. By now there was no doubting that the album’s success kicked open doors for the band, with emo kids showing up and singing along to almost every word. “I think obviously the most important thing for us was that fans reacted to it – and, you know, they really did,” Phillips tells Dig! “That year especially, things just sort of kept progressing in an upward trajectory, so we were on top of the world.”

Before long, the band were venturing overseas, setting off on a European tour with Zebrahead and Simple Plan. And then, in what must have been a real “pinch-me” moment, Kids In Glass Houses supported pop-punk legends Paramore and New Found Glory on the 2008 RIOT! Tour, a star-making slot that would eventually lead to the Welsh band supporting Fall Out Boy at arena shows the following year. “It was such an amazing time,” Phillips says. “We had so many experiences off the back of that album. I really treasure the memory of making it and touring it and getting all the opportunities that came off of it.”

The legacy: “The world’s burning, but chuck ‘Smart Casual’ on, it’ll be fine”

Selling over 88,000 copies in the UK and getting certified silver, Smart Casual was a watershed moment for British pop-punk. It proved that a UK act could pack a punch just as much as their US counterparts, and the influence of 80s new wave and power-pop gave it a playfulness that still jumps out of the speakers. “I think there’s a carefreeness to that album that just allowed us to make exactly the record we want,” Phillips says today.

Thanks to Roman Dodangoda’s stellar production skills – a remarkable achievement given that the album was recorded before Kids In Glass Houses had even signed to a label – Smart Casual transcends its era and holds up against anything released on the pace-setting emo label Fueled By Ramen. “The thing I’m proudest about is that it hasn’t really dated,” Phillips says of Smart Casual. “I think it still sounds fresh.”

For anyone who came of age in the 2000s and is nostalgic about British rock music from that period, the news that Kids In Glass Houses’ debut album is marking its 15th anniversary with a vinyl reissue is a cause for celebration. As blasts from the past go, these songs offer listeners of any age a chance to relive those heady days when UK guitar music ruled the airwaves. “It absolutely does transport you quite quickly to what would probably be better times, to be honest,” Phillips laughs. “The world’s burning, but chuck Smart Casual on, it’ll be fine. It’s 2008 again!”

Buy the ‘Smart Casual 15th-anniversary vinyl here.

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