For some bands, live performances are, structurally, not a hard nut to crack. Jam out on some guitars, basses, drums and keyboards, throw in lots of energy and some dazzling lights, and fans are happy. For certain types of music, that’s enough.
But for the guys in Glass Animals — who hail from Oxford and are performing at the Greek Theatre this Friday — the live show presents some distinct challenges. To start, the indie four-piece’s music is steeped in rich, multilayered musical textures, sound effects and echoey, reverby soundscapes. But the band doesn’t play to a backing track, which means the first step of performing one of its song is stripping it down to what can be played by its four band members at once.
According to lead singer Dave Bayley, that process can be a bit of a bumpy road: “You have to pick and choose your favorite bits — and sometimes, you realize when you’re playing the song to an actual audience that those are the wrong bits.”
It makes the first few performances of each song on a tour a “work in progress” — an attempt, says Bayley, to seek out “what makes the song tick at its core.” And of course, it also has to modulate to match the venue: “If you’re at a certain type of festival, and it’s a rock festival, then they want the guitar stuff — then you play the guitar stuff a little bit louder than you did the night before,” Bayley explained.
For the band’s sophomore album How to Be A Human Being, the process of crafting a live version goes beyond drawing out the right subset of sounds. It also involves getting into character.
As its cover suggests, each song on the album is a kind of semi-autobiographical but fictional character-study, constructed by Bayley out of the many stories he heard from people while the band was on tour, as well as from his own experiences.
“Because this album is so character-based, a lot of what I end up doing is trying to get into that headspace,” Bayley explained of his live performances. “The trick with the stage show is we become the characters that are on the album cover,” he continued.
How to Be a Human Being asserts itself as an album obsessed with detail; from the unique set of sounds scattered through the album to the album art and track ordering, there’s a sense of intentionality that’s ever present as you listen.
For certain songs, like “Mama’s Gun,” Bayley admits it was a little scary to try to bring something that complex to the stage.
“It was so detailed, and had so many different parts to it that I didn’t think it would work live,” he explained. “But I think we’ve finally found a way to present that song fairly.”
Other songs were difficult because they are deeply intimate. Fan-favorite “Agnes,” according to Bayley, “is a very personal song, and I was pretty nervous about playing it just because it’s very sad — not many of our songs are actually sad. It’s hard to do,” he said. “But there’s an optimism in the lyrics as well as the sadness. I guess what I do is I try to latch on to that side of it, and that’s basically what’s made me able to perform it.”
It’s a track that, in comparison with cuts off of Zaba, highlights the band’s ability to span different modes. One of them is deeply cerebral, perhaps an influence of Bayley’s education in neuroscience at Oxford.
“I definitely miss being on top of all the science,” Bayley admitted. “There’s a lot to be doing in the music world but I can still get a bit of reading in,” he continued with a chuckle, evoking an image of him skimming over a scientific paper tucked away on a tour bus somewhere.
But it’s the in-hospital aspect of his education — “sitting down with patients and speaking to them, and trying to do my best to help,” as Bayley puts it — that most informs the more emotional songwriting we see in “Agnes.”
Beyond the task of translating album tracks into live versions, the band also faces a challenge in the tonal disparity between Zaba, which has a distinctly moody, strange and, at times, sexy vibe, and How to Be a Human Being, which is far more synth-heavy and lyrically earnest.
“It’s quite hard to find a live track order that works,” Bayley said. “There are definitely pairs of songs that work really well next to each other, and I think we have one tracklist that we know works really well live.”
Berkeley will get to judge for itself Friday when the band comes to the Greek Theatre to perform. For fans, the show has been a long time in coming — the last Bay Area appearance by the band was a performance at Live 105’s Not So Silent Night in 2016, which suffered from poor sound mixing and overblown bass. Luckily, the Greek Theatre is known for its magical acoustics, and it is sure to put the band it its best light.