May 22, 2023

Following the sad demise of Touchstone in 2015, co-founder member Rob Cottingham, aptly described by Fireworks magazine as a ‘prolifically talented and accomplished musician, songwriter and lyricist,’ took a little while to consider his next musical venture before returning in 2016 with his new band, Cairo. Their debut album, Say, was released the same year, followed in 2020 by a live album recorded in Holland, and 2023 sees the release of the band’s second studio album, the eagerly anticipated Nemesis.

Musically, Cairo has a very strong roll-call, with superb guitar work from James Hards, a powerful rhythm section in Paul Stocker (bass) and Graham Brown (drums), gorgeous vocals from Rachel Bayley and, pulling the strings at the centre of it all, is Rob Cottingham. He agreed to talk to VT about the new album and life in Scarab world. 

Velvet Thunder: So, are you pleased with how Nemesis has turned out ?
Rob Cottingham: Yes, most definitely.  It’s been a little while to say the least, partly because of Covid and then, and I’m trying not to be too political here, but ‘Trussonomics’ really screwed things over, no one would invest in anything, including labels, so we’ve had to wait patiently for this to move on. But I’m really pleased at last to finally have the album out, and the reaction so far has been really positive.

How much of the album was written by you and how much by the band?
I suppose you could say, when you look at the tracks, the bulk was written by me. What tends to happen is, I draft something up, a bit like a pencil picture drawing, and then the colour is added by the band. When you look at the riff of Asleep At The Wheel, the riff was James’ (Hards, guitarist) and it’s a belter of a riff. Rogue is also James’ riff. I was actually quite precious about the track Nemesis because I’d intended putting it on a solo album ‘cos I like it so much, but it had to be a band song because Graham (Brown, drums) came up with a better idea for the drums. And that’s the writing process .. you start with something and then you get input from the band members. So, yes, you could say I wrote a heck of a lot of it, but overall the band completed it and we got it out together.

How much freedom or latitude do you give the band to interpret your music?
I tend to write a lot in my own studio and whack it out and then we work on it together. A lot of it’s done over software, sending files to each other. I mean, one example’s a new song which isn’t on Nemesis. I’ve written it and I also put the drums in using drum software, but now Graham’s put in a different groove and given the song more life. I also put in the bassline, which is a fairly straightforward one, and then Paul (Stocker, bass) put his lines in and added to it, so it’s kind of a layering thing in a sense.  I send out the ideas and off we go. Going back to Asleep At The Wheel, James had this riff and he and I worked hard on the song structure. It was initially a challenge as it was quite difficult to turn a cracking riff into a song. But, knocking ideas together is kind of how we work as a band, and when get to a point where it’s really working, we take it from there.

Were there any contributions from famous friends on this album?
No, not on this one. It was purely the band, all the writing and the music making was just us. Sometimes, if you’re reaching out to bigger names to add something to an album, a solo or whatever, there has to come a point where you’re standing on your own two feet and say, ‘this is us, this is what we can do’. But on this album, it’s all just us, this is what you get. Unusually, on this album, you’ve got Save The Earth, which is an instrumental, just a few strings and keyboards, and there’s a bit of a marmite track, Jumping On The Moon, which is like swing rock, with punchy guitars, which was a bit different as well. It’s purposely eclectic, trying to push the boundaries and not be too stuck in the groove. So, in terms of famous names, it’s just us!

Mentioning the last track, Glow and Tripwire have been released as singles, but Jumping On The Moon sounds like a better idea for a single as its more commercial.
It’s funny you should say this because, funnily enough, it was either going to be Jumping or Glow as a single. Jumping On The Moon is more commercial. It’s quite hooky and repetitive, which can be good in many ways, but this is where the band comes in because we as a band took the decision to release Glow as a single, which is where it’s good to have the band’s view. What we’ve done is release Glow first, which has a slow rock vibe, and then Tripwire, which is more punchy, cynical and raw, very heavy rocky. But you never know, we might put Jumping out, but we’re working on a brand new song which may well be delivered as a single later in the year, or it may be on the next album.

I suppose I’m not the only person to mention Jumping has hints of Van Halen’s Jump about it, am I?
Absolutely ! The keyboards in terms of sound are not dissimilar, but I love that kind of eighties stuff, and there was definitely meant to be an eighties vibe to it. I remember it as being a hard sell to the band as, without the guitars in, it sounded quite cheesy. When we play it live, the keyboards come out more in a way and, on the album, it fades out at the end whereas, on stage we’ve worked out an ending which is classic us and we go a bit mad at the end!

At the risk of sounding controversial, tracks like Glow and The Love, both slower tracks with gorgeous vocals from Sarah Bayley, might have been better had they not had upbeat guitar breaks included, just keeping the vibe gentle.
I agree, Sarah sang them beautifully, but as a songwriter, there’s always that dilemma about how much you layer up or layer down. The Love was very much mine, because it relates to three people close to me who passed away during the pandemic, and not just because of Covid, we had all that stuff around it which was pretty horrendous so, on that one I stripped The Love right back, but Glow just seemed to lend itself to how it’s turned out, and the guitar solo gives it a bit of soul. But you could always argue you could take the middle stuff out and keep it as a simple song. I know what you mean. I mean, I had this in Touchstone with Adam (Hodgson, guitar) where you have to hold back sometimes, but then you get this guitar solo sent through and you think, ‘oh my God, this is really good, I’ve gotta put that in’. So it’s where the music takes you, I suppose.

Nemesis as an album is much heavier and rockier than your previous album Say. Was this what the band intended or just how things turned out?
Yeah, 100%.  It was almost like, you start off with a vision for an album, and what I sent to James and the band, really, was… I’d like this album to be rockier, more guitars, more raw and a bit more punchy, because I think that way the dynamics on the album would stand out more – in so far as Asleep At The Wheel and Tripwire are quite heavy,  whereas something as sensitive as Glow and The Love, even Save The Earth have no heavy guitars. So, yeah, you’re right. The vision for the album was to make it heavier but without all the tracks being heavy otherwise it plays on the ears after a while, and the tracks start to merge into each other if you’re not careful.

How important was John Mitchell as the album producer? Because his influence is very noticeable across the whole album, especially on tracks like Tripwire.
John’s ear is amazing. I mean, obviously, he’s an amazing guitarist and songwriter, and he plays everything pretty well. John and I work complementary together. I go along with a view as to how I want the album to sound, and the way we do it is, John will mix it while I’m doing stuff, he then puts the cans on the desk and says, over to you Cotters, so I put the cans on, and I make a few observations about the mix maybe being different here or there, and what I find is there are some songs where he’s just completely nailed it. So I’d say his influence is to be able to really bring out a production to sound as I and the band would like it to be. But for sure, what you’re always going to get, when you’ve a producer working on different albums, is there’s always gonna be a certain feel to it, maybe this is what you’re referring to, and here it’s the ‘John Mitchell’ feel, a very successful sound. He likes to keep the drums up in the mix, as do I. To share with you about the title track, Nemesis, it’s a long-ish track, he was mixing away, got to a certain point, then gave me the cans. I listened to it and I felt quite emotional cos there’s a line in there which relates to my folks. I put the cans down and told him he’d really nailed it. There was no point in changing something which didn’t need changing. John and I are different characters but, musically, we’re in sympatico and, when it happens, it’s great, so you’re definitely gonna get John’s influences in there on the album, you’re bound to. I also self-mix, if this makes sense, but I always give John carte blanche, so I do the rough stuff and John does the fine tuning.

I’d not realised just how good John Mitchell is as a guitarist until I saw him onstage with Frost* and he was stunningly good.
Yeah, John’s amazing, he really is. He’s right up there and, my personal view, he should be way up there from a commercial perspective, the whole world should know about him as a guitar player and how brilliant he is. He’s quite understated. I mean, he’s very well known in the prog community, and in the rock world, but he deserves to be right up there with the best of them.

Cairo’s your band, yet the keyboards are always well back with the guitar right up front. Is this intentional? 
Yeah, 100%. It was the same in Touchstone, I just love guitars and I love guitar solos, and on this album there’re more guitar solos. I mentioned this to James, because this is almost his ‘coming of age’ album. He joined the band in March 2016 and I’ve seen him develop as a guitarist. He plays some brilliant guitar on the album, and I don’t think he realises just how good he is. On the track Déjà Vu, he just picked up on the vibe and his playing is top notch. His feel for the melody, and his feel for the feel, for the soul of a song, has really grown. He sparks off from the structures I give him. So, yeah, I wanted the album to have more guitar, be a lot more punchy, as Say was more keyboards and guitar because, thematically, Nemesis is about how flawed we are as human beings, about how we don’t help ourselves or mother earth, and how we should take more responsibility for how we treat ourselves and the planet. When you’ve got a song like Asleep At The Wheel, what this song’s really about is the total lack of leadership… this isn’t political, just about how people can either lead or they can’t; they can either bring people with them or they can’t. It’s the same with Tripwire, which is a little more raw and cynical, and is about how you can only put up with so much before the switch flicks on and you lose your mind with it all, and was intended to be more guitar oriented and angry sounding. So the music’s intended to evoke the feeling of the song. So yeah, Nemesis is more guitar-based.

So is this the direction the follow-up to Nemesis is likely to take, more guitar based?
Yeah, probably… most of the third album, I’ve already written it. I’ve drafted the ideas and sent them to the band, though we’re currently one track light, and I’ve mentioned to James he should come up with the dirtiest guitar riff ‘cos we want to do another dirty guitar song. He has done and it sounded great. When I look at what’s been written so far, it’s almost a blend of what’s been done on Say and Nemesis with heavier stuff and a longer prog epic, plus something very simple and stripped down. But we’ll be keeping the heavier sounding guitars going, for sure.

For you, does Nemesis suggest Cairo has made real progress since the release of Say?
I think so. I mean, I’m hardly likely to say no, am I (laughs). As a band you’re always trying to progress. What I would say is we’ve progressed as a band because it’s had more band input. The first album, I just wrote it and formed a band and we did it. We didn’t really know each other so well then, so the album’s mostly me in a way. But, there’s been a lot more band input on Nemesis and I think it’s been more effective. So, as a band, yes, we’ve progressed as we’ve now known each other over six years, and we can be open and constructive with each other about what can be done to improve the music, which is great. Say didn’t sound as much like Cairo then as we do now, if this makes any sense. So, yes, the band’s progressed, though, musically, Say still stands up on its own as a piece of music. You have to be honest… if I didn’t feel we’d progressed as a band, or the album didn’t stand up as a better album, I wouldn’t put it out. That’s a personal choice. I know, musicians sometimes have to get stuff out, forced by whoever or whatever, but I wouldn’t have put Nemesis out if I didn’t think it stood up.

The whole album’s good but a particular favourite is the instrumental, Save The Earth, which is like a ‘what are we doing to the planet?’ song.
It is, and on the album cover there are words relating to the song, which I wanted people to read it in their own voice, in their own head. Thematically the song’s fundamental to the whole album, which is how we treat mother earth. Would we treat our own mother like this, given what mother earth gives us… water, air, etc, all that… and it’s a fact we abuse it. The whole point behind Nemesis is we should all look at ourselves individually and see what small changes we could make, as a silent majority, which would help the planet, because what we’re doing to our planet’s crazy. There’re a lot of extreme voices out there who make a lot of noise and champion extreme causes, but it’s the silent majority making the smallest changes which will make the biggest difference to our lives.

There’s a new album out and ‘live’ dates on the horizon… what next for the scarab??
So, what’s next for the scarab is we’re looking at a possible UK tour, later in the year, to get Nemesis out there. We’re also writing album three, and we’re aiming to get the third album out next year so we don’t have another six year wait for the next album!  I didn’t know about the pandemic coming, and I didn’t know we were gonna have the ‘Trussonomics’ fiscal event with all investment stopping, so there’ve been delays, but now these things have stopped and things are up and running and there’s momentum going, we can do things. For me it was really frustrating we couldn’t get Nemesis out, given we recorded the album in March 2022, so for the fans it’s new music but, for us, we’ve known this stuff for a long time and we wanted to get it out there as we’re proud of it, but we also wanna get another album out next year, if we can, to keep the momentum going again. If we get asked to play any festivals, we’ll do them, and there’s also the possibility of a single, a brand new song,

So we won’t have to wait until 2029 for the next album!!
No (laughs)… you have my word! The next album will be out before 2029!

Rob Cottingham is right to be proud of Nemesis. It is indeed a fine album and one which will hopefully see the band making more of a name in the prog community as the band gets to play more gigs and become better known.