Glass Animals learn to be human again
When drummer Joe Seaward was involved in a life-altering accident in 2018, the indie-pop group became closer than ever.
Joe Seaward was terrified. It was late 2019, and the 31-year-old drummer for Glass Animals was preparing for a gig in the band's hometown of Oxford, U.K. Though they had played the Bullingdon, a 300-person venue, multiple times before — including a 2016 set ahead of their Mercury Prize-nominated album How to Be a Human Being — this was a much different type of show. It was their first since Seaward had been involved in a horrific bicycle accident that left him with a broken femur and complex fracture in his skull. Coming back to perform in front of a crowd a year later, he says, “was the most high-pressure environment that I could have put myself into.”
When Seaward's crash occurred, in Dublin in mid-2018, Glass Animals were in the middle of their European tour, which was promptly cancelled. “If I was in his shoes and I came to consciousness and realized that my best friends were off touring with a replacement of me, that would be horrible,” says lead singer Dave Bayley. “We wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else anyway.”
The 2019 Oxford gig was something Seaward had thought about every day as he relearned how to walk, talk, remember basic things like days of the week, and, yes, play drums. “Obviously we’d practiced and I knew I could do it, but could I do it when it really mattered?” he asks. It was now late February and Seaward was sitting backstage before a (pre-pandemic) concert in Brooklyn, where the band was set to unveil songs from their forthcoming album Dreamland (out July 10). “It was a sort of mixed feeling of joy that I was able to share that moment with those people, and of total fear that I would let them all down and myself down by not being able to do that. But as soon as we started playing, I felt completely at peace.”
Seaward’s accident wasn’t the first time the band had, as Bayley says, “narrowly escaped death.” In 2017, they stole golf carts before a show in upstate New York and took them up a small mountain. He lost control of his and hit a tree, while guitarist Drew MacFarlane and bassist Ed Irwin-Singer flipped theirs over, falling out just before their cart crunched Bayley’s. Everyone miraculously walked away with a few scratches. Bayley notes how situations like those may have prepared the band to approach Seaward’s recovery, as scary as it was at the time, with an understated sense of humor. “I knew that it was 50-50, but I was also so sure it was going to be OK,” he says.
For the 30-year-old singer, who first met the Glass Animals drummer when he was 13, the assuredness of his friend’s rehabilitation arrived after playing music for him a few days following brain surgery. When “Zombie” by Fela Kuti started up, Seaward began to tap his foot in time with the music. The moment served as one of the dummer’s only memories in the hospital. Concentration and recall were two of the biggest things impacted by his operation. But with steady progress and help from his bandmates, Seaward was able to recover quickly; he started walking again about a week later. Yet the dichotomy between the mental and physical recovery was clear from the outset. He had to be told multiple times that he’d even broken his leg.
“I was walking across the hospital thinking, ‘This f—ing hurts!’ Seaward says. “And I said to the nurse, ‘This is really hard’ and she said ‘You broke your femur’ and I remember thinking, ‘What the f—k?! Why didn’t anyone tell me?!’ They said ‘We did try, you just have no recollection of it.’” His bandmates were checking in the whole time. They even drove Seaward home from the hospital to Oxford in a tour van when they were supposed to be playing shows in America. “It was all very ironic,” MacFarlane says with a laugh.
While Seaward was recovering at his house, Bayley was traveling back and forth to Los Angeles, working as a songwriter for 6lack, Khalid, King Princess, and frequent Kendrick Lamar producer DJ Dahi. He had collaborated with other artists before — Flume, Joey Bada$$, Denzel Curry (their collaboration “Tokyo Drifting” appears on Dreamland) — but this time was different. Bayley, motivated by Seaward’s accident, found himself writing from a more personal place. With the exception of How to Be a Human Being’s final track “Agnes” — “the most personal song I’ve ever written,” he says — he had typically refused to write autobiographical songs, instead opting to look to other characters, both real and fictional, for inspiration (Human Being’s 11 songs represented 11 separate people they met on the road while touring their breakthrough debut LP Zaba).
“These people are so open and so honest on paper, you kind of get inspired by that,” Bayley says of the artists he worked with. “When you’re writing something in someone else’s voice, you sort of disassociate with the lyrics a little bit and it allows you to be more personal.”
Writing for others and spending time with Seaward at the hospital convinced Bayley that the next Glass Animals record had to be more rooted in his own life. The fan response to “Agnes” cemented that idea. For the first time, all the first-person musings on the album were to be from his own experience, stemming from questions he was pondering in that introspective period while waiting for his friend to recover.
“I was really reflecting on life and thinking about everything in this dream state — a half awake, half asleep brain,” Bayley remembers. “I started asking all these weird questions to myself like, ‘What is the worst thing you’ve ever said to somebody? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’”
These queries formed the basis of lead single “Dreamland,” the, well, dreamy first track off their forthcoming album. “Each line of the song is expanded upon and explored in another song,” he says. For example, the lyric “You were 10 years old holding hands in the classroom/He had a gun on the first day of high school” is further examined in “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” a 2000s hip-hop-indebted track that depicts a childhood friend of Bayley’s who brought a gun to school but was stopped before he could ever pull the trigger.
Though Dreamland utilizes a wide sonic palate, it’s still very much a Glass Animals record, almost exclusively written and produced by Bayley. It approaches pop music in a way that only the Oxford quartet could, packed with smooth vocals and larger-than-life hooks. As with every song Bayley has written over the past nine years, his creative process starts with the same cheap Spanish guitar he bought at a market years ago. “There’s something about when songs start with me and that guitar.”
Learning the new material — and remembering the intricacies behind their old songs — was a frightening prospect for Seaward at first. It had been over a year since they’d played together. Shaking off the rust after taking off that much time is a tough task for any band, let alone one with a drummer recovering from brain surgery. To go from that to playing in front of a crowd again would be a lengthy journey. But because of his obsessive practice regimen, he was actually more prepared than his bandmates in their first rehearsal back. “We were all sort of sitting there trying to play and we were like ‘Oh god, Joe definitely knows what he’s doing more than we do! F—k!’” MacFarlane says. Adds Irwin-Singer, “Joe was literally holding it all together."
In the aftermath of Seaward’s accident, it’s impossible for Bayley to write Glass Animals tracks in the same way again. Now, songwriting is an exercise at looking inward, using the past to recontextualize the future. And the bond between the four bandmates is stronger than ever, something on full display when they played in Brooklyn just two weeks before concerts were shut down in New York. During “Agnes,” Bayley stood on Seaward’s drum kit and sang to his best friend. Emotions for the group were running high, and everyone was grateful that Seaward was still part of the machine.
“It was what I dreamed of feeling,” Seaward remembers of what was going through his head as he settled into the Oxford gig. That feeling, stemming from the ability to fully recover from a horrific injury, is something that returns during each rehearsal, each show, each listen of the new album. “Every aspect of my life had to be ground up,” he continues. “I think every show since then has been another brick in the wall of building it back up to something that resembled what was there.”