Meet Night Flight: the London four-piece blending George Harrison-esque songwriting with Malian influences

Drawing on their love of Laurel Canyon-era records, lead-songwriter Sam Holmes and guitarist Harry Phillips discuss taking a sympathetic approach to playing guitar and the influence of a 1960 Silvertone U1.

What first inspired you to pick up a guitar?

Sam: “To be totally honest, at the beginning it was definitely to impress girls. I’m sure everyone says that, but it is true! I stuck it out because I fell in love with writing songs. I remember in the early days I purposely didn’t listen to any other music because I thought that would make my writing truly unique, let’s all be thankful I didn’t record any of those songs. From there I discovered the likes of John Martyn, Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley and I was away.”

Harry: “I can’t remember what first inspired it honestly, but the inspiration to keep going with it came through the addictive properties that learning guitar has, and quickly starting a band at school became a priority, so getting better seemed crucial. Girls and wanting to blow minds at school shows with Guns ‘N’ Roses covers had something to do with it… My parents still coveted guitar bands which I’m thankful for; Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin were always there in the car to be in awe of.”

Your guitar work combines the melodic intricacies of The Band or Kurt Vile with the driving nature of Laurel Canyon records. Can you tell us more about your influences?

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Harry: “I think the influences change with each song and whatever we’re listening to at the time. We know what we don’t like more assuredly than what we do like sometimes, and that helps steer the guitar playing away from anything too conventional or showy. We try to take a songwriter’s approach to every instrument really, so the guitar players that come up in conversation are Elliott Smith, George Harrison, Johnny Marr, Mike Campbell, and then if we can get in any world music influences, Tinariwen or Boubacar Traore. I think reaching for just a rough approximation of those styles can introduce something that sounds different and away from the usual boxes, even if the end result doesn’t sound at all like them.”

Tell us about your main guitar and pedal setup…

Harry: “Pedals change weekly, but for the last year or two the less pedals the better. My go-to is a ’63 reissue ES-335 which is a pretty special guitar, and I bought a 1960 Silvertone U1 in lockdown, which has been a bit of a game changer, with flatwound strings. It has a lot of vibe. Small amps with a good natural break up – or a Deluxe Reverb – never miss.”

What do you sound like and what’s interesting about your approach to playing guitar?

Sam: “I may be biased, but I think Harry is one of the finest guitarists I’ve ever known. His gift of melody and knowing when to play within a song is truly special. He could totally give it all up and be an Instagram guitar whizz, but he’s chosen the noble path of tasteful guitarist in an indie band.”

Harry: “Melodic and sympathetic to Sam’s brilliant songwriting, I hope! Nothing crazy, we like the sounds we hear on records from the 60s and early 70s, so we never stray too far from a bit of tremolo and reverb, with a healthy dose of slide playing. I’m not sure I can answer the second part, but I think our own limitations have helped define the guitar sound. Nothing flash or fast because that’s not something we can really do well, focusing on melody and finding a voice in the track is more important.”

Night Flight
Image: Sequoia Ziff

Your self-titled debut album was released in 2018. Why have you chosen to follow that up with EPs?

Sam: “It’s funny, we still don’t actually feel like we’ve released a proper album yet. Our self-titled LP was an amalgamation of two previous EPs so we’re still all chomping at the bit to get into a studio and curate a full record top to bottom. It’s a lot to do with timing as well – we’ve had a few line-up changes over the years and the band needed to find it’s musical feet before embarking on an album, but I feel like we’re absolutely there now.”

How has your songwriting developed since then?

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Sam: “It’s a lot more collaborative now. When we first came together, the band was very much an extension of my songwriting. But as time has gone on and our bond has grown stronger, everybody has felt more comfortable sharing their own ideas. What I love about our growing musical repertoire is that you can really follow that journey – I don’t feel like we need to hide or keep taking down our old music and starting again for the sake of looking fresh in the industry.”

You’ve recently been working with James Mottershead (Slaves, Jake Bugg, The Magic Gang) on your recent work. What does his prowess bring to the table?

Sam: “James is an unrelenting machine. His work ethic is second to none and it’s very inspiring to be in a studio with him. He’s also been on this journey with us from the very beginning, so if anybody understands us, it’s him.”

Harry: “He has a pretty remarkable and deep attention to detail on tones and sounds, he’ll push to make sure that every instrument has a really unique voice and his knowledge and understanding of how to make things stand out in a mix makes working with him an absolute joy.”

What’s your most memorable gig and when can we see you play next?

Sam: “We were on a bill at Hyde Park with Paul Simon and James Taylor, which was pretty memorable for many reasons. Very excitingly we’ve just announced a UK Tour for this October. Like the rest of the musical world, we can’t wait to get back out there!”

Harry: “We also played a show in Krakow for Off-Camera Film Festival which was a really special experience for us. The sound was great, the crowd surpassed any of our expectations and being in a totally new place and experiencing that together made it pretty unforgettable.”

What song stands out most on the new Songs from Echo Zoo EP?

Sam: “I’m personally very proud of how Canada ended up. I started writing it during the first lockdown last year and it feels really cathartic to finally be able to share it. On the whole though, I’d have to say Something Going On is my favourite – it’s a track that Harry wrote and it felt so exciting to work on from its inception all the way to the studio.”

Harry: “I think California stands out to me as it’s a bit of a departure from our usual approach to songwriting and arrangement, I think it showcases an aspect of our arrangement and musicality that we’ve shied away from in the past.”

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

Sam: “Hopefully sitting on a solid catalogue of songs and records that we can be proud of. That, or reaping the rewards of a one-hit wonder that splits up the band and has me embarking on an ill-advised solo career.”

Night Flight’s Songs From Echo Zoo is out on 30 April.

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