The genius of…any other city by Life Without Buildings |

In 1999, three former students of the Glasgow School Of Art will recruit the singer Sue Tompkins to form the very ephemeral project Life Without Buildings. Although they broke up in 2002 with no prospect of reuniting, the band managed to create something truly special with their one studio release: the brilliant poetic, confrontational and singular Any other city.

Life Without Buildings’ single studio release was slow, both critically and commercially, but that’s not to say the band would have liked to sell millions or gain magazine acclaim. In the handful of interviews the band members have done over the years, they are clearly proud of the album on their own terms and never once express a desire to reform and profit from a retrospective. acclaimed.

Even back then, the band accidentally found themselves facing wider success, immediately indicating that they preferred to do their own thing. In the same month as Any other city was released, Life Without Buildings was placed on the same poster as The Strokes. They later called it “a booking accident”.

Drummer Will Bradley recalled how uncomfortable the band felt with Bill, telling Guide Muso in 2009: “Our label was trying to reinvent itself with an eye for big-time indie. I remember watching [The Strokes] for a few minutes, then I remember leaving… Whatever the Strokes were, in my mind at least, we were a fundamentally different kind of thing. If we were where they were then we were clearly in the wrong place.

It’s telling that, even eight years later, the band were still supporting The Strokes just months before the release of Is this this as being in the wrong place. Given what was to come, it’s the 2000s indie rock equivalent of an accidental booking at The Cavern club in August 1963.” – Bradley’s assessment that Life Without Buildings was “fundamentally different” from The Strokes is correct. As we will see later, Life Without Buildings was not a NME-friendly group, while The Strokes were a really NME– friendly gang.

In the alternate universe where Life Without Buildings decided to become the next big thing in indie rock rather than go their separate ways, they would have quickly found themselves in a rather crowded landscape. Is this thisamong other hits, countless magazines advertised to seemingly declare four guys with guitars and an “le” in their band name “the future of rock and roll” every week, when in reality they were the future of charity shop CD racks.

There was little room for sonic innovation, little room for emotional subtlety. If the industry rewarded bands like Razorlight and Jet with must-have hits, who knows what that would have done to a band like Life Without Buildings. Things were pretty wild on the exam table – even before the taste of retro-rock slightly sour in the mouths of critics.

It’s probably for the best, then, that life without buildings gave us a great album and then disbanded before the mid-2000s really kicked into high gear. They amicably parted ways in 2002 to pursue careers as writers, designers and artists – it was their side project, a hobby that got out of control.

The music itself

Sue Tompkins’ frenetic talking-singing is the core around which the rest of the record revolves. It is undeniably an acquired taste: the NME gave Any Other City a scathing two-star review, saying that “only madmen and immediate family can reconcile with Tompkins”. Even a relatively positive review of The Guardian described her as “trilling like a Tellytubby on acid”, and yet, here we are, in an article titled the album “genius:.

So why? No matter how off-beat you might find Tompkins’ voice, the unique delivery is flawless throughout, and nowhere near as spontaneous as a passing listen might lead you to think. “She’s a genius, but beyond that she has killer timing,” said drummer Will Bradley Guide Muso. “She was never in the wrong place, never on the wrong beat. So much preparation… No one but Sue could explain how she does what she does. She wrote, or typed, with stutters, repetitions, errors and strange gaps already included.

This thoughtful approach to abstraction is unsurprising, given the band’s art school background and the enduring appeal of Any other city testifies to the success of Tompkins’ deliberate approach. His unique voice gives the impression to look inside someone’s head and watch the thoughts being discarded, half-finished, rather than taking the frankly literal path of authentic fake babble. They convey what they can convey in the context of a song: just enough is said, and just enough is left unsaid.

But, listening behind Tompkins’ vocals, the rest of the band (Will Bradley on drums, Chris Evans on bass and Robert Johnston on guitar) deliver a catchy, offbeat sound, a minimalist amalgamation of countless influences. The band is also clearly obsessed with music – across the LP, Tompkins names an eclectic variety of music ranging from Squarepusher to Television.

When the record veers into anxious bends, Johnston and co never ride in over-the-top “panic” moments either – instead, they just match Tompkins’ worried energy. The record’s range of emotions are contained within a steady and driving post-punk rhythm section, beautiful, articulate guitar playing.

The guitar sounds are still clean, but they’re not “pretty” cleans – Johnston’s sound and his playing both have a spiky quality, chords accentuated by high-pitched transients and often shift from dissonant to hopeful in no time. Evans and Bradley’s parts form the backbone, bass drum, and keep the energy high while leaving plenty of room for Johnston to experiment with his own rhythmic accents, often as stuttering and vocal as Tompkins.

The resulting combination of bass, drums, and guitars ends up splitting the difference between the treble-heavy jangle of early post-punk such as Gang Of Four, and various flavors of the burgeoning math-rock sound. The latter charted new ways to fuse discordant disharmony and sepia-toned nostalgia, sharing a healthy Venn diagram intersection with post-rock and emo.

Post-punk and math-rock inform the production – as a whole it’s minimalist and spacious, but by no means lo-fi. Each member has plenty of wiggle room, but there’s hardly any audible dubbing. The band’s only other production, a live album, sounds remarkably similar – the immediacy of four musicians playing together in one room is evident on the record.


The track through which many will discover this record is Leanoverand for good reason. Notably, the track saw a random spike in popularity on TikTok last year, with thousands of videos with millions of total views featuring the track.

It’s not hard to see why it’s gotten the viral treatment, out of all the possible artsy post-punk that might have: Tompkins’ lyrics express a raw, anxious image of a relationship, a worried refrain of “If I lose youblending into a wider wash of snippets of good times spent dancing and listening to My Bloody Valentine. Many math and emo bands – then and since – could easily blurt out introspective poetry about relationship angst over cute guitar refrains, but here the half-finished sentences and looping repetition confer an introspective truthfulness, as if Tompkins really can’t find the words to say what she needs to say.

And yet there is the anxious need to fill the space: his voice does not stop once during the five minutes of Leanover, constantly giving us random thumbnails of a bigger picture, one we’ll never see in full. So in a way it’s perfect for TikTok.

Leanover deserves a closer listen here as it is the best summary of the appeal of Any other city in its entirety. Tompkins’ continuous vocals are reinforced by the rest of the band – the spontaneous feel of his delivery is offset by the way whole they perform – drums, bass and guitar all deliver their parts in time with Tompkins’ slew of breathless lyrics.

The guitar is particularly soulful here, with the rhythm section leading Johnston through fiery, emotive chords. It helps frame the repetitive lyrics as frustrated attempts to articulate the unspeakable, rather than a flood of nonsense — nostalgic progressions bathing everything in a gritty sepia tone, softening the jarring anxiety of Tompkins’ delivery.

life without buildings
Image: Press

Slow burning

It’s easy to see why Any other city became a cult classic rather than a smash hit. the intricacy of the performances and the detail with which they are recorded make them a pleasure to revisit again and again, especially once you’re ready for the vocal approach Tompkins takes. Each listen will bring you more details; more nuance to a guitar or bass line, another interpretation of a text, another brilliant drum part. Everything, including the fact that there was no follow-up, no reunion, brings your attention closer to the music and the unique cocktail of emotions it delivers.

info box

Life without buildings, Any other city (Tug Records, 2001)


  • Sue Tompkins – vocals
  • Robert Johnston – guitar
  • Chris Evans – bass
  • Will Bradley – drums

Standout Guitar Moment:

Young aggressors

For more reviews, click here.

About Joan J. Hernandez

Check Also

Industry Reaction to Stamp Duty Reduction Announcement – Show House

Following the announcement of the Kwasi Kwarteng mini budget earlier today and the inclusion of …