Interview: Anna Meredith

Anna Meredith press 2016 Please Credit Kate Bones - lo resolution
This interview originally ran via The Quietus in April 201
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South Queensferry is a picturesque old town on the banks of the Firth of Forth. Stationed between the river’s iconic road and railway bridges, it’s a realm of blurred and eddying boundaries – between city, countryside and coast; land and sea; history and industry.

Before the bridges existed, it was a ferry crossing from Edinburgh to Fife, and since then it’s thrived on making connections – ancient, modern, geographical, social – and composer / pop alchemist Anna Meredith grew up there.

Meredith, now based in London, has written music for Hong Kong park benches, Singapore sleep-pods, M6 service stations and Suffolk MRI scanners. She’s shared bills with Anna Calvi, James Blake and These New Puritans, versed Goldie in the world of classics, written concertos for human beatboxers, and was Composer in Residence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Her recent BBC Proms performances have spanned a body-percussion magnum opus, collaborations with Laura Marling and The Stranglers (for the debut 6Music Prom), and a Last
Night At The Proms composition, Froms, which was simultaneously played by five symphony orchestras across the UK, and broadcast to 40 million people.

Caught your breath? Her thrilling debut album, Varmints was released last month on Moshi Moshi.

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NM: South Queensferry’s one of those places that isn’t one thing or another – it’s not in the city, nor quite in the country; it’s defined by bridges to other people and places – and I wondered if that landscape is reflected in the sociable, accessible, boundary-crossing music you make…

AM: “Yeah, it’s a slightly strange place to grow up, South Queensferry – in that your postcode’s Edinburgh, I went to school in Edinburgh, most of my mates lived in Central Edinburgh, and I went to orchestras and music groups every night there after school – but I spent most of my teenage years wishing we actually lived in the city. I feel like I spent half my life back then on incredibly infrequent buses. There was this amazing bus that used to go back and forth late from the city centre, it was called the Night Reveller – isn’t that a great name for a bus? You had this kind of Sophie’s choice between either a bus at quarter past midnight, and then there was nothing till quarter to three. So you’d just be sat there, on Waverley Bridge, in your tiny little sparkly dress, waiting and waiting for the Night Reveller. Or the Night Hawk, that was another one. They were always like the seventh circle of hell, those buses, with everyone being sick, winding through all the little rural villages out of the city…”

As much as those nocturnal odysseys sound faintly gothic and grim (and familiar), they also underscore ideas of human contact, and progression, which seem to be at the heart of your work – from your Connect It symphony, which embraced the human body as instrument and orchestra, to Varmints: an album of driving, communal party music.

“Composing can be really isolated. You write the piece, you hand it over to an orchestra, and that’s the end of your relationship. You’re not involved with the performance at all. But I guess I’ve always had this nagging idea that I wanted to be doing stuff with people – that’s why me and some friends put together the Camberwell Composers’ Collective. I’m quite a people person, so it feels pretty weird that I’ve ended up mainly doing this thing where I’m on my own for days and days and days on end, just sitting in my pants and hoodie, thinking, ‘Oh God, I really need to see somebody soon’. [Laughs] That’s why playing in a band, with this record, is so much fun.”

How did making the album compare to your classical commissions, in terms of how you decided on instrumentation – especially with regard to what traditional, or synthesised, sounds you used? There’s everything on there from cello, clarinet and xylophone, to all manner of bombastic, and sublime, electro divinations…

“Everything comes from a really practical place – it’s not like there’s been a guiding artistic principle that’s governed it all. I’m not a craftsman, I’m not somebody who enjoys spending hours finding a vintage synth, or a valve, or whatever. If it can work with really shitty sounds, then I’m happy, because that means the material’s good.
But I’ve also got a brilliant band, so we work with whatever sounds best.”

You sing on Varmints: that’s a new progression…

“Yeah, singing was a bit scary, and it’s definitely a step on from anything I’ve ever done before. But there’s a real accountability thing with this album. I wanted it to tie in with it feeling like I’ve done everything on it, and I also always want to push myself. I can’t think of anything – in a musical sense – where I’ve ever said, ‘Oh no, that’s too much for me’. Or, ‘I can’t do that, it’s too scary’. So even though I definitely do not have the best voice, it is my voice, and that’s what this whole thing is about. It’s honest. It’s not very polished. But that’s how I sing – like a squeaky five-year-old boy. [Laughs] I’ve made that work for me. I’ve got loads of amazing singer mates that I could have used, but I wanted not to make it seem like anyone else. I really wanted to make it clear that there was no-one else behind the record. There’s not some dude behind the scenes, who’s actually doing all the stuff. This has, from start to finish, been my thing.

“And when I’ve done everything, start to finish, I think it’s important to point that out. Hopefully it’s also a good role model for younger girls, to feel that they can do it. Whenever I’m teaching teenage girl composers, the one thing I always say is – don’t be too daunted by stuff you don’t know how to do. Because, having dipped my toe into this whole world, I’ve realised that there are as many factions and preconceptions and problems and rules [in pop] as there are in classical music. Someone, somewhere will always tell you what they think you should be doing. But all you should really be doing is working out what you want to do, and what you can do for yourself.”

You also explore your lyrical voice and language on Varmints. Even the titles seem loaded with poetry, or incongruity – from ‘Taken’s galloping choral euphoria, which feels like it gives us everything (and then some), to the woozy wordless diction of ‘Honeyed Words’…

“I’ve been thinking of titles in some form for years, but it’s been interesting watching how they evolve. I like idea that something’s not quite what you think it’s going to be. And quite a lot of the album track titles are slightly – I dread to use the word steam-punk, but it’s that idea of something being archaic but powerful, or spindly but massive, in whatever form.”

There’s a glorious cognitive dissonance in tracks like ‘Nautilus’, whose title evokes a fairly fragile mollusc, but whose sound is colossal and brawny and blazing with rock-opera histrionics..

“Exactly – and that’s gone on in lots of my classical stuff as well. Like Axeman for Electric Bassoon, where you look at a bassoon player, but it’s wired up to an electric guitar pedal, so – again – it’s that idea that what you see, or what you expect, is not what you hear.”

Other titles are founded on mythology, and memory. I’m sure I once read that your early EPs – Black Prince Fury (2012) and Jet Black Raider (2013) – were named after your mother’s imaginary horses…

“Haha, that’s right – isn’t that brilliant? My mum and her friend, when they were about eight, they thought they were imaginary horses. I’ve known about it forever, because whenever her friend would call, she’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s such and-such – she’s the one from the days when we used to think we were horses.’ So, I’ve always had those names in my head. And now they’re records.”

I love that idea of taking something abstract, or imagined, and making it physical; of creating a monument to a reverie. There are these giant horse-head sculptures near us, The Kelpies, and every time we pass them, my daughter’s fascinated by the fact that they’re what she calls, “Myths made out of metal”…

“Yeah, I love that too. It’s like taking a bit of something and making it whole. I guess that’s a lovely thing about doing this album – and it’s opposed to everything else I’ve done in my life – which is that it actually exists. First of all – and I know every band in the world must have this problem – but, as a composer, it seems amazing to put so much time and energy into something that nobody’s even asked for. That’s a very strange idea to me. Normally, with commissions, people are paying me, and there’s a deadline, and there’s a structure. But with stuff like this, with making an album, you’re living on the belief of the future of the whole thing.

“And now these EPs, this album, are things. They’re objects. Whereas anything else I’ve written is played once and then possibly never played again. All that weird process of building and creating something that’s just a moment in time and then passes on forever is quite a strange thing to get your head around. So it’s lovely to actually make something physical, that you build out of nothing.”

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They’re building a new Forth bridge in South Queensferry later this summer. It promises an original, improved and uncharted mode of forging connections, defying limitations and bringing people and places together. It’s an inspired idea, but not unprecedented. Some of its restless natives have been breaking that very ground for years.

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Interview: Minor victories

minor victories pic
This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in May 2016.

Stuart Braithwaite has been losing sleep. You may not be surprised to hear this, given his predisposition for invoking untold dread as a member of post-rock leviathans Mogwai – from composing for film-maker Mark Cousins’ nuclear meditation, Atomic, to conjuring fearful psalms for undead people (they soundtracked French zombie TV smash, Les Revenants).

But the root of Braithwaite’s nocturnal trauma is more chilling than any ex-corpse apocalypse or Cold War dystopia. He’s been having anxiety dreams. They’re caused by his moonlighting in a shoegaze supergroup called Minor Victories.

This searing, dreamy alt-rock alliance comprises guitarist Braithwaite, vocalist Rachel Goswell (Slowdive, Mojave 3), drummer Justin Lockey (Editors) and his brother James (bass) – not to mention exquisite guest turns from The Twilight Sad’s brooding lodestar James Graham, and Mark Kozelek aka Sun Kil Moon. They release their debut album next month. They play their first-ever shows this week. They have barely met each other.

According to Braithwaite’s recent nightmares, here is how those gigs play out. “I have the lyrics written in front of me, because I do a bit of singing, but they’re too small and I can’t read them,” he shudders. “I try to wing it, but the words are too wee, so I just sing gibberish. And when I look up, everyone’s left, because it’s so sh***.” He hazards a laugh. Still, he’s not alone. “Barry [Burns, Mogwai] had one about Atomic, where all the keyboards just made animal sounds.” Mogwai’slive debut of Atomic – which crashed the UK Top 20 Album Chart last month – is also scheduled to take place this week, to Braithwaite’s mild hysteria.)

Despite the guitarist’s subconscious concerns, here’s what’s rather more likely to happen at this week’s Minor Victories shows: collective swooning, voluble cheering and covert weeping, prompted by a gorgeous, languorous body of work. Despite the songs’ gravitas and cohesion, however, they were created in fragments, in remote parts, and emailed round band members who had rarely, if ever, met.

Braithwaite was recruited at the behest of indie trailblazer Goswell. “I was a big fan of Slowdive when I was at school – I went to see them in the early 90s – and when they reformed a couple of years back, we kept bumping into each other at festivals,” he says. “That’s how we got to know each other.” How did Goswell persuade him to join a band who’d never met, and who were going to make an album without everbeing in  the same room? That’s a pretty big sell.

“It started in a low-key way,” Braithwaite recalls. “Rachel messaged me asking if I wanted to play guitar on some songs she was doing with Justin from Editors.” The plan, back then, was for Lockey and Goswell to record a noise EP. But the collaboration found its own momentum, and course, and before they knew it, they had “seven or eight” songs.

“The first song I got was Out To Sea,” Braithwaite remembers. “That was pretty finished, so I just put more guitar over the top. But then something like Breaking My Light changed a lot as we sent it round each other and added stuff on. That was originally just Rachel and a piano, but when I did my guitars, I realised the song could be a lot longer. So we quadrupled the length of it, and then Justin played loads of mad drums over the top, and then – because it was longer – Rachel had to go and write more words,” he explains. Just like that. “It just all worked.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its disembodied origins, and evolution through the ether(net), notions of being untethered loom large on the album – from titles like A Hundred Ropes and Breaking The Light to searching entreaties on Give Up The Ghost (“Won’t you tell me what it’s for?”) and Scattered Ashes (“Tell me what it’s all about…”)

Did they discuss any over-arching aesthetic for the album in advance? “Not really, but I think we’re all from quite similar independent music backgrounds,” Braithwaite offers. “I’m sure we’ve not all got the same record collections, but I think we’ve probably got similar ideas about music.” (You could probably bet on Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Berlin-era Bowie and The Cure featuring in their collective jukebox.)

One of the album’s stand-out tracks is Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard), a duet between Goswell and Graham that’s so impassioned, fierce and intimate you’d swear they were singing face-to-face, into one microphone. Not so. “They were never in the same room,” Braithwaite says. “I tried to sing that song at first, but I couldn’t sing high enough. Justin’s a big Twilight Sad fan – Editors have taken them out on tour – and they’re really good friends of ours, I’m a huge fan. So we got James in. It was good fun. When he was recording it, Rachel was on Skype, because she was really particular about exactly how the phrasing should be. She’s a very, very particular musician. Probably more than anyone I’ve ever made music with,” he muses. “And it’s totally worthwhile.”

The video for Scattered Ashes depicts a panic-ravaged urban landscape in which cats look set to take over the earth. In a scene redolent of Mogwai’s Atomic, the promo climaxes in a mushroom cloud: a devastating, earthly reminder that laser-eyed felines and pop music are eternally cool, but we’re all just dust. What with that, and titles like Give Up The Ghost, it’s little wonder Minor Victories look set to haunt our hearts and minds. Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.

Minor Victories’ debut album is out on June 3 via PIAS / Fat Possum.

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Interview: Savages


This interview was originally published via Instagram Music in January 2016.

Savages don’t pull any punches. But there’s more to the fist on the London­-based quartet’s new album artwork than that. Adore Life, the cinematic post-­punks’ second LP, is by turns inflammatory, menacing and tender, and if the cover’s fist aloft suggests protest, empowerment and jubilation – and maybe holding something (a person?) tight – then their recent singles further explore the myriad expressions of the human hand. The sleeve for “T.I.W.Y.G”’ is almost a wave, or a letting -go. “The Answer” sets forth a raised palm, like in a classroom.

What is the question? The answer is love.

“The idea for the artwork started in the back of the tour bus,” recalls Fay Milton, who plays drums in Savages alongside Jehnny Beth (vocals), Ayse Hassan (bass) and Gemma Thompson (guitar). “We realised we needed something very personal to the band, and something very human. We liked the idea of using the heart tattoo on Jehnny’s wrist. We wanted something which represented the message and the sound of the record,” she explains. “The fist is such a great icon of strength, positivity, resistance, confrontation and solidarity. The tattooed anatomical heart is the depiction of the pain and reality of love.”

Since they formed in London in 2011, Savages have invoked minimalist, dramatic rock that’s primal yet precision­-tooled. It’s honed by a democratic creative process which, says Milton, involves, “All of us bringing ideas, [and] working and reworking the songs until they don’t even resemble their starting point… like a long four-­way train of thought.”

True to this collective spirit, the visual imagery of Adore Life, and its attendant singles, variously features the hands of each band member. The half-­open palm on the artwork for ferocious rock avowal, “The Answer”, belongs to Milton. “I wanted to try a gesture that was more welcoming than the fist,” she offers. The day before their album artwork deadline, she and Beth had an extensive discussion via text message about the myriad meanings of the angles and positions . “That’s just like us to be over­-thinking things at the last minute,” Milton says with a laugh.

Savages’ 2013 debut album, Silence Yourself, was dispatched with a 36­-line manifesto on its sleeve, and while their their second album cover text is minimal in comparison (reading simply, SAVAGES // ADORE LIFE), its image speaks volumes about its direction; suggests a sense of breaking through, of pushing things – to the limit, perhaps. “We definitely wanted to take all of the elements from Silence Yourself and push them further and in different directions,” Milton nods. “And the title, Adore Life, could be seen as a two-­word manifesto for the record.”

Adore Life was recorded in London in April 2015, a few months after the band played a live residency in New York with a view to firing up (and road testing) their new material on­stage. “The songs really take form in that environment,” offers Milton. “It’s the place where anything unnecessary is cut out, and everything becomes harder and faster. It breathes life into the songs.”

Savages thrive on fan interaction, as their recent, chaotic, crowd­-surfing video for “The Answer” attests. “That was an amazing day,” Milton recalls. “About 100 fans came to the shoot [in Lisbon] and jumped and moshed for 10 hours straight. When we weren’t in shot, we went and joined them, so if you look really closely you can probably see us jumping around at the back. It was like one giant party.”

There’s a photo of those fans en route to make the video, and they look delirious. It’s one of many behind­-the-­scenes images that illustrates Savages’ relationship with their fans. “It’s a two way thing, so we need to reflect that in our videos, writing process and Instagrams,” Milton offers.

And what of the shot of their Christmas party – the four of them huddled behind a couple of teapots? Did they don party hats? Sing festive songs? “Haha, no crackers or carols I’m afraid. Just a lot of laughing.”

There’s an aesthetic theme that unifies Savages’ Christmas tea parties, Portuguese moshpits, promo shots and gripping cover art – and that is the band’s predominant framing in black-­and­white. Is it designed as an extension of their stark music – of their impeccable study in the tension between dark and light (and in-­between) – or is it an austere kick against our frantic, technicolour media landscape?

“It does reflect our minimalist tendencies,” Milton nods. “But it was an intuitive decision, and it’s a look that’s been part of Savages from the start. We became monochrome and monochrome became us.”

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Interview: Chvrches

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An edited version of this feature ran in The Herald Arts Magazine (Scotland) on March 26, 2016, under the heading: CHVRCHES: MIRACLES DONE IN 45 MINUTES…

There’s an old picture of Chvrches where they’re under a neon sign that promises: There Will Be No Miracles Here.

You have to wonder though.

The Glasgow electro icons have dedicated the last five years to conquering continents, roaring their gospel – a rapturous, enlightening doctrine that draws on industrial synth-pop, feminist punk, epic post-rock, dance-floor anthems and immaculate R&B. Their home-recorded second album, Every Open Eye, tore up charts across the world when it was released last autumn (Top 10 in the US, Top Five in the UK, Number One in Scotland); its 2013 predecessor, The Bones Of What You Believe, is edging toward one million sales; and they headline Glasgow enormodome SSE Hydro next weekend – despite having only played around 10 shows in Scotland to date.

Such achievements are extraordinary, if not miraculous, as is their knack for concurrently coming across as stadium-filling international pop stars and a well-loved local indie act. It’s a brilliant trick of the light, or quantum physics, or black magic, or – most likely – ingenious cyber nous. And it’s crucial to Chvrches’ exceptional charms. They’re a grassroots band with global reach.

All of which means that they’re rarely back in their home-town, let alone all at once. And so it is that vocalist Lauren Mayberry takes time out to talk on the phone during a week’s holiday in New York, while her synth-brandishing colleagues Martin Doherty and Iain Cook suggest an interview in a Glasgow pub that spirals into nigh-on eight hours and covers – among other marvels – Wasabi Kit-Kats, reggae, typography; their alleged alignment with cryptic cult The Illuminati; sportswear, capes and Quincy Jones; and whether Lionel Blair invented the pas-de-basque.

Heavy metal looms large, too. “I feel like we’ve spent most of this interview talking about Iron Maiden,” muses Cook about three hours in, and flaunts the band’s cut-throat commercial instinct by shifting the conversation not to Chvrches’ latest single or tour, but rather to his bygone Christian rock troupe, Ephis Dammim. “It’s Hebrew for boundaries of blood,” he says, as a scarlet votive is placed on our table.

“The candle of shame,” says Doherty, shaking his head. “Day turns to night.”

“It’s night-time now,” Cook declares, in what feels like a Kelvinbridge out-take from The Lost Boys. “More drinks?”

In the beginning, there were Chvrches: a secret cabal who were born on the internet. There were few clues in the early days as to the trio’s Scottish indie lineage (Blue Sky Archives, Aereogramme, The Unwinding Hours, Julia Thirteen, The Twilight Sad); there was simply a thrilling synth-dirge, Lies (2012), anonymously dispatched online. It exploded, spectacularly, everywhere at once – Europe, America, Asia, Australia. Its title resonated across The Bones of What You Believe, then rebounded in the opening salvo of Every Open Eye – “Throw me no bones, and I will tell you no lies, this time…”

If their debut was fixated on anatomy (Lungs, By The Throat) and hidden depths (We Sink, Under The Tide), then Every Open Eye feels more outward-looking, and landscape-focused (perfect storms and turning tides; myriad references to leaving traces, drawing lines in the sand, and burying entities – memories? Bones?). There is a sense of distance. Perhaps of letting go.

Taking a step back was crucial for their second album, says Mayberry, down a long line from America. “Having the space to figure out what we wanted to do this time was really important,” she offers. “Part of that, for me, was finding an aspect of the band that felt more comfortable, because although I’m really proud of what we achieved with the first album, it did all feel like a bit of a sh**storm,” she says with a laugh. “I was pretty exhausted from feeling I was fighting my corner all the time” – Mayberry’s righteous take-downs of online misogynists have been well-documented – “and I wanted to find a better more positive way to frame things.

“I wanted to put a bit more distance between the real life and the band versions of me,” she continues. “But I also started thinking – what is it I actually like about being in a band? What is it I like about writing? And I think it’s about communication, at the end of the day.” This ethos is echoed in Chvrches’ Fanclvb community, and in Mayberry’s feminist collective, TYCI.

Mayberry reassessed her approach to performance, too. “A lot of people have a lot of opinions on a lot of stuff – and that can feel quite overwhelming when you’re on the receiving end of it,” she says. “When I had time to step back from it all, I thought, okay, I didn’t do all the things that some people would project [on me] – but how do I want to do it? Rather than thinking – how would someone want me to front the band? It’s a band of three people, but ultimately there is a front person, and I think that rather than getting caught under the weight of that, I needed to think about what I wanted to do.”

The result, she suggests, means the shows they play now feel a lot more fun. “I like being able to play music that we made, that we love – that’s this kind of emotional bass-y, synth-y pop music – but conducting the show like I’m still in a punk rock band. I like that juxtaposition, and it feels genuine to us.”

Like the band themselves, Every Open Eye has a knack for feeling intimate yet universal; for appearing near and faraway at once. (Much of the album chimes with Rebecca Solnit’s meditation on loss and landscape, A Field Guide To Getting Lost – specifically, her chapters on The Blue of Distance.) But, says Mayberry, there was no over-arching lyrical theme for the record.

It just needed space.

“For me, I guess I need a bit of time to pass, so I can think about things to write about and build up a bank of ideas,” she offers. “I’m not really very good at writing abstract narratives about characters. It has to come from a personal place. So then you actually have to have the experiences in order to write about them.

“But I got to the point of over-analysis – I got caught up in wondering what I wanted the lyrical themes on the record to be,” she continues. “And I never approach writing like that. Ever. In the end, I wrote Never Ending Circles in about 45 minutes on a train – it was just a rough stream-of-consciousness thing. Taking a step back like that ended up being the way I wrote lyrically for this record, and that all started with Never Ending Circles.”

Light years (well, three thousand miles) back in Glasgow, talk revolves round that cardinal song – which opens Every Open Eye – as the candle burns. “It was really important to us to try and capture the same dynamic we had on album one with this record,” says Doherty. “Same studio, us producing, same set up. Day one, we all went in, and just like that: Never Ending Circles.”

Cook elaborates. “Day one, Martin walks straight up to one of our new synths and goes – [mimics the album’s ripping, rippling opening hook]. I was like that – ‘Martin, that is absolute shite,’” he laughs. “I came round to it eventually.”

Doherty grins. “I was trying to write the world’s most annoying riff.”

Cook: “It worked.”

There’s a meticulous precision to Every Open Eye – a hi-octane minimalism that evokes the ultra-pop productions of Quincy Jones. There’s plenty space, but it’s never empty. “That’s something that was really in our minds making the second record,” Cook offers. “Minimalism – specifically, Quincy Jones minimalism. There’s not a lot in those mixes. There’s a few elements, maybe four, but it sounds huge. It sounds massive.”

“We were obsessed with that on this record,” nods Doherty. “We were constantly like – ‘Can we take anything else out? Are there any elements that are working against the DNA or the economy of the song?’ We thought we could do a lot more with less this time,” he says. “Sounds and ideas have to stand up for themselves if they’re more exposed.”

For all that, Every Open Eye is full of warmth. “We’re pretty warm people generally,” Doherty offers. “We’re used to being in bands that wrote directly from their psyche. The whole ethos of indie music was about being a human being, and that’s still an intrinsic part of what we do. It’s like we’re a rock band who play electronic instruments. And write pop songs. We’re always thinking of ways to relate to the more human element of electronic music.”

“Because it gets a bad rap for being cold,” adds Cook. “And while pop in general has almost always been regarded as lowbrow, that tide is starting to turn. I think that one of the reasons things are going well for us is because there’s been that cultural shift, in perception, of seeing pop as high art; as art at all. Look at Beyonce. She’s making relevant, gritty, important music, and challenging political norms. Pop music can have depth. Of course it can.”

“The time I realised how extreme that shift was, was when I heard Shutdown by Skepta,” says Doherty. “That song was ubiquitous, and I suddenly realised that counter-culture and the mainstream were converging. Then I heard Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna, and I was like, okay – times have changed. Then, that Weeknd record dropped [Can’t Feel My Face], a deeply subversive, dark song about sex and drugs. That’s the mainstream, man. That’s brilliant.”

“Isn’t that great?” enthuses Cook. “Isn’t that a great time to be making music?

And doing it their way. For album two, Chvrches returned to Cook’s basement studio in Glasgow, where they made The Bones Of What You Believe. “I love that space,” Doherty says. “It feels like home to me now. Whenever we come back, or we’ve got something to do, and we sit in that room, it’s like… snapshots. The first time we sat there, properly, we’d done nothing, and all that we talked about was things that we could maybe do or maybe write. The second time, for this album, we were trying to follow up this perceived huge success. The next time, I don’t even know where we’ll be at, because for me we’re in completely uncharted territory now.

“We’ve already gone past what I ever thought a band who retained total credibility could achieve – and I really feel we have done that, I don’t think we’ve sacrificed anything,” Doherty adds. “We’re getting bigger in front of my eyes, we’re selling more tickets in America than we’ve ever done, we’re selling more records than we ever have. And it’s the same in Glasgow, in our home town…”

The main difference in terms of the studio set up between albums one and two is a redoubled trove of synthesisers. “On the first album, we had three synthesisers, and we stacked them up and did it that way,” explains Cook. “For this album, we were able to afford the shopping list of our teenage dreams. We had it really streamlined, and as a result we discovered a lot of sounds and built new sounds that inspired the music. That’s always been a key thing for us: the technology inspires the writing. New sound, new song.”

“Yeah, and that’s a expensive way to work,” laughs Doherty. “But it was a fortunate by-product of being self-sufficient. We had the budget to record the album, like anyone else does, but instead of spending it on studio time, or Rick Rubin, we reinvested it in ourselves. That was important.”

Bang in the middle of their self-produced record, there’s a euphoric, melancholic anthem called Clearest Blue, whose lyrics give the album its title. It’s bold and bright and exquisite. “Clearest Blue was one of those moments in the studio where you get that flash of light,” recalls Cook. “You can see the crowd, you can see how it’s going to pan out. You don’t get many of those moments in a career, let alone on an album.”

Doherty had a similar revelation as Clearest Blue materialised. “To go from that first day of playing it and jumping around the studio, to seeing 10 thousand people bouncing at the same time to that song at [London’s] Alexandra Palace – that’s serious,” he says. “That’s amazing.”

The day we meet, Clearest Blue has prompted another ardent response – this time in the guise of a YouTube film that suggests the song proves Chvrches’ alliance with an infamous mystic faction. “We’ve just had our first Illuminati exposé online,” beams Cook. “I got half way through it and started believing it myself.”

The YouTube revelation is incredible in its depth and detail, and underscores the extent to which fans clamour to get inside Chvrches’ songs.

“Oh man, totally – that’s a life goal,” Cook nods. “When people start writing about your band in terms of mythology and symbolism it’s like, okay, I feel like I’ve achieved something. And the myths in rock ‘n’ roll are always more interesting than the truth. The truth is, I got out my bed this morning and had a bagel.”

Doherty looks thoughtful. “I think people feel like we’re connected to the internet; that we’re almost synonymous with it,” he says. “And when the lines of communication between us are so short, and so clear, that maybe breeds a higher level of engagement and fanaticism to some extent.”

“It’s that idea of finding a sense of belonging and identity in music,” Cook notes. “That’s something that I grew up with, as a metal kid, but it still exists – bands like Iron Maiden, they go to India or South America and play stadiums, multiple nights. That’s not something I thought I’d ever achieve in any band I played in, that level of dedication.”

Chvrches have long induced such fevered communal exultation – online, in live arenas, and on the dancefloor. As with their debut, Every Open Eye plays out as two perfectly-crafted sides of vinyl – and simultaneously as a glorious 11-track club set. “It was sequenced for vinyl, but I love the club thing, although I hadn’t thought of it before,” says Cook. “I also read that someone’s done a blog about how the album follows the dramatic arc of a John Hughes movie. Maybe there’s something universal about that narrative form.”

It’s a formidable illusion though, conjuring so many distinct narratives in parallel. How do they do it? “I’ll tell you how you do it,” Doherty deadpans. “Eighty or 100 revisions of a tracklist.”

Cook buries his head in his hands.

“Oh well,” Doherty brightens. “On album three, we can relax a bit. We can do whatever we want. I don’t mean this in a flippant way, but a lot of people have successful first albums and the second record, so very often, is a disappointment for fans, or a disappointment for people that the band are in business with, and ultimately it becomes a disappointment for the band themselves. We were obsessed with not making that mistake,” he says. “We had to make sure everything was right and we wanted to put out a great record and focus on the music completely. Now that’s done, the ship is out to sea, so to speak, and we’ve got a genuine career – and we really do feel like we have a genuine career – so now’s the time to have some fun with that. To really explore the creativity a bit more. I think we might even take more than six weeks off between this album and the next one.”

Cook nods. “I might even be willing to relax my 45 minute rule on album three. The double album rule still stands though. No double albums.”

“What about the no shorts on stage rule?” Doherty ventures.

Cook looks through him. “Come on, man. That stays”.

Given their escalating banks of synths, how about capes, a la Rick Wakeman?

“Capes are fine,” shrugs Cook. “I love capes. Wizard hats, that’s cool. But sportswear? Not good.”

Chvrches wear their fortunes lightly. They bear the weight of their pop miracles well.

Chvrches play Glasgow SSE Hydro (with support from The Twilight Sad) on April 2.

Related article: CHVRCHES interview, The Herald, Dec 13

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Interview: Hinds

This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on February 19, 2016.

Don’t be misled by the cervine vibes of Madrid garage-pop rabble Hinds. Their name might conjure Frida Kahlo’s barbed self-portrait, The Wounded Deer, or Goldfrapp’s nascent obsession with antlers, but it was, they say, picked almost at random – a haphazard moniker for a band they thought would never play a gig, let alone make an album.

Yet their debut LP, Leave Me Alone, came out last month to widespread fawning, thanks to their harmonic take on kamikaze rock ‘n’ roll.

We speak while Hinds are on the road – they’ve veered across Europe, the US and beyond almost constantly over the past two years, and won fans from Los Angeles to Glasgow, where they’ll return this weekend for their second sold-out show in the city. Despite their musical travels in place, and in time (they variously invoke The Velvet Underground, Thee Headcoatees, Thee Oh Sees and The Shangri-Las), Hinds are very much a product of the (counter) culture and geography of Madrid.

“I think Madrid is more poor in a way, than Barcelona, the youth and stuff, and I guess that makes us more brash, and DIY, and lo-fi, and punk,” says vocalist / guitarist Ana Garcia Perrote. “I think also the fact that Barcelona is closer to the rest of Europe, geographically, means a lot of big bands go there if they’re playing in Spain – they don’t come to Madrid because it’s so far.” So they do their own thing there. “We grew up surrounded by people who were musicians, or who did pictures. We were like a big band, like 100 people, doing music, doing art.”

Hinds formed in 2011, and then again in 2013: a band so good they made it twice. Perrote and co-vocalist / guitarist Carlotta Cosials started as a two-piece called Deers in 2011, “just for fun”, and played some covers, played some shows, then called it a day. “We stopped because we stopped having fun,” recalls Perrote. “We did this one horrible gig and we were so embarrassed that we just stopped playing. But we kept being friends. It wasn’t such a big deal that the band didn’t work, it was more like – okay, let’s just be friends for a while. And that worked.”

But rock ‘n’ roll intervened in 2013, as rock ‘n’ roll does. “Two years later, we came back from a festival and we were feeling melancholic – you know that way when you come back from a great trip and you’re sad because it’s over? So we started watching old YouTube videos of us from when we played together, and we were like, maybe we should play again,” Perrote recalls. “And when we did, the magic happened again – because we always felt, since the very beginning, that we did something special, even when it was covers. All the things that people seem to really appreciate about our band – the rhythms and tempo changes and singing together, and doing that thing like, ‘Now you sing and I’ll respond’, we always had that. But this time, when we got together, we wrote our own songs.”

Those intervening couple of years are interesting – the time during which Perrote and Cosials were resolutely not a band seems to have been crucial in forging the camaraderie, and musical ideas, which provide the foundations for Hinds’ grrrl-gang charms. “Exactly,” nods Perotte. “When we first played together, we played all sorts of covers – The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, the xx – our taste in music was not defined at all. We were music lovers, but we didn’t really know what we liked. What we discovered in between the two beginnings of our band was all this new music that was young, alive, and about things we thought and felt. It helped us realise we didn’t have to write like Bob Dylan. Now we always try to do honest music, talk about what we feel, scream when we’re angry. And we love that.”

When the band was born for the second time, they were still a duo, still called Deers. Soon thereafter, they welcomed bassist Ade Martin and drummer Amber Grimbergen to their increasingly thrilling ranks. But as they made a name for themselves, they were forced to change their moniker, following a legal threat from an existing Montreal band with a similar name (Dears). “The name Deers had come to us in a stupid way, it was just for fun, it was totally random,” Perrote recalls. “But when we had to change it last year, we suddenly felt so naked. We felt like they were taking everything we had built with that name. So having a name that was similar – Hinds – explained that we were going to be the same.”

While Hinds’ name may have been half-accidental, their debut album title – Leave Me Alone – was anything but. “We take real care over all our songs, and we take a lot of time,” Perrote explains. “And although the title didn’t come with any [particular] song, it was about the whole project, because it’s so personal to us. This started with just Carlotta and I and two acoustic guitars, and then suddenly our team was growing, and everyone had an opinion – some in a good way, some in a bad way. And we understand that we have a label and stuff, and that we have to do things. But the music is ours. That’s just the four of us. Leave me alone for this. Don’t touch that.”

They’re untouchable, all right, these raucous leaders of the pack.

Hinds play Stereo, Glasgow on Sunday. Leave Me Alone is out now via Lucky Number / Mom and Pop

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Interview: Aidan Moffat and Paul Fegan

Aidan on Ferry copy
This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on February 17, 2016.

There is this story that comes from The Bible, or from an old folk song, or maybe from Nick Cave’s album, The Boatman’s Call. It came to mind a few years back, as cult-pop swashbuckler Aidan Moffat sailed, and gruffly serenaded, a party of us up the Clyde. It’s a tale about a life done living, how it passes on to death, as the river meets the sea.

And it seemed an odd myth to recall that night, with all the beer and laughter flowing, but then, amid Moffat’s bawdy laments, he sang a reinterpretation of The Parting Glass / The Parting Song. It’s a bygone folk hymn popularised by our pre-eminent travelling balladeer, Sheila Stewart, whose version plays out like an earthly farewell (“My ship lies in harbour / she’s ready to sail”), and is one of several old Scottish songs Moffat re-wrote against a modern backdrop, for a musical road trip – and film by Paul Fegan – entitled Where You’re Meant To Be.

The film premieres at the Barrowland this week, almost two years since Moffat and Fegan launched their adventure at Finnieston Quay. It’s a beautiful, quietly funny film that explores life, loss, music and (unreliable) memory. And if Moffat’s bawdy raconteur makes for a righteous protagonist, then so too does folk matriarch Stewart, who unexpectedly sang and harangued her way into the very heart of the film. After an early encounter, wherein the septuagenarian firebrand chastened Moffat for daring to upset her folk traditions, (“You’ve taken the context and blootered it”), Stewart took the wheel.

“Sheila was the obvious story to be told,” says former Arab Strap frontman Moffat. “We knew it as soon as we met her, as soon as she ticked me off. And regardless about how she felt about me, she clearly loved being in front of the camera and wanted to be a part of the film – in fact, her attitude was more that it wasn’t going to happen without her.”

Stewart comes across as formidable and wonderful on-screen – deadpan, in charge, hard to impress, and capable of provoking highly uncharacteristic hand-wringing in Moffat. That she also waxes lyrical on her life, and songs, and family – at one point she walks us to their gravestones – is prescient, and profound: only a few months later, in December 2014, Stewart died. She was the last in line of a centuries-old folk tradition that found friends, and fans, in Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl. Where You’re Meant To Be features her final interview and performance footage. This is her parting song.

Did Sheila know she was ill when they met her? “I don’t think she sensed it for a moment,” offers Fegan. “I certainly never got that impression. A lot of that stuff – like the graveyard scene, or Sheila’s stance on her songs and stories about her family – it fitted with the story that we were already trying to tell, which was about the conflict between Aidan and Sheila, over loss, of her culture, of her songs.”

Fegan’s previous work includes the multiple award-winning Pouters (2012) – a short documentary about two doo fleein (pigeon flying) rivals in Glasgow – and the music video for Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells’ 2011 magnum opus, The Copper Top, in which Moffat and Wells take to a loch-side graveyard, clad in undertakers’ suits, to wave off a life lived over the water.

As with those films, Where You’re Meant to Be is warm, poetic and minimalist: birds feature as symbols of liberation and entrapment; water is a conduit for life, and death, and reflection; landscape (be it urban or rural) is cardinal – and sometimes breathtaking – but never indulgent. You could credit Fegan with impact by stealth, but he’s quick to shift the accolade. “The editor, David Arthur, is a massive part of this,” says Fegan. “He made sure we didn’t digress from the story, from the relationship between Aidan and Sheila, and never used a beat more of anything than we had to. He constantly kept everything moving along.” It is moving, indeed.

The film departs Glasgow via the Clyde, and charts Scotland’s remote parts, as Moffat and his band (The Twilight Sad’s James Graham, Bdy_Prts’ Jenny Reeve, axeman-extraordinaire Stevie Jones, composer Michael John McCarthy) perform at folk clubs, kitchen tables and shoogly stages from Drumnadrochit to the Isle of Skye, before coming full circle, back to the Barrowlands.

It never strays far from Stewart’s voice, but there are colourful digressions along the way. They run into feuding monster hunters in Loch Ness, and a barrage of battle re-enactment warriors near Oban. That latter gig, in an ancient churchyard, was particularly memorable: they performed amid tombstones, flanked by a quad-biking crofter and kilt-clad Ramones fan, with mediaeval-costumed caterers serving up turnips, gruel and spit-roast fowl.

It was a late night – there was an ad-hoc ceilidh in a barn, there was 80s-fuelled moonwalking into the dawn – at which point, Moffat was called upon to shed his hangover, don full chain mail, and attend a hillside jousting lesson. “Oh, that was horrific,” Moffat recalls with a laugh. “I was walking away that morning. I was going home, I’d had enough. And then it got cut from the film. Gone.”

You can see him in said battle garb on the cover of the film’s accompanying live album. (He does not look like a happy man.) In another film scene, he’s flat on his back in Loch Ness in a dry-suit. All at sea. “In terms of a subject, Aidan’s the antithesis of the way your average pop star would want to be portrayed,” says Fegan. “I think that’s an important part of the film, Aidan being like that – it allowed us to almost tell an anti-music documentary kind of story.”

“I don’t really care about how I’m portrayed, it never really bothered me,” Moffat shrugs. “The majority of concert footage in the film comes from the [worst] gigs, because they’re the most entertaining.”

They recorded the album live at Drumnadrochit Village Hall, and it features almost all the songs Moffat re-interpreted for Where You’re Meant To Be – including, of course, The Parting Song. “I’d dedicate this song to [Sheila] – indeed, I’d dedicate the whole album to her – but for the fact that she really, really didn’t like it,” Moffat writes in the liner notes. “So all I’ll say is, although I don’t believe in Heaven or spiritual nautical metaphors, I hope she had a calm and comfy voyage.”

He might not think that higher plains or maritime fables hold any water, but Moffat’s words elicit the lyrics to an old Arab Strap song, The Night Before The Funeral: “When I’m going, I’m going the Viking way … lay me in a boat … and kick me out to sea…” Stewart would surely have approved.

Where You’re Meant To Be premieres at Glasgow Barrowland, Feb 19, as part of Glasgow Film Festival, then tours Scotland. The album is released on March 25. www.whereyouremeanttobe.com

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From the archives: Concrete Antenna

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This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in September 2016.

Imagine if the walls had ears. Imagine if the walls could sing. A new construction on Edinburgh’s skyline explores those ideas, and much besides.

Housed within the new landmark tower at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Concrete Antenna is an interactive sound installation from local art / pop conceptualists Simon Kirby and Tommy Perman and alt-folk topographer Rob St John.

Their previous collaborative work includes an emotional robot band (Perman and Kirby’s #Unravel, with FOUND and Aidan Moffat), and a sonic cartography of Edinburgh’s waterways (St John and Perman’s Water of Life), and Concrete Antenna shares characteristics with both.

Its site-specific, interactive, variable sound art draws from, and responds to, landscape, nature and the elements, thanks to a cache of local field recordings and samples, played out through four vertical speakers – from church bells to foghorns; from voices to fork-lift trucks.

Rising 28 metres into the Newhaven sky, the structure features a large rectangular opening that funnels sound – and weather, of course – down to the ground, and out the open doorway. It’s industrial and organic, solid and abstract, receptive and transmissive. The tower serves as landscape, monument, canvas, environment, instrument, muse and lead character. It’s even getting its own album.

Kirby laughs. “I’m glad you said that. I do think the tower has got this personality – it has this weight to it, by being so dramatic, standing up there in the skyline. It’s like part of the team,” he says. “When we were working on the installation, sometimes we thought of it as a periscope, projecting outwards, and other times we thought of it as an antenna, picking up sound. It feels like a place where sound comes together, along with memories and associations of the area. And that’s what we wanted to capture with this – we wanted to bring together sound and memory and place.”

St John agrees that the tower exerted a certain creative control over their work. “When I first saw the plans, what stuck out to me was that it was a receiver, it was in the landscape, it didn’t seem to have a purpose – buildings like that just don’t get built,” he says. “But it was quite uncanny – it was like we knew what we needed to do with the installation, without any prompting from The Sculpture Workshop – the space itself, the architecture, kind of told us what to do.”

For all of its physical signposts and industrial sound references – bygone blacksmiths, gas works, construction sites, railways – Concrete Antenna is equally concerned with space and imagination. It’s in the installation’s gorgeous minimalist compositions, and it’s at the very heart of the way that Perman, Kirby and St John conceived the installation: they created it almost entirely from memory.

“When we first visited the tower last year, it wasn’t finished, and we were only there for five minutes,” Perman recalls. “I think it was another six months before we got back in again. So a lot of the installation was written from our memory, or imagination, of the space.”

Much is left to our imagination within the tower, too: its structure raises questions about what is there and what is not (and what has gone before). In an accompanying essay, Perman notes: “At first glance it has no obvious purpose – you can walk inside but cannot climb up to see what must be an incredible view of Edinburgh from the top.”

For Kirby, this is key to the building’s strange allure. “When you walk in, you can’t help but look up,” he says. “It’s like a magnet. It pulls your head up, and you see that space above. We haven’t been up there, so I’ve no idea what the view is, and in a way that’s nice. It leaves the space for the imagination.”

It’s a welcoming space, too – uncanny, but never alienating. “The installation’s interactive,” Kirby explains. “It detects people approaching – as you approach the doorway you’ll hear a voice – and the idea is that it pulls you in. As you cross the threshold, music starts up very high in the tower, and a sound-scape kind of falls down on you. So it’s got – I hope – this sense of being there for people to discover, by walking in, rather than it just sitting there, doing its thing, not caring about people.”

The tower’s apparent compassion has paid off. Perman, Kirby and St John became so fond of its physical and psychic charms that they decided to immortalise the structure on celluloid. “There was no intention for an album, but when I was mixing the sound for the installation, I got to know the music we’d composed really intimately,” Perman recalls. “I just thought, ‘I love this. It should live on beyond the installation.’”

Kirby nods. “We had to release this as a record, because we fell in love with the project, and with the site. But we thought we’d at least have to doff our caps to a thread that runs through all our work – the idea of not having a definitive version of recorded music,” he says. “So we put a tide table into the package. One side is labelled ‘Tide Out’ and the other side is labelled ‘Tide In’, and the instruction is to look at the tide table and then play the relevant side. By doing so, we’re taking a little bit of control away from you, and also it means you’ll be playing a particular side while the tower installation’s playing the same version. So what you’re doing in your living room is tying you to this tower out in Newhaven; connecting you with anyone that might be in there at that time.”

St John revelled in giving the building, and local environment, creative jurisdiction. “You’re taking composition away from yourself in the best possible way,” he says. “The only non field recording or archive sound is the piano. Everything else is sampled or sourced from sounds in the local area,” he says. “It takes a long time, but you find that from across all these disparate sources – foghorns and ships whistles and YouTube clips and steam engines – you start finding chords and resonances. Everything becomes in tune.”

It’s a beautiful tune at that, from an unlikely star – a brown clay brick and concrete tower, brightening our northern sky.

Concrete Antenna runs Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. A 12” LP box set with art prints, essays and tide tables is available via Random Spectacular.

Related articles:

Rob St John and Tommy Perman on Water of Life (The Herald, November 2013)

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