Thursday, 22 November 2007

The Ambient Interviews #3 - Sketches For Albinos


I wish you could have seen this. I always loved trains (guilty pleasure), but this was something else. En route to Newcastle to see Amusement Parks play with You Slut! (in a venue that turned out to bear an unsettling similarity to the Phoenix Club), it’s dark as my creaking Intercity 125 chugs in, diverted to the south via Carlisle. I make my way to the end of the carriage and find a pull-down window on the door open, completely open, disregarded. Outside I find the gigantic suburbs of Newcastle crawling by, barely illuminated by oppressive yet inexplicably calming neon, piercing the gloom of the streets I can’t see. I hold my face as close to the gap as I can, the movement washing over my face. I’m listening to Sketches. I suppose nothing else would have fitted so serendipitously.

Something I hoped for (but, in all honesty, didn’t entirely expect) when I started this site was to not only discover things I previously wanted to know, but discover new things entirely.I must confess that, this year, I’m becoming acutely aware that the hype machine is starting to pass me by. I used to have my finger well and truly on the button, as it were – Victorian English Gents Club. I Was A Cub Scout. The Rifles. Captain. Kubichek!. Fields. Tick, tick, tick. These days, it’s not uncommon for me to wake up one nondescript morning to find that some vacuous, charmless obscenity (let’s for the sake of argument christen her ‘Nash Kate’) is shifting units at a rate which makes my toes bleed, and I am reminded that perhaps, there are better ways of doing this.

A breath of fresh air wafted into my inbox one morning as Matthew Collings, having read and generously liked the interview below with Amusement Parks On Fire, offered me a CD. I wasn’t a total stranger to Sketches, as it happens – Amusement Parks play the CD before they start their gigs, and I recalled an enveloping, widescreen sprawl of sound, bouncing around itself playfully without ever threatening to become intrusive. This turned out to be pretty accurate. ‘Red’ by Sketches is the sort of record which seems to defy my words. It just… it just doesn’t sound like anything else. All from one guy originally from a tiny village in
England, who ended up in Reykjavik via America? Clearly, this needed properly investigating.

It seems like you’ve been on quite a journey…

“I grew up in a tiny village in rural Suffolk called Brettenham. There were 100 people there, mostly retired, and no young people, just me and my brother. A childhood in my imagination. I was very lucky in that way. I would hang out in our attic, with my guitar and amp in the cold, because I was alone up there, playing everyday, searching for these 'secret chords' that made up great songs... by then I was convinced that great songs were made up of secret lush chords, that only great songwriters knew. The secret to songs was chords, and these contortious finger positions. It seems absurd now, but when I was 16 it made sense. It also explained why I couldn't write good songs... haha. But everything I do is based around chords full of contrasting and conflicting notes... I spent years playing and building up my own little armoury of chords and ideas on a guitar that I then translate over to other means.

Apparently what I play is all suspended 9th, 11ths, 17ths etc., but I know nothing about music theory and don’t want to, because it stops you genuinely exploring when you know how a system works. I don't know why this and this note works together and what to go to next, all I know is that it affects me emotionally and I have a tiny inkling of where I want to go next. Otherwise it's all unknown. So that was my legacy of growing up in the middle of nowhere. Also romanticising bands and films, soaking up every tiny details from videos, live gigs on TV, radio shows... my idea of a Friday night back then was watching Radiohead's ' Meeting People Is Easy' twice (which is still totally amazing). Then I went to uni in York. Then I moved to Iceland 3 years ago. That's when the magic really began...”

My journey with Red certainly wasn’t linear… I find there are some records where it is almost a disservice to conclude that one “enjoyed it”, “it was good”, rudimentary sentiments of the like. Like the best records, re-evaluation with Red is not optional, but almost obligatory to let it simmer, to let the slow burn release. On first listen I thought it was a very melancholy album indeed, perhaps leaning towards one specific emotion that seemed to undercut everything else on offer. Repeated listens, however, seemed to uncover more; more subtleties, far, far more complexity of intent. Some parts started to feel euphoric, intentional or not; the last minute of Jól, the opening of Lotta...

“I listened to most of Red last night for the first time in ages. There are some tracks that I don't really like anymore, or that don’t really grab me, but the whole thing is still very emotional. It's interesting that you say those are the euphoric ones... they are in places, but in general I think those two are very tragic and sad. The whole album is trying to be euphoric, but tragic. I find Daniel Likes Birds euphoric, in that arrangement, but I can play it another way, much slower, and then it sounds very very sad indeed.

Red was the music I made during the best year of my life. I experienced so many things, mostly euphoric, then turning vicious and tragic. The Hustler (the first track) is like that in that it's bright and euphoric in places but vicious and horrible, dissonant and quiet all over the place at times - because you can only go so far without crashing... and it's only a tiny step away from this intense joy I experienced at the time.

The first part of
Crows, Lights [And Melody Loops] seems brighter to me, and then it turns on you later. I was obsessed with Godspeed at the time, and there's a track on Lift Your Skinny Fists, the 'second one', which is still part of track one because it's 20 minutes long, called Gathering Storm, that is so bright and hopeful for so long, then suddenly it turns on you and steals all your hope away. I guess I was trying to imitate that, and also to do more than one emotion in a track that is under 20 minutes... it's easy to do 'happy' or ' sad', but to do both at the same time is a real challenge - but also what you can actually experience (at least for me). One is never far from the other really. I mean, people's emotions don’t really run for such a long time in such a focused way, like 'I'm happy now and will be for the next week'. It's more about trying to capture that melancholy that sits under the surface, like a balancing threat to everything you do. I can be in a very very contented moment in life and pick up an instrument, and always this sad sound leaks out... I guess that’s what I use music for.”

This all seems a million miles from the now infamous video of Sigur Ros slouched around a radio talk show spluttering out one word answers with great reluctance.

“Sorry if all this is sounding either very silly, heavy handed or pretentious. I'm just trying to explain something that I haven’t really had the opportunity up until now to do really, in this way... and I'd rather try than do a Sigur in that video... remain uncomfortably silent...with yes no yes no”

If you fancy a good squirm, as it were, the mortifying video on question is here -

On the subject of Sigur, It seems to me that Sketches managed to walk a sword of sorts with Red. It doesn’t stray into territory of your typical "icy Icelandic", instrumental introductions (Jakobinarina anyone? Oh…). On the other hand, with tracks like Jól especially, there is something bolder than avoidance going on; it seems to be taking the cliché of the "twinkling piano like icicles" and, if you like, inverting it back on itself. Music For Airports with a lot more context. It sounds like what you might think would come from
Iceland, whilst at the same time managing to sound nothing like that at all...

“I think it's all about trying to avoid cliches. I love Sigur, and they've changed my life in various ways really, but to rip them off is pointless. I'm trying to synthesise my favourite bands together with this sense of... mystery, loss, hope, and this massive beauty I experienced when I was a kid in a choir. I listened to a piece we sang a lot when I was 13 maybe, called 'The Lamb' by John Tavener. It broke my heart. Sooo beautiful. And singing these things in a huge church every week had a big effect on me. My favourite day was Good Friday in the choir. There was this huge tragedy in the air, and silence. You would finish singing a piece written by a great composer to express the loss of the son of god to the world, then everyone would sit in silence as you walked from one end of the building to the other by candle light, which probably took about two minutes. That's very powerful. When I heard Sigur Ros for the first time when I was 17, it sounded like that to me, and I hear that in many bands... Godspeed, Stars Of The Lid, MBV, Joy Division... Steve Reich, Ligeti, Arvo Pärt. All this stuff is like coming home in some way.

A lot of my favourite music also is about similar emotions. My favourite painter is Mark Rothko and he said the only things worth expressing in art are romance, tragedy and death. Intense....hmmm... The Rothko room in the Tate Modern is like that... these deep reds and purples, in layers and layers of paint (I hate things that sound thin, I want them to sound thick and heavy like elephant skin, like those paintings look). He wanted people to go there and 'get sad'. There's a lot of music that does that too, and I'm trying to add to it I guess.

Iceland also feels like home in many ways, but there is no such thing as an 'Iceland sound' despite what people or journalists might think. The wealth of bands and genres in that place is mind-blowing, but there is the size of everything. Even in Reykjavik, even downtown, you see the sea and mountains at the end of every street almost, it just makes you feel like you are a tiny piece of nature and are free because you exist in this huge space in(to) which you can do anything. At least that's the way people seem to look at it - feed off isolation positively. Well, no-one's going to hear what I do anyway, so I'll do it for me. I can't possibly lose. I get that kind of attitude from 101 Reykjavik (the downtown area).

I love twinkling pianos, and Jól is like me trying to rip of
Vaka by Sigur I guess, subconsciously. But I want to distort and destroy these things too. Sometimes I think the most expressive thing in the world is noise, pure uncontrolled noise, like in some Sonic Youth tracks when the mad abstract guitar freakouts are more expressive than all the rest of the song. Or the fact that from there, they then go back into something digestable, almost rock, almost pop sometimes, and then back again (I love Tunic from Goo a lot...).

I could play everything on
Red on an acoustic guitar, but it wouldn't mean anything because we’ve all heard that a million times. I want to claim the process as my own, shape my ideas into a special shape and colour so they are more personal. I mean, if you hear a band that has just ripped off, say, Sigur Ros's bowed guitar sound, or Boards Of Canada's lush melodies plus hiphop beats, you’re like... “aaah rubbish”... because it's not them playing, it's Jonsi or BOC, and a mere imitation of them. Nothing like that can even be truly personal, I think. Besides, I believe that people genuinely want to hear something new and original (not that I'm claiming that's what I'm doing so far). like in Walk The Line when the record producer says to Johnny Cash 'I've heard that song played that way a million times... I want to hear the song you'd play if you were dying at the side of the road, with only enough time for one song to sing, to tell God what you felt about your time on this earth'. “

How difficult was it learning Icelandic? I tried to learn Danish and have made so much non-progress it's actually pathetic...

“I didn't find it that difficult, but only because I had to learn and I was surrounded with it everyday. Being musical helps you do all the weird sounds and roll your rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr's. But to speak it perfectly would probably take me 5-10 years. We'll see. Nothing to be afraid of.”

What do you make of America? I've been twice and have done outrageously touristy things in New York and LA but I really have nothing but praise for it. People who actually seem to have character and enthusiasm about them, some terrific iconography... did I fall squarely into the tourist trap with this?

America... have you read 'America' by Allen Ginsberg? That's very funny and poignant. But yeah, there is an amazing kindness and decency to many Americans and the country itself is also beautiful. They have always had an idiotic government though that is not interested in educating people or providing for them, unless they are already rich and privileged or somehow kick and squirm their way there. It's also interesting talking to bands who tour across the States and say, there are just parts of this country where the people who are interested in you are such a minority that it's almost not worth bothering. Instead they love country, the bible, and George Bush. I like America. It's mad but I like it that way. I mean I live in Iceland, and you have to been pretty nuts to stay there.”

My interpretations of the songs, as it turns out, are sometimes wildly at odds with the intent. Timo Átti Afmaeli í Dag, the closing track, is what I took to be a rather difficult, harrowing track. It's almost like one is being thrown deep into someone's world, a scratchy, overlayed phone call distracting from the piano buried beneath it - you're almost obligated to listen; the piano line ceases to register. Is it a bit more innocent than I'm making it sound?

“That was actually a present to by best friend for his birthday. The title is in Icelandic and means 'It was Timo's birthday today'. The voice is one of our friends talking about him and what he was like in school in Germany. It was meant in an innocent way, a song to him and also to the girl who read those things... as some funny recollection. I was in an intense mood recently and heard it and that track struck me like it was made for a funeral or wake; that this person was dead and gone and these were memories of him.

I guess I'm always trying to make things innocent and people think they are harrowing, or vice versa. But I never want to make anything that simply is 'innocent', because what makes it innocent is the threat around the corner ready to take that innocence away. You're innocent when that hasn't come yet, but it cannot exist without it. You love someone but are still scared that one day they will leave, or die, and I think that's what makes these moments so intense and powerful. In the same way, something can be utterly devastating or tragic but unless you see it positively you will never truly get over it or be rid of it. Maybe that's philosophising it too much.”

Crows, Lights And Melody Loops - percussion is mixed in with strumming of an acoustic, you can hardly tell which is which, each part floating in and out depending on your concentration... whilst not exactly the same, I'm reminded of Sometimes by MBV - jarring, edgy. Immediately a piece that stands out…

“Yes, I love MBV and Sometimes a lot. I always end up coming back to them and am looking forward to seeing them play live next year... like I say, a lot of what I do is about these jarring contrasts, because I think they are everywhere really. If Sometimes was just an acoustic guitar, then it would be a good song, and would be very nice. But when that same lush acoustic guitar part is played hugely and violently and loudly through god knows how much amplification, then it takes on so many other qualities that it never had before and suddenly makes it a great song. Kevin Shields came up with that 'glide guitar' sound when he was 25. He'd been playing guitar for 10 years and he wondered what the hell he'd been doing the rest of the time. That's what we all love him for, that ability to take a song to another ethereal level that we'd not heard before. He could have done Ecstasy or Strawberry Wine all his life but we'd never have been talking about him now.

I love it when things get all mashed up. I love combining things and chewing them up with a laptop to bring on something new. i was heavily into this Boards Of Canada 'Twosim' sound too - of battered tapes, where things naturally stick together or become imperceptible because the tape's been used a million times... a lot of my stuff is recorded using an old dictaphone on tapes I've reused a hundred times.”

What do you make of the whole MBV reunion anyway? As unspeakably excited as I am (4 nights in a row in London, might not be able to hear too well/at all afterwards...), I'm almost nervous about confronting all the myths, all the things I've read, all the stories face to face... music becoming legend. Rare, I think...

“I like the idea of seeing them, although I have no ticket yet... but it seems strange to see considering Shields has consistently refused to do it for 10 years. Maybe he's finally skint. I heard that the Jesus and Mary Chain and Slint reunions were not that hot, so I don't know. If I had a ticket I would go for sure. I want to go... although I expect that these gigs will clear up no myths. No-one will still know how Kevin Shields gets that sound or know whether people will really puke because of the volume or too many beers. But it's good because more people will get into MBV which is a beautiful experience. But there is something about a myth that makes that a band much more appealing, that you will never see them live, and that this record is as close as you'll ever be to them.

It's like that with me an Godspeed. I was not interested in them when they were around, and although they are technically on ' indefinte hiatus', and have not broken up, they'll never play again, so we just have those amazing records. It makes it more personal, because you'll never share it with a huge group of people you don't know. It's like that with gigs when there are 10 people there. I've see some awesome gigs like that. Unforgettable ones, probably the best ones actually. Like when a friend and I would go and see all the indie bands of the day from the NME at uni, and there would be no-one there but we'd know all the songs. There were only 20 people at Autechre. I'd like these gigs to be like that; amazing with 20 people, rather than average with 200.”

My musical epiphanies have nearly always taken place in the live setting, as opposed to on record. I can safely assert that there have been 90 minute sets where my life was simply not the same afterwards. The White Stripes on the Elephant tour, the first time I saw Mew. Stuff like that. I am told that live music is, if not irrelevant, then peripheral for a lot of people. Well, I don’t understand those people. Not a jot….

“I've seen a lot of great live bands or gigs. That Autechre gig was incredible, like the music being torn apart and re-pieced in unknown ways... Primal Scream, Spiritualized, Sigur Ros, Ben Frost, Múm in an Opera House, Ghostigital, Explosions In The Sky, Fennesz, Hot Chip, Interpol in a tent at Rreading before the album in 30 degrees, then like being transported to -30 in New York instantaneously....

I have this fantasy about entering a room and seeing a band on stage playing instruments I recognise, but the sound I hear being totally unlike that, huge and new and alien but beautiful at the same time. That's never happened but a lot of life experiences have really made me totally reappraise a band, or an album, by the gig breathing new life into something. And there is a magic moment about seeing a band you know nothing about and them totally blowing you away from a stage rather than a record. There’s an amazing power to something that you can suddenly dance to or that touches you and you can see where it's coming from... I guess it's kind of magical and yet human at the same time, whereas a record is just magic...You can't hide in a live context either. You have to be confident, helps you cut away lots of crap and focus. And these days it's easy to get a perfect take with all the tools at your disposal... also the idea of going somewhere you've never been and people know your music is pretty amazing really, or that people are willing to turn up to see you.”

So how to go about the challenge of converting Sketches into the live setting?

“The live shows will be with laptop, mixer and then between 3 and 6 guitarists. I'm trying to sort it out so it doesn't matter how many people actually play, because the tour that I'm doing is not with a band, but with the people I know in the area and other bands on the bill that night who are interested in joining in. I like the idea of turning up at a gig and not necessarily knowing who will play with me, and they don't know exactly what they will play. Although it's not improvised. I'm arranging songs that I'd written and recorded entirely alone and then pulling them apart to play live, and doing it in a way that other musicians can contribute but yet what they play is simple and powerful, so they can turn up, have it explained and just go for it; enjoy the moment and the setup. It'll be very minimal, each guitarist playing a simple set of notes or chords for an extended time (between 5-10 minutes) which are brought together spontaneously to create a thick layered sound. So people constantly play even when they are not heard through the mixer.

This is all inspired by a similar thing my friend Ben Frost did with a piece called '6 Guitars'. Every guitarist played a different chord for 30mins, which when put together at various times under Ben's control through the laptop, creating this massive, menacing sound or just using sounds from the laptop directly. Sometimes you would not hear yourself, as a player, for 10 minutes and then you'd suddenly be part of sometime huge... in this looping hypnotic way, where the fact that you were playing was totally irrelevant. It was as if you were just moving along and filling a colour into a painting beyond your control but still part of you. Playing this piece was amazing, a totally inspiring experience. So I'm trying to take that idea in a direction sideways, breaking that idea down into shorter 'songs' and in a more harmonic way.

But most things I come up with start on a guitar. It's the only instrument I can really play well. But the way I look at it is more like a child than a decent guitarist... like, what happens if I do this, or stick this there, or pull this apart, or just play this and not that or retune this or play it with a stick or piece of metal. I love chords, and I hate solos. I'm that type of guitarist I guess. And sometimes I just want the tone of it, not the chord or note or whatever and use a laptop to tear everything apart so what I've played is just luscious texture. About 80% of what you hear on an Albinos record is guitars in one way or another.”

Sketches For Albinos’ UK tour starts in Leeds on the 15th December. I wouldn’t be so hot on missing it, if I was you. Sometimes things are just different. They just are.

Monday, 10 September 2007

The Ambient Interviews #2 - Amusement Parks On Fire


I’m nervous just getting in touch with Michael Feerick to ask for this interview. Even when merely typing my words, they seem to drag, stagger around before my eyes as I try to make them fit into some sort of cohesiveness, to attempt to mirror what is in my head. I can’t make them flow. After all, elegance – true elegance - can’t be forced. Perhaps the raw experimentation has to come before the orchestration.

Drop the clichés about teenage hedonism. Feerick was sickeningly young when he went about the task of constructing an album by himself, but I suppose that’s never really been an issue for me, beyond a mild smattering of what could probably pass for the early stages of jealousy. To cut a long story short; this is another kid, me this time, chatting away to someone who has somehow managed to record a collection of pieces that have come to mean a great, great deal to me. I’m still nervous. I’m revisiting my winter.

How are things? It seems like you've wound down the Out Of The Angeles touring now...

Yeah everyone's well thanks, we've had a bit of a summer holiday. Well, I've been working like crazy writing! We’ve wound down for the time being while we write/record, we're picking it back up in November and going on the US leg, by which time (with any luck) we'll have recorded our new album, which will be weird. We're starting that in Prague in September with Ken Thomas (who's recorded Sigur Ros, Hope Of The States etc). We're really excited and we, well at least I, am getting anxious to start it...

Feerick’s base was Nottingham; another co-incidental point on my list of revisiting old concerns, old images, old homes. Nottingham, Nottingham, Nottingham... a place I loved, despite it’s faults; a disorientating city by all accounts, red brick constructions tightly packed into the grid-shaped city centre. A weird kind of claustrophobia. It’s the kind of place that looked astounding in the early morning sun but which I remember as nearly exclusively framed in neon menace and lurid shadows when it got far too dark, far too early. It had another side, I always thought. The potential to turn nasty at any moment... Is this fair?

Yeah for sure, though no more than in any other UK city of about this size .I think the menace just comes from the fact that it’s a vibrant city, and you wouldn’t want a city any other way. I always find that in the US and other cities abroad, New York or wherever. The menace is what you're attracted to, and Nottingham seems pretty tame in comparison. I always stick up for Nottingham with regards to the bad reputation it gets in the media, as it's total rubbish. But then, our practice rooms were raided by gunmen and all of our gear almost twocked, so now I'm hamming it up and trying to give us that gritty image of coming from some gun-ridden, harsh wasteland; they'll love that in the States!

...although I can absolutely see how tight groups of musicians could build up in what seems to be a fairly densely packed musical setup (venues absolutely everywhere!)...

For better or worse it's definitely got that about it. Although we've kind of been outside of that for whatever reason; maybe its time to re-discover the Nottingham scene, or something...

That said, even going back to the first album, songs like Local Boy Makes God (my joint favourite APOF song, by the way!) sound...well, not especially like what you'd generally expect to find coming out of Nottingham...

I guess not, but then I think of my favourite bands from Nottingham, and they don't really either. I don't think you can ever pin down a city’s sound, especially when it's right in the middle of the country and has so many influences from elsewhere. I think that's what I like about being from Nottingham. if you come from Manchester or somewhere, before you've even played a chord you have a certain identity that might totally be irrelevant. When you're from here, there's none of that, you're just typically British, or something. It bodes really well for us abroad, as nobody's been here or knows too much about it, besides Robin Hood and such, and that’s not exactly too up-to-date! Saying that, the title 'Local Boy Makes God' was taken from a mix tape by a Nottingham band, 23 Jewels (which was the title of the first song on that album), so you can't get much more Nottingham than that!

Out Of The Angeles was very much a product of its surroundings though, wasn't it?

I'm not sure, it's a kind of chicken and egg thing I guess. We chose Iceland because of the kind of record we wanted to make, and the kind of record we made was probably influenced by the very unique place we were. But we were already pretty set on what we wanted it to sound like, and maybe if we'd recorded it in Berlin or Tokyo or wherever, it would have come out sounding exactly the same. I really don't know, it's a weird one, though bits like the secret track I can’t imagine us making anywhere else, especially seeing as it was all down to the sound of Sigur Ros' gear. Maybe that’s it; it was a product of the specific and unique equipment in that studio rather than the emotional landscape around it. Their collection of stuff is pretty randomly put together, but with a logic of its own. That definitely had an effect on it. The desk in there has a really unique sound too, it’s an old French broadcast desk. That’s probably the most defining sound on the album actually! So yeah, I reckon all records are a product of their surrounds in lots of subtle ways, but that’s not to say that the overall vibe wouldn't be there anyway, or something...

I want to know if this decision made in the interests of atmosphere led on from being into the head-spinning, slightly culty Icelandic output of Mum, Amiina, Sigur... Bands that set about immersing one in their own fairytale. Very singular, but ultimately incredibly rewarding.

Of course, I'm big into that stuff. And their material started to make a lot more sense after going to record over there, in quite a profound way. I was surprised how obvious it was. Within a few days a few of us would just be sat there with these gorgeous little instruments in a world of our own, as if hypnotised by some pixies or angels, contently playing together these sweet and innocent melodies, then we'd have to snap ourselves out of it and remind ourselves we're supposed to be making a ‘brash British rock album’!

The self-titled APOF debut was, slightly bemusingly, picked up by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow; known to be mostly apathetic towards rock music. How is he?

He's a great guy. Thats really all there is to be said!

Do you get all the My Bloody Valentine comparison nonsense any more? Does it bother you, or did it ever?

I dunno, not so much the comparison to them, as they are awesome obviously. It’s just the laziness of the label, as if we consciously thought "right guys, lets do some kind of My Bloody Valentine thing here". That is, of course, not how it works, but every band gets that. The music press at large (obviously excluding present company!) really don’t get that they are seperate from what is going on musically, and just kind of lamely commentating on what they think is happening at the time. Every band gets this kind of trivialised explanation of what they are in relation to other established bands, when what they're doing is infinitely unique and personal. That doesn’t apply if you're the Kooks or James Blunt or whoever, which really frustrates me. Though when you're ‘pop’, it weirdly has the reverse effect because the people buying these records are total airheads. It’s actually the way it should be, in that it’s just that inexplicable wonder of you liking the noise coming from the radio, and not knowing why. That’s why I don’t want to be in some elitist, vinyl loving pretentious art-band any more, I want to make a pop album!

One thing that strikes me about Out Of The Angeles is the mix between really loud and bombastic (dare I say heavy?) numbers, and then lengthly, almost abstract interludes like At Last The Night. It's something that was on the first album too. It must take nerve...

Nah, not really. The goal was never to sell a shitload of records, if that had been the plan we certainly wouldn't have made the record we did. It's always been about making records that others wouldn't, something unique. I just want to use the element of surprise and playfulness in an album. This is overlooked in ‘bigger’ albums cos yeah, it might freak people out and the mainstream wouldn't buy it. Albums you hear are so often just some singles and some other songs; I wanted to have big rock songs that, without the listener thinking about it, somehow were suddenly ambient noise, not just some songs stuck together; not just for the sake of it.

Amusement Parks live can be quite beffudling. The last time I saw them was back in April, in the grime of the Glasgow Barfly. People In Planes opened up; Mike Feerick was seen grooving in the middle of the dance floor before APOF took the stage late to open with an apocalyptic Out Of The Angeles. It was by far and away the best gig I’ve seen in 2007 (the closest competition being Arcade Fire and Porcupine Tree supported by Pure Reason Revolution, but neither of those had the history, the expectation, the devastating fulfilment). I stood, quite often with my eyes shut, having some fucking crazed visualisations to the music; an hour-long set of dissonance and feedback melted into itself, songs prolonged, faster, louder. If this sounds crazy, I don’t really care; it is my meditation music, music to just go somewhere else with.

It’s hard for me to imagine this, though I love the idea, being sucked into an ethereal, timeless netherworld when you're drinking a warm carling in the Cardiff Barfly or wherever! I guess we demand a lot of the audience, but with the hope that you can get more out of it, you have to be willing to come on the journey with us. That’s also why I understand people not being into it. That said, I like the idea of people who like more straight, poppier rock stuff to appreciate it on that level too, maybe as a kind of more interesting twist on what they usually listen to. But supposedly the key to failure is trying to please everybody...

One track that particularly fascinates me is Cut To Future Shock... it seems a very vicious number, one of the loudest things I've probably ever heard, all those layers. It's almost like sensory deprivation, I can completely lose track of the beat listening to it through headphones sometimes...

Yeah we were into that, the idea that the mix doesn't have to be the traditional set-up. Something can come in and totally blow everything else away and in this case it’s the guitars taking over everything else so you have that feeling of... what’s the musical equivalent of weightlessness? We thought it would work as the beat is already established within the song, it’s kind of drilled in so you subconsciously have it going on in your head. We thought we'd get away with that mix; again it's all a means to an ethereal end, not some kind of BBC Radiophonic Workshop experiment in making people feel like they're experiencing 'a dreamlike state'... I do listen to ambient music though, everything in good measure!

Any recommendations for bands that people should have heard of, but won't?

SWIMMING, from Nottingham. John Sampson (who works with us in the studio and occasionally tours with us on a variety of instruments) is the main man here. They really are amazing. They somehow blend gorgeous, organic electro sounds with wonderful rocking guitars. It has to be heard to be understood...

PILGRIM FATHERS, also from Nottingham. They're hard to describe. They're heavy, psychedelic and fantastic!

SKETCHES FOR ALBINOS, Matthew Collings is from Reykjavik. Beautiful ambient bliss

How's the new APOF stuff sounding? Have you had a progression in mind, or is it a less mechanical process than that?

It always feels like starting again, I think it has to for it to sound and feel fresh and exciting....


As hopelessly trite as this must sound, it really was a big, big deal for me to be able to interview Michael. Every once in a while, something serendipitous happens and events ocur that change things, change things for good. That's really all I have to say.

"All you've ever known is what they told you."

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Ambient Interviews #1 - Cheer


My first encounter with Cheer was, initially, a quite deeply bizarre experience. Opening for the lifesaving Icelandic minstrel collective Amiina in Glasgow, he came, lackadaisically picking away at his guitar, only half facing the audience, output soaked through unobtrusive layers of delay and shimmer. Here's where I come clean; confess. I thought he was a wandering Scandinavian roadie tuning up for the entire duration of the first number.

Then came the applause.

It occured to me that this was, clearly, something I needed. Such effortless lack of nerves, such determination to carry this drifting, delicate set of lost songs, and carry them with confidence, grace. It was a seamless exercise in the subtlest kind of audience manipulation. I can confidentally claim that, intentional or not, this was indeed a prevalent effect of the performance because, as far as manipulation goes, I found myself immersed, swallowed up. It was a study in the possibility of only half-consciously absorbing the set.

Really, though. In the process of coining the very term 'ambient music', Brian Eno wrote in his sleeve notes for Music For Airports that what he was doing "must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." On recorded output, this is one thing. Transferred to a live stage, this seemed to me to be another matter. So this, then, was my introduction to Cheer.

The most engaging aspect of seeing you play was being in the middle of the drone of conversation, which was half the volume during your set as it was the second after you finished. You could hear everyone's voices rise directly after you'd gone off, which I thought rather fascinating...

"Yeah, I noticed that too. Some people would get pissed off that people are talking and so not concentrating on the performance, but after playing for a while you realise that it's not really that important. When I record stuff, most of the time I add a context to the music, like motorway hum or bird song just because I like the sound and it fits with the feel of the music, so the drone of conversation is fine with me. I think mostly people are considerate when someone is performing, and I was the support guy and pretty much an unknown. I think it's better that people feel free and are relaxed enough to chat; it's almost a sign of acceptance."

Your music seems to be absolutely the opposite of what you'd generally expect to find coming out of Glasgow - I personally think it has a fairly icy Scandinavian feel to it (which is why your support slot with Amiina was perfectly judged - I really thought you must have been a mate of theirs from Reykjavik at first!)

"Well, I was born on the island of Orkney, which has a bit of Scandinavian history tied into it (something to do with a Viking princess and a guy called St Magnus being a martyr I think), so maybe its something to do with that.

I love that child-like innocence that most Scandinavians have: nothing is forced, its totally natural thing they're doing, exploring the sounds they make. I guess I've always been inspired by that kind of intuitive way people make music. I love it when you see somebody pick up a guitar for the first time and you hear the sounds that they come up with. So if there was an element of that in my stuff then I'd be chuffed.

I went to Copenhagen a couple of years ago for a weekend, one of those cheap flights deals from Easyjet or whoever. It's a beautiful place with great food. I didn't have any money when I went because I was a student bum, although I would love to go back."

A fairytale, perhaps? Further investigation into Cheer's recorded output reveals a richness that belies wonderfully the limited setup. A particularly rewarding facet is the tendancy to lean more towards expression rather than drone, to storytelling rather than raw experimentation. This, I have always thought, is seen most on the collection of pieces that comprise Night Map, an intense, folky record that, as were my expectant suspicions, reward both attentiveness and the idea that one can switch off, let the music wash over you. Narrative, then?

"I tend to record stuff and then group it together depending on how it sounds, makes me feel, or reminds me of a certain time etc. I think that this is probably me just trying to make sense of the sounds I've recorded; in a way I'm self-categorising the music in my head in the hope that if someone else hears a CD I've made, they have a idea of what I'm getting at. I like things that tie together. The best thing about music is its abstract nature and its way of creating an instant impression. I love the fact that people can take different meanings and impressions of what I've made."

On the offchance, I mention a guy from Copenhagen called Symptoms whilst we're on the topic; purveyor of relentlessly bleak half-hour long slabs of non-music set to striking films. The parallels seemed fair.

"I've never heard of the guy; I used to make videos to some of my tunes though, I love playing about with the combination of video and sounds. From the looks of it his stuff is way better than what I was doing."

How important do you think music such as yours is today? Is it even important IF it's important or not (as it were)?

"The importance of it depends on the person looking, but for me the more people making music without the wish of fame and the stroking of ego, the better! Music should be just about the sounds and how people feel connected to it. One of the best things about the internet is that people like me can be heard by folks at the other side of the world; there's so much good music out there that just waiting to be heard. It just depends if you have the time to look and find it."

I ask about John Peel. I once met a rather splendid chap who swore that 'indie' music, in the truest sense, died the day Peel did.

"I didn't do a session for Peel, I would have loved to. I was a big fan of his show(s). I don't think BBC radio hasnt recovered since; they ditched Mixing It, which became my favourite after Peel. Luckily Maconie's Freak Zone and Late Junction are still about.

The amount of people who are now self releasing stuff using Paypal shows that people aren't sitting about waiting for someone to take notice of them and getting there stuff out there, and also there is so many good netlabels and labels starting up all the time. I think independent music is in some ways more 'independent' thanks to the internet."

Is your solo work a conscious effort to be the polar opposite of the idea of 'being in a band'?

"The stuff I do, I've been doing ever since I first bought recording equipment about ten years ago, so its not really a conscious effort. I love playing in bands; it's one of the best things ever, being on the same wavelength with a group of people working and bouncing ideas off each other to achieve the same thing. But in the same way I like playing about with different ideas, sounds and approaches by myself more just because its great fun. I used to work in a record shop so I know classification is needed, but I think most of the stuff I do is pretty ambient/down beat/ acoustic or whatever. I have done other stuff, but I think I tend to like the calmer stuff- it fits better with me."

As for record shops, are their days numbered now? Avalanche in Edinburgh recently closed one of its two shops, Fopp is it just a sad case of them being picked off one by one?

"I worked for HMV for 3 years on Union Street in Glasgow. It was the first HMV to open outside of Oxford Street in London. It closed due to the rent running out on the building it inhabited, I think. It was falling apart anyway (the building was in need of some kind of super renovation); I left 6 months before it shut to get back into education. It's a real shame about Fopp; it was one of my favourite record shops. One of my friends worked there and is now unemployed. I hope they reopen a couple and it gets back it's feet."

How was working with Dom Dixon? Rain-Cloud seems like a truly effortless album.

"Well I've been mates with Dom for a couple of years. We get on pretty well so it's easy to make music together. That CD's actually a collection of the better tunes from a heap we recorded over the space of a year. We're in the process of recording new stuff, which is always great fun."

Benbecula was a label I only came across very recently. It seems to be an absolute haven...

"Yeah it's a quality label that getting better and better, a great mix of stuff. One of those labels where I haven't heard anything I didn't like."

One thing that has always quietly baffled me is how one goes about WRITING a piece of music like, say, Autumn Stare Out off Cheer's latest Red Walk record (released back in April this year on Drifting Falling); a glorious, hesitant, sweeping tune that seems to subtley split itself into two halves, meandering along with real purpose. There's the matter of such composition, let alone a whole albums worth...

"Well, I imagine it's similar to attempting a short story or drawing a picture. I tend to play about until I find something that interests me, and then I expand on it. For me there is usually something that sparks off my imagination and I work on it til I think its finished. Sometimes the spark gets lost and I have to give up and start something else."

Is what you do more influenced by growing up in an isolated community, an escapist thing from living in a fairly hectic city later on, both, or something else entirely?

"Yeah, both, I think. Where I'm from up north there wasn't much to do, so I found various ways of amusing myself in music and making pictures. I'm quite a fidgety type of person, I always have to be doing something. So being in Glasgow hasn't really changed the way I go about making stuff; in some ways I haven't grown up. I just have more things I should be doing!"

I venture something that has repeatedly bothered me recently, wondering if there's much basis in it. My visits to Glasgow of late have been peppered with some strange incidents; getting into a fight with a middle-aged Rangers supporter on the train who was too drunk to sit down properly and then thought it prudent to hit a 16 year old in the face. Watching scores of early-to-mid teen goths queue up in an orderly fashion for early opening nightclubs in the blazing sun of the late afternoon whilst the local neds congregating on the corner of a McDonalds looked on in bemusement. I think Edinburgh is fairly duplicitous as it is; what about Glasgow? Is there really as much of the tension there as I think I sometimes detect, or is it just standard urban protocol?

"Well I dunno, I think it's in only the centre of Glasgow that really has the tension you speak of. If you hang out in the west end or in the south side you'll get very different perspectives.

The first ever time I came to Glasgow I stayed with a friend and we watched from a third floor flat window what could only be described as a riot outside (glass bottles being thrown I think qualifies it as a riot), and it was like "So this is Glasgow!!" So in some ways what you're saying is fair to certain extent. Every city has it's own tension, it's just more obvious in Glasgow."

What sort of music do you typically find yourself listening to? Quite often you find that artists have a great fondness for bands that are the opposite of what they themselves do - I think Kevin Shields was seen at a White Stripes show last month...

"I tend to go through periods of listening, like for instance last summer literally all I listened to was Yes's Close To The Edge and Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon as I found them cheap on vinyl at the local Oxfam record shop. I love the whole process of listening to stuff on vinyl. About a month ago I was listening to nothing but The Cure and Harold Budd. I like a lot of stuff ranging from new and old jazz and classical that I have found on vinyl, to contemporary stuff on Kranky, Type, Drag City, and of course stuff on Benbecula and Drifting Falling."

Any recommendations of artists that people really should have heard of but won't?

"Genaro's new record is amazing - though I think everyone will know about them soon enough. The Rachel's and Empress should be more popular than they are, Noma and Vom on Kovorox also. There's a lot of stuff out there waiting to be found."

Where is Cheer going now?

"Literally I'm just about to head to Carluke for the day to do some recording!

But yes, keeping busy- I've finished a collaboration with my friend Alistair Crosbie called Standard Procedure in The Hours Of Darkness which should be out through his label Lefthand Pressings mid-August (as you can guess from the title it's a bit different from the stuff I usually do!). I am currently recording a heap of new stuff for an EP, and maybe another album as I've just graduated (am now a master!) so I have some time before the gloom of full time employment gets me. Hopefully I'll play more shows - and oh yeah, I'm trying to learn how to play the fiddle. It's harder than it looks. Hopefully that lady downstairs won't complain too much!"

I should imagine that the complaining might, in any case, be half the volume as usual.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

The Loom

The internet is a funny thing.

It provokes demand, demand to be heard. There is outrage when no heed is paid, outrage when a quick-fix culture doesn't instantaneously get anything and all it wants.

In amongst all this, it is easy to forget some fairly extraordinary possibilities. Possibilities to talk, to understand, to ask questions to people you'd, perhaps, never otherwise know. Possibilities to connect.

My aim for this project is to try and use the net - use it for something, as opposed to being forever content to leave it as just something that I do. Infomania breeds complacency.

So, this is it. This will be a semi-regular project, but one I hope will be of interest, one I hope in which I can succeed in my aims of tracking down people with warped ideas, people who visualise their nothing, then create it. And then I want to ask them things, tell them things. And then, in the end, I hope to be able to write the discussions here.

In Music,