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.


Dave McLeod said...

me likey. well doen ally. want's to see where all this will go next..

Anonymous said...

Really good job here.
I look forward to future interviews.