Friday, 23 May 2008

The Ambient Interviews #4 - Glissando


A comparison with The Cocteau Twins is always a comparison that should, perhaps rightly, be met with some reservations. I remember my fascination with the Grangemouth oil refinery when a bout of work frequently took me in a car past the monstrous complex, igniting the sky. Suddenly the Cocteaus’ sound made almost perfect, serendipitous sense; having to grow up and live in the midst of this towering, encompassing, sinister spectacle. Ivo, into Lorelei; it ALL made sense, every note, every piece of wash and where it went, where it didn’t go. The sound was inextricably linked to the circumstance, and crucially indistinguishable.

Cut forward a year, with all the change and vibrancy and wonder such a shift in a blink of an eye involves; Elly May Irving's voice swims and soars in a silent, captivated Edinburgh venue, a form of warbling and self-control that occasionally threatens to break loose. Take my breath and keep it safe... Elly is not like Liz Fraser. But on another, more speculative hand, Elly IS like Liz Fraser. Rich Knox acts as an abstractly Robin Guthrie-type figure - cool, in the background, his contribution a crucial base for the serenity on top. Glissando really aren't about peace and calm, mind you - intrinsic in their tunes are recurring themes of fire and flame and impending destruction. Glissando frequently sound NASTY. Things falling to bits, but falling to bits elegantly, gracefully. Which is probably the worst part. “I’m scared they might not protect me…” The lack of specifics is somehow chilling.

Something I've been wondering, toying with. Why is it these artists - the ones who so often attract me spellbound into their dark, shadowy playgrounds - don't WANT a 3 minute pop song? Is there always some deep urge to destroy convention, to map out demons and desolation... or have I been reading too, too much into it all...?

Elly - "I could answer that question in many ways. I don't really listen to pop music as such, and what defines pop music is a debate within itself. I can appreciate when a good pop song has been written but I get little pleasure from listening to pop songs. I personally find they have little substance and provide quick short pleasures for when somebody doesn't want to listen too deeply to music.

The music we write is obviously influenced by what we listen to. I write what feels right and within that the song then defines its own length. I think for most musicians a lot of their writing is of a cathartic nature, and I can certainly say that's true for me. Therefore convention is of little matter to me, I write what comes from my heart and my knowledge of music, I do what I can with the abilities I have."

Without wishing to turn this piece into some sort of pseudo-interactive waffle, here's a teaser. What do the following artists have in common - ABBA, Long Blondes, Fleetwood Mac, The White Stripes, Hole, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine...Glissando...? For bonus points, rank said bands according to to the amount of tension you hear in the finished pieces, and see if this corresponds with how interesting you find them... Is it inevitable, then? Can I really hear what I think I can?

Rich - "I think we have a pretty unique way of working, mainly due to the fact that we've known each other for such a long time and spent the majority of our adult lives together. A lot of what we do goes unsaid when we are writing and playing, there's a real intrinsic instinct within the two of us. There is certainly tension involved in a lot of different ways, things have changed since we have parted and to be honest it's become easier in many ways as there is more space to explore our own minds and we don't take the same personal problems/arguments/difficulties into the studio or to rehearsals. That said - it's the only thing we know and that will never change, now we just have separate experiences to bring to the writing process instead of experiencing everything together."

There's a track which especially bewitches me on the forthcoming Glissando record. Quite how they thought anything could follow Always The Storm, I’m not sure; a sickeningly beautiful wash of strings battling to be heard above fragile piano, which climaxes with Elly flirting with the inevitable line between cliché and divinity, before settling firmly on the right side in her lyric-less singing, and then confirming a definition of ‘astonishing’ with the closing whispering; “You set fire to me, now I’m blinded and I’m free.” Follow it how? By bringing in iLiKETRAiNS’ Dave Martin to bolster the primary vocal line on Grekken with a tortured, creaking, spoken growl double tracking the vocal. The contrast is astounding. “You made me kill myself…”, repeats the most unlikely of technical pair-offs, incessant, mantra-like, swirling. My. Collaborations, then?

Rich – “We definitely wouldn't be the same without them, it's one of the benefits to being a duo I guess. We can't play everything we have in our heads so it's really nice to be able to call people and say – do you want to come and help us out. It keeps us on our toes as well because what we write then has to stand up to people who are already in amazing bands so we have to be confident in presenting the music to them and that pushes us to new levels.

Elly – “I find it enriches the music as people bring ideas to the table that we maybe would never have thought of, and it has been a joy to hear somebody translating something you have in your head into existence. I have spent a lot of time around folk/bluegrass music as a teenager and that music thrives upon different people playing together, it showed me how much joy collaborations can bring in writing/playing.

How do Glissando in 2008 differ from Glissando in 2002?

Rich – “It's taken us a while to get to a point where we are comfortable with what we are writing enough to put together a full album of work. We've developed our songwriting a lot over the years and spent time trying to make it more structured. Not that the songs themselves are structured in any particular way but more the actual writing process and how we go about the band on a daily basis. Things are meticulously planned now - in that to be able to pull off releasing a record and doing tours, we have to be planning nearly a year in advance, the rest of this year is already mapped out so we know what deadlines we need to hit. Most of this is down to the label, really, to make sure things happen at the right time.

I think a few years back we were more interested in experimenting with sounds and other musicians which is fine to a degree but there definitely needs to be an agenda to be able to maximize what we are doing. That's why it's taken us so long to get to this point.

Just how under-rated are 28 minute-long improvised pieces?

Rich - “Ha! Well I think they are probably more for the musicians benefit rather than the listener. I like the freedom element of performing like that, the interaction between minds and souls on stage in that short period of time. The difference comes in whether it gets put down on tape or not for me because that's when you start to pick things apart when essentially it should be about the moment and how you feel during the performance.

Elly – “I think improvised music is a very personal thing in how it’s experienced, some people look at the skills, or the sounds, or the way the musicians are interacting, it's very strange thing, its definitely a musicians thing, unless the players are playing some very skilled stuff, it requires the audience to concentrate more I find on the smaller things. There's a very thin line where improvisation is concerned it can be an enjoyable experience or complete crap. Over the years I've become less and less confident to do improvised work.

Before my Glissando live virginity was shorn, I struggled to see how some pieces could transfer to a stage. Depth and texture often give way to reliance on raw power and forced dynamics, and Glissando, to my ears, live and die on their textures.

Rich – “There is so much going on on the new record that is impossible to play live unless we take a group of people with us, which at the moment we can't afford to do. However we will be doing this at some point in the near future. Because of this we have to concentrate on certain other elements live, like bringing out as much of the melody as possible from the songs. I find it quite rewarding when bands have a different live set-up to that of the record. It brings new ways of looking at the songs. It can be frustrating at times because we would like to portray the songs in all their glory but that will happen and we just have to be patient. It's safe to say that people who come to the shows get a totally different side of us then if they just put the record on at home. Personally I enjoy playing live, I didn't used to so much but now it feels more natural and I'm enjoying it more than I ever have before.

Sure enough, the aura remains, and the epic three song-set rises and sprawls, in no rush or hurry but with an underlying brooding that I find nothing less than captivating. The fact that the live songs lose some of the layering of the album doesn’t diminish the overall effect; instead, a rare opposite happens. The concentration on the remaining minimalism brings out each shade, the character of everything that’s left and propels it unfussily forward, to be taken as it is, amplified and pristinely-judged. The end result is of music that belies how much two people can do, music that pushes how far simplicity can go.

The first thing that got me interested in Glissando was a gloriously illustrated leaflet that compared them to Bat For Lashes if "Ms Kahn let loose her demons instead of her innocence". I thought this was an absolutely marvellous description, although it got me thinking - I must say that as well as Natasha’s innocence, I find a great deal of fairly dark 'fairytale gone badly wrong' content in Fur And Gold – having to impregnate yourself to settle down and feel any sense of self-worth, it's pretty grim stuff in places!

Rich –“I really love that record and we've had comparisons in the past to Bat For Lashes. There's certainly an underlying darkness to Fur and Gold and I think the guts of the two records come from similar places but branch of in very different directions in the end.

Elly – “Our music is much more sparse with darker spaces, less upbeat and less able to sing along, I love that Bat For Lashes go to dark places but you can shout about the darkness along with them in their music. When we write we come from a very solemn place, although we are aware of the need to write some songs which are more driven, and perhaps a little more upbeat.

I tried to get Natasha for an interview for this very website once upon a time, as it happens, but I think I was probably pipe-dreaming… someday. My DIY ethic doesn’t exactly measure up to the extent of Gizeh Records, who packaged the last, devastatingly good, Glissando EP (Loves Are Like Empires) in an envelope bound with a wax seal, adorned with string and beads and hand-glued artwork. It took me half a day to find the heart to open it. It’s all very well self-releasing music, but this is something far more personal and profound and painstaking – genuine.

Rich – “That's a really nice thing to say! The DIY ethic is a huge part of who I am and what I do. The way the industry is at the moment I believe it's more important than ever to give people something real and tangible to hold and treasure. It's something to compliment the music because art and music all comes from the same place - why would people not be interested in the visual aspect of your output alongside the music? Surely if you are going to buy into a band you want the whole picture, the depth of the personalities involved and you want something real to believe in. The packaging of a record builds an atmosphere for what's inside and people seem to be forgetting that these days.

As for self-releasing the music - anything is possible if you are prepared to work at it and not be afraid to take chances and ask questions. Bands these days don't need to go hunting down record labels being desperate to 'get signed', get off your asses and do something about it. You just have to be prepared to take some hits, lose some cash here and there and make mistakes. How is that different to anything else in life though?

I'm not saying we would never sign to a bigger label because we are trying to make a living out of this but it would always have to be on our terms.

Elly – “I think the art with the music is very important for us. If you expect people to buy a record then you have to give them a reason to buy it, I am always aware of how I view music as a consumer myself and good artwork/nice packaging always tips the scales. It's very difficult to do exactly what you want without the money... if we'd have had the money, the packaging would have been all recycled cardboard, but when you don't have the money to pay for that stuff you're limited to where you can go with it.

Drowned In Sound has taken to you quite a bit, it seems. Do you think word of mouth gets diluted, perhaps, these days? There must be a thousand bands getting positive press somewhere - but for every Broken Records or yourselves, there must be tens of dismal, cynical nu-Jam peddlers doing the rounds. I saw a band called Operator Kicks the other week and my jaw fell to the floor they were so bad, and they're signed, with publicity... it scares me.

Rich - "Drowned in Sound have been really good to us but I think that's because they can see what we are trying to do is a good thing and they want to get on board with it - just as we do with them. There are a hell of a lot of terrible bands kicking around who have deals etc but word of mouth is so important to bands like us, Gizeh can't afford huge advertising budgets to push the records into peoples faces so we rely on being nice to people and appreciating everyone who buys a record or comes to a show because money is tight for everyone at the moment in this country, so deciding to part with cash to support a band is a big deal now.

Because it is now possible for anyone to release music you do find a lot of bad music around - however if those people involved have decided to do it for themselves instead of waiting around for some shit label to come along and make them famous for a year then good luck to them."

So just what on earth is going on at Gizeh records then? Calla, Glissando, Sketches... is this serendipitous, planned, miraculous, none of the above?

Rich – “Well, basically I run the label alongside doing music with Glissando, we have the new Glissando and Her Name is Calla records out in June which will be our biggest releases yet. It's a very busy time at the moment as I've been on the road with Glissando for a few weeks so keeping up with label work isn't easy! The plan for the label is to build a steady catalogue of really great releases, get like-minded bands on board who are willing to do a lot of work for themselves and the label and hopefully pull the whole thing along together. Gizeh is about as DIY as you can get.

Sketches for Albinos is not on Gizeh by the way! We just do some online distribution to help out friends and people we really like.

Finally - recommend a band I may not have heard of.

Rich – “We played a couple of shows on this tour with a band called Spokes who are very good and great people. We had a couple of very drunken nights with them.

Elly – “You should check out Sleeping Dog,

We saw Chantal a few years ago in a band called Chacda, supporting Lambchop at City Varieties in Leeds, she has a very beautiful voice, I was bowled over the first time I heard her, and Rich may be releasing her record in England.

With Our Arms Wide Open We March Towards The Burning Sea, the debut Glissando album, is out on Gizeh records on June 23rd.