Three Cane Whale are a multi-instrumental trio from Bristol with a fresh, innovative approach to music. The band consists of Alex Vann, from acoustic four-piece Spiro (mandolin, bowed psaltery, music box), Pete Judge from jazz masterminds Get The Blessing (trumpet, harmonium, lyre, glockenspiel) and Paul Bradley (acoustic guitar), who is largely responsible for the category defying Bristol band, Organelles. Together, they’ve created Three Cane Whale.
The album is as individual as every other project the trio are involved in. A collection of acoustic delights, where delicate themes plucked out on music box and lyre, mere seconds long, give way to soaring combinations of guitar, mandolin and trumpet.
Folk Radio UK managed to persuade Alex and Pete from the band to stop working for long enough to answer a few questions about Three Cane Whale and what they’re up to.
FRUK: How did the members of Three Cane Whale find each other?
3CW: It was an accident waiting to happen in a way, and a long time brewing. We’re all based in Bristol, and had been friends and fans of each other’s music and bands for many years. Then Alex and Pete worked together as musicians for Kneehigh Theatre on a cluster of shows, and began meeting to eat soup and swap tunes. Paul was the obviously unobvious third man. Something happened.
Something most certainly did happen – something rather special. Three Cane Whale descends gently on the ear as a collection of small but perfectly formed themes. Some pieces are a mere laconic musical moment, some are more involved. Skein, for example, is simple and effective on the surface, but the building pace and layers invite the listener to find the complexities hidden within.
With instrumental music the audience is often left to make of it what they will, with little more than a title to guide them. The composer / musician can influence the listener, but what about their own influences?
FRUK: Although your individual projects cover a wide musical spectrum, in Three Cane Whale we can hear, especially, flavours of Spiro, Organelles and Eyebrow. Did you feel these were the main influences behind the album?
3CW: They’re there because they’re part of us, but there weren’t really any conscious musical influences. We knew we wanted to use acoustic instruments, and we knew we wanted to concentrate on writing for them honestly and unguardedly, but beyond that the main influences were landscapes, memories, writers, creatures, ideas, friends…
This unguarded honesty shines through in the album. Themes are allowed to exist on their own merits – not as raw material for the composer to endlessly tweak and refine and reshape. The individual tracks are short and sparse; they seem to take an idea only as far as its inception, capturing that spark of creation. Not, for Three Cane Whale, the weeks in the studio, recording, re-writing, agonizing over every note, skimming the cream from countless sessions to produce one great homogenized whole…
FRUK: The album was recorded in a single 11 hour session, was this important in achieving the sparse, uncluttered sound?
3CW: It was one of those ‘that’s the only day we’re all available’ occasions, which brings its own intensities and atmospheres. We had no idea how long it would take. The sparseness is in the writing and in the instruments, but the space definitely opened things up for us, and the single day gives it a definite single mindedness. Like a gig, a very long gig.
FRUK: And the reason for using an 18th Century church as your studio? How important was the location?
3CW: It’s a very unusual space. It was originally a Private Chapel, so it’s quite small inside, but hidden away from the bustle of Bristol down an avenue of trees and behind stone walls. The great thing about it was the changes of light and sound through the course of those 11 hours. By dusk, we’d finish a take and the blackbirds would take over.
Although the venue is an unusual choice, the idea of a small, hidden space fits well with the album. This is the kind of music you stumble across. It isn’t shouting in the streets, competing with the traffic, it’s hidden away somewhere during a quiet afternoon in a sunlit park. It’s waiting for you at the centre of the maze.
Space, from an astronomical perspective, is obviously important to Three Cane Whale. The ideas behind the short introductory music box twinkling of Aphelion, or Full Moon, appear unfathomable. The almost as brief, gentle Tycho, with its melodic trumpet has a baroque flavour, while the strings and harmonium of Look Up At The Sky (and remind yourself how insignificant you are) encourage the mind’s eye to do just that – with a slow flight up towards the heavens. As the pace quickens, amid the harmonium’s repeated space theme there are whirling galaxies and stars flying past like they never really would in space.
FRUK: What music have you been listening to today?
Pete: this morning, Bjork – a spot of Biophilia.
Alex: Ghosts From The Basement, which is a recent compilation of acid folk from the Village Thing label from the early ’70s.
FRUK: There’s a selection of ‘exotic’ instruments on the album (bowed psaltery, lyre, music box) – Did Three Cane Whale start as a vehicle for these instruments?
3CW: They just muscled their way in. They’d been collecting dust, a few of them, and needed a suitable home. Some of their distant cousins are queuing at the gates now, ready for the next album.
FRUK: What is a bowed psaltery, and does it bite?
3CW: The Psaltery is a zither-type instrument that’s played with a bow. It dates back to medieval times or earlier; they had them in Britain, but also across Europe. However, I believe that the bowed version was invented in Germany in the late 19th century.
The atmosphere certainly, in places, hints at earlier times and seems less concerned with melody and more with rhythms and colours. The album doesn’t, however, abandon the notion of melody altogether. Some pieces, such as Eggardon Hill, follow a more melodic approach, with an engaging trumpet and lively mandolin, before hypnotically scurrying off into musical realms reminiscent of Phillip Glass.
FRUK: Why ‘Three Cane Whale’?
3CW: It’s a misspelling of a mishearing. It comes from the Somerset Levels I think…a willow construction made from three interlocking canes or rods. But this one is in an allotment that’s right under a dual-carriageway, surrounded by bird-scarers made from old CDs.
Now that explains, in a way, why the happy trio are pictured playing in the middle an allotment on the album cover! One of the things I love about this album is that those minimalist themes, those little musical nuggets have the potential to expand and grow in live performance. Are there any plans to leave the comfort of the allotment, though?
FRUK: I can see how this music would be a joy to experience live. Given how busy you all are with other projects – are you planning to add more live dates? From a purely selfish point of view – are you planning to play anywhere north of Carlisle ?
3CW: We definitely are. We’d love to tour with this band. Anywhere. Any good venues in Shetland?
Gentlemen, Shetland itself is the venue.
Three Cane Whale is the kind of album that, once the secret is revealed, the listener will want to share, to compel their friends to listen, to explore. This album can be full of mirth or solemn, it can be as fresh and open as a deep blanket of snow, or as full of texture, colour and chaos as a pile of autumn leaves the moment the wind hits. Three Cane Whale is a hidden gem, just waiting to be discovered.
The Brazen Head
Sleeping Out: Full Moon
Catch their London album launch on Sunday 4 December @ The Shacklewell Arms, London. Details here
Three Cane Whale is released on Idyllic Records.