When copies of the new Imagined Village album ‘Bending the Dark‘ were sent out for review it came with a very long band press statement. As well as explaining some of the problems they had to fight through to make the album, some of which demonstrated remarkable solidarity, it also set the scene for what is probably their most remarkable release to date in which the band, although maybe not intentionally, have broken new ground together. In describing some of the changes in their sound Eliza Carthy explained “It was apparent that if the band was to move forward we had to write a new body of songs based on our skills as lyricist and composers embracing contemporary issues as well as reflecting an English musical identity”.
We spoke with Simon Emmerson about the making of the album who in his typical laid back fashion never fails to cut to the quick.
From the moment the Imagined Village were formed there were a plethora of ideas and sentiments worming their way to the surface about what the Imagined Village were about. As is often the case, people (particularly the press) sometimes forget that musicians are human beings at the end of the day and also want to enjoy what they do.
“There has always been confusion in the press about what exactly the Imagined village is. Are we a ‘musical project’ inspired by a book? A lose collective of floating musician experimenting with a worthy liberal multi-culturalism? An attempt at re-working that Martin Carthy songbook? An Anarcho-Communist sect peddling revisionist and aberrant world music folk fusion? Well I can announce to the world that we are plane and simply A BAND. We’ve just come of the road having spent three weeks on a lovely tour bus playing to an amazingly loyal and enthusiastic bunch of fans and we have done exactly the same thing I’ve been doing since 1981 when I first went on the road with my first band Weekend; we are all having a great time expressing ourselves, hanging out, telling crap jokes and trying to maintain some basic standard of personal hygiene. There’s no hidden agenda, no covert plan and no subterfuge. We meet up to write music, we then rehearse and record the music, we then go on the road, play gigs, promote the product. We don’t do it for the money. We do it because we love it. It really is that simple and that’s how we are evolving into one big throbbing folk fusion love machine”.
In breaking new ground I don’t think anyone had in mind the claim that the Imagined Village were the first to write a song that has inspired an underarm deodorant…designed by Simon’s bird watching companion, record label partner, Lush founder and radical perfumer Mark Constantine.
“I am so proud that we are the first band in the world to have written a song that has inspired the premier charcoal and lavender based under arm deodorant powder for the busy man about town. The Guvna! If you like to sweat check it out. This has to be destiny…
“What we share with Lush are these basic guiding principles:
- Employ the unemployable
- Celebrate the eccentric, because that’s what’s made us what we are
- Never crap in the tour bus toilet
“If you follow this business plan you will end up as rich as Mark Constantine and maybe even get an OBE”.
Apart from the deodorant inspiration The Guvna has some great wide ranging moments that dabble in ska and dub. Simon admits that refining the ska and rock steady guitars into place is closer to his roots than English trad, he also uses this opportunity as an excuse to reel off his guitar heroes!
“The Guvna was conceived by Ali Friend (bass, vocals) to be passed around the band and added to like a selection of pickles when the poppadum’s turn up as starters. My guitar parts were one of the last things to be recorded. I suppose it was like the onion bits everyone leaves. I see my contribution as more onion bits than mango chutney or lime pickle. I have introduced some English Trad wah wah to the live version of The Guvna. And my next foot pedal? It’s going to have to be the fuzz box. My guitar heroes who I aspire to play like are Steve Cropper (Staxs), Cornell Dupree (Atlantic), John Fahey (god like genius), Zoot Horn Rollo (Beefheart), Devon James (Skatelites), Ernest Ranklin (Studio 1) and Jo Strummer (blindingly obvious). The ones who really blow me away are: Martin Carthy, Richard Thompson, Phil Miller (Hatfield and the North, Robert Wyatt etc.), Zappa and last but not least Hendrix”.
The original recording strategy was to have a series of writing sessions followed by live dates to enable the band to work the songs into their live performances before heading back to the recording studio to record what they had. This became difficult to work through when Norma Waterson fell ill (wife of Martin Carthy and mother of Eliza Carthy). The band did what they felt was best and cancelled the tour to continue to use profits to help support the family in times of need.
“Yes, it was really tough. It’s an old fashion word but never underestimate its importance: ‘Solidarity’. That’s what got us through it”.
Despite the initial setbacks that initial strategy did work and it paid off big dividends by creating an exhilarating live sound thanks to a practice that Simon points out was commonly used in the 1970’s:
“It’s the first time I’ve written the material with the band then toured it then recorded it since Weekend back in 1982. It’s how they did it back in the 1970’s. The Cream’s Dizreali Gears was toured for a year they then went into the studio and recorded it in 3 days. The only difference is we toured it for 3 weeks then recorded it over a year, as everyone was so busy”.
The new album is by contrast to previous releases both adventurous and more complex sounding. Whilst some may have seen the changes as daring the results speak for themselves.
“We didn’t sit down and decide to write a ‘complex and adventurous’ album although when it was all done and dusted a few people expressed surprise that we had chosen the more difficult, darker and challenging songs for the final release. There was this feeling we had rather indulged ourselves and made the inevitable ‘difficult third album’. The response from our fans and indeed our CD sales (the album charted at 14 in the official BBC Independent charts 1st week of release) shows how eclectic and open-minded the general public are. Never underestimate the radicalism of the current UK folk community”.
The album has some magical epic moments such as the lengthy title track which is probably the longest track played on Folk Radio UK to date…ignoring the length, it’s what goes on in between the beginning and the end that makes this exceptional, one that Simon describes as a Baptism of Fire.
“It wasn’t so much ‘exciting’ as terrifying, a true baptism of fire. The first time Sheema Mukherjee (Sitar, Vocals) played me the middle section, which she described as ‘a seven and a half count …but don’t worry it’s easy, honest, you’ll get it’ I got VERY scared. The two drum battle sections in the middle- when Andy Gangadeen (drums) went all Sandy Nelson/Teen Beat and it suddenly became beatnik central in the studio was a joy to behold”.
Not surprisingly “Andy Gangadeen getting all beatnik with Johnny Kalsi” is Simon’s standout moment during the recording, “allowing me to do my Max Wall impersonation –don’t ask”. We won’t…
ECC Records seems to have the workings of becoming an interesting record label not least because of the dynamics and sense for adventure of the people behind it, and there will be more very soon:
“…we will be signing Dizraeli and the Small Gods but we haven’t done the deal yet. They are an amazing band. There will be a new Jackie Oates album within the next year I hope. I have been approached by what I can only describe as an English Victorian gothic horror dub step band called The Gaslight Troubadours, who are remarkable but a bit scary. My business plan is to expand the ECC label into a hugely profitable celebration of the unemployable English Eccentric but my vision for global expansion doesn’t really extend beyond the borders of Dorset. So please don’t send me your demos”.
June 15 – Anvil Arts, Basingstoke
June 16 – Lincoln Drill Hall
June 21-24 Sunrise Celebration
June 24 – Brighton Dome
July 15 – Larmer Tree Festival
August 24 – 26 – Folkeast
August 24 – 27 – Greeenbelt
A Light-hearted Behind the Scenes Video Tour Diary
For anyone that missed Simon Emmerson’s excluive mix he did for us back in 2010 check it out now.
Bending the Dark is released on ECC Records (14 May 2012)