There’s something quite thrilling about Gold Or Dust the new album from Cocos Lovers, but at the same time something quite intimate. It’s as if the Kent based outfit want to take you on an exhilarating fling around the dance floor, while simultaneously putting an arm round your shoulder, drawing you up close (perhaps a group hug is more appropriate), to unravel little mysteries and secrets. It’s a clever thing they do, because as an eight piece line up would suggest, they can make a big sound. With five singers in the band, further augmented on the recording, there are moments of almost choral power too. Yet they do it without ever sounding overblown or melodramatic.
Drawing on different musical style and instrumental abilities, they meld something organic and unforced, it all sounds so natural. African rhythms and lilting high life guitar licks rub shoulders with back porch banjo and mandolin, Trumpet lines that ripple with the heat haze of Mile’s Spanish sketches or Calexico’s Tex-Mex dustbowl, soaring flute and fiddle lines, funky back-beats and the occasional other-worldly sound of bowed saw. There are odd moments of hazy disorientation, moments of icy clarity and moments of rapture as the melodic lines rise to crescendo. Cocos Lovers sound is uniquely their own yet as familiar as a favourite coat.
Pulling such a complex tapestry together takes some doing, but the free spirited musicians seem drawn to each other, as if under some unknown gyroscopic spin of destiny. The fact that they have toured Europe busking and working on farms to pay their way, staying in communes and squats suggests some carefree and bohemian camaraderie. Yet they also have their own label Smugglers Records and sufficient organisation and energy to stage an annual festival, which has in turn helped the release of a number of CDs by like minded and liked acts such as Will Varley (another of our favourites).
There is also a wider artistic and musical community that Cocos Lovers feed off and into. They are based out on the eastern edge of England in Deal, but count themselves part of a wider Kentish scene. The album is co-produced by Joe Magill of local prog/psyche troupe Syd Arthur, which seems to have worked a treat. The sound is a quietly epic liberation for the soul, as musical ideas tumble forth. You may well find yourself caught between repeat play (where the only sensible response to the end of the CD is to stick it on again) and the desire to preserve this for life, such are the riches it offers.
Cocos Lovers are currently out on tour, road-testing the new van, which as they are all together, gave us an ideal opportunity to catch up. Will Greenham and Phil Self were good enough to huddle round a laptop and bring us up to date.
How did you all come together?
Will: Well I’m married to Natasha the violinist and saw player, and her sister and her husband along with his brother (David) starting playing and writing music together in early 2008. The same year we decided to go travelling around Europe together for a few months…
Phil: I ditched my job and went away to join Cocos Lovers abroad; I’d only really just joined the band. Nicola came along as the Au Pair and soon started singing and playing fife and recorder! We travelled around, stayed in squats and communes and wrote a large part of our first album out there (Johannes). When we all came back Billy joined as full-time bass player and that was that. Stewart and James G joined us around the time of recording Gold or Dust – late 2012.
What are the individual backgrounds in music? What do you share and what are the points of difference?
Will: Natasha is classically trained in singing and violin. I’m untrained; a bit like one of those dodgy builders! Nicola, Stewart and James also attend SOAS university and study ethnomusicology!
Phil: Our musical backgrounds vary quite a lot. Before I joined Cocos Lovers I was mostly listening to and attempting to make electronic music. Joining the band helped me rediscover the simple pleasures of acoustic music and vocal harmony – I’d never even played a banjo or mandolin before joining so that had a big impact on me musically. Delving into our nostalgic playlists would unearth a whole range of possibly quite unexpected music.
Does the band function as a collective and democracy? I know this is very hard to do and don’t want to stir anything here, but I wonder how individuals inject ideas and respond to other peoples input.
Will: It is a democracy, at the end of writing a record you feel 1/8 of that record! People have different strengths in the band, from lyrics to vocal arrangements, we compliment each other really well, and we are comfortable in jamming ideas out together and open with each other with feedback! Its a true band, its happened organically and by chance and grown from family and friendship. We are very lucky.
Phil: The new album was written very collectively. We got together in some woodland behind a friends house near Deal and camped out for a week, writing together every day. It was for practical reasons more than anything else – when you want to write collectively and there’s 8 of you in the band it’s the most logical way to do things. We all had ideas; some musical some lyrical and we spent time going through them all. We probably wrote 90% of the album that week from everyone’s sketches. Then all we had to do was tweak arrangements and rehearse.
Is there a principal lyricist?
Will: On this record myself and Billy wrote a lot of the lyrics, and some together. We have been through some similar experiences so we feel completely comfortable in jamming lyrics together which is such a personal thing. Nicola wrote a few and is great with words too.
Is there a Cocos Lovers philosophy?
Will: Cocos lovers has always been D.I.Y because we were never keen on waiting around to get signed. We were too impatient to make records and too passionate to wait around to be employed. We make our own employment. I don’t think after going through the process of writing a record we would want to conform to a record company so we made our own. ‘Don’t wait around do it yourself’
Phil: Or ‘Why stop in a lay-by when there’s a perfectly good service station a few miles down the road?’
What are you aiming for musically? Do you have an ideal sound in mind? Are they role models you aspire to? What things influence your sound and your playing?
Will: Musically it will always be ambitious, but there needs to be a mood to a record, each record we have made I feel we have captured that time in our lives through the general mood/colour of the record. I don’t think we control the sound with an ideal, we like surprises, you get a rough idea of where an album is heading and we are all comfortable with surprises.
Phil: We rarely set out to sound like something or someone else. When it comes to starting to write new material I think we all have a slightly different idea of where we want to take it but over time as material keeps developing and more gets written we tend to (touch wood) all start wandering down the same path. That definitely happened with the current album. With me personally I get very influenced by playing styles and that can affect my writing; songs such as Anchor To The Moon from Elephant Lands and the title rack off Gold Or Dust emerged out of me approaching the guitar in a specific way.
What’s it like being on the road together?
Phil: We’ve just got a new van so it’s currently very comfortable.
Will: We all get on great, being on the road is like being on holiday as the friendship is so strong.
Are there side projects on the go?
Phil: Me and Billy play in another band called The Hellfire Orchestra though it’s less a side-project, more a gang. I have plans to create a set of folk reels and jigs played through 303 synth emulation software in an old school acid house style. I think that’s one for over Christmas.
Tell me a little about where you are based and about Smugglers Records.
Will: We are based in Deal, which is a small fishing town on the Kent coast. Its a beautiful place with a really strong music scene which inspired our self run label Smugglers Records. It started out mainly as a weekly night trying to raise funds to press our records, we have released 18 so far plus lots of compilations. For acts like Will Varley, Hellfire Orchestra, Arlet, Jodie Goffee and more. The label I suppose was a reaction to the state of the world it was created when all the banking crisis was happening and when music seemed at its most sickly and all about profit rather than love and passion for community and art.
Phil: Plus we wanted a logo to put on our first record.
You credit Paul Osbourne for sharing his home, please tell me about that.
Will: Well following on from the small folk club beginnings of the label Paul Osbourne offered us his land to start a festival. Running this festival every year means that we can now afford to release our records properly. We also wrote our current album on his land. He is a pure, hospitable and generous man that has done so much for the progression of the label.
What are the plans, will there be more gigs coming up?
Will: There are lots tours coming up: Wales, Ireland and France. Plus plenty more gigs in the UK and lots of festivals planned. Plus we shall have another writing week together in early 2014. So it’s all really exciting.
I notice Raven’s name and I’m a fan of Syd Arthur (I have the vinyl LP), is there a local scene that you are all tapped into? Finally, is Gold Or Dust on vinyl? (Yes I am that old fashioned!!)
Will: Well we may be pressing the record on vinyl in France through a label there, but I will definitely send you one! The Syd Arthur boys are great friends and they are part of this amazing Kentish scene that is bursting with fantastic music.
Phil: Joel Magill produced the album – he’s the Syd Arthur bass man (I Should have spotted that too!!!). Raven helped out with some engineering duties – the studio’s actually out the back of a family home. Syd have their own little indie label going called Dawn Chorus Recording Company – they’re based more in Canterbury/SE London. Their artists tend to have a strong psychedelic, 70s, dare I say prog vibe going on. They have loads of great bands associated with them such as Bison Bonasus (guitarist Barney also engineered on our record), The Boot Lagoon, Rae and Arlet. We’re all good friends and often play and put on shows together. Dawn Chorus also tend to have a big input into our Smugglers Festival and all their bands come and play. There’s great things going on in Kent right now we’re just waiting for everyone else to catch on!
Interview by: Simon Holland
Under the Hawthorn Tree
BBC Radio 3 Session
Cocos Lovers live in session and with an interview with the band.
01. Dea Matrona (0:32)
02. Under The Hawthorn Tree (06:23)
03. Walk Among the Ghosts (10:44)
04. Emily (15:20)
First Broadcast: 16/08/2013
Emily (Recently Premièred on FRUK)
Vocalist and guitarist, Will Greenham says of the song:
“Emily is about a profound sadness for the people we love and leave behind when we are gone, I’m telling a certain special person to carry on without me to live and love again, a song of hope. We all have someone that the song can be about.”
Gold Or Dust is released on Smuggler’s Records on July 23rd 2013. Order it here
03/10/13 Bristol at The Canteen
04/10/13 Nottingham at Malt Cross
05/10/13 Birmingham at Ort Cafe
07/11/13 Bangor, Gwynedd at Blue Sky Cafe
08/11/13 Narbeth, Pembrokeshire at Span Arts