Martin Green offers FRUK an exclusive glimpse of the other side and the commissioning and stage production of Crows’ Bones with all its ghostly chills and musical thrills.
How did Crows’ Bones start? Where does the title come from?
MG: I had done various bits of work with Opera North, some with Joe Townsend and also with Gavin Bryars, and I was really impressed with their open-minded attitude towards not only traditional opera but other song forms also. I went to speak to them about a massive show I had an idea for, with dancing dragons and hamsters that breathe fire and stuff. They listened politely to this and said it sounded a bit big and did I have any ideas for something smaller. So Crows’ Bones started off with considering scale in some ways. As soon as we started talking about small, then I suggested ghosts, and they were also into ghosts, so we went from there.
The title comes from some words that in fact are no longer in the show, one of the ideas at the start was that Becky and Inge would be sort of narrators/guides into a spirit world, that they would lead us from one scene to another and inhabit a place in between living and dead, visible to both sides and able to show the audience (the living) tales of the other side. So there were some lyrics then encouraging the listener to come forward and explore the other side, imagery of imaginary rites “Step over the crows’ bones….”. In the end, this wasn’t how we did it, as time went on we became more and more like a band and it was less like a theatrical production and all the stronger for it I think.
What was the commissioning process and who was involved? What were the objectives?
Opera North Projects based in Leeds commissioned it. The people there, Dominc Gray and Jo Nockels (who had a large part to play in helping us make Crows’ Bones a reality) really love making new things, they commission a lot of work, and even though only a fraction of that is folk music based, just working with producers with so much experience taught me a huge amount. Opera is as focused on the visual as it is on the musical and for me that was one of the most exciting aspects of the experience. Working within the infrastructure of an organisation like that, that is used to set building and lighting etc. means that when we had ideas about staging etc. they could be tried quickly and with experienced technicians.
The objectives were for me to make something that could explore a really specific area of folk song in a really focused setting. In the course of a normal concert you would expect to travel along a little map of emotion, so when you make the set list you put in some upbeat stuff, some sad stuff, some big stuff, some small stuff etc. so your audience (you hope) journey down this map you have made for them. Crows’ Bones was like a micro version of that because we have decided to focus in on one kind of emotional specifically, the unsettling, unnerving, the scary and there is a lot of scope just within this area, but it’s a different kind of path you taking people down, zoned in on this one emotional spectrum.
Working with Opera North, a company with their roots in the classical world gave us huge licence to be unashamedly arty in what we were doing. Folk music is a really strong form and it can withstand being bent and twisted in all kinds of ways, as we can all see from the huge variety of interpretations of traditional material. But you also have to be careful, it’s easy to be crass when you present that music outside it’s natural home of social music performed in an unassuming way. Working with an opera company even though there are no musical links with opera in Crows’ Bones meant that we felt confident using quite extreme staging and lighting and so forth.
How did it start for you creatively?
It started after the basic concept of ghosts and murder with collecting material. I went to the Child Ballads, and expected initially to use a few of those songs, in the end we only used Three Ravens, Inge and Becky did a brilliant job of finding material, Becky brought in a couple of recently written songs, Villagers’ I saw The Dead, the Young Uns’ One December Morn. That was really interesting, looking at new stuff, that’s not really what I thought we would focus on, I thought it would mostly be older stuff and a couple of new things that we would write.
Niklas Roswall (nyckelharpa) who is a truly remarkable musician from Sweden brought us a tune that was written for a murderer’s walk to the gallows that came from an old manuscript, and a couple of them I wrote with Inge Thomson.
With this material gathered in Dropboxes we met up in the Scottish Borders for a couple of days and played through, made some demos and did some experiments. I took all that away and arranged it a bit more thoroughly and we met up again to rehearse in earnest in Leeds for three days before the first show.
Musically what were you aiming for?
A dark world, and trying to get things to a pinpoint, a lot of what Lau do is about seeing how big we can make three instruments, and I love that, but this was a chance to do something else, to try and make something small and dark and intriguing. It is limited by an unusual selection of instruments, nyckelharpa, accordion, various toys, a broken 78 gramophone player etc and that was part of the joy, just limiting ourselves to these sounds and playing around with them.
What do you think ghost stories are for and why are we so drawn to the macabre?
On a base level we all wonder about what happens after death, and we always have, and that fascination hasn’t died down over time, as we can see from the modern songs being written at present. That freaky feeling when you’re a kid and you hear ghost stories, that’s still there for me, and I think for a lot of people. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’d like to think that there are many things we don’t understand and thinking about those things is exhilarating, and a bit scary. People love a wee spook don’t they.
How did you settle on the blend of voices and instruments and obviously the musicians and voices?
This was my A-team from the start. Niklas I have been a fan of for years and Lau met him in Sweden on tour, and went back to his house in the woods. We stayed up very late drinking and playing music out in the snowy forest and he played such beautiful music, I still have recordings on my phone of that night, it was a special night and I was really moved by how he played this very foreign sounding music. The Nyckelharpa has sympathetic strings and wherever you play it it sounds like it’s coming to you through some portal to a thousand years ago. I love it.
Becky and Inge both have unique, ethereal voices, and anyone that knows their singing will identify with that. Everyone is crazy busy so I was surprised and delighted that we could actually get all these people in the same place to do this.
We recorded the basic tracks with living legend Calum Malcolm in Scotland, mostly live and it was all very vibey. I mixed it with (Portishead guitarist) Adrian Utley and that was a whole new aspect to the music. He really understood what I was trying to do with a big dark underbelly of music, but the vocal is still the star of the show. He is a really inspiring man and the traditional music seems to make sense to him, he had no desire to put anything on the record that shouldn’t have been there, but everything he did play or suggest helped support the songs.
The stage setting was simple but very effective, tell me about that. How did the tour go?
I have to give a special shout to Ben Everett, production manager and lighting designer, we couldn’t have a huge lavish set, and indeed it wouldn’t have made sense if we had, so we had to look at how we could change the mood between the songs, returning to leading listeners along the path, light was vital to that. Right from the very start, at the first meeting with Opera North, the idea was that the show would get smaller as it went on, so as the show progresses, it gets smaller and darker, till by the very end, it’s just Becky singing unaccompanied in the dark.
The style of it came from two areas, one was forests, so there were lots of bits of wood, the mic-stands were made of branches and there were some small trees at the back of the set. Forests seemed quite natural, a lot of these songs are set in the woods and it made sense. The other main thematic area was freaky early twentieth century parlour room, I had always wanted to use music boxes, toy pianos etc. there is something freaky about musical toys, especially when you set a lot of music boxes off at once and you get cacophony. This fitted in with the gramophone horn thing, which was a big part of the Crows’ Bones world.
The tin cans in particular are a very strange device. What was the thinking there?
The gramophones horns started because I was keen to affect the vocals, to give them an other-worldy edge, but because of the nature of Crows’ Bones it didn’t make sense to just bang on a load of reverb in the PA, it seemed like this world needed to be self-contained and that the PA should be a little bit of reinforcement. In crude theatrical terms, the effected voice was going to be a symbol of communication, a line to the other side, and telephone makes sense there, and tin can gives that weird sound to the voice, and so I liked all that but it was just far too quiet, a tin can phone is quiet.
So I did a load of experiments and with the help of some clever pals of mine (Doug Briggs, Tim Matthew, thanks!) came up with a plan to amplify the voices through gramophone horns. In the end, we put tiny mics in the cans and tiny speakers in the horns and miked up the horns, so it’s not quite natural, but you get the real effect of the can and the horn, and I’m really happy with how they sound, we used it a lot on the album too.
Tell me about the film that was part of the show. Who made it and what was the idea?
The film was made by Ruth Paxton (www.paxtonworks.com) go and check out her stuff! Lau have worked a lot with Ruth, and we commissioned her to make a short film “Nevada” for our Lau-Land event in London in 2012. Her films are heart-wrenching, every time. When we were putting Crows’ Bones together I really wanted film involved, it seemed so filmic already. We didn’t have to budget to commission new film but Ruth very kindly let me use some footage she had of a freaky trip though the woods, we did a re-edit that removed a few anachronisms from Ruth’s original, just because they broke the world we had made a bit and because we needed a shorter duration. Inge Thomson then wrote the most brilliantly grimy song about a hairdresser that lives in the wood and had dabbled in a spot of murder. I was delighted with that bit of the show, with the film and Inge’s song, I can take no credit for any of it, I was just sitting in the dark watching trying not to shit myself.
Will there be further live performances this year?
We are all keen, but busy, and we hope so.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Crows’ Bones (CD) out now via Reveal Records