Simon talks to Pete Flood of Bellowhead about his musical journey, an enthralling one that weaves a fascinating path from club nights and London’s sub-culture in the pursuit of musical bliss to funghi, the South Downs and radical thinking…we allow him to time travel to historical musical moments and he talks about the longevity and success of Bellowhead, not forgetting the new Bellowhead album Revival on which he has written three arrangements.
Can you give me a brief history of recording with Bellowhead? I’m thinking about what has changed from the first EP, through working at Abbey Road and Rockfield.
The first EP was recorded, part by part, in a shed, and glued together into a vaguely coherent whole. There followed a couple of albums of finding our feet and trying to come to a consensus about what kind of sound we were wanting to make. While I love the scratchy sound of Matachin, and the cleaner, more contained sound of Burlesque, we came out of those recordings with a real awareness that we had yet to bottle what we do live. Hedonism and Abbey Road gave us an opportunity to really focus on that side of things – those were sessions in which, if a single person fluffed a note, we’d retake. Broadside was something of a transition record – we wanted a tighter sound with greater separation so we did rhythm section, horns and strings separately. And Revival is our first venture into pop production, although it’s debatable whether a band of our size and instrumentation can ever be said to have made a pop record!
I know there has been a slightly different approach to recording the new album, can you explain more?
The biggest change has been in using a producer, Rupert Christie, who has some serious arranging skills of his own. Before, the more self-indulgent or exploratory sections of arrangements would often go unchallenged, but Rupert is very much about shedding any unnecessary weight, so the whole thing becomes a lot more streamlined and direct. It was a weird mixture of daunting and a relief for me – the first time since I was a student composer that anyone has properly critiqued what I do.
How do you approach demos? I get the impression the parts for the latest round were particularly tightly prescribed.
We used to score them out and record horrible synth versions on our computers, but a few years back some of us got very excited about demoing up the many tracks that never made it to album, as well as some of the one-offs that we’d done for shows at the Southbank Centre and elsewhere. Well that idea has come to nothing as of yet, but it made us realise that enough of us had home studios, that we could probably put together very decent demos. So this time, with very little time to arrange and rehearse, and almost no time for group rehearsal, we recorded about 25 tracks at home, file-sharing them and mixing them ourselves. It wasn’t a particularly fun process – I certainly didn’t become a musician to sit in isolation staring at a computer screen – but there was a certain excitement that came from hearing the tracks take shape, part by part, and it gave us a much better idea of what directions needed to be followed up.
Technology must make a difference.
It makes life easier to an extent, but it also provides plenty of pitfalls, and over-reliance on it, it can make you stupid. I don’t use satnav because I like the idea of slowly accruing a mental map, and relying on myself to get from A to B (although in practice that often doesn’t work so well!). And it’s the same with music – bands like Spike Jones and the City Slickers who were able to record in front of one microphone and had the skill to blend their sounds in real time were on a musical level that we just don’t need to aspire to these days, and I think that can make our ears lazy. Still – we are where we are, and I’m very glad of it for the most part.
What are you own musical building blocks and milestones? What has shaped your own musical tastes?
In our house, my mum played Bach, my dad played Guy Clark, and my sister played Joy Division – it was good training in eclecticism. I was a fairly lonely and isolated teenager at times, and I took refuge in music. I didn’t do well in school, in fact I didn’t do well at anywhere until I managed to get myself onto the music degree at Goldsmith’s College, where a whole world opened itself up to me.
My feeling about being musically conservative is that it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face – no one suffers from your inability to take pleasure from a wide range of music but yourself. And it’s also symptomatic of distrust of your fellow humans – surely the fact that someone somewhere likes a genre should be enough inducement to check it out?
I guess I served a kind of self-imposed apprenticeship during and after my degree. I was in search of those key moments where it all comes alive, and I wanted to find it in as many musical settings as I could. There were all nighters at friends studios making acid house, hearing the same tracks at clubs a few nights later. Playing the snare drum cadenza in Nielsen’s 5th Symphony feeling like I’d faint at any moment. Playing Rai gigs that were a window into a London subculture I never knew existed. Being introduced to free improvisation by my friend Richard Sanderson, and later using the discipline I’d learned there to connect with dancers, actors, puppeteers and visual artists. And an incredible summer in Pembrokeshire, playing jazz in a jazz trio by the sea with Brendan and Gid (ex bh Helicon player).
Years ago, my partner told me that the essential property of a clown is that he says yes to everything – so I think it’s my nature to be a musical clown. I also thrive on collaboration – I’m at my happiest when I’m in the middle of chaos and confusion, trying to make sense of it.
At the controls of a musical time machine where would you set the dial? (You can have more than one destination.)
What do you think drives you as a musician?
It’s about bliss, whether the pleasure of live performance, the achievement of putting something together in the practice room, the satisfaction in seeing a student progress or the kick of writing something hooky or moving. Those are the feelings you key into to get you through the majority of the time when it’s hard work.
How do you try to incorporate your own musical personality in your writing? Also, what other things are you involved with and does everything join up?
I don’t worry about incorporating my musical personality in what I do for Bellowhead – in fact, I think more in terms of putting together something that allows the different members to shine. For an arrangement to work in a live setting it needs to have the space and the incentive for players to make it their own. Hopefully I’ve got a bit better at that part since Matachin, when I used to write hugely ornate scores full of complex notation.
I felt quite burnt out when Setsubun Bean Unit dissolved in 2011. I’d spent a year trying to tease an album’s worth of material out of a bunch of terrible recordings made in a smelly Tokyo basement, only to surface to find that everyone had moved on, and no label was interested in releasing an album by a continent-spanning band that had just split. It was the last rites for a long term musical friendship that had been hugely influential, my instinct was just to lie low – it felt like one big band was enough, particularly as in the midst of all the stress I was missing out on my daughter’s childhood.
But recently I’ve been hugely enjoying playing drums with Lisa Knapp, who is on riveting form and should by rights be at all the big folk festivals this summer. And I’ve been doing the occasional improv gig with folk like Richard Sanderson and Olly Coates. Last year I released an instrumental album based on my love of fungi on Richard’s label, Linear Obsessional, and immediately started working on its (very different) follow up, this time based on wildflowers. It’s the polar opposite to Bellowhead because in this case I am obsessing about musical personality and language – trying to feel my way to a non-reductive, organic way of rendering the sprawl and the tangle – the battleground – of the greensward. Part of it comes from having a dog and living at the base of the South Downs, and spending a lot of time observing and slowly becoming literate in the ways of plants and nature.
And finally, I’m really enjoying doing composition projects for theatre, dance and other disciplines at the moment.
You seem to have a penchant for the odd and off-beam in terms of source material, Black Beetle Pies and Moon Kittens being prime examples. Where do you source material from?
I’m definitely attracted to the strange – there’s an uncanny side to a lot of folk songs that comes from our being divorced from the wider social context (which must have been understood by earlier listeners, so is often not explained). So in The Oxford Girl, for instance, in one verse the subject and his love are talking of marriage, but in the next he clubs her to death with a stick. It’s really horrible, but it also has the sense of being subject to dream logic.
For many modern folksingers, I get the sense that if the material strikes them as impressionistic, it just means they haven’t understood the song’s background well enough. There’s a disapproval of anything but the deepest, most erudite reading of a song. But music is not erudition, in fact it’s at its best when unchained from words and the very specific demands that language makes. So for me it’s the opposite – the way in is to be relaxed about my inability to put myself in that specific cultural context (it’s an impossible act, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think otherwise, so why sweat it?), and allowing that uncanny quality to take me somewhere maybe very different to what the singers of the past envisaged. Sorry purists and historically informed performance fans, but there it is!
With Black Beetle Pies (which is from a broadside in the Bodleian Collection), the song raised so many questions – why would she do a thing like that? What kind of beetles were they? Surely it would be a lot of work to fill a whole pie with them? Likewise, Moon Kittens uses the nursery rhyme We’re All In The Dumps, which is so laden with nonsensical imagery that it seemed to be a case of surrealism before the fact. These are texts that ask more questions than they answer, and for me they’re often the ones that stick in the mind and demand a response.
Finally, my musical starting point is often – what new territory can we explore? I like those restless artists like Bowie and Bjork who radically change their sound from one album to the next. Obviously it’s harder to do that if you’re working with the same instrumentation each time, but I think that makes it even more important to think radically.
Tell me a bit about your three arrangements on Revival.
I almost didn’t write anything for this album. It takes a lot of work to put an arrangement together, and then what tends to happen is that a bunch get rejected, and the ones you record might not make it to record, and if they do they often get hidden away like a bunch of also-rans in the middle of the album where no one ventures. Jon’s set such a strong default for what people expect from the band, and I often wonder who I’m kidding, trying to peddle people all this weird shit they don’t want. But luckily in the case of Revival I had a stern word, told myself to man up, and came up with some tracks just in time!
Fine Sally is a tale of rejection and revenge that I first heard on a recording by the Appalachian singer, Cass Wallin. At first the level of vindictiveness that leads a spurned lover to dance on the grave of the lady who rejects him seems over the top, but you don’t have to look far for some pretty hideous modern day parallels. Despite all that it’s a jolly tune, even gleeful in parts.
Moon Kittens is an arrangement of the nursery rhyme Were All In The Dumps, which has been obsessing me for ages. I prepared a version for Matachin, but it wasn’t right, so I reworked it and revised it. There must have been about fifteen different tunes for it over the years – none of them quite hit the mark – they were all just too humdrum. Then I was listening to the radio and a bunch of John Barry’s Bond themes were being played, and it struck me how the musical effect of a lot of those classic tracks is to very cleverly signpost your passage into another world – somewhere richer, sexier and stranger, where nothing is as it seems. My best guess is that Were All In The Dumps is a fragment of mad song – the references to the moon, fortune and extreme moods, as well as the bizarre imagery all point that way – so the idea of drawing a parallel with the exotica of Bond felt like a good direction to take it in. It also harks back to when I was a buyer in the Easy Listening section of the Virgin Megastore on Tottenham Court Road during the Nineties Lounge craze – I have a huge selection of great music from forgotten geniuses of film scoring like Bruno Nicolai and Peter Thomas.
Rosemary Lane comes from an Irish version of Scarborough Fair by Liz Jefferies. The melody is unique as far as I know, and it completely earwormed me. Usually I feel a sense of deflation when I finish an arrangement. What I want to do is capture the magic of the original and to take it into uncharted waters. But what so often happens is that only the uncharted waters remain – the object itself has been utterly changed by the reworking – and that’s ok too. But Rosemary Lane is one of a handful of arrangements that I feel I have succeeded in keeping the spirit of the original alive – maybe in this case because it’s such a simple tune, maybe because Jon sings the hell out of it.
Once an arrangement is presented to the band is there an organic process in refining it? Do you find you have to compromise, especially if there is a producer?
There was in the making of Hedonism, and to a lesser extent Broadside, but this time round not so much. Benji, Squeezy and I were recording at the same time, so we managed to focus in on the rhythmic side of things as a group, which really helped, and we were all very willing to compromise. I’ve done studio sessions where I’ve really fought my corner in the past – Matachin for one – but I made a decision to trust Rupert at the outset, and it was comfortable, because there’s nothing worse that a control room full of band members all trying to make their voices heard.
What are your favourite Bellowhead moments either specific or general? What are you, most proud of with Bellowhead?
I think being a good and useful musician is largely about being a good and useful human being. If you can learn to love and respect your bandmates, and treat them half decently, then provided you have something to say and the skill to say it, good things will follow. I’m really proud that we’ve functioned as a collective for ten years and that we still get on well – it feels like a massive achievement in itself.
The eclecticism that I mention above, I used to struggle with it. While musician friends were committing wholeheartedly to jazz, to rock, or to composition, I was never able to narrow my horizons like that. The one thing that I was sure of, though, was that I wanted to be involved in something huge and joyous. Whether the joy was all about dancing, P-Funk style, or about simple affirmation like Arvo Part’s Credo (from the Berliner Mass), or even the glossolalia, panic and jazz yodelling of Pharaoh Saunders’ The Creator Has a Master Plan – I didn’t really care. So it’s a real dream come true to be in a band that prides itself on a big, joyous live show. The thought that the energy and positivity we project makes a difference to peoples lives is a source of huge pride.
As for specific moments – far too many to mention!
Interview by: Simon Holland
Bellowhead – Revival (Out 23 June 2014)
Deluxe Edition Tracklisting
- Let Her Run
- Roll Alabama
- Fine Sally
- Let Union Be
- Moon Kittens
- Rosemary Lane
- Gosport Nancy
- I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
- Seeds of Love
- Jack Lintel
- Greenwood Side
2CD Deluxe Bonus disc:
- Proper Swell
- Roseville Fair
Photo Credit: Mark Holloway