If you spend a few minutes reading the ‘about’ section of The Unthanks’ website, especially the more irreverent blagger’s guide, you can’t help but admire the contrary delight they take in describing themselves, and you might be forgiven for thinking that Adrian’s at it again. We are gathered for a playback of the new album, Mount The Air, on vinyl. It’s certainly an unusual way of launching a record these days, but the event, is being held in a bar / restaurant called Brilliant Corners in Dalston. It’s the regular venue for Classic Album Sundays and indeed, Colleen Murphy, that event’s founder, is acting as a co-host, as well as providing the requisite, expensive hi-fi used for the playback. Also present is Paul Morley, an avowed fan of The Unthanks, who is interviewing them in situ and Adrian has just dropped the line, “To be honest I’m not really pro vinyl.”
You might think that disingenuous given the way the event is being staged, but it strongly echoes something that he said to me when we talked a couple of weeks previously. He’s making a serious point. While vinyl sales have grabbed some headlines of late, largely because of the steady rise of interest in a format that was supposed to have been killed by CD, it’s not a panacea for the declining music industry and in some ways it’s a distraction from the very real, slow demise of record labels. Sales of the format might be up, but compared side by side with the pre CD era, they are but a tiny fraction. Manufacturing capacity is understandably also much reduced, making it expensive stuff to make, with its bulk and weight adding considerably to transport and storage costs.
Adrian has a point and even as the conversation turns towards the making of the album as an artistic statement he holds a controversial line. He argues that the record as a statement is simply a construct of the carrier and that a hundred years hence, history may well view it very differently. Music form and function have always been closely linked, whether on the grand scale of symphonies to impress kings and emperors, or stripped of all but words and a tune, to be sung in fields and on street corners, or played quickly on small portable instruments to set a dance in motion at every given opportunity in any given town or village.
Besides, arguably Mount The Air at 60 minutes long is better suited to CD or indeed the digital download of your choice, especially if you want to think of it in terms of a complete work. It’s pressed over three sides of vinyl with all of the faff that is therefore involved. That might be no problem for a confirmed vinylophile like me, but for the majority, there is simply too much instant stuff (and valuable missed tweeting time) to distract, making the physical changing an LP into a herculian labour.
At the same time it’s CD and legitimate download sales that have taken the major hit, in some cases falling off a cliff. Here Adrian asserts that record companies in general and artists in particular have simply not done enough to protect the market. It’s a very good point to note the power of the musicians’ voices to reach people in songs, but not enough has been said, there is no coordination or consistency, so the idea that you can simply have something for nothing has opened Pandora’s musical box.
They are all good points and although Adrian isn’t really offering solutions, it’s a measure of someone who thinks deeply about what they do and also cares passionately about making music, trying to hold on to integrity and also a sustainable income. If he does enjoy confounding those gathered, he also routinely surprises us with the music that The Unthanks make and the two things go hand-in-hand.
In getting the feature and interview set up, Adrian is clearly a very busy man and I speak to Rachel a couple of times, who advises persistence. She also acknowledges that Adrian is the organiser, but Becky will later caution that he is also the worrier with the weight of responsibility. That’s perhaps natural given that Adrian is also the band’s strategist and the principal architect of their unique sound, so attention to detail is plainly key.
Despite Rachel’s warning it actually isn’t that complicated and when we get to talk, he’s effusive, and very easy to talk to, although juggling childcare, with Rachel in the background. The oldest has just been dropped off at nursery, but the youngest is still at home. In fact all of The Unthanks are generous with their time and naturally talkative, giving me two hours worth of material to pick through. Again Becky confesses, “Rachel and I never record our vocals together, if we did, we’d never get anything done, we’d just be talking all of the time.”
I start by asking all three of them about the singing weekends that they are currently in the middle of and something that seems both a natural extension of Unthanks’ activity, but also suggest an holistic business model, which in the current climate must have its merits. That latter notion, if not actually dismissed, is certainly confounded again, as Adrian explains, “The one thing that the newbies have to get used to is the idea that it isn’t about the privilege of meeting us, as we’re all running round after them. It’s priced to be inclusive and that’s what we aim for. That’s why we have it at a place with a bunk house and tepees, there are no pretentions at luxury, but just the idea that we can share a good time together.”
Becky offers a slightly different view saying, “It was an idea of Rachel’s originally, but we’ve been doing them for five years and they’ve taken on a life of their own. I mean what can be better than spending a weekend with a bunch of nice people eating, drinking and singing songs.” Rachel also credits her sister telling me, “Becky and I had been thinking about growing up and the experience we’d had of being able to sing as part of a larger group in a pub or choir. It’s such a different thing to singing on your own and without getting cheesy, can be really uplifting. It’s amazing how quickly sharing that brings down the barriers between people and the bonds between everyone are really strong.”
In some ways the idea for the weekends also came as a result of the pressures of being away from home touring. More specifically Becky highlights, “Boxing day is one of our favourite days of the year. For a long time we’ve been to see a traditional play, revived by our dad, and then afterwards everyone goes to the pub for a mass sing. There are some amazing people who turn up, the Wilsons and all sorts. You really can’t hear Rachel and me in the midst of that lot, but it’s what we grew up with.” Rachel adds, “People singing as a group, there’s nothing precious about it. It’s gone in an instant, so if you don’t get it quite right, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not learning in the academic sense, but it is how we’ve learnt to sing. There’s nothing magic about it either, it’s not even that we’re especially gifted, but working like that has given us the confidence to find our own voices.”
It all goes beyond the trio, however, as Becky again adds detail, “Our families are invaluable. It’s the little things like baby sitting and cake making.” While Adrian wishes, “It would be great if the kitchen was better with just a little ventilation,” Rachel adds with a laugh, “It appeals to the frustrated restaurateur in him.” Becky also laughs as she confesses, “It’s all become a bit of a love in,” and continues, “It’s amazing how lives get intertwined. One of the girls who comes did my wedding photos and someone else told me that our mutual friend Natalie was an artist. I’d only just met her and didn’t know, but it’s her artwork on the album cover.”
It’s absolutely clear from talking to the three of them how this is as much about putting something back and the real communal place for folksong as anything, as Adrian explains, “People worry about what level they have to be at, but we very quickly put them at their ease, it’s about letting go.” Becky confirms the diversity of the people saying, “Some are real folkies like us, but others are just music fans, it really doesn’t matter.” Rachel sums up, “It gets quite emotional by the end.”
I suppose I was guilty of seeing this as an extension of The Unthanks’ cottage industry, including the Diversions series in that as well, but Adrian is keen to make a distinction, “The self contained thing is alright for the freedom and artistic control that it gives you, but we had a very successful relationship with EMI. There was a deal on the table for this record too, in fact more than one offer, but in the end it made more sense to do it ourselves. I like the idea of labels as investors in talent, but they want to take too big a slice of the pie and because music sales are down they try to wrap up these 360˚ deals.”
None the less as a model of how to build towards a sustainable future, The Unthanks have a lot going on that others could emulate. Most importantly, under their own steam, they’ve made Mount The Air, which on any terms is an important work of art. In part two they talk about the making of the record.
Mount The Air is out now via their own label, RabbleRouser Music.
Mount The Air Tour
21 Feb Southampton Turner Sims
22 Feb Exeter Corn Exchange
24 Feb Yeovil Octagon Theatre
25 Feb Bristol Colston Hall
26 Feb Cardiff St George’s Hall
27 Feb Nottingham Albert Hall
28 Feb Sheffield City Hall
01 Mar Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
03 Mar Bury St Edmunds The Apex
04 Mar Brighton Dome
05 Mar Ashford Revelation St Mary’s
06 Mar Norwich Open
07 Mar London The Roundhouse
08 Mar Warwick Arts Centre
10 Mar Leeds Irish Centre
11 Mar Manchester The Ritz
12 Mar Dublin National Concert Hall
13 Mar Belfast Empire
14 Mar Newcastle City Hall
19 Mar Middlesbrough Town Hall
20 Mar Edinburgh Queens Hall