Sam Carter and Jim Moray had both been longstanding entries on my ‘list of people I’d like to interview’ as individual artists. So the recent emergence of False Lights, the combined folk-rock brainchild of Sam and Jim, seemed just too good an opportunity to be true.
The term ‘super-group’ has been used a fair amount in relation to False Lights, and whilst the band may not particularly like the term, the line-up always promised to be something special featuring not only Sam and Jim but also Nick Cooke from the Kate Rusby band on melodeon, Tom Moore from Moore, Moss Rutter on violin, Jon Thorne from Lamb on bass, and Sam’s long serving drummer Sam Nadel. Supergroup indeed….
I met up with the band in Birmingham on the last date of their tour to mark the release of their remarkable debut album ‘Salvor’. Sam and Jim had plenty to say about their new project:
FRUK: So gents, this is the last date of your ‘Salvor’ release tour?
Jim: Last date yeah. I suppose Salvor release festivities are going to go on for quite a while but this is the last date of the first proper tour. We did two dates in December, and then before that we did the one festival. We’d done a lot of playing together because we did a week’s rehearsal as well. Also we’ve all played before with various people in this band…we weren’t complete strangers. But we haven’t really played with all six of us together that often, not in front of people anyway.
Sam: It’s good to have a chance to do a run of dates back to back, for everything to bed in a bit.
Jim: I think it’s quite important for a band anyway to spend some time together. All those bits in between being on stage are quite important for making the music tighter. I think folk music…the way it is and the way it’s gone the last decade, maybe twenty years…has gone a bit like jazz, where everybody plays with everybody, but quite often bands meet at the soundcheck and then all play together and then all go their separate ways because everybody’s so busy. So actually having some to spend in a group…go and do things on the days off together, eat together, go to the bar in the hotel afterwards together…is probably quite important for the development of the band. That’s what we hadn’t done until this point. We’d written all the music and meticulously planned it out, but we hadn’t gone and hung out.
FRUK: How’s the tour gone overall?
Sam: Really good. We’ve had better than expected turnouts at the gigs…
Jim: …and better than expected response to the record, which only came out on Monday, so it’s been a really long run up and a really good time playing. I think it’s all gelled really quickly.
FRUK: On the subject of the album, which by the way is bloody brilliant, how have you found performing the tracks from the album live? Have they translated well to the stage?
Sam: We always had ‘live’ in mind. That was the big thing with this band, we wanted it to be a thing that would work live and that would give a great experience live. So I think they translated very easily…
Jim: This project’s been unique for me because I’ve never made something where it’s all been done ‘for real’. That makes it sound like I’ve been faking it! But you know what I mean? There’s a fiddle, a melodeon, two guitars, bass and drums on every track…it was designed to be played live and the record doesn’t deviate that much. So it’s not been a problem to play it because it was all done for real on the record.
FRUK: Which track, or tracks from the album, have you found you’ve most enjoyed performing?
Jim: ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’ is probably the centrepiece of the record for me. It’s the first track on the record, but it comes in the centre of the set. I think that’s most indicative of what this band is all about at this point. But I’ve really enjoyed doing ‘The Indian’s Petition’ as well. That’s been a bit of a…not underdog, what’s the word?
Sam: Late Developer!
Jim: It’s one that I’ve enjoyed far more than I expected…
Sam: It’s the only ballad really, in terms of being slow and quiet…
Jim: I think it’s maybe because it’s not something that we do…sing in close harmony for long periods of time…neither of us have really had a chance to do that often. So getting to do that with this band is really nice.
FRUK: So rewinding slightly, how did False Lights come to be?
Sam: It was a conversation we had in a bar in Bury. It was at the ‘Homegrown’ folk expo weekend. It was just a conversation about…this sounds like it was commercially driven, but…there was a gap in the folk festival scene where there hadn’t really been somebody or a band who’d done folk-rock, but in a contemporary way. So to take the influences that people like Fairport Convention and bands like that had taken but to do that again almost as though it hadn’t happened, and start over again with the rock music of the time. To an extent, deliberately reinvent the wheel of the folk-rock thing. We thought well, probably nobody will do it if we don’t do it.
Jim: I don’t think it sounds commercially driven because what it comes down to is…the music that combines all the things I like listening to, didn’t exist. There are lots of things that are nearly there. The ideas had been brewing for a while. We grew up listening to similar music, in probably quite similar towns as well, so finding other people that have been listening to the same records that you have…and then seeking them out and making them all form a band…to make the music that we all wanted to hear.
Sam: In terms of the musicians, I guess what we’ve ended up with is a combination of people that Jim and I have either worked with on our own solo work independently, or people that we know on the folk scene from having worked more generally at festivals and so on…just spotted people and gone ‘they’re the master at what they do’. We’ve ended up with what to us feels like…I hate to use the term ‘supergroup’…but everybody is a really good musician. I just feel ridiculously lucky every time we play.
Jim: They all have the same set of interests as well. Everybody here is into playing traditional music, but also in listening to the sort of guitar music that pushes the edges a bit…the Radiohead’s of the world, the Sigur Rós’s of the world…that sort of stuff. So it’s fitted together quite well.
FRUK: Can you talk about the process of making the album?
Sam: It started in a log cabin in Lincolnshire in December the year before last. We’d talked about it before then but we decided to go away and…
Jim: …get it together in the country!
Sam: We’d independently worked on tracks that we thought might work and we’d had a lot of phone conversations and so on. We got together and work-shopped them, thrashed them out between us…practiced and experimented, turned things upside down. By the end of the week we had half of the record.
Jim: We had the key tracks. We had the four key ones that were on the vinyl EP, so ‘Skewball’ which was a fairly defining track, ‘Polly On The Shore’ was really defining, ‘Crossing The Bar’ was really defining and ‘The Maid Of Australia’ has, I guess, shaped a bit of the record. So that covered all the bits we were going to do…the heavy guitar thing…
FRUK: So that set of songs came together quite quickly? Or did it take a while to work it out?
Jim: It didn’t take a while to work out but it did take some intense work.
Sam: I think it was finding a way to work and finding a process. We were finding a way to play to each other’s strengths because I’d never worked with Jim in that capacity before…I’d worked with him as a musician, we did the Morris On thing together…but to actually make music together and arrange stuff together…it was about finding the best way to do that.
Jim: Where these sort of songs often fall down is if you take the obvious route it sometimes doesn’t work. It didn’t take a lot of time but the bit where it can fall by the wayside is losing sight of your original idea. So coming with something that you don’t know how to do and then sticking with it until you know how to do it. So with ‘Polly On The Shore’ I knew exactly how I wanted it to feel, but I just didn’t know how to make it feel like that. So it took quite a lot of delicate work to get all the balances right. And then once we had…we had a blueprint.
Sam: Then we had another session doing the same thing in Bristol at Jim’s place, six months later or something like that. The other half of the record came out then.
Jim: ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’ came out of that. For that one Sam had emailed me some tracks of just him playing guitar and singing that I then ruthlessly cut up and butchered! With ‘Polly On The Shore’ and ‘The Wife Of Users Well’ there was something that Sam was doing, that I couldn’t do…
Sam: But then Jim took it in ways that I wouldn’t have taken it…
Jim: There were things that neither of us could have done on our own. With ‘Polly On The Shore’ it was pretty much me sort of using Sam’s left hand to make things that I can’t play on the guitar but that he would never have done…there are bits of those chord sequences that could only have come out of the two of us. That’s nice for me because I haven’t done that much truly collaborative stuff because you never have time or the inclination.
FRUK: What are your hopes and aspirations for the album?
Jim: I guess we just hope people take it in the spirit it was intended. It’s always difficult with this because there’s a big and thriving folk audience and they like all of the things that they know. So if you’re trying to do something that’s not the thing that they know, it can get a bit tricky. So I hope people will listen to it with an open mind and hear what it actually is…rather than they think it is.
Sam: I think going by the audiences…the responses have been quite interesting because we’ve been playing at places like the Live Room and thinking ‘I hope this isn’t too loud and weird for everybody’…and then I said that to somebody in the crowd and they said ‘No, we want it louder and weirder!’. We are doing something where’s there’s enough recognisable stuff in it I think and landmarks in the sounds that we make that people know…and then adding to that something that is hopefully new and interesting.
Jim: You sort of need to buy yourself a license…you need to take people with you. So you do need to start from a place that they recognise and then take them on the journey. I think we need to buy ourselves a license to be weirder and louder…the next set of songs we do will definitely be ‘weirder and louder’!
FRUK: That sounds like an album title!
Working title, definitely! It’s a pretty lofty ambition, but then again this whole band has been about fairly lofty ambitions. The ultimate thing is to move the centre of the folk scene slightly more towards you, rather than moving slightly towards it. So we haven’t really compromised with the band…this record is what we wanted to do and this band has who we wanted to have in it…they all said yes and they’ve all been great to play with.
FRUK: Speaking about the band, as well as the end product of this project (which is fantastic), how much do you feel you’ve all developed as artists through the experience of doing this project?
Sam: I think a lot of the performance is a thing that’s in development. In terms of being on stage doing this kind of thing…the loud rock band thing…it’s a different way of presenting music than me and Jim would be used to i.e. standing in a folk club with an acoustic guitar. We do stuff with bands and other musicians as well but this is different.
Jim: I’ve been really enjoying standing at the side of the stage and letting Sam be the singer…that’s been a bit of development because he’s slightly better at it than me! But learning to perform in front of an audience is something that you can only learn in front of an audience, so that’s still going on. I just think this is the sort of music I’ve always wanted to make, but this is the best it’s ever been because there are people to work with and it’s sharing the load and elevating the whole thing.
Sam: I generally find that artist development is basically about getting out of your own way and letting go a little bit. For me the band has been a continual process of letting go…having an idea and going Ok, I trust Jim to do his thing on it or trust Sam to do his thing on it…the more you can give in to that, the more the band becomes a cohesive thing and it’s not everyone trying to pull in their own direction. It becomes this collective and it works together, as Jim says, as something that’s stronger than the sum of its parts. I think when you’re a solo act as well, you become very independent and self-sufficient in a lot of ways and I think the downside to that is that sometimes it can be hard to allow other people into the process and that for me has been the developing this.
FRUK: What’s been the most difficult aspect of False Lights so far?
Sam: Just working out where everyone’s going to stay!
Jim: Working out how we’re going to pay for it and where everyone’s going to stay has been hard. When your utopian dream of a band collides with the real world it’s always tricky!
Sam: Yeah, where the rubber hits the road…literally!
FRUK: And what’s the best thing about this whole experience for you guys so far?
Sam: Just being on stage…it’s been so much fun.
Jim: The best thing is being successful with the thing you initially thought of. I feel really proud of the way it’s come together as it should have done. It hasn’t been watered down, it hasn’t been compromised to get to that point. If you see something through to the end people will like it…they’ll come, they’ll buy merch and they’ll enjoy it.
Sam: The album has been a realisation of that conversation we had…the conversation was basically just is us saying let’s do the thing we enjoy that we haven’t done yet. That’s what the album represents and so we’re really pleased with that.
FRUK: So where do you go from here?
Jim: Well, lots of festivals…as many festivals as we can get and then hopefully more festivals next year as well. And then more songs and more writing. The album has been out a week so there’s a lot more to go on that. There’s so much more mileage in this band. We never wanted it to be a side project or a temporary thing…it’s not been put together to get an Arts Council application approved or to tick any boxes or anything. It’s been put together because we really, really wanted to see this band.
Sam: I’m really excited to make the next record. I know this one’s only just come out but I want to see where it ends up.”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
25/07 – Trowbridge, The Village Pump Folk Festival
21/08 – nr. Woodbridge, Folk East Festival
31/08 – Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury Folk Festival
05/09 – Birmingham, Moseley Folk Festival
You can now order the album from Bandcamp with instant downloads.
The album comes in three levels :
• An instant download in your choice of format (from mp3 to audiophile formats)
• A CD copy of Salvor, plus an instant download
• A deluxe package of Salvor on CD, plus an exclusive ‘Live At Folk East’ digital mini-album, plus an instant download
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos