I hope he doesn't mind me saying this but we in Edinburgh miss Rob St John and so his visits up here are always something to look forward to and cherish. His two EPs and evocative live performances left a lot of good memories and as he headed down to Oxford for academic (and now professional) life it was with a bittersweet realisation that appearances back in the city would become quite rare. So it was with great delight (to me anyway!) that Rob would be playing not one, but two times in the space of a few days earlier this month - supporting Ryan Francesconi and headlining the second Ides of Toad gig put on by Matthew Young of the Song, By Toad label and blog. Rob very kindly took time out from his busy schedule while he was in the city to answer some questions I sent to him.
You’re back up in Scotland to play a couple of shows – how do you find coming back up to play now that you’ve been away? i.e. is there anything you miss from your time in Edinburgh or anything you don’t!
Edinburgh will always be very important to me, there’s a very special community of interesting people approaching music in an inspiring way, and I plan to come back in the next year or two. As a place it seeps into most things I write, butting up against the dark Lancashire moors in some imagined mental terrain.
Everyone involved in the LP recording and live set in Edinburgh - Neil Pennycook (Meursault, Withered Hand), Ian Humberstone (Tissø Lake) Tom Western, Malcolm Benzie and Bart Owl (eagleowl), Rob Waters (The Great Bear), Tom Bauchop (UNPOC), Louise Martin, Owen Williams (Pineapple Chunks, Randan Discotheque et al) - has their own main going concerns. We brace and buckle each other’s projects, cross-pollinating ideas and support networks as we go. This project wouldn’t be the same without them.
Following on from that, how is Oxford for a musician such as yourself? I have no knowledge about it as a place for bands so I’m interested to hear what it’s like. Do you play many shows down there or is there a similar thriving musical community such as the one in Scotland? Obviously, it’s like comparing apples and oranges but it would be good to get your perspective now that you’ve been there a while.
This is related to the previous question (and you might have already answered it !) but you were involved in a recording with The Braindead Collective that was released in December. How did that collaboration come about and what was it like recording with them? Would you like to work more with them in the future?
It’s certainly different. Despite being there for the best part of 18 months, I’ve yet to find anything comparable to the Scottish DIY community. But perhaps that’s just through a lack of effort, or luck. For all that any scene or community may intend to be open and approachable, the fact that it’s small in scale and niche in taste, aesthetic or ethos means that it may simply be difficult to find for anybody aspiring to get involved. Relating back to Edinburgh, I suppose this is where (unfounded, in my opinion) accusations of nepotism within the DIY scene stem from.
That said, Braindead Collective are a likeminded, shifting bunch of talented improvisers based loosely in London and Oxford around Seb Reynolds. Recording "The Whites of their Eyes" was a great process - set up in a medieval city centre Oxford church with banks of amps, organs and percussion in a frozen winter weekend and improv over a freshly formed song. We’re playing a collaborative set opening for A Hawk and a Hacksaw in April, and will keep working together, for sure.
I’m currently taking this experience of moving cities and using it as the basis of a fanzine which documents how best to start DIY promotion. A screenprinted and letterpressed document, it’ll collate advice and anecdotes from a bunch of promoters who’re willing to share their hard-won wisdom. Something cheap to sell on merch tables to inspire a new raft of people forging creative communities with a DIY approach.
I believe we can expect a full length LP from you soon! Can you tell us how that’s going, i.e. what the recording process is/was like, the people involved and who plays on the record and what they bring to the process. It’s coming out on Song, By Toad Records – did Matthew approach you with a view to releasing it or did you always see SBT as a good home for you.
We recorded for two days with Neil in a shutter-drawn Victorian living room in north Edinburgh under the weak kaleidoscopic light of an ailing mirror ball like some slow film, and powered on by bananas and strong coffee. It’s a record of events, strung together by creaks and drones. Songs for daybreak and for evening gloam.
Matthew is very enthusiastic, organised, supportive and tolerant of my whims of creative control and artistic vagaries, and is keen to put the record out on vinyl, which is fantastic. We work well together.
Your music has evolved over the time I’ve seen you play from quieter, acoustic songs with harmoniums and the like to you using an electric guitar and having a more heavier and, dare I say it, doomier feel! What led to the change in sound and was it something that came naturally to you? Has your writing process changed in that you’re writing specifically for songs that are designed to be played on the electric rather than the acoustic guitar?
The LP is swathed in skittering drums and bells, harmonium, saw, organ, fiddle and group singing. I was thinking about how group singing has almost exclusively become professionalised and institutionalised in Britain, resulting in the widespread loss of the tradition of communities singing together simply for fun, storytelling or togetherness. Regardless of communal harmony or skill, there’s something liberating about the shared purpose of group singing – something like a football chant without the daft puns (largely) or wavering moral compass.
Similarly, I’m fascinated by the idea of rough music (or ran-tanning) - where a chorus of villagers would ostracise a criminal or wrongdoer with a loud, primal chant and the clatter of saucepans, drums and cymbals. Bill Drummond’s 17 project , where a rotating cast of 17 amateur singers were assembled to sing compositions based on ideas such as the tones and harmonies made by the machinery of a rusting, whirring old Land Rover driven from Hull to Liverpool , is also inspiring. That rediscovery of remaining a happy amateur and emphasising something crafted and communal, rather than necessarily forged from high art, is an idea that resonates (hmm…) with me.
That said, all the players on the record are excellent musicians, well versed in tolerating my oscillating and improvised recording ideas. Held together on some tightrope of other’s talent tapering into waveringly tuneful slips of songs. The recording is the document of the time, the room, the line-up and the available instruments. The live show is constantly changing; hopefully remaining fresh and interesting for all involved, audience and performers alike. The live performance is where I think the true nature of a song is formed and continually redefined.
Played live, songs mutate: becoming louder, quieter, faster, slower, heavier, sparser. I think when you begin to hone and over-practice a set of songs you run the risk of reducing meaningful lyrics or melodies into slick anonymous products, asking to be watered-down and endlessly recited.
The songs are largely in some invented altered guitar tuning or other. You become that happy amateur again when forced to play your hand in an unfamiliar tuning, inadvertently rediscovering the love of the Cs, Gs and Fs you shun as an aspirational learner set on forging something original. Happy accidents as simple phrases played on new or unfamiliar instrument sound exciting and fully formed. Once when touring with Woodpigeon I left a guitar tuned in this way in a musician’s B&B in Manchester, only to return a week later to find the owners had fallen for the tuning and were eager to find out what it was. Guiltily I quickly retuned to standard, for fear of discovery. Tunings can do strange things to a man.
I’ve been listening to a lot of dense, dark, droney music lately, which has most likely influenced the record. A course of Grouper, Lichens, Richard Skelton, Swans, Earth and Ben Frost, punctuated by the crystalline, improvised clarity of Tsegué-Maryam Guébrou’s piano playing, and the songs of Phil Elverum, Ben Wetherill, Karen Dalton and Elizabeth Cotten. That said, when recording, Owen and I took to communicating with each other in code: this song should sound like a frozen waterfall slowly melting; this one should sound as if Low were from a Northumberland pit village. How this cryptic daftness carries through I have no idea.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the process of field recording, and working on a soundtrack documenting a short walk along the River Thames between Oxford and the tiny, mediaeval Binsey Church. When played back, the wheezing, faltering phantom hymnal of the harmonium recorded in the thick churchyard gloom sounds almost identical sonically to some of the distortions made by the wind whirring into my cheap dictaphone whilst field recording. Inadvertent coincidences like this really inspired the shifting, somnambulant aural fog that clouds this record.
Finally, what are your hopes and plans for the year? Obviously the release of the LP will be uppermost in your mind so is it a case of promoting that and playing shows around the country?
I’m very proud of the record, and all who’ve contributed and been involved. I’ll hopefully be able to get to play out a bit more this year. Perhaps a wee bit further afield than before. The second LP is almost written, and will be recorded in the summer. Pablo Clark (My Kappa Roots, Milk) and I will make a (long overdue) homage to "Bert and John" in the near future, a project formulated six years ago in tiny Edinburgh flats as we traded our fledgling, whispered tunes, and argued over who should be "Bert" and who should be "John". I’m also working on a bunch of soundtrack, film and writing projects, exploring ideas of place, memory, landscape and sound. And the fanzine. Sleep is taking a wee bit of a back seat at the moment.
It sounds as if there's a lot going on creatively with Rob at the moment and I know a lot of people will be looking forward to what he comes up with. Personally speaking, the prospect of a record with Pablo Clark is something I can't wait to hear, but that's only one part of the future. Exciting times ahead, always moving, never complacent. It's something that we could all do well to heed as we go forward ourselves.