'Are You In A Cult Or Something?' Transept Interviewed
, March 21st, 2013 05:09
Bowed bicycle wheels, a deer head turned into a Theremin, vuvuzela solos, a cover of Art Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes'? Norfolk trio Transept speak to Joe Clay about the sheer love of sound that they channeled into their delightfully drone-ridden new album Buff As Fuck
Photo by Dan Bosworth
First impressions are important, especially in music, when journalists are drowning in piles of promo CDs and streaming links. So it's taking a calculated risk to title your album Buff As Fuck. It's the sort of thing a clueless executive might insist a malleable gym-honed boy band call their record, and a title that conjures up images of characters in The Only Way is Essex remarking on the latest hunk to swagger into the tanning salon. Of course, the discerning journalist should dig deeper and never judge a book by its cover (in this case, a bubblegum pink and baby blue mountain range, with the title in floral script), but two-thirds of Norwich-based noise-synth/drone trio Transept, Alex Sanders and Phil Archer, admit that naming things isn't their strong point. "The title has polarised people a bit," explains Archer, as part of an email interview conducted with the band. "Because we don't really write 'songs', naming tracks is always a tricky part of the process."
Indeed, Transept don't write songs – not in the traditional verse, chorus, verse, chorus sense. Instead they peddle a beguiling mix of drones, fuzzy feedback, melancholic space-rock, ancient folk and spooky electronica, a concoction that started on their excellent debut (entitled TRSPT001 after its catalogue number: further proof of their aversion to naming things) and is continued with Buff As Fuck, which is again released on their own Dronehenge Records label. Further alienating the casual listener, the opening track on BAF is 'Happysburgh', an epic 15-minute drone piece that ebbs and flows but barely changes sonically over the course of its duration.
In this context, the album title does make some kind of sense. "Opening with a 15-minute drone could be seen as a kind of macho, posturing move," admits Sanders. But Transept are definitely not a macho band. The hirsute trio (Liam Wells is the third member) met while studying in Norwich, bonding over a love of cool noises and the bizarre homemade instruments that give Transept compositions their distinctive edge. Their first album was funded by a grant from Arts Council East and they have started to build a following through their live sets, which take the form of long-form improvisations to make each performance unique. But a serious demeanour is balanced by a surreal sense of humour – one live set included a version of Queen's 'We Will Rock You' embellished by vuvuzelas, and they also recorded an alternative soundtrack to the emotive lapine animation Watership Down. A haunting cover of Art Garfunkel's No 1 single, 'Bright Eyes', closes Buff As Fuck.
"As a band we sometimes wrestle with conventions and expectations, and doubt our intuition," says Archer. "We kept saying, 'Can we really release an album called Buff As Fuck that opens with a 15-minute drone track and closes with a cover of 'Bright Eyes'?' We think it's great, but what will everyone else think?"
Well, if these ears are anything to go by, the superlatives will be being rolled out from all quarters. As well as the aforementioned songs, stand-out tracks on Buff As Fuck (which you can listen to via the embed below) include 'Muscle Beach', which recalls Fuck Buttons with its fizzing synths, portentous drones and military percussion, and 'Sea Sentinel', which marries delightful plinky-plonky electronics with delicate folk. A further seal of quality comes with the fact that the album is mixed by kraut-tech wunderkind and fellow Norfolker Luke Abbott, and while it seems unlikely that Transept will ever notch a chart-topping single of their own, their intuition is working fine – dodgy album titles notwithstanding.
There's not a huge amount of information out there about Transept – perhaps that's how you like it, but... who are you? Can you tell me a bit about your respective backgrounds and how you came together as Transept.
Alex Sanders: We met in Norwich. I was starting a Composition and Sound Art Master's degree just as Phil was finishing his PhD. We were in the university studio together quite a lot, with Phil showing me the way. Liam was working at the Art School in Norwich but there was a lot of cross over between the two institutions in those days. Norwich is not a big place and it's enthusiastic – if you're making music of any kind you can't help but meet everyone else.
In trying to pinpoint references, I can clearly hear the evocative melodies of traditional Eastern and English folk music in the mix – both at the same time on 'Antler Song'. Are you interested in musical heritage and folk traditions? What are your influences?
Phil Archer: We love all kinds of music from experimental, avant-garde composition through to well-crafted pop songs, and don't really consciously worry about where our influences come from. 'Antler Song' started out with Alex shutting himself away in the studio for a few hours, and coming out blinking into the light with a demo of a track that sounded like a cross between a call to prayer and 'Wonderful Christmastime' (in a good way). I'd had it in my head for a while that I wanted to build an instrument by putting guitar strings on a deer's antler and bowing it, so once I'd made that I tried playing along to Alex's track. The album version is a very stripped-down arrangement of that combination. I personally love the folk traditions of instrument building and incorporating whatever objects and sounds are around you into musical activity, so that's definitely an influence.
AS: Yeah I wouldn't say those were particular influences, beyond folk permeating music generally. Folk traditions aren't something any of us are specifically into, but everything's interesting isn't it?
When you're working with drones and repetitions, how do you decide how long a piece of music should be? Is it quite arbitrary or is there a deliberate attempt to create a certain mood through endurance? I'm thinking songs like 'Happysburgh', of course, in relation to this question.
PA: We're all into La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock – that kind of long-duration music – so it's certainly an influence. With 'Happysburgh' it was quite an organic, intuitive process where we started with the chord sequence and keyboard sound and just played it a lot, trying out different arrangements and structures. The version on the record is a live take, and that's how long it seemed like it needed to be to work. We spent quite a while in the mixing stage trying to edit it down, thinking we could "tighten it up", but the pacing never worked. It needed to be that length to give people the chance to let it wash over them and get drawn into it.
AS: I remember seeing Tony Conrad doing his violin drone stuff. It started off amazingly, but after about 45 minutes I was bored out of my mind! Then by about 60 minutes it was mindblowingly absorbing in a way that I don't think it would have been if you hadn't had to persevere. It totally rewarded you for sticking with it. I thought that was a good lesson – you don't have to make it hard to get through something (that doesn't make it good by default), but you don't have to avoid it either (that doesn't just or necessarily make it "difficult").
'Sea Sentinel' video
Buff As Fuck is a rather incongruous title. It's like something somebody on The Only Way is Essex would say and I almost consigned your CD to the bottom of the "to listen to" pile on title alone. Is it a deliberate attempt to mislead or just a bit of fun?
PA: Yeah, the title has polarised people a bit. Because we don't really write "songs", naming tracks is always a tricky part of the process. I think it came about after we decided on the name 'Muscle Beach' for one of the tracks – there's a martial snare drum rhythm going through it, and we (half) joked that it would make a good workout track. Buff As Fuck was a similar half joke, but to us it just somehow fits now. On a bit of a deeper level, it almost became symbolic of the way as a band we sometimes wrestle with conventions and expectations, and doubt our intuition. We kept saying, "Can we really release an album called Buff as Fuck that opens with a 15-minute drone track and closes with a cover of 'Bright Eyes'? We think it's great, but what will anyone else think?"
AS: When you're not very well known, it's hard not to form first impressions from titles (as you say). We avoided it on our first album by just naming it after the catalogue number, but that's just as much a statement as any title you come up with instead. I guess it almost has so little to do with the music that it was easiest to settle on it. In retrospect you can maybe see things like opening with a 15-min drone as a kind of macho, posturing move etc, maybe see correlations, but we just preferred that track there, for instance – that was aesthetics rather than ethics. I don't think it's really meant to describe anything. It's probably more truthful to say it was the least bad option in that it seemed to correspond least with the music. I guess it's both a leap, as Phil says, to put out something called that, but also the easy way out.
I'm fascinated by the list of instruments you credit on your records – laser crystals, plastic pipe, copper pipe, bowed antler, for example, amid more recognisable bits of equipment. Without wanting to break the magic of what you do, can you explain a little bit about the recording process and how you use some of the more outré instruments you mention.
PA: We don't really have traditional band roles – there's no bass player or lead guitarist, so a lot of the time our inspiration comes from sounds rather than music. Rather than the usual songwriting process where the guitarist comes along to a rehearsal with a chord sequence or the singer writes some lyrics, one of us will say, "Listen to this cool noise" and we'll take things from there. Some of the odd sounding things on the instrument list are things that we've made ourselves – laser crystals is a set of quartz crystals mounted on a silver deer head that make a noise when you put your hand near them, a bit like a Theremin. The bowed antler is a deer antler strung like a guitar, and the metal and plastic pipes were lying around in the gallery below our studio. We wanted to see what a brass section would sound like on one of the tracks, so we blew into these pipes like Alpenhorns, and used that.
AS: Yeah, there's less of that on the new record, I think. There's a bowed bike wheel on 'Party Bucket', and the keyboard on 'Happysburgh' is recorded using a contact mic placed underneath crystal, in a stone bowl, which is all then sat on a speaker panel that the keyboard is played through. I love watching Phil tune that at gigs – microscopic readjustments of the crystal. Phil is well into making noisy objects, and Liam and I have done our share of hacking and soldering. That was a good lesson that came out of studying at UEA actually – half of the stuff there was broken, so it was down to you to make things work. Through watching other people and trying things out yourself, you realise that if you like the sounds you're making, you're there. You don't need more than that. There's no reason not to use conventional instruments, but no reason to either. I guess it's more about doing something that we find interesting, that we'd like to put on or watch etc, getting bored and feeling curious. I guess we like things that are new to us – and if they're new to us, maybe they'll be new to other people too, and maybe they'll enjoy that.
Do you bring out all these weird bits of kit for your live shows? What is the Transept live experience like?
PA: Yes, definitely. We play pretty much everything live, and the unorthodox instruments make an appearance. We've done sets where we've used an Omnichord wired up to some conductive plants, a bowed bicycle wheel, 40 amplified sparklers, and we've also done a cover of Queen's 'We Will Rock You' with an extended vuvuzela solo. On paper it can sound a bit "wacky", but hopefully it doesn't come across that way when we play. We just like experimenting and playing around with things that make sounds.
AS: I think what Phil says rings true generally, in that often what we do sounds like it might be a joke, and often might actually arise from mucking about, but when it actually turns into something we do, it's earnest and we do it because we think it's good and worth presenting, you know? We're not necessarily right about that, but it's not really a joke. I always find gigs pretty emotional and draining, because you're absolutely not mucking about. It's one thing liking something in rehearsal with just the three of us, but it's another thing altogether, for instance, playing 'We Will Rock You' live, with a vuvuzela etc. You know how it can easily look pretentious or like clowning around, so you have to just go for it and hopefully prove it was worth people's time to listen.
PA: One of the things I like most about being in the band is that nothing is dismissed out of hand. One of us will suggest something and no matter how outlandish it might seem nobody says, "No, that's a stupid idea", it's always, "OK, let's give it a go and see what happens."
Is the scarcity of percussion in your compositions deliberate?
AS: None of us are percussionists, so I guess we don't naturally gravitate to it. A lot of our music lacks overtly rhythmic parts, but there are definitely percussive elements. We have discussed an almost purely percussive thing actually. Also, often I'll be listening to something and really enjoying it, until suddenly the pigging drums come in, like you need your hand held through it or something, like you'll freak out without the beat markers. A lot of good music is spoiled by bad drums!
It's been two years since your debut album. How has your music and the process of making it changed in that period?
AS: It's got more live, less at a laptop. And more collaborative too – we hardly ever begin with one person having something and working out parts or how to play it live.
It's fair to say that a haunting cover of 'Bright Eyes' wasn't top of the list of things I expected to close the album. Where does the interest in Watership Down come from? Is it right that you have performed your own soundtrack to the film live? And is it delivered with irony, or are you 4 Real about the film/soundtrack?
AS: Yeah, we did a live soundtrack for a bar in Norwich. They asked us to pick a film and we picked that. I can't remember why. It's a good film though. We did a soundtrack that was half manipulations of the original soundtrack, half us playing over it. We sped it up and slowed it down, fiddled with the speech and so on. There were only about ten people watching probably, all politely sat facing this fairly quiet, distorted version of Watership Down, and this drunk guy came in and started shouting: "What are you all doing? Are you in a fucking cult or something?" We didn't notice till afterwards.
The 'Bright Eyes' cover comes from that though. It's basically the demo version I did for Phil and Liam in my flat, with some parts they added in the studio. I used my headphones as a mic, that's why the vocals sound like that. We re-recorded various bits but they weren't as good, so we kept that. It's not really ironic. I don't know if we'd have done it if we hadn't done the whole film, but we're not trying to mock its success or something, or be contrarian. I like being surprised. It sounds good to me at the end of the album.
PA: Whenever bands do live soundtracks to films it's always Metropolis or Nosferatu or something like that. I can't remember which one of us it was that suggested Watership Down, but again it seemed to be a good idea – something that people wouldn't expect, and it's actually a really great, quite odd film. It was hard work doing a 90-minute soundtrack though.
Can you pinpoint any reason for the sudden emergence of quality electronic music (yourselves, Luke Abbott, Nathan Fake) from Norfolk?
AS: I guess it's like anywhere that's not London or Leeds or Bristol etc – going unnoticed isn't the same being vacant. I lived in London for ten years, 18 months in Bristol, and I have definitely come across some of the best music I've ever heard here. Shane Olinski, Horses Brawl, Hoofus, Luke, of course, and many more. They're all friends so it's great to mention them to you, but they're truly brilliant too. I guess there's just not many people here full stop, so less come out. And it's not on the way anywhere, no one passes through. You come here to get here. That is good.
Luke Abbott mixed Buff As Fuck and has remixed your music in the past. How did you meet him and how was it working with him?
AS: I think Phil and Liam were working with him at the art school and I met him after that when he started at UEA, as I was finishing, so we've known each other for years now. We asked him to mix it because he has very good ears and fingers, basically; a great sense of how each bit pulls you in (or doesn't). Phil or I would sit in with him and we'd work through them together. We back seat drove basically.
PA: Yep, Luke worked at the Art School here too. He also studied music at UEA, so there's that connection again.
Your music seems perfectly suited for film and TV soundtracks, and this is borne out by the visuals of the leopard slug mating ritual that are perfectly accompanied by your track 'Leopard Slug Love Song'. Is this an area you are interested in pursuing?
AS: Liam and Phil both work with moving images at the art school and I do as a total novice at home. I love gigs with big visual elements, so I try and encourage that, and Phil and Liam are into that too. We have an (unreleased) track that samples a guy on YouTube trying to sing all the notes on a piano, and we use that whenever we can when we play live. And we ask Dan Tombs, who made the 'Muscle Beach' video, to do visuals whenever we can. He's another Norwich boy, but he's busy, busy these days.
You were able to set up your label, Dronehenge Records, with the help of funding from Arts Council East. Where would you be without this assistance? Should other fledgling musicians/labels be looking for support from their local authority? Do you have any advice on how to do so?
AS: It's hard to say really. How far have we actually got? It paid for our first record and no one else was paying. That nearly paid for this one. But it wasn't exactly masses of money. You don't need much, though perhaps it would be better to say that once we have a massive hit on our hands…