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Escape Velocity

Ecstatic Impulses: An Interview With Death Shanties
Stewart Smith , August 7th, 2014 05:49

Ahead of their performance at Supernormal this weekend, Stewart Smith meets mixed-media free jazz trio Death Shanties to discuss their fiery and weird debut album Crabs, "balls to the wall" improvisation, and exploding folk forms

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Alex Neilson's CV reads like a who's who of contemporary underground music. A regular collaborator with Richard Youngs, Jandek, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Current 93, Josephine Foster and Baby Dee, the Yorkshire-born, Glasgow-based drummer was also a driving force in the expansive free-folk collective Scatter. In addition to the free jazz duo Tight Meat, Neilson led his own collaborative project, Directing Hand. Yet when launched his folk-rock troupe Trembling Bells around five years ago, Neilson claimed to have reached an impasse with free music, preferring to concentrate on his songwriting. With a new Trembling Bells album in the can and an EP by his medieval and Renaissance influenced a capella group the Crying Lion on the way, Neilson remains bewitched by song. However, the past year has seen him reconnect with free music, playing with Japanese undergound legend Kan Mikami and jamming with alumni of London's Cafe Oto, including Thurston Moore, bass maestro John Edwards and Sons of Kemet's Shabaka Hutchings.

The main conduit for this renewed interest has been Death Shanties, a mixed-media free jazz group with Dutch saxophonist Sybren Renema (pictured, top) and artist Lucy Stein, whose live projections add another dimension to their concerts. Following last year's self-released CD-R, Nunatak, the trio has released their debut album proper, Crabs [which you can listen to in full via the embed below]. Refracting fire music through a singular sense of British weirdness, it's one of the most distinctive underground albums of the year.

The band call it 'balls-to-the-wall free jazz' - which can't help but remind me of German metal band Accept – but Crabs is a more exploratory affair than that description suggests. As the panicky squalls of 'Something In Me Wakes Up Terrified' attest, Renema can wail, but he generally favours more subtle forms of liberation, blurring tender melodies into metallic bell tones on 'Stumps', and opening up Duke Ellington's 'Come Sunday' with spiralling runs and multiphonics. The final track, 'O! Where Is St George', is quite a departure, juxtaposing psychedelic folk with the ecstatic dream imagery of avant-garde English poet and novelist DM Thomas.

Alex, I remember you saying around five years ago, when Trembling Bells were starting out, that you'd fallen out of love with free music. What's changed?

Alex Neilson: I had a bit of an epiphany in Cafe Oto. I was really energised by being in that place, seeing what was going on and realising how much that music meant to me. The individual practitioners that were passing through were very diverse and it rekindled my connection aesthetically and conceptually in terms of playing towards these people. I think I texted Sybren that night, saying "do you want to play together?" We'd talked about it for some time and Sybren had played on some Trembling Bells records, so we were developing a mutual understanding. I think the approach was just going to be high energy free improvisation, with the visual dimension Lucy was bringing to it. So it was a combination of meeting Lucy and Sybren and revitalising those interests.

What was the Oto show?

AN: I think I was playing with Josephine Foster. A guy working behind the bar put on a CD afterwards and it was Baby Dodds, who we mention in one of the Death Shanties tracks. I was just astounded that someone had heard of this guy, 'cause it's solo jazz drumming from the 1920s, really primitive sounding. It's him talking about his life and soloing. It's a really enchanting CD and I was astounded somebody else had heard it, let alone played it in public.

Are the visual elements part of the improvisation in the sense that you're responding to what Lucy is doing?

AN: To me it makes it a more immersive live experience and it pulls it away from - I'm kind of reducing it to something ridiculous here, but two guys thrashing around. It rescues it from that slightly and gives it a different focus. Lucy is bringing in things that are thematically interesting to me. They're a visual actualisation of the themes that run throughout my work in general. She uses stained glass and medieval motifs, parts of her own body. It's visceral and tactile... a manifestation of some of the things I'm interested in.

Sybren Renema: It's only really afterwards, when I see the footage back, that I see the pictures, because when you're playing, you're looking at the audience, so I never really notice the projections. But I know that they're there. It's nice to have something going on that allows your mind to dwell a bit, along to the music or contrary to it.

AR: I think it's more of an emotional response rather than trying to illustrate anything in particular.

SR: It's definitely more subliminal than being in a position where you think if she's showing this or that then I need to play this or that.

Even if you can't see the screen, you must be aware of colours and shapes bouncing off you?

AR: Yeah. There's a sensory confusion which is crucial in my mind to successful improvising in general.

Do you bring that visual element into the studio?

AR: We've only really done that once. We debated for quite a long time how to represent Lucy in the recording and the documentation, the packaging. I don't think we've really successfully resolved that. But she wasn't present for any of the recordings. She features on one of the tracks ['O! Where is St George?'].

SR: I think once the album's there as a physical object we can see how successful we've been in incorporating the visual element.

AR: And how to develop it.

Without downplaying Lucy's contribution, what's the appeal of playing as a duo?

AN: I like that direct interaction. I've always liked Rashied Ali & John Coltrane [Interstellar Space] or Muhammed Ali & Frank Wright [Duo Exchange], those duo records that I think are kind of alchemical, hard boiled and incredibly raw.

SR: [Duo playing] is definitely something we both enjoy. It brings out certain core problems. When you're playing with a quintet or a seven-piece pop band the dynamic is very different. You might take a solo, play a hook or stick to a certain rhythm, but in a duo you have to take on all those roles simultaneously and listen to where it's going.

AN: I think the vulnerability thing is quite important, because you're forced to make it work, particularly when you're playing live. That's one of the challenges for improvisation in general, but in a duo there really is nowhere to hide. It takes a great deal of courage just to pull back and let things happen when you're in that kind of situation. There's temptation to play all the time or as hard as fast as you can, and although I really like that kind of music and respond well to it when I see other people do it, I guess it takes quite a lot of courage to know when not to do that. I've been playing for nearly 20 years and it's something I still struggle with, it's very treacherous and exposing, this kind of music.

SR: The tendency is to fill everything up.

AN: Yeah, with the drums that's inherently difficult because they aren't a sustaining instrument.

SR: I'm not so much afraid of being exposed as being aware of it and feeling a great responsibility that you need to communicate something.

Sybren, you have more of a formal musical background. How does that inform your approach?

SR: When I was a kid I couldn't decide whether I was going to to music or art school and I took a preparatory course at the conservatory... they taught us all the music theory so you can write fugues and shit like that, it was really bizarre. But then I decided to go to art school. I reasoned that if you go to art school you can still be a good musician, but good artists rarely come out of music school. Throughout art school I'd often find myself quite dissatisfied with this setting. At one point I was thinking of dropping out and I wanted to go out with a bang, so I decided that my final project was going to be a free jazz Mongolian throat singing rock 'n roll band, which we set up, and that was my art project. That turned out to be great... After that I just decided, I'm just going to do these things the way I want to do them, and not worry about the logic of it. And then, because I had the technical knowledge, I did a lot of reading and research, books written by composers. I'm not a particularly proficient technical player, I should study much more than I do, but I think I'm relatively well aware of the possibilities and am capable of discarding the possibilities that I don't like.

Alex, you were in a free jazz duo with David Keenan, Tight Meat, and you also explored the intersection of folk and free music in Directing Hand and Scatter. Do you see Death Shanties as a continuation of some of the ideas you explored in those projects?

AN: It might sound quite disparate, but to me it feels like part of the same rolling set of ideas, different facets of these key interests. We've experimented with using crude folk song motifs and I guess the name of the group implies it's got something to do with folk rituals. It's mainly a platform for high energy improvisation in general. I think that's what we're best at, really, and the more we do it, the more we develop a common understanding and we push each other. I have explored these things in past and I've reconnected with those impulses with Sybren, who's very talented.

Lucy Stein & Alex Neilson

With those previous projects you talked about exploding folk forms, citing Albert Ayler as an inspiration. Is that idea present in Death Shanties?

AN: Yeah. I often say this to Sybren, but Albert Ayler is such a ready example of someone who takes a major folk melody and drives it through the roof, which is something that's always interested me. But [I'm] much more oriented towards the music of my own culture and land, which I feel very passionate about, and allying that to these ecstatic impulses. To me they're natural bedfellows, but it still kind of feels like they've not been explored so much, even though I've been banging on about it for nigh on ten years now.

SR: Talking about folk, or that kind of blending of styles... I once read an interview with [maverick Dutch percussionist] Han Bennink from the 60s or early 70s, when he was still doing a lot of work with Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins or whoever when they came to Europe, but he didn't ever play that sort of thing on his own, he couldn't just start a hard bop band or a free jazz band for that matter. And the reason was simply that it's important to work from your own experience, and it would be strange to reiterate music from a very different era or geographical area.

The idea of exploring European traditions rather than appropriating African-American ones?

SR: Yeah, but it also makes sense to make use of things that are handed down to you and relate to your own position.

AN: I think that it all comes down to balls out improvisation. That's what we're good at together. I still feel that there's a lot to be developed in that realm, without having to conceptualise it too much or frame it round these folk things. I think it's interesting to do as an exercise to develop understanding together, and I think we pretty successfully did it on this record with the Padstow salutation song ['O! Where Is St George']. It's just whatever you feel credibility towards. You feel drawn to fire music but you're not necessarily trying to reproduce the way anyone did in the 60s, you apply it to your own personality and way of expressing yourself, and it comes out the way it comes out.

So you're not too self-conscious about avoiding certain things, denying certain musical strategies. It's not that kind of puritanical. clenched-bum improv?

AN: Yeah, it's experimental music. It becomes very codified if you're so dogmatic.

SR: The problem is, when you get too uptight about anything, you kill it. But you can steer it. My practice routine consists of playing the same sort of styles over and over. For years I had a book of Indian ragas that I'd play every day and scales by Messiaen, and you don't think about it when you're improvising, but if you digest that sort of stuff well, it comes out in the music. It's not like if Alex says 'let's play an English folk song' and I go, 'well, alright, but I'll play it like an Indian raga' - that's preposterous as well.

The tracks are quite short - they don't flow on for a whole side, like on many free jazz records. Was that deliberate?

AN: We wanted to give contour and diversity to the record. We chose a couple of the improvisations that we thought were strongest and then we thought, this is already happening, so let's try this idea. They were much more like little miniatures, which is maybe more my direction than [Sybren's].

SR: Yeah, but that's alright. Even if something isn't entirely yours, you can push it towards your own realm so you arrive in the middle ground. I think the brevity is partially considered and some of it just happened that way. The first track on the album was the first thing we did... I think we looked at each other towards the end and thought, yeah, 'that's it', and came to a stop. Some of the others are ideas, like, what if we just play high notes on the baritone over a percussive rhythm? And a while before that I played 'Come Sunday' by Duke Ellington to Alex. I love playing it, I always play it when I'm busking. We did a few takes of it and it just happened to be two minutes.

AN: I think I was quite conscious of making it a bit more focused, and trying to work on ideas and use the studio in ways that we couldn't do when we were playing live, which is quite a different experience where Lucy's heavily involved. I was quite keen to try and use the different environment positively and give things more of an individual personality. Having said that, sometimes I prefer the free improvisations so maybe we'll concentrate that next time. It depends, it's a little experiment.

So it's like a series of three minute pop songs in jazz form?

SR: Yeah. I think that's partially because Alex does Trembling Bells and that's maybe something that interests him more than me, but you know, the best Ellington songs are miniatures. Apart from 'Diminuendo In Blue', which is 19 minutes, this massive orgy of sound.

The final track, 'O! Where Is St George', is quite different, and reminds me more of Scatter or Directing Hand. You've got an old English folk song, droning guitar, saxophone, and Lucy reciting passages from DM Thomas's novel The White Hotel. How did that come together?

AN: Lucy wanted me to make a soundtrack for a film she was doing about Padstow where a lot of her family come from. There's a portion of a song ['O! Where Is St George'] which is chanted from sun up to sun down on May Day in a procession around the town. So it's very meaningful to her, and the film that we were soundtracking threads a lot of these things into it. We did a few different takes of that song, with me singing unaccompanied, the version you hear and a couple of other things. The guy who recorded it said it sounds like Scatter and that hadn't really occurred to me, but I guess that's just the general approach, an elasticated explosion of folk with free elements.

Who chose the DM Thomas?

AN: That was Lucy. She had recorded it separately and I think it was my idea to put them both together to see how companionable they were and I think it works pretty well. I think it complements the rest of the record by virtue of its difference, takes it somewhere else.

SR: After the ritual you get the epiphany!

AN: The text itself is really remarkable. I think DM Thomas wrote it himself under the guise of one of Freud's patients. Particularly that letter, which is what the book's based on, the writing is outstanding, there's some astounding imagery. It's a reflection of a lot of my own interests, that warped, volcanic, hallucinatory sexual interest. That sensory distortion and fantasy which I think is reflected in the music.

Do you think it fits in with that mystic Englishness you get in some folk music and acts like Current 93?

AR: Mystical is quite a difficult word to apply to oneself. I've often thought improvised music is equivalent to alchemy, where you just have the same kind of materials, the wood in your hand, the skin you're hitting, and you're transforming that into something turbulent, dreadful, and potentially transcendental. To me there are great spiritual dimensions to improvisation that are very nourishing. It bypasses regular logic and involves a higher part of the brain. It's a combination of this more psychic activity and the base, boulder activity.

Do you see it as psychedelic music?

AN: Yeah, in the truest sense. I would never apply that to something like Trembling Bells, whereas some of the other people in the band readily do. This is more in keeping with my understanding of the true sense of the word, where you're accessing parts of your mind that are usually shut off, and you're tapping into something more communal and universal and reflective of your true nature maybe in some ways.

You've talked about improvised music as an alchemical process, but do think that idea relates to your practice as a whole?

AN: I guess experimentation is quite central to my desire to make music and create, and I think songwriting falls into that, as it wasn't something I'd really done before.

With Death Shanties we've been talking about jazz specifically, but in my mind there are quite diverse reference points. I was using Terry Riley like a dart on the wall, just as something to hang an idea around, but by the time I explain it and you try to play it, it's going to sound absolutely nothing like Terry Riley. These things to me seem like natural points in the map: the Padstow May Day, free jazz, things that are really quite intense. To me the combination of these things is an expression of general interest. We've discussed using Renaissance and medieval phrases.

Like you have in Crying Lion?

AN: That's generally the way I approach things. There's a bit of Dennis Potter in this sentence, there's a bit of Hildegard von Bingen in this bit. It's right across the spectrum, but it's just a culmination of your personality and your appreciation of the world.

SR: For better or worse you need to find a way of making it all fit.

AN: I think it's about the strength of your convictions, and they do fit, because you've processed them, reconciled them.

SR: We were walking down the street, talking about Shostakovich putting his signature into music. And then we were playing and I just put the signature in. It wasn't meant as a contentious thing, like look at me, it just seemed logical.

AN: I think these things become talismans within the music which empower it. They might not be evident to anyone else. You using the example of Shostakovich, no one else could really recognise the chords he was putting in, but it was self-empowering, investing music with something that's very personally resonant. My stuff's littered with stuff like that, I'm omnivorous.

Death Shanties' Crabs is out on Aug 11th via Bomb/Fuse records.

Death Shanties play at Supernormal Festival, which takes place at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, from 8th-10th August. For more information and tickets, click here to visit the festival website. The group then tour the UK in August - for a full list of dates, click here.