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In Extremis

Reshaping What Came Before: An Interview With Humanfly
The Quietus , April 6th, 2011 09:51

Riitta Itakyla talks to Humanfly about patriotism, racism and their most recent album Darker Later

When things become messy, chaotic and confusing, all you need to do is stick the word 'post' in front of any term or definition. It helps in avoiding further headaches and allows us to happily keep cramming stuff into those all-important boxes. A rather convenient shortcut, in other words. Like post-modernism, 'post-metal' is nothing but a made up smoke screen for something that cannot be easily categorised or squeezed into a neat cliché.

Perhaps this is why the word is so often used when describing the music and ethos of Humanfly. A bit of doom, a bit of sludge, a bit of rock, a bit of metal...and now, with their second full length Darker Later, they dare to confuse us even further by throwing in more progressive elements and even flirting with the ethereal. Who are these people and what do they want from us?

Essentially, Humanfly are a four-piece band from Leeds whose music has been compared to the likes of Isis, Neurosis and Black Sabbath. Having formed at the start of the millennium, they have kept growing amidst the grassroots of the UK music scene – and seem to have taken a crucial leap forward with Darker Later. One thing that has stayed the same for a decade, though, is their unrelenting and unapologetic political awareness. It seems metal bands have, to a large extent, forgotten how to speak their mind. There is a fear of being perceived as 'politically correct' (the kiss of death for any self respecting metaller), so metal tends to opt for the predictable route of 'hating everyone'.

Humanfly, however, aim their hatred carefully at specific targets. Pounding riffs provide a backbone for acute social criticism, and the sincerity of their anger is enough to excuse any lack of subtlety.

After all, what the British - and the world - may very well need at the moment is some well articulated anger and good old 'do-it-yourself' attitude. This is what Humanfly want to present us with: a spirit of rebellion in the guise of atmospheric anger.

Or post-metal, if you insist.

Tell us who are you guys exactly and where have you been hiding?

Humanfly: We are John Sutcliffe (vocals & guitar) Dave Jones (drums), Mat Dale (Bass) and Andy Sutcliffe (Guitar).

Humanfly is built through the friendship between us and we flow evenly in the same direction as we always have and will. We're all from the Leeds area, but we don't hide here. We are an underground band which means we're usually eclipsed by a lot of other bands who are either more commercially viable than us or who have the luxury of having a massive PR machine behind them, ensuring they're plastered onto the frontal lobes of everyone who walks by a magazine rack. We're sometimes overlooked by the more mainstream end of the media spectrum, which isn't all that surprising, but the circle within which we operate has always worked fine for us and we are pretty comfortable with this to a degree. Obviously pushing what we do in terms of reaching more people carries appeal but it has to be within a way in which we're all comfortable.

With Darker Later, did you deliberately set out to push your sound into new directions, or was it an organic, happy accident?

H: It's a bit of both of those things, really. With this record we opened a few experimental doors that hadn't been opened before, to find out what we were capable of, and it's worked really well for us - so much so that we've been taking it a step further with the new songs we've been working on including sections for improvisation, pushing our abilities and using different approaches to song writing.

To a lot of people, each of our albums seems to be a vast departure from what came before it, but they're all interconnected; each of them has a thread which runs through them. Beneath the surface the connections are there. People just aren't always interested in giving something that doesn't initially sound familiar a chance, which is a shame as those are the records which usually are the most rewarding, and the ones you'll get something from with every listen.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

H: Musically speaking it's a number of different places. We're all into different types of music, some of which we may not all agree on, but there are ones that we all do. Some are from the heavier end of the spectrum, as you'd expect, and some aren't. These could be: Golden, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, early Pink Floyd, Breach, Black Flag, Kamilya Jubran, The Roots, ZZ Top, Iceburn, King Crimson, Cave In, Brian Eno, Black Sabbath, Neu!, John Martyn, Motorpsycho, Leonard Cohen, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group, Radiohead, Nick Cave, John Coltrane, Can, Kraftwerk, The Mars Volta, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, etc.

As long as it's something which pushes the envelope in some respect then we think we can draw some inspiration from it, regardless of the genre. Other sources would be films, books, comics, newspapers and history.

What is the role of improvisation in your music?

H: On Darker Later we didn't really improvise at all, with the exception of the middle section of 'Heavy Black Snow', which was completely winged.

With our recent song writing, improvisation has played a huge role, allowing us to try out ideas we might not have done previously due to the confines of the way a certain song had been structured. These songs are quite rigid in their form and there's not a great deal of space for us to improvise within them in a live setting. We think the route we're going down right now will afford us that luxury. It's a very exciting time for us musically as we're probably the most productive we've ever been at this point, which is great.

What do DIY principles mean to you, in today´s industry? How relevant are they these days?

H: Most of the time it's the difference between being taken seriously and being taken for a ride, especially when you're a band of our size. DIY has become less organised than in previous years, so when we play out of town we generally get ripped off by people who have no idea about the basics of promoting: that the van we travelled to the gig in doesn't run on a couple of free beers; that we may actually need a floor to sleep on if we've travelled a long way, etc. It seems like this also applies to some of the bigger shows we've played in the past, where we've been given some what of a raw deal, though this isn't always the case.

With DIY shows in the past you were pretty much guaranteed your costs covering, a floor to sleep on and some food to eat at the venue, because a lot of people putting on gigs at the time were also in bands and were aware of what touring is like. The DIY network was a lot stronger. These days it sometimes seems like you're lucky if you get even one of these things, which can completely put bands off from touring if they think they're going to get ripped off and taken for a ride for a week or two.

Music seems to be one of the few industries where you can travel a couple of hundred miles to play until you're completely depleted, giving up an evening or even a day or two of your life and expect to get very little in terms of a return. Like we said, you might be lucky and get all of your costs covered, but on the other hand you might not. It seems as though mainland Europe has a much fairer structure for a band like us. Whenever we tour there we tend to be treated really well, which makes us more than happy to travel all that way to play again. That being said, there are plenty of promoters here in the UK who will treat you fairly. We really don't want to seem as though we're bagging on promoters, here, as that's really not the case. There are some thoroughly good eggs out there.

To come back to Darker Later – could you elaborate on the general theme?

H: The theme and idea is based on the story of 'our country' being taken over by the far right - how it got that way, how to fight it, and how it will all come crashing down. This idea unfolds across each of the tracks on the album, creating a continuous narrative throughout.

What does 'being British' mean to you?

H: Personally, we have mixed feelings. We're only British when we're watching sport. In real terms, our nationality is a product of circumstance and nothing more. Like Bill Hicks said, 'Am I proud to be an American? I didn't have a lot to do with it. My parents fucked there and that's it.' How much pride can you actually have for where you were conceived? We could've just as easily have been born in France or Belgium. The world was round, last time we checked.

How about the message behind your politically charged songs, such as 'English and Proud and Stupid and Racist'?

H: That particular song came about through seeing what Nazis had been posting on YouTube - a lot of people use the 'English and Proud' term when they actually mean 'I'm a moron, and a fascist'. Rarely are words 'English and Proud' used where something stupid and racist doesn't follow it. This song was inspired by the bigots who want to 'send them all home'. It makes us sick to our stomachs.

What are your views on BNP? Are they 'fascists' or patriots?

H: They are thugs in suits who definitely, and obviously, have fascist values. The problem with patriotism, in this case, is that it is used as a smoke screen to mask the root of an issue, which in the case of the BNP is contempt for anyone of a non-Anglo Saxon descent. This then becomes more an issue of nationalism as opposed to one of patriotism, but at this point the lines between the two have become pretty blurred.

It's possible to have a love for your homeland and to want it to move forwards in a positive way, with contributions from anyone regardless of ethnic origin, without being a prick. We have benefited greatly from having people of different backgrounds settle in this country and making positive contributions to our cultural advancement. Having a love for your country and wanting it to be exclusively for people of Anglo Saxon descent are two different things entirely.

In London, there are visible schisms between different cultures and, for example, the BNP voting members of the public. What is the atmosphere like up north, in Leeds? Do you see a difference between Leeds and the multiculturalism of the capital?

H: You're going to find a divide wherever you go in the country between people of different cultures and people who would be inclined to vote BNP but, from our own experiences, Leeds is very multicultural. We are blessed and have reaped the benefits of this: our fair city is now the financial capital. Our music scene is made up of people born outside of Leeds, yet it thrives more so than any other. This is an example of people coming together from different locations to build something strong and positive. Multiculturalism works fine. People contend that it doesn't work based upon their own ignorance and willingness to accept other cultures as being as valid as their own.

Does music have potential as a political tool? How?

H: We think it does. There's a saying that if music could have completely changed the world then it would have been done so in the sixties, which we think is true, but it is possible to make change in small, incremental ways, which is as important in my opinion and is far more of a realistic goal. Even if it doesn't change anything at the root it's still a tool to let others know that they're not alone in thinking the way they do, which can help to strengthen a person's resolve and passion.

Things like Live Aid were a good example of bringing about change, though it can be perceived as a bit of photo opportunity for some of the people involved. Bono is a bit of a chump and artists can lose their integrity if they go about it the wrong way, though we wouldn't go so far as to disregard the work that a lot of those people have done. We're sure it's had a positive effect. Jello Biafra is still a total dude though.

You collaborated with the artist Rose Kemp on the song 'Heavy Black Snow'. How did the collaboration come about?

H: We had played some shows together and really liked what she does. A friend of ours in Leeds who booked one of the shows was putting together a compilation and asked if we'd like to write something for it with Rose.

We wrote the song in three sections, recorded it and sent it to her to add her vocals. We weren't sure what to expect when we first heard it with her parts, but were blown away by her contribution. She did a great job with it. The first time we actually played the song together in the same room was at a show here in Leeds, which went surprisingly well. Hopefully we'll get around to doing it again some day.

How was she like working with? What did her contribution bring to the album?

H: She was very straightforward to work with. Her contribution added an extra dimension to the album which would have been completely lost had she not appeared on there. The song was written with her in mind, even though we had no idea as to what direction she would take it whilst we were writing it. We see it as the centrepiece of the record so it was important that it be done in the right way, and honestly feel as though we were able to achieve that by working together.

Are you planning to do more collaborations in the future?

H: We haven't made any plans to but we definitely will. It's all relatively new to us but already we're able to see the potential it has and the development that it will afford us.

We think we're far more aware of what other players can bring to the music at this point, which helps us to learn more about where it is that we want to go. It completely makes you reassess how you approach playing your parts by having somebody else in the room who you've never worked with before. You're forced to step up your game and by doing so you're able to move outside of your comfort zone, which should be the aim of anyone playing music.

We recently played a gig with Damo Suzuki [formerly of Can] and That Fucking Tank, which was easily one of the highlights of our live performance as a band to date. Playing a full gig of improvisation is such a challenge, especially when none of us have done it in a live setting before, and this is something we'll be looking to do more of in the future.

Download 'Stew For The Murder Minded' here

What can we expect from Humanfly in the future?

H: In the short term, we have live dates coming up over the next few months including a UK tour with Earthtone9 in May, who are playing together after a nine year hiatus. After that we'll hopefully get to Europe in the summer to play shows there and we already have plans to record another album during the summer.

Musically the future is unwritten so the best thing to do would be to keep an open mind. The only certainty at this point is that what ever we do will be a reshaping of what came before.