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Escape Velocity

Lost At Sea: An Interview With Dead Rat Orchestra
Charlie Frame , August 13th, 2013 06:33

Colchester's premiere avant-folk trio meet up with Charlie Frame to discuss curiosity, the hazards of chopping wood in the middle of a busy audience, and making music using pigeons and pieces of an old Chris de Burgh record

It's the hottest day of the year so far and I'm sitting in the gutter across from Dalston's Café OTO with three fully-bearded, barefoot rats. The tape has barely started to roll and we're reminiscing over the band's hometown of Colchester and its fabled Arts Centre where the avant-folk trio first met. "In a way the venue formed us, because we all worked there," explains Nathaniel Mann, who moonlights as Composer in Residence at the Pitts River Museum in Oxford. "It's a great venue with a really experimental programme and some astounding acts, but the problem is that nobody goes. Nobody from Colchester. Most people haven't even heard of it."

I'm forced to admit, rather sheepishly, that I'd barely left campus after dark during my time in the city as a young Essex undergrad, for fear of marauding squaddies prowling the town centre for unsuspecting student blood. "Well, we've done alright," says Daniel Merrill. "We've lived there for a long time with these beards and we've never had any trouble."

As if on cue – as if they've been paid to turn up at that exact moment - three sun-sozzled young women with mid-Atlantic accents sidle up to the curb and proceed to interview-bomb us. "Hey guys, can we sit with you? I love your beards. Oh, and no shoes! It's like Cast Away. Are you a band? What kind of music do you play? The bearded band – I wanna be part of this musician... group. I'm even willing to stop waxing my beard."

Luxuriant facial hair aside, Dead Rat Orchestra are far from your typical modern-day folk outfit. To describe them as such would be to undermine their commitment to sonic exploration, with the folk aspect being a mere springboard for their inventive multi-instrumentalist approach. Live shows typically start with the band ensconced within or behind the audience, simultaneously perplexing and assimilating themselves with the crowd. What follows is a whirlwind of Alan Lomax-inspired experimentation, liberally inspired by (but never copy-catting) such disparate influences as Extremaduran folksong, railroad work chant, Blaxhall singalong and Southern US field-holler.

But this is no ethnomusicological showcase, nor some sort of trad roots revival. A typical Dead Rat Orchestra formation could feature Merrill playing dextrous violin while pumping away on harmonium pedals. Mann might be switching from playing a bowed banjo to scraping a piece of wire over a set of what appear to be amplified allen keys attached to the seat of a chair. Meanwhile Robin Alderton, who completes the trio, could be doing anything from screaming into the underside of a snare drum to playing the chimes of a mantelpiece clock like a xylophone. Logistics allowing, some shows end with the group chanting as they chop up a large tree log in the middle of the audience.

The only tradition upheld by the Orchestra is that of the flexible nature of pre-recorded roots music, when songs and ideas would be passed around from musician to musician, rewritten and rearranged to suit new circumstances and players. As such they are the anti-Mumfords, subverting the stolid conservatism that has come to be associated with much of today's folk music and reconstructing it from the ground up.

With afternoon drunks politely dismissed, we continue with our interview, to discover what it's like recording film soundtracks on a lighthouse and what the connection is between Chris de Burgh and flight-powered Aeolian music.

They just asked you what kind of music you play. What would you say?

Daniel Merrill: If you were trying to give someone something catchy for a soundbite there are a lot of different things you could say. But I guess our music, for us, is just built out of having spent so much time hanging out with each other for days on end. It's really the result of this massive conversation that's been going on for the last eleven years now.

Do you remember how that conversation started?

DM: Yeah, I remember how our conversation started! Can I tell that story?

Nathaniel Mann: Please do.

DM: So Nathan and I were living directly across the road from each other. We didn't know each other - Robin introduced us through the Arts Centre. I was working behind the bar, Nathan was the technician at the time. Occasionally we'd pass each other in the street so one day I decided to say hello to Nathan and have a chat with him. It was a very awkward conversation, mostly me throwing out lots of things to try and get things started and Nathan being a bit, um, reticent. It ended with 'Well, this has been nice, I live just across the road so if you ever want to come over for tea just let me know'. And Nathan's response was: '…I don't do tea'.

NM: It's true, I didn't do tea at the time. I wasn't drinking tea.

What did you do?

NM: I wasn't drinking anything a lot of the time. Nothing.

Robin Alderton: Not even water. Just bread.

DM: We've drunk tea together since. Many times.

I take it you didn't start out by saying 'You're gonna play drums, you're gonna play guitar and I'll play bass?'

NM: Well, as I say, we had this massive place, the Arts Centre which is a converted church. We had keys to the building, and we could go in and just set up everything we had on the nights when nothing was going on. We'd put up these lovely blue lights and a mirror ball and just live off of Chinese.

DM: Gave ourselves our own private lightshow; pretty much slept in the building.

NM: We just took everything we had. At first we said we're not going to have any rhythm, any melody, it was just noise and glitch and improv. Then one day we accidentally did a sort of skiffly stomp which we thought that was kind of fun. Our second concert was six hours long, just playing on E.

DM: We followed that up a few months later when we played twelve hours on E.

NM: In a way we were quite hardcore.

What was the reaction to that?

DM: Actually it was quite nice, because gradually you'd bump into people who'd dropped into the performance. Very few people stayed for the whole thing, funnily enough, but people would still come and talk about it. One guy said he'd popped in only for half an hour and then later that day he was having his dinner and thinking 'those guys are still doing that'. So the performance was continuing in his mind even though he wasn't there.

NM: But from those unorthodox starting points we've never wanted to just stick to one instrument.

RA: There's always been a bit of a backbone of violin.

DM: But even in the early years I didn't play it all that much. That's become a later development, I'm playing it a lot more at the moment.

RA: And the voice is a later development as well. That's only been in the last one or two years. Before that it was mostly instrumental.

Did you have to learn to sing harmony or does it come naturally?

DM: We've all got very diverse tastes and a big part of our practice involves sitting down and playing each other stuff that we find interesting, watching a lot of YouTube videos. We've become quite obsessed with things like the Lomax collection and some of the singing you see on that, so really we've not studied harmony singing at all. We're more interested in the way voices are explored. People use their voices in really interesting ways and we've picked up more from that than studying singing.

NM: We're doing a piece tonight called 'The Captain's Apprentice' which we used to do with just me singing, but Robin's got such a good ear that we started to sing it together in unison. He sings it with all the same ornamentation that I do - exactly the same. So now we've done that enough times, I can go off and do a harmony with it.

Is it fair to call it folk music?

NM: It's recently become a big influence, but we're as influenced by folk music from the Bahamas as we are by English folk music. I guess it's folkier at the moment because we're doing a lot of gigs, but what we like to do is get into a space and stay there for a few days, like how we used to do. In that case it gets more experimental again and we have more time to play to the space and play with the space. It just bubbles up and does its own thing. It's more about drawing from the sentiment of the folk stuff. With a lot of modern folk music, like the Unthanks and those kinds of people, I'm listening to it and I'm going 'Okay, I know that song, I recognise that song', but I don't recognise the sentiment. When we're listening to those old Lomax recordings, we're excited by something different from just the notes.

RA: It's the vitality, the life that's in them.

DM: I don't think you can do that just by trying to replicate a piece of music, because that music came out in a situation at the time of those people in that context. We're living in our own context in a different time. We're inspired by that but we're not going to be able to replicate it, so we try and take something else from it.

NM: One of the gigs that really pointed us in this direction was when we opened, long ago before they got big, for CocoRosie. We listened to that album and fell in love with it, and thought if we tried to sound like them they'll ask us to be their backing band. We completely failed, but we ended up doing something new and which excited us.

Tell us about the documentary soundtrack you worked on, The Guga Hunters of Ness.

NM: The Guga Hunters came about when we were doing the song I mentioned earlier, 'The Captain's Apprentice'. There was a guy in the crowd [Mike Day] who came up at the end and said 'That's the soundtrack to my next film'. The song's about an orphan from an orphanage going out to sea, out to Greenland, and basically at the end the captain murders him because he's an annoying little brat. The lyrics are really buried and the director hadn't understood them, but strangely the film also happens to be about going out to sea and getting lost. When he made the documentary we researched a lot of the folk music from the area and used those as seeds for the compositions.

DM: To record it we decided to go and live on a big old lightship, like a lighthouse on a ship. We used the one that's on the Hythe in Colchester and turned it into a studio for a couple of weeks. It was interesting to record there because as the tide comes in and the boat lifts off the ground the whole acoustics of the ship change, so some of the takes worked at certain times of the day and not at others. It was a nice way to do a recording, having to react to things according to the tide.

What leads you to thinking 'I wonder what happens if I sing into this snare drum?' or 'I wonder if I can play a banjo with a bow'?

DM: It's curiosity really. Just experimenting and tinkering. There was that really nice feeling when we were out in Spain and we played in that little bar. We did this piece which is a stomp where I grind out this really heavy violin riff. We weren't going to go into it but when it came to it, it just felt like I ought to but I wasn't sure how the others would react if I did.  And it was at that moment Robin decided to pick up a bag, a wreath of bells, and just started smashing the wall with it. There's a really glorious video of that moment happening somewhere.   NM: One of the pieces we do, we have about 300 differently-sized mirror-polished steel hexagons, which I brought back from Spain, with a microtonal scale running across them. You can hear the difference between the biggest and the smallest one but you can't hear it if they're the next size to each other. We just let them fall to the ground and it becomes this shimmering cascade of frequencies. In the right space, like a church, it's so powerful and enveloping. We've had people say just that sound has brought them to tears.

DM: I think there's always a thing when we get together there's always this thrill of going 'Hey guys, look at this, look what I've found'.

Have you ever had any experiments fail?

NM: There's a logging piece that we do live. We didn't want to go directly for a work-song, we wanted to work off work-song but we didn't want to do, like, a chain-gang piece. So the first idea was to take axes and empty beer barrels, but it was too much, so we ended up doing a logging piece in the end. We weren't sure if it was going to work, so we used really cheap axes and the first time we did it worked fine. Then we did it at 93 Feet East a couple of nights later, and about thirty seconds into the song Dan's axe-head went flying off into the audience.   DM: It thoroughly missed a few people. Luckily I had a back-up axe, but two hits on the back-up axe and the handle snapped and flew off as well.

The logging piece is a risky thing to watch because you're playing right in front of the audience with bits of wood potentially flying into their eyes.

DM: We did it at Islington Town Hall the other week. I dragged the log out and really started hacking at it. It was quite close to people and I heard one guy turn to the other and say 'Do we just stand here?'

What sort of music are you listening to at the moment?

DM: I've become quite interested in Arabic music and I just got a really great boxset called 'Open Strings' which is a big collaboration between lots of contemporary Arabic and European experimental musicians. In October I'm going out to Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan for a month to start building a network for a project I'm working on with Arabic musicians. But yeah, we all have different collaborations and solo projects.

Nathan's recent work with pigeons sounds interesting. Did you train them yourself?

NM: No, I'm working with Pigeon Pete, a pigeon fancier from Nottingham. He's the only guy in the country to train his pigeons to fly back to a mobile loft. Without him the project wouldn't be happening. They were supposed to fly last Sunday but sadly the wind was too strong. Each pigeon carries a different note.

They're tuned?

NM: Yeah. In the Pitt Rivers museum there are these traditional pigeon whistles from Indonesia and China. So I've worked out how to make my own ones out of film pots, lolly sticks and a bit of an old Chris de Burgh record, and then tune them. The pigeons carry the film pots on their tails, so you get a chord and each pigeon is a different part of that chord. The dream of doing it - I'd heard recordings of it before, but there's something about it that's so spatial. You've never heard anything like it, the way it moves around you and the sense of this chord breaking up and coming back together as the pigeons flock and move. What you're hearing are the birds' flight described in sound. It adds a second set of data, and suddenly you reinterpret what you're viewing. At the moment they're only flying for ten minutes because they're young birds but when they're flying for 45 minutes you just sit and watch them. It's just fascinating to see how they move with the wind as a group and how that's interpreted through the sound - that becomes a composition.

DM: Was it important you used a Chris DeBurgh record?

NM: I was saying this to Max Eastley, the sound artist, about how I should have used something relevant like a Messaien Birdsong or some interesting bird record. He said that if anyone asks, that I just said I did.

DM: Well it's too late for that now, isn't it?

Dead Rat Orchestra's The Guga Hunters Of Ness is out now via Critical Heights. For more information on Dead Rat Orchestra, click here to visit their website.

Dead Rat Orchestra play live at Colchester Arts Centre on 21st August alongside United Bible Studies and Simon Finn (details here), before playing a European tour in September.