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Escape Velocity

Kenny Loggins In Dub: An Interview With Seahawks
Ben Graham , June 17th, 2014 06:32

With their latest album Paradise Freaks just released, Ben Graham catches up with Pete Fowler and Jon Tye to discuss how Seahawks emerged from refracting the duo's love of 70s AOR through a filter of weird noise, psychedelia and dub

Situated in a nondescript East London lock-up, Pete Fowler's studio is every inch the monsterist's lair. Life size (presumably) and three-dimensional, his horned and tentacled creations stare sightlessly down at you from their shelves, like something the young HP Lovecraft might have dreamed of after too much sherbet and candy floss at the county fair. The Cardiff-born artist is known for his 'Monsterism' range of toys and figures, as well as his distinctive artwork for Super Furry Animals, among other clients. But we're here to talk about his work as one half of "psychedelic yacht rock" duo Seahawks, alongside Lo Recordings founder and music producer Jon Tye, who joins us via Skype from his Cornish home.

Tye resides in Millbrook near Plymouth, apparently home to the residue of a 1970s hippy cult and also the "studio on the hill" where many of Seahawks' adventures and recordings have taken shape. These include over a dozen albums, cassettes and 12"s since their inception in 2009, as well as uncountable mixtapes and remixes for the likes of The Advisory Circle, The Horrors and Tim Burgess. This brings us with appropriate smoothness onto the latest and most fully realised Seahawks album, Paradise Freaks, which features guest vocals from the aforementioned Mr Burgess, alongside Indra Dunis from Peaking Lights, Maria Minerva and Nick Nicely, with Tom Furse of The Horrors contributing synthesiser, percussion and additional production overdubs.

Working with a core band comprising bassist Al Doyle of Hot Chip, keyboard player Kenny Dickenson (Red Ken / KT Tunstall), drummer Rob Smoughton of Grosvenor, plus their regular Cornish 'Mellow Mafia' of guitarist Alik Peters-Deacon, flute and sax player Dan Hillman and trumpeter Simon Dobson, Seahawks have crafted an addictively melodic, smoothly psychedelic voyage into dubby, electronic dream pop. And though not immediately apparent, Seahawks' sound has long been informed by the "adult contemporary" sounds of smooth 1970s rock, from David Crosby and Steely Dan to the riskier pastures of Kenny Loggins and the Doobie Brothers.

So, donning a metaphorical combination of tasselled loafers and space helmet, I settle down with Pete and Jon - his disembodied voice coming from a blank computer screen, like a talking brain in a fish tank from some late 70s science fiction movie - to talk AOR, electronica, giggle energy and gigs in Paddington Bear0themed Japanese ski resorts.

Can we go right back and just say how you two first know each other?

Jon Tye: Well, the building that you're in now, I used to have an office there, for the Lo Recordings label. So I often bumped into Pete, and I've had a DJ residency at the Big Chill bar for over ten years, so I invited Pete down to DJ with me one night. I'd got quite into AOR stuff, and most people kind of frowned upon it really, and I think Pete was the first person to have similar tastes. We both had Fleetwood Mac in the box, but at the same time we both liked early synth recordings and krautrock stuff, and it was when all the things like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never were starting, that whole American cassette scene. And we just kind of got together playing AOR stuff, but then also making music using oscillators and sound generators, and these were very abstract, under the name Space Weather Sounds.  

Pete Fowler: DJing together, we used to play a lot of the psych and library and left field stuff, but then it was like Jon putting on a Boston record and I went ah, okay, I'll raise your Boston with a bit of Steely Dan. And we used to make quite dark, ambient improvised stuff on cassette; all playing stuff in a room, the room miked up, picking up numbers stations, all sorts of things - the local fete that was going on outdoors at the same time. I think it was realising that each of us liked really smooth mid-70s AOR rock, and out of doing the more noisy stuff, we just thought well, there's these two things, and there's a point where maybe they can meet.

The first thing we ever did was, I did an edit of Don Henley, 'Boys Of Summer', and sent it to Jon, and he put a Oneohtrix Point Never sample on it. And I thought it already existed, that someone had already done it. And Jon was like no, no, I did that. It just seemed to work, to our ears anyway- two things you'd think, on paper anyway, would not be happy bedfellows. We got Daniel [Lopatin] from OPN's blessing on it, which was cool; we didn't bother asking for Don Henley's. But that was the first thing we did and I thought, wow, this is how we're going to set out our stall. For me, I'm not a trained musician, I did music at school and I've always been interested in music and collecting sound toys and old synths and oscillators and things like that, and circuit bent stuff. I was into how they looked as much as how they sounded. I was really interested in these things, and it just seemed to be a really natural way of doing it. We didn't necessarily have a grand plan, like this is our sound; it just sort of happened out of the more freeform noise stuff we were doing.

JT: And then we made a lot of records using a lot of samples, and that was great, but after a while you want to be able to put them on iTunes or publicise them a bit more. So we started to replace some of the samples with live musicians, but again that came along very organically. We were offered some free time in a studio in Hackney Road, and it was the kind of studio that's full of drum kits, guitars and keyboards, so we thought, you know, we're going to need some musicians really, some proper musicians to really take advantage of this situation. And that's how the new album came about, but it took about three or four years I think, just because people are really busy, and we'd only get together every three or four months.

The fact that you say this has taken three or four years to make, and that you've been working on other projects and come back to it, suggests that the current album is fairly separate from the other things that you're doing.

PF: Yeah I think so. I think as far as having quite a few vocalists on it, it's certainly closer to song-based tracks than anything we've done previously. So it has been this project that's been going on parallel to other things we do. Often we'll make music very quickly; we'll jump on it, work quite intensely on it, and then leave it for a couple of weeks, then come back to it and work on it. Whereas something like this has been a very long-term project, hasn't it? Certainly over the last year we've actually honed and polished and been quite brutal about it, in terms of what we're going to keep and what we'll not. A lot of the tracks on the album that's finished now are completely different to what we started with.

JT: We had a lot of fifteen minute jams really, and no lyrics or song idea at all. Tim Burgess asked us to do a remix for him and said he couldn't pay us but he'd do a vocal for us in return. And then we had to write something for him to sing really. So it's all a bit unpredictable. And we've been really lucky too; we thought Indra from Peaking Lights would be perfect for the 'Drifting' track, and we just had a friend who knew her a bit, and gave us her email address and she was great, she said yes. Same with Maria really; we saw her live and just had a chat with her afterwards, and so again, we had to write something to suit her. It's been a bit of a learning curve, the whole thing.

PF: And then having a contact with someone like Nick Nicely that as far as I knew hadn't put out anything since that Hilly Fields album yonks ago. We had a wish list, but sometimes what you wish for isn't what you get, and actually what we got was maybe more interesting than us thinking oh yeah, it would be amazing if we could get Chris Rea or Michael McDonald or Kenny Loggins or someone like that. They're pipe dreams really. I think we'd still love to work with Kenny Loggins. Grizzly Bear kind of spunked Michael McDonald, I thought; I was quite shocked to realise how little they hoisted the flag on that one. But I don't know; he is the king of backing vocals, so I suppose that's how it goes.

We've talked a lot about AOR, but I don't actually hear a lot of a rock influence, AOR or otherwise, on the current album at all. Listening to Paradise Freaks, what I hear is very smooth, but it's a dubby electronic album, it's not referencing 70s rock particularly.

PF: I think for the first year or so that we were working on the album it did have a bigger AOR reference. As I mentioned, we've been quite brutal in taking out parts or sections that we've worked on really meticulously, or the musicians have worked on really meticulously. I think just naturally the album started moving in slightly different directions as to how we thought it would sound initially. There are still elements there, but it's just while we were making it we were listening to a lot of new music, and Jon will discover a new artist that I've not heard before and we'll just be obsessed by him, you know, it's kind of passing things back and forth. And I think as well it's the musicians that we've used. Tom coming in and his influence on some of the tracks, with all the synth work…

JT: Some of those tracks started out very differently, didn't they? One was based on a Doobie Brothers groove, but I think we kind of lost that in the end, pretty much.

PF: Yeah, not by any great sort of decision really, it just happened, didn't it? Like we'd get another part recorded and be like, 'for that one to work we need to take away this', and it was just what seemed right as we were developing it.

JT: I got some really big tannoy speakers which were in the studio up the hill, and mixing down last year we found playing them on that system they just had to be a lot sparser, we just took loads of stuff out. We just started the production again, really.

PF: Yeah, I think a lot of the more electronic aspects came out a lot more through hearing them through the speakers. And wanting to embellish that and enhance that a bit further. We listen to a lot of AOR stuff, but we listen to a lot of new and old synth, new age, miscellaneous electronica, either really old or really current. So that always creeps in there, I think.

We slightly touched on this before, but do you have a wish list of people that you'd like to work with as musicians, or that you'd like to do remixes for?

PF: Well someone we're both really into, and actually this is someone that Jon turned me on to, is Iasos. He was arguably the first New Age musician. Certainly the music he put out and created influenced a lot of people. He was born in Greece, raised in California; he's amazing, we're doing a remix of someone at the moment that's got samples of him on there. Just his philosophy - a lot of people see him as really out there, like a proper new age guy, he's got this thing called giggle energy. But he's someone who's very inspiring in his outlook and his music as well.

Yeah, and we touched on the wish list of vocalists; I think it would be someone like Kenny Loggins. Everyone thinks of something like 'Footloose', but he's an incredible vocalist. The Loggins and Messina stuff, and then his first couple of albums like Nightwatch, and the track he sings with Stevie Nicks on, 'Whenever I Call You Friend'. The vocals on that are pretty out there. And then it goes into the regular AOR thing, but the intro to that is like, wow! This is really some studio shit, you know what I mean? It's just really interesting, to see someone like that, with the lungs to put that out. But also he's done a few more - I wouldn't say experimental things, but some things that are quite at odds with all that smooth stuff. But I always have this impression that these people are unreachable, really. But who knows?

Listening to Paradise Freaks, I can imagine you working with Linda Perhacs.

PF: Yeah; when that first album got reissued that was amazing, and there's not that many other records like that, is there? I've been slightly reticent about hearing her new album, I've heard mixed reports about it, but she's just an amazing voice and an amazing vision with the music, this cosmic music. If she was still alive I'd say Judee Sill; I absolutely love Judee Sill. Her music is incredibly cosmic. She was a mystic Christian, wasn't she, who learnt to play piano in jail. I still listen to that first album a lot.

JT: Joni Mitchell as well. The instrumentation on those records is great.

A lot of the people we've been talking about, they're all people who made quite experimental music, but it was always quite melodic and mellow, so it took a lot longer for it to be recognised. Brian Wilson was recognised very early on, but a lot of these other people; David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, it took a long time for it to be recognised that they're as experimental in their way as any post-punk noise people that you care to name.

PF: Yeah, I agree. Listen to David Crosby's first solo album; it's pretty out there, isn't it? But it's having those amazing musicians to carry out and flesh out the vision really. Then again you've got people who come out of nowhere, like one of our favourite guys recently, Michael Farnetti. He did an album called Good Morning Kisses, from the mid-70s, and that's just a private press, vanity album, but it's just incredible. It's someone with vision, and it's got that experimental side to it, but it's also very melodic, and heartfelt and genuine really. I love the people that are really well known, and we embrace and love their music over the years, like Loggins and all those guys. But when you see someone who came out of nowhere, and their album's been ignored for thirty years, it's kind of more interesting in a way to see something that's not come out of a scene and someone's done it themselves. And again, often it goes against the grain of what's going on. And I think music like that often stands the test of time.

Finally, you mentioned doing live shows at some forthcoming festivals. What form is that live show going to take? Have you been doing live stuff before now?

PF: We've only done two gigs so far, both very different. The first one as in Japan, we got invited to this festival that was held in an out of season Paddington Bear-themed ski resort. We couldn't take out a load of gear and musicians, so we did it quite stripped back, we had a laptop, and we both had an iPad each with Moog software and sort of played along with that. But then we did a gig in Manchester in Islington Mill. There's some promoters up there called Wetplay who put on really good parties. And that was pretty much a full band wasn't it? Aside from we didn't have a drummer, I was playing synth, Jon was playing bass and synth, Tim Burgess played bass for a couple of tracks, and then we had Alik our guitarist and Dan our wind player, and our friend Graham on bongos. So that was quite a full band, but the problem I think with this album is that there's so many musicians, you'd end up having to pay to do a gig really, to get all these people up. So at the moment we're dong Festival Number 6 and Kendall Calling, and we're kind of stripping it back and it's going to be stuff based on the album, but having some stuff on the laptop and just playing with hardware synths and drum machines and whatnot. So it's a slightly different thing from the album really.

JT: Yeah it's just not practical really, unless people wanted to pay us ten grand. And it's just people's availability; trying to put everyone together would just be really complex. So it's best not to stress it too much.

PF: And also the gig we've got at Number 6, it's a daytime thing, on a stone boat. When we did the gig in Manchester it was quite a late night, we were supposed to come on at 11 and I think we went on at 12 or 1, so by that time everyone was pretty in party mode, which was great and the gig went really well. But I think this time round, doing things in the daytime, not in a tent with people chewing their faces off, is probably going to be a bit more sympathetic to what we're doing.

Seahawks' album Paradise Freaks is out now via Ocean Moon