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Escape Velocity

Skipping Fandango: Henry Blacker Interviewed
Matt Ridout , May 14th, 2015 11:22

Before they support John Doran on his Jolly Lad book tour, the West Country noise merchants' guitarist Tim Farthing talks to Matt Ridout about PJ Harvey, ZZ Top and middle-aged misanthropy

Photograph courtesy of Magda Wrzeszez

One of the most beautiful counties in the UK, Somerset is home to the Mendip Hills, cheddar cheese and Henry Blacker. Idyllic rolling farmland and keg party noise rock: a juxtaposing match made in heaven clearly.

The band's roots lie in the multi-headed hydra that is Hey Colossus. Having collaborated for eight years together, guitarist Tim Farthing and bassist Joe Thompson found themselves united by geography and free time, no mean feat considering the widespread and constantly active nature of the Colossus collective. With a desire to play something akin to a West Country version of ZZ Top, they gathered Tim's brother Roo for drum duties and promptly released their debut LP, Hungry Dogs Will Eat Dirty Puddings, on Riot Season last year.

Their second album Summer Tombs was recorded in a whirlwind 24 hours at Dropout Studios in Camberwell and released on Record Store Day this year. It sees the band expanding on their sound, adding nuances that have drawn favourable comparisons to Queens Of The Stone Age (the early years, not the Elton John era). I had a chat with Tim Farthing about the ideology behind the group, the new record and what it was like to play guitar in PJ Harvey's band.

Tell me a little bit about the new album Summer Tombs, I understand that it was in progress from about the time that the first LP came out?

Tim Farthing: Yep. We pretty much cracked on with it as soon as the first album was done. It's a slight progression in that it's marginally less primitive than the first one and has more nuance here and there but it's still the three of us thrashing away at our lutes like the middle-aged fools that we are.

Henry Blacker has been very prolific. Do you put that down to the band being an outlet during your normal family lives? Is the band a useful release from the day to day?

TF: Yes. I think with kids and all the rest of it you are suddenly aware that time is running out. Nothing makes you feel quite as aware of Mr Reaper as seeing your kids getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So we tend to make the most of the small amount of time we have.

I was speaking to Joe Thompson during the period that the band was conceived, and he commented that part of the reason you started the band was a frustration about being unable to play shows that Hey Colossus had been offered due to band members being away or unable to get time to do the gigs. Does it feel liberating to be in a three-piece rather than the larger collective?

TF: Colossus were on a bit of a hiatus when Blacker started up for one reason or another so we were at something of a loose end. We wanted to do something local as it can be moderately trying spending six hours in a van just to go to a Colossus rehearsal. Also, my brother wanted to learn how to play the drums, so it all came together in a little knot of mutual frustration and boredom.

I suppose that may be a factor of Hey Colossus that people might not be aware, the sheer distance involved in coming together for a rehearsal or gig with members based in the West Country and in London and Watford. It actually is quite a logistical operation getting you all into the same room.

TF: It sure is. It's sort of nonsensical really, but I guess we all love it enough to keep it bubbling away. The upshot is that we gig more than we rehearse - which I don't think I can say about any band I've been in before.

You personally have had quite a varied musical past - a lot of people may not realise you played with PJ Harvey for example. What would you look back on as your proudest achievement thus far?

TF: I do try not to look back. Nostalgia is sort of dangerous, I think. Certainly playing with Polly gave me an insight into what playing at that level is like. With all the will in the world, I don't imagine I'll be playing Madison Square Garden again anytime soon… but I'm grateful to have had the chance.

How did you come into contact with her and how does one go from playing massive shows with PJ Harvey to being involved in two of the premier DIY noise bands in the UK?

TF: Well, she lives near me. I've known her since we were teenagers. We started up bands at the same time and found ourselves in the same skittle alleys in the 80s. Actually, my guitar teacher was John Parish, who has played with her on and off since the beginning - so we were aware of each other through him possibly, it's hard to remember. How I ended up here is hard to work out. Seeing Polly's life at close hand certainly dispelled any interest I had in being a 'pop star'. It just looked like a massive pain in the arse. So since then I've been quite content in my little niche projects.

Back to Hey Colossus briefly, you weren't in them from the beginning, is that correct?

TF: No. Joe and Bob are the only two founder members currently. I've been involved for the last eight years or so - so still very much the newbie.

One of the aspects of Colossus that you have kept consistent with Henry Blacker is your approach and work ethic to being in a band. The balance between recording and shows is so often skewed with lots of bands doing tons of gigs with little to no recordings to show for it. How do you maintain the right balance?

TF: Yep, when we have new songs we generally need to record them as quickly as possible before we get sick of them and they're still relatively fresh. The first album we recorded over two days and the new one took us a day, so there was no chance of that. Me and my brother also do an electronic project called Reigns. Our last album [The Widow Blades from 2011] took us two years of fiddling, honing and procrastinating. I'm pleased with it, but Blacker was definitely the antithesis to that approach. Also because the Reigns stuff was entirely studio-based it was almost impossible to do live.

Being based in the West Country, is it liberating being a band outside of a big city? I would imagine that there a lot of pros and cons to being based in Somerset?

TF: The things I like about being in the country have almost nothing to do with being in a band. I like the space, I like the lack of people, I like the surroundings. I also like the complete lack of a 'scene' - well, there possibly is one, but I'm too old to be aware of it. I think 'scenes' are counterproductive - Joe would completely disagree.

I was just about to say that. Joe is one of the biggest supporters of the underground scene and of bands in this country - why do you think it is counterproductive? Is it the chance of being overly influenced by what is going on?

TF: Exactly that. I can't say we're immune to influence, it's pretty obvious who our influences are, but having seen a lot of bands of late you can see an idea working its way through scores of bands one after the other. I'm not going to be any more specific than that. However, having said that, I can see that scenes can be mutually supportive and nurturing. Maybe my basic problem with them is that I'm a middle-aged misanthrope that is incapable of successful social engagement!

So, what are Henry Blacker's influences would you say? Listening to Summer Tombs, it struck me that it was like a record that Queens Of The Stone Age wished they could still make.

TF: I really love the first Queens record. I think they've suffered a bit from an over-eagerness to collaborate. Some of their albums sound like compilations there's so many tossing guest singers on them! And why would you need that if you can sing like him [Josh Homme]? Mystifying. But that first record is the nuts. Originally when we started up I think we wanted it to be a dumb-as-rocks keg party sort of band - ZZ Top was definitely the benchmark. But as time has gone, on it's mutated into something else… possibly something a bit weirder, a bit more melancholic.

What next for Henry Blacker? I believe you are doing a number of shows with Torche - do you have any further plans for tours? I can only assume you are stuck into album number three already?

TF: Yeah, you're right. It would be nice to record another album this year and it would be quite nice to spend more than a day at it this time. And yes, Torche shows coming up - which we're very much looking forward to. There are a couple of other things that haven't been announced yet too. Basically, we'll be shoehorning in whatever we can around Colossus dates, childcare and day jobs - before we collectively collapse from some sort of stroke or seizure.

Summer Tombs is out now on Riot Season Records. Henry Blacker play Blackcat Records in Taunton this Saturday, May 16, as part of John Doran's An English Trip book tour, where the tQ editor will be performing with Årabrot; head to the Facebook event for full details