The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Notts Bounty: The Invisible Orchestra Interviewed
Scott Oliver , July 19th, 2016 09:03

The 24-piece collecting some of Nottingham's finest musicians have just released their debut album, taking in afrobeat, jazz and funk. They talk to Scott Oliver about turning a pipe-dream pub conversation into reality

Photograph courtesy of Ralph Barklam/Invisible Orchestra

For a band that had only played a total of three live gigs, all sold out, by the time of its fourth birthday, the Invisible Orchestra have already generated quite a buzz in their home town of Nottingham. This may or may not be because the majority of the city’s musicians are actually in the band, a raucous 24-piece "dirty soul, funk, reggae, Latin, afrobeat, big band jazz and Arabic punk" ensemble who last month released their debut LP, Champagne Taste Lemonade Money, wetting its head with just a twelfth gig, at the city’s Masonic Hall.

It was a suitably esoteric venue for such a singular act: outside, the grey power architecture contrasted sharply with an opulent interior replete with paintings of ruddy-faced men. Being invited back a year after near-trashing the place was something of a surprise. "They were dubious at first," says guitarist and band leader James Waring. "I saw the photos after the last gig and thought they’d never, ever have us back."

One of the highlights of that 2015 show was the orchestra providing big band-style backing for cult Nottingham MC Scorzayzee’s pounding, polemical track 'Great Britain’, an ironic locale for such a rendition, too (entirely accidentally, of course), given the following bars:

The Queen wears stolen diamonds, Great Britain
Her husband's a Freemason, Great Britain
They killed Lady Di, Great Britain
Do I have to go into why, Great Britain?

Such was the ideological dissonance between band and venue, Waring told the Nottingham magazine LeftLion, that one of the orchestra announced he was going to take a shit on that highly expensive carpet. When the potential miscreant was persuaded against it, he replied: "Okay, I’ll put a hole in the wall and put some shit in that."

This year’s album launch show featured a collaborative reprisal with Scorzayzee, now adding four-time world scratch champion DJ Switch to a cover of 'Diamonds Are Forever’ that encapsulated the scope and scale of the band, sweeping and soaring yet still effortlessly sleazy. Rehearsal was "seat of the pants stuff," recalls Waring, something the band is no stranger to: their first gig, in October 2012, had them working with one of the city’s recent spate of breakout stars, the singer Natalie Duncan, a collaborator that they met just an hour before taking the stage. "She wrote the song on the train coming up from London and had the lyrics sellotaped to the mic stand," laughs the band’s Grammy-winning Hammond organ player, Justin Dodsworth.

As with everything they do, Champagne Taste was first and foremost a triumph of logistics, not to mention the quixotic vision of Waring, who pushed the Invisible Orchestra from pipe-dream pub conversation into practical reality, piecing the band together à la Ocean’s Eleven from Nottingham’s tightly-knit music scene and encompassing an age-range of 23 to 60-odd ("although it’s not polite to ask!" he adds).

Waring has had to fend off occasional accusations of poaching and has a palpable sense of loyalty toward the band for buying into his vision, especially now that they can afford to be more selective. "Understandably people might not have had faith in the idea initially," he says. "But people who weren’t originally interested – 'Nah, haven’t got time for that’ – are now suddenly keen to join. Singers constantly come up to you in the pub: 'I want a song!’ 'Yeah, okay: I’ll just magic a song out of my arse.’"

"They’ll make assumptions, like they’re doing us a favour," adds Dodsworth.

One yet to petition him is Jason Williamson, singer with Sleaford Mods, one of Nottingham’s biggest recent exports and one whose maximally minimalist omniradge is the polar opposite of Invisible Orchestra’s sassily luxuriant maximalism, although Waring wouldn’t entirely rule out a guest vocal slot for a guy with whom he and DJ Switch once gigged. "It was at the Maze. We picked up £6 each."

Nevertheless, there’s already a decent selection of singers on the album – some, such as Hannah Heartshape and local reggae legend Percy Dread, are de jure members of the band; others, rising soul star Harleighblu and Ed Bannard of Hhymn among them, are more like de facto crown dependencies. Each adds even more variety to what’s already a smorgasboard of drums, double bass, guitar, organ, piano, strings, congas, cornet, saxophones, sousaphone, tuba, trumpets and trombones.

Indeed, the album – at times brassy and bombastic, others spacious and reflective – is impossible to pigeonhole, its consistency deriving from the emotional flow rather than any sonic homogeneity. Think of the most decadent Hollywood star you can, then imagine them getting married for the fourth (or is it fifth?) time to some dissolute countess in a sprawling Provençal chateau, then Invisible Orchestra would be the wedding band invited along – a day early, with some casualties – to soundtrack that balmy Mediterranean evening of A-list debauchery, filling the pink skies with stridently lush arrangements. It’s polished enough not to fall apart, smudged enough to swing.

Percy Dread’s plaintive wailing on 'This World Needs More Love’ and album closer 'WAR’ are standout tracks, both live and on the album, while Harleighblu’s contributions – one of which, '(I Ain’t) Going Nowhere’, was the Natalie Duncan tune – are simply electric. There are moments of almost shoegazey maudlin and good old knees-up ditties, ballads and freak-outs. And with such limitless musical possibilities, the sense for Waring is of a band who, with an album and that string of sold-out boutique gigs in the can, are now growing in confidence, buying in ever more to their own potential.

Champagne Taste was recorded in the idyllic surrounds of VADA Studios in rural Worcestershire, complete with its converted 13th-century chapel live room, owned by dandyish producer Matt Terry, whose CV includes work with, variously, The Prodigy, The Enemy and the Royal Shakespeare Company. "It’s an ideal situation," says Waring. "It’s not like you’re all waiting in a control room in a city centre and constantly nipping to the pub. You can go to bed, lounge around, have a sandwich, stroll around the grounds. It was very chilled. You’ve got no sense of the outside world."

For a band with lemonade money to invest, these were, well, champagne facilities, thanks in no small part to Terry’s goodwill. "Matt made it cheap enough – not cheap, [but] affordable enough for us to manage. There were so many allowances and he put so much extra work in. Basically, we made a £90k album for about 30 grand."

"And he’s very keen for us to get back to the studio and make a second album," adds Dodsworth.

Waring himself raised the £30,000 private investment to make the album – "easily the most stressful" of several chores in a "cottage industry", he says, encompassing promotion, event curation, poster and sleeve design, hiring venues, door staff, sound engineers and PAs. Given this organisational load, there’s a tendency for him to be "a bit of a dictator – a benevolent dictator, but still a dictator" when it comes to the songwriting, notwithstanding delegation of lyric-writing to the singers. Each of this vast tribe of musicians might prefer a little more spotlight, a little more latitude, but it would be easy for it to become cluttered or overcooked. "Sometimes it’s very tempting to have brass all over everything, because it’s exciting. You have to leave space for all the instruments. I heard the percussionists chatting: 'I’ll do a roll here.’ I’m like: 'I know, let’s just do a fucking rhythm, shall we?’"

"It’s easy to overcomplicate it," agrees Dodsworth. "Less is more. It’s more exciting to pace things, to leave gaps."

"Once the tracks are under a microscope," adds Waring, "they change. I said to somebody in the studio, 'You’re doing that bit wrong.’ They said: 'I’ve been doing it like that for two years.’ I’m like: 'You’re joking?!’"

As happy as they are with the final result, the essence of the Invisible Orchestra remains the live show. Visually, there’s so much going off on stage that the audience/performer spatial distribution is partially deconstructed. In fact, if you happened to have had your drink spiked with strong psychedelics – which wouldn’t be a wholly terrible scenario amidst the post-Brexit chaos – it’d be easy enough to imagine the throng of bobbing heads around you to be an integral part of some vast collective performance.

Champagne Taste is the springboard for a band now looking to stretch out beyond their East Midlands locale. "The album is the foundation," says Waring. "This is what we look like, this is what we’re going to play." That said, getting the band out on the road on a relatively tight budget throws up yet more logistical head-scratchers. They have free use of a coach – "a bright, thin, mobile nightclub" – which has reduced expenditure, but heads have to be counted at motorway service stations in case anyone’s left behind. It’s part-stag do, part-school trip. "We have to have bouncers with us, to bounce the band," says Dodsworth. "Grown men and women being herded up on stage!"

However difficult the logistics and admin, says Dodsworth, they’ve played to "a thousand people going mental at the Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club in Cardiff, and that on the back of no album", as well as to full houses in Manchester and Gloucester. November will see them opening for Madness at the House of Fun Weekender and an ultimate ambition remains to perform on Later... with Jools Holland, a sort of natural spiritual home.

Considering the many obstacles that might stop a rookie 24-piece band ever releasing an album, Champagne Taste Lemonade Money could easily feel like a culmination, a mountain climbed. In truth, it’s very much a beginning. A grizzled five years old they may be, but this is a band that’s still only played half as many gigs as it has musicians.

Champagne Taste Lemonade Money is available now digitally via Bandcamp. Head to the Invisible Orchestra’s Facebook page for full details of their upcoming gigs

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.