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Escape Velocity

In A Free-Form Language: An Interview With Hen Ogledd
Russell Cuzner , February 16th, 2017 14:35

When the trio of Richard Dawson, Rhodri Davies and Dawn Bothwell played together as Hen Ogledd at 2016's Tusk festival it was only the second time they had performed together. The first was when they recorded their highly-praised album, Bronze - a future classic bearing a rare combination of unbound experiment with enchanting engagement. Ahead of their second show as a trio we talk to Davies and Bothwell about how their encounters in sound are embedded in time and place

Live photographs by Kuba Ryniewicz

The echoes of history can gather strange qualities. As they resonate down time's corridor they pick up contemporary forms of expression like a stone gathering moss, each historic root getting the chance to grow into the future or shrivel into obscurity.

The music of Hen Ogledd, initially a duo of Richard Dawson and Rhodri Davies, chooses to mysteriously signify its strange qualities through referencing an historic place. Specifically, Hen Ogledd, or the Old North, was a region covering southern Scotland and northern England between 500 and 800 AD, whose kingdoms thrived for centuries until either defeated by the Anglo-Saxons or absorbed by Scotland.

The language used across these regions, Brythonic (meaning a Briton as opposed to a Gael or Anglo-Saxon) would go on to form the Welsh tongue spoken by Davies when growing up in Aberystwyth, while its borders include modern-day Newcastle upon Tyne, Dawson's home town and the site of the band's recordings.

Their first album focussed on the relationship between their instruments: Dawson dropping the narrative song for which he is better known and using just amplified acoustic guitar and bass to improvise with Davies' typically unpredictable extended techniques on harp. The results see the pair utilise their instruments as sound sources, as opposed to embracing any traditional craft, in an exploratory, tumbling dance.

For Bronze, their second and latest album, the pair extensively broaden their sound pool, most significantly by recruiting Dawn Bothwell, a local arts curator and performer. Her looping vocals, electronic tones and drum machines can divert the duo's wayward vibrations into semi-structured songs or grooves, yet the trio maintain a questing, avant-garde edge throughout. It is perhaps this deft balance between out-there improv and accessible, inviting passage that have seen the trio's intuitive expressions consistently receive high praise.

Reviews of Bronze also noted the relationship the ostensibly modern music seems to have to place and its history. Although clearly sign-posted by the group's name there are elusive qualities in the sounds they make together that suggest deeply-rooted sensibilities are at stake.

To kick-off a conversation that sought to unravel how time and place influenced the enchanting music found on Bronze, I wondered what their first encounter with experimental music had been.

Dawn Bothwell (DB): Probably listening to music from my dad, bands like King Crimson, and playing music in church when I was four or five. I guess what makes [playing in church] experimental is it's quite a charged scenario to play music in. It was a Pentecostal church so that's fed into my solo project, Pentecostal Party, revisiting an interest in that experience [of] heightened emotional states in music.

Rhodri Davies (RD): My dad was a member of the Aberystwyth Silver Band and he got my sister and me to play - I was playing percussion. We went to Aberaeron [the Welsh coastal town] and, I don't know why, but we were on two tugboats leaving the harbour, going out to sea, whilst playing music. The conductor and the cornets and trumpets were on one tugboat and then we - the drums, the bass and the tuba - were on the other one. I think there was a lot of alcohol involved! We were playing the same piece but in different places, and when we came back we were playing completely different parts of the piece. It was really exciting and came out of nowhere - it wasn't trying to be experimental music but I was fascinated by it. It came from a social thing; it wasn't contrived or elitist - a social town band doing crazy things - that was probably my earliest example.

How did you all meet?

DB: The first time I ever met Richard was when he was working in a record shop [in Newcastle] - alt.vinyl, which is gone now, but it's now the label who have put us out. I was living in Carlisle and I used to visit it because there aren't any really good record shops in Carlisle, so I was a bit famished for music. I remember going into the shop and speaking to Richard, before I met him ‘officially’ as a friend, and asking him if he had a record by ISAN (a minimal electronic music producer), but he couldn't help me.

RD: I met him in the shop as well actually. He was skulking in the back - a sort of frightened animal.

How did you all end up playing together? I guess with you, Rhodri, it goes back quite a few years now?

RD: Yeah, I wanted to play in a duo with him and we were going to work on pieces that had one, two or three notes in them, and it was an utter disaster and failure! Then Richard asked me to play the little bits between his [songs on his 2013] Glass Trunk album, and then Lee Everington from Tusk Music and Safe As Milk festival suggested we do a gig in [Newcastle’s] Cumberland Arms and it went from there really. Then we were desperate for inspiration and we asked Dawn to join us.

DB: Well, the first time I played with both of you was the recording you hear on the Bronze record. I think I might have had a mess around once or twice with Richard, but in a slightly inebriated state at the end of a party when you just grab things and try to make some noise, not in any sort of calculated way. So, when Richard and Rhodri were recording Bronze they invited different people to play on the album and I got to walk in to the recording, which they'd set up at the old Star and Shadow Cinema [an arts and community hub in Newcastle], and just had a mess around for a couple of hours in a freezing cold, stripped-out warehouse - it was fun.

RD: That was the night session. Richard and I had recorded some stuff in the afternoon, but most of what we did with Dawn ended up on the album, it was that good. Dawn's contribution turned into something pivotal to the album.

Yes, that comes across. On the previous Hen Ogledd album you'd done as a duo you used just your harps and Richard's guitar on the whole. But there are lots of different sounds coming across on this new one. To what extent were the tracks on Bronze composed as opposed to improvised?

RD: I was improvising, Richard was making it up as he went along and Dawn was extemporising [laughs]. I was under the impression we were all improvising. Richard was playing a diverse amount of instruments - some self-named instruments like the coal pad, the donut, a table... elephant and a cockerel! All these objects, did they just happen to be there?

RD: No, it was a completely empty space - the old Star and Shadow Cinema was completely stripped-out. At one point, I was walking into some of the other rooms and playing stuff, because it's a very echoey space. We brought all the equipment over from Sam’s [Grant, recording engineer and producer] studio, Blank Studio, across the road.

What was significant about the Star and Shadow Cinema? I know it was where the Tusk Festival used to take place, but then it became dilapidated and it was at that point you used it to record Bronze.

RD: Yeah, it was only dilapidated because they had to leave the premises, the owner moved them on I think. We'd all played there individually and in different combinations, it was really important and still is really important space for all kinds of collective activity. Culturally it was one of those pivotal spaces; it has similar resonance and importance to the cultural scene in Newcastle.

Does it have a particular sound that you were after?

RD: We wanted to tap into, without sounding like a hippy, the vibe of the place really. And it was one last chance before it changed to whatever they're going to turn it into, flats or whatever.

DB: I think the spatiality comes across. I wasn't playing the percussion instruments, but there are noises that sound like drips, and echoing - for me, listening to that record is like a really amazing memory of the experience of recording. There was definitely a sense that we were all really at home and familiar with that space, and that it was really special. [It was] liminal in a way because it had been half-deconstructed when we recorded the album: [they] had already started to take down the walls. When I walked in I was struck by this weird sense of a stripped-back, refrigerated version of the warm, loving Star and Shadow. It was quite strange and I think a sense of that comes across in the recording.

The first track, ‘Ancient Data’, includes contributions from Laura Cannell and Jeff Henderson that were recorded separately before you made the piece.

RD: They recorded the parts and sent them to us and then Sam played it back into the space while we were playing, so it was pre-recorded but it was relayed live in a way.

What did you ask of them, how did you describe what you were after?

RD: Richard wanted Laura to come up with some pretty energetic recorder playing. Jeff sent us a lot of music, but we just used the one “bom” at the beginning of the album because we thought it would be funny [laughs]. He starts the album - it's a really important sound.

There's a few observations that reviews of the album have in common, particularly their noting a sense of the past coming through. I know such impressions are guided by the ancient name of the band, but it's in there in the sound too.

RD: It’s not something specific that we were aiming for, but I like the whole context of Hen Ogledd because I see Richard as part of the Gododdin tribe that went from Edinburgh down to the banks of the Tyne, Dawn is representing Ystrad Clud, which was the old British Strathclyde, and I'm an outsider because I was over in Wales. Of course, that theory is all very nice and well but Richard sees himself as a Viking, so it kind of ruins the story. I just like the idea that at one point people were talking in an old, ancient Welsh language up in those big parts of Britain.

I've just watched the video of Hen Ogledd’s performance at the Tusk Festival and was surprised at how recognisable some of the tracks from the Bronze were. I was expecting it to be a newly improvised set because I thought that's how you play, so it made me wonder whether the album may have been written to some extent before the recording?

RD: Although all the pieces came together through the three of us improvising together, some of them sounded as if we had been rehearsing them and they were actual pieces. So, when we did Tusk we had to try and remember our individual contributions and, of course, they were going to be different. That was the first time the three of us have played live so it was a really charged, exciting gig. [It was] one of the first times I've come back to Newcastle since leaving [to live in Swansea], so it was just great, really emotional, seeing all my friends.

DB: I wouldn't really describe myself as an improviser - I started off writing weird pop songs. I think especially when you're trying to work out where electronic music, and drum machines in particular, work alongside improvised harp and guitar, it felt like it needed a little bit of structure and that in itself would be generative. When we played the Tusk gig it definitely took everything into this new territory of slightly premeditated [music], but we interject within that and bring new stuff to the table... I guess I just entered into a duo, and it's trying to negotiate a place within that.

Can you see it influencing what you do musically outside of Hen Ogledd as well?

DB: Yeah, but because the music scene in Newcastle is so close knit Richard and Rhodri have always been a massive influence on me anyway - I've been to see practically every gig either of them have ever done in the local area. I think a large part of the dynamic that I have with them - and it’s really apparent between them - is that there is a real camaraderie, a sort of security and humour. You feel comfortable to try out new ideas and that's how I felt when we played together for the first time at Tusk.

You mentioned how close knit the scene is in Newcastle. Why do you think that is?

RD: I think it’s probably a combination of a lot of different, really strong genres there: people engaging with improvised music, alternative folk, noise, they teach improvisation at the university, contemporary classical stuff happening. In London, when I lived there, things were very separated, and in Newcastle everybody is interested in what everybody else is doing. There’s lots of supportive stuff going on and a lot of amazing bands like New Blockaders, Chris Watson, :zoviet*france, all that stuff...

DB: ...and the tastes and the willingness of individual promoters, even if they're not programming diverse stuff, to come to things that other people are doing. It's a mix of people being open-minded to what each other are doing, and the promoters and the independent spaces putting on a really good mix of different things.

Dawn, you also work locally with presenting visual art to the public. Does this bring new sensibilities to your music perhaps?

DB: I want to say no because when I set out to make music I was really determined that it wasn't going to cross over into the art thing. [Visual art] can be quite difficult to justify with all this art theory and rigorous conceptualism, and I wanted to do something without having to back it up in the same way. But, I guess it has allowed me to re-approach the idea of making art, which is something I had stepped away from. For instance, I got into a duo called Charm Offensive with my friend, Susie Green, who is a visual artist, and some of the performances used video footage I'd made. [We would] make these immersive projection spaces, almost like art installations that we would play within. So, it's something that I wanted to be separate but, things don't pan out the way you'd planned and they end up coming back ‘round full circle.

And Rhodri your work is sometimes in the form of installations - does that influence the composition side?

RD: Yes. In ‘Ancient Data’ I scattered lots of cymbals and percussion on the floor and then dropped nails in a random way onto these instruments, so that is probably informed by my interest in Fluxus and performance art [-related] ways of making sound.

Is the concert that you're about to do in London going to be a similar show to what we saw at Tusk?

RD: I'm really excited to be playing in the Jazz Café because when I was young I used to go to gigs there. The amount of history in that place is really interesting, so we can't but not play differently to Tusk, and it’ll be our second gig as a trio.

And, after London what's next for the trio?

RD: Richard's concentrating on his [next] solo album, and I think we're both involved in a live version of that, so we're going to be debuting that at Safe As Milk festival.

And your sister [the violinist Angharad Davies] is involved in it too?

RD: My sister and the rhythm section from Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. And then I think we're going to be focussing on Hen Ogledd: more live gigs towards the end of the year going into next year, and maybe another album, but I think it would be nice to play this material for a little while.

Hen Ogledd play at The Jazz Café, London this Friday, February 17