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Escape Velocity

Polar Shift: An Interview With Pulled By Magnets' Seb Rochford
Patrick Clarke , February 26th, 2019 09:31

After the end of jazz outliers Polar Bear, their leader Seb Rochford underwent monumental personal change. He speaks to Patrick Clarke about re-connecting with his Indian heritage, studying under master musicians in Mysuru, and the ancient texts that informed his staggering new project

With his new group Pulled By Magnets, Seb Rochford is taking things slowly. Despite the fact he has been working with saxophonist Pete Wareham and bassist Neil Charles under the name since last summer, the trio have only played one show together, and there’s nothing to be streamed online, as of yet. He promises that we’ll get ‘something’ by the end of the year, perhaps an album, perhaps an EP, perhaps just a song. They’ll be playing Late Junction Festival in London later this week, the only other live date currently on the horizon.

That is not to say that the former leader of jazz scene forerunners Polar Bear has been resting on his laurels. He has undergone something of a momentous personal shift. He called time on his old band following their sixth and final album Same As You in 2015, and afterwards took part something of a creative cleanse. He reconnected with his Indian heritage, studying under a local musical master in the South Indian city of Mysuru, then travelling northward to Lucknow, the birthplace of his late mother. When it came time to call on his old Polar Bear bandmate Wareham, and another occasional collaborator Charles, he was armed with a musical vision that he wanted to give time to gestate. They played their only gig to date in the Old Church in Stoke Newington, the same place they recorded, only when he felt they were ready.

Sitting across from me in a coffee shop, nestled among the South American market in Seven Sisters that’s hidden behind anonymous tech shops and tower blocks, he says he’s able to offer me a preview. He hands me some headphones over the table and plays me one of the tracks saved on his phone. It bears the depth of a piece that’s been worked on for a very long time. Like the creative process that produced it, it’s slow in a deliberate way. It has a heaving momentum, a titanic power and an epic reach. Wareham’s saxophone sounds almost monstrous as it blasts at the forefront, but the whole piece has an ancient kind of beauty to it, hinting towards something incomprehensibly bigger than itself.

Music like this is clearly the product of a period of profound personal change. We asked Rochford to tell us the story, from the end of Polar Bear to the beginning of a tremendous new project.

tQ: Pulled By Magnets haven’t done many interviews, and there’s not much out online about you, can you give us a brief outline of how the group came to be?

Seb Rochford: After I finished Polar Bear a couple of years ago I wanted to do something new, but I also wanted time to develop it in private, so I just kind of called Pete [Wareham, saxophone] and Neil [Charles, bass] one day and said ‘do you fancy having a play?’ We played one piece I’d written that had an unusual structure, I just recorded it and said, ‘fancy getting back together again’? We spent about six months together. We started recording an album last June in the Old Church in Stoke Newington. We’ve got two EPs as well.

You’ve been sitting on music for a long time, then?

I wasn’t sitting on it, but I wanted the guys to play it and get used to playing it and work it out. I wanted to do something different, something we haven’t done before. It’s more that we were giving it time before we play live, so that it’s a more realised thing.

You’ve worked with Pete Wareham for a long time with Polar Bear, what’s your previous relationship like with Neil Charles?

We’ve been playing for about ten years with other people, and he used to fill in in Polar Bear when Tom [Herbert, Polar Bear bassist] couldn’t make it. He also lives around the corner from me, and it was nice having someone I sometimes bump into! I like him as a person, and the way he plays, I find it really inspiring. When he played the music I’d written before I felt like he understood it, I didn’t have to explain anything to him.

Can you give me an example?

There’s one piece where I just gave him notes to play and something to think about, I was perceiving it as like a raag; part of my heritage is from India so that’s always a big part of my musical connection. The thing he played was exactly what I was imagining… the form is so beautiful. Raags aren’t just scales, they’re stories, and he unfolded it as a story. I didn’t say anything about how to structure it, but he did it in a perfect way.

In the past, you’ve talked about Neil and Pete as having ‘emotional depth’ as musicians, does that mean Pulled By Magnets play music with a lot of emotion?

I would hope so! My approach to this music is slightly different than it was with Polar Bear. I’ve been reading a lot of ancient texts that have allowed me to think in a different way about energy and about what is positive and what is negative, so the music is coming from a different place.

Were those ancient texts spiritual?

Yes, spiritual texts, but from different places. There’s a French Bedouin writer I’ve been reading from the 11th Century, and then there’s [ancient Sanskrit texts] the Ishvara Gita and The Hymns to the Mystic Fire. All those texts are making me feel differently about the nature of division, aside from politics, I don’t think good and evil are divided. Whereas the second to last Polar Bear album was about the turmoil that was going on with me and the people around me, then the last album was kind of like, I was in a low place so I wanted to make music that was very positive, [Pulled By Magnets] feels like it’s not about that. It’s about the totality of energy. I guess the place that I’m writing from is always my emotion, and I wrote all the music for Pulled By Magnets because I was trying to find music that fitted what I was thinking and I couldn’t find any.

After Polar Bear ended you travelled to India, and, as you put it, “took some time to rediscover what it was I wanted to do and who I am as a musical being.” What spurred that decision?

My parents took us there to see family when I was 16. My mum passed when I was 18, and after that psychologically it was quite a lot for me to go back there. I almost felt like my living connection to India had gone along with with her. But my family is there still, and I wanted it to be a living relationship rather than just reading, listening to the music and cooking the food. Also my wife wanted to go, so we went south to Mysuru for three or four weeks, then to Lucknow in the north where my mum’s from, and then to Agra where most of my family is.

You also said you weren’t listening to any recorded music, that sounds like a conscious decision...

I write music from singing inside, and then I write down what I’m singing at the piano. After Polar Bear I wanted to make a shift in my inner harmonic, so I just started hearing sounds on the street, finding music in the temples or community centres, actually listening to the sounds. There’s so many sounds on the streets in India, it’s so vivid. It was amazing to me, the difference between the sounds in south and north India. When we went to Lucknow it was a huge wave of ‘wow, this sounds so different!’, it was much more minor sounding. All the car horns in Lucknow were set at a different pitch than they were in Mysuru, they were minor, then in Mysuru the car horns were mainly major. It made me wonder whether that was intentional, because all the sounds I was hearing in the south were in harmony with the melodies I was learning there.

You spent some time being taught in Mysuru by someone you’ve described as a ‘master vocal musician’, can you tell us more?

Where we were staying there was a temple at the end of the road. I went in because I could hear music, and these three guys said, ‘if you’re interested, you should call this guy’. I called him and he said ‘come and meet me at my house tomorrow morning,’ so I went to his house, and he said ‘what would you like to learn?’ I told him I wanted to learn more about harmonies and melodies. He said ‘you should get taught by my mother then’. There was someone having a lesson downstairs and he said ‘sit in the lesson, if you like it then you can get taught by her.’ It was amazing, she was just singing and playing harmonium. She told me to come every morning, seven days a week, so that’s how I would spend my mornings, I’d wake up, do an hour’s practise, go to my lesson, do some more practise, that was my routine.

What did you learn?

Different scales and songs. I didn’t learn full raags, but I learnt bhajans, which are devotional songs. It was a really amazing experience. I realised that there were two notes I was hearing slightly different from her, so I had to hone in on the microtonal before I could sing with her, it focussed my ear in a whole different way.

Before the last Polar Bear album you spent time in the Mojave Desert, would you say travel and location is the key influence on your creative direction?

I feel like it’s a really fortunate thing with playing music, you get to see different perspectives. The silence of a desert, it confronts you with yourself. I felt like a little kid, my mind was so clear, and I’m still friends with people in the community there. I also love that it’s quite dangerous, that you have to respect it, you could die if you don’t. Memorising certain plants, little things to get back, it made me very present.

My parents are from different cultures. I grew up in Scotland and my dad is English-Irish, my mother is Indian but also from a culture people don’t know much about, what’s termed Anglo-Indian. In the 1700s there was an Irish soldier who went to India and married someone in my family, so generations back in my family there’s an Irish person, and Anglo-Indian culture is very different to Indian culture. There’s a lot of things connected to you, the way the British would treat Anglo-Indians and the way other Indians would treat Anglo-Indians. They almost created their own community, and they’re Catholic as well, it’s a complicated culture. Trying to explain that to people sometimes is difficult. When my grandmother passed my uncle found all these photos no one had ever seen before. When she moved here, they came over on the Windrush but from India, she was always encouraging me to keep my connection to India even though they were integrating. I wrote to this TV program when I was a kid that I wanted to meet someone from Star Wars, and she said ‘No! Write to tell them you want to visit your relatives in India!’ I saw letters from her mother, Anglo-Indians are almost proud of their British side, culturally it gave them more status in some ways because the British gave them more powerful jobs.

You’ve hinted at a relationship between grindcore, deathcore and black metal and the music you’re making as Pulled By Magnets. Could you expand a little bit?

That’s how I started, I started playing that kind of music. When I was trying to find music that fitted my mood and I couldn’t find any, I wrote that music, then afterwards found a whole scene of really kind of underground psychedelic, super violent black metal. Some of the harmonic movements of it I could relate to classical Indian music, you can always find common ground. I feel like the grooves on Pulled By Magnets are coming from that, whereas that element was never really in Polar Bear. I always listened to a bit of that music, there’s always been a part of my musical listening that’s extreme in that way, and there was a spirit of that music that I didn’t want to be in Pulled By Magnets, but there is something there that’s related to it.

There’s another location that was quite important to Pulled By Magnets, the Old Church in Stoke Newington. You recorded there and it was the venue for your only gig so far, how did the show go down?

It was quite intense! I was playing music that no one had heard, that no one had a reference for, and they hadn’t heard anything of online. I wanted to end the year playing my own music but I wanted to do something that was quite low key, to give us a chance to play the music once and to do it in the church where we’d recorded. In the morning we’d recorded two tracks for the album there.

How was it received?

I spoke to someone after who’d been chatting to a lot of people outside. I think some people were kind of a bit confused, and some people really got it. I think some people might have come to that concert knowing me from Polar Bear, but this has a very different energy. My intention for this music is I want it to be stirring, because that’s where I’m at. I want to be stirred.

To clarify, is Polar Bear over for good?

I decided to end it a year after the last album came out. I felt like it was the right time, and that if I stop it now I’d be proud of what we’d done. I kind fo knew I was gonna do that before we recorded the last album. It had that ‘thank you goodbye’, and he last track we put out was called ‘no more goodbyes’. In my head it made sense to end it.

What can people expect from your Late Junction set?

I was reading this morning, thinking about what my intention is. I want it to stir something in people. I guess all music is that, really. When we play, I’d like it to be a very immersive experience for people. I’ve made these simple projections that I want to use to change the atmosphere. I want it to be an overwhelming experience in a way, that’s important to me.

Pulled By Magnets play Late Junction Festival this week, which takes place on February 28 and March 1, and also features Gazelle Twin, This Is Not This Heat, Hen Ogledd and more. For more info and tickets click here