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Miracle Sheep: An Interview With Slow Tree
Luke Turner , January 27th, 2023 11:25

Slow Tree, the Skye-based project of Sea Power's Abi Fry and Neil Wilkinson, tell Luke Turner how the remote landscape of their home island, collaborating with a local wren called Choco, the magic of sheep and ancient martial arts informed their 25-minute track recorded exclusively for Quietus subscribers

To receive Singularity track 'Outer Limits' by Slow Tree become a Quietus Sound & Vision subscriber

“You can start to feel the doom descend on certain nights this dark time of year,” says Neil Wilkinson, communicating with tQ from the house he shares with his partner in life and Slow Tree Abi Fry up on the Isle Of Skye. “Around here people refer to where they live as where they stay – I like that. To live everywhere but stay there... for the time being. Hopefully we can stay here long enough to see the trees I planted grow up all hunched over like old ladies.” As one third of Sea Power, Wilkinson and Fry have for the past two years made music that connects a sensitive humanity with ideas of landscape, place and nature. Their work as Slow Tree seems to take this into even more intimate, abstract spaces while at the same time going even expansive, cosmic and odd.

As Wilkinson explains, it’s written at home with the pair “messing about” and experimenting in a way that doesn’t quite fit with what Sea Power do. “Slow Tree are more focused on subtle energies and sensitive stuff such as the sound of a fly in a cupboard,” Wilkinson says, “Sea Power is more the sound of buglers in the morning, or burglars at night. Either way, you get a song out of it. Slow Tree has grown to inhabit more of a no-mans-desert-land sound where I imagine old Rasta ghosts shamble about looking for bits of metal to bang together, where the animals are welcome to join in the fun.”

As their name implies, this is a project that proceeds at a glacial pace. What had just been their shared love of creation became slightly more concrete when Johnny from Lost Map and Pictish Trail invited Wilkinson and Fry to spend a week in a bothy on the island of Eigg. Living on Eigg was “like a slightly tweaked and warped parallel world version of own our home life” that led to the wonderful Visitations EP in 2018, described by Wilkinson as “some kind of atmospheric/emotional concentrate of our life that week mooching about in a place where time and cars move real slow.” Since then, aside from a performance at Sea Power’s Krankenhaus Festival in the late summer of 2019, Slow Tree have been quiet, until we dropped them a line to see if they might be interested in recording a track for our Sound & Vision subscribers.

The result, ‘Outer Limits’, is well named, a twenty-five minute piece that opens with bird song and gentle pulsing rhythms like dub via a fishing boat engine heard through a thick sea fog. There’s half-whispered half-sung speech, murmuring choral moments dancing with Fry’s elegant strings, distant gongs and drones that (in a similar vein to the work of Richard Skelton) seem to capture some of the magic of the local landscape. How much of that feeds into their work? “I always liked that term field recording as I spent plenty of my life in fields and every field sounds different,” says Wilkinson. “We live in the middle of a field or some may call it a bog. Sounds travel far here on a quiet day you can hear a mouse sneeze a mile away. I guess most of what we record here may be classified as boggin' field recordings. There are some good natural mountain loch echoes knocking about and if you wander off with a Dictaphone you can capture them and take them home. There is a certain waterfall at the bottom of the Quiraing mountain range that has been recently reported as having a dark atmosphere of some form, so our next trip may be to go and hunt that thing, see if it wants to join the band.”

So it’s perhaps a feeling of their remote life that imbues ‘Outer Limits’, a piece of music made where, as Wilkinson rather beautifully puts it, “The wind has become our uninvited friend”. As inspirations go, I don’t think you’ll find another record in 2023 inspired by sheep and Qigong, an ancient Chinese martial art. “I got lucky and found an amazing master just before the world shut down,” Fry explains. “’Outer Limits’ is partly inspired by a desire for slow meditative music to train to, although it's hard to beat silence. Neil built me an amazing studio to teach and make music in. I also study Lam Rim [the path to enlightenment] with his Holiness and the Martsang Kagyu Buddhists, precious teachings passed down from an unbroken lineage of 850 years, one long song! It takes three to four years to complete and has given me a whole new perspective on life and the nature of reality”.

‘Outer Limits’ began with an unusual noise from a broken microphone that the local wren, called Choco, sang along to. With the bird’s approval, Slow Tree knew they were onto something, so added a melody written by Fry. Wilkinson sang some words, “and then we put the whole lot through an old tin bath tub,” he says. “It came out nice and clean. Our process is more of an act of faith and appreciation of the moments, making holy music where whatever happens, happens, with no real plan or forethought. The elves were welcome to take a night off cobbling and record their little ukuleles all over the song – the more strange interruptions and noises the better, we go with the flow.”

And what of the sheep, their time spent, as Wilkinson puts it, “living the farm life without the farming”? Fry explains that for their first ten years on Skye, they lived surrounded by the animals but “completely unaware of their magic”. One day, an orphan lamb appeared at their home and settled itself in with a cheek and bossiness that led to her being christened Monkey. A second, called Choobz, joined Monkey, and the woolly menagerie went from there. “Westerners are led to believe sheep are stupid, easing their conscience as they chow down on lambs legs, but the reality is they are super smart and sensitive, you can only imagine the world of smells they inhabit,” Fry says. “Tibetans have it right, they say 'be like a sheep' meaning be calm and gentle. They believe sheep bring wealth, health and happiness and we've found this to be very true.” Buddhists often purchase animals destined for slaughter and Wilkinson and Fry ended up with the Martsang Kagyu Tibetan Buddhists sponsoring their two male sheep. “His Holiness Gangri Karma Rinppoche himself named YangGa – our miracle sheep who we found crippled in a ditch. YangGa means health happiness and wealth, a good name for this laddie. He's a little sheep but he doesn't take any shit. There are also Hoochi and Pudz, beautiful spawn of Monkey and Choobz – five sheep and our lives are almost complete.”

To receive 'Outer Limits' by Slow Tree, as well as a host of other benefits including exclusive essays, podcasts and playlists, and loads more specially-commissioned music, become a Quietus Sound & Vision subscriber. You can do so here

Three other of our recent specially-commissioned music releases, from Lori Goldston & Laura Cannell, Sly & The Family Drone, and Petbrick are still available to those who sign up now. Tickets for Sea Power's wonderful Krankenhaus Festival, which takes place on the August Bank Holiday weekend, are on sale now – you can buy them here