Summon The Clowns: Gentle Stranger Interviewed

Ahead of their Quietus Social show in support of Alexander Tucker, Eden Tizard speaks to Gentle Stranger about audience responses, the dialogue between a musician and non-musician approach, and their own post-clown ethos. Pictures by Daniel Gatenio

About a year and a half ago in London’s D.I.Y Space, I was one of a small group of punters huddled around the perimeter of the venue’s main room. Just in front of us, Audiobooks’ Evangeline Ling was doing faux Morris Dancer laps around the room, circling Gentle Stranger. With my prior lack of knowledge, I was struggling to comprehend the group, their minute by minute stylistic upheavals, an embrace of cabaret level theatrics, it seemed intriguing if also preposterous.

About a month ago at Supernormal Festival, I saw the group a second time. There things began to properly coalesce. "Supernormal’s one of the first spaces we’ve ever been placed in where it felt truly right," they tell me. "We’re normally more of an interruption."

Gentle Stranger speak of a desire to build an internal world, a logic at the heart of what should be illogical. This is why sea-battered shanties are suddenly an ideal segue into funereal brass dirges or high-octane spats of noise rock bother. The lyrics, written by Tom Hardwick-Allan, display a very English surrealism, where objects undergo a bizarre anthropomorphism; there is talk of the "red brick scales of a crocodile bus shelter, it’s anus an aircon unit".

They’re a group who operate according to a firm set of rules, scrapping sets after a short run of shows to then build up a new one from scratch. To further their own logic, a topsy-turvy kind of ongoing narrative, they’ll allow ‘wormholes’ to open up in both live sets and recordings. These wormholes create a space where fragments of older sets, songs, or ideas, are able to re-emerge, either deformed or rendered unrecognisable in the new context.

So far, they’ve received polarised responses, from enthusiastic vinyl dads who tell them they sound like Mike Oldfield, to pissed off bands who share stages with them and then find their keyboards clogged up with Talcum Powder, which Gentle Stranger have been using as a prop. A recent show at The Windmill however saw audience members actually sing along, and these were songs that had "never been recorded, we’d only played them twice".

Though the group are fascinated by the act of breaking apart – whether that be via the notion of the band or the love song – what Gentle Stranger accomplish is a music of pure celebration, not a detached critique.

You use post-clown as a description for your performances, where does this term stem from?

Alex McKenzie: The first gig we ever did was just me Tom about five years ago, and we did a very drunken clown performance.

Tom Hardwick-Allan: That was after I tried to hire a professional clown for a show but ended up having to play the role myself. (Hence the name of the piece ‘All The Clowns Were Too Expensive So Here I Am Instead’.) I became a kind of substitute clown. But one that was mute, and moot, and unmusical.

AM: Yeah we didn’t really play music to begin with, but we sort of slowly became a band. So, in short, the idea is that we started out doing clown and now we’re post-clown.

THA: It also comes from when I’d just moved to London, my dad sent me this clown’s nose in the post, which has ‘my nose’ embossed on it. He’d found it washed up on the shore a year before I was born, it’s more orange than red now. So, there’s this nose but where’s the clown? Can the clown still be summoned from its unspecific past?’

AM: Post clown too because this nose came in the post. Then there’s also the stupid joke, post-punk, post-hardcore, so post-clown, it’s a genre.

THA: Within clowning itself, as a profession, there’s the central joke of the clown falling over and dying, or perhaps dying and then falling over. The clown is always already dead, but then also not, since the clown needs to fall over again for the sake of the joke.

It’s refreshing, as it feels like there’s quite a low expectation for what bands do onstage at the moment, which you swerve nicely away from, especially the way in which you openly inhabit a persona.

THA: It’s important being specifically artificial.

AM: We think a lot about the tropes of bands performing, we play with those but in a kind of loving and committed way.

Josh Barfoot: Well you (Alex) always say you pretend like you’re playing at Wembley.

AM: Everything being really high stakes.

JB: And that’s even with the smallest crowd, like we played at this pottery stage at this festival in Cornwall. 

THA: We were pretending to play at Glastonbury to these four bewildered children; It’s a bit like school bands pretending to be rock stars, for me it’s like a straining towards something beyond current possibilities, there’s potential within that straining.

JB: Like we bring far more equipment than a band of our means would ever bring.

THA: We’ve even written songs about how heavy everything is.

JB: When you’re carrying all this stuff on trains that seems unnecessary, just the act of getting to the gig becomes part of the act.

AM: There’s something quite pathetic about it that I quite like.

I was interested in how you break down the tropes of the love song but not in a detached or disdainful way?

AM: We talk about love becoming a character.

THA: Not as a more generalised notion within songs, like with a lot of pop music where there’s an impersonalised third person ‘you’. It’s not necessarily a human character but more like a entity that finds its expression through us.

In terms of your playing, you choose to use both instruments that you have a high level of proficiency on and also ones where you are a great deal less familiar. What are the benefits of this conflict?

AM: A big thing we talk about as well is the Scratch Orchestra, musicians and non-musicians, where everyone could pick up an instrument and just blast it, you didn’t need to be proficient.

THA: So we force ourselves into that role as well, like we borrowed a double bass for a performance with no idea how to play it, we had two days to prepare from scratch.

So is this something you wish to continue pursuing?

THA: Well it relates back to that thing of straining for something that’s beyond you.

AM: What I’ve been doing for quite a few years as a job is teaching music in primary schools, there’s something so amazing about a child picking up a clarinet and just freaking out on it, doing this mad squeaking and squawking. That is just something really inspiring.

THA: Stuff like that in a lot of ways is a much truer engagement with the instrument at that moment.

AM: It’s something we’re interested in putting in dialogue, these different approaches.

How do you find the reception to your live shows? It feels like it could go one of two ways.

AM: Mostly terrible.

JB: Normally there’ll be a couple of dads coming up to you after the show going, "That was amazing, like listening to a Mike Oldfield record."

AM: Which I thought was great, superb.

THA: But we have had about five years of going down terribly, it’s just starting to pick up.

What about how the live performance has developed since the early clown days?

THA: We sort of started adding one instrument over time, then words, vocals, but they were always on par with everything else that was on stage, like a cake, some Talcum Powder and a snow machine.

AM: At this point it was in an art context, which is very different, people are perhaps more receptive. What can be difficult in a live music setting is that you can’t really be talking throughout our set.

THA: You have to be attentive for it to make sense.

AM: We talk a lot about setting up a logic in the way we work. For each performance we construct a new set. They are and have always been continuous, so there are no breaks throughout. Whenever we book a run of shows we start by scrapping everything we’ve ever done, so we start from zero and construct a set from there. Often little glimpses of old sets will appear, but always in a new permutation. There might be a riff or lyric we might reuse, but they’ll be recontextualised.

How would this work in the future, say if you were booked for a much longer tour run?

AM: When we started playing our shows were much less frequent so we would do a new set for every performance. Now what we tend to do is book an amount of time where we’ll play one set, then we’ll let it go.

THA: Even now, we’ve only done this set four times and we’re looking to change it.

JB: The sets are so dense that it surprises me every time, I’m always like, ‘Fuck! What’s coming next?’

THA: Well it’s so contrived and choreographed.

Even though it’s clearly mapped out it does still have this sense of spontaneity to it.

AM: Well how it works is we’ll gather like twenty instruments into a rehearsal space, so we can draw on what happens at that moment.

JB: A lot of the most recent set came from when we went to PRAH studios in Margate.

AM: We did a residency for a week at PRAH, with these of 14-hour days, and we wrote almost every song from scratch there.

JB: But we hadn’t really written together for about nine months.

AM: But that made it feel like we were in this incredible space where anything was possible. But I like it when we’re put into these slightly uncomfortable contexts. It would be much more comfortable for us to write a set then tour it for a year.

THA: We’re quite interested in what happens if [the live music] forms into more distinct songs in a recorded context. I think there’s a massive misconception in music where people think live music and recorded music should do the same thing when they’re totally different mediums.

AM: The biggest mistakes we’ve made when recording are when we attempt to translate something that worked really well in a live setting. So, when we approach a recording, we try to do it on its own terms.

THA: Using the studio as an instrument is something I definitely want to get more into. But playing live we’ve been getting into the idea of sampling in an atemporal way, where all of our own material can be triggered in the moment live, which means no material has finality as such because it can reappear later on. We play with that idea on multiple levels, with pre-recorded material and live playing.

AM: One of the sets that was most challenging physically was an entirely pre-recorded sample-based performance, where all the samples were triggered using dance mats, Evangeline held up big cards with the lyrics on while me and Tom triggered the samples with our bad dancing.

THA: We had on short shorts and white T-shirts; it was post-Brexit Eurovision style.

AM: The key thing throughout is approaching each thing as a construction of a continuous piece of music, where we begin from scratch then work with improvisation to create ideas and things that become songs, allowing things from past sets to enter in and be recontextualised and find a new place within a narrative or logic. It’s world building really, a setting up of a logic.

THA: We don’t want to enforce a narrative on top, because that comes through the doing of it. The time we are together is spent stretching a kind of mesh on which content can be caught as it passes through. It’s like facilitating a logic out of which Gentle Stranger’s music can come forth.

Gentle Stranger play at the Quietus Social on September 26 this month with Alexander Tucker, Karl D’Silva and a Paper Dollhouse DJ set

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