It’s A Kind Of Magick: Grumbling Fur Interviewed

Grumbling Fur's Glynnaestra, released next week, is one of the Quietus' favourite albums we've heard for quite some time. Ahead of its release next week, the duo tell Luke Turner how the complexity of nature, Blade Runner and a UFO sighting came together to inspire the record

One Friday late in May, Grumbling Fur – Alexander Tucker and Daniel O’Sullivan – were to be found at the latter’s home on an estate of red-roofed houses in North London. With a park behind the garden’s deliberate wilderness of plants, white bluebells, willow, peony, lavender, and others with healing properties, we’re shaded from a hot late spring sun as the sound of children playing drifts in from a nearby community centre. O’Sullivan makes tea with honey as his dog Tarka capers around, and sweet smoke hangs in the air, along with the scent of garlic from the kitchen. The house, owned by Coil associate and Jhonn Balance’s partner Ian Johnstone (some of Balance’s collection of by-numbers oil paintings can be found in the living room) has a ever-changing series of residents, who come to rest, recuperate, and make art.

Grumbling Fur met when O’Sullivan was 16 and Tucker 21 through a shared passion for hardcore and metal, although their listening stretched outward to experimental music, jazz and post rock. Early musical endeavours together with other members of the hardcore scene included a band called Antarctica, though Tucker claims he was "too inept" for it to work, and that he and O’Sullivan were already pulling in more esoteric directions where "the others were anchored to the riff". After time apart, with O’Sullivan working in his gothic synth group Mothlite and Guapo while Tucker focused on series of excellent and undervalued solo albums, they reconnected on an Aethenor tour. An early Grumbling Fur live performance took place on a balmy summer evening in Stoke Newington’s ancient St Mary’s Church, where bad sound only slightly hampered their warm, rolling experimentation, and the duo released their debut album Furrier in 2011.

Today, Tucker enthuses about Yorkshire experimental music and his hobby of picking up clinker from the trackbed of the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway to make small carved figures. Here he follows in the footsteps of his father, who makes art from the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shingle at Dungeness. Both O’Sullivan and Tucker are huge fans of Withnail & I, for the right reasons. "It’s all about men and their relationships and all this unspoken shit, the failure of male relationships," says O’Sullivan. "Sometimes Grumbling Fur is quite Withnail & I. We’ll go into the pub – ‘alright here?’"

Their new album, Glynnaestra, is a glorious mixture of grouching synth ferment, experimental noise, and soaring pop choruses, and has been beguiling the entire Quietus office since we first heard it a few months ago. We’ve been especially taken with the brilliant ‘Ballad Of Roy Batty’, which uses Rutger Hauer’s famous Blade Runner "I’ve seen things that you people would not believe / attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion" soliloquy as lyrics for the kind of soaring melody that Hovis might buy and use for an advert featuring Welsh choristers rushing to a rural chapel, brandishing fresh loaves. On ‘The Hound’, on the other hand, all the sounds were sourced from the kettle in some way. "Actually, that’s not true, it’s the kettle’s relationship with the cooker," says O’Sullivan, remarking that "foley sensibilities" had a key role in the album. "The sounds that we use will always have a relationship to us and our lives," adds Tucker.

Our interview begins with the pair discussing gnome videos on YouTube.

Alexander Tucker: You can see it in the background, this cone-headed little thing, and someone sees it and goes ‘agh!’ and it just totters off, this tiny thing, about that big. South America… there’s some sort of portal around there.

Daniel O’Sullivan: Oh yeah, several.

AT: The Bermunda Triangle, UFO sightings. In Mexico City they have to warn pilots all the time because there are so many things flying around. There’s a humanoid on I’m obsessed with. Entity Reunion In The Skies is the name of the clip, and there’s this cloaked figure swaying in the wind, and this bird-like figure in front of it. Then another bird-like object comes out of the cloaked figure and flies off, and the other one falls… it’s so weird.

DOS: It’s like seeing eggs hatch in the sky. It’s in South America…

AT: …all the weird things, it comes from there pretty much.

Has all this been inspiring Grumbling Fur?

AT: It’s sci-fi, but for real.

What makes Grumbling Fur what it is?

DOS: I think it’s just us together. The rule is we have to come up with the stuff there and then, when we’re together.

AT: It’s a different quantity each time. With ‘Dancing Light’, we were so pleased with the instrumental when we came up with that, I think it really perfectly is our two things converging. I remember when we did that, we were like ‘What just happened?’ We were completely gone, making decisions, getting excited about different ideas.

DOS: It’s nice when something so seemingly abstract, or that the listener has to unlock somehow – which is the kind of music I like generally – comes together so effortlessly. There’s been a lot of that synchronicity, and all the sounds on the record have a gravitas to them, a story.

A lot of the sounds are very natural.

DOS: We’re using drum machines, but actually playing them rather than programming.

AT: And then adding other bits of percussion…

DOS: …finger bells, gongs, a fan on a mic.

AT: The song ‘Roy Batty’, that began with me using those Chinese balls, trying to do that Vangelis, future console sound. I wanted an organic version of that, and that was literally the beginning of the song, and Dan from that did this really nice Harmonium chord progression, and then just recording ourselves messing around clapping.

It’s an incredibly catchy song. It’s like a Welsh rugby anthem…

AT: It’s quite hymnal. I feel that quite a lot of my songwriting comes from singing in church when I was younger.

DOS: Same here, we were both choirboys.

Why use the dialogue from Blade Runner?

DOS: Seeing that film was a paradigm shifting moment from when I was a kid.

AT: The love of the Vangelis soundtrack was a guilty pleasure of mine for years and years, even when I was into hardcore or whatever.

How has this building shaped the record?

DOS: We do everything here, and there’s no guests on the album. It’s just the two of us, in this house. It’s a year in the life of… I have very strong associative memories in all the songs and sounds, I remember the day, the mood, where I was generally, which is actually in a good place. But we were saying the other day that when we try to write bright, poppy songs, they have some a doomy aspect to them. It’s something in the bass spectrum.

AT: It’s more disquiet, even when you’re happy it has to be really intense. When you’re depressed it’s the highs and the lows. The highs for too long make you sick.

DOS: "He who knows not that the prince of darkness is but the other face of the King of Light knows not me." I think that’s Rilke, someone like that, one of those wise Eastern men.

What is a Glynnaestra?

DOS: It was a word that flowered without any affectation or effort. It appeared.

I thought it might be a plant…

AT: … or a character in Dune, it was a sci-fi princess or goddess. But definitely female.

DOS: Because that’s what it’s all about – our relationship with women, or just that feminine aspect of nature and life.

AT: I was just at the Ice Age art exhibition at the British museum, looking at all the female deities there, these voluptuous figures. My girlfriend was saying that she felt at that time society was more matriarchal. [To O’Sullivan’s dog] Oof Tarka, you’ve done a stinker…

DOS: On that note… She did a dirty protest this morning, and had a shit on that mossy stone. I love that stone.

AT: The lodestone!

DOS: It’s not a concept album about feminity or anything like that, it just occurred to us. It was funny with the word, it did just emerge.

AT: We felt it was important to do quite an emotive song, and then have the title something quite sci-fi, or quite banal, or about relationships, and have that all together in the story of the song. It’s another way of knitting together aspects of your life, or interests, and thoughts. We had a party, didn’t we, you and I?

DOS: Oh we did, we had some mescaline…

AT: And said, ‘Let’s record…’

DOS: I was total jelly, and you were really on it…

AT: We changed roles in a way. Dan’s a really really good musician, and I’m self taught and have the things that I do.

DOS: That’s too humble, you’re an accomplished player now! The mescaline was quite nice, it made the air so still. You could see the raw data of the trees moving outside the window, and I was really enjoying it. Alex was on the couch with a guitar going ‘ding-diddly-ding-ding’ – ‘no, it should go like this!’. It was intense.

AT: That was where the idea began. And a few weeks later we were in a really nice mood, and I’d bought these Chinese bell things over, and thought, let’s do a really abstract, stretched sort of thing, really slowed down. It was a real pleasure.

Has it been the whole way through?

AT: It really has.

DOS: We’re trying to pretend it’s not a band, because as soon as it becomes a band things will go wrong.

AT: As soon as you think of things as bands I feel a bit trapped.

DOS: The level of expectation goes up, and it can make you behave like a hustler, and you shouldn’t have to hustle for your music. The music is there all the time.

What about some of the synths you’ve been using? The bit on the first track…

DOS: It’s a treated MicroKorg, with a PolySix drone underneath it.

AT: It’s quite alien. It’s about an encounter that Dan had…

DOS: I had my Roswell experience up on Streatham Common, around Christmas time. I was walking Tarka, and it was snowy. We got to a forested part, and it looked like there was a film crew in there, with floodlights. I went a bit further in, and the light retracted as a solid form, you could see the edges of it, and arrived at an epicentre and went straight up, soundlessly, and followed it till it was gone…

AT: … to the outer atmosphere, God knows how.

DOS: Everything changed from then on, to be honest.

How so?

DOS: It’s an ineffable experience. I can describe what I saw, but everyone is ‘Yeah whatever’, because I would be ‘Yeah whatever’.

AT: That’s the thing when it happens to you, it’s just imagination or the mind, your relationship with seeing this thing.

It’s interesting talking about the Ice Age exhibition, do you think as a species we’ve gone from being wide open to closed?

AT: Numb to it…

DOS: It doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s all one thing. As soon as I saw it I thought, well, yeah of course, it’s entirely plausible that I’d see that. It was light, and I am familiar with light, but I don’t know what light is.

AT: On New Years Eve I was watching fireworks. And then one of the fireworks just stayed in the sky, a red light, and then it started sailing across the sky, still really bright. We ran through the house, watching it through every window, until it went off into the cloud, illuminated the cloud a bit, and then went.

You talk about sci-fi and otherworldly things, but I get a big sense of nature from this music.

DOS: It’s a very magic realism thing, seeing the complexity in nature and nature becoming quite sci-fi. I think it’s important to observe it for what it is, in order to have a conservationist mentality. You need to be aware of it as something different that needs to be protected. It’s also seeing the worlds within it, and the patterns.

AT: Like organic machines. I think we both like desolate areas where the foliage has taken over again. Dungeness, where my folks live, has that about it. The shingle, and the sea kale plant, this incredible alien thing, and loads of gorse.

Grumbling Fur play Bring To Light festival in Birmingham this weekend from October 25-27; for full details and tickets, head to the event’s website

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