Trouble With A Capital T: Hen Ogledd Interviewed

As they announce their latest album, Hen Ogledd talk to JR Moores about making pop music, studying accessible philosophy, and paying accidental homage to Paul McCartney

The new Hen Ogledd single, ‘Trouble’, released today

Hen Ogledd started as an opportunity for folk/rock musician Richard Dawson and harpist Rhodri Davies to make some fairly strange sounds together. The line-up has since expanded to include Sally Pilkington and Dawn Bothwell, and the project has transformed into a democratically operating unit that specialises in pop music.

Well, it’s more of a "weird and wonky" form of pop music, as they call it themselves. When asked if they actually have their sights set on the hit parade, Davies reckons that’s only likely to happen "in another universe", while Bothwell’s main hope is that some people might learn the words to sing along at their gigs (presuming there are any gigs in our uncertain future). "I’m going to just break away from the group a little bit," adds Dawson, "and say I’m not going to settle for anything less than a Grammy."

Is that such an outlandish idea? Mr Blobby has an Ivor Novello Award, and he’s as weird and wonky as they come. The second track on Hen Ogledd’s forthcoming album Free Humans is called ‘Trouble’ and if it isn’t an outright catch-all banger that belongs on Top Of The Pops, then what is? Sadly that show doesn’t exist anymore.

"I really think we should bring back Top Of The Pops," Pilkington has decided. "I’ve been ranting about this quite a bit. We need Top Of The Pops. There’s no popular music show on telly, really. That’s just crazy." Dawson agrees: "It was amazing. You’d have, like, Faith No More next to Kylie Minogue and then… you know… erm… I can’t think of any other bands." It comes as much as a surprise to himself as anyone else, but for some reason Davies keeps mentioning The Backstreet Boys.

Free Humans is an ambitious, progressive, intelligent and experimental take on pop music, complete with jazz interludes, a nearly nine-minute penultimate number about the very real possibility of humanity’s extinction, an ode to a nine-foot giant, and a song that channels the primal spirit of the Loch Ness Monster. The references that crop up in the press release are not those you’d spot in your average pop band’s promotional campaign. The twelfth-century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen? Moral philosopher Mary Midgley? Backstreet’s Back this ain’t. As for some of the more eccentric instrumentation that can be heard on Hen Ogledd’s recordings, they include the rustling of crisp packets, and celery and carrots being chomped.

To chat to tQ about Free Humans, the whole band assembled in a virtual capacity via the technical wizardry that is Zoom. On account of lockdown, the last time they all saw each other in the flesh was back in February when they played a children’s gig at MAPS Festival. "They are the hardest audience. Blimey. They just look at you with a cold, critical gaze," remembers Davies. "I thought they were a bunch of pricks," says Dawson. He is joking, of course.

How’s 2020 been so far for everyone?

Rhodri Davies (RDs): Do you mean the Richard Dawson album, or the year? 

Richard Dawson (RDn): It’s a shocker. At first there was that almost taboo element of the novelty of lockdown. For a lot of people, obviously it was awful, but it was almost like an adventure in the first month or so. I think that’s very well worn off now. 

Sally Pilkington: It’s a very strange time for music as well, especially Richard’s 2020 music and for the Hen Ogledd album coming out. I suppose it was going to be a strange time for us anyway because of Dawn having a baby, so we haven’t really got any massive plans to be getting out there. But it definitely feels strange to be so confined.

For me it’s been a mild inconvenience, really, if I think about it quite rationally. But I spend a lot of time worrying about what happens next.

RDn: I guess it was already quite scary, even before there was a global pandemic. It’s easy to forget that.

RDs: It’s amazing how quickly I went through my Brexit stash of coffee. It went in, like, a month. That was useless preparation. I bought one extra bag.

RDn: It’s amazing how fast I went through my Brexit supply of KY Jelly.

With 2020 the album, I’m imagining future historians, musicologists or aliens digging it up and thinking "What was 2020 all about?" and then going, "That’s strange. I thought it was about viruses and stockpiled KY Jelly. Apparently it was all about fish and chips and civil servants."

RDs: Also, they’ll go "Who is this Richard Dawson?"

RDn: He was a pervy game show host, they’ll say. I’m thinking I’m going to release a special edition of 2020 and it’s going to stop halfway through Track 3. Then it’ll just be hours and hours of fart noises. It’s really spoiled the album. That’s the worst thing about this pandemic!

RDs: It’s a science fiction album now. It’s like a fantasy album.

RDn: I was going to call it 1999, but it had already been taken.

Why are you lot so hell-bent on making pop music?

RDs: It’s my fault, isn’t it? I suggested doing a pop album, little realising that it would be a pop album because I thought surely we wouldn’t do that necessarily, in a way that would be pop. That was for Mogic, the previous album. It was a surprise because everybody had a different idea in their head of what pop was, and everybody came out with a different combination of pop-isms. Why are we still doing it? I don’t know. It’s turned into a different beast again, I think, because at first it was a surprise and now it has a certain identity, perhaps, that is very mutable. 

Dawn Bothwell: I like pop music because it unifies people. And people all know the words, so there’s that. You can hopefully get to a point where people know the words to your songs, instead of the audience just looking very po-faced and serious. 

SP: I definitely like the fact that it’s fun and accessible, even if it’s a bit weird and wonky pop. It still feels like you don’t have to be a niche-music-weirdo to get into it.

RDn: I think the record’s concerned with some things that we’re all very much concerned with. It concerns everybody, so it’s apt that it would use that ubiquitous language and be something that can get into as many heads as possible.

DB: I realised something about pop music recently as well, that actually a lot of pop or mainstream music can, in a sense, be a bit more diverse or progressive. For instance, if you watch Glastonbury or something, you have a more diverse range of acts and participants, sometimes, than in other supposedly niche areas of music. I feel like the mainstream has spun around again to be maybe a bit more inclusive, if that makes sense. Anyway, with pop music you can reach lots of different people. I think that’s one of the benefits of it.

RDn: There’s a little bit of a perverse pleasure in that I don’t think any of us are really from a pop background. Maybe Sally, you’ve probably got more pop in your blood than, say, Rhodri. 

RDs: Dawn drinks Irn-Bru. Is Irn-Bru a pop?

RDn: Is that Irn-Bru you’re drinking now? 

DB: It’s water. Healthy. It’s because I don’t want the bairn ingesting that much sugar.

RDn: You know the bosses of Irn-Bru? I think it might have changed now, but there used to be two guys and they would never travel together in case they got involved in an accident, because they were the only ones who knew the secret formula. 

SP: What the hell is it made of?

DB: It’s made from girders.

RDs: A dusting of rust, right at the end. 

You’re influenced by PC Music’s Hannah Diamond, is that right?

SP: Inspired, definitely.

RDn: For me and Sal. I don’t know about the others. I think I just added that into the description about a week ago. I don’t know if I got the okay from everyone about Hannah Diamond. 

DB: I love Hannah Diamond! You introduced me to Hannah Diamond. She’s great.

RDn: She’s just amazing. She has incredible productions. She’s an amazing singer. The lyrics are just so direct and really, really good. People talk about the job of folk singers and the tradition of the bard. I think Hannah Diamond is exactly this. She’s exactly the folk singer for our times.

I thought that was you!

RDn: No, no. I’m the pop star.

She was meant to play your (cancelled) Barbican event wasn’t she? 

RDn: That’s right. Her and Circle and lots of good people.

Is the respect reciprocated? Does she listen to your music? Does she know who you are? 

RDn: I don’t think so. I wrote an email around the time of the Barbican and, err, I didn’t get a response. So I don’t think she would like my music. 

SP: That’s a pity she didn’t reply. Come on, Hannah!

RDn: Ah, she’s busy. She’s busy crafting her pop gems. 

DB: Polishing them. 

I’ve been told you do everything in "a very democratic way". Are there challenges in that? How do you negotiate democracy within the group?

RDs: We’re close to the end of civilisation at the moment.

DB: We adopted a first-past-the-post strategy, so each of us represents a different geographical region. I’m East Strathclyde.

RDs: I’m France. And Europe.

RDn: I’m the rest of the world. 

RDs: Sally’s Iceland. 

DB: Occasionally we have to go to war with each other, which is unfortunate sometimes, but we try to make sure there aren’t too many casualties. 

RDs: Dawn always wins.

It must be different, though, from doing solo stuff. There must be times when something is going in a certain direction and someone might want to rein it in and someone else wants to push further that way. Or is it all just lovely?

SP: There was some planning, writing and preparation to get ready for the three days of recording for this album, and then we’re actually in the space together for such a small amount of time that it kind of all just comes out, and there’s not that much time for really thinking or deliberating over things so much. Some of it is structured and then the rest happens in an improvised way. I guess the biggest discussions and decisions were in the mixing rather than in the recording and playing. 

RDs: It’s interesting because the three of us have played in Richard’s band. And in Richard’s band he tells me what to do, and I pretend that I’m listening, and then I do something different. In Hen Ogledd, we tell Richard what to do, and he pretends to listen, and then he does what he wants.

RDn: Basically the bass is the most important instrument. If you could just print that. I think it is challenging as well because we’re pals. Me and Rhodri disagreed about something in a harp solo and I’m never, ever going to be able to forgive him for that. No, it’s because everyone cares so much about making the record as good as possible and you almost start to prioritise the things you care about. I think there were some things like a chord change in ‘Space Golf’ that I was pushing for. Then maybe if you have ten or fifteen of those things across the album, you end up having to choose about three or four, and they are your island that you’re going to die on. Then you have to let the other ones go. It’s the same for everyone, I guess, so it just sorts itself out that way. And then you just have to trust that. We’ve known each other a long time, so we know it’s not personal. 

RDs: That word trust… I think Hen Ogledd does epitomise trust. You know, I can trust the three of you to do whatever. You bring craz stuff to the table, and I know it’ll work. It’s also interesting about control and all that kind of stuff, and letting go of control. It’s sometimes hard to do that when you have a fixed idea about something. But as a whole, the group can navigate these things better than a lot of groups I’ve been in!

DB: Having a foundation as friends is really important because that’s basically how the band works. It’s not as if we’ve never disagreed about anything, but you don’t have these big clashes because I think the music writing operates in a similar way to how you would have a conversation as a group, like if you were at the pub or something. Maybe somebody’s going to be telling all the jokes and someone else is bringing different elements. Also, being quite fluid [helps]. We double up on instruments sometimes in a really weird way. Richard plays the bass but maybe I play bass keyboard lines over the top of that. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does kind of work if you’re forgiving enough of each other.

What’s the best brand of crisp packet for crisp-packet-percussion purposes?

SP: Ooh. Not any of the quality crisps. You’re looking more at Squares or something like that. You want a thin plastic. No Kettle Chips.

DB: Salt ‘n’ Shake?

RDs: Quavers. That’s a musical joke. 

What about chewing celery and carrots? Is that a reference to Paul McCartney?

RDn: Well, the whole thing is a reference to Paul McCartney. No. What ‘s that? I don’t think any of us know what that is. 

Paul McCartney was rumoured to have chewed celery on a Beach Boys record, but apparently Paul McCartney can’t remember this happening, and then Super Furry Animals also got him chew celery on one of their albums.

SP: No, we didn’t know anything about this. 

DB: Can we just pretend we did know about that? Because that makes us sound a lot smarter. No, it was literally just the snacks that we brought in to record, and me and Sally were chomping on bits of celery and carrot. That’s it. 

RDs: It’s funny The Beatles have this interest in the avant-garde. I think it was Paul McCartney who went to an AMM gig in London and he joined in by rattling the radiator. Maybe on the next album we can get him in to play the radiator.

RDn: Did you ever hear his Fireman album? It’s pretty wild. I’ve got a lot of time for Paul.

A lot of people believe he’s the pop one. But no. He’s the mad radiator-bashing, snack-chomping experimental one. 

RDn: He gets a lot of stick nowadays, Paul McCartney, for being like a weird granddad or something. But he’s an amazing composer, and bassist. I don’t want to get competitive about it but, for me, he’s far beyond the others.

SP: My favourite’s always been Ringo. Is Ringo still all right? He hasn’t done anything bad? Is it still all right to like Ringo?

I think Ringo might be pro-Brexit, but he’s over in LA and doesn’t really know what’s going on. 

SP: Right. I thought I saw something. I had a hunch there was something dodgy about Ringo. 

RDs: My favourite Beatles member is Yoko Ono.

Tell me about Mary Midgley. 

SP: I think Mary Midgley’s inspiration has crept in over the last few years, for me anyway. I’ve got some friends, and I have been doing some work with some philosophers, who knew her well. They studied under her, but then also became friends with her, and they’re doing various philosophy-related projects celebrating her work and life. Her ideas around humans as animals and Gaia [Theory] definitely had a big influence on the album, thinking of the world as one big beast or big being. Also, there are a lot of environmental issues on the album and that’s tied in with the Gaia theme.

RDs: There’s a lovely quote where she says "We do better to talk organically of our thought as an ecosystem trying painfully to adapt itself to changes in the world around it." I feel like Hen Ogledd is like a little eco-system and the album itself is quite like that because it’s quite diverse but it’s interlinking and dependent on each other for it to make sense. And we’re certainly all trying to painfully adapt to the changes in the world around us at the moment

SP: She was also such an advocate of philosophy being for everyone and it being accessible. Not that it’s all overly intellectual, although I think a lot of the time it is overly intellectual, to the point of excluding people and not really being meaningful for everyone in day-to-day life. I think she was really amazing at making it relatable. If it’s not relatable, then it doesn’t feel particularly useful. I think it’s about making it useful as well. 

Making it "pop".

SP: Yeah! Pop philosophy. 

The record’s title is Free Humans. On the one hand, the connotations are generally positive when you hear the word "freedom". But then it’s also used as a tool of oppression, in a way. People’s freedom to say whatever they want about people who don’t necessarily have a voice. Freedom to maintain statues of slave-owners in every city in the country. It’s something that the right-wing uses quite heavily to maintain their control or their stance.

RDs: We chose the title way before lockdown and we were open to the multiple interpretations of "free humans". Human life is freely exploited by other people. The "free humans" bit [on the track ‘Feral’] comes after the Karl Marx quote "everything that is solid melts into air". Free improv, free jazz, free humans… There were other connotations that we thought about. Obviously with everybody in lockdown across the world, it’s an incredibly pertinent title, as if we’d thought about it in advance.

RDn: Another important aspect of "free humans", for me, is thinking about the time aspect. The record starts with a ‘Farewell’ and there’s a lot about approaching time from different angles. There are a lot of reversals on the record. So when I look at "free humans", I also see "human-free". Do you know The Vorrh by Brian Catling? It’s an interesting book. I don’t want to spoil it, and it’s not a new idea, but it supposes that for the planet to survive then maybe humans aren’t the most important aspect for it. It might – very well would – benefit the planet if we weren’t here. So we were thinking about the possibility that there could be a slowly unfolding extinction event underway. We were also thinking about pre-humans as well. This idea of a world without people in.

An uplifting way to end the interview.

RDn: Well, maybe it is!

RDs: Go buy the album! 

SP: The end of humanity!

RDn: But maybe it is. We value ourselves, of course. On the one hand, we are all unique and special and valuable. It means something. Our lives mean something. But on the other hand, we’re just – pfft [blows dust from hands] – nothing.

Free Humans is released by Domino on September 25

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today