Monthly Archives: April 2011

Instinct is everything: A conversation with King Creosote and Jon Hopkins

Cozy, amicable, friendly, warm, funny: all adjectives that can be rightly ascribed to the patter of King Creosote and Jon Hopkins as well as their music. Having tickled the eardrums of anyone who encountered it, their collaboration record Diamond Mine has been one of the best received releases of 2011. The effortless combination of the latter’s electronic nous and the former’s folksy, meandering story telling is simply beautiful. In a recent online chat with The Line of Best Fit, both parties explained how the record came into being and what it symbolizes. Naturally, then, the conversation turned to roots, methodology and, of course, Fife.

Firstly, great album… my favourite new album of 2011 to date. Jon has collaborated in the past with Fencers… how did this particular collaboration come about?

KC: ‘Your Own Spell’, to my knowledge, is the first collaboration that I know of between Jon and a Fencer, it just took a few years to complete the project we started back then. If there’s an earlier collaboration, I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT – he’s MY friend, dammit!

Jon: Thanks, glad you like it. I met Kenny back in 2004. I instantly loved his voice and as I began to get familiar with his massive, bulging back catalogue, I started having ideas for new ways to present certain of my favourite songs. I approached Kenny for a vocal stem back then and my remix of the track ‘Vice Like Gist’ Of It was what came out. We then tried recording a few more, without thinking what the purpose was – versions of ‘And The Racket They Made’, and ‘Your Own Spell’. The former ended up on Bombshell, the latter on Diamond Mine. We were happy with the results so we just carried on recording when we had time and were in the same city.

What were you aiming for when you entered into the project? Did you have a particular outcome or sound in mind?

Jon: I didn’t consciously aim for anything, just to make something that moved both of us, and hopefully other people too.

How did the recording process work? The recording seems subtle, more subtle than, say, Silver Columns (also great). Was this a conscious thing?

KC: Jon keeps tabs on most of my King Creosote output, whether on Fence or other labels, and chooses the songs, or vocal performances, he likes. I then painstakingly rearrange my vocal chords to the configuration they were in before the fags and booze took their toll, pitch up at Cafe Music in Bow, and the rest is down to the power of Auto Tune.

Jon: I never make conscious decisions about how something should sound – at the risk of sounding like a wanker, I only ever work on instinct and these songs just totally dictated how the productions and arrangements should go. The aim was that the instrumentation and the non-vocal sections would augment the stories and melodies of the songs – once we had recorded the vocals, everything else just grew around them. The recording process was simple – I spent a few days with Kenny back in May 2009, putting down the vocals and acoustic guitars for the songs that we hadn’t already started, and then I built up the tracks around them whenever possible. Kenny sent me some amazing samples and field recordings that he had made over the years, and I combined these with field recordings we made up in Fife to give the record a real sense of place and to try and keep it from having a flat “studio” sound.

What does each contributor bring to the studio, in terms of attitude and expertise?

KC: Because I live miles and miles from London, I only pop in and out of the studio at Jon’s behest. It’s usually just to sit in the best studio atmosphere I know of, and sing songs into microphones. Jon asks me for a CDR of noises and loops now and again. It’s a complete mystery how it comes out sounding as good as it does. I’m essentially a one-take Jake.

The songs were already in existence prior to Diamond Mine. How did you decide on which ones to use?

KC: Once Jon got started on this thing, he already had certain songs in mind, or definitely certain themes. ‘John Taylor (’s Month Away)’ and ‘Bats (in the Attic)’ are peppered with Fife character(s) and place names, so it was a no-brainer to put those forward. There were a few others that didn’t make the grade, including the song that gave us the album title. Jon directed the songs pretty much.

Jon: All the songs are in existence on King Creosote albums that are already out there, apart from (opening track) ‘First Watch’,  a piano piece I wrote specifically to introduce ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’. Kenny kindly allowed me to pick which songs we would record. It was a massive privilege to have free reign over a back catalogue with that many amazing songs in it.

Was there anyone else involved in the recording? There are some delightful harmonies!

KC: There are some hefty talents on this record – Lisa Lindley-Jones on vocal duties, Mark on drums, Leo Abrahams on various stringed instruments, and Emma Smith on violin. I’ve met and kissed all four. There might be others Jon’s kissed for me.

Jon: Yes we brought in Lisa Elle from the band Dark Horses to sing harmonies, Leo Abrahams (who has played on most things i’ve worked on, including Bombshell) to play banjo, the drummer Phil Wilkinson, and the Elysian Quartet’s Emma Smith to play violin. Lisa’s harmonies particularly are massively important to the record. Lisa also contributed harmonies on Bombshell and I became addicted to the combination of her voice and Kenny’s.

The production seems to intentionally extenuate Kenny’s vocals throughout. Jon, is this something you worked on and consciously did?

Jon: I was very keen to do that as I reckon Kenny’s voice is one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices out there. The vocals are the heart of the record. I never wanted the productions to overwhelm the voice, hence the relative simplicity of the sound, and the lack of the random experimental electronic elements I tend to use in my own stuff.

John Taylor’s Month Away’ is one of the most beautiful tracks I’ve heard in a long time. What is the story behind it? Do you know the character?

KC: I live in Crail, a picturesque fishing village in North East Fife, and until a few years back I thought only my gran and I lived on the main road down to the harbour. Fishermen are very few and far between. One day there was a commotion out in Shoregate, so I popped outside to find I had, in fact, a neighbour, and that he’d fallen asleep pissed and set his couch on fire. I doubt I’d have met him otherwise. We got talking, and he soon quashed any romantic notions I’d had about a life at sea.

You can guess his name I’m sure.

How does this collaboration differ from those you’ve both previously been involved in?

Jon: It was different for me in that we weren’t together for more than a few days of it. But over the years I think we’ve probably talked about it a lot, and for me, every visit to the area was massively inspiring.

KC: My collaborations with the Fence Collective basically amount to two things – here are my songs, play what you like on them, or give me a vocal track and I’ll do what I like to it. Taking the latter example, Jon is like a genius version of me, working with a vocal from me.

Do you have any plans to work together in the future?

Jon: No specific plans time-wise but I’d say this is definitely going to be an ongoing collaboration.

KC: I do. Jon let me hear some new off-kilter drum beats he’s working on, and I’m the man to confuse those further. I think of Jon as being in my band anyway.

What are your favourite musical collaborations and what are, in your opinion, the most ill-conceived?

Jon: I love the Brian Eno/Harold Budd records. And the Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid thing witnessed live was massively euphoric. I didn’t like it when Pat And Mick teamed up. Nor was I a fan of Hoddle and Waddle.

KC: I liked ‘Under Pressure’ by David Bowie and Queen. I thought this would be enough for me to then become a fan of Queen, but it wasn’t. Some people discovered Queen via EastEnders’ Anita Dobson, and they were better impressed. Bowie’s good though. He made a grand job of that Christmas hit with Paul Daniels.

That 4AD one The Moon and the Melodies with Harold Budd, I had a tape of that.

Jon, you mentioned on Twitter that you had been trying to think of a way to play the album live. Has there been any progression on that front?

Jon: Did I? no, not yet, but luckily we have Leo, Lisa and Emma joining us on stage at the Union Chapel gig in May, which will mean that it can’t be ENTIRELY shit.

Finally, was there any single theme you wanted the album to convey, musically or lyrically?

Jon: Musically I wanted to recreate the feelings I had personally had in visiting Fife for the Homegame the first few times, and in particular to try and conjure that kind of dreamy, emotional feeling that you are sometimes left with after drinking a particularly large amount and meeting lots of amazing people.

KC: For me, it’s a Fife record. The songs are rooted here, and it is as charmed an existence as Jon makes it sound.

Written for The Line of Best Fit

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine is out now via Domino Recordings. Stream the album in full below.

An Interview with Prince Michael of Sealand

With its two hollow towers and a landing deck, floating some six miles off the coast of Suffolk, England, the Principality of Sealand looks anything but inspired. The story of how it became recognized by some as the smallest nation on earth, though, is stranger than fiction. The former Royal Navy sea base (HMS Forts) has been home to the Bates family since 1967, who proclaimed it as an independent sovereign nation. Major Paddy Roy Bates (of the British Army and a former pirate radio impresario) ejected the owners of Radio City from the base and used it to broadcast Radio Essex.

In 1968, after firing shots on an ‘intruder’ who entered their nautical territory to service a navigational buoy, Bates was hauled before a UK court, which ruled in his favour, declaring Sealand to be outside of the UK’s waters. Bates, seizing the initiative, introduced a national anthem, flag, passports and constitution. The nation of Sealand had come into being… at least in the eyes of a few.

The story from here forth is a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, with the only constant being the surreal. Every nation has its enemies, and the micronation of Sealand was no different. Having been invited into partnership with Sealand by Bates and his family, Alexander Achenbach, a German, launched an air and sea assault on Sealand in 1978, led by mercenaries from Holland and Germany. Speed boats and helicopters besieged the towers and kidnapped Bates’ son Michael.

A struggle ensued and after securing the safety of Michael, Achenbach was charged with treason and held on Sealand, leading to a political standoff between Austria, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, with the former three petitioning the latter for his release. Having previously determined that Sealand was outside of British jurisdiction, though, the courts were powerless to help. The German government dispatched a diplomat to Sealand to negotiate his release and after several weeks, Bates relented. The official visit of a diplomat, however, led Bates to proclaim de facto recognition of Sealand by Germany, a claim the German government has refuted.

Nowadays, Major Bates is retired in Spain with his wife, leaving the run of Sealand to his son, Prince Michael. Bates Junior hasn’t had to deal with the physical threat of war or attack, but the new era brought its own difficulties. All Sealand passports, for example, have been revoked after an illegal trade in them resulted in the existence of over 150,000 (they are speculated to have been circulated heavily amongst Colombian drug gangs). It’s not all bad though. Sealand has been represented by athletes the world over at major sporting events, including fencing, martial arts and athletics. The future, it would seem, is bright.

Having followed the story of Sealand for years, I was delighted when Prince Michael responded to an interview request some months back. I have sat on the results for a while, wondering what best to do with them… but thought there would be no better destination than Scrawls & Bawls. Thanks to Michael for participating, the hilarious transcript is below.

I would like to start off with a bit of historical background. Can you describe, using your own personal memories, how Sealand came to exist?

My father had a pirate radio station in the 60s on the Knock John forts. The government brought in the marine offences act and effectively closed him down with fines etc. He had to look for a better jurisdiction for his station (although he never broadcast from there).

How old were you when your family first went to Sealand? Did you live their permanently?

Returning from boarding school in Wales Spring 67 my father was having money and staff troubles so I volunteered to help for the adventure. I was 14

You were held captive in 1978, what is your recollection of the event?

Anger that we had put in so many years of work and some bloody German thought he would take it over and destroy us. The biggest adrenaline rush of my life sliding down a rope from a hovering helicopter 100 ft above the rough North Sea with a shotgun hanging around my neck. Elation at recapturing an almost impregnable fortress.

Sealand from above

What was the background to the Sealand Conflict?

My father had arranged to meet these people in Austria to sign a contract taking them in as partners. They decided like Hitler with Poland to just march in and share nothing.

What is the current situation, with regard the proclaimed “government in exile” in Germany?

They are fraudsters that claim to represent Sealand including offering flights there from the UK. They offer something they don’t have. They would also appear to be Nazis.

You have fired on naval vessels on a number of occasions; did you fear the repercussions of such activity?

Yes warning shots for them to keep clear. A bang and a flash are acceptable methods of warning ships off at sea

What is your current relationship with the government of the UK? Are there diplomatic relations?

No they prefer to think we are not there

Again, how are your diplomatic relations with other countries?

Fine we don’t really communicate with them unless there is a crisis like the invasion of terrorists in 1978 and the German ambassador visited us resulting in de facto recognition from Germany.

What is the official business of Sealand? What sorts of activities occur their daily?

The sale of internet technology and other projects

Can you tell me about the current population?

Anywhere between two and fifty depending on who is there at the time

Do you feel any sense of patriotism to the UK? Do you consider yourself in anyway British?

Absolutely I love my country of birth and my father was wounded some eight times defending its freedoms.

Can you explain the situation with The Kingdom of Marduk, which has laid claim to Sealand?

If you think we are nuts, he is worse. He appeared out of the depths of the internet!

What future plans do you have for Sealand? Is it up for sale?

We are always open to commercial propositions whatever they may be.

You’ve been in the news in the past for various things, such as having athletes represent Sealand at international events. Do you have any more plans to continue this trend? Can you explain them?

We have just appointed a new head of our football team and expect to be playing in the Viva Games in Gozo in 2010

As the official Head of State, what do your duties consist of?

Answering long emails from people like you and vetting commercial propositions etc!

What is the current set-up, in terms of the rest of the Royal Family?

My sons are now getting involved Prince Royal James and Prince Liam

I understand there is a film in the offing? What is the current situation with this, and what can we expect from it?

The world recession has placed it on hold.

People are hugely surprised when they see pictures of Sealand and when hear that it is a sovereign nation. How do you explain the existence of your nation?

A series of legal blunders by the UK

Recently, you seem to have embraced the online world, through Twitter, Facebook, etc. What is the aim of this?

To raise our profile to the world. Unlike most nations we do not have oil or a large amount of tax payers to support us so we need to create revenue producing projects like our individual noble title initiative. Please mention our website and face book in your article.

Sealand have also been involved in substantial commercial activity, such as the sale of titles. Again, what are you hoping to achieve here? Is it to raise awareness or generate income?

Both see above. It’s an expensive world to live in especially when at sea alone against the world.

As requested by Michael, you can follow Sealand on Twitter and Facebook.

The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

John Darnielle is a rare breed of songwriter: hailed unanimously for his lyrics whilst remaining relatively limited, musically. Since the early, scratchy recordings under The Mountain Goats guise, there has been progression, sure, but the musical template of the albums has remained pretty primitive: simple guitars, occasional piano, with occasional bursts of orchestra. But there’s a reason why, every time a new Mountain Goats album appears, hacks can’t refrain from wheeling out the New Yorker’s “best non hip-hop lyricist in America” quote.

The records are lessons in narrative based songwriting, each (with the exception of Heretic Pride) tackling a theme or issue, usually something from Darnielle’s own past. Having dealt with methamphetamine abuse (We Shall All Be Healed), his abusive stepfather (The Sunset Tree), divorce (Tallahassee) and breakup (Get Lonely), 2009’s The Life of the World to Comewas a game changer: an allegorical manipulation of the bible to expound upon his experiences with illness and death. The album was criminally overlooked and for me, is their greatest achievement to date: powerful, intelligent, and infinitely tuneful.

And so, with critics putting their backs out to reach for that quote, I’ve found myself quietly underwhelmed by All Eternals Deck. It’s not that album number nineteen* (nobody knows for certain if that is true) is bad, because it’s good (very good in parts). Parts of it, though, seem like Mountain Goats by numbers and it’s one of the very few occasions that a John Darnielle recording has left me wanting more.

Stylistically, it’s arguably richer than some of its immediate predecessors. The thoughtful and sparse piano of Life of the World to Come has been replaced by a more polished sound, ironically considering Darnielle enlisted death metal singer Erik Rutan to produce. There are splashes of strings and woodwind, but ultimately, it’s unmistakably a Mountain Goats record.  Darnielle’s 45-year-old nasal yelp shows no sign of wearing thin just yet and there are some moments of sheer beauty.

‘Beautiful Gas Mask’ is the sound of rolling down a desert road, top down and is almost Calexico-esque. The introspective, vibraphone-led ‘Liza Forever Minelli’ is gorgeous, both tracks boast melodies strong enough to compete with the (as always) superb lyrical content. ‘High Hawk Season’ is the best track here and one of the Mountain Goats’ most sonically inventive moments to date: the frontman’s vocals laid on a bedrock of Gregorian chanting. Over the rest of the album, there are a couple of let-downs (Darnielle has never sounded quite as tepid as he does on the prosaic ‘Never Quite Free’), but for the most part, it’s business as usual.

Which begs the question: what exactly is the album lacking? The conclusion I keep leaping to, is that across the many characters, quotable lines and hummable tunes, there doesn’t seem to be one single theme holding them together. It’s meditative, sometimes brooding. There are moments when it seems like death may be on the agenda again, until it’s betrayed by a contently chiming piano. The buoyancy of mood seems to somehow detract from the conviction of the songs here. Songs about vampires and bandits are interesting and entertaining, but they don’t dig their claws into your heart like Darnielle’s material of yore. We should never bemoan a man trying to lay his demons squarely in the past, but (as also demonstrated on the disappointing Heretic Pride) he is at his best when hurtling head on towards them, foot jammed on the pedal.

Listen: Mountain Goats – Damn These Vampires

Written for The Line of Best Fit