Poetry and electronica find cozy home in Rick Holland and Old Man Diode collab – An Indie Ethos Exclusive
March 20, 2013
It was a longtime coming, but more than a year since poet Rick Holland shared his first step beyond his collaboration with Brian Eno (Old Man Diode brings poetry of Rick Holland into “disco” territory), his work with UK underground electronica artist Old Man Diode has finally resulted in a full-length album. The King Krill will see release as a digital-only release via the London-based indie label WW Music on March 26 (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link) … and on limited edition vinyl on April 25.
The album might seem more accessible compared with Holland’s work with Eno. Where Eno had chosen “vocalists” like a secretary to recite the lines on the Drums Between the Bells, vocalists on The King Krill bring often soulful, soaring voices to the mix. Notable UK artists on the album include Chris James (singer/keyboardist/guitarist for Stateless who most recently worked with Deadmau5) and vocalists Onallee (a collaborator with Roni Size), I Am Fya, Beth Rowley and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Andrew Plummer. Still, even with more proper singing in the mix, Old Man Diode does not lean on the typical dance hall rhythms, choosing to explore more slippery beats inspired by such experimental electronica predecessors like Aphex Twin. For a limited time, you can listen to an exclusive stream of the whole album here (that’s a hyper-link).
As Holland and Old Man Diode (née Jo Wills) are in London, all three of us recently corresponded via email for a little question and answer session. They offer such beautiful insight into the care and approach to the music versus the words, the possibilities of interpretations and the creative process for the pure pleasure of experimenting and creating (Note: my questions are in bold, Holland’s responses are in plain text while Old Man Diode’s comments are in italics).
Hans Morgenstern: Rick, you wrote all the lyrics, correct?
Rick Holland: In some cases we wrote together, myself and the featured artist, so their ideas filtered through me, or fragments of our writing fused together.
HM: There is a dance quality to this record. Were you conscious of that when composing the lyrics used on the record?
RH: I always wrote to a beat-track, a skeleton of the track, and we wanted to keep the settings sparse and honest to their origin. I wrote from the instinctive response I had to Old Man Diode’s beats and bass pulses.
HM: What are some of the themes that you address in your words?
RH: These emerge after the writing. I’d like Jo to answer this one. There were powerful shared image banks for sure.
Old Man Diode: We didn’t have anything in mind at the start of writing, the starting point was wanting to collaborate, both of us (and the vocalists) talking and making and talking and making. In the end, the themes that have come through are about humanity really and the urban dichotomy of needing to be part of a group and an individual at the same time, trying to avoid becoming an automaton whilst seeing people being just that all around you. I think there’s a strong sense of being constantly being pulled in different directions, there’s beauty and desolation all around us. Maybe that feeling has come out through this strong oceanic vibe that infuses a lot of the writing. Somehow it’s part grimy concrete and barren cliff top at the same time.
RH: I like that. I would add that there are moments in there about being completely submerged and released, the ocean keeps coming back. And there is a love song in there too, an old-fashioned love lyric, but about shedding some of the more possessive elements of love.
HM: To what extent did the sound of Old Man Diode’s music influence your writing?
RH: It triggered and moulded the writing, it made it, in tracks such as “The King Krill.” “Clearing Song,” the words are the music passing through me, they are the music translated as instinctively as possible. In others, there is more input from my own life and experience, moulded to the atmosphere of the music.
OMD: Just to flip this question a bit and answer if from my perspective. I think we’ve both been influenced by each other and the process music I’ve written in the past has been very different to this. There’s a shared ethos in approach, a sort of minimalism that gives as much power as possible to each action. Also, one of the reasons I was keen to work with Rick was to make myself focus on words. My ears are drawn to texture when I’m listening. It’s hard for me to remember words in tracks I’ve just listened to or know really well. I hear them as part of the whole sonic, working with Rick has forced me to really focus on that content.
HM: Were you surprised by any results, the effects of the words turned musical? If so, where?
RH: I tended to listen to some of the work of a featured artist once I knew we were working with them, so in the writing process somewhere hidden in my back brain would have been an imagining of how that artist would sing the words, and whether they would “work.” Beyond that, though, all of them surprised me because they are all creative artists and all brought their interpretations to the process.
For some, the words took centre stage, for others they were more sounds to riff from, I love both approaches. Some less fluid “lyrics” on a page became beautiful through the artist, Chris James sliding over words springs to mind, and Onallee singing “Time hangs, like a torn sheet, we disappear through hopes” (OMD: is this not just in your head?!?!?!?!?!)* which may have started out as “holes,” but that lyric is just pure poetry for me, how it is sung, it could mean so many things to so many people.
OMD: It’s been great to see the words take shape, become melodies and textures. Sometimes it’s had a more operatic/libretto approach to setting and others have been more like writing a pop song with everything in between. Everyone has been great to work with, bringing their approaches and philosophies to the table.
RH: *quite probably, it’ll be what’s printed on the back of the vinyl though… haaa… and I prefer it.
HM: Rick, how much of a say did you have in the music that accompanied certain words?
RH: We have such an understanding of each other from years of working together and a shared sensibility that we usually just know when words and music were meant for each other, and this extends to production ideas too. We share ideas throughout the writing process, and our best work usually happens without over thinking. Luckily, we find effective ways to communicate in real time in the studio and most of the time we find the ground we both believe in.
OMD: Hahaha, some pretty funny ways of communicating as I remember, using words to describe sounds and vice versa. The best parts of the writing process have been when all three of us (Rick, myself and whoever’s singing) are in the room together, creating on the fly, everyone is influencing everyone else, that’s a real buzz, and the track comes pouring out.
HM: The vocalists vary a lot. Where did they come from?
RH: Wonderful mixture isn’t it? They are all just open-minded, creative artists drawn together by Old Man Diode’s vision and his life. There were a couple more surprising names interested in collaborating, we may hear from them later. This has been a dream team. They are all real artists.
HM: How different is working with OMD versus Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2])?
RH: This is such an interesting question. There are some huge similarities. Both believe in giving ideas space to become something without over complicating, yet both have some deep-lying beliefs in essential values of production. Both are constantly curious about their crafts and open to the input of other people. Both come up against their limitations from time to time yet accept and find new ways to circumvent them. Both believe very passionately in the fruits of good collaborative practice. Both remove the ‘I’ from the process.
In terms of less wooly specifics, it is different working with OMD because I grew from the same cultures and have a far more similarly mapped life to each other. Occasionally, with Eno, I would inadvertently suggest something that he felt he had covered before, or the essence of an idea would change entirely over time. I was in my early 20s when Drums Between the Bells started out, and early 30s when it was released. It was a really unusual process to turn that great a span of life into an album, fascinating and difficult all at once. With this album, Jo and I managed to finish it in just over two years (I think) and it is the shared work of two people in a more shared single world I think, less patchwork.
I could write a book about this question to be honest. Interestingly, I also think Eno may have taken some direct influence from this project, listening to some of his new work with James Blake, so the two subconciouses have certainly melded, feedback both ways.
October 27, 2011
It’s not really “disco” per say. “Off-beat,” “odd,” “quirky” and “infectious” all work to describe “Open Blue,” actually subverting the genre that is now the ancient precursor to what one might consider today’s dance music, which, in the nineties entered more intellectual territory thanks to pioneers like Aphex Twin and Autechre and other IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) artists. “Open Blue,” certainly fits into IDM and is the lead single off the up-coming collaborative album by Old Man Diode and Rick Holland by the same name (due Nov. 21 on the UK-based indie label WW Music). After working with ambient music and art rock pioneer Brian Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2]), Holland recently shared a video to this latest work, which also features the vocals of Beth Rowley.
I admitted to him that I do not usually get excited by follow-ups to music I was already impressed by, as cynical skepticism often takes hold and becomes a large, stiff barrier for anything to break through. In some way or another music must evolve and change or rise to another level to impress me further or in a different way from what I heard in the prior work. Color me impressed (full screen for maximal effect):
The slow-burn gorgeousness of the gravity-defying visuals of this video work well to draw the viewer in, not to mention the pretty visage of Rowley hanging off the wall with one foot. The images mesh strongly with the music, which offers a great departure from the more cerebral work of the master tunesmith that is Eno. It is not a comparison of better or weaker— easy terms to bandy about. Though delivered more musically by Rowley’s sing-song voice, Holland’s words still feel spoken and maintain an evocative, intelligent impression. Add Old Man Diode’s (aka Jo Wills) distinctly artsy dance-like sound, and you have something with the DNA required to please a cynical music snob such as myself.
I can certainly appreciate an almost deadpan delivery of dance music that seems to try to tear itself apart from the inside out. The rhythm recalls the break beats of Aphex Twin, as a steady synth pulses, providing the glue to the scattering rhythm. With the expressive coo of Rowley’s voice above it, the cake is complete. I found some nice remixes on Old Man Diode’s Soundcloud page. Here is the highlight:
Holland noted that the album is indeed collaborative, with the vocalists also participating in fulfilling the ultimate results. “I have known him [Wills] for many years now, he was one of the first people I ever wrote with specifically for music and I knew this project would be genuinely collaborative, opening the process up to all of the really special vocalists he had in mind,” Holland said via email. “We understand each other and our languages overlap enough to make working together really easy and fulfilling and also enabling each guest writer to fully engage in the writing process. Every track in the project is fully collaborative, with some startling talents.”
According to a press announcement, other collaborators featured on the album include: Chris James, lead vocalist with Stateless, Onallee from Roni Size’s drum and bass troupe Reprazent and multi-instrumentalist jazz composer and vocalist Andrew Plummer.
The other day, I shared an interview compiled from a series of emails exchanged with the UK-based poet Rick Holland, who most recently worked on a collaborative album with rock’s most famous intellectual, Brian Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2]). Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon) saw release by Warp Records back in July. I had been exchanging emails with Holland since late June, as he considered several questions I had about his collaborative work with Eno.
He took his time, and I offered it to him. He wrote out my questions and journaled answers in hand-written notebooks before writing me back with thoughtful answers. But he also sent me back some spontaneous emails with thoughts on further questions. Though this certainly allowed for much editing of thoughts, I think it appropriately reflected the craft of what he and Eno did together. After all, Drums Between the Bells, with its electonic-based music and deliberately read poetry (sometimes presented in a haze of another layer of electronics), is anything but a jam record. The Eno/Holland collaboration is a thoughtful work, and grows with age and listening investment.
When I began my undergrad art studies in the early nineties, I took a mix of Eno’s instrumental music on a portable cassette player to art galleries and parks. Who better to offer musical accompaniment to art? His music can range from subtle drones to hyperkinectic layers of poly-rhythmic dissonance. It also defined a new genre of music in the mid-seventies that Eno himself coined: ambient. What better composer to offer a musical track to a poet who crafts artistic prose that can both observe the world on its existential face and cut into the fabric of perceptions? My favorite track on Drums, must be “Pour It Out,” adapted from Holland’s poem “New York” from his Story the Flowers book (It’s all there):
But then the album as a whole offers its own dynamic journey through a variety of prose and musicality (In the interview below, Holland notes the complete process of writing, recording and producing this album took eight years). Throughout our correspondence, Holland offered some dense insight into the process of crafting Drums Between the Bells, and also provided an illuminating look into the mind of a poet well-suited to work with someone as intellectual as Brian Eno. Before I continue with this interview, which you will find concluded below, I feel it’s important to contextualize the significance of a new, original, Eno-composed album featuring words.
Eno has been recording solo albums since 1973. He broke out of England’s post-prog scene of glitter and feathers glam rock, after leaving Roxy Music. All the while, he made a career of coming to terms with the role of words in music. Eno famously considers the function of words within songs as just another instrument rather than a literary narrative with a message, as the implications behind the latter throw in a huge monkey-wrench into the ideas of composition for him.
Citing from Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, the Eno-centric website More Dark Than Shark, quoted Eno as having said, “[Lyrics] always impose something that is so unmysterious compared to the sound of the music [that] they debase the music for me, in most cases.” That was back in 1985. I thought surely his attitude towards lyrics had changed by the time he recorded his first solo vocal album in 25 years, 2005′s Another Day on Earth (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It seems it has. In an interview with Sound on Sound (a music magazine for the studio engineer) promoting that album, Eno said of his return to music with vocals: “The simple answer is that five or six years ago I noticed that I was starting to sing again and enjoying it. Also, since I stopped doing vocal albums and worked on the landscape side of music, certain technological developments have happened that give you the possibility to shape your voice, and that reawakened my interest.”
This technological idea of obscuring the voice of the singer was key for Eno, in that it seems to separate identifying the singer with the words he is singing. “One of the reasons I stopped making vocal records was because I was fed up with the identification that’s always made between the voice on the record and the composer, as if this person singing was some sort of extension of my personality,” he continued in the 2005 interview. “But I don’t care about my personality being the content of the thing. I always liked the idea of seeing what I was doing the way a playwright might think of a play or a novelist might think of a book.” So chalk up Eno’s growing distaste for lyrics to the influence of mostly “illiterate” music journalists and fans he must have encountered during his many years as a rocker.
To the ears of this writer, Eno’s attitude to lyrics produced some amazingly surreal and pure prose in his early years, but the later years of his lyrics never seemed to stand out as some of his more remarkable works, as it all must have worn thin on him by then. Now here comes the 32-year-old Holland, invited by the 63-year-old Eno to provide him with some of the most refreshing words in many years for Eno to work with. The result, which suitably features an array of guest vocalists who have nothing to do with the rock world– as noted in the first part of this interview series– certainly has brought my attention back to words entangled in Eno’s music. In the end, Drums Between the Bells offers something even more interesting than Eno’s most recent work with a better known songwriter and long-time collaborator, David Byrne, for the pleasant, albeit predictable, 2008 album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
With that context in place, on with the interview with Holland, who, in this part of the feature, offers his ruminations on the best place to listen to Drums Between the Bells, the music of words and even an evaluation Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973′s Here Come the Warm Jets (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) and 1974′s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon)…
Hans Morgenstern: Can I just say that I read this article (Clash Music’s Aug. 7 interview with Holland), and the fact that Brian says Drums Between the Bells is a good album to “wash up to” was funny to me because that was the first way I heard it (whilst taking a shower). So where’s the best place to hear the album in your opinion?
Rick Holland: In a state of stillness akin to lucid dreaming where surface concerns are replaced by free and contemplative activity that is not self-conscious. In the absence of this elusive brain state, washing up sounds a pretty strong contender. I have most enjoyed listening while driving on a long journey; though the best time for achieving this brain state seems to be in the middle of the night listening to incidental sounds mashing up – I like to use the sounds as triggers to imagine whatever comes into my mind. A flow is achievable in this state that is very much reduced when ‘recording’ art from imagination to medium. Getting near to that state is probably ‘the best place’ to listen to this album, where judging brain is dampened and imagining brain is electric, and as free to move as electric as long as the circuit is in place and not interrupted.
As I noted in an earlier post on Drums Between the Bells (Brian Eno reveals full streams of 3 tracks from new album), I was attracted to this Eno record because he seems to finally be dealing with lyrics on a deeper level than usual. Has he told you why he was interested in putting your words to music?
Strangely enough we have never had that conversation, we just got to work. I did learn through the process that ‘lyrics’ served a greater master: ‘sound’ in world Eno, but also that he was not closed to them as carriers of their own potential, but that he was overjoyed for the ‘meaning’ to become tied in with different axes of sound and atmosphere, and be loosely and ambiguously tied to the more conventional systems of language.
The whole album could have been done differently; it spanned eight years or so, and at any particular juncture in that time I would have had strong ideas about what could have been done differently. There were techniques available in the last three weeks of work that were not available in the first seven years, and early tracks with components that were lost forever in archival glitches and were rebuilt. There were times when I wanted only to feature the voice, and other times I wanted the voice obliterated into signals bearing no obvious resemblance to speech. At various points we would try versions of each of our visions, and make a piece that really and truly was not the end product of either of those visions. I would make the whole album differently if we started again tomorrow, and so would Brian. From ‘Drums Between The Bells’, all of the experiments have been successes in my eyes, but all of them have also suggested future alternatives. People who listen to the record will have strong ideas of what can be done differently too. That is one of the album’s great strengths; it moves in between territories, music, words, sound, that are familiar and then alien and many points in between. That aspect of it I wouldn’t change at all.
Do you have any rhythm or music in mind when your poems come out of you?
The words themselves dictate the rhythm, set it running like a free drum part, but I would say I have an instinctive relationship to music and rhythm in my writing more than a trained one. To steal directly from something I heard Rakim say in a documentary the other night, ‘I was trying to rhyme like John Coltrane played the sax’. Fundamental rhythms and music have moved me since I can remember, and these are definitely built in to my writing without ever feeling the need to adhere strictly to traditional ‘poetic’ forms and meter.
From what source do you find most inspiration comes from when composing?
The world playing out in front of me. If pushed to identify a trigger, I would say pattern formation followed closely by sound. ‘Artificially’ speaking, music and especially live performance fills my gut with a kind of adrenalised need to express something.
Have you read reviews of the album? What do you think of the reception? Do you think music critics are “getting” it?
I went on a journey with the criticisms of the album. I ignored common wisdom that says ‘do not read reviews’ and actually ended up being encouraged to read them and respond in a ‘blog conversation’ with Brian (which itself headed off piste straight away). Like everything, some are good and some are bad, but of the critics who were able to put time and investment into listening and avoid the understandable traps of rushing out copy, I think the reception was fair. For a reviewer wanting to be transported without challenge, ‘Drums Between The Bells’ may seem an unnecessary challenge of disparate ideas and sounds. And it is completely reasonable to expect music to be a portal to elsewhere that doesn’t need to be ‘got’. If a reviewer came to the album with no expectations and a little time to think, they almost unanimously found things that resonated strongly in the experience. There are of course plenty of comments, good and bad, that are wide of a mark that I would recognize, and a few that have made me want to contact the writer and vent some spleen, but life is short.
I would say that our need as a society to quickly package anything is indicative of a wider approach to the world that has serious pitfalls, but I am not so self-important to think that someone ‘not getting’ this album is significantly important to the wider good of humanity. I wish people would stop harping on so much about ‘Art’, ‘Poet’, ‘genre’ and other blanding agents, but it is for each person to decide how he or she perceives what is really only a collection of sounds and relationships, like any music. Brian and I came up with some categories for songs when putting the running order together, they were ‘think’, ‘look’, ‘feel’ and ‘soul,’ I think, or similar with several crossovers.
I’m very curious of what you think of Eno’s early forays into lyrics, which he himself has called nonsense, but I feel have an unabashed surreal quality.
I scanned (thanks to Enoweb) through the lyrics for ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ because I haven’t listened to that album, so I thought it would be a good appraisal of the ‘lyrics’ as standalone … the scanning happened quite fast until I hit ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk.’ This was the first thing that caught me as more than words to be sung that had been transcribed. From what I know of Brian, the sounds will most likely have come before the actual words, but in this automation there is still subconscious coupling of sounds with emotions, and emotions with word choices, and word choices with streams of more ‘macro’ patterns of thought.
Rappers freestyle in 16 bar salvos. Through practising and writing more, the rhythms and internal variations within those rhythms develop so much so in the best rappers that they become second nature until they act as a conduit for whatever the consciousness wants to express. I think good lyrics are the same beast and are no less ‘poetry’ because of it; if anything they are more so, as they are perhaps more likely to avoid the pitfalls of over-analysis on the way out.
‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’ on the page could be about any ‘authority’ figure in any walk of life who is more bluff than balls, and it also has interjections from less primary sources of input like modernist poetry (which may have taken that tendency to mix and match from a world of songs and televisions and technology anyway). ‘More fool me, bless my soul’ sounds like a blues phrase co-opted, especially repeated. The ‘perfect masters/thrive on disasters/look so harmless/til they find their way up here’ is pure 16 bar beat riffing when I read it on the page. So, in the interests of science, I listened to the song after reading the lyrics to see what happens to them in the song…
At which point I realised I have heard this song before! No matter, I wrote all the above before realising that. The ‘more fool me, bless my soul’ was unsurprisingly musical, though more Buddy Holly than I was expecting. The lyrics in this song are certainly not nonsense, though that doesn’t mean that they have been set out to work as words on a page (which, in this case, they certainly do. I enjoyed reading them).
I’ll try the same approach with the ‘Whale’ song ["Mother Whale Eyeless"] you mentioned, which I haven’t heard before.
This reads like an appraisal of life in a country even more at the mercy of its media and propagandas than the one we live in now. It reads as highly political and highly poetic. ‘Don’t ever trust those meters’, ‘there is a cloud containing the sea’, ‘parachutes caught on steeples’, these all sound like the product of automatic writing that has been introduced to and bedded into an environment; the environment has been made by constantly observing the world in an imaginative way (‘stirring the air’ I called this in my own early poems about escaping from the claustrophobic world around me). At its start it reminded me of the impression I got from ‘A Day in the Life’ when I listened to it as a kid. ‘Got up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…. somebody spoke and I went into a dream’. It says the details of our politicised lives are as ridiculous as they are pervasive, and that we, as individuals, are in turn angered, powerless and gloriously alienated from those details. Our bonds in life are all constructs ultimately.
Then I listened to the song…
“Mother Whale Eyeless” is a fascinating song, unmistakably Brian in places, I would have to say. That brilliant simple guitar riff after about two minutes, the change and shift with the female chorus vocal. But anyway, the words, the words. The thing is, the morning papers, tea and other details are already shaken to their core by the way they are sung and spiral away from the details I picked up reading the lyrics straight away. It says a lot about the ‘lyrics’ debates that go on, the words on a page are a wholly different animal from the words performed and adorned.
If I had just listened to that song straight away, I would not have listened closely to most of the words, I must admit (though certainly would have picked up more with repeated listens). I would have started in the kitchen, then moved on to the guitar-feeling and then moved into the otherworld of the clipped female chorus and settled on the statement, ‘In another country, with another name/ Maybe things are different, maybe they’re the same’ as a carte blanche for anything that doesn’t make sense to float on unrepentant for being nonsense, because it might make sense under different circumstances, and the next evocation of something more ‘graspable’ may be just around the corner. I’ve always made these kinds of allowances listening to music, ever since I can remember. There is something perfectly sensible about that approach to writing words and to listening to them too. The eyeless whale chuckles at the world’s myths. Nonsense?
If I had to choose between the two experiences, in this case, I would choose reading the words, which is a surprising outcome. ‘Mother Whale Eyeless’ is a poem on the page for me (maybe because I approached it like this first) and the song is an event with some exciting moments but holding less meaning overall for me, at this moment. Perhaps this tells us that anything is ultimately what we make it. Perhaps it also tells us that Brian was writing poetry in spite of himself, and perhaps it also tells us that his instinctively curious approach to the world manifests itself clearly in the groups of words he chooses to fit together, which certainly isn’t a surprising outcome. I mentioned (skilled) rappers earlier so used to their molten bedrock that what they can sprinkle on top of it is almost instinctive. This doesn’t make their output less important or interesting.
Brian understands his vocabularies and their potentials so well that the more cumbersome ‘word’ part I would imagine does not excite him as much as other things: ‘sound’, ‘voice’, ‘space’, ‘colour’ being a few. Doubly so when you consider that he has been making music for several decades and is always keen to explore new possibilities.
* * *
Many thanks to Rick for taking the time to entertain these questions and offering such an enlightening look into the experience that culminated in one of the richest albums 2011 has had to offer! Not to mention indulging me with his honest view of some early iconic Eno glam rock songs that he had never heard to start with.
September 5, 2011
A couple of months ago, I sent poet Rick Holland a link to my post sharing my excitement about the results of his participation with Brian Eno, Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon). He wrote back graciously expressing his appreciation for my “kind words.” He also said he would pass my email on to Warp Records, as I had expressed an interest in an advance listen of the album.* Though that did not happen, I stayed in touch with Holland for a profile piece on “Independent Ethos,” the results of which are now ready for posting in this multi-part interview series.
Holland identifies himself as “Rick” as the sender in email correspondence. It’s a nice detail that offers an appropriate gateway to understanding the young man (he’s 32) who wrote the lyrics of “The Real:”
you really seem to see the real
the exact and actual reality
of the real in things you seem to see
And that is only a taste of the mind-bending words Holland explores in “the Real.” The song opens with the crystal clean voice of 22-year-old Elisha Mudly. Like many of the participants on Drums Between the Bells, the “vocalists” are not rock stars (though some of the reading was done by Eno). Mudly is a drama/psychology student and dancer who had worked for Eno “around the studio, sorting stuff etc.,” she told me via Facebook. “Brian and Rick were working on this project and they just asked if I’d like to read something quickly. So, had some tea, read some poetry and then we said goodbye,” she explained (as the interview with Holland continues below, he emphasizes the serendipitous appearance of Mudly in the studio, as a happy coincidence that resulted in the smooth recording of that track).
On “the Real,” Mudly reads with quiet, ethereal purpose as ambient drones swell and recede, like the wash of waves on the sea shore, beneath her voice. Taking the words to a whole other brilliant level, the bed of drones continue as the words are repeated. This time, however, Eno slows down Mudly’s voice a notch and decorates it with a shimmering vocoder effect, repeating the words exactly as before… but not. The implications of the words and Eno’s use of them reveals a brilliant creative connection between the two artists.
Holland’s awareness of the subjective quality of perceptions seemed to reveal an intellect that would indeed find a kinship with the mind of a thinking musician like Eno. In an interview with Michael Engelbrecht on the Germany-based blog, Manafonistas, Holland described a true collaborative relationship with Eno, when he described an instance when he requested a certain “sound” from the music: “I do offer musical ideas and also extremely vague and over-reaching requests: ‘Can you make this part sound more like primordial sludge, Brian?’ That kind of thing. Of course, his answers tend to be, ‘Yes, yes, I can.’”
Holland’s own direction to Eno sounds just like the sort of language Eno would understand well, as abstract as it might sound. Eno is the guy who devised the Oblique Strategies card set with painter Peter Schmidt in the early seventies with similar sorts of directions, if sometimes even more obtuse (Read all about Oblique Strategies).
I wanted to know more about their album, Drums Between the Bells, which has easily grown into one of my favorite Eno albums in many years, and I do consider it among the best albums I have heard this year. Though Holland is certainly in the shadows next to a man often called the pioneer of ambient music and known as the producer of U2′s and Coldplay’s highest regarded albums, Holland’s contributions of words to Drums Between the Bells is key to elevating this work to a higher level. Just as earlier Eno collaborations, like Fourth World Vol. 1 – Possible Musics, would have never been the same without Jon Hassell’s trumpet or Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror without Harold Budd’s piano, Drums would have never floated to its otherworldly quality without the words of Holland (an instrumental-only second disc in the deluxe version of this album provides the bare evidence of this).
I wanted to ask him about working with Eno and how the collaboration worked. The problem was I live in Miami and Holland splits up his time in London and Dorset, England, so long distance would be rough on either of us struggling writers. I had done email interviews in the past (Read one I did with Melt Banana here), so I was wary (Melt Banana, being Japanese noise surrealists provided perfect answers in their own quirky way, but I was really hoping for some deep insight from Holland on working with Eno). When he told me he would write out my questions to respond via notebook and then write them again in an email, I knew I would be in for some interesting, thoughtful responses. So allow me to begin the interview with that: Why would Holland go through such trouble to respond to my questions…
After I explained my own experience with the effect of writing longhand and then re-writing in a computer (the process alone seems akin to writing as many as three drafts before coming up with a finalized piece), Holland wrote back the following:
Definitely of the school of rewriting … I have come full cycle back to notebooks, having started with pieces of paper.
I think writing by hand, poetry or lyric-wise and probably longer pieces or articles too, is the best approach in the early stages. The closest I have come to the same effect electronically is by emailing myself repeatedly. Write ‘poem’, email it to self, redraft on first reading, email it to self, fiddle, email it to self, go to bed, read it and email to self. Continue process to finish or abandonment. This approach allows the same kind of overall approach that doesn’t cripple the piece in self-analysis but does allow small and important changes to feed into the work without too much head-scratching or too many changes at once.
The temptation to edit while you write is too strong on a word processor of any kind, I find. Now, if I have a eureka moment (very rare at a computer anyway) I write it in my notebook if I have it– I usually carry it around everywhere– or on a piece of paper, or increasingly as a ‘draft’ on my mobile phone. The trick is to remember to check the ‘drafts’ or look again at the notebook or transfer the scribble to notebook or computer. If I transfer it early to a computer and do the ‘email thing’ then it is likely to get finished. If I don’t, then it may re-emerge as something quite different in the future.
This is what I started my blog [rickholland's posterous] for as well actually (see you have got me started now) : a live notebook, to air ideas and return to them. Because they are in a public place, it probably means my vanity will make me check back over them more than I would do in a paper notebook. This is no bad thing, as I tweak them online, and consumer behaviour (I think) doesn’t really pay much attention to old blog entries anyway, so the effect really is only that of an evolving notebook. I have conditioned myself to ‘post’ things on there in their imperfect state, which is against our instincts, and sometimes they remain just fine as imperfects… another ‘condition’ is to only post things that I am genuinely working on at the time or am finding interesting and learning about.
I thought that email was a candid response that offered an intimate glimpse into how this young poet works and how seriously he takes the significance of words.
In an interview on aqnb, Holland noted he has actually known Eno as far back as 10 years ago, when Eno happened on Holland’s debut poetry performance with musical accompaniment. “It was at my first show with the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal College of Art,” Holland said. “The short of it is we did this improvised music and poetry section for it. Brian was there and I met him after.” Holland went on to explain that beyond some experiments with Eno, nothing resulted until only recently, which seemed to begin with something called “Speaker Flowers,” last year. It was Holland’s and Eno’s first “public performance,” which was really an art installation at Marlborough House, during the Brighton Art Festival, in May 2010. Eno was selected as artistic director that year. As the title of the project suggests, the installation included small speakers on stems jutting out of the ground and vases like floral arrangements. From these “speaker flowers” came the hum, whistle and drone of ambient music by Eno to the words of Holland. Someone actually shot part of it on what looks to be cellphone video:
Then came Holland’s first book of poems, Story the Flowers, which contains many of the poems– in slightly varying forms– that were part of “Speaker Flowers” became the words to the tracks on Drums Between the Bells (One can still purchase first edition, signed copies of the book direct from the poet on his website: rjholland.com). Any changes to the poems were subtle, Holland told me. So, with some of the history and context now of the album out of the way, take in a preview of every track on Drums:
… and now the beginning of my email interview with Holland:
Hans Morgenstern: Did Eno give you any parameters when composing the lyrics? Or did he give you any “Guidance”?
Rick Holland: No, he never gave me parameters for composing the lyrics, he either chose what most appealed to him or I suggested what I thought best ‘fitted’ the music he had started. There were occasions in the ‘sung’ material that he flagged difficult words ‘the elemental’ being replaced by ‘nature’s’ (from ‘Breath of Crows’) is an example that springs to mind. When treated as spoken, it was rarer for lexical changes to be needed but the ‘poem’ itself was repositioned in a musical world, and in that world it sometimes needed to change shape, which I was happy to experiment with in a way that a more traditional ‘poet’ may not have been.
Did these lyrics exist unto themselves as poems and the music followed? Did you have any say about the music? Was there anything he did musically with your words you were surprised by?
We worked together in his studio throughout the intensive final weeks and also at most of the sessions that spawned the initial ‘skeletons’ of the tracks over the years. I think we both took some steps away from our comfort zones over these sessions, which is what collaborating relies on, and there was certainly never a sense that he ‘did’ music and I ‘did’ words. Poems and Music were equally likely to change in the process of making, and the making process was an open forum of ideas.
‘The Real’ is perhaps the most recent example of a ‘school’ of song formation whereby Brian would have several pieces on the go and I would provide or write words for the ones that most spoke to me. The first stage in these tracks was to superimpose a vocal over the existing music. Sometimes, a vocal just steers the piece towards its final shape and many musical ideas were provided by the vocalists, not directly, but in the nuances of their readings and more specifically their own ways of forming spoken words.
The components of this one just fell into place with a combination of reshaping an existing ‘poem’ I had been working on, and the beautiful chance arrival at the studio of Elisha Mudley, who really did appear like an angel that day, unannounced, and just in time for us to record. Not all days ran that smoothly!”
It may seem an obvious thing to say, but Brian is interested in a world of
sound. When selecting the reading voices he would almost always choose a female voice, and one that was not a native English speaker; these choices were made because they best served his world of sound. The readers would also not spend time ‘rehearsing’ the readings. Again, the readings- like the readers – were designed not with rigid ideas of poetic performance in mind but rather to produce interesting worlds of sound; and secondarily from words that would hold resonance too once placed in new conditions. These decisions were Brian’s, or rather, the ‘conditions’ were from Brian’s vision.
Male voices that appear on the various recordings (while admittedly not representative of the whole male speaking world) tend to thicken out a bass end, and to accentuate that kind of pulse when treated in a musical sense. Female voices, in the same terms of generalisation, tend to ‘sing’ a treble end, and introduce more variables to the overall music. Where possible I think we tried to achieve music in the voices without reverting to totally digitally rebuilding the voice recordings, we tried to accentuate those musical characteristics that are in voices already rather than craft entirely artificial ones.
Again these conditions were mostly Brian’s and I tended to try to carve my contributions into words that would both serve music and feed back from it. It was a process that required a great deal of dexterity, and a mind open to
allowing ‘meanings’ to flood from one chamber to fill a different one, at the risk of sounding esoteric. Occasionally that involved mourning a good early edit as it disappeared down river to become something else, but without that process the banks of communication through words and music could not be tested for interesting leaks.
‘Voice choice’ therefore involved taking the stress away from ‘what is poetic?’ and ‘what is polished?’ and towards ‘what is voice?’ and ‘what is music?’. Some readers read as though reading an important truth, others as though reading a list, and some read just to get through each syllable and finish. All kinds hold potential.
It should be added that female voices also belong to women, and there is no doubt that a woman vastly improves the atmosphere of a recording studio, and a most welcome change in dynamic from the one that existed between us two
men, with the occasional input of more men, like Nick (Robertson) and Peter (Chilvers).
* * *
This interview continues in Part 2, (Rick Holland Poet/Eno collaborator ruminates on the music of words), where Holland ruminates on the best place to hear the album, the music of words and even evaluates Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973′s Here Come the Warm Jets and 1974′s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
*I was able to buy a deluxe edition hardcover, double CD version via DeepDiscount.com, as it sold out on many sites during pre-order (it is now, once again, appearing in many stores).
(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
It seems like just the other day Brian Eno came out with Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon). Well, eight months later, here comes another all-new full length by the art-rock and ambient music pioneer: Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon).
I have already received several emails hyping this release, with preview streams and a free download, but in a third email I received yesterday, the album’s website on Eno’s homepage, revealed one song that struck me as one of the most gorgeous I have heard him produce in years, “Pour It Out”:
Something about the leisurely guitar work reminds me a bit of “Deep Blue Day” from Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the CD on Amazon). But what’s more striking is the rhythmic use of the woman reciting the poetry of Rick Holland, who wrote all the “lyrics” for this new album due out on July 5. The delicate delivery of the words, which have their own surreal quality, adds a beautiful layer to the work.
Just this past weekend, I caught a segment of NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” during which host Bob Boilen interviewed Eno, who played DJ. It was a great conversation and featured the above track plus Eno’s story behind it. I would recommend you hear the show for yourself, as Eno talks about the early rock ‘n’ roll music that moved him as a child, as well as his own music, on top of some of the new music he admires (he chooses an amazing song off the highly underrated Portishead Third album [Support the Independent Ethos, buy the LP on Amazon]).
Eno has also made two other tracks available as free streams:
Though more frenetic than “Pour It Out,” both of the above cuts are quality experiments of music melded with poetry and bode well for this new album, which is so far sounding like one of Eno’s strongest in years.
Warp Records will release Drums Between The Bells in a variety of formats:
-A 44-page hardcover book with a double CD (one disc features instrumental versions of the tracks)
-A double LP (with a download for the instrumental version of the album)
-A single CD in a digipak
-A digital download
All have their own unique covers, all designed by Eno himself: