Bill Cummings 08/10/2007
Blending the widescreen dynamics of My Bloody Valentine, with the melodic intent of the likes of The Smiths and Husker Du and traditional folk bands, Bristol based four piece Gravenhurst have just released their fifth album “Western Lands” on Warp. On the eve of its release I caught up with front man Nick Talbot, for a chat about his band's history, their new album, folk, shoegazing, their soundtrack appearances, and musical retards The Fratellis.
Where does the name Gravenhurst come from? It sounds vaguely gothic.
It's a village somewhere in England, I've never been there, its in the grand tradition of naming yourself after a place like Portishead did, they named themselves after a really inconsequential port town near Bristol, so I thought that's a good idea.
How did the band form, did Gravenhurst come out of your former band Assembly Commications?
It was a four-piece band, all of us moved to Bristol from Surrey. It was a lot more like Gravenhurst sound like now but it wasn't terribly good. In fact one of the songs Damn she dances was an Assembly track I started in 1997 but I never finished it until last year. Some of my songbooks go a long way back, I'm not very prolific and it takes me a long time to write stuff. The album fell apart because Luke, our bass player, died in a car accident so we didn't want to do the band anymore. We carried on a bit longer but it just felt horrible, we didn't want to do it. Later I started doing music on my own, around the same time I started a more electronic project with my friend Guy called Bronnt Industries Kapital.
I started Gravenhurst because I wanted it to be a band, but at the beginning it was just me. I wanted to put the band together slowly over a period. I was actually a bit phobic about having a band, because I thought, “If I have a band they'll all end up dying.” Over a period of time I started working with Dave the drummer, my brother Sean played bass a bit, and my friend Simon who engineered the album played a bit. In time we got it up to a four piece, which was how I wanted it to sound.
Is your new album “Western Lands” your third album proper?
It was actually our fifth, I did an album before Warp called “Eternal Travel,” and then “Black Holes in the Sand” was released as an EP, but for me it was an album because it was more than half an hour and to me it very much felt like a third album in terms of theme and everything. So I see our new one as the fifth album.
How would you say your solo work sits alongside the group?
I do solo gigs, and tomorrow I'm doing one at Rough Trade on Brick Lane, in some ways it's a dubious way of launching it. A lot of the stuff on the new album can't really be played solo, after promoting this album I will probably do a solo tour. The last two records lend themselves to solo stuff, quite a lot of people want to hear the music in that kind of way, it does end up coming out a different way.
How do you feel about the kinds of restrictive genre brackets that some journalists place Gravenhust into like neo-folk and shoegazing?
I think the term folk is completely ridiculous. This is the first album where I've actually played a folk song, and I've played it in the style of flying saucer attack! The track “Farewell Farewell” is a folk song from William Wilsbury, its a real folk song that's from the last two hundred years of the British Isles, Richard Thomson rewrote the song, so I've kept his words and done it in a noisy way. The use of the word folk has come to mean anything that's finger picked or played on an acoustic guitar. I would have thought most journalists would be familiar with Morrissey lyrics "I thought if you played an acoustic guitar you were a protest singer."
We use this term of folk as something to mean finger picked guitar, but really people like Bern Jansch were taking traditional songs and playing it in a blues style but even back then they weren't called folk. Using the term folk now shows an absolute ignorance of musical tradition if you use an acoustic guitar, particularly if you're British, if you're American they call it Americana, because we're all dewy eyed about American history. Before, I took a Husker Du song and played it like a folk song. How can I be more explicit in terms of showing that I'm trying to reinvent something? I am sympathetic to what journalists have to do, but it depends what mood I'm in.
Back then it was only ok to like it for a very brief period of time. It was very political back then with the bands that were labeled shoegazing, it tended to be a derogatory thing but the people that were into it at the time, like me, have finally come into control. Grunge came along and the middle class music press hated it because they hate themselves, because they're middle class, so they decided that all these bands from Seattle in lumberjack shirts were honest hard working musicians and all these shoegazing bands are a bunch of Thames Valley indie bedwetters.
Does class even matter? Some shoegaze was northern and Scottish?
It doesn't matter, there's a constant class obsession underlying all of this. According to my manager, who knows Russell, who used to be in the band Loose, he couldn't remember any of his lyrics so he used to sellotape them to the floor on stage. He was constantly looking at the floor and someone used it in a live review, on the other hand it could be referring to the kind of static bands on stage, but the band who defined it most, My Bloody Valentine, if you watch what they did live Debbie Googe just used to pounce around the stage. They were a really violent band, very aggressive music.
Linked to that would you say that with Gravenhurst what you're trying to create a mixture between melodies and more expansive guitar sounds?
Yeah, I'm absolutely in love with My Bloody Valentine and what they do. I really love ethereal sounding music that can be anything from Brian Eno stuff to Ennio Morricone stuff that sounds like it occupies an acoustic space that isn't a studio. It sounds like it was recorded in an other worldly setting, in a physical setting. At the same time I'm in love with a lot of electronic dance music, but it's just a different thing, in Gravenhurst I try and root it in that. I'm very interested in songwriting too, I love really obvious things like the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Eliot Smith. I like to think I write songs that other people might want to cover, that would be the ultimate compliment. I think it might have thrown some people when they hear the noise and don't notice the songs I don't know, but the bands I love the most are My Bloody Valentine and Husker Du. For me they combine the two, they wrote great songs but they also made very noisy music.
In your press release you describe how the songs are inspired by the relationship between the subconscious and unconscious, can you expand on that?
I feel inspired by sounds that make things sound otherworldly, make things sound kind of ethereal. It would sound kind of odd and incoherent if that was accompanied by gritty realism. Take a classic band like Squeeze, they wrote kitchen sink pop, if I wrote lyrics like that it wouldn't really cohere with it. I'm really interested in drugs, the beat poets, comic books, Alan Moore and general dream logic, symbolism and logic and I feel that a lot of emotions and things that I'd like to write about I'm more able to communicate using symbols and imagery. I feel that it matters to me if there's a sense of mystery about lyrics; I really like to read lyrics where it's not entirely clear what's going on. A classic one for me is “Shadowplay” by Joy Division, I mean what's going on in that song? There's no narrative there's no plot there's no development of a character.
Some people take lyrics too literally…
That's one of the things with a band like Joy Division, the cover art was just as important as the lyrics really. That's one of things about “Shadowplay,” it's a series of very strange and violent imagery you can't put your finger on, it constantly makes you want to delve into it, that sense of mystery never goes away.
More interesting than the straightforward lyrics about "going down the pub" that many current bands write about.
I get the impression that most bands write about stuff because that's what most people can relate to, or what most bands think about. Or what most listeners think about. Sometimes I think that's a self-fulfilling thing, if bands wrote about more interesting stuff then people would become more interested in interesting stuff. That Fratellis song is the most stupid fucking song I've heard in a long time, it sounds like it was penned by a retard.
I think it's like a cycle: 15 years ago indie music was unfashionable, then we had Britpop and now we have indie pop, that's like an anemic watered down version of it all.
I think we're in another Britpop era.
But even back then you had better bands.
Well, yeah, you had Pulp.
And bits and pieces of Radiohead, Suede, Blur etc
It's like Morrissey made one of his best albums around that time, “Vauxhall and I,” which got completely ignored.
It's funny because when he came back with “You Are the Quarry” it was like the time was right for a Smiths revival.
I noticed you're on a couple of soundtracks, the German film “Ein Freund Von Mir” and you had a track on "This Is England,” would you say your music lends itself to film?
I scored a German film called " Ein Freund Von Mir." I was asked to score it but I only wrote one original track for it "Song Among the Pine" that ended up on the album, but they used a great deal. In many ways my stuff has been embraced much more fully by filmmakers, more than the public actually. On the publishing side of things, the costs have been recouped quickly, whereas the records haven't sold really because it's not that commercial, but people in the film industry are listening to it in a different way. They want things to be quite evocative; they want music to be more mysterious and open to interpretation. Whereas stuff like the Fratellis, that's some of the most retarded music I've ever heard, you'd have to use it in a film about two fucking idiots going down the pub, it sounds like the sound track to "Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps".
They're like the natural, overly commercial extension of the Kaiser Chiefs….
I guess the Kaiser Chiefs are relatively charismatic, with certain bands I can understand why they get where they do. When I heard Franz Ferdinand, the marketing campaign for the first album was genius, whereas other bands I just don't understand it on any level. I think you can throw enough money at something…. Like Bloc Party to me are a total mystery, like everything about them sucks, they're kind of sub-sub-angsty-sub-Radiohead songs. But then I heard one of their tracks in a club in Germany and heard the break beat under it, I kind of understood it more it was danceable.
Who does your videos?
The first video off Flashlight was “I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor,” the first single off this album, "Trust," we hated the video so much we got Tom to put animation all over it. The latest one, “Hollow Men” was done by Chris Boyle because the previous one had gone so badly - the director had taken the lyrics and interpreted them incredibly literally and turned the video into a picture book of the lyrics. So with “Hollow Men” I refused to tell him what the song was about. I gave him a version of it without any of the vocals on it so I forced him to come up with something completely impressionistic, which works much better. I don't know much about filmmaking but the worst thing a filmmaker could possibly do is listen to the lyrics and come up with a series of images based on them.
Is there a support on your new tour?
We don't have a permanent support act for this tour, in Southampton some friends of ours Big Joan are supporting and some friends of ours Hunting Lodge to support us in Brighton, because they're supporting the Boredoms. We've got a couple of bands supporting us in London, War Against Sleep, and a band called Rain, which is members of a band called Christmas.
What are you listening to at the moment?
For every kind of great new band I hear I can easily find five great bands from the past. Hunting Lodge from Bristol are brilliant, they sound like the Fall and Birthday Party but it's hard to pin down. Duncan's (War Against Sleep) stuff is great, he's done four albums now, his new one is coming out on Fire, and I've covered one of his songs on the B-side for our last single.
What's your single “Hollow Men” about?
Well it's about patriarchy - about men controlling women, and domestic violence I guess. The second verse is the same as the first as I didn't really have anything else to say about it really. I wanted to do something musically different in the second verse. All I wanted to say was the way some women grow up being 100 per cent controlled by men, they have their identity formed for them and crushed.
Will there be any more singles from this album?
Someone's making a film for “Farewell Farewell” as part of a BBC programme about young film makers, so that will probably come out on an EP. I also want to release “Hourglass” as a single because a lot of my friends think it's really commercially viable. There's always a big disparity between what members of the public think is going to sell well and what people in the music industry think. I think people in the music industry have no idea half the time.
I mean the amount of singles I think are going to do well on radio but never get onto play lists is amazing. They usually get re-released and become hits later on. You wonder what kind of person chooses what gets played.
There's so much greasing of palms its quite extraordinary, scandalous stuff I can't talk about because I'd probably get into trouble. The relationship between radio, press agencies and IPC media publishing - you can't believe it, but you kind of can; the surprising thing is that people aren't more outraged by it.
“Western Lands” is out now on Warp records.
Gravenhurst play the following UK dates in October:
Fri 12 October / Bristol / Fiddlers
Sat 15 October / Southampton / Joiners
Sun 16 October / Brighton / Freebutt
Mon 17 October / Cambridge / Portland Arms
Sat 20 October / Norwich / Arts Centre
Sun 21 October / Leeds / The Faversham
Mon 22 October / Sheffield / Corporation
Tues 23 October / Newcastle / Cluny
Wed 24 October / Hull / Adelphi
Thu 25 October / Aberdeen / Tunnels
Fri 26 October / Glasgow / King Tut ' s
Sat 27 October / Coventry / Taylor John ' s House
Mon 29 October / Cardiff / The Point
Tues 30 October / London / The Luminaire