In this age of quick and superficial music consumption, where everyone’s able to listen to all the music from around the world with just one click and rarely press the replay more than once, Glasgow-based psych-folk five-piece band Trembling Bells appear to be destined to be criminally overlooked. Their dauntless ‘out of time’ approach to folk music is such unique and revolutionary that requires a serious commitment and demands a further deepening for being fully appreciated.
Their imaginative sonic spectrum is rich and complex, their myriad of cultural references and connections are inventive and surprising between records, never the same from one to the other. Their majestic fifth full-length ‘The Sovereign Self’, released in 2015, has been their immaculate creative peak where, all the new and old pieces of their sonic puzzle fit together beautifully, The last year’s mini-album ‘Wide Majestic Aire’ was just a brief amazing bucolic and romantic musical interlude after the storm for the band, ready to challenge and overwhelm our senses once again.
Their magnificent live performances can only be exciting and unmissable, often with the addiction brass, accordion players, dancers and visuals. This Sunday 5th March Trembling Bells will be the headliners of the new Preston’s Vernal Equinox festival, not to be missed if you’re around.
Many thanks for the interview. Let’s start with a brief excursus of the early days of the band, how did you meet? What attracted you? And above all what are the elements that give you such a unique, musical complementarity?
Trembling Bells were founded in Glasgow in 2008. We’d all known each other from various local bands. Mainly odd little psychedelic folk outfits like Scatter, The Pendulums, Lucky Luke and Hidden Masters. At the time my main interest was improvised music whereas Lavinia (our singer) was trained in early music so Trembling Bells is a blend of all these things- free jazz, psychedelia, folk, rock, medieval music- a collision of our personalities through the prism of my songwriting.
You said that Trembling Bells is ‘an ongoing experiment in bringing together opposing obsessions’, please could you better explain those ‘obsessions’?
My main daily preoccupations make me sound like the most ordinary of people; football, alcohol and sex. But I also love esoteric music, ecclesiastical art, classical literature etc., so I guess there are a few opposing impulses struggling for control over my brain most of the time.
Since I was young, I’ve always heard comparing Glasgow to my hometown Turin (they’re twin cities too!) because of their ‘hard’ post-industrial and working class backbone, but they have also in common an unquestionable open-mindedness and creative attitude to music. Which inspiring impact your town has had and still has on your artistic creativity? Just few days ago by chance I’ve read about the stories of the Rutherglen Poltergeist, The ghosts of Kelvin Hall and The Gorbals Vampires…
Ha. I don’t know those spooks and spectres, but I would say that one of the main positives about Glasgow is the high number of talented musicians living in the city. It’s also a relatively cheap and very social place to live. It’s not as beautiful as Turin by a long chalk. There are a fair few stained bedsheets but nothing as magnificent as the Turin Shroud.
I have lived in the same downtrodden Glaswegian neighbourhood for 15 years and I like the anonymity of it. It has a fearsome reputation but many hidden charms…. Just like me.
Alex said ‘I have an irresistible attraction to places’, if we were to follow your hints (Carbeth, Yorkshire, Sussex, Cornwall) it should be an amazing British tour, so much that the UK tourist office should pay you for it. Does the same thing happen when you’re on tour abroad?
Yes, I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world with some of the most talented and idiosyncratic musicians of my generation. Some favourites include Greece, Italy, Israel, Morocco, Portugal. I guess I’m a fool for the Med.
American writer Dorothy Allison said ‘art should surprise and astonish, and hopefully make you think something you had not thought until you saw it’, I guess an idea that completely fits with the developing of your amazing musical path with each album never the same as the one before. What’s your idea of ‘classic’ art?
It’s hard to summarise but I always think that successful art should awaken something in you that you already know but had never thought to put it in such a way. I like orgiastic/sensory bombardment kind of art. Where up and down are nothing.
With a such complex and various musical palette, I’d like know anything about your composition and arrangement process, your creative development from the initial rough sketches and ideas to the final stage.
For all of the Trembling Bells songs I come up with the initial melody and the lyrics and the band colour in the rest. I used to be more controlling over the arrangement process but I’ve learned to trust the others more. This is to the benefit of the music for a number of reasons; I’m probably the least musically capable member of the band, they can come up with ideas that I would never have thought of, and it increases their investment in the project.
I’ve recently read an interview with a long-standing psych band where they said that, after years and years of omnivorous listenings, the musical influences are less and less important compared to the suggestions from other media like literature, cinema, visual art. Is it happening the same for you?
I probably actively listen to less music now than at any other point in my life. In some ways this is concerning to me because, as a musician, I think that it’s important to lubricate my mind with as many listening experiences as possible. However, because I am constantly doing lots of musical projects I get a bit music’d-out and tend to divert my attention to other media for creative replenishment such as film, poetry, nature, painting etc. So, yes, exactly like you suggested in your question. Although I’m not surprised by their admission because Milli Vanilli haven’t made a decent album in years.
You’re currently in the middle of the recordings of new album ‘Dungeness’. Which have been the ups and down of it so far? Please, could you give us any idea of it in advance?
This album has been very straight forward to make. I like to record very quickly and mostly live and we managed to do that in a great studio (Chem 19) and with a couple of wonderful engineers (Luigi Pasquini and Paul Savage). We recorded about 15 songs and 11 or so will be used on the album. Other songs will be used as singles and compilation tracks and all that jazz. I think it’s our strongest set yet. Darker, heavier, dirtier, less meticulous- just how I like ’em.
One of the few positive of 2016 has been the beautiful triumphant return of the mighty Shirley Collins with her album ‘Lodestar’, you were part of the celebration to mark her 80th birthday too, I can imagine her a huge formative influence for your art and also in your last album‘Wide Majestic Aire’ I heard some hints of her romanticism.
She has been one of my guiding creative lights. I have had spells in my life when my flatmates have seriously threatened to move out of my flat if I continued to play her music so much. She’s up there with Bob Dylan and Albert Ayler in terms of corroded golden light beamed straight to my brain.
On March 5th, at the new Preston’s Vernal Equinox festival you’ll also play a set with Mike Heron of the legendary The Incredible String Band. In a recent interview Shirley Collins, who collaborated with them back in the days, said ‘you couldn’t help but love them’. How your personal and creative relationship, initially disciple/master, has evolved since the first time you met him in 2009?
Inevitably my relationship with Mike has changed since first meeting him around 2009. The Incredible String Band were one of my formative musical experiences- bridging cultures, epochs and intellectual/ spiritual standpoints over the course of one song. Now I’m sure he can’t stand the sight of me.
Another crucial meeting is the one with Kentucky alt-folk luminary Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy), what did you learn from that collaboration? Did it open up new horizons about US folk music?
I continue to learn a great deal from that experience. He’s a unique individual. Unguessable. Incredibly strong willed. Ferociously curious. When I was entering my 20’s I vowed that I wanted him to play ‘I See A Darkness’ at my funeral. A year or so later I was drumming in his band. Let’s hope I die before he does to fulfill the promise I made me. Tee hee.
Can you recommend anything you have been listening to/ watching/ reading of late?
The poetry of Amy Cutler, Denise Riley, Pete Coward, Catullus and Ovid. “This Is Memorial Device“, the debut novel by David Keenan. The music of Robin Gibb, Sibylle Baier, Richard Dawson, Alasdair Roberts and Dan Haywood. The Richard Adams animation “Plague Dogs“. The films of Pasolini, Powell and Pressburger, Bergman and Tom Chick. The landscapes of Forest of Dean, Holy Island, Carbeth, North Yorkshire Moors. The paintings of El Greco and the videos of Rachel MacLean. Dennis Potter.
Next Sunday 5th March the band will be the headliner of the new exciting Folk/Psych/Wyrd Vernal Equinox Festival that will take place between Friday 3rd and Sunday 5th March at The Continental in Preston. What do the fans have to expect from your live performance? The usual surprises and maybe the preview of any new song?
Darker, heavier, dirtier, less meticulous- just how I like ’em.