Friday, June 21, 2013

Interview With A Little Orchestra (6/10/2013)

Members of A Little Orchestra
Not every up-and-coming ensemble can attract talent from almost a dozen different bands; yet that's exactly how A Little Orchestra came to be. Centered in England, the group has just released its debut: Clocks, a free-spirited collage cobbled together from whispers of indie pop, film scores, and folk and featuring performances from artists all across the musical spectrum. I contacted members Monster Bobby (sadly, that is not his real name) and Natalie Hudson via email to ask a few questions about their origin story, the namesake of their band's debut, and what's in the cards for the future.

You’re a little orchestra in name, but you have members from musical groups all over England from a variety of disciplines. How did the gang come into existence?

Bobby: I think almost everyone was recruited from friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends, asking around on Twitter and Facebook and things like that.

So was there a conscious goal that all of you were aiming for with this project, or was it just a bunch of friends coming together spontaneously?

Bobby: There were some conscious goals, but more than having a particular sound in mind that we were looking to create, it was more a case of trying to create an interesting situation from which numerous different goals (some of them surprising) could be fulfilled.

Nat: I think we always knew that we wanted to collaborate with bands and songwriters, and so the album is a natural conclusion to that aim really.

Your debut album is titled Clocks: did anything inspire this theme in particular? 

Bobby: I was interested in the historical connections between music and horology. Galileo, whose experiments with pendulums lead to the grandfather clock, was the son of a composer and music theorist. Galileo learnt the experimental method from his musician father and would often time his experiments by taking a beat from his pulse and singing a melody to himself. Then it was another composer's son, Christiaan Huygens, who actually built the first pendulum clocks later in the 17th century. Before that we couldn't really time anything more accurate than the hour. Clocks started ticking and that ticking would inspire musicians, as in the distinctive pattern of the strings in Haydn's Symphony no. 101. One of Haydn's composition pupils was a clockmaker, and Haydn composed several pieces for his music boxes and musical clocks. More recently, Brian Eno has been investigating imaginary bell sounds for a clock that would last 10,000 years.

That's a lot of material to explore! And appropriately, one distinguishing feature of Clocks is its musical diversity, drawing from surf rock, chamber pop and everything in between. What influenced the development of the album? 

Bobby: As we were recording and mixing the record, it started to sound to me more and more like the sort of record that might have been made in the '70s, which was really a time when people from very different musical disciplines were coming together a lot, at places like the Roundhouse in London, for instance. Groups like Centipede, The Whole World and the Portsmouth Sinfonia were bringing together people from rock, jazz, free improv, and modern composition.

Nat: For the album, we asked some musicians to take part that we had collaborated with previously, either live or on other records – such as Darren Hayman and Haiku Salut. We also asked people who we thought would be a natural fit for an orchestral arrangement, such as Gordon McIntyre and Lisa Bouvier. They would send us their song and we would work out an arrangement, passing recordings and demos back and forth until we were happy with how it sounded. It was certainly a very interesting way of collaborating–often with musicians who were miles away in another part of the UK!  

Were there any specific works of art that were reference points?

Bobby: Well, the group's name came from a novel by James M. Cain called Serenade, and part of the original impetus for the group coming together was in order to perform a piece called "In C" by Terry Riley. But if I had to choose just one work of art to stand alongside the album and somehow engage it in some kind of dialogue, then it would have to be something by Pieter Bruegel, most likely the one–Carnival's Quarrel With Lent–that Jacques Attali talks about in his book Noise.

On a day-by-day basis, what was the songwriting process for this album like? How did you manage to balance all of the different elements of your music?

Bobby: Despite being such a collective enterprise, the process of writing the tracks was paradoxically rather solitary for each of the people concern. A consequence, perhaps, of writing everything down in staff notation rather than simply getting in a room and jamming until you've got something that sounds alright. I think there's definitely something to be said for the kind of forward-planning and structural work you can achieve by putting notes on a stave though. It inevitably becomes something you've really thought about rather than just sort of done. That gap between conceiving of a musical idea and writing it down and then only really hearing it somewhat later might be compared to the similar temporal gap imposed upon the process of analogue photography.

Nat: As I mentioned in my previous answer, the songwriters would send us their song and we would work out an arrangement, passing recordings back and forth until we were happy with the sound. Some of the musicians would come to the studio to record as well, so it was a nice mixture of different styles of working.

It must have been difficult to organize: there are so many guest vocalists on this album it’s almost like a hip-hop album at times. Where did you find so many different voices?

Nat: For some of the songs, we worked out collaborations with people we had previously played live with such as Simon Love, Haiku Salut and Darren Hayman. We also asked people who we thought would be interested in writing songs suitable for orchestration, such as Andy Pocketbooks and Gordon McIntyre. Most of the people we knew already through the indie pop scene, so it was just a case of asking people and seeing what we could work out really! Hopefully we’ve got a good mixture of voices, styles and songs on the album.

What’s the weirdest song title on this album in your opinion, and where does it come from?

Nat: Erm…hopefully none of them are too weird! I’m always intrigued by the title of "Pightle 21." Apparently a pightle is an enclosure of land–something I only find out through Lisa, who works with horses in her day job.

You’re releasing Clocks on German independent label/mail order Vollwert Records. How was the process of collaborating and getting the album released?

Nat: We’re very lucky in that Werner has been really supportive of the whole process. He has looked UK physical distribution and also sales in Europe, while we have focused on physical and digital sales in the UK. We were very honoured that Werner was happy to release us, as we’re big fans of some of the other records on his label!

Great to hear. It can be tough to get an album released, so congratulations on a job well-done. What are your immediate plans following the album release?

Nat: There are several more collaborations we already working on, and in the near future you should see A Little Orchestra popping up on albums by Comet Gain and The Understudies. We'd also be interested in doing more work with artists working with other media such as choreographers, theatre directors, and film-makers.

What ideas that you didn’t get to on this album would you like to work into your next?

Bobby: I'd like to see the second album have a clearer narrative arc, be somewhat more character- and story-based, with elements of spoken word–possibly drawing on old fairy tales and folk stories–woven into a set of pieces of music that followed each other with a certain logical necessity and internal consistency. Then the third album, you know. Full-on jugglers, dancers, pyrotechnics, and intonarumori. Marinetti's manifesto of Futurist Total Theatre, basically.

One last question for our readers: if you had to introduce this album to a new listener, how would you describe it?

Bobby: I wouldn't describe it. I would simply play it to them.

A sincere thank-you to Bobby and Natalie for taking the time to answer all of my questions! Clocks is available on Vollwert Records now and you can find plenty more on A Little Orchestra on its Facebook page.

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