07 July 2011

Interview - The Black Ships: In Pursuit Of Goose Pimples

The Verve. Verve. Whichever you call them, long before Oasis were proclaiming themselves the biggest band in the world (yawn), music had another gobshite on the block. Teaching Liam everything he knows about how to trip over the delicate balance between egotism and self belief, one Mr Richard Ashcroft led the Verve through a tumultuous career defined by messy splits, reformations, more messy splits, another reformation. After getting back together one last time to headline Glastonbury and spew forth 'Forth', the members of the Verve once again acrimoniously parted ways, presumably never to speak to each other again.

Or did they? Because in a recording studio in South London, roughly half of The Verve are sat in front of us, laughing, drinking tea and munching jammy dodgers. Nick McCabe and Simon Jones, are sharing the couch with their not so new band mates, violinist Davide Rossi (Goldfrapp/Coldplay) and drummer Mig Schillace (Portishead/Goldfrapp). Together, they've quietly unleashed the part instrumental, mesmerising masterpiece that is their debut EP, 'Kurofune', some of the best twenty five minutes of music you'll hear this year.

So, you've all played and toured together before, when did you form The Black Ships?

Nick McCabe (NMC): The name came... maybe a year into us playing together, and when we started we knew that it was the four of us. So officially, we got together 2008, November was it?

Davide Rossi (DR): December.

NMC: So we started playing in December, and some of what you've just heard came from sessions then. But the name came, maybe a year ago?

DR: I think it was March or April 2009. Around three, four, months afterwards.

And is it from the four ships that went to Japan?

DR: It became that...

Simon Jones (SJ): If we were pretentious we'd say, oh yeah, it's all about that...

DR: Basically we'd been looking for a name for a while and we were sending emails back and forth, and there was a time when we thought we'd found a name, and we were like, yeah, we're going to call ourselves that. But I'm the 'computer says no' person, and I send this email back, being Italian and not knowing how to spell very well, and it said 'sorry guys, I don't want to be the black sheep here but I think this is all a load of shit', but I spelt sheep 'ship'. So then we just googled to see if there were any bands called that, and there wasn't. There was a Black Ships, but it was without the 'The'. Which is very important! We know that! And then we googled and found the history of it, and it makes a lot of sense for us. Four ships, that were supposed to break the 200 year isolation of Japan, and there's a lot of art work from that period. The ones from the Americans, which is very holy image of these ships, the Christians giving the message to the uncivilised. And then there is the Japanese versions, where the ships are very evil, and I think it's so brilliant. Four ships, four of us. It's very true that lots of the things that take a deep meaning, sometimes it's not because you've been pondering about it, but they just come out of something silly. Something very sporadic, and suddenly they tell you what to do, and we've found a lot of things like that.

NMC: Everything we do seems to be intuition, but the sensibilities are there behind it, informing everything that we do. Between the four of us, the amount of conversation that happens, everything stems from that really. It's not like we've set out with a specific agenda with anything, but it kind of is this thing, that is the four of us. Sorry, that was very pretentious wasn't it. Shall I leave the room?

SJ: Keep digging!

NMC: Can someone take my spade?

SJ: He's been up all night rehearsing for this. He's got it all prepared, but now he's a bit tired.

But, if you've been working together since 2008…

SJ: 2009 really, because it was December.

…okay, we'll let you have that month for free…

SJ: Yeah, give us a month off!

Well, it was Christmas... so why's it taken so long to release the EP?

NMC: Everything goes through transformations all the time, so, the first track was 20 minutes originally, and then we reduce, reduce, reduce, reduce, until it resembles something completely different, a different entity.
SJ: We gave the songs to some singers and asked them if they could come back with something... and very little, if any, came back for a long time. So I decided to cut some of those jams into... cakes.
NMC: Oh, what a metaphor!
SJ: And then Amelia Tucker came back with a song that was so good, it was like, actually, that can happen. So we're still finding the format.

NMC: It was a bit weird, because you went away and did your thing, and came back with this batch of really beautiful songs that we didn't realise were hidden in the jams. And then we got back these songs, and we had to look at it again. We derailed ourselves a bit, then we realised that we had a kind of pop record, and we have to obey it. We've gone from being a soundtrack instrumental band, and suddenly we have to switch our mentality a little bit.

SJ: I still think it's growing.

Mig Schillace: For me personally, it's the first time it's happened like that. Usually you go in with bands with a set idea, and a set way of working, whereas this has been very...

SJ: Organic, to use that very cringy word.

NMC: Usually in a band, you get one guy who's written some songs on an acoustic guitar and then you all thrash it out and give it a treatment. And we've done that a few times, but what four people do together is always more interesting. Giving that freedom and seeing what comes back, it's bigger than what you can do by yourself. And then we've multiplied that by getting other people involved, because it changes your perception again. And it makes it richer all the time, and as a musician you're always looking to be fascinated by what you do. Part of what leads you to be a musician, I think, is having a very short attention span, and being dissatisfied with other people's music. And this keeps revealing different sides to itself all the time, and it's just so rewarding.

When I listen back, I'm taken back to where we were at that moment, the goose pimples. And it's a weird thing, that we've spent our lives... in pursuit of goose pimples.

So, you've released the EP, Kurofune, as a free download, and for me, the stand out track is Northern Rock. Who's the sample?

SJ: It's a guy called Ron Paul, he's a politician in America, he's been going on about how we devalue our currencies, how it's not pegged to anything stable, and he's been predicting this economic meltdown for the past 30 years. He's a bit of a hero to the people.

MS: We do believe in his politics, but it's just that what he was saying is quite relevant to what's going on at the moment on the planet.

SJ: Yeah, and the fact that you know, I wouldn't align myself to anyone's politics really, it's just that this guy's been saying this for such a long time. It's taken from 2006 maybe, but it just fascinates me, the bigger picture of who's in control of us, as people, who's running the shit. It's that aspect of it, he's enlightened people in politics via the internet, that he's such a product of our times, and not because he's got millions behind on some big presidential campaign, it's just because he talks sense, and people are understanding him because of that. What he says makes a lot of sense.

DR: At the same time, the reason we chose that lyric, we decided we'd like to try a dialogue - Si came up with that idea - and it fits, sometimes we just find that when things happen for us, it happens very quickly and that came quickly to us. And then the title came quickly, the dialogue, money and credit, money and credit. And then we were like, what started it, in America it was the Lehman Brothers, in England it was Northern Rock... oh. And things happen like that for us, it's also musical, but it also fits. But it has to be musical. Everything works somehow.

NMC: Serendipity only really works when your obsessions inform everything that you do. It's weird how things just all coalesces for us really, it's not like any of this happened by accident but it feels like it does for us, everything just feeds back into itself.

You've just played your first live gig, right? How did that go? Was it a logistical nightmare?

NMC: One of the things that we had to contemplate was all the singers not being in one place. And thinking visually about it, because you know, there's only really the four of us able to continue doing music for a living, whereas the singers have all got nine to fives. So we'd been looking at how we present this, and as it turns out, the night before, all the singers turned up to do it. Which was weird, because we've never had the four of them in the same room before, a couple a time, we've done sessions with, so we've not really paid the correct attention.

SJ: One thing about doing the gig was to see how it did work, learning what we were up against, these four people, how they come on the stage, how they leave the stage, it's thrown up a load of new things that's going to keep things moving forward, and to hone it. And that was really the point of doing the one off gig, because that's when it's going to come alive. So for me, it's been the most rewarding thing, doing the gig, in terms of how it's educating me as to what we're working to achieve.

NMC: It's almost like we'd been working towards an instrumental show, with projections and that kind of thing...

SJ: And all of a sudden we had loads of singers and we didn't know what to do with them!

DR: It was very important to give them the space to just do it. And now we know what works, what didn't work. Because we are planning to do more gigs. Still in this line of 'not being super promoted', so we can learn, how to be an instrumental band. An instrumental band with singers.

So you're not hitting up the festival circuit just yet?

NMC: It's a bit frustrating, because we want to be busier than we are, and then we have to have a word with ourselves and say this is the pace that it's meant to develop at. And it would be great to do festivals, I think that's the perfect forum for us. Because you're going to reach people that you wouldn't do otherwise, so I think it's a bit of a missed opportunity for us, we were hoping to be out this summer. There's a kind of, we're a bit sanguine about it, that we have to go at the pace that it demands. You can't rush things. Even though we'd like to rush things. Bands we've been in in the past, for whatever reason, be it time constraints, or release schedule, or got to go on tour, you never quite get it right, and this pondering and thinking it through properly, so when it does take off, we'll have something we'll be completely happy with. And that's quite rare, for a band, to be able to look back and say, d'you know what, I couldn't have done any better on this. That's what I'm aiming for, when it's launched and on the road, and it's fucking bang on, and it's something that I would want to see.

And do you have any plans to release a full album?

DR: We're about to finish one and start work on the second. The finishing is the easy bit, more complicated is to find the right place, the right home.
NMC: We've spent a large part of our lives doing music, it's a business, this is what we do for a living, so we have to make it commercially viable somehow. The music business has completely transformed since we started doing it, so we need to be smart, and work out a way of doing this that is long term, so we can continue doing what we love doing. Different ways of releasing the music, we've been investigating at the moment, working out how we proceed from here.

DR: The release of Kurofune was interesting, because we found that although it's nice to be able to give the fans something for free, there's also the risk that it can be lost into a void somehow.

So are you actively looking for a label?

SJ: I think, because we're free of it, we're going to end up with the truest thing. Instead of having someone saying, right, you've got to get this finished by this date, and out on the road by this date, we're free. In fact, we decided to release the EP with about six days notice. There's no rules at the moment. And we like it like that, right now. Obviously when the album comes out and we want that to reach as many people as possible. And hopefully by then it will have told us what we need to do, instead of us just bungling it. I love being in this band, there's no one to dilute it, there's no one to tell us what to do.

MS: We have got the freedom pretty much to do whatever we want. That's key. From a musician point of view, that's fantastic.

DR: We'd like to be free to release alongside the album some of the instrumental tracks, just the four of us together, whether that be under another name or under The Black Ships.

SJ: We've even toyed with the idea of having an alter ego to the band called Black Submarine or something, an outlet for the more instrumental, experimental stuff, the format isn't that rigid. We're a new band, we've just done our first gig, we're learning...

NMC: It's not formatted, if we want to do pop tunes, we can do some pop tunes. One of the ideas behind Kurofune was to keep the doors open, so if we do chuck in a curve ball, at least you'll be aware of what we're doing. We just don't want anyone to be horrified, you know, when we do a triple album of prog rock.

SJ: We won't be doing that, don't worry.

NMC: Oh dear...

SJ: I still don't think that we know what the album is until we start to sync and put tracks in order.

NMC: We're looking at different ways of doing it. As a record buyer myself, I miss having a big chunk of artwork to look at, and going home and immersing myself in the music...

MS: I think the artwork is quite important to us as well...

NMC: And I think the thing about the physical format is, people are a little more willing to sit down and listen to it from start to finish. MP3s are just files that you think, I'll come back to those later, you're not as committed to it. When I were a lad, I used to spend my last bit of cash on a record, and because you invested your time in it, your least favourite tracks became your favourite tracks, they were things to live with. I'd like to see music go back to that, disposable is good but we're making something to last. We want a relevant record, I think, for people to cherish. Like a beautiful flower.

SJ: That'll be the big headline!

NMC: Yeah, follow that!