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Interview with Clang Sayne

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
James: I’m fine, thank you. It is 11.00 Sunday morning and I’m am sitting in the lounge of my flat in Peckham, with a coffee, writing this.
Laura: Hello Tobias, very well, thank you. It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday morning and I’m sitting in a cafe in Greenwich village in New York city.
Pete: I'm fine thanks. Even though I'm in Tottenham at the moment.

What's on your schedule at the moment?
Laura: Another coffee. After that, exploring New York - I’m here for a couple of months to play with/meet other musicians and to check out suitable venues for Clang Sayne to play if and when we come here together next summer.
James: I’m a teacher in a secondary school, with 2 weeks until half term. In addition to this, I am working with a singer-songwriter (and have been for 10 years) called David Hurn. We are working on his material for a new album of songs, as well as sifting through improvised material to compile an album under the name of Four Seasons Television. I am also currently involved in an improvised quartet by the name of Tetras (with Thanos Chrysakis, Jerry Wigins and Oli Mayne).

Just two weeks ago, you presented the album with a concert at Cafe Oto. How did things go?
Laura: Great! For me, it’s possibly one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever done, but also quite challenging; we played two sets – one with just the four of us, which went very smoothly and was very well received. The second was with four other improvisers with whom I’ve played with over the past few years. This was more difficult and I felt a bit ‘lost’ at times, but still, I felt it was a good performance and I was very glad we did it this way, particularly because my experience of playing with all four of the improvisers over the past few years really influenced the making of the album.

You all have very eclectic and individualistic backgrounds. Is this a regular cause for conflict or rather a benefit?

James: The eclectic nature of our musical backgrounds is one of my main motivations for playing in this group. What I think makes it work is an unspoken awareness of what we each bring to the situation and also of how we can help bring the song to the fore. This has come as a result of much playing together.
Pete: It's not a cause for conflict as far I'm concerned either. I think there's enough overlap in our backgrounds and tastes for us to be able to relate to each other, but probably not enough that we feel like we're covering familiar ground. What I like most about playing in this band is that I think we've all got big ears. I don't mean literally... We listen to each other a lot. And Laura, James and Matt are quite remarkable players.
Laura: I, too, definitely see it as a benefit. I’ve formed several bands over the years to play my songs with; one with all folk/rock/pop musicians like myself, another with all jazz musicians, several over the past couple of years made up of improvisers; in each case something was always wrong - I didn’t want to make an album that was ‘a bit jazzy’ or ‘a bit crazy’, etc – I wanted people who felt the character of the songs in the same way that I do, and finally (twelve years later!) I realize that that means finding people with whom I genuinely share an aesthetic sensibility and a personal connection with, regardless of musical background.

What is it you appreciate about playing together?

Laura: I appreciate different things about each of the people in the group, but overall what I value the most is the mutual appreciation for each other’s playing and the general sense of enthusiasm when we play together. I feel very comfortable in this group – I think everyone else does too. I really value this.

What made the process of playing together speed up in 2008?

James: I suppose that would be the fact that we were spending a considerable amount of time in the studio.
Laura: Actually, we didn’t know each other at all, or play together until December 2008. I had been playing with James for a couple of years. Matt played with us once in an earlier band formation but it was almost a year later before I contacted him again. Pete was playing with my flatmate last Christmas; I had seen him do a solo gig on an electric upright bass some years previously which I had really liked, and so I asked him if he was interested I playing with us. So as a four-piece, we’ve only actually been playing together since January.

Was there some kind of basic agreement or approach you set up when performing together regularly?
Pete: It's been an organic process really. Sometimes a song will just work – other times Laura has a particular direction in mind and she'll steer us that way.
Laura: There was an understanding that we were definitely playing songs, but that deviations from the songs, or complete mutations of the songs were as relevant as playing the songs themselves. I think also we all share the attitude that playing together is the important bit – the music that results in some way is secondary. Of course, we’ve just made an album so obviously the end result is important, but relative to my previous experience of being in a group, this group is far more focused on playing with each other rather than playing with a piece of music! In past groups the approach seemed to be more about ‘figuring out’ arrangements, as though the songs were some kind of puzzle we were individually trying to solve. This time the songs are a springboard for something much bigger, much more dynamic, much more joyful!!

How much usually remains of a particular song after the band has had a go at it?

Pete: Quite a lot really. Hopefully it's less us 'having a go at it' than trying to create some kind of framework for the songs. It depends on the song; some are structurally quite intricate, others are more kind of textural and more open. Certainly my role is more about playing the song than subverting it. Or at least, I hope it is.
James: The song remains more or less in its same form as it was when Laura wrote it. As with all songwriters, sections are extended or omitted as part of the refining process that comes about through playing/listening. Also, and particularly in live situations, the songs can come out vastly different from the recorded example, in terms of mood, rhythm, tempo etc. This often depends upon what previous musical situation caused the song to spring up in the first place.
Laura: If I were to play any of the songs solo on voice and guitar they are recognizably the same song. The more temporal aspects like phrasing, tempo, section length tend to change a lot with each rendition, as do the textural or atmospheric aspects, while harmonically, things pretty much remain the same, though not as a rule. Sometimes the original song is very clear throughout, other times it becomes a kind of ‘offshoot’ of itself. Sometimes an unexpected turn in one rendition of a song becomes incorporated it into all future renditions of that song – for example, this happened with the opening track on the album, Brigantine.

Are the lyrics to a song malleable material as well?

Laura: I do change the lyrics sometimes but not spontaneously.
In the course of making the album I changed a lot of the lyrics, mainly shortening them because I felt they didn’t leave enough space for what was happening texturally; voice and words are very powerful – from an evolutionary point of view I think it’s very hard for the human ear to detach from the voice – we’re programmed to lock into it. While don’t change the lyrics, I do experiment with making the voice ‘sink under’ other things that are happening simultaneously. For the same reason I also play around a lot with the phrasing of, and space between lyrical lines.

How did you select the songs to be recorded before hitting the studio for „Winterlands“?
James: We recorded more than we needed and chose the best examples of what we wanted - Laura did this mainly. The songs were of those that we had been playing regularly in rehearsals and concerts.
Laura: I have a big backlog of songs! Back in December when the band came together, I chose twelve songs that I felt would be the easiest to ‘stretch’ or that left the most room for interpretation. I also had a strong desire to make something vast and cold and oceanic, even if this was based more on a feeling than on a clear concept or theme, but this also influenced the choice of songs.

While recording, you were striving for a live feeling. Does this mean you were using first-takes mostly?
Laura: No, not necessarily. We never consciously set out with the idea that first-takes would be the best, though this often turned out to be the case. We weren’t ‘striving for a live feeling’ as such. It was more that I wanted the recording to reflect our actual creative practice as a group. I don’t want to spend hours playing together, only to go and separate everyone out on recording – the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts! Plus, I find the experience of overdubbed studio recording tedious and exhausting in the context of a group; three people sitting around for hours on end waiting for the fourth person to drop in those the two bars they weren’t happy with is very far removed from the actual act of playing together. We all wanted the recording process to be an enjoyable experience! That’s not to say that I (or any of the others) have anything against overdubbed recordings - when I work alone I overdub all the time, but it’s different because I am alone.
Pete: I think some were first takes. It wasn't always easy getting a performance we could all live with; we could have resorted to chopping different takes together but that would have felt a bit against the spirit of the thing. Laura would take rough mixes home and probably drove herself a bit mad listening to them; sometimes she'd suggest rearrangements as a result; she'd drop verses or try for a different feel and then we'd record them again at the next session,
James: It is interesting how the first take often seems the freshest and most satisfying even after you’ve done about nine!

If you were looking for a live-feeling, why then didn't you simply record the album during a gig?
Pete: Practical reasons, really. It was more about capturing the band playing together in real time in the same space. We tried to make it so we all had eye contact and we worked (as much as it was possible to) without headphones, playing pretty much acoustically. Which was a lot of fun for the engineer!
Laura: I think it’s a very different environment and it wouldn’t have suited our purposes in this instance – we needed time and space to play amongst ourselves and record in a relaxed atmosphere where we could play the same song ten times in a row if we felt like it, or stop half way through a song, etc. Also, from a practical point of view it was just easier to go into a studio where everything is set up and we can position ourselves comfortably. Plus most venues don’t have professional recording facilities. Ironically though, when we did the launch gig I thought afterwards that it was possibly our best performance, and I was sorry we didn’t have a good quality recording of it. But I think it was the process of recording, and the focus it required that enabled us to deliver a strong, unified performance. Now having finished the album I’d actually really love to re-record it as a live performance. Maybe we will soon!

What else did you do to recreate the mood and ambiance of a live performance in the studio?
Laura: Well, first we hired a crowd of people to whoop and clap and then we projected images of Wembley stadium around the walls of the studio  : ) We played together every week for three months before going near a studio – this was our ‘creating the mood’ I guess. We were working with the songs, of course, but I think more importantly we were getting to know each other and each other’s playing – building up a sense of trust and a strong musical rapport which we could then bring  with us into the studio.

How much of the material you recorded actually ended up on the finished album?

Laura: Ten of the twelve songs. Now in hindsight I feel we should have just put eight or nine on the album as I feel it’s a bit too long – but it was hard to have that kind of objectivity at the time! We also recorded two lovely improvisations which we’d had hoped to use but in the end I decided against it  - I did all the listening back and deliberating between takes – it was actually the hardest part for me! By the time I’d gotten through the songs I simply didn’t have the ears or the energy to listen any more! I also felt that these improvisations belong to the next album –I’d prefer to wait and do it properly!

How did you get to know cover designer Riccardo Arena?
Laura: I’ve known Riccardo for about three years – we met in London in 2006. I like the way he use concrete, common elements and puts them together in a way that to me seems quite surreal and atmospheric, and I thought it would make a good visual counterpoint to the songs, which are also made up of quite common or traditional harmonic/rhythmic elements, and are played on conventional rock-band instrumentation, but at the same time they have this kind of atmospheric, other-worldly quality to them. There was a lot of ‘discussion’ about the cover! It didn’t begin life like this at all – initially it was a far more complicated, elaborate image which bit by bit got whittled down to a couple of lone ships on the ocean.

What's in store for Clang Sayne in the future?

James: Play/ practice/ record, play/ practice/ record, play/ practice/ record!
Laura: Touring is next on the list as far as strategic or practical goals are concerned, and also finding a label and distributor to take us on as I for one do not want to go through the rigmarole of self-releasing an album again!
Aesthetically, I am very excited by the idea of completely improvised song, the starting point for which would be our ability as a group to hear and lock into the structures that emerge while we play (as opposed to relying on pre-determined structures, however 'malleable' they may be). All the playing we’ve done in making Winterlandshas enabled us toget to this point, but I don’t feel we’ve exploited this yet in terms of our output, either in performance or on tape, so I guess this is the next step. I think this is what I thought we was doing when we started making this album but having finished it I realize that we’re still quite a way from this goal, even if we’re all very happy with what we’ve made. I listen to groups like Phil Minton’s Roof who genuinely do improvise their way through a song and I think to myself, “that’s where I want us to be!” As James said, we just have to keep playing and playing and playing!

Homepage: Clang Sayne

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