The Welsh band The Lowland Hundred make the kind of music I dream about, music I have longed for even before it came into existence. After reading Rob Young’s characteristically astute and enticing review of their most recent release in the pages of The Wire, I immediately purchased and listened to their three albums to date–Under Cambrian Sky (2010), Adit (2011), and The Lowland Hundred (2014). To say that I was impressed is putting it very mildly. The Lowland Hundred seamlessly blends nature recordings and spare instrumentation into suites of drifting, pastoral songs that glow with spectral light. (Had I heard The Lowland Hundred before I compiled my “Ecological Music 15″ chart for The Wire, they absolutely would have been accorded a prominent place on that list.) Since their extraordinary third album is my favorite record of 2014 so far, I decided to interview The Lowland Hundred’s multi-instrumentalist Tim Noble and vocalist Paul Newland to learn more about their utterly distinctive approach to crafting music. My questions and their insightful and detailed responses can be read below.
SCP: I greatly enjoyed viewing your exquisite photographs of the Welsh landscapes that inspire your music as I listened to The Lowland Hundred–although your music conjures a keen sense of time and place even without the benefit of photography. Could you elaborate on some of the psychogeographical and personal connections between your surroundings and your art?
TN: Paul and I are English. I moved to Aberystwyth in 2006 when my wife took up a lecturing post at the University. Aberystwyth and the wider county of Ceredigion had a powerful, entirely unexpected and pretty much immediate emotional impact on me. I spent the first 30 years of my life in the East Midlands of England and, by the end, I was utterly sick of it. I was ready for a change in my life and I found that change in Aberystwyth. It’s a dramatic way of putting it, but I fell in love with the place from the moment I arrived–the sea, the mountains, the sunsets… It was so different to the East Midlands, so wild and exciting. When I met Paul some two years after I’d first arrived, I was still absolutely besotted with the place and I was very lucky to have the chance to relive my own early encounters with the area through his early encounters. What you see in the photographs and hear in the music is someone finding their way in new, unfamiliar surroundings. The photographs are documents of early visits to places that would become important to the music; they are visual notes, research material. Neither of us spends hours gazing at the photographs afterwards but, for me, the act of taking a photograph helps to fix in my memory the emotions I felt in that place at that time. When composing the music, those emotions are that much easier to draw on and convert to sound.
PN: I think I’ve certainly been influenced by psychogeography to a certain extent. A decade or so ago I discovered the work of Iain Sinclair, and I was really struck by what he did imaginatively with the Hawksmoor churches in London (among other things), which of course was later echoed by Peter Ackroyd and Alan Moore. I know Tim was interested in this too. Guy Debord talked about the notion that places can have an impact on the emotions of an individual, and that people can find ways of creating a new awareness of a place, and find new paths. That certainly struck me as a useful (and fun) way of engaging with Aberystwyth when I first moved here and met up with Tim, who was so obviously fascinated with the place. But we never made a conscious decision to make ‘psychogeographical music’, and indeed the term ‘psychogeography’ feels rather exhausted now (as all terms do after a while). We just wanted to find a way to work together as writers initially, and luckily we had the idea to write about this incredible place that we both found ourselves in. No doubt some of these ‘psychogeographical’ ideas found their way in subconsciously, though.
SCP: Far from being wholly impressionistic and reflective, there’s a really lovely–even scientific–specificity and realism to your band’s lyrics and use of nature recordings. What is the role of these sedimented layers of memory, history, and mythology in your process of crafting music?
TN: This is in no way aimed at you, Spencer, because you didn’t mention it, but it’s galling how many people waste space recycling readily available information about Cantre’r Gwaelod (the mythical Welsh place from which we take our name) and almost completely gloss over the music. The myth is important to us only in the sense that it reminds us of the way people have created stories around this landscape since ancient times.
Our music wouldn’t exist without memory: the starting point for all our music is the memory of an emotion experienced during a first encounter with a particular place. We research the history only after feeling moved to write about a particular place. Even then, we prefer to examine the history as if it were the memory of a character.
PN: I quite liked the idea of specifying the names of some of the trees and flowers and sea life of the area in the lyrics, for example, as, above all else, there is a certain ineffable, magical quality to some of the words used for these things! Often you would walk past a flower on a path or see a small fish in the sea without looking twice at it, but if you discover its Latin name you somehow feel differently about it. I think this is linked to how we might see / feel places differently if we make the effort. I also really enjoyed the challenge of singing these lines and trying to invest them with a level of emotion. In terms of memory, history and mythology, I think we were more interested in making and recording our own experiences and then evoking our subsequent memories of places, above all else.
SCP: Do you see yourself working more in a tradition of folk music or one of post-rock / hauntology? Or do you view those subgenres as essentially stemming from the same impulse?
TN: It’s for other people to decide which tradition we’re working in. We’re aware of traditions, but we focus on using the skills we have to make music that reflects the people and the landscape around us. If someone thinks we sound like band X or belong to tradition Y, I consider that a failure on my part.
For a while, I quite liked the whole hauntological genre as a casual listener but, nowadays, I hope it’s dying out. Its early exponents were creative and imaginative but, in recent times, it’s grown into something ridiculous. There was a time, coinciding with the release of Berberian Sound Studio, that my Twitter feed was full of mentions of preposterously named and eminently spoofable acts–Tiswas Scrying Unit, TDK Investigation Bureau etc.–who seemed to be offering nothing more than a collection of hackneyed musical tropes recycled from British children’s TV of the 1970s.
In the UK, folk and hauntology both stem from an impulse to curate the past. I have very little interest in this as a consumer and absolutely zero interest in it as a producer. With so much music and film of the past now available to us, I accept that we live in “haunted” times, but mixing analogue synth, tape hiss and cloying whimsy is a lazy, reductive way to communicate how it really feels to be alive today.
PN: While I love folk music and I like a lot of so-called post-rock music, Tim and I never really discussed genres, and I think we were probably resistant to making music that might in any way be genre specific. As Tim says, we were interested in the here and now (but at the same time how the past informs our experiences of the here and now in a specific place). Of course people will hear some influences in the music (as in all music), and that’s fine by me, but we basically wanted to come up with a sound world that might capture how these places in west Wales made us feel, in the moment. Personally I’ve no real interest in hauntology as a musical movement or subculture.
SCP: Outside of more obvious precursors like Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, and Disco Inferno, have you also been influenced by classical music? What about British folk-rock and psychedelia? Are their any particular poets or prose writers you admire who have left their mark on your music and lyrics?
TN: I don’t really listen to music that much but, over the last 10 years, when I have done, I’ve mainly listened to classical music. Here in Britain, we’re extremely fortunate to have BBC Radio 3, which is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in classical music. I’d go as far as to say it’s an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in music. I spent the daily commute to work and the weekly commute to Aberystwyth–my wife lived here for 3 years before I was able to move–tuned to Radio 3 and discovered a world of music that I always suspected existed, but had never previously found a way to engage with. I’m confident that, without classical music and the access to it afforded by Radio 3, I would not be typing these words now.
I’m sure every second of these records is the product of books I’ve read over the years, but two authors in particular made a huge impression. The first is David Toop, whose Ocean of Sound introduced me to some music with which I was completely unfamiliar but, perhaps more importantly, it shamed me into engaging with, and subsequently falling for, some music I’d previously dismissed. The second author is a local man, Erwyd Howells. I chanced across his book Good Men And True–part memoir, part personal history of the shepherds of Mid Wales–while I was in the local petrol station one Saturday. I bought it instantly and I didn’t put it down for about a year. It fills places I know only as desolate valleys or crumbling ruins with light and laughter. His style is unstudied, personal and, as such, it makes for an engaging and utterly enchanting book.
PN: I listen to classical music, and I love a lot of British folk rock and psychedelia, but in terms of specific artists, and for that matter writers / poets who might have left a mark, there are simply too many to mention. I spend as much time making music as I do listening to it, really. And I spend a lot more time reading and watching films than listening to music. Talk Talk get mentioned a lot with us. I remember my brother buying the first Talk Talk album when it came out in the early 80s when we were kids, and between us we bought all their subsequent records. Spirit of Eden in particular had a huge influence on me but also the musicians I was working with in various bands around northeast London in the late 80s. But so did Prince and Sonic Youth! I don’t particularly hear Talk Talk in what the LH do, but if others do I’m not at all unhappy about it. Indeed, I find it fascinating. Mark Hollis is somebody I admire. Above all else he is a wonderful singer.
SCP: The press materials for your latest album mention the “haunted middle-aged doubt” of the underrated Scottish band The Blue Nile as a possible reference point for your sound. I can definitely hear the commonality with Paul Buchanan’s vocals, but I was also wondering if that band’s musique concrete approach to pop was another inspiration for the way in which you construct your songs?
TN: The press materials were drawn up by the label and whatever they want to say to sell the record is fine by me. I’d never heard a record by The Blue Nile before people started mentioning them in connection with us and I’ll certainly not listen to one now. If writers draw comparisons between us and another act, I avoid their music altogether. I first heard Laughing Stock in early 2009 and I was quite enjoying it until the persistent and widespread comparisons to Talk Talk meant I had to stop listening to it. I’m still baffled by those comparisons. My ears must be defective because I hear a band that is completely at odds with us. Their subject matter is vague and universal where ours is unashamedly specific and local. Hollis had a deep, powerful voice where Paul’s is high and delicate. Furthermore, the bedrock of the Talk Talk sound is pulse and groove, anchored so brilliantly by Lee Harris’s drumming; our music has nothing more than a fleeting acquaintance with pulse and groove. I’d like to meet Mark Hollis one day. I would apologise and reassure him that a) I cannot hear the similarities myself and b) sounding like his band was never on the list of things I wanted to achieve in music. Hollis’s retirement and subsequent silence created a void and we’re just one of the many bands people are busy cramming in to fill it.
PN: The press material was not put together by us, so it reflects how somebody else heard our music. But while the label wouldn’t have known this, I have known of (and rather liked) The Blue Nile for many years, and I really loved Paul Buchanan’s recent solo album Mid Air. I can’t really hear a clear connection between the LH and The Blue Nile, though. Their music is very electronic and has a rather straight-ahead rhythmic style (the use of Linn equipment), and it seems very connected to Scotland, and Glasgow in particular. I also can’t really hear a connection between my voice and Buchanan’s, but there is an honesty about his performances that I really like and indeed admire–a lack of showboating, and a tangible sense of genuine emotion. But I do accept that there is a sense of melancholy to some of our music (and a slowness) that might also be found to a certain extent in Buchanan’s music and TBN. Having said all this, though, I wasn’t thinking about or indeed listening to Paul Buchanan when we wrote and recorded these records.
SCP: The nature recordings are seamlessly incorporated into the mix; when I first listened to your music outside, I couldn’t easily tell what was coming from inside my headphones and what was emanating from outside. There’s such clarity with which you capture every nuance of the instrumentation, too. I was wondering if you could describe both your process of gathering field recordings and that of folding them into the structures of your songs as they are recorded.
TN: That’s very kind of you, Spencer. Thank you. As with the photographs, field recordings often date back to early encounters with a place. I moved to Aberystwyth from Nottingham, a city in England, and, when I arrived, I instantly embraced the novelty of teetering along coastal paths or kicking through fallen leaves in remote woodland. Aberystwyth afforded me space to think and peace and quiet to listen and, gradually, as I walked around, I found myself hearing sounds that would blend with the instrumental and vocal ideas Paul and I were developing.
Capturing those sounds was frequently a case of good fortune: I’d be bumbling along somewhere, trailing recording gear like some low-rent astronaut on the surface of an alien world, and I’d hear something interesting, then there’d be a mad scramble to get the microphone and recorder working, followed by a period of silent prayer that the sound would return. Sometimes I’d hear a sound when I didn’t have the recorder and mic with me, and I’d have no choice but to drive back to the location in which I’d first heard the sound in the hope of recapturing it. A lot of the sounds on these albums were actually recorded at night, with me silently cursing myself off-mic for not bringing the equipment along earlier in the day.
I fold the field recordings into the albums as if they’re instrumental passages. For example, I may decide I require a high-pitched shrieking in a certain section of a song: this could be served by my electric guitar or I could opt for a recording of the shrieking, creaking garden gate outside my house. The recording of my gate plays the same role as a guitar would in terms of pitch yet, at the same time, as a sound from the place and the time in which the album is set, it brings with it an extra layer of meaning.
I’ve also found that the field recordings serve as a way to sew memory into the fabric of the albums. I’ve used a particular recording of children playing in local woods across all three albums. I noticed recently that I applied more distortion and processing to the recording each time I used it. I think I was trying to tell myself to remember just how quickly a trivial event can become a cherished memory and how quickly that memory can fade.
SCP: It strikes me that the lyrics of all three of your albums display a strong awareness of human mortality and the transience of nature and climate. Do you consider your music to express ecological or conservationist themes?
TN: I’m ambivalent towards the issue of conservation, but I’m absolutely fascinated by people in a landscape. I like the fact that the mediaeval castle still looms over me as I walk along Aberystwyth’s Victorian promenade, but I also like the fact that teenagers are hidden among its walls smoking dope and drinking strong white cider. I would rather the castle be a part of the lives of people today than have someone rebuild it with modern materials, erect a steel fence around it, and charge visitors £10 to look at failed drama students huffing and puffing through lacklustre recreations of mediaeval combat.
PN: We are middle-aged men–and at least one of us is a melancholy soul (!)–so yes, the music might express an awareness of mortality, as such–but not just human mortality. I don’t think the music expresses conservationist or ecological themes, per se. I am reluctant to consider the ‘human’ as somehow divorced from ‘nature’ and ‘ecology’. Perhaps as such you could argue that there is a kind of ‘deep ecological’ aspect to what we do. I’m with Tim on conservation–I’m rather ambivalent about it and often suspicious of some of the ideologies that drive it. But, again, we were primarily interested in trying to articulate the particular ‘feel’ of a place–its emotional force. Everything stemmed from that.
SCP: What contemporary musicians and bands do you feel closest to, or consider to be your thematic / aesthetic compatriots?
TN: For me, one and one only. Hallock Hill. He’s a native of New York who I first met through Twitter in 2010. I don’t listen to much music at all but, finding him to be a friendly, fascinating human being, when he subsequently mentioned that he was a musician, I listened to his music out of courtesy. It still remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. He shares The LH’s fascination with time, memory and landscape, but he has his own, uniquely American take on those themes. In the four years since I first listened to his music, I have released two of his albums through my label, Hundred Acre Recordings (collaborating with him directly on one of them), I’ve played live with him on Jersey City’s WFMU, The LH played a recent double-header with him at London’s Cafe OTO, and I’ve met up with him socially in London, New York and Chicago. He is as fine a human being as he is a musician and I consider him a friend for life.
PN: I don’t really feel close to any contemporary bands or musicians other than, perhaps–as Tim says–Hallock Hill (who is brilliant). It isn’t really easy to talk about ‘thematic/aesthetic compatriots’–that’s for other people to think about if they want to. But as somebody who is fascinated by the art of songwriting (and how it functions now), it would be remiss of me not to say that in recent years Joanna Newsom, Justin Vernon, Gillian Welch, Jeff Tweedy and Mark Kozelek in particular have really impressed me.
SCP: How do you translate your music from your records to live performance? It seems like it would be difficult to maintain the sonic balance of your albums.
TN: You’re quite right: the music is very much a studio creation. Studio technology allows us to create a soundworld where creaking pines co-exist with a Hammond organ. We can’t exercise anywhere near enough control in the live environment to pull this off, so we don’t really try. Our live shows retain the songs, the space and the dynamics of the records, and whilst we do use a laptop for a touch of atmosphere here and there, we rely on the strength of those songs, rather than the sonic trickery of the records. Do you want to part with £10 of your week’s wage to watch a couple of guys press play and noodle along to a backing track or do you want to see two musicians performing to the best of their abilities, earning your entrance fee by wrenching the sound you’re hearing out of instruments you can see? If you come to hear the album, save yourself the money, stay at home and play the CD: the sound is infinitely better and, more often than not, so is the beer.
PN: I agree with Tim. We decided that we couldn’t–and indeed shouldn’t–try to replicate the albums live. That would be pointless. We used live performance as an opportunity to explore how far the songs might be stretched or reworked, and to take the opportunity to play together and embrace improvisation, which actually led to us ‘writing’, which was great fun and very useful. I think I’m right in saying that some aspects of LH3 developed out of live performances we did a few years ago.
SCP: Your first three records have been described as a loose trilogy. Is there a particular schema as to how they fit together? It seems that with each album, the songs grow longer, with soundscapes taking greater precedence over more conventional song structures and miniatures. On The Lowland Hundred, there’s an even greater variation of mood–with some atmospheres verging on the eerie and disquieting–and more sudden shifts of dynamics and texture.
TN: The albums chart a drift inland, away from the sea. We both live in Aberystwyth, so Under Cambrian Sky took its inspiration from the town and its immediate surroundings. Adit is the start of a move inland, as we got to know the dark lanes and hidden valleys away from the coast. The most recent album, The Lowland Hundred, is primarily concerned with the old metal mining area, some 7-12 miles inland. The sound and structure has shifted to reflect the changes in the landscape or, more correctly, our perception of and reaction to the changes in that landscape. The metal mining valleys are desolate places–they’re part of what is known as The Green Welsh Desert–and the form of The Lowland Hundred proceeds directly from a place in which the ruins of the previous century’s industry are slowly sinking into the hillsides and the handful of hill farmers that remain fight for survival against ever greater threats to their livelihoods.
PN: I think in terms of the ‘loose trilogy’, for some reason in early discussions we decided that we could easily muster enough material for 3 albums based on this location. The term ‘trilogy’ tends to have ‘high art’ connotations in cinema and elsewhere, but that’s OK–we were ambitious! Working on 3 albums also gave us an opportunity to develop our sound and our writing style. Tim and I co-write the material, but I think it’s fair to say we come from different backgrounds as writers, so part of the process of putting together the albums was to find a way to bring our styles together but also to ‘collide’ them in interesting ways. In my view you can hear this progression across the 3 albums. I’m keen on all three for different reasons, but for me personally LH3 sees us properly combining our styles to create something pretty unique across the four long tracks.
SCP: What is next for The Lowland Hundred after the release of your self-titled third album?
TN: As Paul said earlier, we always felt that we could make three albums. I am extremely proud that we managed to do this in 5 years, while retaining busy, responsible day jobs. Sadly, the albums have not brought us the wealth and wide renown that other musicians have enjoyed over the years. I can’t pretend I’m particularly happy about this, but we are not in a position where we have to please a large record company, and we don’t have jet set lifestyles to fund, so we’re free to move on to other projects now that the Lowland Hundred idea has run its natural course. It is exciting to look for a new sound again and comforting to know that we’ll never have to scrape the barrel to satisfy the terms of a contract. Paul and I are still making music together but, as I type this, we have no plans for a fourth Lowland Hundred record. If an idea came along that suited The Lowland Hundred, we’d certainly make a fourth album but, if that idea never materialises, we can be forever proud of three albums filled with beautiful, uncompromising music.
PN: I don’t know if there will be another LH record – perhaps, but only if it feels right and we are properly inspired to do it as the LH. I’m proud of the 3 albums, and I’ve had a great time being involved with the LH project. But we won’t carry on under that name unless it is for the right reasons. Tim and I continue to really enjoy working together, though, and new collaborative work is already in the pipeline.
SCP: Tim and Paul, thank you for your time and for your wonderful music!