An Angel Fell Where The Kestrels Hover started life as the second part of a two album reflection on my emotive responses to seasonal changes, both in a personal sense and also a more social and geographical sense. My double CD Snow Blind, recorded at the same time and released earlier this year on Install, captures the foreboding darkness and gloom of winter, whilst An Angel Fell... focusses on the spring and summer months, and as a result has a generally sunnier disposition.
Obviously there's a direct literal interpretation at work here, the music is brighter and more melodic, perhaps even sensual, without as much harsh discordance that is predominant on Snow Blind. On 'Lavender Buzz' the seasonal inspiration is most literal, where the foundation of the piece is from a strategically placed microphone in the middle of a clump of lavender plants recording bees collecting nectar from the flowers. But also, as the music was actually recorded during the summer I only had to look out the window or take a walk in the nearby Streatham Common to get a sense of the type of almost lazy sounds I wanted to create. Ironically, this was also one of the wettest July's on record in the UK and the frequency of the often violent thunderstorms also tainted my creative thoughts, neatly juxtaposing light and dark textures.
Aside from the weather, location was also an important factor. I made these recordings in London, England, where my wife and myself were living at the time. This is an album heavily influenced by living in that sprawling, chaotic urban jungle, as most of my last few releases have been. Reflections on physical and mental space are frequently wrapped up in the sounds I make, even at their most abstract. London was my home for nearly 6 years and this was the last recording I made consciously referencing and musing on the city before we moved back to New Zealand in 2008. In many ways it represents the closing of a circle that started with my first UK-based recordings that appeared on Yellow Horizon (PseudoArcana, 2004).
The titles I come up with for my music can be fairly oblique, often abstract and meaningless, but they can reflect my mood at the time I make the sounds themselves. Sometimes they are socially or politically motivated, sometimes very personal and inward-looking. At their most poetic they can be a substitute for lyrics, but the titles are not necessarily designed to lead the listener into a particular train of thought when listening to the sounds. The album title, An Angel Fell Where The Kestrels Hover, was one of the first I came up with when previewing my early mixes on headphones sitting in a South London meadow watching a kestrel circling high above looking for field mice in the long grass. I could immediately see a connection to the birds movements and the way my music drifts and floats. The kestrel's hovering flight, almost like a hummingbird, beating it's wings and making minute adjustments in the wind, allowing it's head to remain absolutely still to enable it's sharp eyes to spot movement in the ground metres below is amazing to watch. And I liked the idea that maybe it could see something in the grass that us mere mortals can not, like a fallen angel.
I would say semi-conscious if anything. I don't usually set out to make a recording go in a particular direction before I actually press the record button. There's very little planning involved and a huge amount of improvisation, even at it's most pre-determined. I like to capture the moment as fresh as possible so I hardly ever rehearse before recording, and I almost never play the guitar outside of this process. It stays locked in a case until I am ready to work or play a show. This makes it feel like I'm approaching each recording like it's an experiment, untried and untested. The only other rules or restrictions I might place on the whole process are based on practical choices of instrument, tuning and effects. What I do with these tools is usually down to my technical understanding, or lack thereof, the emotional state I am in, the physical location, the audience (if any), and so on.
As such these flimsy parameters result in just as much failure as success when it comes to recording or performance. There's a huge amount of unissued material that went straight into the bin. But I like the challenge that this method of working brings to the creative process and the unknown factors that play a part in the overall sound. Even the accidents and mistakes. Sometimes I'll invite these in by opening doors and windows and allowing the outside sounds to leak into the recording. If I flub a note I won't be too worried about it. I really don't want it to be perfect, I want the flaws to be in there, unless it's too distracting from the overall flow of the piece.
From a purely technical perspective, most recordings start with the drone. What I play over that drone can be anything that comes to mind. I might have something I've worked out a little beforehand, a vague run of notes or melodic structure, or I might just let it all go and improvise 'cold'. I suppose the melodic fragments are a reflection of my 'pop' music past. I used to write songs, with structure and form, albeit in a very lo fi ham-fisted home recorded manner, and have always enjoyed a good melody so it just seems to belong. The fragmentation of any melodic structure is mostly the result of my limited technical skills. I either stumble over the notes or keep it very simple out of technical incompetence.
I like the analogy of looking out the window of a high speed train and seeing objects in the foreground whizzing past while the landscape in the background remains seemingly motionless. It's something I've tried to translate into sound on occasion.
I usually approach each piece in the same way you'd construct a wall or a building. I lay a foundation of drone layers, usually based on an open tuning on the 12 string, then layer further tones on top of that, a framework if you like, before finally putting improvised melodies, simple lines, other noises which act as the cladding, the paint, the decoration. The density of the foundations give the melodies that feel of being cushioned or submerged, and I like how they still can creep out and be heard despite all that. It's a pretty basic idea really, but I think I've been able to progress with it over the years.
In recent times my compositional methods have become quite refined and minimal. I used to spend a lot of time overdubbing before editing and mixing a piece down. These days I tend to work with mostly live takes of recordings, using a loop pedal to generate the layers in real time. I might add field recordings later, and occasionally a second instrument, but less so in recent years. This has been because I've been playing live a lot more often and have had to develop a way of making what I play in a live arena sound comparable to what I record. The two scenarios have merged a lot in the last year or two. An Angel Fell... is all live to disc, with the sole exception of a field recording of some bees.
Most of the work is in the editing. Often what seems good at the time of recording can be a little disappointing after having had a week or two to 'breathe', so I usually always allow anything I record a bit of time to settle before I go back and start editing. I listen to my recordings a lot at this point, deciding what works and what can be chopped out. I might just choose to use 2 minutes out of a 20 minute take, or I might fold it into another recording creating a unified whole out of two different pieces. Sometimes I get lucky and don't have to change anything. It always varies track to track.
I also look at it in terms of the bigger picture, how it will fit into an album. This is when I find the tracks that work well together, put in crossfades and so on. I really enjoy this whole process, almost more than recording at times. It's where I think the real craft is, creating a seemless body of work that requires the full attention of the audience from start to finish. It's a big challenge these days, but I still enjoy working through it.
I would suppose my personality played a big part in this. I never consciously chose one over the other, but I found that within the groups I've been involved with over the years there was often too much democracy and not enough direction. Coupled with varying degrees of motivation and ambition it can be a bit arduous and frustrating at times. I can motivate myself easily but trying to motivate a group of disparate personalities is just plain tiresome. I believe in creative terms for this to really work someone has to steer the ship, but even though I am perfectly capable of taking the reins, and have plenty of creative ideas to throw around, I really am not comfortable telling other people what to do so I tend to hold off and compromise more. It's then that you find you're not getting quite the same degree of accomplishment or satisfaction from your efforts, and the whole project ends up tottering off down a path that is not where you want to be going. Solo I can be as possessive and anal as I want to achieve what I'm after. And it's all down to me if it doesn't work out. Those challenges motivate me to keep on trying. It's easier to take risks, be more experimental. Having said all that I still really enjoy collaborating with others, and will always enjoy the different challenge that it brings.
Not usually after it's been issued I don't. By that point I've heard it enough to know every wrinkle and scar. I wouldn't say I was sick of it but I don't really need to hear it again for a long time. I definitely listen to my material a lot before it's issued though, to make sure I'm absolutely convinced it's good enough to be made public. Once it's on the shelves I'm already onto the next project or beyond. But I know what you mean and the odd occasion where I have heard something of mine from the past does definitely remind me of the location and time that it was made. But then a lot of music that I find significant does that. I always get flashbacks to when I first heard a certain song or album if I get a chance to hear it again after a long period. It's like digging out an old photo album from storage and flicking through. Sometimes it's embarrassing, especially if I hear anything from my song writing past, and sometimes it's curious to see how things have moved on from then to now.
I do work on the premise that my music progresses from album to album. Part of me would love to try to hear all my albums back to back someday to see if it worked, this progression idea. But I don't have the patience to do that. Maybe if I retire that'll be my final act. Review my own work and reminisce. But that seems like a sad idea. I'd rather look forward to the next recording.
I'm probably being ironic here, slightly tongue in cheek, but you're right about the temperament. I think my best recordings are definitely mood related. My state of mind will colour the sound output hugely which presents a real human element, something that lifts it above the pure technical aspects of creating drone music. I like to think I'm transmitting some kind of electronic daydream via the instruments, which I only have partial control over. All of the emotions you describe are embedded in my nature. I'm not a typically cheery person, easily slumping into melancholic reverie or resorting to dark humour and cynicism to get by. Naturally this all seeps into the music I make. So when I describe something of mine as sunny I'm being reasonably ironic, but when contrasted with the almost hysterical string lashing exhibited on some parts of Snow Blind there is an overall sense of calm on this album. Snow Blind is an angry and bitter album in some ways, but An Angel Fell... is more wistful and resigned. Like I drew a deep breath and counted to 10 before recording it.