LMS catches up with Fieldhead (aka Paul Elam), currently Leeds' ambassador to Vancouver.
Tell us a little bit about what lead to the slight change in approach on 'Riser' - what inspired the focus on the human voice?
A lot of the music I was listening to at the time (specifically Low, The Knife, Grouper and soccer Committee) approaches the human voice as an equal to the other instruments in the track. This is a way of working that greatly appeals to me, more so than what I suppose could be described as the "vocalist plus backing band" approach, and was one that I was interested in trying with Fieldhead. To add to this, it felt like a lot of ambient/electronic music is guilty of adding vocals on only as an afterthought, so I thought I'd try my best to make something in that style that had the human voice as its core.
What about the choice of all-female voices? They all are quite distinct in terms of range and colour, though - how much did tracks grow from each individual contributors' vocal characteristics?
I wanted to focus on either all male or all female voices for consistency throughout the record, and as the initial idea for 'Riser' came from female voices on records I love, it seemed logical to follow through with this. As for how the tracks grew, I would use the recordings I was sent as the basis and work up from there, trying to both complement the style of the singer as well as retaining consistency throughout the EP. What was fun about making it was the way each singer's style forced me away from my usual habits - I have a predisposition to certain keys, tempos and structures which I had to change to work with the source material I'd been sent.
And in terms of the ways you employ the voices, they are altered, distorted, obscured in different ways - do you believe in the idea that there is something slightly uncomfortable or difficult about working with human voice? Or is this more symptomatic of how you approach texture?
I think it's more a case that I tend to alter all the source material I work with in some way, so I decided to treat the voices no differently. As to why I alter all my source material... well, I suppose the aesthetic I'm often going for is one of tightly packed, dense sounds, and in my experience untreated sounds don't get the results I'm looking for.
More generally, how do you see the role of voice in your own music? Do you think the hierarchy of parts/timbres in 'pop' - with vocals firmly at the helm - affects your own approach to/perception of your output (in a negative, railing-against sort of way as well as a positive one)?
To be honest, I think 'Riser' is probably one of the few releases I'll make where the voice does have a role in my music (as Fieldhead, anyway)... but it's not that I have anything against the human voice in music, far from it. 'Riser' just came from wanting to apply an approach to music I heard in some bands (the aforementioned vocals and instruments as equals) to electronic/ambient music and seeing what happened. Above all, it's what approach works best for the music - sometimes that's for the vocals to be at the forefront; sometimes it's for them to be just another instrument. I probably do have a natural inclination towards the latter though...
How much of a departure do you think it is from 'They Shook Hands for Hours' and the almost musique-concrete type of fascination with sounds in some way removed from a particular human source? Was there any underlying conscious change of aesthetic?
To my ears the aesthetic is very similar; it's just a change in source material. Both releases centre on an intentionally limited set of sounds and instruments, and both share very similar production methods. What was interesting to me was how the change in source material heavily affected the outcome - the processed guitars, drums and violins of They Shook Hands for Hours led me down a different path to the processed vocals, synths and organs of 'Riser'.
How did the 'Long Train Journeys' live album come about?
Well, we'd toured a fair bit during the early stages of 2010 and this had resulted in a few good live recordings, specifically of one show in Prague that had gone really well. As the live shows can be quite different to the recorded output, ideas began to form in my head of some way to document how Elaine, Sarah and I were playing together at this point. I approached Rich at Gizeh about releasing it through his label, he agreed, so we did it!
It seems to work almost as a snapshot of the Fieldhead live set-up pre-Vancouver - was this the intention?
Exactly! During latter stages of 2009 the Fieldhead live 'show' really started to take form as Elaine and Sarah's violins added the element of unpredictability to the set that I'd been previously unable to achieve on my own. Not only did their playing sound great, but it also took a weight off what I was doing with electronics and guitar, meaning that I had more freedom to change things live, rather than simply pressing the right key at the right time. The live album served as a way of documenting this whilst I'm away in Canada (and therefore unable to play with Elaine and Sarah), as well as offering a different take on some of the 'studio' tracks.
You seem to gravitate a bit toward the analogue-y and 'imperfect'/dusty - what is it that appeals to you about these sorts of sounds?
There's something about impure and dusty sounds that convey a feeling of space, emotion and 'physicality', and I think that this becomes lost when a producer tries to remove imperfections from the recording process. I'm a big fan of the move to incorporate what previously would have been seen as failures in the recording process (tape hiss, crackle, heavy compression) as musical elements in themselves, as this widens the scope of music in the same way that more traditional effects (reverb, delay etc.) do.
How about the influence of geography/spaces/places, which seem to play an important role, as well?
I do have a fascination with geography, and this definitely finds its way in to my music. The first four releases were all written in a terraced house in the west of Leeds, and I think they all share a similar aesthetic that comes (at least in part) from this. I was often writing music at weekends after trips to the dales, or listening back to it and coming up with new ideas as I was on trains heading across Yorkshire (which I did a lot of with my old job). These landscapes set a tone in the way I approached the music. Now I'm greeted by the sight of mountains and oceans every day, and there's also a feeling of huge distances and isolation in Canada that wasn't present in the UK. I think I'm still adapting to these new surroundings, but am looking forward to seeing what comes out after I've got used to them.
How much importance do you place on clear-cut melodies as opposed to texture and 'dynamics'? Does one predominate over the other for you?
I'd say that both are equally important to me - a good melody without the 'right' texture doesn't do it for me, but neither does a well placed texture without melody. What's important is how the two work together.
What about Vancouver-based bands/artists - can you recommend anyone that's stood out whilst you've been on the live circuit?
Although this is probably cheating as I knew of him before I moved out here, Loscil has to be my favourite Vancouver artist by a long way. He's been around for some years and has several excellent releases to his name on Kranky records, but his recent album 'Endless Falls', coupled with a truly excellent live show in November have cemented my love of his work.
What can we look forward to from Fieldhead next?
I seem to have been spending all my time working on remixes recently, so there should be re-workings of Epic45, Spokes, Caught in the Wake Forever, Not Me and Les Marquises coming out at some point over the next year. I've also done a few new tracks for compilations on the Kaspar Hauser Records label in Antwerp and Second Language Music in London/Copenhagen, with the Second Language one having just been released under the title 'Minute Papillon'. At the same time I've been doing some tentative work on a new album, which I'm hoping to turn in to something more solid - I'm always frustrated with how slowly I write music, so it could take some time! There are also some tentative new projects that may eventually see the light of day, one with Anneke from Conquering Animal Sound, one with Eric of EL Heath/Epic45.
What about new material - are there any changes of style/approach we should be looking out for?
I'm still working on what the next album will sound like... but I have become partial to synthesiser and organ sounds recently, so I wouldn't be surprised if they take pride of place over the guitar and drums used in the first album. I'm also keen to use Sarah and Elaine's string playing more in the future. Sarah contributes some excellent violin parts to the last album, which then really came in to their own when played live, and I'd like to try and take advantage of this in the next release. I'm hoping that whatever comes next will be in keeping with both 'They Shook Hands for Hours' and 'Riser' in style, but without being a re-hashing of the same ideas. Time will tell though...
Northerner is West Yorkshire-based musician Martin Cummings.