Posted on Aug 19th 2012 11:49 pm
After recording one album and a handful of EPs for Manchester-based imprint Melodic ten years ago, David Edwards got the chance to move his Minotaur Shock project to 4AD, a label that had partly inspired him over the years. Reality however rarely matches expectations, and things didn’t quite work out as idealistically as he had hoped. Four years on from his last release for the label, he has picked himself up, recorded his fourth studio album, Orchard, and Melodic have welcomed him back with open arms. Here, he talks about his 4AD experience, working with Melodic again, the freedom he had recording the new album, and how British music has inspired him a great deal this time round.
David, it’s been four years since your last album, Amateur Dramatics, and that release, which was due on 4AD, didn’t quite go according to plans, did it? What happened?
Around the time Amateur Dramatics was due to be released, 4AD went through a bit of a shake-up, and some of the personnel and roster changed. Until that point, the album was due to be released physically, but one of the outcomes of the situation was that it became one of 4AD’s first digital-only albums. It seemed like the album kind of got lost in the confusion at the label.
How did that leave you feeling then? When I interviewed you at the time of Maritime, you were quite excited to be working with them…
I grew up listening to and being enthralled by 4AD artists. In the 80s/90s, 4AD had such a strong identity and aura of mystique that it was almost like I was being allowed to peek behind the curtain. Plus they had recently signed Scott Walker, which blew my mind. There are some great people working there, but when you look behind the curtain it’s just some folks in an office in Wandsworth rather than the fairytale blue bell knoll that one would hope for. Still, I got to raid the storeroom, master the records at Abbey Road and work with Vaughan Oliver so I can’t really complain.
The album was eventually released on Audiodregs. How did this happen?
I kind of knew E*Rock, who runs the label; I think he emailed me when Amateur Dramatics came out, so I explained that it wasn’t getting a physical release. He offered to put the album out on CD in the States so I cleared it with 4AD and that’s just what happened. After a couple of years of red tape and waiting ages for answers, it was really refreshing to speak directly to someone who was involved in the whole process. A few weeks later I had a batch of CDs delivered, no messing.
Now you’re back with Melodic who issued you first couple of releases. Are you back where you belong?
Yeah, it feels like a kind of homecoming; I much prefer the DIY approach, and being able to call up the label boss with stupid questions whenever.
The music industry has changed quite a lot since the early days of Minotaur Shock. Has this affected you in any away, apart from the 4AD experience?
Well I think it’s removed any expectation that I’ll sell records, so I’m really relaxed about this release. I funded the recording, without having a label in place to release it, so I felt pretty free when recording it; there wasn’t really any pressure from anyone other than myself. In some ways, this feels like a debut album; the way things are done now is so different. It’s a bit weird too – I’ve never released anything before whilst having a Twitter or Soundcloud account, so that instant, direct feedback from people is pretty disconcerting.
The new album is being released on CD, LP and download. Vinyl albums have made quite a strong come back in recent years, with even majors getting in on the fun on occasion. Was it important for you that Orchard was made available on vinyl as well as other formats?
Yes definitely; none of my other albums (except the debut) have been released on vinyl, and it was really important for me to have a proper physical document of the recording. I worked closely with the designer to make sure that the vinyl package was pretty special, and I’m really pleased with it. When I’m at home I mostly listen to vinyl; my CD player died a few years ago and I’ve never replaced it. Regardless of the sound quality, I find the act of sitting down in front of a turntable really enjoyable. It kind of focuses attention; you listen in sequence, you have to get up to turn it over so there’s an imposed interval in the album, and you properly interact with the object.
You seem to have gone back to using a strong mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation with the new album, with notably contributions from Emily Edwards (flutes and clarinets), with whom you have worked on Maritime and Amateur Dramatics previously, and James Underwood (violin) and Ali Chant (bass). Was it a conscious effort on your part? Do you feel the need to work with other people on occasion?
I’ve always been interested in trying to blur the lines between acoustic and processed/electronic instruments, and the idea of trying to capture ‘warmth’ from digital instruments. There is definitely a lot more acoustic guitar on this album, but there are also a lot of synthesised string-modelled instruments buried in there too. The album was written relatively quickly and spontaneously; I tend to try and use similar sounds throughout an album; and this time it was the guitar; I kept one next to my computer and treated it like a preset on a synth.
The biggest issue I have with my music is that I can never really see the purpose in it; it’s not really dance music and it’s not ambient – I got pretty fascinated with instrumental music like you used to get on old K-Tel compilations called Illusions or Memories. Not necessarily TV themes, but stuff like that; music that can sometimes be pretty cheesy but can also be really good. Using an acoustic guitar to play melody lines was something you don’t hear too often these days (possibly for good reason), but I thought I’d do that anyhow. I liked the crudeness of it; like ‘yeah, I’m a weedy acoustic guitar, what’s your problem with that?’
I can’t play flute, clarinet or violin, so I needed more talented people to play those; I write the parts using midi instruments, so it’s a case of recording the proper musicians once everything’s ready. I’ve worked with Emily and James before, and they are both extremely good at what they do and patient with my lack of proper musical knowledge. Ali engineered some of the studio recording I did, and was able to get a great bass sound, so we both played a bit of bass on one of the tracks – again, it was pre-written; I really like the idea of collaborating/working as a band again and writing with other people, but it didn’t happen with this album.
Does this return to a sound that uses acoustic instruments mean that you are intending to perform these new tracks live, and if yes, how are you intending to do this?
Well I guess it started off like that; I’ve been using a drum kit in my live show for a while now, and I definitely began these tracks with the idea that I’d need to play them live. However, because I’ve used a fair few acoustic guitars and stuff as well as the live drums, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do. I can’t play both at the same time, and I can’t really afford to pay a band, so I’m torn between sampling the real instruments and triggering them using drum pads or replacing the acoustic sounds with synthesised ones. I’m still working on it!
In the press release for Orchard, it is said that you’ve used ‘a proper studio’ for the first time. How has that impacted on the overall way you work and did you see it as a necessary step?
I wanted to use live drums on this album, and my one-mic technique in my garage wasn’t quite going to cut it (although it is used on Ocean Swell), so I booked a few days to record mainly drums. It didn’t really impact the way that I worked, although I guess I didn’t spend much time on drum programming; I wanted the album to sound pretty organic – like it was being played by a band. The best part of working in a studio was definitely having someone there to help getting the right sound – Ali was brilliant, and could translate my stupid descriptions into proper sounds. Having always recorded, produced and mixed all of my own stuff previously, I learned a lot from having a proper engineer involved. It was great having access to a real piano and xylophone too.
You are also quoted saying that you became fascinated by a sort of eccentricity that exists in British music. What do you mean by this? Is this what inspired you through the conception of the album?
I know I’ve been labeled as ‘folktronica’ before, and when my first album came out I really didn’t know what to make of this. Folk was a genre that I knew nothing about, and it hadn’t crossed my mind when I was making my early records. I guess it was my use of acoustic instruments, but that was mainly because I didn’t have much equipment. Around my first couple of records I was mainly listening to stuff like Can, Moondog, Silver Apples, Glass & Reich etc, then around Maritime I was listening to a lot of Steely Dan/Todd Rundgren – since then I’ve been listening to stuff much closer to home. I have listened to a lot more folk music than previously. I’m just about young enough to have missed The Art Of Noise at their peak, but I’ve been going through their earlier stuff – what was that about? The music they were making doesn’t really sound like much else, but there is something very British about it. The same with other ZTT guys like Andrew Poppy or someone like Michael Nyman, and especially Eno’s ambient stuff. Why does it sound so British? I listened to a lot of Mike Oldfield too, having previously seen him as a bit ridiculous – those first three albums are brilliant though, and it was good to see him at the Olympic opening the other day. I guess I kind of took a step back from Tubular Bells and tried to listen to it without the baggage that it now comes with; imagine him just hanging out in a big house recording it with no idea of what it would become.
So yes, I was trying to identify the link between all of this. I couldn’t work it out, but I wanted to somehow try and nod to it.
One thing that remains in this album is the quietly cinematic and pastoral feel to your music. Is it something that you are especially careful to preserve?
I guess so – there are field recordings in there that link the tracks to specific times and places; these are mostly for my benefit, but I like the tracks to exist in a particular geographical place. I guess I just like the idea of rural electronics.
You remixed Coppe’s Yogurt for the album curated by Bit Phalanx, which was published last year. How did you get involved in the project, and did you know Coppe’ prior to this?
I didn’t know Coppe’ prior, but was approached by Bit Phalanx. The album was a charity project to help provide aid for those affected by the 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help.
Orchard is entirely instrumental, yet, there are a few vocal elements here and there. Do you like working with the human voice?
Yes, I’d love to do a full length album with a vocalist, but haven’t found the right one yet. The vocal sounds on this album are there like the guitar, as a kind of preset rather than using a synth sound.
Is it me or has Coppe’s voice made it into Ocean Swell in the background, behind the ‘choir’ section?
That’s just you! There is a strange sampled choir on there which just has vowel sounds, but I can’t remember what else. I tend to layer things up so much that I forget what’s buried in there.
The album comes with a couple of remixes from Bass Clef and Gold Panda when ordered from the Melodic store. How did these remixes happen, and are you planning to have more artists involved in remixing tracks from the album?
Ralph (Bass Clef) used to live in Bristol and work in Imperial Records (RIP) – I used to visit there pretty much weekly, so have known him for ages. I love his music, and was chuffed when he said he’d do a remix. I’ve also known Gold Panda for a fair while, we share a similar outlook on music and I love the way he can add warmth to his electronic productions. I haven’t really thought about asking anyone else to do any remixes, but there’s always the possibility.
Maritime had an illustration on its cover which showed the sea, and the sea also features heavily in the artwork for Orchard. Is this the influence of leaving near the sea?
Well, Bristol isn’t that near the sea, but I guess that I love the imagery of the sea. The water is constantly moving, so it seems pointless to take a photo of it; the artwork for Orchard reflects this – trying to impose an order on something so transient. It’s a bit like organising sound waves in the air into music. A lot of the field recordings on Orchard were made on a boat, and the motion of the water was often in my mind when recording.
You’ve also started a new project, Principal Participant, and have released a digital album a couple of years ago, which, from what I’ve heard of it, is much more influenced by techno and sounds resolutely more electronic than what you do as Minotaur Shock. Can you tell us more about how the project came about, and are you planning to develop it further?
The Principal Participant album was a collection of more electronic stuff that didn’t quite fit under the Minotaur Shock name. Mainly because there were no acoustic guitars! I keep intending to make more, but haven’t had the time yet – I’ve recently got some analogue bits and bobs out of the loft, so I think it will be my next project. A straightforward electronic album.
Could you name five records, movies, books or works of art that have been important to you at some point in your life, and why?
I’m terrible at remembering books. In fact I’m pretty rubbish at remembering films too. I find records a lot easier, as they are usually associated with a particular time and place, more so than books.
In terms of film, one that I always come back to is Coppola’s The Conversation. I first saw it late at night on TV years ago; one of those films you accidentally start watching when you should be going to bed. I immediately loved David Shire’s soundtrack – still one of my favourites along with The Taking Of Pelham 123. The film itself is great, and is wonderful if you’re a bit dozy; there are references to opacity throughout, with muffled audio combining with Gene Hackman’s almost see-through coat to create a real sense of fuzziness and ambiguity. The stuff with the tape manipulation is also really interesting, especially now it’s all done with mouse clicks.
Bytes by Black Dog Productions is pretty important to me. I remember buying it on tape in Bath once when I was meant to be studying (back in the days when you could buy new tapes in record shops). I was supposed to be sat in the library researching some history project and I just wandered round the town listening to it for ages. I loved the different time signatures they would use, but still maintain a great machine funk. After that I got Incunabula and binged on Warp for a good while.
I used to have a Saturday job selling pots and pans in the local House Of Fraser when I was about sixteen, and every lunchtime I’d visit Revolver Records, which was a wonderful little record shop. They always had stacks of Too Pure and Sarah Records stuff, and racks of obscure records that fascinated me. I used to get told off for eating pasties and attempting to buy anything that the people who worked there didn’t approve of (the staff were members of Flying Saucer Attack, Third Eye Foundation etc). Anyhow, one day I asked which Can album to buy first, which sparked off a great debate behind the counter. Future Days was the one I plumped for, and to this day I’ll remain grateful to Richard King for recommending it to me. That record was like nothing I’d heard before and it’s still my favourite Can album.
Seamonsters by The Wedding Present is another of my favourite records – I’d always seen them as an amusing distraction before, but Seamonsters ripped my head off. I still think it’s one of my favourite Steve Albini productions, although PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me had a similar kind of impact. I loved that it was like a normal Wedding Present album if it had been working out in the gym and got all pumped up. The guitar sounds are amazing throughout (totally gives Loveless a run for its money I reckon), and I’ve always loved Albini’s love-em-or-hate-em drums. One of those records that just begs to be played extremely loud. Can’t wait to see them resurrecting it live later in the year.
Jaws is one of my favourite films, I saw the recent cinema re-release and it looked amazing on the big screen. Every scene in that film looks beautiful, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. It’s like a Hitchcock film. I watched it once when my wife was pregnant and that bit where Brody is sat at the table and his little boy is copying him totally shook me up. Spielberg is great at slipping in these little scenes that get you right where it hurts, but I guess you can miss them if you’re just thinking about the sharks or the dinosaurs. Having kids totally changes your perception of films, and all these scenes that you once thought were twee suddenly have a heartrending significance. They don’t tell you that in pre-natal class.
Email interview August 2012. Thank you to David and Matt.