There’s a warmth and humanity to this album, as if all the studio tricks have been set aside. Was this a deliberate effort to contrast from the somewhat cold, mechanical beat-driven approach of Hidden?
The biggest difference is that with the first album especially, there was a bit of a gap between me and the music. It was a bit of a construct. With the last album that gap closed a lot. With this one it has disappeared. I just had the feeling that I didn’t want to write about obscure things any more. To an extent when you go through things then you have to match that in your music, or at least try. Or that’s how I felt this time. It’s no good writing about some obscure species of slug or something, I don’t know.
There’s definitely an element of perfectionism in what you do – how do you not let this ruin the spontaneity or energy of a performance? And does it cause arguments?
It’s just that this music demands that. Everything has to be just right or it all falls apart, because there are so many little things colliding and moving around each other, so it has to be perfect. As well as getting really virtuosic people to play the music there’s also the energy of George and Tom playing percussion and everything they bring to it. And some old jazz people, some of the best, most expressive musicians about. People playing musical instruments together, not ironing out all the irregularities with editing (irregularities are what make something moving), but honing a performance through playing – for the song Fragment 2, George’s drum take is number 76 – the moment when somewhere between the musician, the instrument and what you’ve written, something happens.
Where do you begin with such complex songs? Like for example the intro to Organ Eternal?
I was sat watching TV actually and fiddling on my computer, which isn’t how I usually wrote music. But I wrote that organ part, with the alternating time signatures. Not that I was thinking about time signatures, just about what it sounded like. It’s only afterwards you analyse things when you’re recording. Then I just played the rest of the chords on a piano, pretty much from start to finish that one. Then I sang the line, “Into the evening rain”, and built the rest of the lyric around it, about missing someone. I just put one note in front of the other and saw what sound should come next.
How do you plan to re-create this album live without booking concert halls that would be fitting of the acoustics you need?
Because this album is a lot more melodic and harmonic, it’s quite easy to play live. You could play all these songs from start to finish on piano if you wanted. So it quite suits a honed version.
Which song are you most proud of; maybe because it became the hardest one to finish?
I’m more proud of particular bits, like the way the double bass and low piano merge together in Organ Eternal. That sounds really good. They have a similar grainy tone those two instruments and we did a good job of that. I could listen to those two instruments playing together all day. Can’t get enough of it.
Do you ever feel constrained by the traditional format of live performance which is quite a static delivery of the songs from the stage to the audience?
I don’t know if it’s that static. But then again this music has to be quite static. You can’t really improvise around it or jam around it. I like the agility of the song being completely able to turn on its head, to change just like that in the blink of an eye into something completely different – and the only way you can do that really is by composing, by writing it beforehand. Obviously once you get musicians into the studio the parts will change a bit depending on what sounds good, which is a really fun process. And the same can happen live. Again, it’s the moment when somewhere between the musician, the instrument and what you’ve written, something happens.
Who do you listen to for inspiration and do you compare yourself to other composers, thereby setting the bar very high?
I set the bar quite high. If it’s not as good as Neil Young then it’s not good enough. At least that keeps me going.