INTERVIEW: Rhodri Davies | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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With a typically lavish alt.vinyl boxed set just released and a launch gig at the Old Police House in Gateshead on Thursday 18th December, it seemed like an auspicious time to catch up with Welsh harpist and artist Rhodri Davies.

I kicked off by asking Davies about the four-album vinyl boxed set itself, Pedwar (Welsh for four) which includes new album An Air Swept Clean Of All Distance and three previous releases (despite a lengthy and labyrinthine discography, promiscuous collaborator Davies has only released four fully solo albums, and it is these that are included).

“It was just from some discussions, really; Graham (Thrower, alt.vinyl) was keen to reissue Wound Response which he put out in 2012, and we were going to release the new solo album as well. So I had the bright idea of re-releasing the first two solo albums too (Over Shadows and Trem), that I put out on another label and were on CD only, so they’d never been on LP, and they were from years ago so I thought it might be nice to remaster them and see what they looked like in a box really, and we really went for it.”

As is usual with alt.vinyl releases, the Pedwar set comes in a limited run but is a truly lovely object and Davies is full of enthusiasm about Thrower’s work. “It’s the level of detail and the care, he just doesn’t accept second best… everything has to be in immaculate condition. It includes a pile of reproductions of old flyers that I picked out from my archive, and then I wrote some notes about each of them. The main thing for me is the live experience when I play, and obviously it’s great to have recordings but I just wanted to give a bit more context to each concert. They’re not necessarily solo concerts but even when I play with other people it informs what I do on my own.” The set also includes some typically absorbing and esoteric sleeve notes from the mighty David Toop, ruminating on everything from the history of the harp in classical civilisation to Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art movement.

I admitted to Davies that in the past I’d found his music quite hard going (a failing on my part rather than his, and true of my encounters with a lot of the more experimental/ improv side of things) but that his recent performance at the launch party for his good friend/ regular collaborator Richard Dawson’s new album really impressed me. I suggested that each piece – played on a small acoustic lap harp – seemed like a puzzle he was trying to solve, a “Rubik’s harp” if you will. Davies had the good grace to absorb the absurd analogy into his description of what the approach with that performance – and the new album – really is.

“The choice of harp is very limiting – I’ve only got 20 strings, instead of 47 which I’d have on my big harp, and the notes don’t have any key changing possibilities. So that limits me, and of course each time I’m playing really quite aggressively on the strings, a couple of strings break, so eventually it becomes more and more of a challenge to make music. So I’m struggling – in a good way – to make music out of limited means, and then also the rhythms I get into, I don’t stay there too long and the challenge is to move it somewhere else without the whole thing capsizing. Struggle may not be the right word… I’m not trying to play the harp beautifully, necessarily, which the harp does easily, but to create something else.”

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“I’m not trying to play the harp beautifully, necessarily, which the harp does easily, but to create something else.”

With each of the four albums in the set Davies seems to set himself a limit or parameter, such as the use of the e-bow on Over Shadows. I asked how deliberate a process this was. “It’s not necessarily a conscious thing at the time. Like with the e-bow, I just loved the sound of it when I got one and there weren’t many instances of a harp being played by one, there was only one piece that John Cage did in the eighties. So I loved the sound and obviously an e-bow on an acoustic harp sounds a lot different from an electric guitar.“

The acoustic lap harp on the new album (and its predecessor Wound Response) shares a certain quality with both the kora you hear in much African music, and in music of south east Asia and Japan, and I asked Davies about the influence of such styles.

“I wasn’t trying to play like any of those musics but obviously I listen to them a lot. I guess in the past maybe, especially with the first album, I was into what I guess you’d call a modernist improv aesthetic – just noises and sounds – whereas now I’m not denying the influence of harp music from all over the world. And just the nature of the harps themselves, they’ve got fewer strings, it’s less western in that I’m not changing key or using the pedals, it sounds a lot more like other harps around the world because that’s the nature of the smaller harp. But the main reason I chose the little harp was that I was trying to find the cheapest harp I could, because some of these harps have gold on them and have different cultural resonances and I was keen to find something portable but also something that doesn’t relate to privilege.”

Davies has been in Newcastle since 2007 – drawn initially by practical reasons rather than the pull of the Newcastle music scene – but is clearly passionate about the city. “It’s so rich culturally, I’d argue it’s more interesting than more dominant cities that think they’ve got really interesting scenes but maybe they’re not as vital as they appear. I’ve played in a lot of cities in the UK and what tends to happen is that one or two people have a lot of energy and they start a club or an evening, and then they fall out and everything becomes really quite depressed. But here, there are just so many people doing different things, in so many different disciplines, and the disciplines mix up a lot more than they would in say London, and I think that’s really healthy. You’ve got :zoviet*france: and Chris Watson doing his stuff, the AV Festival, a bunch of people up in Blyth doing amazing CD-rs and tapes. There’s a drone scene and a noise scene, there’s New Blockaders, the list is endless really, and it’s all really fantastic stuff. I was really surprised actually… I was just really lucky…”

The album and box are launched with a special gig tomorrow night at the Old Police House. I asked Davies about putting the gig on and what was in store. “Richard and I are doing our Hen Oggledd piece, then Phil (Begg) is playing as Hapsburg Braganza, Gwilly Edmondez from the university is doing a duet with his daughter as Yeah You, I’ll be doing a bit of a solo thing. Graham (Thrower) is going to be DJing, and there’s a chap performing under the name of Callan, he does a lovely DJ set where he uses little portable turntables and treats the sound, not just playing tracks but working with the records as well, looping or distorting them, changing the timbre. We’re also going to have each act in a different room in the Old Police House, it’s a building the council own, I think, but the musician Mariam Rezaei rents it off them as an artist studio space,  she does a lot of musical activities there, and her turntable work with young people (Noizestra). It’s just like a house, really, so it’s going to be interesting to see how we fit everybody in. We did a launch in London, at Café Oto, but I really thought it was important to do one up here because Graham is doing such amazing work and everyone really appreciates it so it just seemed like a good way of thanking him really.”

Rhodri Davies’ latest album An Air Swept Clean of All Distance and the collection Pedwar are both out now and available from alt.vinyl.

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