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

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There’s not so much of a band culture in jazz,” says Archipelago bass player John Pope. “Usually, outfits are led by and centred around the work of one individual, but our set-up is more like that of a DIY rock group.”

This statement rings true throughout a conversation which paints Archipelago far from your average act, jazz or otherwise. Although led ostensibly by writer, saxophonist and clarinet player Faye MacCalman, the impression is of a uniquely compatible trio (completed by percussionist extraordinaire Christian Alderson) whose talents and personalities each form an equal, integral cog. All three speak eloquently and at similar length. Certainly, you get a sense of the chemistry which makes them such a stirring live draw, and which in Echoes To The Sky has manifested in a second album as compelling and adventurous as any the North East has produced over recent years.

“I was really nervous about bringing songs to this band. My background in free improvised music meant that I was used to playing with people who were particularly adverse to that kind of thing,” Faye recalls, on the origins of this connection. “To me, though, improvised music was beginning to develop ‘a sound’ – it didn’t really feel free anymore – so I wanted to explore a different approach which would be more honest to myself. I did worry that John and Christian would be like ‘Ewww! We don’t play songs!’ but once it became obvious that wouldn’t be the case, it became easy.”

Of course, this methodology hardly denotes a dearth in creativity. Indeed, whether on stage or in the studio, Archipelago remain a gripping and audacious outfit; a fluid hub achieving a winning equilibrium between compositional excellence and individualistic flair. It’s a flexible craft which proves lucrative throughout Echoes To The Sky, a brilliant collage of colourful, multifaceted soundworlds bound by an effusive energy which extends the garage band affinity beyond their core ethos. Recorded in Field Music’s Sunderland studio last December, the LP has flowered from three years of tours, rehearsals and lockdowns, along with a resolve to shed the baggage of genre tropes.

How do we make this thing rock without being ‘rock?’ How do we make something that’s intense, but also really quiet?

“There’s ‘a way’ of improvising as a free jazz musician, and in a sense it’s no different to writing a verse-chorus-verse pop song, or playing guitar merely to achieve a particular style,” suggests John. “Thinking of how to use what we have in a way that’s not obvious has become something which we as a band have become really conscious of. I think it’s something that’s grown from this collection of material especially: How do we make this thing rock without being ‘rock?’ How do we make something that’s intense, but also really quiet?

Despite bearing no direct influence, it’s an attitude Christian feels they share with many contemporary trailblazers like Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Sons of Kemet, who are forging fresh paths and drawing the ears of a new generation.

“A lot of organisations have been talking over the past few years about branching out and growing audiences – creating some kind of hybrid beast with multiple heads that’ll save jazz – but I think the stuff which has broken through has often been the most organic,” he says. “The music they make reflects where they’re from, the people they grew up with and the things they care about. It’s the most honest stuff which comes through – it just takes time to come from the bottom up.”

While the trio’s core reeds/bass/drum set-up and use of effects offer ample scope for experimentation, the new record nevertheless represents a significant sonic advance on its predecessor, 2017’s Weightless. The digitised squelch of Undercurrent, for instance, exemplifies Echoes To The Sky’s heightened incorporation of electronics, yet it’s the addition of Faye’s voice – on prominently placed tracks Waiting, Wake Up and Burn On – which makes for the biggest development.

“I see my voice almost like an extension of the clarinet and saxophone,” she reveals. “I’ve written songs at the piano my whole life, but it’s something I’ve always kept hidden because I felt it wasn’t allowed! I felt conflicted between the music I would play and what was actually coming out when I was writing, but lately I’ve been trying to keep songs in their raw, nucleus form – taking that leap of faith and being a bit more vulnerable.”

As Christian explains, it’s a development which can also be traced back to Between Waves, their 2018 project featuring a host of adventurous female collaborators including Rosie Frater-Taylor, Fran Bundey and Faith Brackenbury (who opens the Echoes To The Sky album launch at Gosforth Civic Theatre on Friday 25th June). “Because Between Waves always involved a fourth musician, we had to find that extra space in each piece,” he explains. “It eased the transition, and broke the sense that all three of us had to be riffing and filling space at once.

“One thing we’ve found already is that while instrumental music conveys all kinds of emotions and narratives, as soon as you add words people start asking what the songs are about,” he continues. “Lyrics are a more direct route to those emotions, and once they’re in there you’re suddenly dealing with statements, but the electronics can have a similar effect. Once you expand your soundworld, you expand the range of emotions open to you.”

“Being able to take those risks comes from being friends and the trust we have in each other,” John concludes.

“John’s flanger pedal hasn’t reared its head yet, though,” Christian deadpans. “That’ll be the acid test!”

Archipelago release Echoes To The Sky on Friday 25th June through New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings. A launch show (with live audience) takes place at Gosforth Civic Theatre that evening


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