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

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It’s no exaggeration to say that Hen Ogledd’s third album Mogic is one of the most remarkable and surprising records I’ve heard all year, and one of the very best. A band containing such a diverse and  creative set of musicians would inevitably produce something unexpected, but I really couldn’t have anticipated Mogic’s dizzy blend of wonky pop and gleeful innovation. On first hearing it, a friend remarked – in entirely complimentary fashion – “that album is fucking nuts”, which seems succinct and accurate.

Now expanded to a four-piece with Sally Pilkington joining Richard Dawson, Rhodri Davies and Dawn Bothwell, Hen Ogledd arrived at Mogic by surprisingly improvisatory methods.

“It mainly came together during the three days of recording in January at the old Blank Studios in Newcastle.” Davies explains. “We had sent each other loads of snippets of ideas leading up to the recording, some we used and many we didn’t. We all took a lead on a few songs each and we all sang some songs: some had the structure worked out beforehand, others came with the bones of an idea so as to allow improvisation, some songs were musical ideas by one person merged with another’s lyrics, and some of it just emerged through playing together in the studio. The themes, if any, were loose and often just one word… the wonderful invited musicians (Pat Thomas, Will Guthrie, Michal Poreba, Sarah Sullivan, Ben Jones and Mette Rasmussen) were chosen carefully with these themes in mind. And of course Sally joining the group was totally mind blowing and took us in all kinds of new directions!” “Also, Rhodri kept saying ‘let’s make a pop album!’” adds Bothwell. “which sort of snowballed. I think the ‘fucking nuts’ that you hear is the tension of a long-time improviser insisting on making a pop album and the misinterpretation of that proposal (perhaps initially meant as a joke?!) by four very different musicians.”

“I was serious,” Davies demurs, “not about making commercial music or an album that was popular but to see if there was a way to make pop music that was open to alternative and experimental methods. Was it possible to improvise a pop album into existence and if so, how might it differ to pre-existing music. I also wanted to see how we all interpreted the word differently. We all shared an openness that allowed the music to go in different directions.”

It’s surprising to see, for example, Richard Dawson playing a lot of bass and very little guitar, and I wondered if there was a deliberate attempt to get people outside their comfort zones musically. “In terms of the instruments – you just do what is required.” Dawson explains.  “I felt the music needed the bass to act as a sort of an anchor. Rhodri’s harp – there’s a lot more of it than you might necessarily think, it’s just that he does such outlandish things with it. But yes, he’s playing quite a few things here, some pretty whacked out guitar playing. Regarding the personnel, Rhodri suggested Dawn join us for the last album Bronze and it quickly morphed into her becoming a full-time member, in a very natural way. Her music was a big part of it for sure, but also her unique spirit and how we all fit as people. The same goes with Sally, it just seemed quite natural and ‘fated’ for her to join. At least this is my perspective! These moves came through friendship and love more than any consideration about what the music might need – although I think maybe those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Will Guthrie (on drums) coming into it was a bit different – I loved his records and knew Rhodri had worked with him before, it just felt like we had a lot in common in the spirits of our music. He arrived from his flight from Nantes on the first day right as we had set tape rolling and dived straight in – one of the best drummers in the world and we made him play pretty much basic four-four for a whole day.” “I’m playing a lot of harp on the album but it doesn’t sound like a traditional harp.” Davies adds. “So the distorted introduction to Problem Child is harp and the distorted interjections on ‘Sky Burial’ are also harp. Singing is a little outside of my comfort zone but it happened organically within the safety and mutual trust of the group. Love Time Feel is sung by an ancient robot from the future who sings songs of advice to singer songwriters in the past, which is transmitted over public address systems to empty streets and not one person hears it. It came as a bit of a shock to me that the robot didn’t exist and I had to sing it into existence.”

It’s clear that all four of Hen Ogledd really relish playing together. “I felt quite overwhelmed with love when I joined – it was very pleasant.” Bothwell offers. “Not at all like being in a band, the stereotype of it anyway! Instead of plinky-plonk guitars and arguments about solos, it’s like being in a soft play doing backflips.” Pillkington is similarly enthused. “I was very excited and quite nervous about joining Hen Ogledd! Me and Richard had been playing music together a lot at home, and acquiring new instruments – synthesisers and drum machines… it felt like a natural step and a leap of faith at the same time. Hen Ogledd is a very mysterious beast, and I didn’t really know what to expect from the three days together recording. I felt very aware of being a less experienced musician and performer, and had no idea how it would all happen, particularly with the weird mix of structured but unrehearsed songs and improvisation. But it all came together naturally and we had a lot of fun. Will just turned up on the day with no idea what the hell was going on which really added to the excitement. I think there was a nice mixture of being sincere but not too serious… Hen Ogledd feels like a very loving and supportive clan where you can’t really go wrong.”

Whilst Mogic is likely to surprise listeners familiar with the previous Hen Ogledd albums, there wasn’t any deliberate attempt to confound, as Dawson explains. “The record is as direct and concise as possible.  I am against any notion of trying to make wilfully obscure music. It always has to be as clear as possible – though that’s often pretty blurry. The music here made itself. Our friendship was a catalyst to it taking a certain kind of form, but it already existed before and so it led itself by its own hand where it needed to go. It’ll keep existing after this and shape-shifting, it’ll continue to live in different guises.” “We didn’t set out to confuse people but we were open to surprising ourselves and each other.” adds Davies, and Bothwell concurs. “I think we were all quite sincerely behind what we each wrote for the album – even Rhodri with Dyma Fy Robot… which isn’t perhaps deadpan. It still communicates quite a personal desire – tidy robot! Anyway, it definitely wasn’t an intentionally ‘obscure’ effort. Rather, the ideas in the album – future and past technology, human and non-human relationships, technological interfaces – they are all contradictory and sincere at the same time; I think this sense comes through the music. How do we deal with that quality of the present?” Pilkington picks up the thread. “I think we all really embraced vulnerability in writing and sharing heartfelt pop songs. And Rhodri recording the vocals for Love Time Feel was the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard!”

There’s a playful and joyful experimentation to the album but also a definite leaning to a version of ‘pop’ that reminds me of the more inventive eighties output of artists like Julian Cope, The Raincoats and Robert Wyatt, and I wondered what the band were thinking of. Dawson suggests “artists like Hannah Diamond, Erasure, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, The Cure and Kraftwerk somewhere around the back of my mind, and Neil Young’s ‘Trans’ was a big touchstone for us.”, while Pilkington offers “lots of inspirational vocoder music – playing Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories on repeat and finding it very emotional! Laurie Anderson and Neil Young’s Trans were in my ears a lot too.” “I wasn’t thinking of any particular influences,” says Bothwell.  “I usually just start with the instrument I’m using and try to play something like a painful itch. That’s maybe a sentiment akin to 80s post punk – playing with attitudes and restrictions.”

Many of the lyrics seem to deal with magic, nature and technology and the presence of one within the other, and I wondered if that was intentional. “Contradiction is at the heart of all things.” Dawson explains. “‘Technology and nature’ is an example of a contradiction, they’re opposite and the same. ‘Transport’ and ‘Travel’ sound almost like the same thing but if you think carefully about those words they’re in opposition too.” ”Me and Richard had been watching the new Twin Peaks in the run up to recording.”, Pilkington expands. “I found that quite mind-altering and I think I was still in a zone of David Lynch-induced magical mystical obscurity when we were writing and recording. I‘d also been watching lots of footage of Sophia the AI robot and trying to get my head around the possibility of robo-emotions. Saying that, I did get stuck with a bit of a dated recurring vision Number 5 from Short Circuit rambling along Hadrian’s Wall, gleaning information from stone carvings and tourist information boards and stumbling upon the remains of an old robot friend.”

Speaking of robots, Davies explains the meaning of one of the album’s two Welsh language songs. “‘Dyma fy Robot’ is about a groovy, sweet talking, anti-racist, tidy robot. Tidy Robot. Tidy Robot. Tidy Robot!” And Gwae Reged o Heddiw? “That title comes from a poem by Llywarch Hen from the 9th Century and the beginnings of the idea goes back to when Dawn asked me to come up with a lecture performance in 2015 for an event she was organizing with CIRCA projects for the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. While preparing for the performance I was trying to imagine what Aneirin’s poem Y Gododdin might sound like when recited with a North East accent. I then realized that my daughter, who spoke Welsh, was probably one of the few people who could recite the poem with a Geordie accent.”

If it’s possible to have highlights on album that’s pretty much all highlights, then the first two tracks showcased by the band probably fit the bill. When asked if they ever thought they’d come up with such a bona fide banger as Problem Child, Dawson offers a simple “absolutely”, while Sky Burial is one of the loveliest songs you’ll hear all year. “I felt quite embarrassed about Sky Burial”, Pilkington admits.  “It’s more soft and sentimental than I was really aiming for.”

And then of course, there’s the entirely unrecognisable cover of Welcome To Hell by Tyneside titans Venom. Given his love for metal, I’d mistakenly assumed this was Dawson’s idea, but I was wrong. “No, it was Dawn! It took us all by surprise!” Dawson exclaims. “Well, they are Geordie legends.” Bothwell enthuses. “I was thinking about them recently because I heard Tyne & Wear Archives were given the master tapes from Impulse Studios in Wallsend where Cronos used to work and recorded with Venom. They are water-damaged a lot of them, and I started trying to play covers imagining what the water-damaged, reel-to-reel, magnetic tapes would sound like. Maybe with some Geordie chat in the background. I played a version as Pentecostal Party at a festival, wrote the lyrics on a white board and tried to get the audience to join in, like karaoke. But thought it needed to go further with a band behind it… I think we’re all Venom fans…”

Mogic is released by Weird World / Domino on November 16th and the band play Newcastle Star & Shadow on November 29th.

 

 

 

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