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

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Drunks perched atop misericords, motorway trips evangelised over folk harmonies and interweaving lines of psychedelic guitar, Lauren Bacall next to Philip Larkin and Lou Reed with Arthur Rimbaud – these are just a few of the things you can expect from the ambitious, absorbing new album from Trembling Bells, The Sovereign Self. I was fortunate enough to have drummer and songwriter for the band Alex Neilson tell me more about the inspirations behind the album and his work as a whole, and illuminate this superb new release.

The celebrities mentioned above are just a few featured on the cover of The Sovereign Self, and as Neilson makes clear, the appearance of these contrasting luminaries are not by accident. “These were people who had directly or covertly influenced the content of the album. They populate the landscapes of the songs and their voices are put in quotation marks or else obscured and garbled. They act as talismans within the music, supercharging it with personal reverberations. I’m not juxtaposing different people, more wearing some influences on our sleeve and not discriminating between conceptions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. I gave our artist and lead vocalist, Lavinia Blackwall, a list of people and she selected and arranged them for the cover.”

Those listening to The Sovereign Self might be struck (as this writer was) by the dense, harder-edged nature of the material, pushing further into psych and art-rock than ever before. But for Neilson, this is just the latest step in the Trembling Bells voyage. “The new album is definitely a natural progression in the development of the band, rather than a conscious move to mirror any other existing musical style. With each album we expand the sonic possibilities through processes of learning about ourselves and experimenting on previous formulas. We spent two years developing this album, rather than the usual one year and that might account for a difference in tone. To me, we are still cycling around similar subjects but getting deeper into the gut of it. One change is that there are barely any love songs on the album. I don’t think the word ‘love’ is used on the album and the word ‘heart’ only once, which is refreshing. I guess I looked for other bogs to be mired in.”

Another change this time around is the addition of Alasdair Mitchell on additional guitar. As Neilson describes, “Alasdair is a very active member of the band. He has a very attuned musical intelligence and can pick things up very quickly. He also likes to go away and work on his parts in his own time (which is a first for us!). He has definitely added some steel to the sound by bolstering some of the lines Mike Hastings had already established. He also has similarly diverse references in music, film and literature, so he can complement and embellish what we do fairly naturally.”

Amongst the lyrical inspirations that fuel the album is Neilson’s interest in the tragedians of Ancient Greece. As he explains it, “Most of the lyrics are to do with self-exposure or self-obstruction. Subjecting yourself to vertiginous immensities and vampiric immaturities and allowing them to battle for control over your nervous system. I guess I am interested in heroic despair: giving a poetic voice to self-annihilation. That led me to the tragedians of Ancient Greece who I got a lot of inspiration and consolation from. I’m also interested in a whole manner of things – sex, hallucination, magnifying places that are rich with personal significance, the redemption of a troubled personality through art.”

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“Most of the lyrics are to do with self-exposure or self-obstruction. Subjecting yourself to vertiginous immensities and vampiric immaturities and allowing them to battle for control over your nervous system”

Neilson’s musical activity stretches far beyond his work with Trembling Bells however. We touch upon his journalistic work, which includes a recent cover feature for The Wire on psychedelia in Yorkshire. “I see them as being different aspects of the same mania. My practical interest in music informs my analytical ability but my knowledge of musicology is very limited. I think that has encouraged me to be both more conceptual and sensual in my relationship to music. Notes and chords always sound like algebra to me. Or my GCSE results.”

He’s also effusive about the influence of the work of Judy Collins, whose recent 80th birthday celebrations Trembling Bells were involved in. “Her influence on me has been immense. There was a period of time between the ages of 18 and 23 when her music was basically all I listened to. Around the age of 21 I went on a pilgrimage from Glasgow to Lewes, Sussex to attend a talk she was giving. In my mind I was flattering myself with parallels of a young Bob Dylan visiting Woody Guthrie in the autumn of his years.”

He’s just as effusive about local musician Steven Malley, who will be supporting Trembling Bells on their August tour as The Horse Loom. “I love his music and he’s a great guy. I’ve known him for over ten years. I think he played his first ever solo gig at a concert I played at Morden Tower in Newcastle around 2005. His work has great depth and strength. I love how his songs are largely impressionistic interpretations of places in North East England that have a great personal relevance to him. That’s very interesting to me and he does it very well. I’ll look forward to seeing him play each night and maybe even jam sometime in the future.”

Trembling Bells play The Cumberland Arms, Newcastle on Thursday 13th August. The Sovereign Self is available now.

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