Written by: Dave Cantrell
My first assignment with SEM, part of what I would eventually come to call ‘the Occultation beat,’ as it involved writing reviews of records released on that most revered of British independent labels as well as interviewing the artist when possible, was to cover Enter Castle Perilous by Factory Star, original Fall member Martin Bramah’s then-band. While the review has long since been added to SEM’s active archive, the interview has only just been found. In anticipation of a brand new, recently conducted interview with Mr Bramah which will publish later this week – and believe me, there is plenty of great news and insight to be had therein – we thought we’d re-introduce this 2011 interview, conducted via email. To give some context, here’s Enter Castle Perilous‘s opening track:
SEM: You recently moved back to Manchester after a prolonged period in London (I believe) Am I right in thinking that it was that move that helped fire and animate this record, even aside from the more obvious examples of “Big Mill” and “Cheetham Bill”? Can you speak to how much, in your perception, Manchester has changed, for better or worse, or how much it’s still the same, also for better or worse?
MARTIN BRAMAH: Yes, this album is very much influenced by my return to Manchester. The rover’s return, you might say. I got a fresh sense of the city’s history and character. The bits I knew well, seen with new eyes and the many things that have changed in my absence, making me feel like I was in a brand new town. As to whether it has changed for the better or for worse, I hesitate to say…Manchester has been here a long time and her spirit is strong. It’s certainly not the musical “boomtown” that it once maybe was, but there is still a lot of great music being made here. It’s a good place to be.
SEM: There’s this statement you make in the Totally Wired interview. It refers to the effects of psilocybin on the Mancunian psyche, or yours anyway. The word “eerie” comes up, the phrase “strange pagan Celtic flavour.” “Wicca,” “Druidism,” all elements that seem at least obliquely – if not overtly, at times – present on Enter Castle Perilous. I’m thinking “Angel Steps” and “Stone Tumbling Stream,” “The Fall Of Great Britain,” all of which have an Avalon, pre-Industrial Revolution feel to them. Just overall the album seems imbued with a kind of gritty mysticism.
MB: I confess I am steeped in it!
SEM: On that topic: Mysticism, as you also talked about in that Simon Reynolds interview, is often reviled in modern creative circles but to my mind, any artist pursuing an original vision has to be a bit of a mystic, wouldn’t you say, always staring off into an ethereal distance of some kind?
MB: I think people are afraid to wear the mantle these days, perhaps. It’s a matter of style rather than content. What you are calling “mysticism” is an important part of the creative process – gazing into the void, etc. and plucking out a plum…Psilocybin is also known as the “Liberty Cap” – don it at your peril!
SEM: It occurred to me in re-reading that interview for, um, this interview, that Simon’s question about the name ‘The Fall,’ having evocations of civilization decadently in decline, the mighty being toppled, all that, could just as easily, and perhaps more relevantly, be asked in regards to ECP’s overall tone. “The wearer of the suit of the cloth of gold / felt his mind unfold” and “..he cooked the books on Babylon” in “The Fall Of Great Britain” and of course “Arise Europa!,” and in a subtler subtext with “Big Mill” as well.
MB: Yes, it’s true to say that these are themes that I have pursued from the beginning and throughout my writing, in one way or another.
SEM: You obviously take great care in fashioning your lyrics and the results speak for themselves: “Angel Steps’” “Hair flailing on the red bank / She was not swimming in the brimming weir” (personal favourite), “Europa stands outside the gate / She will besiege this city state / So open you hangar and clamber in / And set a course for New Berlin” from “Arise Europa!” “A sun under the water at midnight” from “New Chemical Light,” which is a beautiful image, visually arresting. How long do you spend on lyrics, relatively, and do you worry at all about the sometimes obscure references, such as Cylm of the Clough in “Away Dull Care!,” an outlaw from late 19th c. Manchester, pal of Adam Bell (who I thought was in Ride/Oasis ha ha), Donkey Fringe (Scuttlers’ hair style) et al?
MB: Some lyrics can hang about for years before I find a place for them in a song, others come complete in the space of a feverish hour trying to express a fleeting feeling before it passes. As to worrying about obscure references, I delight in them – it gives the listener something to get their teeth into. I like to state things obliquely, as I enjoy wondering what a thing might mean. I don’t like to be spoon fed ideas, so I try not to do that to others.
SEM: More on lyrical content. Overall the writing inhabits a more historic, almost ancient place than most so-called rock songs. One has to look to British/Celtic folk to find a similar syntax. Was that simply down to the lingering influences mentioned above or was there a more pointed reason?
MB: I see myself as making a kind of folk music, in that I have had no formal training or education in music. I try to write about the times I live in, but the ghosts of the past keep on whispering their lessons to me. The present moment is shot through with the rich perfume of the past and in it one may discern the germs of our possible future.
SEM: I understand the plan going in to these recording sessions was for just an A-side and a couple of B’s. Then this 3-day flurry. Did those extra songs just appear or did you already have most of them in some form or another? And did this qualify as the most intense in-studio experience of your career or do the Mayo Thompson “Flood” sessions still top that list?
MB: Yes it’s true; we went into the studio to record a single, but we came out with an album! I knew we could make an album in the given time as Factory Star had been gigging regularly for two years by then, and we were well rehearsed. Actually it was the third line-up of the band, which had only been playing together for about seven months but I felt I’d be able to bully them through it, if I didn’t tell them the secret master plan. So we just played the eleven songs I had in mind, live in the studio – ten of which made it onto Enter Castle Perilous and the eleventh is our next single “Lucybel (It’s Christmas Time)”. I told the band that we were going to play through the given songs and then pick the best one for a single, so as to put them at their ease. It was a risky strategy but with the safe fallback position of handing over a single as requested. All the songs were written beforehand. Going into a recording studio is always an intense experience for me – I’d be worried if it wasn’t – this was certainly one of the most rewarding forays so far!
SEM: As mentioned, there’s prominent use on this album of a stylistic device where historic, sometimes ancient, themes lay over present-day scenarios, age-old templates that are as sage as ever. Because of this, an impression one may get from these songs, their lyrics (excepting “When Sleep Won’t Come” and “Stone Tumbling Stream”), is a fair amount of anger, or at least an aggrieved exasperation, that, after all these years, centuries even, things are only nominally better. Most of the world still suffers economic marginality, hope is at a premium, desperation cheap. Any truth to that or am I reading too much of my own worldview into this? In short, are we doomed by the simple fact that we’re slaves to our human failings – greed, power, too much to drink – and it will be forever thus?
MB: Erm…well, I am but a conduit for forces unknown. I do feel a sense of joining battle with a chthonic or unseen foe, in some romantic way or other. I do sympathize with the worldview you present above, but I remain an optimist, as the alternative is defeat. Rock ‘n Roll may yet save the world!
SEM: I trust you get asked often about The Fall/MES and though I can hear a few footsteps in ECP that could arguably be traced back to that band’s sound aesthetic, the album presents itself solidly on its own terms, as much as, if not more than, the Blue Orchids material. So I’ll just ask this: Generally speaking, how’s your relationship with that piece of your legacy?
MB: I’m very happy with the work I did in The Fall – being an original member of that institution I helped form some of the ideas and themes that have come to be known as “Fall-sound”. In the Blue Orchids I tried to move away from that and create something new – which was a bit like tying one hand behind my back, in retrospect, as sounding like The Fall is quite natural to me – so with Factory Star I’ve stopped worrying about all that. I’m more comfortable with my past now. I have the right to sound like The Fall and I do it better than a lot of Mark E. Smith’s backing bands. “Once Fall, always Fall.” I say – but never say “Fallen”!
SEM: Any plans to tour this, and if so, with the same personnel? I’m guessing that a U.S. tour is not likely at this point.
MB: We’ve been constantly playing live since I started the band in Dec. ’08. We’re not really part of the commercial music biz (being truly “indie”) so we don’t do tours as such at the moment. Playing in the U.S. would be great and I’d love to come…who knows what the future may hold?
SEM: Lastly, the usual question: What’s your favorite color? (Kidding) What are you listening to these days?
MB: My favorite colour is black. I listen to so many different things that it’s hard to make a list that would mean much to me (this is actually my least favorite question to be asked!). The last record I bought was: In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts.