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The Volkitsche Musick of Twelve Thousand Days – An interview with Alan Trench and Martyn Bates

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To help celebrate the release of new album Insect Silence and bring a great sense of solace to those fans that have been waiting, according to SEM correspondent Michael Mitchell, some 4,313 days since their previous album, we’re more than happy to present an extensive interview Mike did with Martyn and Alan. Light up something good, put the album on (again), and have a read…

Stereo Embers Magazine: It’s been 12 years since the last album. Is there a reason for such a long gap?

Alan Trench: Well, I’ve always thought that, as Lord Belborough of Belstead Hall, Chigley, so memorably said: ‘Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train.”  In this case the train is on the tracks of Life, and around 12 years back someone switched the points.  I’d moved out of London into the hallowed backwaters of Lincolnshire, which meant we didn’t meet up as regularly as previously; Martyn was busy with Eyeless and his solo albums, as well as other projects, and I was busy with Temple Music and other projects – the final Orchis album, the Hausfrauen Experiment, Cunnan, and R.Loftiss of The Gray Field Recordings and I had started Howling Larsons. She and I did a bunch of shows across the USA, got married, moved to Greece and created a delightful baby girl together.  So we were pretty busy!  Over that period, though, Martyn & I were always recording sporadically… we did try doing parts remotely, but we found we really needed to be in the same room.  But over probably a decade, we found that we had come up with a pretty good selection of songs, most of which are on ‘Insect Silence’. Martyn had asked if I could work on his solo albums, so he was coming out to Greece to record; finally we  listened through to the TTD material we had, decided which ones fitted with the album concept, and finished those ones.  There was also a false start with a different label, but luckily came into contact with Final Muzik who have done a fabulous job on realizing the album.

SEM: How long have you known each other and what drew the two of you together to begin working artistically?

AT: We were talking about this the other day… we reckon it’s nearly a quarter of a century we’ve known each other, and we’ve been working together for around 20 years… we’ve certainly now known each other long enough to know each other pretty well!  Obviously, I knew Eyeless, and I’d just finished the first Orchis album, ‘The Dancing Sun’, so I gave Martyn a copy, in the sure and certain knowledge that he’d toss it aside with a withering sneer.  Which he did.  But then he picked up again and fell for it’s wonky charms, so I seized my chance to ask him to do some vocals on the next one.  As soon as we started to do that we realized it wasn’t Orchis, or indeed Eyeless, but something quite different, and quite magical.  Thus was born Twelve Thousand Days.

Martyn Bates: Yeah, the first Orchis album – it was a surprise and a shock but I came to learn. It’s still a beautiful album, I must say. It’s still a total joy to hear and experience, and it still sounds like the fabulous epitome of mess aesthetic.

SEM: What are the influences that each of you bring to the project?

MB: It might be true to say the core of the album is Alan’s vision perhaps (it was Alan’s vision initially). More so than the other Twelve Thousand Days records. I love it all of course or else it would be not be issued publicly. The only lyric composed by myself is ‘She Raises Her Eyes’ which, I am confident to say is not ‘typical’ for the album. I brought the Yeats settings to the table, and the whistle-tunes are mine (‘Fieldwork’, ‘Old Ladies as Birds, ‘Night Harmonium’ and ‘Red and Golden Fire’). The lyrics of ‘Pathless (pt II)’ are mine. You may recognize fragments. All the other tunes and words are Alan’s. Well the words definitely. The album was pieced together over the last three or four years. Recorded in the UK, mostly here at Kodak Strophes studios, then mixed at Bridge House in Evia, Greece (Alan’s island idyll). There is a disparate feel, I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the album, though I am confident that it works as an album of collected pieces, ‘points in time (perspectives captured)’ and as a common groundswell of mutuality. Alan was very keen to include the lambasting ‘Invoke Hecate’ song, which is ‘satire’/comment … We certainly do NOT want to invoke Hecate!!! However, such subjects are close to Alan’s heart and we both have a continued fascination for the points where the philosophical becomes tangible via whatsoever language you chose.

AT: Hmmm.  I like a whole lot of many, many things. I’m a lot more unfocused than Martyn, but he knows a great deal more about the music he’s into, some of which I have only a passing acquaintance with, but then there’s a lot of stuff I like which he actively hates. I think we both bring different viewpoints, at least musically.  I think it’s pretty easy to tell which songs start as Martyn’s and which ones start as mine, so I think my unique selling points are: 1. Lunkhead space rock psychedelia leanings, 2.A propensity for inventing horrible chords out of an enthusiasm for the less listenable bits of music theory, and 3. Being ok at production and mixing.

[this photo & feature: R.Loftiss]

SEM: Twelve Thousand Days have always had such a unique ‘Englishness’ about the music. How do you describe it and how have those boundaries been pushed on the new album?

MB: The ‘spirit of place’ looms large throughout the music and words for both of us as receivers and transmitters. We are (separately) emotionally and intellectually conscious of this one overriding aspect of it all.

AT: Well, we’re both English, and steeped in the tradition and spirit of place of England; there’s no doubt about that.  I’ve been away from England for six years now and have no wish to return, but I’ll never be anything but English.  One of my favorite writers is Jacquetta Hawkes, and her book ‘A Land’ explains it better than I ever could… her writing directly informs songs like ‘White Stone Day’ and ‘The Devil In The Grain’ from our second album of the later song title.  I think we all have a vital connection to the land we grow up in – we’re part of it to a degree we never realize.  I’m not talking about a country here, nationalism and so forth, but the actual flesh and bones of the land itself.  The track that comes closest to this on “Insect Silence”, I think, is ‘Errant Desires’, which is all about random chance, and the ephemeral nature of life – but in particular of a life of peculiarly English sensibility.  It’s always there; sometimes closer to the surface than others.  In a way, I find it important to knowingly utilize different and discrete elements to emphasize movement, a further step along the path – ‘Death Went Fishing’ is exactly that.  It’s explored at much greater length and depth in ‘Pathless’, in which a series of, well, vignettes, are presented and dissected as steps on a journey… in a sense a journey we all undergo, one way or another.  I think both of us are a long way from banging out ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ or suchlike, but I’ve always maintained that the sort of thing we’re doing, both together and separately, is an exploration of eternal themes covered in all folk musics, but freed from the stultifying ‘correctness’ of the modern idiom.  We’re doing music to illuminate, and if it only illuminates the small area around us, well, that’s good enough for me.  I think we’re a lot more free on “Insect Silence”, a lot closer to the source.

SEM: “Death Went Fishing” features uncharacteristic vocals. Very loose, somewhat off key and sounding like someone had been singing for 14 hours straight. Personally I’m glad it’s there. It makes it feel like you two are just having fun. Were you hesitant at all to release it in that way?

MB: That’s Alan doing the second ‘horse’ vocal. Yes, you are correct in your surmising. We went for it. It’s a ‘happy dead joy song’, so it made sense to show that ragged laughter/music. Maybe its a fucking mistake, after all!

AT: I seem to remember Martyn was recovering from a cold when he did the vocal to ‘Death’… but they really compliment the song. I don’t think I ever considered re-recording them… the spirit of the song is served very well by them, I reckon. The original, of which this is a pretty free translation, was by an old rebetiko guy called Giannis Papaioiannou, who had a pretty lived in voice, so there’s continuity there. (Rebetiko, is very loosely, the Greek ‘Blues’). But we had such a blast recording it anyway – Pete Becker played bass on it and Martyn and I hammered away like 2 year olds. So, no! I had no hesitation!

[alternate cover art, and actual cover art: Alan Trench]

SEM: Folk, Neofolk, Apocalyptic Folk…all terms bandied about related to your music. What is your view on such music labels?

AT: Well, they’re all bollocks, really, aren’t they?  Speaking as someone who is somewhat responsible for two of those labels, I think I can categorically state that. ‘Apocalyptic Folk’ was something that Dave Tibet and I came up with as a joke, and whilst I think it’s actually a pretty good genre name as genre names go, I rather preferred ‘Wyrd Folk’.  But it’s just categorization by labels in order to more easily sell stuff; if someone likes something, and it’s labelled as, I dunno, Volkistche Musick, then they’ll probably look for such a label in the future and give it a listen.  It’s kind of fair enough in this day and age when there’s just SO MUCH stuff out there – it’s a navigation aid. However, it’s a bit sad when people will fight to the death to maintain their own little genre corner of Mareschal Neo-Folk or some such, maintaining that such and such a band absolutely is, and therefore other bands absolutely aren’t.  personally, I don’t care what labels anyone uses; not my problem!  I think I might copyright ‘Volkitsche Musick’ though…

SEM: Alan, I know you have a love for older analog synths. They seem to be very present on the new album, especially on the track “Pathless”. Did you find it challenging integrating them with the more traditional sound you have?

AT: Both Martyn and I have a longstanding interest in synths and synthmen, though from somewhat differing viewpoints… mine being more of a whiney progtastic Emersonian bent, which I’ve managed to hide pretty well over the years.  It’s all about the tunes, really… both of us try and put tunes into everything, though it may not sound like it.  If you’ve only got, say, dulcimers, guitars, whistles, psalterys etc, they’re all in the same sort of register – not exactly the same, but the same area.  So you can whack icing all over it, but it’s still icing; using synths you can fill in the tonal space – not that Martyn and I leave much in the first place!  I think using synths gives you options that you can’t get with traditional acoustic instruments, frees you up a bit… Pathless in particular is a bit of an epic, and actually only works because of the various synths that are involved; although the first demo of the song was purely acoustic.  It took forever to get the balance right on all the various instruments, but I think it was worth it… I think that the important thing is that they sound like they’re meant to be there, and not some add-on for the hell of it.

SEM: Martyn, the words of W. B. Yeats feature on four tracks of the new album. Was there a reason you chose to resurrect them again since you had already recorded them with Troum?

MB: All the settings of Yeats that I used with Troum were all originally set to tunes that I worked and played /presented to Anne Clark when we were deciding which poet we’d best like to base an album around. So I still wanted to utilize those original settings. This was an ideal vehicle. The lyrics of ‘Pathless part II ( the end section/recitation)’, all come from early Eyeless in Gaza song lines. I’d put the poem-piece together and it was Alan’s idea to merge the two. ‘She Raises Her Eyes’ is all mine. I brought the complete song to Twelve Thousand Days as well as ‘Descent’. Those are my words, set to a tune concocted by Alan as I recall it.

SEM: Alan, you have had a long and varied musical oeuvre playing with the likes of Steven Stapleton and Albin Julius as well as your own bands like Orchis, Temple Music and Howling Larsons to name but a few. What is it about the music you do with Martyn that has made it such a lasting and continual project?

AT: Well, first and foremost, I genuinely believe Martyn is one of the most overlooked voices in modern English music.  His take on things is highly individual, and he brings a pop sensibility to the table that is both unique and visionary – so why wouldn’t I want to form a long lasting alliance with him?  Martyn & I clicked from day one, and what we do is incredibly enjoyable… whatever idea one of us comes up with, however left field, the other one picks up and runs with, and 9 times out of 10 it works.  That’s pretty unusual, I reckon.  I listen to what we’ve done so far, and I would rather like to hear more of it!

SEM: 12k Days have played live in the past. Do you foresee any performances after the new album is released?

MB: About this music, I say never say never.

AT: We, that is, Martyn & I, actually do live things together every year or so, though not under the Twelve Thousand Days name – there’ll be a few Twelve Thousand Days songs in there, usually.  I played with Martyn & Lizi in Athens last month, a Martyn Bates solo gig, and I think that might be the first time we didn’t do a mutual tune.  We have a plan for a sort of collaborative night that would feature various projects at the Underflow venue in Athens, and there would be a Twelve Thousand Days slot in there.  In recent years I’ve been playing in odder and odder places, so it’s perfectly possible that we would do a Twelve Thousand Days set as part of a poetry evening in a rebetika club at the Piraeus, for instance.  In general, if someone asks either of us to do something, and the other is free to do it, then we’ll do it!

SEM: I mentioned before the amount of time between releases and a lot has changed for musicians in that time. Everything is at people’s fingertips within seconds. What is your take on this and how bands make a living now. Do you think this is a good thing?

MB: ‘Insect Silence’ is … a delicious turn of phrase. For me, it sums up the saturation of communication that we are all experiencing at this point of the technological arc. There is too much noise, way too much. All you can hear anymore is the insect silence… it gets harder and harder to hear anything.

AT: Tricky, isn’t it?  Music as something to be consumed is entirely prevalent now.  The inevitable lengthy gestation of any album, and then, the birth… and then the disposability of said album.  Being an old git, I’d say that having to actually make some sort of commitment to owning an album, buying into it emotionally, seems to be a thing of the past; and that seems to me a shame.  On the other hand, the absolute availability of everything is fabulous, speaking as a consumer.  And I’m a terrible consumer; I want to hear everything, and own nothing – so I can hardly complain if others do the same thing.  Personally, I find myself in a good situation; I can play pretty much whenever I feel like it, with a bunch of musicians who are incredibly talented, to an audience that understands music.  Athens, and Greece in general, is fabulous for that; and I would never have hooked up with any of these musicians without the internet – in fact, specifically, without the old Myspace.  So from my point of view, things have now devolved back to the old underground days, where live performance, the scene, and word of mouth are all that really count. The world at large isn’t something I’m terribly interested in.

SEM: What is the highlight of the new album for you? Any favorite track?

MB: Generally, this is a disquieting album. My favorite bits as I listen now – that’d be the whistle tunes … I feel that they are the best contribution I make to the album overall. These whistle tunes, they still feel close to my heart. My favorite track just has to be ‘Old Ladies As Birds’. I love what Alan is doing there! Very evocative of transient spirits. ‘Errant Desires’, here I think Alan excelled himself. It reminds me of the (sadly) lost recording we made of another of Alan’s songs, ‘The Knights Of December’. It was recorded right at the start, when we made our first album, “In The Garden Of Wild Stars”. Hmmm…the album was almost called ‘Errant Desires’, though I pushed for “Insect Silence”. It seemed more apposite for what I felt to be a fragmented ‘album’ collection of snapshots and moments. A sense of loss and ennui – yet of want, and beauty, and longing.

AT: There’s a couple I really like a lot. I like ‘Pathless’ because it’s so different for us, a real pot-pourri crossover of kosmische, ambient, experimental, psych – it’s all in there… ‘She Raises Her Eyes’ I like hugely – I had a dulcimer thing, Martyn had a dulcimer thing, and we incorporated the two of them and it just happened as you hear… but I think my favorite is ‘Errant Desires’… I presented Martyn with the song, which he changed completely and we then recorded it… what you hear on the album is the first take; it still gives me goosebumps.. for me one of the ultimate tests of a song is when I no longer have any idea how it happened – and Errant Desires is one of those songs.  I love it! A lot of our songs are recorded 1st or second take. Any injudicious infelicities in the recordings are, I think, outweighed by the immediacy and freshness.  This is definitely one of those!

SEM: Lastly, where do you see Twelve Thousand Days in the next 12 years?

MB: Alan and I are planning new Twelve Thousand Days music. We have discussed new plans and ideas and will begin our new work soon.

AT: Well I think that would probably leave us with a hundred or so days to go.  Still, we’ll probably have found out what we were up to all those years by then!

Keep Up with Twelve Thousand Days, Martyn Bates and Alan Trench:

[and read Mike’s review of Insect Silence here]