Erland & The Carnival
Psychedelic Folk Dreams
Feb 21, 2011 Web Exclusive Photography by Andy Willsher
There's something otherworldly about the music of Erland & The Carnival. Consisting of vocalist and Scotland native Erland Cooper; guitar Simon Tong (The Verve; The Good, The Bad & The Queen; Gorillaz); and drummer David Nock, who's résumé includes work with Youth, The Orb, David Gilmour, and Paul McCartney; Erland & The Carnival will release their U.S. debut album, Nightingale, at the end of March. Nightingale, which follows a self-titled U.K. debut and an EP entitled Trouble in Mind, is a swirling bouillabaisse of shifting time signatures, hazy soundscapes, and hypnotic pop the influences of which are the sum of the band's collective parts. For Cooper, who grew up on the Scottish island of Orkney, this influence is drawn largely from his love and study of British folk music, from which he brings a tradition of storytelling in song such as "The Derby Ram" from the band's debut, which updates the traditional English folk tale in the light of a teenager's suicide, and Nightingale's first single, "Map of an Englishman," which is the band's take on Grayson Perry's illustration of the same name, which represents different segments of the artist's mind/personality as an imaginary island. Cooper took some time to speak with Under the Radar about the new album, his own personal inspirations, and what Erland & The Carnival is really about.
Frank Valish: I was hoping you could tell me a bit about your youth, where you grew up, and what kind of music you were exposed to when you were a kid.
Erland Cooper: I was exposed to everything that most people were, on the radio. I grew up on an island and a lot of people think that we don't have TVs and radio and whatnot, but we did. There was music [laughs]. There was a lot of folk music, of course, naturally because a lot of people learned fiddles and guitars and accordions and stuff like that, so initially that was what I would have been exposed to. And it's funny, it's a bit of a guilty pleasure in that I like it now, but as a teenager, you're kind of thinking, "This is quite twee. What is this crap?" But it's not until you go away that you appreciate what it was that was around you. And that's why I like to go back up, back up to Orkney, which is right in the North of Scotland. Have you ever been to Scotland?
Never. I've always wanted to go. There's a brochure online for Orkney.
Oh wicked. Nice one.
It looks very nice.
Well, they obviously took the pictures on a very nice day, I would assume. It could be very dark, wet, wild, and windy in the winter, and in the summer it can be just stunning, which is I reckon some of the pictures you probably looked at. I would highly recommend it. If you come to Scotland, head up to the islands, the Hebrides, and you'll see some really different really amazing stuff.
How long did you stay there? When did you end up moving away? How old were you?
I left when I was about 18, 19. And I always go back. I was born and raised up there. My parents, not in a hippy way, but they just decided when they were in their 20s to go up to an island and have six kids. It's pretty remote and safe and it's quite a creative place. They like the outdoors. So I was born and raised there. But oddly enough, as a teenager, you feel a little bit restricted and you want to go see places like London and New York and Edinburgh, and things like that. So as a teenager I was very keen to get away, and now I just love going back.
I did read that you did a lot of traveling. I wondered whether it was for study or for music.
I think I was just kind of exploring what else was out there. If you put yourself in my shoes, you're a teenager and you are effectively boxed in by the sea. It's the same people, a town of 2,000 people. The whole population [of Orkney] is around 15-20,000 people. Everybody knows everybody, and you're kind of dreaming of other things. So I got away. I just got that kind of bug that most people get in their late teens or 20s when they just want to head off and see what else is out there. Oddly enough, the first place I went when I left Orkney to go and travel a wee bit was London and then New York. So being an 18-year-old lad in New York was bloody mind blowing. After literally seeing little villages and tiny villages and the ocean, seeing Times Square was a bit of a culture shock.
I also read that you spent some time immersing yourself in study of British folk music.
Yeah, well I guess so. The British traditional folk music, it's a bit of a rabbit hole actually. You get into one thing, even starting with someone like Jackson C. Frank, you get into Sandy Denny, you get into all of the Fairport and then you keep going down and you sit and listen to all the Jansch records, and they're all linked because they're all part of a scene. But yeah, now I'm trying to almost go even deeper, reading all the books. There's an amazing library near where I am at the moment. It's called the Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. They look at me quite funny when I go in, I must say, because I'm generally the only person in there, because it's quite remote. But there's just so many great books with traditional tunes in it. Like the Cecil Sharp House in London. [ed. Both the Cecil Sharp House, which also goes by the name The English Folk Dance and Song Society (or EFDSS) and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library are organizations for the preservation and study of traditional British folk music and history.] It's just some really good stuff. And I'm not that bookish. I was never really particularly academic or anything like that.
Did you get into that right away? It seems like, and maybe my impression is wrong, but it seems that that stuff might be more in line with some of the traditional music you were exposed to early on, as a child.
Yeah, that's it. You're right. So it's that kind of listening to it as a kid but not being actually turned on by it, not tuning in to it but just being exposed to it, and then later on in life, going back to it and kind of finding out that, Wow that artist that came to tour and play in my town hall was Aly Bain, or something. These are great folk musicians. At the time, I just thought, Who's this old bloke playing the fiddle? Who's this finger picking guitarist? And I was kind of sitting in the back of the town hall listening to it while my mates were all playing football. I didn't really engage. I didn't really learn about who these people were until a lot later in life. I guess that's what I'm doing now. You go full circle a wee bit, don't you?
How old are you, Erland?
Oh, that's a loaded question. How old do you think I am?
I don't know.
I usually say to people who ask, "I'm about 42," so. Growing up on Orkney, it was a less stressful life. Yeah, I'm 42. We'll go with that.
This is a vague question, but other than that folk tradition that's been talked about so much, what other sorts of things have inspired you sonically? Also, do you, come with the lyrical ideas first and then as a group develop the sonic background?
It's definitely a three-headed beast, between Simon, David and I. There's no general rule of thumb. Simon got particularly interested in folk music and that's how we kicked it off, because we were both into the same things. Not in an over animated way. We just mutually respected the same artists and music. And David was from a completely different background, more electronic. So you bring all those elements together. But oddly enough, I think if you listen to the record, something that you think might have been me lyrically, or whatever, is likely not to be. We bring various ideas to the table and then just rip them up and try various things. I'm particularly into electronic stuff. I really like the sounds of These New Puritans. It's great their approach to the sounds. I don't spend my days just listening to music that's over 20 or 30 years old. And we're all the same. We just try different things.
With Nightingale being your first Stateside release, I wonder how you see the album as different from the debut and whether there was anything you wanted to do specifically differently this time around?
Someone mentioned it was darker and more cinematic than the last one. I think it's maybe a bit more direct. No kissing, it just goes straight in. And then it starts to lead you off somewhere different halfway through, and by the end of it you're somewhere completely different. That's what we had in mind. You start somewhere, and by the end of it you're in a completely different place. I think it's a natural progression from the first record. We never stopped writing. I think the biggest thing for me was touring the first record. You learn what feels great to play live and what people react to, and I think in some ways that's maybe why this record's more direct.
The album was recorded on an old pirate radio boat, yes?
Yeah, well it's a mate of mine has a ship on the Thames. It's so weird, man. It's an old naval ship from World War I. It actually probably saw active duty. It's a very traditional naval ship. It's called the HMS President. So we went on there and we went down into the hull, effectively the lower, lower, lower, lower, lower deck, which is right beneath the Thames itself. And there's this old radio show that, apparently, during the '60s and early '70s was actually used as a pirate station. It just felt like a really odd place to record a record. It had a few challenges, I would say. It leaked a few times. You could hear other boats passing by up the Thames. You could hear the propeller noises. It had all these weird super psychedelic sounds that were...we didn't just record them we almost tried to reproduce them. The sounds coming through the hull, you'd try to record them, but it didn't sound like what you could hear. We put al these contact mics around in the space we were recording in and just tried to capture it. And you'd take what you'd done home that night and have a listen to it and there'd be these weird things on the mics. Like "What is that? I don't know but it's definitely going to stay." You had to come up for air every so often. It was a wee bit claustrophobic. But maybe that makes you work harder, I don't know.
The ship doesn't go anywhere. It's permanently moored. It wasn't like we were sailing up and down the Thames. It was very serene, very quiet, very strange. But a really cool little space. It really worked. We did it really quickly, in a couple of months or so, because we were touring, so every time we got back we just went to the hull of the ship and threw ideas around.
What were you doing musically before the band?
Well, I'm the newbie aren't I? I was working on a farm. [Laughs] No I wasn't. I was doing my thing. I was writing on my own and then I met Simon at a folk night that he was putting on, and David was involved with that. We did a little record, a little compilation with loads of other folk artists, like new and interesting folk artists in London, and we put on a show in Portobello Road. And it all kicked off for me then. Simon and David were obviously doing the various projects that they were involved with, and I was lucky enough to be introduced, and even luckier that we hit it off. Before that, I certainly wasn't in any other bands. Not that I know of. I don't think there's any skeletons.
And lastly, I wanted to bounce something off of you. I read about how the debut, and this one as well, incorporates the folk influence in terms of the storytelling, a literary influence, art, current events. I guess it seems to me, and you can tell me whether I'm on to something here, that the band is more than just a band and that your intent is not just musical, but also artistic in a broader sense, continuing in a tradition while broadening the scope of that tradition.
In reply I should just say yes. I think folk music in itself was always naturally changing and evolving, and fundamentally I think folk music began with people telling stories, people telling tales, which are now obviously publicized in papers. You read about a horrible suicide or you read about this wonderful thing that happened, and people read about it, people talk about it. Back in the day, 300 years ago, a story would pass from one village to another, and in Britain in particular there's a real strong heritage of folk music, so people would tell the story in song. That's just how I view folk music in general. I think in current terms, just picking up the papers is the same. Reading the various stories, it's the same thing, isn't it? I don't think we're trying to be clever in any way. We're not trying to be high brow or anything. We're not super serious. We debate everything we do, but what bands don't.