Birds In The Brickwork on new album “Recovery” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Birds In The Brickwork on new album “Recovery”

epic45's Ben Holton discusses his latest project

Aug 09, 2022 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

With Britain becoming increasingly fractured, doing it’s best to fall apart amidst the latest in a long line of political circus acts, the need for escapism has become almost overwhelming.

Ben Holton has spent more than 20 years offering us exactly that. As one half of pastoral ghost-pop purveyors epic45, solo under his My Autumn Empire guise and through the Wayside & Woodland Recordings label he runs with childhood friend Rob Glover, he’s created a back catalogue that transcends the madness of modern life. It’s music to accompany the warm glow of golden hour light across sun-baked cornfields. The soundtrack to watching a raindrop slip down a window pane on a wet Bank Holiday. The dreamlike memories of childhood summers. Holton’s music captures it all and more.

Now, following an enforced period of isolation not through Covid but a serious back injury, Holton has created possibly his most personal project yet. Birds In The Brickwork is the creative catharsis of combining music with photography to capture the everyday beauty of the English edgelands between town and country.

His first release as Birds In The Brickwork, Twelve Months, collected a dozen songs, one for each month, to accompany a calendar of his images.

He has now followed it with Recovery, an album and photobook that documents the beginning of his own recouperation. In his own words: “It’s about wandering through the suburbs, taking in the mundanity, but also seeing how inherently fascinating it all is. How life, whatever the situation, goes on.”

Under The Radar caught up with Holton to find out more about Birds In The Brickwork, as well as what the future holds for epic45 and Wayside & Woodland.

Andy Robbins (Under The Radar): Can you tell us about Birds In The Brickwork and how it came about.

Ben Holton: I’d been thinking about doing more with my photography for a while, maybe selling prints, and making books. After the success of the epic45 We Were Never Here photobook, I thought it was something I could build on by myself. When I became ill with my back, I was just driven to try and make something positive from it. Realising there were birds nesting in the outside wall of our flat seemed such a perfect analogy of the will to live and adapt and also how nature interacts and evolves around, and in spite of, human influence. It’s something that’s been in my work since the beginning but this project seemed more of a distillation of it.

How would you describe your sound to someone who is coming across you for the first time?

It would depend on the specific project, I think, although there is an overarching quality to it all to some extent. What I’m doing with Birds in the Brickwork is similar to the instrumental side of epic45 in the sense that I’m creating audio narratives to compliment landscape imagery. I try not to go into working on music too literally but there is always a sense of trying to reach a balance of mystery and beauty, obscure and relatable. In real terms this results in melodic guitar lines, synths and effects processing.

Your photography has featured in the artwork for many of your previous releases. How long have you been taking photographs and at what point did you decide photography would be a more significant part of Birds In The Brickwork?

I’ve been interested in photography since I was very young as my dad and grandpa were keen photographers. I was fascinated by the process. After simply using disposable cameras for years, I was handed down a decent Canon from my brother in about 1996, with which I began to take it a bit more seriously. Then, after my grandpa died in 1998, I inherited his Pentax, a 50mm and a zoom lens which I still use exclusively to this day. It’s lovely to have him near me when I’m taking photos, still influencing me.

It was before I became incapacitated with my back that I had the idea of doing a more photography-based project. The epic45 book and album We Were Never Here felt like a validation of me as a photographer for sure.

Why did you choose to give the Birds In The Brickwork project its own identity, rather than as My Autumn Empire under which you’ve released your previous solo work?

Initially, I was going to do it under my own name and call the book Birds In the Brickwork but, as I worked on it, it felt like a project that could continue and the premise around the name began to mean more and more to me. My Autumn Empire I see as a vehicle for my experiments in song writing more than anything. Or at least it became that as, if you listen to the first My Autumn Empire album, there is a lot on there that chimes in with what I’m doing with Birds In the Brickwork. I think it makes sense to separate projects from each other sometimes. Although I often wish I was just putting everything out under the name Ben Holton. Maybe I’ll do that at some point.

This might be covered in the previous question, but what are the similarities and differences between Birds In The Brickwork and your previous work with epic45 and My Autumn Empire?

I think with Birds In the Brickwork I’m focussing on a certain element of epic45 and expanding on it, the landscape driven instrumental side. Whereas with epic45 we’ve moved more into an area of song writing. Even more so with My Autumn Empire, which is where I shamelessly indulge in my love of pop history. That said, it all merges and overlaps because, ultimately, it’s me making it.

Was it a deliberate decision to keep Birds In The Brickwork purely instrumental?

Definitely for this project, yeah. I’m viewing it as soundtrack/audio narrative music. Although, who knows where I might go with it in the future.

Recovery was obviously inspired by your situation and health, but what musical inspirations were there behind the project?

With Recovery, I think I needed to pep myself up a bit and give myself hope so I went back to the guitar as a primary instrument and tried to push myself a little further with the technicality. As ever, I’m inspired by the great guitarists I’ve loved for years. People such as David Pajo, Martin Carthy and Mike and Steve from American Football. Also, playing with July Skies (ambient/post-rock project of fellow West Midlander, Antony Harding) for all these years has massively rubbed off on my own music. I love Ant’s approach to tone and melody.

The title Recovery is in itself quite positive, and the music reflects this. Would you agree it contains a lot of hope and positivity?

Yeah, as I said, it was a conscious move to make the music hopeful as things seemed so uncertain at the time. I realised more than ever how much I loved music and, in particular, playing the guitar so that became the main focus. I was, in effect, trying to make myself feel a bit better about the situation so the tunes came out with an uplifting tone. It’s about hope, I suppose. I was trying to give myself hope.

How much has your creativity aided your recovery, and do you see Birds In The Brickwork as a long-term project which might evolve as your health improves?

It’ll definitely continue as a project, I think, and won’t hopefully always be tied to the original inspiration. That said, my actual recovery from my condition continues so there is still an element of it in the volume I’m currently working on, although the music is coming out a little darker and abstract this time.

Was effect and impact did the pandemic have on your own recovery, and was it an influence on creating Birds In The Brickwork?

My back problems weirdly kicked off just as people were returning to work. The world was slowly opening up as mine was closing in. I’d been working constantly throughout it as I worked with kids in a psychiatric hospital, so it was very odd and topsy turvy situation to be in. I’d say it definitely all fed into the music and photography. In fact, there is an image of a pump action bottle of anti-bac hand gel in the book.

Would you like the chance to perform some of the Birds In The Brickwork material live one day?

I’d love to, I really would. But, as you know, the landscape has changed drastically in the last two years. For one I’d have to reach a further stage in my recovery to even be able to contemplate it and then there’s the general weirdness of going out in public after Covid. Hopefully though, at some point. If anyone wants me that is.

Having grown up in rural Staffordshire, and still living in the area, the edgelands between town and country have been a constant inspiration through much of your music and now your photography as well. What is it about them that keeps drawing you in?

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer that question satisfactorily and is partly why I keep making music about it, I think. There’s something about marginal spaces that speak deeply to me and offer a strange comfort and it goes way back into my past. I have very fond memories of waiting in my dad’s car in industrial estates while he went and collected things or picked up stuff for work. I’d sit there enraptured by these functional areas with their buzzes, hums and strange smells. Something about it was peaceful and mysterious. It’s so lovely to have found other people that have this odd fascination too, this shared intrigue and wonderment.

Staffordshire, and the rural suburbs of the West Midlands in general, feel such an intrinsic part of what you do. Do you think you’d ever leave?

It’s hard to say for sure. Having a family here means that it won’t be any time soon anyway. I have vague notions of living by the sea one day but do I even think that’s the right choice? I don’t know.

You’ve run the Wayside & Woodland label with your epic45 bandmate and childhood friend Rob Glover for more than 10 years, after releasing records on various labels across Europe for many years previously, including Make Mine Music. How did that come about and why did you decide to start your own label?

Make Mine Music was a syndicate/cooperative project so things would usually be run through a committee before being released. In all honesty, this was never an issue with epic45 as we were all pretty much on the same page with everything. However, I think we just wanted to release a couple of little things with as little bother as possible. Plus, I think we just simply liked the idea of having a little label of our own. In the end, it was a good decision as it was already in place when Make Mine Music closed its doors.

Both yourself and Rob always seem to be working on something, with several different projects, and creative outlets over more than two decades. Where does your drive to create come from?

I can only speak for myself here but I think it’s just an innate desire and need to create. Sharing it with others is an immense bonus and privilege. I’m not sure exactly where it stems from but it’s definitely a way to process and deal with existence.

How important has it been for the label and you as an artist to own the rights to your own material and have creative control what you release?

At this stage I couldn’t really imagine having to run anything past a third party, as I know other artists have to do on big labels. The idea seems abhorrent and anti-creative to me. As for owning the rights, the benefit of that became massively apparent when an epic45 track was randomly added to a popular Spotify playlist. Record companies, historically, own a vast share of streaming royalties and, as we are the label, it all came to us. It was nice while it lasted, before Spotify began paying one off commissions to ‘made up’ artists, therefore avoiding the ‘mistake’ of paying decent money to small artists.

Most of those who know your work probably discovered you via epic45. Word magazine included May Your Heart Be The Map (epic45’s fourth album, released in 2007) in its list of the best Albums of the Decade, Weathering (their 2011 album) was chosen as album of the week in Sunday Times upon its release and you’ve had airplay from John Peel and continue to receive regular support from Gideon Coe on BBC 6Music. However, you’ve never picked what would be considered mainstream or commercial success. Were there ever moments when you were close to signing to a bigger label or having your music appear somewhere it may have been heard more widely?

There have been a couple of moments where that may have seemed possible, especially in those years following May Your Heart Be The Map and Weathering. Having no manager and being naturally suspicious of such offers, we possibly let things slip from our grasp. But then, that didn’t seem to matter as much to us back then.

Does it remain a source of frustration, or are you happy that ultimately you now control everything you do and enjoy the freedom that gives you?

It’s brilliant to be in control of everything, of course, but I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be nice to be able to reach more people now. I think we’re making the best music we’ve ever made and feel that will only continue but I also feel like we’ve hit a bit of glass ceiling in terms of self-promotion. Of course, the last two years of Brexit, Covid and health haven’t helped that at all.

As mentioned previously, you and Rob both seem extremely prolific in terms of creative output. What can we expect coming up from yourself, epic45 and Wayside & Woodland in the future?

We’re quite far into another epic45 album, about which we are immensely proud and excited so hopefully that will be out maybe next year. I’m currently working on the next Birds in the Brickwork album, titled A Strange Peace, which is taking a deeper look into the areas where nature and man coexist, which is basically everywhere, and how one can still find solace and comfort there, sometimes juxtaposed with a feeling of menace and unease at times.

I also have an album under the name The Balloonist coming out. This is a one-off project that has been simmering away for a while. Nostalgic, sun bleached and dreamlike instrumentals.

I’ll be pushing Rob to work on more Toy Library stuff (Glover’s ambient instrumental project), that’s for sure and we’re also looking at resurrecting and continuing the Haunted Woodland series (a series of releases which charts the history, myths and atmospheres of woodlands in the Staffordshire and Shropshire countryside).

As well as this, we will be reissuing a few things that need it and digging into the vaults further. There’s a lot of great stuff existing in limbo and it’d be nice to see it out there.

Digital copies of Recovery are available via Wayside & Woodland Recordings.

Wayside & Woodland Recordings Bandcamp

Wayside & Woodland Recordings website


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