Talking Heads: Erland Cooper

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Erland Cooper is very much a ‘glass half-full’ musician. If anything, the glass is often full to overflowing as he has kept busy with creative projects through lockdown, up to and including a chance to finally realise the Barbican show he had planned for June.

Although he resides a long way from his native Orkney, both on a physical and spiritual level, Cooper finds solace and inspiration in his Hoxton studio. “It’s been an absolute safe haven”, he says gratefully. “When lockdown was very acute, I would still come over at 6-7am, before anyone was up, and not meet a soul. It’s obviously a bit different now, but it’s just been great, and I’ve been able to get under the fingernails of a few projects that I would perhaps not have had time for before.”

His third album, Hether Blether – the concluding part of an Orcadian trilogy begun by Solan Goose and continued by Sule Skerry – was released at the end of May. This was just as it was dawning that the UK tour, scheduled for September, was going to become a casualty of the restrictions brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. He remains philosophical, however. “Live performance isn’t the be all and end all for me, it’s part of the journey, and literally part of the transportation to Orkney, when you’re up and down the country – in the Barbican Hall for instance. At the end of last year it came into realisation that there is a whole new enjoyment to bringing to the audience a room, a space, a ferry that takes you up to the North Sea and back again. That became a real process, but I’ve forgotten about it to a point. We were starting to put that into place, but that tour wasn’t until September anyway. Live music takes a lot out of me, and I tend to put it to the back of my mind until I’m ready to give it everything, so I hadn’t thought about it a great deal.”

In terms of the record, Erland had already let it out into the wider world. “You know a record is truly done when I play it to my close friends”, he says. “That’s when I feel like something’s done, and finished, but it’s taking it that bit further when you actually give it out to the world, and all of a sudden it’s getting reviewed – good or bad, it doesn’t matter – and it’s getting listened to. I got a message from someone who said they were trying to introduce music to my daughters, and trying to get them to sleep, a little bit earlier. Every night, about 15 minutes before they go to bed, they play one of my records back to back, and they said it sets the tone but it also gets them asking questions about classical music and electronic music. I just thought, you couldn’t plan that! There’s nothing you could try and do to plan that. So it really feels finished when it goes out the door.”

As with Solan Goose (air) and Sule Skerry (water), Hether Blether (land) is a deeply personal piece of work. “It finds some of the themes that we’re all feeling here during lockdown – those of community, ‘alone’ spaces, the people we spend our time with. Those are all feelings that are very much in this final record for me, personally. It is certainly a zeitgeist of it feeling like a good time to reflect and think about transportation, real or imagined. In a nutshell it was definitely surreal, but I also felt like it was important to just get it out. That was a good thing. Like a gannet!”

We agree on the importance of new music at this time, a source of positive energy. “I’ve really been enjoying the new records from Ghostpoet and Nadine Shah”, he says, “along with some classical releases, and going back to things I perhaps hadn’t heard before – Peter Gregson’s work, for example – and just going into things. Everyday when I come into the studio I listen to a new record, whether it’s a score by Alex Somers, or Julianna Barwick. It’s a constant, it’s a great thing.”

He was careful to control the noise around Hether Blether’s release in light of the pandemic, and found new positives from the experience. “When I was thinking about promoting the album I thought it was important not to shout about it, and just to have a break for a month or so. I think that was absolutely the right thing to do, and that’s the only thing I probably would have changed about the behind the scenes process. I quite enjoyed looking at it in a different way. It has been a great time for music, hasn’t it?”

We move on to discuss a mutual love, the Wigmore Hall – and its success in streaming live concerts, giving an indication of the live music we all miss. “That hall is very important to me”, he gushes. “I can’t wait to go back. I should take a little hip flask the next time I’m back there. I’ll do it very respectfully!”

Talk turns to a much wider space, and the video accompanying Skreevar, second single from Hether Blether. In it, Cooper dashes along the street in Orkney before jumping, fully clothed, into the North Sea. “I had a lot of e-mails from people saying ‘did you jump?’ and I had to say, ‘Did you watch the video to the end? Do you think a wee record label can afford to fake that?!’ We did one take, and that was it! I don’t know if I told you but when we did it I ran up to the edge three times. The first time was to judge how long it would take, the second time was so that Alex (Kozobolis), who was videoing could test running behind me, bearing in mind he had to do that with a camera and not fall in the sea as well, and then the third time.”

The shoot created quite a stir. “A couple of days before we did it we had to plan the tide, so we had that right. When we were practicing we had to stop traffic several times, and then there was a whole group of local folk who effectively started to egg me on, and then a bunch of tourists who were shouting like this sort of thing happens every day! Then, this really young couple were on the peer to the left, and they were oblivious to what was happening. They sat down where George Mackay Brown and I like to sit and reflect, and they must have sat down to have their supper and a glass of wine or something, after the second take. They got the fright of their lives when this six foot three, gangly bloke in a nice jacket jumps off the peer! They were just like, what? That was a highlight. It was very cold by the way, it didn’t look like it but it was!”

Watching it from the seclusion of a locked down living room is strangely liberating. “It was a great memory. I was saying to the guys at the time, I did it when I was 16-25, I’ll do it again when I’m middle aged, and then again when I’m 70. I’m only doing it once though, to get it right! It was only about a metre deep, so you would have reached the bottom. I’ll tell you what though, I’ll never forget that as long as I live! How often can you say that to yourself, really truly? That was what it was for, to create an adult memory as strong as a childhood one.”

Erland has already performed at the Barbican in a sense this year, taking over the Centre’s Instagram page for a week and projecting films made by Alex Kozobolis to his own albums across the estate. “That was so interesting for me. I don’t know if you ever used to develop film, where you effectively learn the virtue of patience – even just posting it off to the chemist. You don’t know what 35-40 pictures you’re going to get back, and there’s something about projecting digital footage that had come all the way from Orkney onto something as iconic as the Barbican Brutalist architecture. It felt like a slow development of film, and I really enjoyed that. I felt that Margaret Tait, the Orcadian experimental film maker, would be proud of that. Using the technology we have now, a portable projector, we were reframing work done by hand as a reference for true escapism. I know the question has come up for a lot of people, asking themselves where they truly want to live in the future, because of how limiting it is living in the city.” The duo enjoyed their endeavours. “It was really good for Alex as well, he really enjoyed the process, and I got to enjoy the process of curating some of his photos of the Barbican which again was a joy.”

Lockdown has brought with it a deep appreciation of the natural world for many people, and this is a key element of Erland’s music and life. “I think noticing that everyday joy and magic from nature has been so prominent up until now because of less noise pollution. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to value the great outdoors, but I’m glad people are taking notice. I think it’s like anything in life, if you take away the liberty, that’s when you truly value it. It’s very sad really. I hope it’s a wake-up call, a consistent driver for people.”

He has remained in close contact with his home island. “It’s been lovely. My folks were down in England, believe it or not, on a very rare potential holiday to Spain. I really feel for them, because they don’t really go away that much, and they’re both now retired so were really looking forward to it. There’s something about that generation when the pandemic first hit which was quite cavalier, which very swiftly changed because they’re very intelligent people! We agreed that going back to Orkney made sense, and so they drove through the night and got to the ferry crossing just before they closed – it was the last one for the night and before they closed for lockdown!”

Now their existence is completely independent from the mainland. “My dad said that lockdown for them isn’t much different from daily life. They have a cup of tea with the sunrise, and go for a walk or two a day. For them it was really good to get home. I’ve become friends with a few other people posting on Instagram, and I’ve been drawn to them. I’ve found it a great joy. I have one friend who is a wonderful artist, she sent me a little Orkney rescue package, some food, pieces of fudge and bits of art. I must admit I ate everything the day it arrived! I feel very connected with it. Also, you know very well that these records that I have been making are ultimately a tool for someone who isn’t there, and would go off with their books and tape recorders, and take snippets back with them, to try and capture an essence of it.”

Cooper has a number of musical irons in the fire. “I am using a different approach for the ambient ‘sister’ to Hether Blether, for as you know there has been an ambient companion to each of the albums so far, Sea Change and Murmuration. The final record that will be a companion to Hether Blether is called Landform. I’ve shared my work with Marta Salogni, the Italian producer. She’s a great lover of analogue production and recording, using tape machines as an instrument, which I enjoy too. Instead of throwing ideas around I thought I might put into three folders, titled, air, sea and land, and just put sounds into them, a whole collection of tones out of Hether Blether, drop them into the three folders and say there you go. It’s a bit like pick a card, any card – pick a few, and then break up the elements of the final record. It is about the community but it pulls together elements from the first two albums as well, so just putting the tones into three folders and asking her to pick what she wants when she wants, at no pace, and no urgency. That’s something I’ve started. I also have something else which is quite ambitious, but I will say no more at this stage!”

It was perhaps inevitable that Cooper would be busy, given his work ethic. “I think when you give something away, I just have this hunger to keep exploring the things that excited me the most during the process of creating and honing in on that. You’ll probably get a sense of what I mean. It’s a culmination of learning, developing and writing wrapped up together, so I’m working on that. “

The calm of the studio is helping creativity. “It is, and I’m very fortunate to have it. The lockdown is the only time I’ve ventured into watching movies there. I tend to just work in the studio but I’ve had a few 18-19 hour days in there. It’s not just a working environment, sometimes it can become like a cinema! I tell myself that I can only watch a film in there if it has an exceptional score.”

Erland Cooper performs with members of the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican on Saturday 10 October, with images and video content from Alex Kozobolis. The concert can be seen either in person or online, with tickets available from the Barbican website.

Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman (part 2)

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

For part two of Arcana’s extensive interview with keyboard royalty Rick Wakeman we pick up where we left off, by asking the celebrated musician for his plans, virus permitting of course, to tour his new album The Red Planet.

“We’re celebrating the Mars landing in Armenia next year; we’re going to do the whole of the Red Planet live. Brian May’s going to come along and join us. That’s the plan for next year, as long as COVID-19 is behaving itself. In terms of space-themed albums I’ve got No Earthly Connection, Out There, The Red Planet and 2000 AD into the future which are all based on space. There’s enough to do a weekend but then you’ve got to convince a promoter it’s a good idea.”

Other plans are afoot. “There is so much planned for next year!” he gushes. “We’ve got the event at the National Space Centre in Leicester. There are three missions on their way to Mars at the moment, and they’re due to arrive the end of February beginning of March. We’ve gone for Saturday 27 March, because that’s just before a series of five prog rock festival dates. We thought we would have the launch then because the mainstream press will be going Mars potty. We expect by then they will have discovered how much water there was. Another great rock and roll thing that they recently discovered was that when it rains on Mars, it rains dry ice! How rock and roll is that?!” It’s almost as though Rick was meant to do a gig there. “Well that’s it!”, he laughs.

Taking a step back, he considers the implications of what the missions might find. “There are a lot of scientists and astrophysicists who believe there is a true connection between Mars and Earth, and that in the next 100 years we may find out what that is. If there is reincarnation I hope I come back as someone who might know what it was. My grandchildren might even get to know some of this in their lifetime. You can only go so far when you’re talking to them until they ask if Peppa Pig lives there, so I’m well aware it might be a bit down the line before they cotton on to what Grandpa Grumpy, as they call me, is up to!”

Talk turns to Rick’s musical work during lockdown – with several projects affected by his distance from co-writers. “The Red Planet has taken up a lot of time. I have been working on some other projects too, including work on a musical with Sir Tim Rice. We had planned quite a lot of get-togethers over the last few months, but he ended up in lockdown in Cornwall and I was in Suffolk. The counties couldn’t be further apart really. We had a lot of discussions on the phone but there’s not a lot we can do when we’re not in the same room together. That’s on the burner going nicely, another musical that is all funded and ready to go. I’ve been working on a couple of other recording projects, and also planning stuff for next year working on the premise that it will happen. I’m an optimistic person, so I don’t listen to the gloom mongering on the news at the moment. You’ve got to feel sorry for the politicians, because virtually every scientist has a different view on it all, so it’s pick the one that suits your politics the best! It’s a total no-win situation. Then in true British fashion it’s how you can bend the rules – you can open pubs but not clubs, the social distancing doesn’t apply to Bournemouth or Brighton beach. What is going on?! Each of the four nations has got a different view on how it should be done! You don’t know whether to laugh or cry really. I’m just 71 and a grumpy old man.”

I confess to assuming Rick was much younger than the age he has just stated – certainly his demeanour on the phone suggests a youthful spirit that has been retained – but he confirms. “Yes, I am 71 and as grumpy as you like. Grumpy but enthusiastic!”

Happily, he still feels that his keyboard playing has the same technical prowess, but is wary of the ageing process. “I practice every day. I do suffer from minor rheumatism and arthritis in the hand, and I do know that the day will come when I can’t have the dexterity I have now. When I do the piano concerts my hands ache, so it’s hot and cold water in the sink afterwards. I know a good doctor, who said, ‘Look at it this way – most footballers, when they get to the age of 40, they have to have knee replacements or hip replacements. The reason for that is those parts of the body have been battered, used 100 more times than the average person. Think of your hands, they have probably played at least three hours a day, sometimes more. Your hands have probably done 1000 times more exercise than the average person, so they’re going to wear out!’ He said just to keep playing and practicing and doing what you can, and then you’ll know the day when they can’t. I have made provisions a bit for that. When it happens, with some of the bigger pieces I’ve got, if I put a good band around me it will take a lot of the pressure off.”

He is aware of the possible impact on solo piano concerts. “I can still perform the pieces, but I think the piano concerts would suffer first. I don’t ever want to get to the stage – and I discussed this with my good friend Jon Lord when he was still with us – where we go on stage and we are applauded for what we were. You should be applauded for what you are, not what you were. We shall see, I hope there’s a lot more left. We’re just moving into a new house and I’ve got the most stunning music room to work in, overlooking a river estuary. I’m still working on the principle that there’s a lot left in the old boy. I love what I do, I enjoy what I do, I would lie if I said sometimes I don’t get tired, but when I get tired I just stop.”

Staying at home has other symptoms, too. “The lockdown hasn’t helped my exercise, because I like my food and I’ve eaten too much. I’ve always had a yo-yo weight problem, I’m the West Bromwich Albion of weight – up one season, down the next. I’ve got to make a bit of an effort but my wife’s brilliant at that. I’ve got a great family as well, the kids have a go at me. Grandpa Grumpy will do what he’s told I suppose!”

Classical music is part of his daily diet. “I listen to quite a lot, and most of the stuff I’ve got in the car is classical. I’ve got a huge collection of CDs of classical stuff, and I love choral music. At the moment I’ve got a ton of Prokofiev in the car – I’ve got works for cello in there, The Love for Three Oranges too, which I really love. I’ve got various compilations of opera arias, which are great in the car because I can join in and nobody can hear me sing! I use the Del Boy Trotter thing where they won’t let you join in the concert so you might as well join in the car. In the office there were about 4,000 CDs, and about half of those would be classical, but they’re all in boxes and have gone down to the new house. It’s very much what’s floating around at the moment.”

We close by pondering the benefits of music to our daily lives. “It’s incredibly good for our health in every respect”, he says passionately. And with that, our time is up – an hour in the company of one of the most enthusiastic musical minds around. When the Mars missions reach their goal early next year, we can expect to hear a lot more of Rick Wakeman, and once his house move is complete, don’t be surprised if they inspire more music! For now, though, The Red Planet comes with a strong recommendation.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble, is available with several packages at his online shop

Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Music and outer space are natural bedfellows. For more than one hundred years now, the imagination of composers has been fired by the cosmos, and Rick Wakeman is no exception.

The one-time Yes keyboard player has made no fewer than four solo albums looking beyond the Earth’s orbit, culminating in this year’s newest release, The Red Planet. Generous to a fault, he set aside an hour of his time to give Arcana a substantial interview to talk all things Mars, to look at the classical music that inspires him and to speak of the excitement of returning to progressive rock after two well-received solo piano albums.

Rick is answering the phone at home, settling down with coffee at an impressively early hour. He is in very good, conversational form, affable from the off. Firstly, and inevitably, we have to talk about the strange days in which we find ourselves. “I’m struggling with the lockdown, it’s driving me nuts!” he confesses. “There are no concerts, no theatres, no solutions. All the musicians I know are scratching their heads, and it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I’ve had every single tour and concert cancelled this year, and if one more person says to me, ‘It’s alright, you can reschedule for next year’, I’ll hit them! The truth of the matter is that it’s not rescheduling for next year, it’s what I would have done anyway. Everyone’s tearing their hair out. Someone I know tried a drive-in concert, and they said they might as well have sat in the driveway of their house with the radio on. The whole thing about concerts and theatres is the atmosphere, the people around you, the audience and those on stage – where all is one in a strange way.”

He pauses to take a sip of coffee. “I’ve seen some of the government guidelines that have come through about social distancing – which they’ve got wrong, by the way, it’s ‘unsocial distancing’. If you have the two metre rule, and you get 300 people into a theatre that holds 2,000 people, those 300 people will want to go to the loo. You put them two metres apart and it makes the queue 600 metres long. It’s just nuts. I’ve got so many friends involved with theatres and they just don’t know what to do. I do feel for the whole entertainment industry and for sport. They said it’s exciting football’s back – no it’s not! It’s like watching a practice match. The whole leisure part of life has been decimated by the Coronavirus, and I don’t know what the answer is. Are they going to have everyone three seats apart? I do know of a few married couples who would be very grateful to sit three seats apart! Unless there is some sort of immunity like the flu vaccine to give society a chance, and the virus mutates enough to weaken itself so it is no worse than a cold, that’s our only hope really. I think it’s going to take a long time before people have confidence again. But there you go, I’ve had my moan for the day! It affects everyone.”

With the decimation of the live schedule, did he consider not releasing the album? “No. The official release date was 21st August, but as you know with special editions and all that lark the pre-orders go out way before then. We worked so hard and for such a long time that we said let’s just go ahead.”

He is aware of the importance of new music to those spending so much time indoors currently. “It’s interesting you say that, because we have had a lot of people say the same thing. With the so-called online concerts, the novelty wore off pretty quickly, with the quarter size screen phone concerts. People realised it wasn’t the real thing. With new music you can still get it. I personally am very glad that we just managed to finish recording before all of this hit, because it does put some new music out there. OK, it’s not in the ideal scenario, but what is that these days? We felt justified because thankfully – touch wood – the reviews have been really good all around the world. What’s interesting is the hardcore prog rockers, who are brutally honest about what they like and don’t like – it has been heart warming to see them say they like it, which makes it even more worthwhile.”

The Red Planet was recorded with a carefully assembled band, the English Rock Ensemble, and listening to the music gives a clear idea of the fun had while making it. “It was a lot of fun”, says Wakeman, “because all the pieces of the jigsaw were the right pieces. I’d been looking for a concept for a long time, and it has to come to you – you can’t go out and find it. This idea came from a friend Garik Israelian, who is an astrophysicist, a complete rocket scientist. You can’t talk to them about football or the weather; they just look at you blankly. He’s a lovely guy, and I was introduced to him by Brian May, who also introduced me to Stephen Hawking, both good friends. They run a festival called Starmus, which is a festival where all the world’s greatest astrophysicists, loads of astronauts and people from NASA give lectures for a week which are pretty amazing.”

There is a musical element to their week. “To finish, they always have a concert. Brian’s done it a few times, of course, and I’ve done it. We did it last year in Zurich, and it was the 50th anniversary of man walking on the moon. I was performing with Hans Zimmer, Brian May and Steve Vai, a massive symphony orchestra and choir. They don’t do anything by halves, and at the end of it we played We Are The Champions, and every surviving astronaut who has walked on the moon walked on the stage. I’ve heard ovations at stadiums and concerts when bands have walked on; I’ve never heard anything quite like when those astronauts walked on, led by Buzz Aldrin. We were loud, but we were drowned out!”

He returns to the concept behind The Red Planet. “A couple of years before that, Garik mentioned to me that 2021 would be the 50th anniversary of man arriving at Mars (seen above, in a global mosaic of 102 Viking 1 Orbiter images of Mars taken on orbit 1,334, 22 February 1980). He said, ‘It does look like your old friend David Bowie was right, there was life on Mars. A few billion years ago there were oceans and rivers. It didn’t have the atmosphere we’ve got but the new pictures, which will all be available online in a year or so, are phenomenal’. I went very quiet, and said, ‘You’ve just given me the concept I’ve been searching for.’ That’s when it all started. When I say it was hundreds and hundreds of photos, it really was, and I got those sent to me from my friends at NASA. I read up as much as I could and started picking out some of the great areas that are on there, and kept looking at them when I was sat by the piano”.

The inspiration flowed. “When I was looking at something and a musical idea appeared, I wrote it down. I built up a whole batch of musical ideas on the piano which I started putting into order. Then I started discussing with my co-producer Eric Jordan about the different sounds we were going to use. A few people had said to me, ‘You really should look at some of the classic proggy sounds that you used to use, but only used once.’ So I did! For example I went back over my No Earthly Connection album, and there were some mellotron flutes that I used as a lead instrument, but have never done since then. I wondered why that happened, because it worked so well! I looked at the various sounds that we wanted to use, and picked the three musicians I knew would understand what I wanted.”

The selection process was guided by the thoughts of his old friend. “David Bowie said to me, way back in 1971, to always pick musicians who will understand what you want. They could be the greatest musicians in the world but if they don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, you’re not going to achieve it. I rate Lee Pomeroy as the greatest bass player in Europe if not the world at the moment, he is a phenomenal player, and understands prog probably better than any progger living. He is a lovely guy. Dave Colquhoun is a phenomenal guitarist who does not get the recognition he deserves. He is one of Brian May’s favourite players. Ash Soan, the drummer, came out and did a concert with me in Cuba. I couldn’t get over how technically clever he was, he reminded me so much of someone in the Bill Bruford mould. I contacted all three of them and they all just said yep, we get this.”

Wakeman’s enthusiasm is infectious. “The reason it sounds like we had a lot of fun is because we did! Everybody was on the same page, and nobody was frightened to say anything. We threw things backwards and forwards, and Lee or Dave would say have you ever thought about making that section longer, because we could build this or that. I’d have Eric my producer on another side, and he could be brutal at times! I would do a solo and I’d come in and go, ‘Yeah, that was good’, and he’d say, ‘I don’t think so, but if you’re happy!’ So I’d go ‘Yeah, alright, what’s the matter?’ ‘I think you’ve got a better one in you’, he would say, ‘but we won’t do it now, we can come back to it in half an hour.’ I’d go out and do something fresh and then come back to it, and it would be, ‘There you go’. To be fair 90% of the time he was right, and that was the great thing as well, that everybody was in on it.”

The collaborative spirit spread to the artwork. “We wanted to discuss that when we started the album, which is what we used to do in the 1970s. The cover was so, so important. The idea came up about a pop-up, and we thought that was great, let’s have a pop-up! They wanted a picture of me on the front but I said no, put a spaceman if you like. They said that won’t show him doing anything musically, and I said it would if he was playing a mini-Moog! It was all this kind of discussion. The only thing on the next pressing was that a lot of people commented we would really like to have a list of all the equipment that was used. We took that on board, and the next pressings, which won’t be far away now, will have all that information. So we do listen as well!”

While The Red Planet will impress with its power and poise, it also leaves a mark thanks to compositions such as Arsia Mons (above), where the textures are stripped back and the band create evocative pictures. These moments show a subtlety rarely attributed to the genre. “You’re right”, agrees Wakeman, “prog doesn’t get all the credit it deserves with things like that. I think one of the reasons for that is prog started with vinyl, as you know. I’m a vinyl nut. One of the things it has is surface noise, and it’s one of the reasons that certain classical recordings struggled with vinyl, because if you had a very quiet flute section for example, suddenly the surface noise became very apparent, because it was amplified the same as everything else. Quiet pieces on prog records were very difficult because of that.”

Efforts were made to reduce the volume, but to little avail. “With Yes, we had a few places where we tried to be as quiet as possible, but what ended up happening was that in the quiet sections the instruments were brought up to quite a high volume, so you didn’t get that atmospheric background. It was the same for classical music. If you listen to the opening of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on vinyl, it’s so quiet all you here is a hissing noise! The moment CDs appeared, that all changed. Suddenly you could have a pin dropping and it would be as clear as anything. That was something we discussed, Eric and I, that we could make use of atmospherics knowing that it would be clear and wouldn’t have anything disturbing them. On the album, some of the atmospheric areas ended up being longer than I had originally written because of that, and that was very much where the lads said ‘that could be a bit longer, we don’t feel we’ve settled into that enough’. It was a mixture of old sounds and old things, bringing them into the 21st century and using the new technology to make them the best they could be.”

Rick Wakeman in the 1970s (from the Rick Wakeman’s Place website)

Talk of crackly records brings back a personal memory of my own, that of the opening of Mars from Holst’s suite The Planets – very much emerging from the depths. The Red Planet’s last track, Valles Marineris, has a complicated time signature that draws a parallel with Mars. Was that something Wakeman wanted to pay tribute to? “Not musically. I deliberately didn’t nick anything from Holst, but certainly it is a very powerful piece of music, and one of the things about Valles Marineris (below) is that if you go online and look at it, it’s huge! It goes on forever. I found one thing which was like a drone flying all over it and through it, and it’s just really mesmerising.”

Wakeman wanted to recreate this in musical form. “What I really wanted was to have something powerful, something that ran all the way through it in a strange way. It started as a form of Bolero, a very weird time signature, and it is weird how it changes all the time. Then I was building things on it but the underlying line was always there. When we did the recording we built it from the bottom up, and it was very important that we didn’t lose that. Sometimes it almost disappears, but it is there. When you look at the pictures online and in books, certain things catch your eye, and I wanted little bits that came in and out that would be eye-catching things, like a little melodic thing which is like, what’s that over there? It was meant to be a trip in the valley, and certainly I think Holst, considering he had no pictures of the planet, he didn’t have anything that I had, what he did with The Planets suite was nothing short of magnificent. He had no idea they were blue or red planets, he had so little to work with, and yet he captured it.”

This leads us on to other musical depictions of the great beyond. Rick himself has another three albums on the subject, which he considers. “I did an album called Out There which I enjoyed. It was sort of a concept but nothing like this. It came about when filming a concert, very seriously out the front someone said to me ‘where does music come from?’ You can’t hold it or touch it, but you can feel it inside, so where does a piece of music come from? You can’t dig it up in the garden so how does it come to you? I said that’s brilliant! And they said well give us the answer! I said can I go away and work on it? So I worked on it for quite a long time, the idea that perhaps everything came from space, which is enormous. It finished that it all came from space and filled out, and a bit like radio waves – you can’t hear Radio 4 or Planet Rock unless you tune your receiver in to get it. So maybe all this stuff is flying down, and if they just happen to be tuned in to receive it they get it. I worked on that principle, and I think it was my wife that said that’s great, but if it’s falling down from all the galaxies and that, where is it out there in the first place? I thought oh, great, here we go. So I came up with a thing called the great musical cathedral in the sky, that was firing this out all of the time.”

Unfortunately Out There, released in 2003, suffered from its juxtaposition to a terrible tragedy. “I really liked the album”, he says, “but we never promoted it for the simple reason that when I finished it, literally the day I finished it, there was the terrible disaster with the Columbia shuttle. I knew three of the astronauts on it. I changed the cover and did a tribute to them, but I didn’t do any promotion because I didn’t want anyone to think we were trying to promote it on the back of such an awful disaster. I got permission from the families to do it but the album to put it bluntly disappeared without trace. That for me was a shame because it was an interesting story.”

Another space odyssey, No Earthly Connection, was released in 1976. “I would like one day to do a two-day event where we play all the stuff from space”, he says. “I’ve made about four albums based on space now. It would be great to do them all, but I’m not sure if it would have much appeal or if any promoter would back it.”

Part two of this interview can be found here, with Rick discussing touring plans for The Red Planet, along with some of the classical music he has been enjoying during lockdown.

Talking Heads: Bing & Ruth

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Arcana has the pleasure of half an hour in the company of Bing & Ruth leader David Moore.

He speaks to us on the phone from Brooklyn, where he has been holed up until now through the Covid-19 pandemic. Our main topic of conversation will be the ensemble’s new album Species, but for now Moore is coming to terms with the day. “New York is a little overcast, which is good as it’s been hot and sticky lately. I welcome a day when the sun hides away. I’ve not long woken up so I’m still working on my coffee as we talk!”

There is a break on the immediate horizon. “I just rented a little place in Woodstock for next week where I’m going to go with my wife and dog, as we actually haven’t left the city in three-and-a-half months. We were in Mexico City when all this started, and had a choice of ‘we either have to fly back tomorrow or we’re gonna be here indefinitely’, so we flew back and we’re very happy that we did.”

The new album, already reviewed by Arcana, complements previous long player No Home Of The Mind. Where that record, piano-based, had a fluid and almost liquid form, this one explores very different colours. Recorded in the desert, it inhabits a very different world. “A good friend of mine summed it up best when he said ‘It turned out different because we did it different’. This time around it felt like I was presented with a choice where I had developed my thing to a place where I could put a new record together with a little more ease, or I could try and go in a different direction. I opted to do that, as scary as it was, and continues to be!”

Moore uses the organ as the main instrument on this record, creating entirely new colours for Bing & Ruth in the process. Was that always the plan? “I got really into playing the Farfisa a number of years ago, and started writing what I thought was going to be a solo organ album. I took a walk one day, I was travelling and walking alone and I had this epiphany that what I had been writing for the last six months was actually a new Bing & Ruth album, and not a solo organ album. It all shifted about half way through, and it was, ‘Oh, this is what this is, and this is what I need to do with it’. So I called in Jeff Ratner and Jeremy Viner and we made it together.”

He agrees with the suggestion that Species sounds like the place where it was recorded. “It’s actually really funny that you say that, because when describing the album to people who haven’t heard it, what I kept saying was that it was a very ‘dry’ record. It was a very arid record, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact I was writing the music while living in and around the desert. It clearly rubbed off on me, so I’m actually really happy to hear that. It feels like a very different record for a lot of reasons, and one that was very important for me to make, for my own personal growth as a musician. That’s what you’re always trying to do, trying to move to the next thing, to keep searching and growing.”

With two of the tracks, Live Forever and The Pressure Of This Water, Moore is at ease working with bigger structures. “It’s interesting that you say that because generally when I’m working on an album it helps to develop a set of principles or philosophies, that can help guide you. One of the philosophies that I was really leaning on in this process was that every song on this record needed to be able to work as an hour-long performance. There are actually super-extended versions of all theses tracks in demo form. The idea was that we could play a show and do one song, and be on stage for an hour, hour-and a-half, and it would be a good and powerful show. If a song didn’t work after 20 or 30 minutes it wasn’t right. For the record we pared it down, created some forms and structure around it, and wanted to make something that was a full experience over the course of an hour. Clearly we’re not playing live, so that’s out for the moment!”

A tour was planned, but not surprisingly has been rescheduled. “Logistically I’m not very involved in the intricacies of the process; I work with my manager and am lucky to have a wonderful team that believes in what we’re doing and is willing to put in the work. Initially we had the two tours rescheduled, but then the US leg was cancelled outright. We’ve still got Europe planned in December, so fingers crossed that will work. It’s hard to see it, but nobody knows what’s going to happen next week, so who knows what will happen six months from now! They do a really good job working with the venues and promoters. I think the entire music industry right now is doing their best to accommodate everything that needs to be accommodated.”

The closing track on the Species album is Nearer – and despite being the quietest of the seven new pieces it is the one with the keenest emotion. “That’s a track that sounds completely different if you’re just listening to that song, or if you arrive at it as the last song on the album,” Moore explains. “As a listener to the record – because ultimately I make records for people to listen to them and enjoy them as a listener – I have noticed when I wrote that song I really liked it but I wouldn’t say it was top of the pile. I started messing around with it and put it at the end of the album, and found ‘oh shit, this is like a really powerful closer after having been through the rest of the album’. There is a certain amount of contextualising with that song in particular.”

In the times that we find ourselves, does David look to certain music to help with what we’re going through? He considers the question for a little while. “My relationship with listening to music is very cyclical. I’ll go through periods where I’m listening to a tonne of new albums, then periods where I’m listening to a tonne of old albums, and then through periods where I’m not listening to anything at all. When the quarantine started I was listening to a lot of new music, and as it stretched on I haven’t been listening to as much music – but I have been making more. I don’t listen to a lot of my own music, so probably the two new albums I’m listened to most in this time are the new albums from Fiona Apple and Run The Jewels. The Fiona Apple album is in my top five at this point; it absolutely lives up to every inch of hype behind it. It’s very powerful.”

Talk turns to other world events of recent months, and as we speak Moore has been participating in a number of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New York. “I’ve been to a lot of them, and I’ve done a lot of marching”, he says. “I don’t feel very comfortable talking about it because it’s not really my place but I’m 100% supporting the movement and want to be involved in whatever way I can. The marches have been really powerful and beautiful experiences, and it’s been inspiring to see all these people out in the streets for such a sustained period of time. It’s a really powerful moment in our history right now – and by that I mean the history of the United States. There is a lot of reckoning that’s been needing to happen for a long time, but that’s about as much as I’m comfortable talking about.”

He is enjoying encounters with classical music, and one composer in particular. “I am an absolute Bach freak. As far as the old timers go, Bach is my Michelangelo. He’s everything! As a student I studied him quite a bit, I played his music. I was classically trained and went to a conservatory before I switched gears and got into more improvised-based music. My relationship with classical music was always very academic and pedagogical. I was just with it for the learning, and when you’re sixteen and trying to pound out Bach, you’d rather be hanging out with your friends! It wasn’t until years later when I had stopped playing classical music that I really started to gain a really deep appreciation for it. I would always play the keyboard but the thing that really brought me in was the Violin Partitas. I remember hearing them one day and it was like I was hearing God’s voice for the first time. Sorry to be cheesy but that was how it felt. Still, today, it’s radical and subversive. The issue for me – and I don’t want to speak ill on anybody – is that it’s not very often I hear it played well. A lot of the recordings, the vast majority of them, are clearly done by extremely talented people but are a little too prescriptive for my taste. I think something that was really beautiful about his music was how flexible it was, and how much personality could be put into it, so when I hear recordings that are a little stiff or maybe just don’t resonate with my values of humanity, it’s hard! Then I talk to a lot of friends who are really talented and listen to a lot of Bach, and they say ‘No, you just haven’t heard the right one!’ It’s like the really annoying Frank Zappa conversation everybody had at the time, ‘you just haven’t heard the right record’. But it is true!”

He agrees with the thought that Bach is a really good way in to classical music. “Yeah. It’s very simple, as complex as it sounds. To use a term I don’t really like, it is minimalist. You can really break it all down. I can go full music nerd into all that stuff, but I try to avoid doing it any more, it can go a little downhill! It’s interesting that one of the first breaks we had in New York was getting invited to do something called The Wordless Music series. The guy who put it together was this brilliant man called Ronen Givony. His whole concept was pairing bands like indie rock bands with classical music that he thought was very sympathetic to the music of the bands. You would get some bigger bands playing. The first one we did we opened up for the Icelandic band Múm. I performed a couple of the Goldberg Variations on piano, and then Bing & Ruth played, then the pianist Hauschka, and then Múm. It was certainly the most creative bill I had been on up to that point, and definitely still has been. I think there is a lot of potential for people who are fans of my music to find some cool stuff in this other world. I think classical music can be intimidating for a people because it is a very insular world. At this point it is very tied up in class, which I guess it always has been, but that feels ever more obvious as the wealth gap gets bigger. But it is music for all the people.”

Species by Bing & Ruth is out now on the 4AD label, and it can be heard and purchased here. David’s playlist for Arcana – including the music of Bach, naturally – can be accessed here, and you can click here to see what we thought of the album.