North Sea Radio Orchestra...thousand-yard stairs
Interview: North Sea Radio Orchestra
Published on October 2nd, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
It may require a fairly broad knowledge of musical lexicon in order to attempt to categorise North Sea Radio Orchestra – many have tried, some have even come close – but it certainly doesn’t require an academic acquaintance with music to enjoy their particular brand of classical chamber-art-folk-pop. (That summary might not quite be on the money but an intro-writer is obligated to at least try. Just try to imagine some kind of amalgamation of Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, The Incredible String Band, latter-era Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and, occasionally, Frank Zappa.)
Having garnered much critical acclaim for their 2006 eponymous debut album and 2008 follow-up Birds, NSRO returned in July with the utterly beguiling I a Moon, their first to be produced by group leader/composer-in-chief Craig Fortnam and the first to give eminence to original lyrics rather than existing poetry. “I think I was slightly aware that I was removing myself a little bit [previously],” Fortnam told Stool Pigeon of his decision to dip his wick. “Why cut down an avenue of self-expression? I was aware of that for the first time, really. [The lyrics] touch on tragic things that I’ve experienced, and that brings on more profound feelings.
“Prominent amongst these tragic experiences is the incapacitating series of strokes suffered by his friend and mentor Tim Smith, leader of the highly influential psych-rock troupe Cardiacs. Keen not to be the next interviewer to turn Fortnam’s mind back to that deeply sad turn of events, Rocksucker fired over a set of questions pertaining principally to the latest consignment wondrous music served up by he and his wife Sharron Fortnam, whose angelic vocals lattice I a Moon with light and shade, and their eighteen-strong group of virtuoso musicians…
How did you manage to succeed in melding such unlikely combinations of musical styles? To what extent do you rely on trial and error?
Craig: The various musical styles within the band’s repertoire are really just a reflection of the various influences that go into the writing of the music. I have always had eclectic tastes and the ‘NSRO sound’ is those combinations. In my head, they all fit together seamlessly – from verses and choruses to big instrumental chamber pieces, it’s just what I like to write.
Do you embrace the “postmodern” label that’s been applied to your work? How about the description of your recent material as being more Krautrock-y – would you say that’s accurate?
Sharron: I would definitely consider myself a postmodernist so that label is fine by me. We have one song, “Berliner Luft”, that has the motorik beat – that’s where the Krautrock reference comes from. Krautrock isn’t a very nice word, I don’t think.
Are you able to give us a rough breakdown of the typical genesis of one of your songs? How it begins life, who chips in with what kinds of ideas at what stages, how the arrangements and structures are worked out – that sort of thing.
Craig: Whether a piece becomes a song or an instrumental and whether it’s on a large or small scale tends to be dictated by the material. The ‘material’ often begins with a riff or a chord sequence and melody. For me, the material leads the way and the less I tinker with it the better. All music is a balance between conscious working out and sub-conscious ‘inspiration’ – my most successful tunes are the ones where the conscious part of the brain has the least input! Therefore, a tune will swirl around my brain for weeks before it gets fashioned into an actual piece of music. Dog-walking is great for mulling over ideas. I tend to complete a tune and then give the band their parts. The vocal part is sketched out then Sharron and I fine-tune.
Are you influenced at all by orchestral/chamber pop music like, say, Sufjan Stevens or High Llamas?
Sharron: Sufjan Stevens is a beautiful genius. His music is uncommonly moving. When we first heard Come on Feel the Illinoise, we sat and cried for the pure joy that it had been created. His music makes me wish I loved God. Then I could share his rapture.
I read that you count Deerhoof amongst your influences. What about them in particular do you find inspiring/try to apply to your own music?
Craig: Their music, whilst having great melodies and accompaniments etc, always sounds so inspired and creatively free. They remind me of the Pixies in that regard – lots of subconscious input!
Why did you decide to introduce more synthesisers on I a Moon? Also, why the title?
Sharron: The title refers to a psychological state experienced when one separates oneself from painful memories and experiences. It is a process by which one person can become two co-existing people: one controlling the present and the other holding on tightly to the past from which it cannot escape. It is also a metaphor for that detachment; where two heavenly bodies co-exist but can never meet. But it is also beautiful, like the Earth and its moon. Like a mother and child. There is an unseverable attraction or bond. The irony, of course, is that to continue to exist, fully, they must meet, unify, acknowledge, accept and learn to love in order to live well as opposed to just surviving.
I think a lot of people might live like this because the world is a fast and scary place and it is difficult to find the time and space to understand who you were as a child, essentially before the world interfered (!) and to become reunited with one’s essential nature. People are still afraid of each other and themselves. In the song, the Earth absorbs its moon and they realise each other so that neither exist in a state of longing and inherent loneliness. It is a joyous event!
Craig: The monosynth to my ears has its own sound and fits into the band like another chamber instrument – we use it as such, rather than as a textural device. It also gives me access to sub bass frequencies which take the band’s sound ‘somewhere else’. It’s a small but significant addition.
Are there any up-and-coming and/or obscure artists you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
Sharron: Driver Drive Faster. They have a song called “It’s All Over It’s Everywhere” that sounds to me as if it has always been written and was just waiting for someone to play it.
Craig: I’m really bad at keeping abreast of new music – I’m always working on tunes so don’t tend to listen to much stuff – luckily there’s guys in the band who recommend things from time to time.
Finally, if we asked you right now to name your top three albums of all time, off the top of your head, which would you pick?
Sharron: Pixies – Trompe le Monde, David Bowie – Hunky Dory, Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest. That would be my three favourites for today, this moment. They change constantly. When I was a kid, I used to redo my top ten list every week in a little notebook. The song that kept on reappearing was “Quicksand” by Bowie and undoubtedly something by Abba.
James Larcombe (composer, chamber organ, piano, monosynth): Cardiacs – On Land and in the Sea, Sea Nymphs, Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr. Drake [these latter two are both projects of Tim Smith, Sarah Smith and NSRO composer and pianist William D. Drake].
Hugh Wilkinson (percussion): That’s easy! Earth Wind and Fire – I Am, Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie – Live at the Sands.
Craig: At this particular moment, Spratleys Japs – Pony, Benjamin Britten – Peter Grimes and Joni Mitchell – For the Roses.
North Sea Radio Orchestra, thank you.
North Sea Radio Orchestra’s third album I a Moon is out now on the band’s own label The Household Mark. For more information, please visit nsro.co.uk