Interview: Sweet Billy Pilgrim
Published on March 22nd, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
In our recent review, Rocksucker described Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s third album Crown and Treaty, the follow-up to 2009’s Mercury-nominated Twice Born Men, as “epic, soaring, gorgeous, deceptively intricate and delicately paced…a triumph”. Basically, we liked it. We also mistakenly reported that it was already out, when in fact it is now not scheduled for release until 30th April; as such, we discovered from talking to the band’s main singer/songwriter Tim Elsenburg that we were in fact first off the mark to post a review of it. Take that, blogosphere!
We also discovered Tim to be as avid a consumer of music as he is gifted a creator of it – a lover of Radio 6 and recommendations from like-minded folk on Facebook and Twitter, he even used to run his own music blog which he hopes in time to reignite – so suffice it to say, we thoroughly enjoyed our hearty chat the day after his acoustic show at Blacks in Soho. First though, a taster from Crown and Treaty, which you can pre-order from here…
How did your show at Blacks go last night?
It was really lovely, like playing in someone’s front room. Actually, we’ve done a few gigs in people’s front rooms as we did a series of house concerts; we put on Facebook that we’d come and play if you wanted us to, and then we’d go round to play at people’s houses for basically cake and good company! So it was kind of like that but in quite posh surroundings.
It was lovely, people curled up on cushions, a roaring fire, and we pretty much played without microphones. It was very intimate. Blacks is one of the oldest buildings in Soho, kind of Dickensian in its oldness; you go down into a little cellar, then up three flights of stairs to get to the main room. It’s all little rooms with comfy sofas and old paintings on the wall, it’s lovely.
And how did the HMV Next Big Thing gig go?
That was really good too, in an entirely different way. It was a wildly eclectic bill; we were playing with a Norwegian gypsy punk band called Katzenjammer who were amazing, and Charlene Soraia who kind of does finger-tapping on a baritone guitar while singing in this amazing four-octave voice. It was quite a disparate evening in terms of genre, and it made me realise that in London people just go out to hear music, which is a great thing.
When we’ve played in other countries, people come out just to see what’s going on, and it was very much that kind of vibe, an “oh, I wonder what this is” sort of thing. I think we played to about two or three hundred people, and there were lots of good…well, I was going to say ‘vibes’, but people don’t say that any more! It was a lovely atmosphere; everyone was willing us on, and it was the first time we really played the new stuff in front of people, with new band members as well. It was a good one.
Do you know yet which festivals you might be playing this summer?
It’s all yet to be confirmed, to be honest. You’ve got to wait for your reviews to come in, and there’s possibly places for you depending on whether you get the kind of attention you hope you’re going to get, that sort of stuff. Fingers crossed we’ve got a few of the big ones – there have been rumblings – but the main thing for us at the moment is the UK tour we’re doing between April and June, because that’s the day job.
Crown and Treaty has a very big sound about it. How much of a problem does that pose in terms of playing its songs live? How many members are there in the band now?
There are six of us now. When I made the record, I decided to put aside any thoughts of how we were going to do it live; I thought I’d switch that bit off, not be practical and just let my imagination fly away. Playing them live, we almost have to do cover versions of our own songs, go back into the files and figure out what’s important and what would get lost through a tiny PA in a club. What gets lost in detail – which isn’t actually that much, to be honest – kind of gets made up for with dynamics and performance.
The thing I wanted to avoid was using laptops and click tracks; I wanted us to be free, to be able to look at each other and go “let’s do that chorus again”. The challenge was: any sound that you hear coming through the PA, someone has to do something physical for it to happen. We’ve got Jana [Carpenter] who’s in the band now playing acoustic guitar and then at some points hitting pressure pads to trigger samples, so everything has a starting point of someone moving or hitting something.
It’s a big challenge because the songs are very layered, so we’ve now got Barney [Muller] playing additional guitar, and Dan [Garland] our new keyboard player who’s brilliant at all the technical stuff, like a mad professor who understands how to make it all happen live, which is a weight off for me. For the first time, I feel like I’ve got the live band that the music deserves. It was a bit too much of a compromise before – “we’ll have to cut out this bit here, and that bit there” – and I really wanted it to have the kind of scope and size that it has on the album. For the first time ever, I’m really excited about communicating the songs live.
In terms of recording Crown and Treaty, how much of the instrumentation did you handle yourself?
Quite a lot. We tracked quite a lot of drums fairly early on, because I couldn’t do some of the songs in the way we’d done previously, with samples and setting up a microphone in a rehearsal room. I wanted the album to sound like it had cost a lot of money to make, which proves to be a problem when you don’t have any money! So we recorded four or five songs with proper drums, and then basically I brought the rest up with help from anyone who was available, because people were working and stuff. Bish [Anthony Bishop] played quite a lot of bass and banjo on it, and Jana obviously did a lot of the singing. Between us we knocked it into shape, but it did involve a lot of me sat in front of a computer for pretty much a year. So yeah, it was hard work.
“Joyful Reunion” – behind the scenes
You’ve spoken about trying with this album to recreate the sounds that you hear in your head. How close to that do you think you got? Will you look to step up the production values even higher on the next album?
I don’t know. I wonder if I’ve taken that as far as I can, in terms of detail and hugeness without having a million pounds to make a record! I’d love to do something with live strings, and a brass band as well. There are lots of things I’d like to try. I did have a very clear vision for some of the songs. “Joyful Reunion” in my head was pretty much how it sounds on the record; I really wanted that Michael Nyman kind of processional thing, those harsh-sounding saxophones and the propulsiveness of that.
Other songs came together from a decision which led to another decision which led to another decision, and before you know it you’ve forgotten what you started with, what triggered the idea for the song. It’s kind of the magic for me, not knowing where you’re going to end up, but being open enough to get there in terms of trying stuff that you wouldn’t usually try. Being open to stuff going wrong, but it actually being the right thing.
It seems like you guys keep busy with other musical projects as well. Is there any more of that kind of thing in the offing, or are you just concentrating on Sweet Billy Pilgrim at the moment?
At the moment, it’s just the band, yeah. I do a bit of TV music, whatever I can get in terms of making a buck, but at the moment the focus is on Sweet Billy Pilgrim. Jana’s got her own band Piefinger, and they released an album recently so whenever she gets the time she does something with that, but it doesn’t seem to clash so it’s good. I like that people have other stuff to do as well because it keeps everybody fresh for what we’re doing.
Is your TV work what led to your appearance on The IT Crowd?
No, that basically came about from our being the band who say yes! I think what happened that they phoned up EMI and asked if there were any bands who’d come and do a day’s filming for free; they said, “Oh no, not for free,” but we said, “Yeah! Really? IT Crowd?” I love that show, and I’d never done anything like that before so it was exciting. I think we did two or three days of filming in the end because the script ended up changing quite substantially. It was great, and really good in terms of getting our name out there because it’s a much-loved show.
In this interview, Katherine Parkinson [Jen from The IT Crowd] described dancing onstage with you guys as “a dream come true”. Was she an existing fan?
Yeah, we had no idea! We did an acoustic version of “Kalypso” from our second album [Twice Born Men] in the studio with her as a 7″ single for Record Store Day a couple of years ago; it was the comedy version that appears in the show, and we did it in one or two takes so the challenge was not to crack up. There was a wonderful take which didn’t make it to the end – it got edited – where the last line of the song is “Oh Kalypso, tell me to go”, which she ended with “oh, fuck off“. She’s brilliant at improvising, and she’s so shy and quiet that when you realise how fearless she is in terms of making herself look silly on the show, it’s brilliant to watch.
“Kalypso” (from Twice Born Men)
Fine comic actress with fine musical taste!
Yeah, you can’t ask for more than that!
Are there any up-and-coming and/or obscure bands that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
Yeah, there’s a metal band – I say metal, but there’s much more to it than that – called Down I Go. They do amazing, Zappa-esque stop/start, technically clever stuff, but they’re still songs with heart-rending moments to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. They’ll have close-harmony singing followed by moments of proper, screaming metal, then a beautiful piano part with strings. It’s the imagination gone mad, in a really, really good way.
They theme their albums as well; they’ve got one called This is Disastercore which covers plagues, famine, earthquakes, even the Titanic; they’ve got one called This is Tyrantcore which goes over Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Nicolae Ceaucescu; and the last one’s called Gods, featuring a brilliant single called “Poseidon” which has a fantastic video. They also did Robocore and Dinocore. They’re brilliant, although I fear they may have split up. I do hope they haven’t, but they might have felt like they’ve been banging their head against a brick wall for an awfully long time.
Finally, if you had to spend the rest of your life in solitary confinement, but were allowed to take the entire works of five different musical artists with you to tide you over, whose would you take?
I’d probably start with Bob Dylan, not because I’m a massive Dylan fan but because his stuff has never really connected with me; there are odd songs that have, but if I’m going to be there for a long time then I’d want something that would take some work. I know it’s brilliant, and I know he’s a genius, but I need to find that out for myself, and what better place to do it? I’d have to take some metal with me to listen to while I exercise, which you need a bit of fury and adrenaline for, so I’d probably take Meshuggah; it’s very technical and I might get the chance to figure out what they do on those records in terms of time signatures and whatnot.
For peace and quiet I’d take some Brian Eno, and you’d also have the benefit of his ‘song’ phase which is equally great in a different way. Would I be able to take Roxy Music as well as part of that? Roxy Music up to Manifesto, that is.
Oh, go on then!
If it’s entire works then you’d want someone with a fairly extensive back catalogue, so I’d take Tom Waits as well. And, to keep things vaguely up to date, I’d take Field Music; I think they’re pretty much untouchable in terms of modern pop music. They can have a song with the most heartbreakingly beautiful chorus, and they’ll only do it once, end the song in two minutes, and it’s not too bloody-minded because you can see they’re going somewhere else. Everything is there for a reason, poised and perfect, they don’t overload stuff, there’s not too many layers. It’s deceptively complicated, but always in service of the song rather than being a “look how clever we are” sort of thing.
We played with them at KOKO a few years ago, and when we turned up they stopped their soundcheck to help us unload. They’ve turned it into a sustainable business as well; they’ve got their own van, got their own gear and they book their own gigs. They were really lovely to us, and they’ve got five albums I think so they’d been good to take. I haven’t heard anything this year or last that’s better than their new album Plumb. It’s breathtaking, and I think we share a bit of common ground in terms of the way we like to do things, even if they do go in a completely different direction.
Tim, thank you.