Something’s Going On: Seti The First
Interview with Kevin Murphy, one half of Seti The First who perform the Triskel Christchurch, Cork on Thursday 8th November. Tickets: 10 euro. During our interview, Kevin discusses the music of Seti The First, the creative process invloved, musical inspirations, origins of ‘Melting Cavalry’, their cello-based instrumentals, Efterklang and plans for 2013.
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Seti the First’s debut album entitled ‘Melting Cavalry’ has been championed by everyone from RTE’s John Kelly to Denmark’s Efterklang. The reason why is simple. The Irish musicians of Kevin Murphy and Thomas Hough who make up Seti The First, create utterly transcendent instrumental music of sheer beauty. ‘Melting Cavalry’ is a rare treasure. Album opener ‘La Bassinette Noir’ starts with an urgency of warm percussion and acoustic instrumentation. Pastoral folk spendour is etched across a cinematic landscape of gorgeous cello, viola and double bass. The music of Seti The First sounds familiar yet unknown, steeped in magical notes and melodies. ‘Sugar To Sea Lion’ contains eerie strings played over brooding trumpets echoing Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score work for ‘The Proposition’. ‘Victory Motel’ is sublime. The instrumental begins with a plucked double bass beaneath delicate cello and viola conjuring up a sound similar to French composer Colleen. Rhythmic pulses of strings begin ‘New Brass Bird’ that could be Reich or Glass. For fans of Hauschka, Dirty Three, Rachel’s, Marsen Jules et al, you will certainly not be disappointed. Please go seek out ‘Melting Cavalry’ and witness their live performance in the Triskel Christchurch on Thursday, 8th November.
Thank you very much Kevin and Thomas for taking your time to talk about your music and Seti The First. Congratulations on your debut album ‘Melting Cavalry’, a record of sheer beauty and cinematic delight. Truly transcendent moments abound. The album fits perfectly next to Dirty Three, Nick Cave & Warren Ellis scores, Rachel’s and Kronos Quartet.
Firstly, I would love to gain an insight into the creative process of Seti The First? The compositions on ‘Melting Cavalry’ are written by Kevin (cello, double bass & tenor viola) and Thomas (lap zithers, ukelin and percussion). How and when are the compositions born? Does one member have an idea and work from there, or is it purely created when you are both present and collaborating together?
In short yes to both. In some cases one of us has an idea, which is presented to the other for interpretation. For example, I presented Thomas with certain cello based ideas which he developed and served back to me. In some cases, tunes like Sugar to Sea-Lion or Victory Motel did not stray too far from the original sketching while tunes such as Melting Cavalry or A Ship A Ghost are almost unrecognizable when compared with their original forms. In other cases the tunes were written by the two of us at the same time, e.g. Bassinette Noir and Citric Dirt. In the case of Citric Dirt it was written and recorded in its basic form in about a half an hour – we got very lucky.
Where does the wonderful title of ‘Melting Cavalry’ originate from?
The title comes from an odd but persisting childhood memory I have. Myself and my brother were playing with plastic soldiers when we were kids and for some reason (sheer boredom I think) decided to burn them for entertainment. We put them into a truck and torched them. You know as a kid your toys tend to have their own real personalities so I had this feeling for days that I had participated in a mini-holocaust.
I have only recently seen the beautiful music video for ‘La Bassinette Noir’, directed by your friend and colleague, Adrian Crowley. The footage compliments the music so beautifully. What is the inspiration behind ‘La Bassinette Noir’? As the album opener, its divine sound of pastoral folk etched across a cinematic landscape of gorgeous cello, tenor viola and double bass, pours such raw emotion.
Bassinette Noir is inspired by Patrick Suskind’s book Perfume and its hero Grenouille, who is devoid both of scent and conscience. The more frantic parts of the tune refer to Grenouille’s dark manic fixations while the more blissed-out musical sections are intended to reflect the ecstatic feelings he experiences when killing. It is therefore designed to be a musical echo of a pretty dark tale celebrating the seductiveness of an inert conscience.
Tell me about your working relationship with Adrian Crowley. You have worked closely with him right up to his latest album, ‘I See Three Birds Flying?’
Both of us are friends of Adrian and big fans of his beautiful music. I have played live with Adrian on and off for the past 4-5 years. My approach to the cello seems to compliment what he does live so it’s a good match. I also played on his records ‘Long Distance Swimmer’ and ‘I See Three Birds Flying’. Thomas has a longer history with Adrian and has played live and produced some of Adrian’s recordings.
You have both worked with a diverse array of artists. For you both, which of those collaborations were the most rewarding and fulfilling?
Collaborations tend to be brief and therefore limited in scope. The collaborations I have enjoyed the most are those that have taken more time, as it is more possible to get to know the music properly and make a genuine creative contribution. I have played with Valerie Francis for a number of years and have enjoyed the freedom to get inside her songs and the same would be the case with Adrian Crowley’s stuff. A few years back I played with Gavin Friday for about a year. This was a big challenge for me and I loved it for that reason. I have also done an amount of work with Andrew Phillpott from the Broad Bean Band and formerly of Depeche Mode. Unfortunately we have never released anything we recorded which is a shame because I thought it was all great stuff. I have also worked with Stephen Shannon (aka Strands) a lot on his own Strands stuff, some stuff he did with half-set and other projects he has produced. We have always worked well together and have established an excellent artistic rapport. I have also spent time working with Folk singer songwriters John Spillane and Ger Wolfe which I have enjoyed immensely, again because I had the time to develop ideas with them.
Before Seti The First, there was music aplenty. Kevin, you were in Dublin based band Igloo, and Thomas, you were making music under the guise of Hulk. I’d love to know more about these musical ventures please. (Forgive me, I’m not familiar with these previous incarnations but I will seek them out, are there releases still available?)
Igloo existed in the mid to late nineties and was a creative collaboration between myself and Cian Roche with Barnes Goulding on drums. It was like a cross between Doves, See Feel and The Chemical Brothers – a sort of aggressive/bliss cocktail, best enjoyed with a few cocktails. We only released one EP ‘Great Motivator’ and to be honest I have no idea how one would get ones hands on it.
Hulk is Thomas’s solo project. He has released material with UK labels Static Caravan, Epanding and Melodic. It is a combination of organic and electronic sound with live instrumentation which produces atmospheric and expansive music. Hulk’s records include ‘Silver Thread of Ghosts’ and ‘Rise of a Mystery Tide’ both of which are on the Osaka label.
My favourite piece on ‘Melting Cavalry’ is ‘Victory Motel’. The moment when the piano enters mid-way through is one of the finest moments on the album for me. What is the inspiraion behind ‘Victory Motel’?
Victory Motel is intended as a moral antidote to Bassinette Noir. It is inspired by the film LA Confidential from James Elroy’s novel. Ed Exley and Bud White take on the endemic corruption in the LAPD and the climactic shootout scene goes down at the Victory Motel. The dramatic brass canon at the end of the tune is supposed to symbolize personal sacrifice for the collective triumphing over self-interest.
There is such an intricate arrangement of strings, brass, piano that evokes such meaning and emotion. How long did ‘Victory Motel’ take to arrive at completion?
Not really. Funnily enough Victory Motel proved to be probably the least problematic in terms of arrangement. Everything we threw at it just sort of stuck pretty much straight away. It kind of arranged itself.
This very piece, ‘Victory Motel’ was recently picked by Denmark’s Efterklang for an exclusive mixtape compiled for Under The Radar. You must have been delighted with this. Tell me about your thoughts and feelings on Efterklang.
We are huge fans of Efterklang and so were absolutely thrilled to be included in the mix-tape. For people writing the kind of music we do, Efterklang are giants. They weave experiment with natural expression in an unpretentious way and provide at very high bar to aim at in this respect. Praise from them has probably been the highlight of releasing the record so far.
‘Sugar To Sea Lion’ contains an utterly evocative soundscape fronted by soaring strings and brooding trumpets. The piece was featured in the highly acclaimed film ‘Hidden Garden’ by Garvan Gallagher. Was the piece written specifically for the film in mind? If so, what is your approach to making music for a film? Similarly, ‘Citric Dirt’ was a score to Dearbhla Glyn’s portrayal of the Gaza Tunnel in ‘Ag Filleadh Ar Gaza’? I would love to know the creative process involved here where you’re composing music for the portrayal of the Gaza Tunnel.
In both cases the directors in question got their hands of early demos of Melting Cavalry and used pieces they thought suited their visual purposes. So in both cases we had no input into linking the music to the images. In the case of the Gaza tunnels, our piece Citric Dirt works really well I think and was a brilliant moment for me to see our music being associated with a piece of film highlighting the daily life and death struggle faced by Palestinians.
Of course music and film have gone hand in hand on many occasions, for example Lambchop’s score for F.W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’and Johannn Johannsson’s collaboration with Bill Morrison on ‘The Miners’ Hymns’. Which are the films or filmmakers that you would love to collaborate on?
Regarding our own music, we expressly set out not to write music to be primarily used for film. That said our music is cinematic and we are interested in collaborating with film makers whose work suggests a congruence with our own approach. For example, at the moment we are working with Paul Duane, a film maker from Dublin who is making a documentary on the tragic and triumphant life of French film maker Bernard Natan. Paul also made a well known documentary on the life of John Healy who penned the classic The Grass Arena. Healy’s life is also a tale of triumph and tragedy, twin themes which STF also try to capture.
The band Dirty Three took twelve or more years before they decided to have a guest vocalist on one of their songs; which was Cat Power, on ‘Great Waves’. With Seti The First, if you ever decided to add vocals to a track, what singer would you have in mind?
Not too sure about this. In theory I would have no objection to any vocalist trying their hand at developing our tunes. If Madonna is interested for example, we wont get in her way!! Actively pursing the idea of adding vocals creatively on STF is something we will deal with very carefully. Both of us are keen to experiment with vocals on the next record though I’m not sure they will be regular vocals with lyrics but will rather be more likely employed to sit like any other instrument in a supporting way. We have started experimenting already in this respect. Both of us are fans of Liz Fraser, although our own approach is more likely to be from the Jónsi school of singing.
Listening to your music brings to mind an array of composers such as Kronos Quartet and Steve Reich. Which composers influence you the most?
Yeah, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Henryk Gorecki – the usual suspects. For me Arvo Pärt stands out the most.
Which albums have had for you the most significant impact on your lives and music?
For Thomas, the most influential albums include, Treasure – Cocteau Twins; Hatful of Hollow – The Smiths; and Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Penguin Cafe Orchestra. For me, Loveless – My Bloody Valentine; Banana Album – Velvet Underground; and Back in Black – ACDC and more recently The Haxan Cloak – The Haxan Cloak.
As regards influential musicians, Thomas includes: Matthias Loibner; Phonophani (Espen Sommer Eide); Toumani Diabaté; Soliman Gamil and Simon Jeffes. I would also include Matthias Loibner as a major influence. We both saw him play in Dublin recently and while I wouldn’t be easily given to hyperbole I would say that he must be one of the greatest living musicians. I am also a fan of Hildur Guðnadóttir, Hauschka and Efterklang.
What is next for Seti The First?
Our most immediate concern is the music for Paul Duane’s documentary on Bernard Natan. That should keep us occupied for a lot of November. We have also started our second album and will continue with that. Hopefully this will be out around March/April of next year. On the live front we are hoping to test the waters in Berlin in the new year to see how STF is received in Germany – must brush up on my German.
The band play Triskel Christchurch, Cork on November 8th and The Sugar Club, Dublin on November 10th. What will the live set up consist of?
There will be two cellos – myself and Mary Barnecutt; Thomas will play the marxphone, zithers and some percussion; Aki plays nikelharpa and Patrick Lyons plays Spanish guitar.
Seti The First play Triskel Christchurch on Thursday, 8th November and the Sugar Club, Dublin on Saturday November 10th.
‘Melting Cavalry’ is out now. http://setithefirst.bandcamp.com
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