Central And Remote: SlowPlaceLikeHome
Interview with Keith Mannion.
“It’s sort of second nature. As the instigator, you already know what angle you are going for but as a whole it’s capable of moulding in any way I wish.”
Words: Mark Carry
In an interview published during 2012, I may have mentioned how SlowPlaceLikeHome’s star is surely soon to rise (forgive the unintended cliché). A great deal of the independent music scene clearly felt the same as the lone musician carved out a string of indispensable releases (including ‘There Go The Lights Again’, and the ‘Post-Hoc…’ EP) that immediately took a special hold on the listener, as music so utterly contemporary, ground-breaking yet beautifully familiar ascended into the surrounding atmosphere. I feel Mannion’s sonic experiments ceaselessly stops you in your tracks that makes you realize just how special music can be (and a record such as Mannion’s latest opus, ‘Romola’ can quickly become).
There’s no country for old music in SlowPlaceLand. South Donegal’s Keith Mannion AKA SlowPlaceLikeHome is undoubtedly making some of the most exciting and compelling electronica music, from the Knather Wood wilderness in the great North West. In the short space of one year – rewind two years to 2012 – SlowPlaceLikeHome was nothing short of prolific with two E.P.’s and one full length album under his belt. Most remarkably, with each release, Mannion continues to push the sonic envelope and conjure up new, awe-inspiring electronic soundscapes. It’s difficult to define the sound of SlowPlaceLikeHome. Electronica, psychedelica (psychedelectronica?), ambient, dance and avant pop are just floating on the surface of the sonic ocean of sound Mannion creates.
2014 has seen the eagerly-awaited full-length release of ‘Romola’, showcasing the Donegal sound sculptor’s masterful song-craft and utterly beguiling soundscapes. The intricate layers of field recordings, looped vocals, translucent beats, irresistible grooves and shimmering guitar lines are just some of the alluring trademarks of this incredible and forward-thinking artist. ‘Romola’ represents SlowPlaceLikeHome’s most singular and accomplished work to date. What is immediately apparent is not only the beautifully eclectic sounds captured on ‘Romola’ but the live aesthetic of the record’s vivid canvas of energized sound. Album opener ‘Our Rules’ begins with hazy beats and Mannion’s vocoder that slowly coalesce together with luminescent beats (think Tri Angle’s Forest Swords). Moments later, an infectious groove takes full-flight as a psychedelic whirlwind of soaring bass, sunshine-drenched harmonies and percussion conjures up the sound of Caribou’s ‘Swim’ mutated with ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ by The Flaming Lips.
The dazzling lead-single ‘She Comes In Colour Stereo’ is the distillation of a cherished record collection, such are the endless moments of ecstatic tones that pour from the speakers. Distorted guitars and shoe-gaze bliss echo and reverberate throughout as an urgency and immediacy remains intact, recalling the indie treasures of Yo La Tengo and early 90’s shoegaze era of Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine et al. A brooding darkness builds gradually throughout the title-track ‘Romola (Parts 1 & 2)‘ – later to be revisited on a re-configured ‘Romola (Part 3)‘ on part B – brilliantly brings to mind the likes of Nicolas Jaar and more particularly the guitar-based collaborative project of Darkside. A deep groove and sumptuous, reverb-drenched tones serve the gorgeous ebb and flow to this melancholic, soul-searching gem.
‘Set Fire To The Stars’ gives ‘Romola’ its gorgeously-constructed textures and digital warmth as the electronic elements are effortlessly fused with the organic, resulting in an immaculate, cohesive whole. The gripping heart of ‘Romola’ fades onto the distant horizon with the enlightening instrumental cut of ‘Autumn’s Children’. Clean electric guitars waltz majestically around a pattern of late night beats and Mannion’s electronic wizardry . This piece of music brings to mind my first discoveries of Ulrich Schnauss, B. Fleischmann, Clue To Kalo and the other indietronica delights of the early 00’s. A vivid sense of nostalgia is etched across the sublime sonic canvas before a beautiful string section brings the piece to a glorious close.
A cinematic dimension is attained on ‘Luna’, an electric guitar-based indie-rock opus, reminiscent of Yann Tiersen’s more recent records as an anthem from deep beneath the underground makes its way to the surface, and “headlights” above. An uplifting and joyous mood erupts on ‘Dear Diary’, as a roaring brass-line and infectious pop hooks (recalling the likes of The Sea And Cake at their compelling best) come to the forefront of the mix. As ever, Mannion’s SlowPlaceLikeHome shifts with each vita pulse and glittering beat whilst venturing down new expanses of enchanting sound. This sense of rapture is masterfully captured on the album’s penultimate track – fittingly, the (returning) title-track of ‘Romola (Part 3)’ – on the song’s shape-shifting rise, as celestial harmonies, synths, and colourful guitar licks creates a shimmering synth-pop odyssey to get beautifully lost in.
‘Romola’ is available from all good independent music stores now.
Interview with Keith Mannion.
Firstly I must congratulate you on the debut full-length record, ‘Romola’. Having released three compelling E.P’s in 2012 alone, the SlowPlaceLikeHome guise has continually explored new sonic terrain and evolving as a masterful producer and song-writer, culminating beautifully on this year’s ‘Romola’. Please take me back to the past year or so where you have been heavily immersed in the making of this record. What were your aims from the outset, Keith? The space and time you have given this particular project I imagine has shaped the overall sound and feel of ‘Romola’?
Keith Mannion: Thank you for the ego stroking mechanism there! The past year has flown by but this record has taken what seems an age to squeeze out. It’s just great to release new music.
It felt so totally juxtaposed to everything else I had done. Indeed the tracks themselves were so out of place sitting beside each other. Then, a computer meltdown and all files were lost. Well, nearly. I went about aimlessly trying to re-construct them from memory, as they were relatively fresh but to no avail.
This sparked a new departure of sorts. I felt it had to be completed. Thus, new material began flying out of me. It was almost a call-to-arms of Dr. Doom proportions.
A new beast, splatter-gunned on my desktop and it bore no resemblance to its former guise. It was meaner and leaner, for a start. The sheer frustrations of a project gone awry, showing their head.
So, being a different creation to its predecessor, it shed its skin and is whatever the listener wants it to be really.
Feels like that accidental breathing space has worked and the SPLH project has a new identity.
One of the striking aspects of the new record is the range of disparate sounds, textures and styles found throughout the album’s ten sonic creations. A kaleidoscope of sound (shoegaze, electronica, ambient, synth-pop, psychedelic bliss) unfolds as you listen to the album’s sprawling canvas of enchanting sound that reveals more upon every re-visit. Can you please talk me through the live instrumentation used on this record?
KM: I basically play everything you hear on this record. I had thought of asking some folk to guest on it but felt like I’d cheat myself of this particular batch of songs. I knew what I wanted and couldn’t ask someone else to merely recite the stuff, just for the sake of name-checkery.
Besides, that would’ve taken up more time and money than I already had. So there are countless instruments on this record. All played and tweaked to my wants and needs.
In terms of samples and found sounds, what sources did these originate from? As ever, there is a wonderful balance between the organic and synthetic, creating a beguiling and cohesive whole.
KM: I would take walks around my local forest and even trips to local beaches and strands and cliffs and record passages. From birds, to people, to the wind, water and plant/tree life. Even some chats I’d have along the way. Then I’d bring them back home and find things that rang true to me, on re-listen.
If need be, I would play a little guitar or keys over something, to see if I could take it another direction. Trial and error at times, I guess.
But I already had the ideas in my head and they were the foundations for the complete structure of the record. It was the addition of the recorded sound-scapes, which gave it crucial new dimensions.
I love the fluidity of the music where the endless layers of tracks ceaselessly generate new meaning and possibilities. The album opener ‘Our Rules’, for example must contain a multitude of layers. How much of a challenge is the process of layering of tracks on a particular song when you need to ensure the spontaneous spark of the song is captured?
KM: You’re quite correct and the whole process can be lost on myself even. But to me it isn’t a challenge. It’s sort of second nature. As the instigator, you already know what angle you are going for but as a whole it’s capable of moulding in any way I wish. If it became a chore, then time to cease working on it.
Fortunately (or unfortunately. Whichever way you look at it), there is an overwhelming amount of very commercial carbon-copied music out there at present. So many “oh-oh ohhh-ohh”s and “Hey-ho” meaninglessness, it gives some space to work with. I lack those wonderfully erudite gimmicks. Less radio play for me, I guess!
What recording equipment did you have at your disposal, and how has it changed from the recording of the previous releases?
KM: I have used much the same as past recordings but for this, I used my voice a good deal more. I made beats from cat meows, such was the significance (or not) of my new methods of experiment.
‘Our Rules’ conjures up the sound of Caribou’s ‘Swim’ record such is its brilliance. As a whole, ‘Romola’ feels like a live band record more than anything. How much of an influence has the recent SlowPlaceLikeHome live incarnation been on the making (and overall sound) of ‘Romola’, Keith?
KM: I very much wanted to create a record that could hold up to live touring. It’s a very expensive business, to recruit a team of players to re-create the sound of the recordings. Besides, maybe you can replicate some but you can’t get THAT complete .
So in order to loosen it up a little and allow it be more stage-worthy, I concentrated on less self-absorbed songwriting. Not suffocating the songs with one-dimensional chord structures. Giving players freedom to tweak the lines somewhat.
The pristine vocals and layers of celestial harmonies dotted all over ‘Romola’ is one of the album’s great hallmarks. Can you please discuss this aspect of the music? Would the lyrics of the songs come after the tracks are laid down, or before?
KM: Well that’s a first! Never thought my vocals would be complimented. All the songs were written in a different pattern, or process. No two the same.
Everything has it’s place.
The title-track is one of the album’s highlights and serves the album’s vital pulse, especially as ‘Romola’ is present in three distinct parts. Can you talk me through how this particular track evolved into its various incarnations? I think this track alone reflects the highly imaginative quality of ‘Romola’ where new dimensions are ceaselessly added.
KM: There are two stories. The before (Romola pts. 1 & 2) and the aftermath (Part 3). I don’t really like explaining the content of the stories in detail, as I think it takes away from what may appeal to the listener. The mood swings can be easily heard through the fluxuating styles of music. This album is, itself, volatile and all 3 parts of Romola serve to almost confound on approach.
I’ve been told they are very easy listening melodies but if you listen to the lyric content, you may think again.
‘Autumn’s Children’ is an utterly beautiful ambient cut, particularly the strings on the closing section. Can you recount for me writing this particular piece of music?
KM: I can. It was one of the first songs I ever wrote. Yes, Autumn’s Children was one of the tracks that nearly went into the great big power surge abyss. Never to return. I re-wrote it and decided to leave out the original vocal sample, which was narrated by my 5-year-old (at the time) nephew. It was written during a period where I was slightly cut off from the social aspects in my life.
Surrounded by animals and yet immersed in this very personal journey, to try and understand the human template, as my father became very ill. More juxtaposition but this time as a personal experience.
Having already played various shows this summer, what tours are planned for you next, Keith? In terms of the live set-up, I recall you mentioned the difficulties of replicating your sound to the live setting in the past. What does the live set-up comprise of for the ‘Romola’ tour?
KM: At the moment, I am working with some great people, in order to build on the live shows. As I have begun to get back into the world of gigging and attending gigs, I have met such like-minded and wonderfully honest folk, with a refreshing candor. It’s good to know where you stand in this game. ‘The business’ is a sprint at times. Timing is very important and especially when you are working with several projects and people.
Playing at a lot of the summer festivals this year (Electric Picnic, Stendhal, Castlepalooza, to name but a few) really opened my eyes to how things are rapidly changing for touring musicians. It’s a lot more difficult for original music to ‘travel’! There are some great people to deal with but I still get the invites to play somewhere for no fee and no expenses whatsoever. That is pretty impossible to do, as anybody will tell you. It’s even more daunting when you wish to ask fellow musicians to play for peanuts.
Trying to balance life outside of the music world with playing live can be a little tricky, especially as I have a full live band playing with me.
I am lining up possible tours with some very good acts and I will be gigging as much as it’s feasible.
But hey, as I said, if it became like a ‘nine to fiver’ slog, I’d hang up my dialling wand!
SlowPlaceLikeHome plays St. Anne’s Church in his hometown Ballyshannon, on November 7th, along with support from Ryan Vail and guests. BBC’s Stephen McCauley will compere the event.
‘Romola’ is available from all good independent music stores now.