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Chosen One: Tindersticks

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Interview with Stuart A. Staples.

I often say to my kids that the most creative thing that I ever did was to have the bravery to leave Nottingham and go to London: just to take a step because from that step so many things were allowed to happen.”

—Stuart A. Staples

Words: Mark Carry

TINDERSTICKS, 2015

In the liner notes for the classic Tindersticks debut album (originally released in 1993), founding member David Boulter describes the richness of ideas coming from the group: “We had so much music running through us and so many ideas, we knew we had something bigger to make, and we needed somewhere bigger to make it.” The immense batch of songs – including ‘Marbles’, ‘Raindrops’, ‘Patchwork’, ‘City Sickness’, ‘Her’ and ‘The Not Knowing’ – were recorded in the Stone Room, a studio run by Ian Caple, who helped the band achieve the sound they wanted. Across twenty-one songs, every moment on the debut record felt special. Magic emanated from the rich instrumentation, intricate arrangements and poetic lyricism.  The same can be said for each and every Tindersticks record that followed. This original lineup of Stuart Staples, Neil Fraser, Dickon Hinchcliffe, David Boulter, Mark Colwill and Alasdair Macaulay possessed something utterly unique: a subconscious, deep conversation flows continuously between its members that is more than the sum of its parts. And this breathes deeply into the songs.

Two decades on, Tindersticks have a richness of ideas – echoing what Boulter writes in those liner notes albeit from an entirely different moment in time – that are fully realized on masterworks such as ‘The Something Rain’ and ‘The Waiting Room’ (marking the band’s last two studio albums, respectively). Every moment feels special. An infinite array of inspired moments fill these records that carves out a vast treasure of mesmerising beauty and sumptuous artistic detail. The current lineup – consisting of founding members Staples, Boulter and Fraser alongside more recent additions Earl Harvin (drums) and Dan McKinna (bass) – possess a deep telepathic connection that is not unlike that unique moment in time at the turn of the nineties.

The many projects that are interspersed between the band’s studio albums, from the monumental Claire Denis film scores – 2015’s ‘Les Salauds’ containing a beguiling electronic-oriented sound-world that signals yet another milestone – sound installations (from the Flanders museum in Belgium that is beautifully captured on ‘Ypres’) and this year’s spellbinding film and score ‘Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith’. This singular sound of Tindersticks continues to evolve and develop, forever navigating uncharted territories of both the heart and mind alike, never knowing precisely where such explorations will lead us.

Minute Bodies’ is a deeply hypnotic and immersive film and dedication to the incredible work of naturalist, inventor and pioneering film-maker F. Percy Smith (whose work spanned the early years of the twentieth century). Smith developed various cinematic and micro-photographic techniques to capture nature’s secrets in action (take for example the ‘Fly Acrobat’ film). In the words of Staples (director of ‘Minute Bodies’): “His work transcends the constraints of its time, and how it teaches us about patience, commitment, ingenuity and determination.”

The forming of the edit and its musical score evolved over a three-year period. The recording sessions features French percussionist Thomas Belhom and Christine Ott (piano) with cameos from David Coulter (musical saw) and Julian Siegel (saxophone). The score effortlessly maps the hidden beauties of nature that Smith so masterfully portrays onscreen: a true match made in heaven. The ethereal ‘Percy’s Theme’ opens the score with a beautiful delicacy and immersive quality, which leads into ‘Gathering Moss’ and its luminous dreamscapes with gorgeous female harmonies ascending into the foreground. Eerie drone passages are fused with cinematic flourishes on the epic tour-de-force ‘Magic Myxies’ and the gradual piano pulses of ‘The Strangler’ could be a long distant companion to the band’s ‘Trouble Every Day’ score. The timeless cinematic jazz exploration ‘Scarlet Runner’ echoes the work of Mikael Tariverdiev before the star-lit skies of ‘Percy’s Dream’ (Reprise) drifts majestically into the ether.

‘Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith’ is out now via City Slang.

https://tindersticks.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/tindersticksofficial/

 

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Interview with Stuart A. Staples.

Congratulations on the ‘Minute Bodies’ score and film; it’s very special. When did you first come across the work of F. Percy Smith and what led you to go about the project in the first place?

Stuart A. Staples: I wasn’t planning to; I just caught a glimpse of his work – well not necessarily his work but this microscopic world – and I wanted to find out more. From that I found out that there was a few things available on compilation DVDs, I got hold of that and just started making music; that was like three years ago so gradually I’d been able to get further and further into the archive and gradually pick up the support of the BFI. It’s been a long process, it was more like a hobby for a while and it finally got finished up like that after three years working on it – not solidly but sometimes it was an antidote to some of the other things I was working on.

As you say, it feels like a labour of love in many ways. ‘Minute Bodies’ in a similar way to the scorework of Tindersticks and many of your projects in the past, they act as a record in itself (in terms of the music). I wonder for the music of ‘Minute Bodies’ and to score the visuals, did you have the film edits in mind firstly or was it more naturally coming together at once?

S.A.S:  I think the first thing I thought was more about people: about musical characters that I knew and I thought that the first steps probably was to get together with Christine Ott who plays the Martenot and Thomas Belhom who is the French percussionist who we work with and David [Coulter] from the band and see what happened. We had a few days together very early on and we prepared some loops and some atmospheres and then I had chosen some parts of the film that I thought were exciting and so I brutally edited something and brutally prepared something. And then we started – we had a few days playing – it went so well that it just asked for more things to happen and I think that was the story of the project really; every time we took a step it asked for something else to happen and that’s what made it like a gradual thing. I think being for the first time in charge of the image as well as the music created this space where the pictures would inspire the musicians and the way the musicians reacted had an effect on the edit so it was always talking to each other that both elements were always having an effect on us.

It’s amazing listening and watching the finished piece, just how much of a dedication it is to F. Percy Smith’s life and work. Originally I presume there were voice-overs and over-dubs and nothing like it is now?

S.A.S: Obviously I think that when you look at the original educational films now, they feel incredibly dated for me but I felt this pure photography of Percy’s and this intimate moment between him and his subjects – whether that was developing frogs or whatever – there was this intimacy and solitude I felt with his photography. And I think taking that away from the educational films and the context and story and the educational element, the images felt free and wanted as well to deal with something today and something that our lives today are seen in a very different way and I think that was an exciting process.

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And with the music, I love how it feels like one cohesive whole where the pieces flow into one another. Certain pieces – like the lengthier tracks – like ‘Scarlet Runner’ and ‘Magic Myxies’ continually build and draw a lot of elements as they build.

S.A.S: I think to me I was more or less in the middle of so many great musicians that would be inspired by these great images and I just had to be the guy in the middle directing it: enjoying it but also keeping an eye always on where the direction it was heading in. I think that’s the enjoyable part about what I do really I suppose; I had maybe three days with someone like Julian Siegel, a couple of days with David Coulter as well as the band, there was a real richness of ideas of people taking Percy’s things and the way that inspired them and making something of their own out of it and contributing to the overall colours within the music, it was pretty exciting. And I think it was very different to what we’d done before but I think also as a process you can feel it changing as a band, as a group of musicians as well and playing the score live; it’s not like any kind of music we had to play live before. It’s actually having a great, subversive effect on us I think as a group of people.

It must be very exciting for you and the musicians to be playing the score live at these cine concerts. It’s something new but I suppose in recent years there’s been so many different mediums that you’re loosely involved with alongside music.

S.A.S: I think it’s important when you’ve been making albums and playing music for so long I think it has to find different ways of trying to keep being inspiring. And we have to be with each other and play music together, it would be impossible for us to play music together if we weren’t excited by everybody’s input. So I think it’s before we try and change shape, put yourself in a place where you’re not so comfortable and see where that takes you. And I think that’s been the key to I suppose the second part of our career. We had an original line-up and we came to an end, I think we ran out of conversation and I think a lot of that was to do with a semi-successful band; writing, recording, touring and with the cliché of that kind of turnover. I think with the last ten years it’s all been about not falling into that but actually having the confidence to follow your ideas and to where they take you but not feeling bound by these structures that exist and that has kept us alive and engaged.

It’s fascinating to think of the second chapter of Tindersticks – from ‘Hungry Saw’ onwards – it’s always exciting to discover each new release and the new ideas and directions for each of them. For example, ‘The Waiting Room’ – the last studio album – it naturally evolved on from ‘The Something Rain’ and the films made for each song was also very interesting.

S.A.S: It’s all been good and exciting. I think for this line-up – the second line-up of the band – it took us a couple of albums and we had a hard act to follow as well [laughs]. At the beginning our original band was a really fantastic, subconscious thing to be involved in and I never thought that I would end up in another great band in the way that they worked together. So, I think it took a couple of albums but when we got to ‘The Something Rain’ I think there was something going on between the five of us and again the music became more of the sum of its parts. That led into ‘The Waiting Room’ and working with Claire [Denis] and working for the museum in Belgium [‘Ypres’] there’s just a different kind of breadth to our work so it’s been a good time.

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I get the impression that each project and release must feed into the next like how you’re inspired by ‘Minute Bodies’ right now and how that must filter into the next Tindersticks album and so on?

S.A.S: That’s for sure. I think one of the reasons we’re still here and playing together is because of the work with Claire Denis and I think that she has always dragged us away from our thing and made us look into a different place and work in the more extreme parts of what we do. By the time we come back to working on our own music again we’re always changed. I think working on the soundtrack for ‘White Material’ really fed into ‘The Something Rain’ and working on ‘Les Salauds’ have had such an effect on our music; everything is always talking to each other. I’ve got no idea of what the band is going to make next but I’m looking forward to finding out.

The sound installation that is beautifully captured on ‘Ypres’ was another new venture for you and where it was and the history steeped inside it?

S.A.S: I suppose I believe – or maybe I’ve always believed it but just having the confidence to stand by it – if you have a strong feeling for something that you can find a way to make it happen and I think for ‘Ypres’ that was a real example of that for me. I stood in this place and I had this idea but I thought ‘how do I achieve that?’ but I think you have to find the right people to help you; the right people to put these ideas in place and you can actually figure out a way to get to where you need to go. I think ‘Ypres’ in a way was a real lesson that if you’ve got a strong feeling  – even if you don’t know how to make it exist – find a way to get help to do that, it’s a good thing.

It’s always beautiful seeing these long-term collaborations and Claire Denis and Tindersticks is one of those really wonderful stories that started so long ago and continuing with strength and strength. Looking back over the different films and scores, is there similarities or common elements in terms of creating music with Claire for the scores themselves?

S.A.S:  I suppose fundamentally every score has pushed us into different directions. We have this relationship and we have this conversation or narrative going on, I think what the actual ideas have; that’s where the real differences come and I think you can’t help but look at these ideas in different ways. I think for a film like ‘Trouble Every Day’ the ideas came from before Claire had even written it, she was talking about how she wanted to make a film about lovers and why lovers wanted to bite each other. It started off as a very romantic thing for us but I think by the time the film was made tough kind of erotic film really, the score is so romantic it created a very special relationship I think between the images and the music and that’s one example.

With ‘Les Salauds’ – the film before our last one – that was more about the idea of a sailor and when a sailor sees his life as simple and his work is ordered and he doesn’t have any worries but when he puts his feet on dry land that’s when all the complications start. And I think for the main character, the sailor is coming back to Paris to sort out a family problem. I think from that point of view we started thinking about the music electronically so even though it was set in Paris it was for me putting myself into this strange world that I wasn’t sure where I was for ages; I found myself surrounded by machines that I didn’t know how to use. I think that created a strange world within the film and there was a certain uncertainty about it. I think each one has asked for different things and even the last film it’s totally different again. I think it’s how something comes at you and affects you, how she feels about it, how she gets inspired and I think that she’s always open like that.

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The electronic elements in ‘Les Salauds’ worked so well, it was so compelling this journey it takes you on. And the ‘extreme’ sounds of the band you have already mentioned, you can really feel that particularly on the band’s last two albums: it may be only thirty or so minutes long but the range of ideas and sonic elements within each song; it’s fascinating just how much happens in that space of time.

S.A.S: I think the work on ‘The Waiting Room’, you just don’t want to deal with anything that you’ve dealt with before and I think that’s hard. I think say for Neil’s guitar on ‘The Something Rain’ we found this great space for Neil’s guitar and a great sound for it: it was very particular and it came out of so much experimentation, we found this one thing that runs through the whole of the album and Neil’s guitar on ‘The Something Rain’ is just so fantastic. But it need snipping off [laughs] because I think you start looking for new things and I think ‘The Waiting Room’ Neil is present as he ever is but it’s just in very different ways, he plays a lot of nylon string guitars; it’s just looking for different colours, different combinations within the songs, different rhythms: you just want to feel as though you didn’t get into this place before.

It’s something that started back in the early days but those spoken word songs like ‘My Sister’ and the sister song ‘Chocolate’ that opened ‘The Something Rain’ and the incredible ‘How He Entered’ are some of the finest of the band’s songs.

S.A.S:  Well they’re both songs by David [Coulter], ‘My Sister’ and ‘Chocolate’ so they’re very much him; his personality whereas I think ‘How He Entered’ to me is more akin to a song like ‘Marbles’ from the early days, I think it had that kind of connection. I think David’s songs and David’s ideas are always very, very particular to me and very, very special within what we do, so it’s like another different angle to come into the big mixture I suppose.

I’d love for you to discuss your studio and it’s obviously the space in which so much of the music has been made and recorded over the years and what makes it so inspiring to record in?

S.A.S: I think the space itself and feeling that you are in a space that is inviting and open to what can happen I think is really, really important. I think gradually along the way I’ve learned about recording and I’ve learned about the elements of recording that I like that I tend to stick to (which is probably a bad thing) to do with microphones because I’d like to make my job as easy as possible in a way because I spend so much time alone, I want to know what I’m going to get if I’ve got an idea and I want to capture it, I want it to be as straight forward as possible in the recording. Having a studio it’s not like having a recording studio to me, it’s a studio that’s there to go to whether you’re recording or not where different things can happen but the space itself is a very special space to me.

In what way do you feel leaving the UK and living in France has helped inspire your music?

S.A.S: I don’t think necessarily about being in France but I do think about leaving the place that you grew up in that becomes the thing that defines you, I think cutting something like that away brings a certain kind of freedom; it brought me a certain kind of freedom. Talking about my studio, I don’t think about it like “this is this place in the middle of France” I just think to me when I am in there I’m somewhere in Europe; I don’t think that I’m rooted into one place. It has that kind of relationship where it feels divorced from everywhere really, it’s just a place of its own. And I think I wouldn’t have been able to find that even if I could have or would have been able to have that in London, I don’t think I would have got to this point in the way I think about what I do .

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Going back to the original lineup at the turn of the 90’s, you must have strong memories of forming the band and this group of friends making music and particularly the demos for the debut Tindersticks record and how surprised you were when you heard what you were creating as it’s such a singular sound?

S.A.S: That record has a little story. We made a mini-album with Asphalt Ribbons about eighteen months before and we gave ourselves up to that kind of mentality of the music industry, somebody gave us a little bit of money and we gave it up to a studio and a producer to make this record and we walked away from it feeling deflated I suppose. And then we just moved to London and everything that that entails and we spent individually – especially for myself and David – we spent a long time – years and years – trying to getting people to engage with us in some way and not very successfully at all. I think what happened was after one disappointment after another it was like ‘let’s not try this anymore, let’s just do our own thing’.

I think from that moment and also I got a job at a Rough Trade shop and I was just surrounded by – in the early 90’s – all of this energy in London and lots of small independent labels. It was like let’s just make a single in our kitchen the way we want to make it and we made ‘Patchwork’ in our kitchen and we managed to sell 500 copies and then we thought about what would be next and we made ‘Marbles’ and we sold 1,500 copies and we made everything ourselves. And I think this was all leading towards making our first album and we demoed the first album in that situation (in that kitchen).

The demos, for me, are when the excitement really happens and when we went to make the album; the songs were there, the ideas were there but then working with an engineer like Ian Caple, it enabled us to bring the most out of sounds, the whole thing was elevated and making that record it was a surprise: there was a moment when we collectively looked at each other and there was a bit of a moment of ‘wow this is actually really happening’ [laughs]. You can’t really have those moments twice in your life but I remember it very distinctly.

It’s wonderful to think that the music spans from those early days and so much sparks were happening subconsciously between you all?

S.A.S: I think it was a real moment in time. I often say to my kids that the most creative thing that I ever did was to have the bravery to leave Nottingham and go to London: just to take a step because from that step so many things were allowed to happen but sometimes I think those steps are the hardest to take; you don’t get a direct reward from them but you can put yourself into a situation where things can change and things can happen and it is so important to keep a grasp of that as well.

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Another important period was after the band’s hiatus and your two solo albums – both quite different – with some of your finest recordings captured. This must have been a particularly important and creative time for you?

S.A.S: I think they’re both very different to me and I think for the first one [‘lucky dog recordings 03-04’] it’s probably up there as my favourite thing that I’ve ever made. There was a certain stripping everything back to an end of a starting point and that record to me hasn’t got such a connection with ‘The Something Rain’ or ‘The Waiting Room’, it hasn’t got the technique or the confidence but it has desire and it has the ideas; that was a point in time when I think our original line-up of the band got trapped into making music in a certain way and I think that maybe when characters are just together constantly for that amount of time, writing and making music together it maybe becomes impossible to not fit together in a certain kind of way and the more we fit together the more disappointing it was in a certain way.

And I think with making ‘Waiting For The Moon’ it was a very long process and it was very considered but it’s got some really great songs on there I think but at the time I just needed to make something raw and something willing to be ugly; that’s what the idea asked for. It was something that gradually grew in my garage and I think for ‘Leaving Songs’ it was a burst of songwriting, probably the only time that I had written songs of a certain way like that was probably for the second album because all of the songs on the second album were more or less written in a space of six months. Whether it’s ‘She’s Gone’, ‘Talk To Me’, ‘Travelling Light’, ‘A Night In’, all of those songs I can’t really imagine writing that many songs now in a certain period of time but ‘Leaving Songs’ was like that too, I just kept writing them. I just felt like I had to be true to them and maybe get rid of this Nashville thing that has been inside me since I could remember [laughs], it very much helped me to leave that behind so I’m pleased about that.

And there’s certain pieces on ‘Minute Bodies’, particularly the dreamy soundscapes like ‘Gathering Moss’ with the female harmonies, really transports you to that first solo album of yours.

S.A.S: Yeah I can see that. The thing for me about ‘Minute Bodies’ is if I think about that track it was one of the first tracks that we wrote. It was exciting to feel as though it was without a centre; that the centre of the music is the image and the music is kind of like a donut or something, it’s not something solid in the middle that holds it there. I think that’s whats really exciting about ‘Minute Bodies’ it all just holds in the air somehow and that’s pretty exciting.

Is there any records you’re obsessed with lately?

S.A.S: Three years ago I was introduced to Kendrick Lamar by one of my sons, he was playing ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ back to back and I’m surprised of how this guy has had such an effect on me, not going to make music like him but I’m talking about just feeling in tune with the way that he makes music. I think that he’s a very rare artist and that has rekindled a love of a certain kind of music that’s more direct and more about the song and his progression from then has been quite something. I’m glad that’s that’s been in my life the last few years.

‘Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith’ is out now via City Slang.

https://tindersticks.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/tindersticksofficial/

 

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