"The interconnectedness of things" - A conversation with United Bible Studies
There’s such an incredible explosion of musical (cultural/ artistic/ entertainment) choices out there at the moment, even (especially!) in the musical hinterlands, you could be forgiven for not noticing that two of the finest recordings of the past twelvemonth were launched from a tiny Irish label called Deserted Village and its flagship group, the curiously named United Bible Studies. Both 2005’s live disc Airs of Sun and Stone and this year’s The Shore That Fears the Sea stand out in both musicianship and vision, existing at least partly in the neo-avant-folk territory that’s being mined so productively these days, but with a breadth of reach and depth of concept that’s rare to say the least, resulting in two remarkably transcendental and life-affirming recordings.
The live Airs, a 40-minute celebratory morning raga recorded in a big old church-turned-arts-center, comes with tons of you-are-there ambience not unlike some of those classic 60s Sun Ra albums (where the lo-fi room noise becomes part of the aesthetic), with a further theatrical connection in the troupe of dancers that accompanied the performance. And in fact the music too bears a direct relation to the spiritual side of free jazz, as filtered through instrumentation and sensibilities from Celtic folk music, like some old Pharaoh Sanders piece reinterpreted by a congregation of druids. Shore takes a more incantatory tone, both in its ceremonial improvisations and its overall rite shape, and also through the songs, which build on mist-shrouded traditional themes in a melancholy tone that seems a logical extension of Irish folk music as processed through latter-day avant-garde sensibilities – imagine the misty psychedelic folk of the second Sweeney’s Men LP fed through a dark Current 93 filter. It’s an amazing disc that will almost surely appear on lots of “best-of-year” lists come next December.
Another reason one could be forgiven for missing this musical development is that neither UBS nor DV has been particularly easy to track. Used to be people were in bands – self contained units of identifiable (and marketable) style and substance. But these days it seems like an increasing number of underground travellers can be found subsumed within some larger collective identity, often centred around a particular CD(-R) label, and just as often operating under a bewildering and playful array of ever-shifting identities. So unless one was watching particularly closely and possessed advanced musicological detective skills, the larger Village picture could be a bit difficult to piece together due to a breadth of styles that’s pretty surprising even amongst the “anything-goes” aesthetic of the current scene. Releases often included little or no information, and it was easy to miss the connecting thread among sounds as diverse as the post-AMM avant-noise-improv of Murmansk, the straight traditional folk of Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree, or the lo-fi psychedelia of Agitated Radio Pilot (for just three examples).
As it turned out, that connection could be found through United Bible Studies, which shares membership and sonic approaches with all of the above and more. UBS has also been a challenge to follow, the group’s six releases ranging across spare improvisational folk; expansive organic/electric experimental noise; lo-fi psychedelic songcraft and ambience; and dips into the well of tradition; with the lack of information only accentuating the mystery. However, all started to become clear as of these two most recent releases, which began to weave together a lot of threads that had been developing separately in the past both in UBS and the various tendrils that connect to it.
In large part, UBS stands out because of the range of sounds the group can command. Far from the “everybody freak out now” aesthetic that a lot of yer bohemian collectives end up with, UBS can not only (really) improvise with ritual intensity but, unlike a lot of folks playing at “folk” these days, they also genuinely understand how to integrate and extend elements of tradition within their sound and concept, comfortable enough in their own musical skins to stretch their sound into all kinds of unexpected areas while still maintaining their central spirit. Over on the DW forums recently, Tony Dale commented that Shore deserves its own religion, which is hard to argue with; yet at the same time UBS seems to go deeper and further back than religion, tapping some primordial tribal source – album graphics, song titles, and lyrics are replete with suns and moons, gods and goddesses, mythic resonances, and nature references. All together it amounts to a potent brew that, one has the feeling, is only just beginning to recognize its full range of powers.
Armed with questions about all this and more, I began searching out these Bible Students through the Village in which they live. I quickly learned that while the full roster could amount to as many as 50 Students (!; discussed further below), there was a core of members that tended to hold the reins. So with the aid of modern Internet technology, the following lengthy conversation was conducted with three main Student organizers, Dave Colohan, Gavin Prior, and James Rider from Feb-April 2006. Many thanks to them for being so open and putting up with all my prying!
First off, orient us a little: Introduce yourselves if you would, and let us know what you do in the band…?
Dave: In UBS I have written and sung most of the songs. The overall concept of the group is my concern...lyrically and thematically...in other words each release is carefully planned out to sound part of the Whole. As regards instruments: guitar, banjo, lap steel, tin whistle, autoharp, chord organ, mandolin, cuatro...the list goes on. At gigs I tend to conduct the group through improvisations when we are not playing songs . . .
Gavin: I suppose I’m a co-producer in UBS. I write and assemble music, manipulate sounds and occasionally write lyrics. Live I play bass or guitar, a loop pedal and various electronics.
James: I feel that I do what all of us do – follow the pull and whims of the seasons and communicate these through instruments and voices. [Note: James also runs the Deadslackstring label, which co-released Shore along with DV.]
Can you say a bit about how the group began, and how it has developed and changed since?
Dave: James and I founded the group, originally as a duo, because we both loved the Incredible String Band and we wanted to play folk music... I have always loved British folk music more than Irish, though in recent years this is changing. I think I was reacting against the music forced on us in school. It was not long before all of our other influences started creeping in....
James: I had hooked up with Dave in 2001/2002 to play music that sounded like ISB, Fairport and any number of Joe Boyd produced bands, having spent hours listening to Sandy Denny, John Martyn, all those Witchseason artists. The original practise sessions took place in an old 19th century room in the centre of Trinity College Dublin, a few doors down from where Beckett would have lectured in the 70s/80s. Having rehearsed a few songs into a set, we played a few gigs in and around Ireland of these songs and some ARP material, and recorded a bunch of 4 track recordings in various places in the city. There are a few tracks from these recordings that surface on The Shore That Fears the Sea. Due to a variety of reasons I then relocated to Bangor, a town near Belfast in Northern Ireland, for about a year and a half. During this time the band mutated from the 2-3 piece folk unit into the far reaching collective it is now. Without over emphasising the value of the Mor festival gig, I feel it was the turning point in the early incarnation of the band. When I made it back to Dublin, the band had shifted from being this tight unit into an ever expanding musical beast.
Gavin: UBS was around before Deserted Village came into being. I lived with Shane when we first moved to Dublin and we formed Murmansk with 3 other people we met at an improv workshop hosted by Eddie Prevost. Scot from Murmansk was already drumming with UBS. Dave asked myself and Shane to do some overdubs on some aborted UBS recordings. The first time I saw Bible Studies live was in 2002 when Dave invited myself and Shane to contribute to a 12 piece drone to finish the show. I knew Sean Óg from Galway and it wasn’t long after he joined Murmansk that he was in UBS.
People in the orbit of the band tend to get sucked in. If I wasn’t in this band I’d really want to be. I almost pity people who aren’t. We almost have chapters of UBS around the country now. Dublin is our centre of operations and where most of us live but there are musicians in Limerick, Cork and Galway who play with us when we’re in town.
It seems like part of the concept of the group is more directly folk-derived, but as it developed it has involved a whole range of things, including improvisation and rock and avant influences; is that a fair description? That’s perhaps a fairly unusual direction to take; how did that progression come about?
Dave: When the group originally expanded beyond a duo, it was firmly in indie rock territory, which quickly became restricting. We both wanted to make things looser and I was obsessed with the idea of people meeting on stage for the first time. With this in mind, we felt that directed improvisations, using songs as starting points for something more exploratory, would be the way forward. Many of the musicians we love seem to share this quality. As time and gigs passed by, new members brought their influences to bear... so there was never any fear that our desire to explore extended songforms was just going to turn us into a space rock or jam band.
Gavin: We played relatively few gigs in 2002 and 2003. To my mind the live adventure was truly set in motion at the Mor Festival in 2003. I had already been playing in Weapons of Mass Destruction with the drummer Bryan O’Connell when we got him to drum with us. Bryan was there playing with Papercop. We were looking for beer in the band room when we met the French musician Colleen and got her and some of the Students to play some music in the woods. That was Bryan’s midget-bitten debut with UBS. He was hired on the spot to drum with us the next morning which was my scheme all along!
We were first on the bill on the Sunday morning and greeted the Sun with vocal drones and a medley of “Helical Rising” and “Shore that Fears the Sea” and beyond. UBS changed forever the moment Dave screamed “play a Can beat!” to Bryan. In those days half our gigs were just 20 minute versions of “Shore”, usually ending in fire and fury. These days, the shows are usually all improvised. If Dave is just singing and not playing an instrument he sometimes pulls back and conducts the band. Sometimes there is a roughly predetermined theme to the improv. Other times fragments of songs appear.
Sean Óg on the sax brought the jazz in. As the band grew larger, I think we became more prone to playing heavier stuff. We all have interests outside folk, so with more musicians, we could try more things. We still change our live approach depending on how many Students show up and the venue’s acoustics/intimacy/atmosphere.
This is maybe too obvious, but what's in a name? Is there any significance to calling yourselves United Bible Studies?
James: I guess this is the literal explanation: It would be fair to say that at the genesis of the band, myself and Dave had quite strong beliefs regarding organised religion and its relationship with faith and belief. I don’t think you grow up in Ireland without having an opinion on this. I had spent a lot of time reading the poet Stevie Smith and examining her relationship with god. To simplify things it was a relationship fraught with a distinct distrust of organised religion, but a strong tie to her Christian faith and belief. We were rehearsing one day and noticed a prayer book that my friend Richard, an early member of Bible Studies, had on a shelf. I guess it seemed apt as it summed up a lot of issues that were going on in our conversations at that time, whether they refer to organised religion vs. faith, or ritual and ceremony vs. belief. I guess unwittingly a lot of these factors have stayed with us as a band… Hence the band name. Given what we are now as a band, though, we’re probably closer in spirit to the Dubliners' “Hand Me down me Bible” sentiment, than that of Stevie Smith!
Gavin: It’s certainly a memorable name, some people seem put off by it, others amused. A couple of years ago I found myself at a “Bands against Bush” meeting in an anarchist squat. People were talking dates and as I was flicking through the diary mumbling “Oh, I’ve got Bible Studies on that date…..” There was a sudden, stunned silence. Also, we got an out of the blue e-mail from a publicist in Texas asking if we were a Christian rock band because “there’s a huge market for that in the Southern states”. Do you think we could fool them?
Um, no, but it’d be fun to watch… So, who all is involved with UBS? Your releases are notable for including no real band information; is the secrecy intentional?
Gavin: Too many to list here. When we play live, it’s mostly group improvisation and we’ve a large pool of musicians to draw on so I don’t want to leave anybody out. I’ve thought about including band information. It usually just seems excessive to me. We put individual instrumental credits on the Arkhangelesk cdr because it’s kind of in the jazz tradition and I’d never seen “fretless banjo” on an album sleeve before. I think nine people play on The Shore that Fears the Sea and some of us play a silly amount of instruments and non-instruments on it. I didn’t want to clutter the nice photographs. I want people to buy the albums but have little interest in getting my name on everything. I’m happy if people remember the web address and keep checking stuff out.
Dave: At the moment there is a core group who organise everything... apart from that handful of people, there are smaller groups in cities around Ireland (Cork, Limerick, and Galway), and in Britain too, that we can draw on. I hope that one day these different cells can play in different cities on the same night! I think that over the years up to 50 people or more have passed thru the group! The lack of information comes from the fact that we are all involved in various groups and we were probably embarrassed about putting our names to so many releases and groups. However, we are a very friendly lot and not really into mystique....we leave that to the music itself.
James: I’d agree with Dave and Gav on that one. For me there is no real secrecy at all about who we are or what we do, we’re pretty much as far away from The Residents as I can imagine! I guess it’s because nobody’s really got the time to sit and link all these things together… [Ed. Note: at one point during the interview James tantalized us with a “UBS family tree” that was in the works; last I heard it was destroyed in a spilt-lager incident down the pub one evening, which seems entirely appropriate…]
Gavin: Cultivating a mystique is for posers. To quote Lee Ranaldo, none of us are “very ‘I’m in a band’”. We like to get e-mails from people and we’re even on myspace now. The Students are venal, uncool people generating mysterious and powerful music. It’s mostly pretty hardcore music nerds who’ve heard of us and I think a lot of them crave mystery. Mark Coyle (http://www.theunbrokencircle.co.uk/) told me he gets about 5 e-mails a month from people asking him “Do you know who the Deserted Village people are? Have you met them? They’re so mysterious…” That cracked me up; we sit at computers and reply to anyone who e-mails us but that won’t do for some people…...
Is it fair to do a piece just about UBS, without taking into account all of the other related projects that the members play in? Can you tell us some more about some of those other groups and how they relate to UBS (conceptually, musically, personnel, whatever)?
Gavin: I think it’s fair to just talk about UBS because people interested in UBS wouldn’t necessarily be into Murmansk or Amygdala for example; actually nobody’s into Amygdala! I do think it’s odd that people pick up on UBS but not the Cosmic Nanou however. Agitated Radio Pilot, The Magickal Folk and UBS are the Village projects people really seem to latch onto. If you take the full spectrum of Bible Studies including live and studio work, it’s the most expansive Village band. I see UBS as stretching across the horizon from Murmansk towards the Magickal Folk. I play in Weapons of Mass Destruction, Amygdala, Agitated Radio Pilot (sometimes Dave solo, sometimes it’s a band), Lost Roman Legions, Murmansk, and Toymonger, as well as many occasional/one-off collaborations.
Dave: Conceptually, UBS has been about exploring elements of our shared folk culture. We, or at least a few of us, are interested in Celtic tradition and folklore, nature worship, psychogeography and other pursuits which reconnect us with landscape and folk memory. For me, recording is at its best when it is ritualistic. There must be a central theme or imagery. UBS contains many musical elements which we might solely concentrate on in our other guises... Murmansk is free improv, The Magickal Folk are much more traditional folk... for example.
Can you tell us about where you're from, or where you live? Does a sense of place (geographical, cultural, etc.) have anything to do with the music you make?
Dave: I’m from, and currently living again in, the Irish midlands. The sense of place and connection with the land is central to my approach to music. That is not difficult, coming for a country which is so beautiful in both landscape and heritage.
Gavin: Ah, the signature Brad Rose question… I grew up in east Co. Galway a couple of miles from Galway Bay on the Atlantic. The rain has 3000 miles of unobstructed wind behind it and often falls at 45 degrees lashing the face numb and mocking umbrella-users. The thin alkaline soil covers a continuation of the Burren, 100 sq miles of exposed limestone in Co. Clare. I love cracked and worn limestone landscapes, it’s like walking across Beckett’s forehead. Such minimal landscapes make for minimal stunted vegetation. I spent a lot of my youth in forests and will be forever drawn to them. I now live in a grey Dublin suburb but I escape to the park and Howth hill when I can. I find sparse, minimal landscapes easier to project music onto and to draw inspiration from. It could just be a matter of being able to hear yourself think.
James: I’m from Bangor in Northern Ireland. It’s a small town near to Belfast, that boomed during the Victorian period as a seaside resort. It hasn’t had much to say for itself since then. Coming from Northern Ireland, with a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon lineage, I had a (relatively) blinkered upbringing regarding Irish mysticism, culture and history. It’s safe to say you would have been pretty hard pushed to find many sean nos singers or trad sessions in Bangor. For me UBS is an outlet to interact with all these different aspects of a culture I never really got to experience growing up. Where Gavin and Dave’s ancestors were fighting off my kin over the centuries, mine would have been fighting off Viking invasions.
Gavin: Growing up, I was aware of folk music filtering down from aunts and uncles. Drones and modal music were never totally alien to me and are still central to UBS. Today I feel increasingly at odds with Irish culture and think UBS sticks out like a sore thumb. Ireland is passively consuming and copying the very worst elements of American and British culture which are shat down our throats. We’ve become blander for it. A lot of the Irish music scene is made up of whingy singer-songwriters and anemic copycat indie bands. Since our shows aren’t predictable we’re not packagable. We don’t really fit in but we’re having more fun than most bands. Some people who’ve seen us live think we’re willfully obtuse but folk, jazz, krautrock and psychedelia were all thriving before any of us were born. The fact that people label us experimental or avant-garde (both terms I dislike) is more to do with how tame the climate is than with us being innovative.
I’ll take the “signature Brad Rose Q” line as a compliment, as I'm a fan of his stuff... Part of what interests me here is trying to get at a perception I have that there’s a particular cultural specificity to your music that gives it a very different flavour from other comparable examples that might hail from, say, New York or someplace like that. I was partly trying to figure what you might draw from conventionally-recognizable Irish music or culture (traditional, folk, or whatever; not U2 obviously, or the indie rock that Gavin mentions) that filters into the sound of UBS. The Magickal Folk is more obvious, but some of the structural or chordal elements seem to work their way into the UBS music, consciously or otherwise... I guess this is more of a probe than a question, but any thoughts?
Gavin: The Drone is a bedrock stretching underneath Irish trad music as well as psychedelic music and noise. Droning feels like a natural route to morph a performance. For a lot of people the Doors were an entry into psychedelic music. When I first heard “The End” it reminded me of Irish trad tunes like “She Moves Through the Fair” because they both use the mixolydian mode. I’ve always been drawn to it and Dave writes a lot of songs with it too. The variations on D tunings are also an element from British and Irish folk.
James: I think that the record and what we do does have its roots in some sort of Irishness, but to define any exact sense of this is fucking hard. You look at how ‘Ireland’ has been constructed throughout the entirety of the last century, in literature, government, sports, and culture and wonder if there’s any way of articulating our past through our music given the many different transformations that ‘Ireland’ has been exposed to.
Musically, you look at Ireland’s supposedly rich heritage, and there are a few Irish people that I guess do what Bible Studies does – Van Morrison, bits of Sean O’Riada, Sweeney’s Men, Margaret Barry, Luke Kelly. So much is developed from interests in Coil, Current 93, and a swathe of English folk also. Musically, a lot of what we do comes from the modal style of playing. A lot of what we do would be in a single key – such as D, which would contribute a feel of the tonalities of drone instruments such as the uileann pipes, etc. This would be a more Celtic style of playing than maybe specifically Irish. The whistles that Dave plays and the harp would be our biggest concessions to Irish music, but I don’t think that Dave, myself or Gavin would class ourselves anywhere near being ‘trad’ musicians, although some of the others in the band would be fairly competent.
Dave: There is a guiding philosophy which has been there since the very beginning. As James pointed out, the name was originally a light hearted play on the fact that the early members came from radically different communities in terms of national identity, religion, etc, on an island where those ideas have often been taken to extremes.
We felt more of an affinity with those who explored their connection to this land in a more esoteric fashion – I’m thinking of writers like W.B. Yeats and Francis Stuart. How does that fit in with what we do? I think we have been exploring similar traditions. As I have grown older my distaste with certain aspects of Irish folk culture has disappeared and I am much more interested in the music, mythology and language. We distance ourselves from the airbrushed ‘oirishnes’ that our country loves to export. So I agree with you that our music has a particular cultural specificity....we draw from the Sean Nos unaccompanied laments, and the wildness of the late night trad session, the arcane poetry of Yeats and the rugged beauty of the landscape and so on.
The two latest UBS releases make for a really great pair, one live and free, the other studio and structured. Can you tell us a bit more about the recording of both? The Airs album has a great atmosphere. What was that scene like -- what were the dancers doing, what did the people think of it?
James: The Airs album was recorded on a Sunday morning in an old church in Limerick city that had been renovated as part of a Limerick cultural development programme. We were playing as part of a festival that I’m sure Gav will remember the name of. The line up was Gavin on guitar and percussion, Bryan on drums, Aine on harp, and myself on guitar and piano. The church had the most beautiful dynamics and space, and it was thrilling to walk into this cavernous structure, surrounded by a graveyard filled with slowly deteriorating graves and tombs. I think the surroundings contributed a hell of a lot to that recording, and Aine’s exquisite playing gave us so much room to improvise around also.
Gavin: Airs of Sun and Stone is one of my favourite recordings that I've been involved in. The harpist Áine Dwyer is in art college in Limerick where she had seen us play. She was booked to perform at the same event as UBS in Galway last year. We’d never met her but the Galway promoter told us that this harpist/performance artist had asked to play with us. Naturally we were intrigued. She's a great musician who will soon leave us for dust.
We had played a fairly dull set in Limerick on a rainy Saturday night with The One Ensemble of Daniel Padden and Nalle (everybody buy their album on Pickled Egg!). Some Friends were organising a day of music, installations and performances in a church bought and refurbished by Daghda dance company on the following Sunday. We had to go on at midday as we had another gig in Dublin that night. We had been up late drinking and pillow-fighting in Áine’s house so we were in a kind of dreamy state when we arrived at the venue. It was the warmest day of the year so far and the light was flooding the whole newly-cleaned church. It was the complete opposite of the atmosphere in the pub the night before. We were mindful of the time of day, the acoustics and the children in the audience so we weren’t going to be rocking out. The recording sounds like it was made in a bright, airy room although I know that it was. A French customer of ours told us he likes to listen to that album while gardening, which was great to hear.
We’d tuned our guitars in different D tunings the night before so I had this idea to tune down to C to match the morning. The strings were looser and a low C always sounds so rounded on a guitar. I think we were all fairly relaxed during the performance. I got a bit wound-up when Áine kept playing on her own after the “big finish”, stretching it out and slowly fading. Listening back I realised she was absolutely right. Some people were really into it; the people slamming the door and shouting across the room at their kids weren’t I suppose. I did some half-arsed throat singing through a long, ridged plastic pipe used in an installation which was also handy for percussion. The dancers were fantastic; I stopped playing for 5 minutes straight just to watch them. They made full use of the space; leapt into the air and arc’d freely over and around the rhythms.
Usually when we tour (usually in the 4 towns we can actually get gigs in Ireland) we wake up hung-over/tired, spend 4 hours in a bus or car if we're lucky, and feel fairly shit until we play again. This time we played a show upon waking, felt great all day and played a demented gig back in Dublin.
While Airs is one focused performance, Shore on the other hand seems to pull together various threads that have been developing for you over the past few years; how did that release come together?
Gavin: The funny thing is The Shore That Fears The Sea should have been the first album. Two of the songs were recorded on 4-track before I was in the band. The newest songs were recorded in 2004. We got distracted by our other projects, jobs, looking for jobs, putting on gigs etc. But it is more polished and layered than the improvised recordings. I can see why you might think it a tying together; I see Shore as a cross between Huntly Town and The Solar Observatory. This album was done in fits and starts; individual songs were actually recorded quickly. “Styx” and “One True God” were both written and recorded in little over a day. “Watching The Rain Reshape Galway” is a stereo mic recording of a gig we did; we’d played it a couple of times before but half the band that day had never heard it.
Dave: Some of the recordings on Shore are very early four track recordings which have been cleaned up. These come from the early days when we were really a duo. “Helical Rising” is one of the first, and in terms of lyrics and sparse instrumentation, it is a good example of where we were coming from...fans of the simplicity of Shirley and Dolly Collins...who we worship very dearly. James recorded the final track alone and we added some found sounds and instrumentation from Stephen Connolly of Pothole Skinny. The keyboard solo track is by P.G. Six, and we were delighted to have him contribute; we added minimal sounds to this. Again in this track I was reminded of the work of Dolly Collins so it seemed to fit beautifully. As far as it being a precursor to the recent stuff... We have been playing some of those songs live recently, so I like to think of the album as a kind of blueprint for our more traditional and our more experimental excursions...
Gavin: Myself and Dave. Most of mine were taken around where I grew up in Galway. The cover is remarkable; it was taken by Margaret O’Brien Moran, a professional photographer, who kindly let us use it. It was a birthday present for my brothers’ housemate and haunts me whenever I call over. Some people think it’s me in a dress but it’s not.
Gavin was kind enough to send me some live recordings of UBS, and they seem to show a really different side of the group, much more chaotic and raw. Is that the norm for the group's live appearances?
Gavin: Yes, a lot of the time. When we play Dublin the band is always bigger, as we know more people there and there’s always a few busy people who can’t make it when we play away from home. With the amount of people on stage sometimes and the tension of improvising in public, a gig can reach critical mass very quickly. We often play with other bands where a large proportion of the audience wouldn’t be there to hear us. Dynamics are severely hampered in a pub full of people drinking and chatting. The dense rock sound of UBS gets old sometimes; in gaining power, subtlety and agility are often sacrificed. It's also what people expect now. Airs of, Shore and the upcoming Live at the Warehouse album will show different sides to the band.
Dave: No. We have played very serene and minimal shows too, so the rawer recordings would not give the fuller picture. Some shows have also been highly theatrical… maybe at the expense of the music. For a long time we would perform in costumes and deliberately enhance the absurdity of the shows. Indeed, after too many of the rawer and much more ROCK shows we had to have a long think about the directions we were going in. We could still be heavy but maybe not in such an unfocused and clichéd way. Not that we don’t enjoy lapsing into hackneyed metal riffery every now and again... for our sins!
James: I don’t think there is a norm for the group’s live performances, in that here is no fixed form, shape or structure to what we do. It can range from a subdued simmering of strings, and atmospheric, to fire and brimstone rage. Depends on the tides and the moon perhaps…
Gavin: I can hear rock in a lot of our live recordings. Live we chop and change styles more. If it’s a gig with a big band Dave usually doesn’t bother playing guitar and adopts a singer/conductor role. For example he’ll signal two people to play together and everyone else to shut up which could result in a free jazz drums/sax battle for example. Sometimes the shout goes up for a kraut or a hip hop beat which brings an abrupt change of direction.
In the studio we can craft things more and plaster over the cracks. The aim is to make a song feel like a world in itself not several styles/parts shoehorned together which is what they often start out as. Sometimes all it takes is a really long cross fade other times it’s more conceptual. Like Metallica, we're not slow to call each other on it if something sounds too “stock”. Some of the studio stuff we’re working on now are 15-20 minute proggy tracks taking in folk, metal, ambient and dub, which aren’t as cheesy as that sounds.
OK, so Airs was recorded in a church, and you’ve previously mentioned a “ritual” aspect to the music... Not to mention the band name of course… So is there any way you can talk about spirituality in relation to the music? Not necessarily any kind of religion per se, but some higher experience...?
Dave: The releases so far contain themes and motifs which are linked to imagery in Celtic myth, again very much inspired by Yeats, and contain many self referencing patterns... particularly relating to the seasons, lunar and solar cycles, etc. For me, I am greatly interested in symbols... the interconnectedness of things... So I feel that our music is much more of the stars and forests, liminal times.... than of the city. The ritual or spiritual aspect comes from this. By ritual I mean that we could just be creating a special atmosphere in which to follow and explore a certain theme we agree on; the two Observatory releases are good examples of this.
Again I am only speaking for myself. I know some of the guys prefer to ignore this end of it and just turn up and plug in! We are working towards creating a body of work which can encompass various styles and approaches without sacrificing any quality in the music. Hopefully we get to meet new people and have a great time in the process!
Gavin: I was raised a Catholic and before my balls dropped considered being a priest. Although I left that rotten church in my teens I recognise religion’s value in connecting us with the world and people around us. Music also meets a lot of these needs. I’ve read in a couple of magazines lately that scientists believe they're close to proving that some people are genetically pre-disposed towards being “spiritual” or particularly religious. I fully believe that they’ll get to the bottom of it, but if scientists think people will become solely rational and say “How could I have been so stupid?” they just don't get it. It’s about how you experience and perceive the world. When I begin improvising I’m prepared to enter into something that will change me.
The situation and results are different each time so it’s not a strict ritual. For me, the quieter, dronesome performances are a form of meditation and the more exuberant shows with multiple percussion, robes and repetition are like shamanistic ceremonies providing a communal ecstatic experience. These are opposite sides of the soul; and neither of them is seriously acknowledged in Christianity, especially in Northern European traditions.
James: I think that every time Bible Studies perform as a band or record, we try to instil some sense of togetherness in our work - whether it be the exuberant, exultant sense of parading through a venue together or the hushed reverence of playing as gently as we can together. As musicians I think we can gauge each others’ creative impulses quite accurately, and the tone and artistic impulses that we ascribe to when playing are often articulated in the sense of a communal goal, a freedom in what we play through whatever instruments we choose. There has on occasion been an aspect of ritual to what we do, in the use of a lot of performance art - dancers, parades - and it can be quite a dramatic performance. I don’t think there's much of this performance being attributed to a larger scope of ritual or all encompassing religious feel, but it is very definitely triggered by our artistic impulses at the time.
For me the strongest articulation of spirituality in music is heard in music from Coltrane’s Ascension, to Pharoah Sanders’s Black Unity, to Iarla O’Lionaird’s Seven Steps to Mercy. It's that stunning moment when you are lifted from the conscious world around you into something different, into something purer. I think, without sounding too pretentious, it’s what we aim for in performance and playing.
With such a broad spectrum of sounds, and so many different directions to the group, what holds it all together?
James: To be completely honest, Kevin, I think a lot of what holds the band together is driven by what Gavin does in terms of his organisational abilities and drive. As he puts the hard work into sorting tours, gigs, etc., the stress involved in getting a band of 4 people to tour somewhere small like Ireland is pretty intense. The stress involved in getting a troupe of up to 15 musicians around this island with instruments, support bands etc. to deal with, and remember his own stuff, is pretty unimaginable… Aesthetically the only real thing that I guess shapes the band is the need for musical freedom.
Are there other current groups or scenes or whatever that you feel any connections with? Any current music you particularly admire? Same question more broadly -- is there any music that has particularly inspired you, newer or older, whether or not it's reflected in any of the current projects?
James: The music that has inspired me over the last few years is rooted deeply in guitar players from 60s /70s – the usual culprits really, Jansch, Graham, Fahey. Colin Harper’s book, Dazzling Stranger - Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival is one of the most interesting and inspiring things written about that period and that turned me on to people like Shirley Collins, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Jackson Frank, etc. I’ve been listening to loads of Pharaoh Sanders too after picking up Black Unity on vinyl a few years back and being subsumed into its primal repetitive tone. Recently records like Mastadon’s Leviathan, and Primordial’s Gathering Wilderness, and Isis Panopticon have been influencing much of my guitar playing. I don’t know what you might hear of any of these in Bible Studies…
Gavin: When I was a teenager staring at my album covers, musicians I admired seemed very far away. These days many of them end up sleeping on my couch and they turn out to be sound people. This is what I've been getting into in the last couple of years:
Live: Hijoikidan, Sun City Girls, Oak, Fursaxa, Double Adaptor, Tremors, Paul Smyth. Larkin Grimm was the latest person to kick our ass. She’s a natural live performer with a powerful presence. Limerick can be a tough town but Larkin just sat on the floor and filled the room with no PA. The bouncers were meant to kick everyone out after last orders but she put a spell on them and was allowed play as long as she wanted. This never happens in Irish venues. Josephine Foster - It meant a lot to play with her on some of her songs at her last gig in Dublin. We did 3 gigs with Sunburned Hand of the Man at a time when their nerves were a little frayed. Many people said we blew them off the stage on the first night but on what was their last night in Europe they slayed all around them. It had everything; scary drones, high fives, aggression, funk, comedy, joy and heaviness. They had the whole place on their feet. It was a lesson in how to pace a gig and steadily build it up over about 90 minutes without blowing your top or losing focus. Corsano & Flaherty for the perfect fusion of sound and spirit; the first time I saw them I felt like I’d double-dropped.
On Record: Steve Reid ensemble, Marissa Nadler, Espers, Ellen Fullman, Kate Bush, Charalambides and their solos.
Dave: I love the music of Richard Youngs dearly. His music is constantly inventive and challenging... particularly his ability to extend a song into infinity. Charalambides and their related solo recordings and collaborations never cease to move me. I love Hush Arbors, Fursaxa, Xenis Emputae Travelling Band, and all of the Jewelled Antler music I have heard. I guess it is the haunted folk element of all these artists that I admire so much. My longest term loves and influences tho have to be Neil Young, A-Ha, Pink Floyd and Townes van Zandt, amonst many others. But the music I love that seeps into the bones and blood of UBS is probably the folk, folk-rock and krautrock of the 60s and 70s. A record that looms high over me is Shirley and Dolly Collins For As Many As Will... something about that record haunts me and I look for its vapour trails in our music.
…and so we’ll leave the group gazing off into the aether, and point the rest of you toward their music, to search for same. You’ll certainly have plenty of opportunity to do so: In the near future look for the upcoming Live at the Warehouse album on French label Paha Porvari, and a 3” CD of songs and live cuts on the Irish Rusted Rail label; in the slightly more distant future, keep your eyes peeled for a new studio album on the Camera Obscura label (the band describe it as their “prog album”; begin salivating now…), and we hope another live release right here on Deep Water.
And in related release news, the two OOP releases by the Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree are due for compiled reissue on Deserted Village sometime soon, followed by a new album. There are also plans for a Murmansk disc on Foxglove; and there's a brand new Agitated Radio Pilot double-3” CD on Rusted Rail (in Dave’s gorgeous singer-songcraft style), and another upcoming CD on Deadslackstring. Plus probably lots of other things, under yet more imaginative monickers; good luck keeping up! (To aid in your efforts, you might want to consult the group's web page; the assorted info there may not remove the mystery, but it'll certainly give you more clues to follow up on! UBS and some associated groups have Myspace pages as well that are worth searching out.)