littlebow’s latest album, Three, was released by Rural Colours, on 29 August 2016. We caught up with littlebow’s Keiron Phelan to find out more about the band and their music.
What are your respective musical backgrounds? How did you both start working together as musicians?
I’ll try to make this concise but it won’t be easy. I’m an old timer, came up through post-rock, mostly via State River Widening and am more recently found in Anglo-Japanese ‘Chagall-pop’ band, Smile Down Upon Us. Katie’s main stay is her (Wire beloved) ambient/drift Isnaj Dui solo project but more recently the Sly And Unseen duo, too. Our newest member, harpist/vocalist Brona McVittie, has a serious folk tradition background but also writes weird, fable-pop songs, in Queen of Corkbots.
I had a few years classical training on the flute but in all other respects and on all other instruments I’m musically self-taught so much of what I do is a triumph of will power over technique. Katie knows her stuff, though. She’s seriously trained and can work out complex harmonies in her head. She’s also synesthetic, which has an effect. Apparently she mentally ‘sees’ the notes as well as hearing them and it confuses her how the rest of us don’t. Brona is an adept contralto vocalist. I suppose we all inhabit the arty-end of the indie world although we do have a stronger than usual link to the world of (sic) serious musical composition.
I’d been commissioned for the first littlebow album by Second Language records but I needed someone to work with. 2L’s Glen Johnson suggested Katie and half an hour after we’d met it was like we’d known each other for years. Pure serendipity. Brona, who has a liking for my old SRW period, was suggested by our friend Anne Garner (yet another flautist) as a more than handy ‘third’. Also, we must mention Jenny Brand and Jerome Tcherneyan who, respectively, play clarinet and drums for us. It gives us quite a colour-chart. I’d like to but won’t mention all of the other bands that we feature in, as it really would be a bit of a list!
Where did the name littlebow come from?
Damned if I can remember. I do recall that, at the time we began, a lot of other bands seemed to be using quite assertive/big statement names, so we wanted to avoid that. There’s also a pun on it this being a ‘small love’ i.e. little-beau. So, it’s deliberately diminutive.
Can you tell us more about the cover and sleeve art? Does it have any symbolic significance?
The motif is intended to portray a symbol of ‘three’ (in some vague but aesthetically pleasing way) and the cyan and mint colouration represents the fact that it’s a specifically ‘summer’ album. But, we’ve been lucky enough to have the recognized illustrator and designer Malcolm English as our sleeve artist for all three littlebow albums so each sleeve is a visual development of, or reaction to, the previous sleeves. Keeps the whole thing neatly tied together.
Your work spans sound worlds reminiscent of many different musical genres. Is this a conscious fusion or arrived at intuitively?
For The Rabbits magazine recently declared us to be ‘unclassifiable’. Wish I’d have thought of that, although in press terms it’s both a blessing and a curse. We never consider genres within the band. I think, like Can, we can access a lot of varied musical knowledge, so there’s a lot to draw on stylistically. But the trick is to fuse it without thinking about it, so it’s natural and fresh and not something ‘studied’. So, I suppose I’d say ‘intuitive’. If we’re working on something and it starts to sound Minimalist, for example, our instinct is to find a way to make it less Reichian, not more so (as much as I love the man). Katie and I do both seem to gravitate harmonically towards Debussy, we’ve noticed, which is odd as we’ve never discussed him as a composer. Come to think of it, I have no idea what music Brona likes at all. Sly Stone, I think…
There is something nostalgic about tracks like The Swing That Creaks For The Child That Weeps. In what ways does littlebow tap into a traditional English folk heritage?
A nostalgic feeling is definitely present on the whole album, isn’t it? It certainly wasn’t intentional although it’s true that the lengthy ‘Swing’ became a ‘looking-backwards’ piece. Sometimes I think one or two tracks contain a certain atmospheric tendency and then that bleeds across into the all other music. This album feels quite fin de siècle, to me. By contrast, our first album (The Edge Blown Aerophone) has an assertive, almost post-punk feel to it, which (again) seemed to develop of its own accord. As to English folk heritage content, I would say ‘none’. Which might seem odd, but I think this is a matter whereby our utilisation of instruments (especially the harp) that are often found in a folk context leads to what we do being heard as folk-esque. Whereas, in fact, we’re quite other. If there was any folk content it would be Northern Irish, as I’m sure Brona would tell you.
How do you develop the compositions? How much of the work is done in the studio and how much before?
I would say it’s about 50/50 pre-written/written in the studio. We mostly go into the studio with some kind of framework, although it can be quite basic. The whole of ‘Too Green, These Widow’s Weeds'(for example) was improvised, in situ, around Katie’s bowed cello line, which consists of barely six notes. The fact that it became a song and that the words are sung in Manx (that’s just something that Brona does…) was, unlikely as it may seem, entirely accidental. ‘The Swing That Creaks…’, on the other hand, had an evolved flute quartet section, pre-studio. But we then both wrote around that section and partly re-structured it during the course of recording. So, there’s a lot of evolution and the occasional revolution. It’s an exciting way to work although it does occasionally cause a ‘don’t lose that path!’ anxiety.
It’s unusual to hear the flute as a lead – how does the littlebow style stem from the capabilities of this instrument?
In the UK it’s always been an instrument that’s gone in and out of fashion (ie, 60s = flute cool, 80s = flute uncool, and so on), whereas in France and (especially) in Germany it’s been more of a constant. Our style does partly stem from this as, firstly, there aren’t too many other ‘flute bands’ around and, secondly, like all woodwind it’s fundamentally a ‘singing’ instrument (unlike, say, the guitar) so that creates a certain kind of emotion. Also, we don’t have block chords going on all the time, so we can both compose spaciously and get clever with the harmonies. There’s absolutely no duplication between myself and Katie with the flutes, though. We’ve got radically different playing styles which, possibly, surprises people. But, if you consider, Miles Davis and Chet Baker both played trumpet, both played Jazz, both played well. But they sound very different.
What would you like listeners to take away from your new album?
Simply some kind of genuine emotional response. Obviously the different pieces are designed to create a variety of moods. But, for me, if music conveys emotional information then it works, if it doesn’t then it fails to work. I’d apply that rule right across the board.
How did you come up with the album title – ‘Three’ – and the evocative track names?
Three as it’s our third album and there are now three people in the band. And deliberate brevity to counter balance the ridiculously long track titles that I’d invented. I tend to create backstories for each piece, even when they’re instrumental. There are characters, events, etc, so that’s how I arrive at the titles.
‘The Damned Erudition Of Damian O’Hara’ comes from the insanely complex structure of the music. It made me think of a Faustian magician’s workshop where remarkable but perilous things occur. ‘Some May Transition’ is simply hyper-bucolic Spring worship and is a ‘bouncy castle’ musical tribute to the euphoric tone of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’. ‘Too Green, These Widow’s Weeds’ has a murky, over-emotive, feeling to it and an atmosphere of overgrown Victorian graveyards. ‘The Singing Sands’ is a theme to a non-existent Eric Rohmer film and the epic ‘The Swing That Creaks For The Child That Weeps’ is the tale of broken hearted woman visiting a park from her childhood and imprinting her emotional turmoil onto the environment, which then metamorphoses around her, in response. I don’t even ask the others what they make of all this. Don’t dare!
(Questions by Jacob Thompson-Bell)