Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Sunday Conversation with Cellarscape

Power. Drama. Tension. Beauty. These are words that come to mind when you hear Cellarscape's panoramic, cinematic soundscape of an album, Animation, Suspension. Just check out our review and you'll see where we were coming from. But it wasn't until we had a chance to have the one-man band that is Cellarscape, Paul Terry, come join us on the Ripple red interview couch, that it all made sense. Just check out his "holy trinity" of favorite songwriters and you'll get a feeling why his music sounds like none other.

When I was a kid, growing
up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkle, the first time I ever heard Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphanies since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears. What have been your musical epiphany moments?

From the age of about seven to my early teens it was a pretty solid mix of Queen, ELO and Run DMC. I think, aside from the obvious Queen classics, songs like ‘I Want It All’ off The Miracle album are still astounding today. Queen – just like ELO – for me, never repeated a song once: every song they wrote had its own unique signature, and every one sounds timeless. On the Run DMC front, I bought Raising Hell for my older brother for Christmas the year it came out, and we both didn’t stop playing it for months. The precision of the dual vocals/rapping, the deck work, the live instruments – it was just incredible. ‘It’s Tricky’ is still one of my favourite songs, and I can pretty much rap along to every word off ‘Raising Hell’ even today if I’m driving somewhere and have it blasting out.

Beyond those early years, there have been quite a few more epiphanies. The first time I heard ‘Davidian’ by MachineHead, it was jaw-dropping. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was crushing, but it had such a groove too. Me and my long-time bass player mate Nik have pretty much been to every London gig they’ve played to date. For me, they’re the most important metal band since the 90s and are responsible for countless other metal bands’ sounds.
Then I have to mention ‘SYL’ by Strapping Young Lad. All hail this late night U.K. rock show called Noisy Mothers – it got us into so many amazing bands. Devin Townsend (the genius behind Strapping), again, changed the rules with ‘SYL’: there was nothing like it, and never has been since. From the Strapping records to all of Devin’s solo projects, Devin is an incredibly inspiring musician.

‘Winter’ by Tori Amos is another memorable moment: it’s a song that put a big smile on my face when I first heard it, but it breaks your heart at the same time – it’s such a tiny, intimate, fragile song. And the wonder of Tori is that every time I’ve seen her play it live, she plays it with the same passion as conviction as though she’d just written it earlier that day.

And most recently (well, 10 years ago), it’s two very different bands from Scotland. The first time I saw Aereogramme was at the Reading Festival before they’d released anything. Their cinematic quality, Craig B’s pure-then-Satanic vocals, it was a revelation. The band may not be together anymore, but the past decade of material they created is astounding. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t out at least one Aereogramme song on.

And finally, I have to mention a certain song called ‘27’ by Biffy Clyro. After hearing the riffs, the huge chorus, the musicianship in that song, I grabbed the Blackened Sky album, and then that was it. I have probably listened to Blackened Sky a thousand times, and I never get sick of it. Every Biffy album that followed was different, and just as amazing, but in completely different ways. And their new album is astounding.

Talk to us about the song-writing process for you. What comes first, the idea? A riff? The lyrics? How does it all fall into place?

I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but there’s never a pattern/formula. Some days, or songs, it’s all about a riff that breeds more riffs/breaks that dictate where things go. Sometimes it’s the rhythm of words, or their phonetics – I get really obsessed with lyrics. Or sometimes it’s a tempo or an atmosphere that becomes the core thing that everything else ends up relating back to. But that unpredictability is exciting.

Where do you look for continuing inspiration? New ideas, new motivation?

I think beyond music and musicians whose ideas and bodies of work are inspiring, filmmakers/writers, etc as inspiring too. I love a lot of Korean filmmakers. Kim Ji-woon makes incredible films. And Chuck Palahniuk and Mark Z. Danielewski’s novels have always inspired a lot of what I write. There’s a project that I’ve written a lot of darker, heavier music for called Ash Tree Lane (named after a road in Danielewski’s House Of Leaves) that I’ve been desperate to record properly and release, but with the Cellarscape plan and the film music projects there’s never been a window… even though there are ATL tracks that are 7 years old now! But in October 2010 I’m hoping to put out an EP of ATL songs, on the same day as a new Cellarscape EP – so the contrast should be fun. Overall, I guess contradictions have always inspired me the most: extreme metal & piano solos, horror films and love stories – it’s all good stuff.

Genres are so misleading and such a way to pigeonhole bands. Without resorting to labels, how would you describe your music?

I guess that’s another cliché that all bands find it hard to describe their sound in words, and I’m definitely in agreement with that. Even though there are a lot of acoustic guitars on the Cellarscape records, I’m always loathed to say, “It’s kinda acousticy” as I think it’s not the most important ingredient. I guess I hope people might feel it has a cinematic quality, and I hope overall that it’s an emotional experience.

Your music is such a dichotomy of moods, textures of light and shadow? What is you musical intention? What are you trying to express or get your audience to feel?

I always wanted the Cellarscape project to unite my loves of loud and gentle music. So, although you’ll hear fragile acoustics a times, you’ll also hear big, intense tones/drums too. I’ve never understood people that say metal is “just angry noise”. It’s emotive. And although Cellarscape is in no way metal, the songs have, and always will be, hugely influenced by metal artists. And so in that respect, when the song calls for it, I like to try and bring a certain intensity to the music. And with acoustic guitars forming, if you like, the ‘spine’ of a song from which everything else hangs off of, that’s part of the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, I obviously love distortion pedals – and there are some distorted guitars on the new album – but I wanted to see what a song would feel like if the distortion is kept to a minimal, and the vocal harmonies, the drums, strings, and the playing style of the acoustics had to carry/bring the darker emotion to the surface.

As far as what I want the listeners to feel? I never want to write something with an “I’d love people to react in so-and-so way” agenda. I’m the biggest critic of everything I write: if I hate it, it’s never getting recorded/performed. But when something comes together that I’m feeling is working – be it a positive, ‘up’ song, or a darker, more ominous track – then I’ll stick with an idea until it feels finished. Essentially, the gauge is always emotional: could this sequence/riff/melody/lyric start to do the ‘hairs on back of neck’ thing? And then hopefully, if someone listens to it and connects with the emotion of the song, then that’s a very cool thing. But I think everyone unwittingly brings something of themselves to every song they listen to as well. When I think about ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead, I’ve no idea what Thom Yorke’s intentions were for me to feel, but I think it’s a very powerful song, and the interpretation I have attached to it makes it into something very personal.

songwriting, how do you bring the song together? What do you look for in terms of complexity? Simplicity? Time changes?

The emotional core/story of the song definitely guides where things go. I’ve a massive love for angular arrangements/structures/time changes – the bands I’ve all name-checked definitely have that in common. But it has to suit the song. If it’s forced, it starts to sound really… well, forced. But it’s weird, a song like ‘You Got The Girl’ – which does kinda go all over the place – came together so quickly, in just a few days. Whereas some of the more ‘normally’ structured songs like ‘Patience & Zara’ and ‘Crawlspace’ took a lot longer until they felt completed.

The business of music is a brutal place. Changes in technology have made it easier than ever for bands to get their music out, but harder than ever to make a living? What are your plans to move the band forward? How do you stay motivated in this brutal business?

However much there are limitations, especially financially, with doing things this way/the independent way – I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know that I only have myself to blame if something doesn’t work! But, I always think of this song I scribbled some lyrics for years back that Nik reminds me of sometimes called ‘Tortoise Versus…’ I guess that’s it. I’m very content being a tortoise in the race: steady as she goes. I’m happy to gradually get the Cellarscape records out there, the independent film soundtracks and other future projects, and just see what happens. I really love music in every respect – listening to it, jamming it, writing it, so there are really only two options: do it this way and see what happens, or just don’t do it. And the second one isn’t an option. Now, what I just said doesn’t make any sense really… but hopefully you get what I mean!

No one has been in this business for long without creating a couple Spinal Tap moments. Care to share one or two?

The classic: kick the pedal to check tuning after a song, and then rip into the next song’s big opening riff… but with the pedal not disengaged, so a weedy, tiny sound “belted” out of the PA system? Done that a few times! Even after I’d replaced the crappy tuner for a decent one. My favourite gaff of them all though is probably back in my school band days. I was drumming in this band with my mates called Bloated and we were doing a cover of ‘More Human Than Human’ by White Zombie, to close the set. I was a bit drunk, and was enjoying playing it a bit too much that my concentration dropped… I went for a big fill round the toms… slice my knuckles on the edge of the metal drum rims… dropped a stick, and had to finish the song’s last few bars with just one stick. I like to think I ended it just how the record does – really tight with a grab on the final cymbal, but the
reality is, I think I sucked big time.

What makes a great song?

Ahh, the never-ending debate about subjectivity! Say, for example, at a Stag party that, in your opinion, you said that you preferred Queen’s songs to The Beatles’? You’d better be ready to sprint for your life…! So, as lame as it sounds, I think that a ‘great’ song is one that moves you: if a song that someone wrote makes you feel something that you get something out of – happiness, love, sadness, reflection – then that’s a pretty amazing thing for a collection of sounds to do that. There are a lot of songs that I absolutely hate, by bands that I think suck – but these are bands adored by millions of people – so if what they do stirs emotions in others, then that’s cool. I’ll just be in the minority who’ll remain completely baffled as to what the Hell the masses see in such awful songs…

Tell us about the first song you ever wrote?

Aside from the stuff co-wrote in my school band, the first song I ever wrote on my own was called ‘Your Dawn’ back in 1997. It was a gentle, swinging kinda riff that I really loved, but the lyrics never quite worked, and I sort of left it alone. So the first proper/complete song would be ‘Just One Thing’. It’s a really up-beat pop-rock song that I ended up recording on the Isla’s Milk record back in 1999/2000. I still like the song, but it’s maybe a bit twee in places now, but it invokes loads of great memories of playing the acoustic cafes in Portsmouth where I was at Uni. But that ‘Your Dawn’ riff re-surfaced in my head in 2001 for a short film soundtrack I was writing (for the Paul Williams film ‘Mightier’), and the scene in the film inspired/finished where it needed to go, and it became this piece called ‘Simplified Me’, which I was really pleased with.

What piece of your music are particularly proud of?

There are two songs that spring to mind that I really pleased with, mainly because I remember feeling really excited about how they were coming together during the recording stages. ‘Repeat, Erase, Unite’ is a very minimal song off the Copilot EP back in 2006. I think it became massively responsible for what I wanted to do with vocal harmonies, and I think the whole mood of the song definitely dictated where the Cellarscape sound has gone. And ‘Treading Water’ on the new album pretty much sums up what I was saying earlier about a dark/intense emotion coming from acoustic guitars. ‘Treading Water’ evolved into this thing that really pounds along, but still has, at its core, a very personal, intimate vibe.

Who today, writes great songs? Why?

My holy trinity: Devin Townsend, Tori Amos, and Biffy Clyro. I do listen to other bands, promise. A lot of other bands. Imogen Heap has been writing incredible songs since ‘Getting Scared’ came out. She’s one of a kind for sure. PJ Harvey rules because she is all about the emotions. Chris Cornell is a poet and has one of the most incredible voices ever. Gemma Hayes and Lisa Hannigan are two very different Irish singer-songwriters who I admire very much. Gemma writes very powerful, swirly songs that really connect with you, and Lisa’s music has a tiny, almost music-box quality, and it’s so beautiful. And Mike Patton is a law unto himself – and thank goodness he is! All of his solo projects are incredibly inspiring, however difficult some can be on first listen. And I have a big love for Sevendust. Their songs have such power and fantastic rhythms.

Vinyl, CD, or digital? What's your format of choice?

Tricky question, because I think all three have value. I love vinyl’s sound, and especially the way artists go to town with the artwork and packaging with vinyl box-sets. CDs are very immediate, and similarly, I’m a sucker for the great, inventive Limited Edition packaging my favorite bands do with their CD releases (with bonus DVDs, etc). I think in the past five years or so, bands have really pushed the envelope with the CD format, which has made new releases very exciting. And digital/MP3s are obviously invaluable in the way they’ve evolved the industry. Without the digital format it would be impossible for independent artists to function and spread the word about their music, so I don’t think people should criticize the stronghold the digital format has nowadays.

We, at the Ripple Effect, are constantly looking for new music. When we come to your town, what's the best record store to lose ourselves in?

I’d say Selectadisc on Berwick Street in London. Great selection of artists, including loads of cult/underground bands, plus lots of cool second-hand albums and a wealth of great vinyl to browse through too.
Any final comments or thoughts you'd like to share with our readers, the waveriders?

To anyone/everyone whose come across my Cellarscape stuff, huge thanks for the interest and support. To everyone reading this who has ever left ‘hater’ comments on any band’s Comment wall on any website, pause for second before you do it again. People leave positive comments because it’s a forum/way for them to say something they would gladly say to the band/person if they met them face-to-face. But I remain utterly confused at the stronghold ‘hate’ comments have on the internet. Brian Michael Bendis made an excellent attack on this in his Powers comic, via a character who was a stand-up comedian, expressing to the audience their disgust for online abuse – which is essentially what it is. His stand-up character made the point about the haters – what exactly have they done with their life? They can sit safely, anonymously at home and write horrendous things about complete strangers, but where is their product of endless blood, sweat and tears that they’ve thrown out into the world to be judged on..?

I’m simply a firm believer in “if you’ve got nothing positive to say, why say anything at all?” All bands and artists of all mediums already have enough outlets to deal with critiques – through journalism in all its forms – but they know that, and they know that it’s the nature of the beast. I just feel so saddened when I’m wandering around online and come across random Comment-leavers who are full of so much hate. I guess they feel they get some kind of validation/weird online ‘fame’ from doing it, but I think it’s very, very sad. But hey – I believe in karma too, so what goes around…

Beyond that rant, keep discovering old and new music, in all genres. If you want to release your own material: do it. It’s so easy to do these days: the control lies with the people making the music now – and there’s nothing more exciting or inspiring than that.

buy the album here: Animation, Suspension

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