Music Features

Guillemots (Interview)

The wonderful, ever-changing sound of Guillemots is currently making its way around the United Kingdom, as the band take to the road in support of their third album Walk the River, released earlier this year.  Ahead of their gig at Bristol Trinity, a cool and relaxed-looking Fyfe Dangerfield took a few minutes to talk to Craig Stevens about myriad topics, including the integration of music and cinema, Scandinavian music and... um... Jack Nicholson-style rants.

You're approaching the midway point of your UK tour. How has it been so far?

It's been great, yeah. I'm just really enjoying playing live at the moment. We've got three albums out now, and that really makes a difference when you're putting the setlist together. It's easier to get a lot of variety.

You've just come off the back of a tour of South America, haven't you?

Yeah, well Brazil, and one date in Argentina. It was amazing. It was one of the nicest experiences we've had as a band. But it was tiring, flying every day.

Is it a completely different sort of crowd over there to in the UK? How would you describe it?

They're more up for it. They're more warm-hearted, in a weird way. You can have amazing crowds in Britain. You can have amazing crowds anywhere, but the crowds just seemed really glad we were there. It was a two-way exchange of good energy; it was lovely. And we've always had a connection with Brazil through Magrão being in the band, and having a couple of songs that reference Brazil. To go there and have people singing along with, not just your old stuff, but the new record is incredible.

It's nice that you guys are so internationally recognised.

We'd like to be a lot more internationally recognised. That was the first time we've been to Brazil - we haven't really toured that much. We've done Europe and America, but we haven't even done America for a few years. It's something we want to do a lot more of over the next few years.

You've played an eclectic range of festivals around the UK this year but you've excluded a lot of the big, commercial festivals – no Reading or Leeds, no T in the Park. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen that way?

A bit of both, probably. We never get too involved – our agent sorts out which festivals we play. I'd like to get more involved but I just don't have the time. We definitely prefer the smaller festivals. Festivals like Wilderness, this year. But it can be fun playing at the bigger festivals too.

Which other festivals you played this year were the most fun?

The Secret Garden was really nice, as was Belladrum. They were all really fun from what I can remember. I don't remember not liking any!

I want to ask you about the performance you did at this year's Latitude festival. Can you just explain briefly what it was and how it came about?

We did an improvised soundtrack to Oldboy, which is a really fucked-up Korean film. We've done a few things with this company, Future Shorts, who are also Secret Cinema. They do a lot of stuff in London, and in fact, all over the place, putting on secret cinema events. They're brilliant, I really admire what they do. They take over massive old buildings. One of the last ones I went to see was The Red Shoes, an old film from the 1940's, where they took over a huge, old abandoned shopping arcade and took over the shops and stalls and made them look like they would have looked in the 1940's. There was even a restaurant. It was such an immersive experience, it really felt as though you'd gone back in time.

And where does the cinema side of things fit into all that?

Well, there were about five or six theatres within that were used as cinemas. It was a case of hovering around for a couple of hours and then everyone goes to see a film. It's that idea that you get more involved in a film if the experience is immersive. But anyway, we've done a few things with them. To start with, we did a soundtrack to Eraserhead, the David Lynch film. Just improvised stuff; we love improvising. That's how we write a lot of stuff. When we play together, we'll play for hours, a lot of time not really listening or anything. Just weird stuff, noisy stuff. But then it can often be hard to get that onto record. For starters, unless you're recording anything properly – we record all our rehearsals on Minidisc. But for an audience, unless the audience is quite niche, a lot of people will find it hard to find a way in, but when's there a visual element to it, it's a lot easier.

That's interesting, because I saw Guillemots play an improvised jazz set at Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few years back?

[excitedly] You were there?! That was great. Some people walked out of that.

Yeah, some people really didn't get it. But my brother and I absolutely loved it.

I really enjoyed that gig. It took us ten to fifteen minutes to really get into it, but there were some good moments in that gig. We recorded that gig – in fact, we're selling DVDs of it here. But that was a case in point. It makes a lot more sense to people if there's a visual element. And it's actually easier for us, because there's not the pressure of thinking, “everyone's sitting here with their arms folded waiting for a section they can get into, they're watching a film”. So the audience is actually hearing the music in a more natural way, it's the way they should hear it. When we're improvising, we're not intensely listening to what we're playing.

And how much of it is improvised, and how much is based on pre-conceived musical ideas?

It's all improvised. With Eraserhead, we'd played through it once before, or maybe half of it. We'll watch the film to get a vague idea of where the cues are, but generally it's a case of, “we'll see what happens”.

You clearly try and mix things up, keep them interesting in your gigs. Do you think it's important for a band to enjoy the live experience as much as the audience?

I think the two go together. I think if you see a band that are really having fun on stage, it's infectious. There's a balance – you can't be enjoying yourself more than the audience, though I'm sure some people would say that you should. I've realised a lot more recently that an audience is there to be entertained. They've paid money to come and see you, and so the most important thing is that they go away having enjoyed it. But having said that, I don't think the best way to do a gig is simply to get a really slick thing going. We want to get lost in it. With this tour, we've made a point of playing all our main singles, which we've never done before. At the same time though, the second song is an old B-side and it's a free-for-all – anything could happen, it's always different. And that really loosens us up, it helps us a lot. And you have to have sections like that in a set so we can get that balance between us being able to feel like we're playing music and not just going through the motions and letting people hear what they want to hear.

Going back to the projects like Eraserhead and Oldboy, are there any projects that you've thought about doing but haven't been able to achieve? Or any that are in the pipeline?

There's this album that we did – well, me and Greig made it but the others are on it as well, but before the band had formed. And the idea is that everything is a dream, it's all very surreal and odd. We were just talking about it today, actually. We really want to release it. We've got this fantasy of getting an animation made for the whole thing. So we're holding back on releasing that because I think it would be a lot better to show it in cinemas.

Could you envisage Guillemots doing a soundtrack?

Yeah, we'd love to. We'd absolutely love to do a film soundtrack. We feel like we haven't really tapped into a lot of what we want to achieve yet. This new stuff we've been recording; we've been recording in Norway and I think we've got closer than anything else we've achieved so far to open up and tap into what we want to do.

You released Walk the River, Guillemots' third album, earlier in the year. Was there anything specific you wanted to achieve with the release of that album, and has it been achieved?

With Walk the River, we wanted to do something that was very widescreen. Red was a schizophrenic record, where every track was different. I think we wanted to do something quite different, that had a more consistent mood across it. We wanted it to have all the sounds we love in there, but as more of a backdrop. But it was the mood I wanted to get across. Being lost, sleepwalking, waking up on a planet in space. Wondering how you got there, how you're going to get back. I had this real feeling to it, and I think we got it. But as soon as you've finished the record, you want something quite different. It's not where my mind's at now at all. But I know it was last year, when we were making it.

So you're already writing more material?

Well, we'd already written a lot more – we had a year's writing before we started recording the record. We wanted to get loads of stuff together and then choose what was going to be on the record. So we had maybe one hundred songs, or ideas at least, before we made the record.

So does that mean we won't be waiting too long for another release?

I don't think so. But we're having a lot of thoughts at the moment about what to do. We want to break the album cycle – record for ages, tour for ages, record. We want to be doing much more of everything, always. To go on tour for two weeks and get straight back in the studio. We're not sure it's going to be an album. It might be a series of smaller releases. But we're not sure.

You released Fly Yellow Moon, your solo album last year. What was that prompted you to release solo material? I've read in other interviews that although you're very much part of Guillemots, you've always envisaged doing other side projects.

For me, music's what I've always wanted to do with my life. And the idea of joining a band, on the condition that you never play music with anyone else... you wouldn't do it. We know that we have something in this band that we could never replicate anywhere else. And that's the point. I would never try to do what I do in Guillemots anywhere else because I know I couldn't. It wouldn't work. Guillemots is what it is because of everyone that's in it.

Are the Fyfe Dangerfield fans very separate from the Guillemots fans or is there some degree of crossover?

I don't think so. I don't really know. At the gigs, it seems like it's a lot of the same people. But I think a lot of people bought my album off the back of the Billy Joel cover. And some of those people would have liked my record but might have found Guillemots a bit weird. I don't think so. We love music but I don't think we're particularly weird. I think we have very few songs that are hard to listen to. It depends upon what you regard as weird, I suppose!

On that topic, the first time I saw you live was at O2 Academy Bristol where, after an improvised section using a whole range of instruments, I heard my favourite ever heckle - “Play something weird!” Has that been topped since? Have there been any really fantastic moments onstage that have really made it for you?

[laughs] Not really! I do remember on my solo tour someone shouted, “Sell out!” I think someone had said to me about the John Lewis advert, and I was a bit touchy about it! I went off on this strange, Jack Nicholson style rant for about two minutes, telling them to shove their opinions up their arse. It was strange, but I quite enjoyed that. I think that's my favourite riposte to a heckler. The audience were quite amused. It wasn't serious, like, “fuck you” or anything. It was quite funny from what I remember.

Away from the band, who do you enjoy listening to and are there any new bands or artists that you're finding exciting?

I haven't heard any new stuff that's got me really excited; I think I just haven't heard much new stuff. Certainly recently, I've been so busy that I haven't been listening to the radio or checking out new stuff online. I've got into St Vincent recently though, I really like her new record. The playfulness in her music - there's a song called Champagne Year on there that's an awesome song. Tania that plays with us is fucking brilliant. I really admire Wild Beasts, I think they're fantastic. They create their own world and I really admire that. And Dirty Projectors. Fionn Regan when it comes to strumming the guitar and singing – I think he's one of the best people around for that. And a guy called Thomas Fiener; I feel like it's my job to convert everyone to him! He's a Swedish guy who's not really known at all over here, but should be. He's up there with anyone.

That happens a lot with Scandinavian bands, I think. Some amazing artists just don't make it big over here.

He's on David Sylvian's label. There's this album called The Opiates. And it's beautiful film music with an orchestra and everything. It blew my mind when I heard it.

What do you think of the increasing popularity of streaming sites and apps like Spotify and Grooveshark. Is it good or bad for a band like Guillemots?

It's almost not good or bad, it just is. I use Spotify. It's one of those things – you can debate endlessly whether the music scene was better before the Internet or after the Internet, but computers aren't going to go away. I'm sure some people will have said the same thing about TV, that it was better before TV came along. I think we just have to accept that things have changed beyond the point where they're going to go back. I imagine that most teenagers now already think that the concept of having to pay for music is weird. The generation after that will find it an even stranger concept. But I'm not worried because I can't imagine a world where people don't need music. People will always find other ways of making money through music. Or maybe it won't happen like that. Maybe Spotify will die away because it is destroying music. I just don't worry about it.

Final question, what is next for you after your November tour? A bit of rest?

Yeah, a bit of rest, definitely in December. I don't think any of us are planning to be too busy. I'm doing the music for a theatre production in London, which I'm doing in between gigs. So when we get off the tour, I'm into the final week of production for that. But once that's done, we'll take stock, sort out a few business things and then off to Norway again in February.