Music Features

Wooden Arms (interview)

Norwich Sound & Vision is back! The festival that combines up-and-coming bands with speakers and delegates from the industry is now in its fourth year, and is bigger than ever. Acts such as AlunaGeorge, Drenge and Ghostpoet will be playing in venues around the thriving East Anglian city from 10-12 October. No Ripcord’s Carlos Dávalos recently spoke to Alex Carson of Norwich natives Wooden Arms, who will be performing at the festival. 

Carlos: Can you please talk about your musical formation? Your music has been labeled classical-folk. I don't think the term is that wrong, do you agree with it? 

Alex: I think classical-folk is as good a title as any. We're all certainly into both those styles of music. A fair few of us are classically trained and I always wanted the songs to have classical formations (like sonata, prelude and fugue etc.), but never quite fully committed to what is referred to as ‘baroque-pop.’ I would liken us more to Cinematic Orchestra and that side of things. However, I wouldn't limit it to just folk; we use a good deal of acoustic instruments: piano, violin, cello, etc. However, there are some new numbers that are a bit punchier with electric guitar and more modern production sounds.

C: Are you influenced by the British folk scene (Bert Jansch, Vashti Bunyan, Nick Drake, Synanthesia, Camus, etc.)? 

A: To a certain extent. Out of that list of people you mentioned I would only really say Nick Drake. Our biggest influences come from both classical composers like Chopin and Mozart, as well as contemporary artists using classical instruments like Andrew Bird or Owen Pallett. I certainly don't feel connected to a "British" folk scene - I would say what we're doing is very European though.

C: Can you talk about the formation of Wooden Arms. There's Jess (violin), Fynn (cello), Lydia (guitar) and you (piano) besides the vocal harmonies. How was the quartet formed? Is it a random combination of musicians/instruments? Is there an original idea behind it?

A: The band was formed very organically and casually. I had written about three or four songs purely for my own pleasure about two to three years ago. I then enlisted the help of Lydia Walker over the summer of 2012 to do some singing and play guitar on a few bits. I used to be in an indie band called Tawny Owl with her and she's great to work with. A friend I worked with told me his sister had just finished university studying violin, so we had a few jams and it was obvious that she was immensely talented, and so became a firm fixture. It also then enthused me to write more as these great musicians started appearing. I found Fynn (our cellist) literally on the street! He was packing up his cello after busking (I never even heard him) and I approached him and started talking about how I needed a cellist for some songs I was writing, sent him a demo of the songs and he came to a few rehearsals, and the rest, as they say, is history. There are actually now six of us, I should say! However, we did start out as a four-piece. We're now joined by Jeff Smith who is better known as An Early Aeronaut; he has this perfect Sam Amidon-esque voice and plays trumpet and guitar. Plus, there’s Milly Hirst, another great singer/songwriter in her own right, we're on the same record label and I really enjoy working with her.

So, to a greater or lesser extent there is a degree of random formation and serendipity. I've always tried to embrace that and go with the flow as it often yields surprisingly good results! However, I did always have a certain 'sound' in my head; one that had the rich orchestral timbre of classical music and perhaps the interesting structural development, but also with modern sounding melodies and progressive instrumentation of contemporary music. I feel it's very easy to get stuck in a rut musically and need constantly fresh and new stimuli to keep my creative juices flowing. Changing up instruments / adding members and collaborating is a good way to do that.

C: What does Wooden Arms mean? Any special meaning?

A: Wooden Arms is the name of my favourite Patrick Watson album. I performed a few years back under my own name and released two EPs to some success. I wanted to distance myself from that as they are musically very far apart from each other (or at least they are in my mind). So Wooden Arms was a name that just stuck.

C: Do you have influences in literature that have impacted your music? I think your lyrics are full of imagery and was wondering what books are you reading right now or what books and authors influenced your latest music?

A: I am influenced by literature, but a great deal of what is on the EP is quite personal. The EP has two running themes: death and God (or lack thereof). I suppose in a way I use lots of parables from literature to illustrate my meaning, rather than being too overt with it. It may seem strange but I’m not actually that big a reader - I love reading but often don’t find the time for it. I tend to dip in and out of things for inspiration but don’t often finish them. I've only just finished David Byrne's How Music Works and loved his chapter on Harmonia Mundi, or how the entire universe is in harmony with itself. The only other thing that is on the go is a book of Edgar Allen Poe short stories and poems. I have the attention span of a child so short stories are good for me - something I can get from start to finish before bed.

C: Besides music, do you practise/perform any other art? If so, do you have pieces (poems, draws, installations, etc.) that end up being songs or vice versa (songs that end up being prose or sculptures or paintings)?

A: I used to draw occasionally as my Dad is a fantastic artist and taught me well. However, I haven't done much of that recently. I think I'm fully absorbed with music. I teach piano in the day and book live music for a venue I help run, so that fills a lot of evenings. The rest of the time is spent on Wooden Arms material. So my day is just full of sound. In terms of writing lyrics and music though I do just write without thinking. I rarely set out to make a song, and if I do it's often terrible. I learnt a long time ago to let these things happen naturally and not force them out. If I’m struggling to come up with the next line of lyrics or where the song should go next I get up and leave the piano. I go and read a Batman comic or feed the cat – something banal and trivial – and then it comes eventually.

C: I've seen the handmade copies of your record; I think it is a beautiful craft. Besides, nothing rounds the music better than the author's hands packaging and sending it out. Can you please talk a little about Ed Cann and Alex Kozobolis? How did the relationship with them begin? Any particular reason they were chosen?

A: Ed Cann is one of my best friends so the thought to work with him was obvious. He's a great designer and overall problem solver when it comes to creating things: a very pragmatic mind but with real creative flair - the perfect mix. He has always been a great supporter of the band so it was very easy to work together on the project. Alex Kozobolis is one of these sickeningly brilliant multi-talented people. Great musician, photographer, videographer, you name it: an all-rounder. He's one of those people that just see things differently when it comes to photography; he has this great way of capturing what is often overlooked. I really liked that about his photography. Again he was a firm supporter of the band and wanted to help so I didn't need to twist his arm too much. As a band we've been really blessed to have such good friends and supporters that we can do these things. I've always tried to be involved in the arts and music scene here in Norwich and put my all into it, and when you give to a community like that they tend to give back. 

C: How did the concept of the handmade album come along? Any particular reason why beech was used? 

A: We were using a laser cutter to make the prints so could essentially cut through almost anything. However, beech wood proved to be the most absorbent and clearest. We wanted all the CDs to have this wood grain going through; we probably won’t do that again as we've done it with two records now and I think the audience gets it that we have the word, 'Wooden', in the name! When hand-printing CD cases you need to have a system that works well every time too, otherwise you end up wasting material very quickly. So we needed a stylish, yet practical way to create our cases. The concept of handmade cases was formed a little bit out of necessity. We didn't have the money to do a big run of CDs, yet I knew I wanted something physical at the end of this recording – not just a collection of mp3s

C: As a band leader and musician, how do you see the music industry right now? Has the internet helped? Has the internet made everything less serious and formal but with less economic opportunities? How has the internet helped Wooden Arms?

A: I am all for the digital age. I listen to a lot of music online like everybody else my age. The internet is a great tool for musicians and has been growing ever since the days of MySpace. It is, however, a double edged sword as the more music that gets uploaded online the easier it is to get lost in the crowd. I do believe that quality will always ring true though, and if you're creating good music and putting your all into getting it out there, it will get heard, and it will get appreciated. The music industry is in a constant state of flux these days and I don't think it'll settle down for a while. But I do like the fact that the power is with the people for a change. And there are a lot of things you can do on your own with just the internet and the right mindset.

C: As a band, who would you like to collaborate with in the future? Any particular labels, bands or authors?

A: We would love to work with a label, but only the right one. I'm a big fan of Domino Records, Bella Union and Sub Pop. I think they all have the right ethos when it comes to releasing music and seem to be very choosy with whom they work. We're doing a tour with a band called Winter Villains from Cardiff in November who I love and I hope we will have some collaborations on the road. We're also doing a tour with a band on our label called Heart Of A Dog who are really good friends of ours and we've been talking about collaborations for literally the last year so hopefully this tour will give us the time to actually do it! We also did a collaboration this year with Mouthy Poets; they are a poetry group in Nottingham and we were the backing band for some of their sets. We did it as a three-piece (piano, guitar, cello and vocals) and it was a blast - I really hope to do things like that again as they were amazing to work with.

Wooden Arms' self-titled EP is now available from Norwich Sound & Vision runs from 10-12 October. For more information, visit