October 1st, 2009


Going Elizabethan

I was going through old DV tapes recently and found video documentation of my 1999 recording sessions in Berwick Street Studios, London with Kahimi Karie for the record that became her Journey to the Centre of Me EP.

It's a fascinating document for many reasons. This was actually the last time I recorded in a "real" recording studio, and was the big budget, major label culmination of a process that began when I recorded for The Poison Girlfriend in 1993 using The Balanescu Quartet. Polydor Japan was paying the bills for the Kahimi Karie sessions, whereas Nippon Columbia (my own label in Japan at the time) paid for The Poison Girlfriend sessions. Neither record (The Poison Girlfriend's Shyness album, Kahimi Karie's Journey to the Centre of Me EP) did well commercially, and from 2000 on the Shibuya-kei movement tanked, so there would be no more expensive musical indulgences like this for me.

But what an indulgence it was, and what a strange record the major label system allowed me to make! I'd moved on from my "analogue baroque" sound to an interest in progressive rock, triggered by a reading of Paul Stump's excellent book The Music's All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock. Since I'd snubbed prog in the 70s, there was a "return of the repressed" feel to my discovery of it in the late 90s, as I rushed out and bought albums by Gryphon and Gentle Giant. (I did, though, own a couple of Rick Wakeman albums when I was 12.)

Gryphon were particularly relevant to the Journey EP; these Royal College of Music grads had written and recorded the music, in 1974, for a National Theatre production of Shakespeare's Tempest, using a mixture of electric instruments and antique krumhorns, recorders and viols. Commissioned to make a new Kahimi Karie EP, and with money no object, I decided that prog rock fused with Elizabethan sounds would be my genre, and wrote five songs (The Seventh Wife of Henry VIII, Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, The Lady of Shalott, Pygmalism, Journey to the Centre of Me) in the appropriate idiom, a kind of encounter between Kate Bush and renaissance dance music, Rick Wakeman and the earliest extant notated fragments of English music.

Then came the exciting bit. I phoned up the Globe Theatre and asked to be put in touch with the Shakespearean house band. The musical director there gave me the phone number of Bill Lyons, director of the Dufay Collective (although if you click that link you'll see that, as a collective, they prefer to say they have no director). Bill made arrangements around my synth-based demos, came round to my flat near the Barbican a few times, then brought his musicians along to the basement studio in Berwick Street, Soho, where we were recording. Because of the wonderful oddity of the antique instruments, it was the most fascinating session I've ever been involved in, with sackbuts, krumhorns, viols, a shawm, a regal organ, flutes, harps, and other weird and wonderful shapes, forms, and sounds.

In the video you can see Kahimi and her management sitting reading Japanese magazines as the English musicians play, my friend (and Star Forever!) Karin Komoto pulling the rope that feeds the regal with air, and an intrigued Sean O'Hagan (of Microdisney and The High Llamas) improvising chord sequences on the regal as Kahimi supplies it with air.

Videos of Momus recording sessions since 2000 would mostly involve me craning over computer screens, which isn't terribly compelling, visually. But later this month I'll have several days of real work with real musicians playing real instruments, as we rehearse for and then perform the Brel tribute evening Carousel at the Barbican and the Warwick Arts Centre. Musical director David Coulter (ex-Pogues) has arranged the songs for string quartet, horns and woodwinds, ondes martenot, cristal baschet and glass harmonica, harp, accordeon, guitar, bass, keyboards, singing saw, mandolin, banjo...

You could even say there's an Elizabethan element to the Brel arrangements; David Coulter is didjeridu player by appointment to Elizabeth II.