Interview | Grasscut: Journeys through electronic music Culture
Grasscut come from interesting backgrounds. Andrew Phillips has cut his teeth as a composer and producer for television and film, while Marcus O'Dair, the other part of the band, has an enviable career as a journalist, musician and academic. Both seem very bookish, and literature stands very clearly as a major inspiration for their writing and themes to their work.
Perhaps it is this academic approach that distinguishes Grasscut from many other electronic producers. Not satisfied with creating albums that flow in a conventional stylistic bent, the pair often collaborate with art directors, or just between themselves to build a subtle thread, or narrative within their work. Their debut album 1/2 inch: 1 mile, a reference to the Ordnance Survey scale system, takes the listener on a journey along a walk in East Sussex. Similarly, their latest album Unearth prompts listeners to discover places through the music. In fact, O'Dair and Phillips have gone to the lengths of recording a second 'Shadow' cut of their album, and have hidden each of these 'Shadow' tracks in the location that inspired the song.
To add to the eclectic inspiration that drives Grasscut's music forward, the locations chosen to frame Unearth are in turn inspired by many of Phillips' and O'Dair's passions. Tennyson serves as the reasoning behind the track 'We Fold Ourselves', which also has the band singing alongside a crackling recording of a 1950s contralto. Likewise, the halcyon strings of 'Blink in the night (East Coker version)' ride on a chance discovery of the order of service from TS Eliot's funeral, and a trip to the poet's hometown, East Coker.
On stage, Grasscut's diverse approach shines through, in a typically subtle way. Live strings blur with layered synthesizers and samples, bass guitar and drum with looped drum machine and dots and bleeps. At one point the pair sound almost like toned-down Kele Okorere, or capture twee folktronic musings like Tunng, while at the next moment, they're digging deep into the bass realms of Berlin techno.
However, this diversity, while being refreshingly unconventional does also risk veering towards simulacra in its overall stylistic direction. Unearth's a very enjoyable, bleak trip through Britain, poetry and film, that runs the risk of turning homage into imitation. Yet where the album does succeed is in its originality in theme, the subtle twists that portray Grasscut's interests, and a collection of quirky, catchy tunes.
Here's the conversation that we had with Andrew just before they got on stage to launch Unearth at the Shacklewell arms in London:
LF: It seems you've both come from fairly disparate musical backgrounds; Andrew from composing soundtracks, and Marcus from a more, I suppose, academic background. How did Grasscut start out?
Grasscut: We've both been in various bands alongside our other work, and that's how we met. While we were touring around the UK, I started putting together laptop sketches about local museums & shopping centres on the tour bus. We got excited about them.
LF: Both your albums have a very strong sense of place as a driving purpose, how and why has location, and the story around these places become such a central part to your work?
Grasscut: It's always been a bit of an obsession for me since I was a student. I'm a big fan of Sebald, MacFarlane, Sinclair, and so on, the way their writing makes you hyper aware of the past, present & your surroundings. Those writers achieve a kind of time travel. If we can create anything that immersive quality for whoever listens, we're happy.
LF: With Unearth, the places come frequently from poetry, poets and the places that they frequented, or wrote about, principally Eliot, Larkin and Tennyson. What drove these choices, and for these poets to play such a central role in your new record?
Grasscut: I borrowed a vinyl box set of Eliot reading The Wasteland when I was a teenager, and went on to study American Poetry as a postgrad student. Marcus also studied English at University, is a writer when not cutting the grass, and a big Larkin fan. So as well as being musicians we're pretty word-centred. Eliot really stuck with me, partly because he was an American, and his 'Englishness' was that of an outsider, and very much to do with family's past. Larkin, though totally different also watches from a distance, sometimes with the bleak qualities he's famous for, but more importantly to me with such electric intensity and emotion. Tennyson's 'Now Sleeps The Crimson Petal' with its lake themes influenced many parts of this record. Eliot's line 'in the electric heat, hypnotised' gets at something all these poets have, a totally intense engagement with place.
LF: You also have lots of 'contributors' that span decades and genres in both of your albums, but notably, Unearth focuses on bringing unlikely pairings together. How have Robert Wyatt, contralto Kathleen Ferrier and Gazelle Twin got in there?
Grasscut: We just wanted to feature people whose work we loved, admired, and who we thought were magic. In the sense that they have a way of doing things that is completely true to themselves, whether they're 25 or 65 years old, or dead and coming from vinyl. And that goes for Seb Rochford's drums too. Genre doesn't come into it. Hence our future collaboration with Slipknot. [ed: We're assuming this is a jest.]
LF: In Kathleen Ferrier's case, this echoes 'In Her Pride' from your previous album 1 inch: 1/2 mile. What are you aiming for with this combination of old and new, or even electronic and analogue?
Grasscut: Some old recordings come with a static charge of emotion. Conventions have changed so much, and we have such a different way of creating emotion in music now compared with the ballads of the 40s or 50s, that so often they seem remote and a bit daft. But occasionally you get a moment where it all falls away and something pure just hits you. Samplers have been used as time machines in hip hop from the start, and if you happen have poets, Kathleen Ferrier, John Adams and Kraftwerk on your ipod on shuffle, these moments are more likely to crop up.
LF: Going back to places and landmarks, often music is generally described as a journey, and in your album 1 inch: 1/2 mile (a scale reference), you provided a map and a secret track to go with the album that listeners could follow as they traced their way through the album. In Unearth you've gone further and put the onus on listeners to find the journey, and hidden an entire shadow album on cassette tapes around the country. What sort of reaction have you got to this, and how do you feel it adds to the experience?
Grasscut: We always liked the idea of Unearth as a state, but also perhaps an invitation, as you say. We're offering these tracks as a kind of introductory soundtrack in places we think have amazing atmospheres. And we think it creates a different relationship with people who listen. We've had some interesting and very positive reactions, some people clearly accepting the invitation as offered, and in one case removing the cassette for a few days and then kindly replacing it.
LF: Also, how does the shadow album differ from the album proper? Is there more of a connection with the places that the cassettes are placed in these recordings?
Grasscut: There is a connection more literally in the sense that they all have audio recorded at that location, but they're connected to the places in a different way and that's the point, they are roads not taken on the album version, less song orientated, and serving the atmosphere of the place.
LF: Given the multiple influences, sounds and directions your music takes, you've been described as eclectic, or hard to follow. Listening to Unearth, there's a very clear distinction between your sound, and that of current electronica / modern folk pop. How has this record evolved from your previous, and are there any points of inspiration that you feel define this record?
Grasscut: Our first album was certainly eclectic. I hope not hard to follow. We tried very hard not to be generic, and to try to get to things that felt true to us, both musically and thematically. Certainly Unearth is more song orientated, more vocal, and is more shaped by the idea of playing it live, but it hopefully takes similar themes a stage further.
LF: On the back of the previous question, Unearth also focuses much more on your own vocals, live instruments (you're playing with string accompaniments at this point), and blends them around samples from films like James Mason's The London Nobody Knows, how does the line between production and performance play out in Grasscut?
Grasscut: Good question. I think we're on the line between the two in a way. Live we're playing traditional instruments, I'm singing and playing guitar or keys, but also samples, and Marcus is playing bass, keys or samples. You play the technology live like an instrument because it is an instrument. And you have to take risks with it.
LF: After launching your album this week at The Shacklewell Arms, you're doing a small tour up to your show at the Union Chapel in November. What are your other plans for the rest of the summer? Will that be mainly taken up with following the Shadow album around?
Grasscut: Our diary is starting to fill up with some interesting shows, but somebody's going to have to go round the country replacing batteries in the walkmans.
LF: Penultimately, what are your plans further into the future & where do you see your influences coming from currently?
Grasscut: We're very excited by the new live band, we've added live drums, violin, & viola and vocal harmony, so we're looking forward to gigging in the UK and Europe. Having finished Unearth I'm just listening to loads of stuff at the moment, Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony, Luke Abbot, Nathan Fake, and just went through a Korean Psych period. Honestly.
LF: Finally, if you had to tell someone to go and listen to something right now, what would it be?
Grasscut: This. It's gorgeous. Towards The Sunlight by Kim Jung Mi.
Grasscut are playing venues around the UK throughout the summer, winding up the batteries in Walkmen in cryptic locations and playing the Union Chapel on November 3rd. Unearth is released on 15th July.