I first discovered Trembling Bells at the Green Man Festival in 2009. Their shambolic - and I use that word in the most positive sense imaginable - folk/rock sound was completely unlike anything else I heard that weekend; Alex Neilson's drumming, Lavinia Blackwall's operatic vocal capabilities, and the band's ragged yet soaring melodies were a highlight that stuck with me for months afterwards.
The band recently released their fifth studio album, The Sovereign Self, and it's the most delicious stew of myths 'n' riffs you'll probably ever encounter. The record's eight tracks mix prog, krautrock, pop, and medieval folk influences to create something entirely unique, and perhaps its greatest achievement is the way in which it balances primal rock-out-with-us music with a nigh-impenetrable web of musical, literary and historical references.
Trembling Bells very kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions about the new album, so without further introduction, here those answers are:
Photo by Oliver Neilson
Your new album is called The Sovereign Self - what's the story behind that title?
Alex Neilson: It's a quote from the English dramatist Dennis Potter. He was discussing Philip Marlow (the lead character in his televisual masterpiece The Singing Detective) and suggesting that the character's rather questionable attitudes are redeemed by an essential, imperishable goodness that remains when all around him - his friends, the institutions he is subject to, even his own mind and body - are making it tough for that goodness to flourish.
Potter's work is one of the things that closest reflects the complexes and combativeness of my own mind. The violence is real. The sexual compulsions are real. The sentimentality is real. And they are all vying for supremacy over a troubled and brilliant personality.
Not that I am describing myself that way. I just recognise those potholes.
What do all the famous faces on the cover have in common?
AN: The people on the album cover populate the imaginary landscapes of the songs: Dennis Potter is the pub landlord, Philip Larkin is the librarian, 'Blind' Willie Johnson is the vicar, Arthur Rimbaud has an ASBO, Emily Dickinson is the lover, Lou Reed is the drug dealer and yoga instructor, Ovid is the pen pal, Sun Ra is the weatherman, etc. They are a selection of people whose work I have lived inside of, and now they are living inside mine.
Artwork for The Sovereign Self.
Christmas trees are mentioned several times on The Sovereign Self - did you consciously include this as a recurring motif?
Your songs - particularly the ones that make up this new album - have some very proggy tendencies. Prog rock gets quite a lot of flak from music fans nowadays; do you think this is unfair?
AN: I don't really have an opinion on it, I'm afraid. It's not a form of music I know a lot about or am very orientated towards. The other TB members might have more insight...
Alasdair C Mitchell: 'Prog Rock' is effectively something of a misnomer as a genre descriptor; it is an umbrella term that encompasses a diverse range of artists and styles, and is mostly identified with a specific period, usually in a negative context in connection with the evolution of Punk. Bear in mind that, in the late '60s and early '70s, most cutting-edge 'underground' music was described as 'progressive', and by the middle of the decade, it had gained a capital 'P' and become synonymous with the excesses of certain artists, and remains so in some eyes to this day, as music writers incessantly regurgitate the same lazy mantra.
In actuality, there is perhaps more respect now for 'Prog' elements in experimental and intelligent sounds than at any other time.
As Peter Ross mentions in The Sovereign Self's sleeve notes, the music of Trembling Bells has a very pronounced sense of place. What location(s) does this finished album put you in mind of?
AN: Well, a sense of place is always very important to me. Certain places set fire to my imagination and I will attempt to explain the overwhelming sense of love and belonging that they evoke. I will then invest that sense with a hallucinatory/quasi-mythic dimension. Some places that achieve that degree of monumentality in my mind are Yorkshire, Sussex, Cornwall, Oxford, London, and Carbeth. Edens of the imagination. Perpetually replenishing wellsprings of inspiration.
AN: Take No Prisoners by Lou Reed, Wolf King of LA by John Philips, and the In Our Time podcasts (chaired by Melvyn Bragg) 24/7.
ACM: Jericho by Jericho, About Us by Stories, and Songs for a Tailor by Jack Bruce.
Lavinia Blackwall: World Music by Goat, After Bathing at Baxter's by Jefferson Airplane, and American Beauty by Grateful Dead.
Mike Hastings: Floating Coffin by Thee Oh Sees, Quick Silver Messenger Service by Quick Silver Messenger Service, and Space Hymn by Lothar and the Hand People
Simon Shaw: Neu! '75 by Neu, Mikal Cronin by Mikal Cronin, and Third Eye by Redd Kross.
AN: There are certain things that Lavinia doesn't like to sing about, so I have to moderate what I write quite a lot. When I sing the songs, I don't have to do that so much, and it allows me to get deeper into the black matter of my mind. Also, certain types of songs (arguably) suit my voice better (although Lavinia is an unassailably great singer, who I am very blessed to work with and write for).
What's your favourite track on The Sovereign Self?
AN: 'Tween the Womb & The Tomb.
ACM: Bells of Burford.
LB: Killing Time In London Fields.
MH: I Is Someone Else.
SS: Oh, Where is Saint George?
AN: David Munrow on the sackbut, Bob Dylan on harmonica, Chris Corsano on drums, Selda and Roy Orbison on vocals, "Blind" Willie Johnson on guitar, Albert Ayler on saxophone, Rick Danko on bass, Alasdair Roberts writing the words, Leonard Cohen mixing the drinks.
These are sackbuts, apparently. I didn't know either.
Any plans or ideas for the next album? Or is it to soon to start thinking about that just yet?
AN: We have an extended EP/mini album due out in December on Tin Angel Records. I hope to record a 7" of covers by the great Lancastrian songwriter Dan Haywood. And we have just recorded demos for 15 songs towards an album of traditional British folk songs in collaboration with Stewart Lee.
Visit the Trembling Bells website for more information about the band and their upcoming shows and releases. The Sovereign Self is available now from all good record shops.