June 26, 2013

Interview: Sweet Billy Pilgrim's Tim Elsenburg 2013

Sweet Billy Pilgrim is a British band named for an American character, Billy Pilgrim, from Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. A 21st century band referencing a late sixties novel, describing events of a late 1930's to mid 1940's war. This leapfrogging of time is as folded-in upon itself as the creation of art can be, and what's folded in during moments of creativity are the artist's influences. Everything which has left it's mark spinning about a tiny kernel, or better, a grain of sand. A finite speck working it's way into something big and open, beautiful and sad, joyful and dirty; into something infinite... like a favourite Sweet Billy Pilgrim song.

There is a shadowed pain, a smoky ache, drifting through the band's songs and it's found in Elsenburg's voice. As if a wounded boy were singing to the man he wishes he had become; his childhood dreams withered by adult acceptance. SBP may not play metal, or Elsenburg's songs sound like metal, but it's there, it's in him... buried, subsumed in the middle-aged body of a civilized man. Those bludgeoning waves and beastly howls are within him, and yet only come forth as beautiful laments twisted and corkscrewed by the pressures of countless influences, musical, or otherwise.

The lanky Tim Elsenburg was tracked down and subjected to the blunt force trauma of Sixeyes' questions. The result? Many pearly answers were pried from his 'heavy metal' shell.

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June 2013

Alan Williamson: Hi, Tim. It's been a while. So long that you and the band (Anthony Bishop, Alistair Hamer, and Jana Carpenter), have gone and pushed three albums out the door... and your latest, Crown & Treaty, is your first outside your garden shed, is that right?

Tim Elsenburg (photo: julian simpson): Yes... It was a room with a view, rather than a wooden box with no windows, air, effective heating or soundproofing. In the winter I'd get chilblains. In the summer; mild heatstroke. Plus, if you solo the vocal tracks on either of those first two albums, I'm joined by a chorus of barking dogs, excitable birds and droning aircraft. Not that I'm moaning, really. It's always brilliant to have a place to work, and there's something kind of healthy about having to leave your house and go somewhere (to the end of the garden in this case) to do your 'job', even though at the time it wasn't really that.

Crown & Treaty, however, was recorded in a little rented bungalow in the garden of a big cottage in an idyllic little village in the Buckinghamshire hills. Following our Mercury Music prize nomination, I got a small publishing deal and used the advance to give up my day job and concentrate on the music. I set up shop in the bay window of my front room overlooking the beautiful grounds, and as my view opened up, so did the sound of the record. Where Twice Born Men sounded kind of tense and a little bit claustrophobic, Crown & Treaty opened its arms and wanted to be more inviting. I also learned that squirrels rule the nature's criminal underworld, and saw enough pigeon-on-pigeon sexual violence to last me a lifetime.

AW: Where do you call home?

TE: I now live in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, which is about 50 miles North West of London. I grew up around here, and despite wearying a little of cars with stereos more powerful than their engines, and the general sense of hopelessness that seems to ooze from provincial towns, I have kids in school here now. London's only an hour away on the train, so it's not so bad.

AW: Is that where you write and record Sweet Billy Pilgrim songs?

TE: Yep. A little loft room. Hot in summer. Freezing in winter. Just like old times!

AW: The critical acclaim for Crown & Treaty is staggering in the UK, do you feel your Brit-centric music will travel well to other countries?

TE: I don't know if I agree that it's Brit-centric... Difficult for me to be objective, being British and in the band, but as much as I'm influenced by English music like the Blue Nile or Talk talk, my first interest in actually joining bands and playing came from listening to American bands. I was massively into Husker Du (probably the biggest influence on how I play guitar) and your own Nomeansno (Wrong is a major landmark record for me), plus lots of US mathrocky things and metal. Swans, Sonic Youth... It's all in there, fighting with my very English need for order, I guess. It's certainly not Brit-centric in the way that Paul Weller or Oasis might be. Or even in a more Syd Barrett way, where the whimsical elements perhaps don't translate as well. I'd put us more with the Peter Gabriels and Elbows of this world, in approach, if not actual sound.

AW: Experimental is always ticked off in the list of boxes to describe SBP, so, just what is it you're experimenting with here? Are we talking white lab coats and caged rats? I don't hear that... should I use headphones?

TE: Experimental always has that connotation; that it's going to be esoteric or left-fieldsomehow abstract or 'difficult'. I'd argue that it's more about tinkering with the form of things and trying to do something new. It doesn't have to be unrecognisably, alienatingly new, just kind of progressive—to use a word that itself has become wrongly associated with capes and keyboard solos. I'd say Scritti Politti's Cupid and Psyche and Tears for Fears' Songs from the Big Chair were really experimental albums in the 80's, and they sold shedloads. More recently, bands like Field Music and Everything Everything have bent pop music into new forms without making it unlistenable, just by imagining what a song featuring Timbaland and King Crimson might sound like... And that's what it comes down to: imagination. We write pop music. It has choruses and hooks. After that, there are layers and weirdness if you want to look, but essentially I hope there are tunes that will stay with you. That said, Dan our keys player should really have a white lab coat. With four biros in the breast pocket. That's just a fact.

AW: I wonder, do you, or you and the band, sit around and say, “Hey, let's experiment with this one!” Or, do the early versions of the songs sound like Usher, or Macklemore, and you've got loads of work ahead of you?

TE: It basically starts with me coming up with a vague idea, usually a chord sequence or riff with a melody and then taking it to rehearsal where we mess about with it to see if I'm on to something or just jerking off. Usually, if it gets as far as playing it to everyone, then it turns out to be the former rather than the latter. I teach songwriting at a music school, and the first thing I say is that most things start out bad. You have to trust your songwriting 'radar' that somewhere in amongst all that confusion, there's the kernel of something interesting. Tellingly, there aren't any outtakes from an SBP album. If it gets as far as being started, then it generally gets finished and goes on the album. I would almost argue that given time and patience, any idea can be made good. Again, it comes down to imagination and force of will. And gradually turning grey in a room on your own.

AW: You say you're teaching songwriting, does the very act of teaching your own craft improve your own songwriting? Are you learning as much as you're teaching?

TE: Yes! It's interesting, in that I'm writing the new album at the same time as putting my lesson plans together, so I'm actually having to look at the process as it happens in order to be able to explain it to a class. All the stuff that generally happens instinctively and reflexively as a songwriter is then simultaneously being observed in a far more objective way by the part of my brain I've cordoned off for teaching. Turns out that I'm more logical and systematic than my general lack of organisation and terrible maths grades at school would suggest. It seems that I'm more 'perspiration' than 'inspiration' based, in that writing something involves exploring and then discounting as many possibilities as I can. So, rather than the famous Neil Young thing of 'Thinking is the worst thing for writing a song... Now is the time to get to know the song, not change it before you even know it. It is like a wild animal; a living thing,' I kind of go the other way and try to work through everything it could be so I can then choose the 'right' thing for the song when the time comes. The tricky bit is knowing when that time comes, and it's usually when one or more of the band start yelling at me. I mean, I'm not saying there aren't 'eureka!' moments, but they seem to grow out of recognising a mistake as a lucky break.

AW: Do your songs typically find structure in the same way, do they follow a similar path? How do they start taking shape?

TE: I usually just wade through as many of the possibilities as I can think of for a melody or a chord sequence or an arrangement, whether it be in the studio, or in my head while I'm on a train or bus. Then when I find something I likeI think, 'Is that good for the song? Or am I doing it to seem clever, or show that I can shred like Uli Jon Roth (I can't)?' If the answer is 'yes—it's for the song', then it goes in. Once I've exhausted all the possibilities. It's pretty tiring and it means that things take time, but hopefully it can be heard in the quality of the songs.

AW: What was it musically that helped form the boy you were into the man you've become? Alright, that's a bit broad, what album had the most influence, and influenza, upon your malleable mind?

TE: There's a few, of course. But what made me buy a laptop, abandon trying to be a budget Dave Grohl and try to work out who I was, were two albums. One was Adem's Homesongs and the other was Sufjan Steven's Seven Swans. It was the sound of air moving in a room; there was atmosphere and depth; fingers moving on strings; intimacy. A few hip hop records by Public Enemy, Wu-Tang and El-P also had a pretty profound effect on how I wanted the records to sound, especially at first. All those guys made it ok for me to find a quiet corner and discover my voice. Crown & Treaty is really the end result of my doing that. Once I had the confidence and the technical know-how to make something bolder that beat its chest a little, I could reach back to other records I've loved over the years; The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Pinback's Summer in Abaddon, The Divine Comedy's Promenade, Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen, Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, and make something grand.

AW: Has the addition of newest member, Jana Carpenter, brought more depth or contrast to the sound of the band?

TE: I finally realised the most obvious thing in the world when I started Crown & Treaty. That the thread that joined up all the records I really love and connect with was the voice. Previously, I'd treated mine as another instrument, quite happy to bury it in the mix and give it a more supporting role. Now it seemed better trained and more... interesting. I wanted people to hear it. At which point I met Jana on Twitter, and we sung a few things together, just at parties and gatherings. Even looking into the crowd somewhere where we weren't particularly the focus of attention, we could see that people were connecting with the voices, and so when I started writing 'Blue Sky Falls' (last song on the album), I wanted it to be our Gram/Emmylou 'Love Hurts' moment. If a record is going to have open arms, what could be more welcoming than two voices being there to greet you? It's weird that our voices blend actually, given the difference in timbre, but I'm very glad they do. It's also great to finally have a rock n roller in the band. Man, that girl can swear and smoke, plus she makes lethal cinnamon vodka.

AW: The production and mixing are done by you, where and how did you pick up these crafts?

TE: To be honest, it was just necessity. The process I've kind of outlined above is pretty time-consuming, so it's impossible when you're on the clock in a traditional studio. It was just driving me to distraction that nothing ever sounded like it did in my head, so I invested in a laptop, an interface and a microphone and got started. A friend of mine spent a day teaching me the basics of using the music program Logic, and then I started to record a song. Basically, the first song on the first album is the first thing I ever did, and the reaction from everyone I knew was a loud, 'Yes! THAT!' so I just worked at it. By the time I got to making Crown & Treaty, I'd upgraded from a tiny laptop to a bigger computer, plus I felt more confident with the technology so I decided that I was going to make an album that sounded like a million dollars for next to nothing. I did limit myself by not using any of the extra stuff you can buy in terms of effects and digital versions of vintage studio gear, otherwise—I knew—I'd still be EQ-ing the hi-hats as we speak, so everything you hear on that record was recorded and mixed with just the standard Logic package. We took the finished thing to a friend's studio to check mixes on pro speakers and 'prettify' a few things, but by-and-large (apart from the drums) the whole thing was a living-room record.

AW: What were the first film and record that made a memorable impression upon you?

TE: The first record was a song by Dennis Wilson's solo record, called "River Song". I had it on a compilation LP of later period Beach Boys stuff, and when I first heard it, it was like someone had lit a fire in my head. When the middle section kicks in and the strings swell and he sings "It breaks my heart to see the city", my 10 year old heart was broken too, but of course I didn't recognise it as that. I felt that ecstatic sadness... and I guess it wouldn't be overstating it to say that somewhere I realised that I had a soul; or at least that there was something beyond riding my bike and grazed knees. I suspect the fact that I lacked the vocabulary and experience to express it made it even more magical, although I know deep down that that will always be the case. I think I probably make music (and seek it out) to feel like that 10 year old again; to try and both express that feeling, and to try and recreate it. Films came later... but the first to really grab me were Brazil, just for the scale of the design of it, and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which I loved for its perfect symmetry. Everything just kind of fitted perfectly. When I listen to the final mix of a new song, I want to get the same feeling aurally as the film gives me visually; everything in its place. Plus it's stunning to look at.

AW: I came across something online where you quote Austin Kleon. The quote was 'Creativity is subtraction', what does that mean to you?

TE: Ha! Probably the hardest part of the process for me! I'm great at adding layers, but not so good at peeling them back and letting things breathe. On another level, that quote puts me in mind of my favourite metaphorical cliché for creating, which is the idea of the artist starting with a huge block of stone and then chipping away at it with a comically small hammer and chisel, occasionally pausing to brush away the dust, just to get at the beautiful statue he / she knows is in there. I often have that feeling, only sometimes it feels like I'm attacking it with a teaspoon or a fish-slice. Or a block of cheese.

AW: Kleon also says an artist needs a 'willingness to look stupid'. Give me some examples of your willingness, or unwillingness, to do just that.

TE: Oh god... It's constant. At one end, there's the presenting of a new song idea to the band, and having to yap phonetic nonsense as we play through it, just because I haven't got any lyrics yet. Taking a chance with a new direction musically or lyrically always involves that; first with the band, then with an audience. We played a new song for the first time at a recent show, and it's a quite a departure musically speaking. At the back of your mind is the possibility that you'll get to the end and there'll just be an eerie silence—or, worse—the slow clap. Then there's the band photo session. No one's quite got the hang of that though, to be fair, except perhaps Nick Cave... Finally, there's the actual things-fucking-up scenario. I did once get lost on stage in front of 500 Japanese people. Finished playing, turned around and everyone was gone, and I could not see the exit, so I spent the next minute or so groping my way along the back wall while everyone in the audience lost it. It was so bad that the Japanese crew, who'd previously been the very models of courtesy and humility, were just plain pointing and laughing when I finally got backstage. But one of the most important lessons I've learned from Jana, who does a lot of acting improv, is to let that feeling go, and more—to own it and make it part of the process, and then move on. Also, to laugh when it happens. Sometimes it's gold, and an audience seem genuinely comforted by it. I once saw Peter Gabriel live bring an 80 piece orchestra to an abrupt halt because he'd forgotten the words to something, and it was a really lovely moment. It's really just a 'willingness to look human', which is what all good art is about anyway.

AW: What do you get out of Steal Like An Artist lists like Kleon's?

TE: Just a kind of confirmation that you can never be truly original, and that part of the reason that people might like what you do is that it reminds them of something, however distantly, and that that's OK. It's the reason that people like to pigeon-hole a band. Because then it can be related to a personal history and it means that you're not alone. Not only do you know people that like that band and that style of music, but the band themselves reference music you've loved that's tied to specific times of your life etc etc. What Kleon does brilliantly is to very simply legitimise the feeling that anyone creative gets when they actually recognise something someone else has done in the germ of their idea. He describes 'Good Theft' as 'honouring, studying, stealing from many, crediting, transforming' and 'Bad Theft' as 'degrading, skimming, stealing from one, plagiarising, imitating', which I think sums it up perfectly. When we start creating, it's generally almost a tribute to the art we love, and I guess it continues to be in some ways, except that our voice becomes louder and the other voices just help to bind it all together. He also says 'write the book you want to read'. Unavoidably, that book (especially at first) is going to resemble the books you've loved reading, until you understand the process enough that (to mix metaphors a little) you wake up one day and without noticing, someone's taken the training wheels off your bike and you're free to move from the main road and off into the woods a little, and it all feels entirely natural. It's also important not to forget that we don't just steal from other artist's work; most of the time we're just sharing, or reshaping and then re-sharing a way of experiencing the world that we call ours.

AW: You've written of your love and need for metal, so have you slipped any metal-like bits or pieces into your songs? As a private joke between you and your inner caveman?

TE: Oh yes. Certainly the heavy section of a song like "Kracklite" is an expression of that! What seems to happen is that there's a displacement, where I listen to more extreme music while I'm making an album so it doesn't influence me unduly, and then that stuff finds its way onto the next record. The follow up to Crown & Treaty is certainly going to have its fair share of riffing. This makes me very happy.

AW: Which other genre, or genres, of music fill a void in you as metal does?

TE: Principally hip hop actually. Darker, more left-field things like El-P and Aesop Rock along with classic stuff like Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy. The fact that these guys are unafraid of atmosphere in their production work has been a big influence, but also just because of the sheer, unadulterated joy in language. Also, there's less of tendency to occupy the grey areas, as with metal. Being quite comfortable in my own fuzziness, it's good for me to spend time in the company of people who have a more decisive and positive (not necessarily in outlook) attitude in what they say and do.

AW: What do you get from creating? What is the reward, the purpose, the need filled? Why does Tim Elsenburg create? Are there any drawbacks from this?

TE: It's curiosity. And imagination. They're not just abstractions; they're needs, to be fulfilled, explored, expressed and shared. As I get older the need to feel part of something; to feel connected to those parts of me that I have in common with people, becomes more important, and the need to feel validated via ego becomes smaller and smaller. It's lovely when someone says that something is great, but it's even better when someone recognises some common ground and sends it back up to you by singing your words with you at a show or by sending a message, or even by forming a band. I read somewhere once that politics is about what makes us different from each other, and music/art is about what we have in common, and I love that idea. Being curious; always prepared to look at your motives and your experience and maybe change in line with that, because it's always in flux and therefore interesting. Translating or trying to express all that with your art, whatever that might be, and seeing the world reflected back at you through people who innately understand what you're saying at a primal and/or an intellectual level is an amazing privilege. Their interpretation of things may not be exactly the same, but it's like a choir or a string section all performing the same notes, everyone is pitching slightly differently so it sounds full and lush. If the tuning was entirely accurate, a hundred voices would just sound like one voice, and that would be very dull. Also, in trying to do this well, you have to put all cynicism aside. You have to stay in touch with that childlike part of you so you still access the deeper recesses of your imagination unhindered. Cynicism kills that. It's ugly and bitter and it strangles everything like weeds, and creativity seems to be the perfect antidote.

AW: The Mercury nomination in 2009, did that have much more effect than you anticipated? Were the benefits all positive?

TE: Yes... pretty much. It didn't make much difference in terms of sales, but it has meant that we've been taken more seriously when we're trying to involve people in projects or get business stuff looked at. It's just a nice calling card, and it was an amazing night... I had to keep reminding myself that we deserved to be there as much as anyone else. Maybe more, if you take into account the fact that we all had to go work our day jobs the next day.

AW: Okay, now down to brass tacks.... have you got a family?

TE: I do indeed. Been married for many years, with two beautiful sons to show for it. They're 11 and 14 now, and it's so interesting to watch how they connect with music. What's interesting to me is how there's no conflict for my eldest in listening to Meshuggah one minute and Alt-J the next. There really isn't the tribal aspect to music that there was when I was growing up, but to my great joy, he's still more than happy to listen to an album all the way through. All that seems to have changed is the emphasis on owning the artefact, although—that said—I scored him his first signed vinyl from a friend of mine who's in a metal band we both like, and his eyes lit up. That was a real father/son moment.

AW: I understand that you've got tinnitus, as have I, does it cause any problems when playing live, in the studio, day to day?

TE: Just at night when it's quiet. Then I get a little symphony of whistles and treble. I like to go to sleep listening to a radio station we have here that purely deals in spoken word stuff; plays and comedy and book readings. That helps.

AW: Finally, just how tall are you? Are you the Stephen Merchant of indie rock?

TE: I'm 6' 3", and not a graceful 6' 3" at that. Coincidentally, we were asked at the Mercury awards by some kids' TV presenter, who would play us in a movie version of our lives, and Al (SBP drummer, Alistair Hamer) pointed at me on national TV and said Steven Merchant.

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