interview by: Dave McGonigle
Yet another year expires, and the holiday season is upon us. Far from being a season to be jolly, the Christmas period is traditionally marked by increased rates in marriage break-up, family disputes, suicides, and copious overeating. However, all these tribulations pale into insignificance against Christmas’ true low point - the cheery, happy holiday song. Said tunes will consist of whining jailbait brats wearing clothes five sizes too small, jumping around like they’d never heard of Ritalin and yelping about peace and love. The loathsome CDs will be bought by parents and younger siblings in their droves. My advice? Hole up in a bar with a copy of Trout Mask Replica and a crate of bourbon until the whole thing blows over.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The short days and long nights of the holiday season suit quiet, contemplative music that can sound like the slow process of glaciation one minute and remind you of the darkness at the heart of winter the next. Pretty much like Hwyl Nofio, actually. A collective of musicians based in the UK and centered around talented multi-instrumentalist Steve Parry, to date they’ve released two CDs on Hwyl records that have managed to be both complex and soothing, disturbing and simple. Always the curious ones, Maelstrom managed to get a chance to talk via email with head Hwyl, Steve Parry.
Maelstrom: Is Hwyl Nofio a band per se, or primarily your project in which you recruit other people to play on?
Steve Parry: Hwyl Nofio is primarily me - I'm the only permanent member. It’s a collective of sorts where I involve other people, people that I respect who I consider to have creative integrity. I've been an admirer of the work of both Sandor Szabo and Fredrik Soegaard – both incredibly inventive guitarists, both of whom have contributed to Hwyl. Also Mark Beazley – we’ve been friends sharing ideals for a few years now and I like him as a person and love his work as Rothko (www.rothkomusic.oc.uk), so I invited him to contribute some of his bass playing to Hymnal (2nd Hwyl CD).
Trevor Stainsby is a friend of many years and an unorthodox sound/engineer whom I like working with – many Hwyl Nofio concepts have been realized at his studio at the foot of The Black Mountains in South Wales. Balazs Major is this incredible percussionist from Hungary and he works with Sandor (Szabo), and Tim Crawley is an author and philosopher who likes “The Fall” and simply wanted to be involved. It's a fantastic thrill having such gifted individuals and genuinely nice people on board. I think sometimes ‘what the fuck are they wanting to work with me for?’ – I'm truly humbled by this experience, working with these guys.
Maelstrom: How long have you been putting out music for? Are The Singers and Harp Players are Dumb and Hymnal your total output to date?
Steve Parry: Hwyl nofio came about in 1997 – those are the two CDs. (http://www.hwylnofio.com/releases.htm). I've been experimenting with sound for over 20 years, and there have been a number of recorded works on obscure labels. For example, an album of music for prepared guitar/ tape manipulations/effects, entitled Solitary Lands; an album of guitar noise/feedback/church organ, entitled Cathedrals of Industry; and an album of prepared piano and miscellaneous automata, Distort. (Parry, below)
In addition, I’ve recently discovered hours of lost recordings in the attic of my house, mainly comprised of guitar works. Currently I'm working on a new project called From Elevated Gangways Rivers of Molten Metal Flow – this includes an extreme guitar piece culled from the earlier recordings being updated with further added sounds. I have also completed an album of guitar experiments that draws inspiration from the artist Francis Bacon, provisionally entitled Fragment of a Crucifixion– I adore his work, particularly the great triptychs from “Three Studies for a Crucifixion.” The new guitar recordings will be released as Steve Parry - I'm looking for interested parties for release. (Interested parties can contact Steve at www.hwylnofio.com).
Going back further I spent four years living in London, being involved with the “electronic thing” of the late 70s/ early 1980's involving bands like The The, Matt Johnson, This Heat, Neu Electrikk. I had signed to Phonogram records and recorded an album of guitar-noise/drones, and got dropped by the label. They concluded the music was too extreme and non commercial. I consequently left London for the relative solitude of Yorkshire – where I continue to live and make music to this day.
Maelstrom: It's clear that Hwyl Nofio is certainly very personal music to you, so I was wondering how you actually go about making the music. One extreme is the musician as composer, with everyone else corresponding to session musicians, the other is the freeform jam. I have a feeling that neither is exactly the way that you get together with other people, so I'd love to know a few details about the recording process - for example, does it start from pure ideas, sounds, riffs, phrases? Do you send each other tapes?
Steve Parry: How do I go about making music? It’s variable, really, no one method. The basis of an idea is often written or sketched into an old text book or narrated onto a dictaphone. I don't write music that well, so it's a case of developing a language that can be shared with the other musicians. If the basic construct – the structure/sounds are there – then a flexible sound sketch exists that can be developed further.
I have this wonderful DAT machine that allows for spontaneity and flexibility with recording. The piano and church organ you hear on Hwyl Nofio is recorded live on location, while much of the guitar work is recorded in my home, in darkness at the top of my stairs. I spend many hours creating an idea or developing an accident, to experience the space the recording environment is important. Having fun is fundamental. I also make extensive field recordings...
I admire and respect creatively the other persons involved in Hwyl Nofio as people. If we are unable to be and record in the same room at the same time, then a sound sketch CDR is dispatched, over which they improvise. There are other ways, for example, Mark Beazley sent me some bass sounds to be incorporated into a piece I had already written.
Maelstrom: Before we talk about how you ended up recording and playing as Hwyl Nofio, I'd love to know a little bit about your adventures in the late 70s/early 80s London electronic scene, particularly with Matt Johnson. I'm guessing that this was around the time of Burning Blue Soul or even before that, a period of The The's recorded history that I prefer to their later stuff – I think there's some very interesting lyrical and musical themes that came out of “BBS,” and Matt chose to really develop the lyrics and instead focus on a more “pop” aesthetic for the rest of his work through the 80s.
Did you collaborate with Matt at all? Did you manage to see his (in)famous “under-the pub” recording studio? Due to the four years length, I'm guessing that you were in London studying. What were you doing there, and did you turn your back on it all to pursue music?
Steve Parry: My family had moved north from the industrial valleys of South Wales to the Victorian theme park that is Harrogate, Yorkshire. I fucking hated it – everyone appeared dead or dying. I studied piano (my tutor having been a pupil of Gustav Holst) and guitar, and I played guitar in a jazz band full of senile old men; I'd hit them with distortion and cause a revolution. I spent hours in my bedroom listening to music, dreaming of being anywhere other than in the present. I loved Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Django Reinhardt, Eric Satie, Neu, Cluster, Stockhausen. Welsh Choirs, hymns, church organ music, brass bands. A friend Garry and I used to make these recordings on this old reel to reel tape machine – we'd tape things like the rain, electric drills, the fridge; anything that made a noise really, then cut/spice/reverse. This was bliss....
Age 17, I escaped to London, and answered a musicians wanted ad in the back of the NME. The ad was placed by Matt Johnson (www.thethe.com). Matt was living at his parents pub in the east end of London and was making recordings in its basement, and he sent me this cassette he'd recorded called See Without being Seen, a Woolworth’s tape in a hand made sleeve. Pretty brave stuff really, with some interesting ideas. Anyway we'd meet and talk on the phone/exchange letters - looking back, angry young men talking up another music revolution. The coronation of Margaret Thatcher had just happened, and life promised nothing. I was working as a photographer’s assistant in South London, spending one of the hottest summers on record mixing up photographic chemicals in the bowels of this decaying, old building near Waterloo Station. At that point Matt had yet to form The The.
Then Keith Laws comes along armed with his Wasp Synthesizer and he thought up the name The The. Matt had this job in a recording studio in the West End and would record these industrial sounding noises – to which Keith and Matt would improvise live.
By then I had formed my own band called Neu Electrikk, and The The and Neu Electrikk would unite for the occasional gig. I do remember playing The Anarchists Ball at The Metropolitan Warehouse in London’s East End. Matt, Keith and myself, plus a couple of other guys who I think called themselves “The Door” and “The Window,” played this extreme/ noise version of The Sex Pistols “Anarchy In The UK.” The feedback/ distortion were so intense that we were bombarded with missiles and ended up legging it from the building chased by a gang of skinheads, although my main concern was the well-being of my Fender Stat and Marshall Amp, which remained on stage. There had been this whole experimental thing going on with bands like Throbbing Gristle/This Heat/The Residents, with punk having made the whole independent record thing happen, and it was a crazy fun time. I do remember playing this solo gig called “music for prepared guitar and fish tank.” I had a plastic tube in the water and blew air into it – fed the sound into this echo machine – accompanied by a two stringed guitar being played with a pliers. The fish loved it..............
Then the whole commercial thing happened for Matt. Matt became The The. Keith left to pursue a career in psychology. I didn't really like they way things were going both personally and musically. I needed some space and wanted further to experiment with sound so left London to be with my future wife in York.
Maelstrom: The list of bands that you listened to when you were young sound like a good grounding for the music that you're now creating as Hwyl Nofio – sonic adventurers, minimalist/atonal composers. But, didn't it make you the weirdest kid in school to have such rarefied tastes so young?
Steve Parry: Displaced. When you don't relate to your personal surroundings then you create your own space. I really only connected to things via sound. I left Wales in my mid-teens and through my mother’s connections in the church (she was the principal organist) I managed to get into this safe church of England school in the north - the school I had attended in Wales was full of kids who were only happy if they got to seriously maim or kill one another (Maelstrom notes: Please address all Welsh nationalist letters of outrage to email@example.com).
So there I was in an alien environment – very long hair and strong Welsh accent, and I encountered a barrage of racism from both fellow pupils and teachers. Like most schools, there was an in-group and out-group, so I rejoiced in the out-group. Subsequently I reacted: I knew about survival, have lived in a rough neighborhood in South Wales. As you might guess from the above, school proved a negative experience for me. So the real comfort came listening and making music. I had this friend (another displacement from the south) who played the piano and listened to John Cage, who is a genius and opens up notions of what music is and can be. I escaped by wrapping myself up in this comfort zone of recording sounds, playing guitar, piano lessons, records, gigs.
Maelstrom: I'm also intrigued by the links between your surroundings and the kinds of music that you chose to make - the raw urbanity of London linked with your more punkish, electronic stylings at the time, with the current pastoral setting, producing more, well, pastoral music – yet with an undercurrent of unease. Do you think if you were still in London, you'd be making this kind of music?
Steve Parry: Places... well, it's not so much the space you inhabit but how you perceive it. I did like living in London; I made the acquaintance of lovely people, yet also met some complete shits. The music scene had some really interesting things happening. Today, living in rural Yorkshire, making uneasy pastoral music... a kind of caustic cow shit.
Maelstrom: When I listen to Hwyl Nofio I am occasionally struck by the feeling that I have entered a true world of sound. I'm always struck by the sense of space in your recordings, and in my mind's eye I can see the musicians playing in the open air, a mixing desk by your side. Have you ever felt that you're trying to re-create those moments from your childhood when you were still discovering what you could do with music, playing on the reel-to-reel? To me, as a listener, it's like being dipped in pools of someone's aural memories.
Steve Parry: Oh, the catharsis of childhood: HwylNofio as personal exorcism. Take a track like “Jerusalem Lane.” Well, I was born in a house on Jerusalem Lane. At the end of the lane is the church where so many childhood memories appear immortalized. I’m perched by my mothers side as she played the organ (the perpetual drone) and the immaculate preacher diseased with redemption. Childhood forged by the sanctity of religion.
Then the sound of the valley: the sounds of industry, manufacturing steel; the sounds of metal hammers and coal mining; and the subterranean grumble of explosives breaking open the coal deep in the mountain. Nature and beauty alongside the polluting industry. There is something intrinsically wonderful about this disharmony, a marriage of dilemmas being resolved in another space, but it's not just an evocation of childhood – it's very much living in the present, living in a society where value is forged by materialistic gain. I try to remain optimistic but find it hard to not be pessimistic. Continually I seek my own space – music, my family (Wife Julia and daughters Amy and Victoria, plus some dear friends). I treasure the things that hold real value – so the sounds are moments/ spaces/ the mortal drone of living.
So, kids, in today’s increasingly plastic world it’s comforting to know that there’s still a few mavericks operating on the borders, pushing, pulling, tearing and nutting the envelope. You owe it to yourself: this Christmas, drag yourself away from the Queen’s speech, pour a large one, and plug into some Hwyl. It’ll cleanse your soul more than going to Midnight Mass ever did.