FIVE QUESTIONS WITH SMILE DOWN UPON US
My first exposure to Keiron Phelan's music occurred mere months after textura's inception in the form of Cottonhead, the superb State River Widening album Phelan, David Sheppard, and Jon Steele released on Vertical Form in 2004. Fast-forward eleven years and I'm dazzled once again by Phelan's artistry, though this time it's due to the music he's creating with Japanese singer moomLooo in Smile Down Upon Us and specifically on their self-titled sophomore album, an endlessly imaginative collection and a delight from start to finish. textura recently had an opportunity to speak with Phelan about Smile Down Upon Us, his creative process, and the group's wonderful new album.
1. Many an artist's spirit has been worn down by the challenges of the music business, and an individual can grow jaded and cynical as a result. You on the other hand have been recording music for a number of years, yet the material on the new Smile Down Upon Us recording sounds as fresh and uplifting as music by someone starting out. How have you managed to hold on to such a joyful spirit over the long haul of a music career?
Thank you very much for the compliment! Well, when I was first ‘coming up' (mid-to-late-‘90s) it was a time when there were far fewer record labels than there are now. Self-releasing was rare, difficult to do and, frankly, very much looked down on as pure vanity publishing. Consequentially I knew a number of talented individuals who never got the chance to make albums or, sometimes, they'd get to make one and that would turn out to be the total extent of their recording career. So, I have never taken for granted the opportunity to release music that will be listened to and (hopefully) enjoyed by people I will never meet.
Also, put simply, this is what I do! It probably defines me as much as anything else in life, so I ought to be giving it my best shot and making the most of it. It's led me to meet and work with some lovely and very talented (and thoroughly individual) people, so the process itself is there to be enjoyed. There are always new things to write about; it's an interesting world and a huge amount of it can be exported into music. It's a question of thinking yourself into new musical scenarios. For example, with this Smile Down Upon Us album, we've variously imported Naiad myths, football hooligans, Hans Christian Andersen's Inchworm, Medieval chanting, Chagall imagery, and a 1960s Comedy-Western soundtrack song. And that's just on the English side. I'm not even sure of all the references on the Japanese side of the band. Arguably (and here comes the grouchy bit) some musicians, in the current climate, have developed a tendency to stay very firmly ‘in genre.' So, indie must remain indie, ambient remain ambient, drone drone and so on. That can also apply to record labels, too, where they have a particular ‘parish' and tend not to leave it. But, trying to stay risk-free is precisely what makes things turn tame. There's really no need to be cautious (what's the worst that can happen?). In fact, when musicians do err on that side, that's when they start repeating themselves and start to get tired—the wary get weary, one might say.
The uplifting element (if it's there, and I sincerely hope it is) may also be due to the fact that I don't really do ‘angst.' Melancholy, certainly, but I tend to find that ‘dark' music feels slightly juvenile to me and often presents a musical blind alley (no pun intended) anyway. There, that's dismissed huge swathes of modern music in one fell swoop! Alternatively, some of my friends might observe that I am actually quite a cynical person and that the music is my time away from my own cynicism. So, it's me creating a world that I'd prefer to live in. (I confess they might have a point.) Lastly, I think it's important to realize that you won't make very much money. If you can make peace with that one then you're halfway there. All I can say is that combination of things works for me; I don't know how much use it would be as a survival pack for anyone else.
2. How did Smile Down Upon Us originate and how did your meeting with moomLoo come about?
In summer 2006, David Sheppard and I had just released the Phelan/Sheppard album Harps Old Master. David was due to begin his Brian Eno biography (obviously a considerable task), so it seemed like a good time for me to start a new project. I knew that I wanted to work with a singer as nearly all of the music that I'd been involved with for the previous ten years had been instrumental, and I wanted it to be someone well outside of my usual sphere. David and I had always kept an edge to things during our State River Widening years by largely improvising our pieces when recording them (even our blue-print sound, the big, interlocking and arpeggiating acoustic guitars, was largely established by that method). Even so, although David and I have very different musical ideas we do (being of an age and a background) have similar musical reference points. So this was an opportunity to get rid of that. It might sound slightly masochistic but, going back to what I said before, if you want to do something genuinely new you really do have to rip up your own comfort zone.
So, I trawled through Myspace (the state-of-the-art musical social media of the time) and after a while discovered moomLooo, a Japanese singer and electronicist. I very much liked her voice, so we exchanged some recordings and the following year agreed to make an album together. She was in Tokyo, I in London, so it all needed to be done by file exchange. It's not uncommon, now, but at the time it seemed to be regarded as quite a brave undertaking. I'm not particularly ‘techy' myself, so I doubt that I had any idea of whether or not it would be a tricky business, and it may be that ignorance was bliss. I just wanted to do it. And, in fact, we created the entire first album without ever meeting each other. To be honest, it was a fairly smooth ride, but I suspect there was a vast amount of serendipity involved and had that not been the case, things could have gone badly awry; we were simply lucky with each other.
3. How did the songs on the album develop? Could you use one song as a representative illustration of how a piece progressed from start to finish? And if you had to choose one song from the album that captures the essence of Smile Down Upon Us, what one would it be (and why)?
I'm going to reply to that slightly obliquely. The main thing about Smile Down Upon Us is that not only do moomLooo and I live in different countries, but we don't even speak the same language. I have no Japanese and moom has very limited English. The great thing about this is that it makes it almost impossible for us to argue; it would just be too complicated. Basically, we communicate almost entirely via music. So, the process of songwriting (or album writing) becomes much like the game where one person tells the first line of a story, the second person makes up the second line, then back to the first person for line three, and so on. You have to accept the part of the narrative that the other person gives you.
Obviously there's a lot of trust involved but moomLooo is a marvellously creative person. As, indeed, are all the auxiliary musicians on the album. It's a great team, and we rely on each other not just to play well but also to be able to intuit what is going on and where things need to go as each piece develops. In fact, moomLooo and I have only met a handful of times, when she's visited the UK. Our e-mails are quite amusing as we have to discuss things very simply and very much in primary colours, like a pair of enthusiastic nine-year-olds. Obviously you have to be willing to allow songs to go somewhere ‘different,' but it's so much more enjoyable than sitting in a studio, with a grim-faced band, arguing over every detail of every five seconds of every single track.
Choosing a representative song is rather difficult because all Smile Down songs are very different beasts; they remind me of a diverse bunch of eccentric animals that just happen to live in the same forest. I sometimes wonder what keeps the whole sound world intact, and I've come to the conclusion that it's moomLooo, her sound and recording techniques, holding the disparate parts together. She's a kind of conceptual umbrella-girl for us. I'll try "One Feathered Shoal," though. The title came from my friend tui of Orla Wren. I wrote a short piece of verse based on the title. Intended to be spoken (rather like Eno's piece "Broken Head"), I think it's about a fisherman and a rather low-rent Naiad (river Nymph, that is). He sees her every time he goes fishing and they ought to fall in love, but it never stops raining on him and she spends most of her time asleep, anyway, so the situation never gets resolved. We deliberately kept the music very spartan so that when Katie English's pizzicato cello line comes in it creates a real impact. Then the piece drifts off, in waltz time, like a cross between Can's "Sing Swan Song" and a daydreaming character from The Wind In The Willows. moomLooo mixed and structured the entire thing. I had no idea, when I was working with the acoustic instruments, how long the song would be or how the electronic ending would develop.
"Millwall," alternatively, is about a Japanese girl-gang who move to London and adopt the city's most notoriously unfriendly football team as their own (the fans' famous chant is: “We are Millwall. No one likes us!”). I was mindful of the Morrissey fans that used to turn up in very dodgy parts of Manchester, simply because he'd name-checked those parts of the town. And the sing-song aspect chimed in with the absurd song “We Are Siamese” from Walt Disney's Aristocats (“We are Siamese, if you please / We are Siamese, if you DON'T please!”), which has the same cute way of telling other people to get stuffed.
4. Did you have a specific direction or style in mind for the album before you started it or did that simply evolve organically as the two of you worked on it?
Organically, it wouldn't work any other way. I would say that I had an idea that this album should be slightly more deliberately song-structured than the first one. Smile Down Upon Us 1 was very much a case of throwing paint at the walls and seeing how it looked. With this one, since we had a few established reference points, we've been able to widen the scope of what we do. It did become clear from album one that our strongest suits were ‘weird' and ‘happy,' so it seemed logical to play those cards. I think this album is musically more spacious, which is definitely to my taste, and it also feels more emotional than before, which I'm very happy about. I couldn't say why the latter, unless it's because we've become better writers. With this kind of music it's not about being ‘clever'; if it doesn't move you, it doesn't work. So, fingers crossed.
5. Your name is attached to other projects besides Smile Down Upon Us. What other groups are you currently involved in and are there associated recordings in the works for them?
Yes, indeed. My other main band over the last few years has been littlebow, in partnership with Katie English (of Isnaj Dui and The Sly and Unseen). We've released two albums, both on Second Language records, The Edge Blown Aerophone in 2011 and Pi Magpie in 2013 (I believe the first album sold out but the second is still available). We're about halfway through recording album number three, and that should see the light of day next spring (it's shaping up to be a very spring-like album in its mood). Katie and I are both flautists, so the music is flute led along with various other orchestral instruments and, to mix it up, lots and lots of drums. It's sometimes been described as neo-classical which annoys Katie because, as she quite correctly points out, we're closer to Impressionistic music such as Debussy. There's a certain amount of Stravinsky stuff going on, a touch of the pastoral end of Krautrock, even a few Miles Davis moments. This time we're got harp in the mix, some vocals (for the first time), and we're going for long pieces with occasional bursts of atonality. No one ever seems to ‘take on' atonality (too scary?), so we might as well! A weird thing is that people tend to assume that one flute player will sound just like another (although they expect guitarists or saxophonists to differ). Couldn't be less true: with Katie and me, tonally and structurally, our styles of paying are almost opposites, which is probably one of the reasons why the whole thing works so well.
I'm also part of the Second Language ‘super group' Silver Servants (I think there are twelve of us, maybe more). The first album came out last year, and it's a real musical hybrid, even by my standards. Other than that I'm happy to be a regular contributor to tui's Orla Wren sound collective (the only way I can describe it), and this month I've begun a solo album of what I think will be ‘wrongly shaped songs.' Those are the main planks, anyway. The wild card is that I've just been asked to do a cover version of the theme tune to Quantum of Solace for a James Bond tribute album. It's the Jack White rap/rock song, so de-constructing that should keep me out of trouble and thinking hard for a while. Wish me luck with it; I might need it!