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Monroe Transfer - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 6 / 10 / 2010

Monroe Transfer - Interview


Epic and dramatic-sounding seven-piece London-based group the Monroe Transfer talk to Mark Rowland about about their entirely instrumental and unclassifiable brand of rock

There aren’t many small bands that could get away with playing one piece of music for their entire set. Come to think of it, there aren’t many big bands who could do it either. It is clear that a lot of the people holed up on the second floor of this smallish pub in King’s Cross have never heard the Monroe Transfer’s music, but as most are watching the stage fairly silently. It’s fair to say that most are won over to an extent. The single piece that the band is playing, ‘Frozen Field, Burning Field’, is half an hour long and it’s great. But it’s not post rock. Some reviewers have described them as post rock, but they don’t really fit the genre at all. Yes, they write long pieces of instrumental music, and yes, they are taking elements of rock music and abstracting them to an extent, but their music is much more diverse, and calls from a broader range of influences, than the average post rock band. Another crucial difference is that post rock as a genre is very much guitar-focused, with much of it consisting of more than one guitar riff interacting with each other repetitively. With the Monroe Transfer, strings are just as important as the guitars, leading the music often and in some cases dominating it entirely. With the strings and the guitars up front and centre, it allows them to create dense and melodically complex parts that elevate them far beyond post rock. There is a distinctly film score-like quality to their music, all sweeping and dramatic and emotive. It brings to mind the more accessible work of modern composers such as Clint Mansell, Philip Glass and Max Richter and bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and, to an extent, Sigur Ros. Take ‘Frozen Field, Burning Field’: it is arguably one of the band’s best pieces, and can almost be divided into three sections, each featuring several dynamic shifts. Starting with some atmospheric guitar, the strings building behind it and rising in volume. This gives way to a gentle, vaguely Radiohead-sounding guitar part, which the strings work around. Then it gets noisy, then it goes quiet and sparse, the musical layers building up again. This section builds up to another crescendo, before the tension breaks and another section comes in. There is so much going on in each of these parts,and the instruments together create intricate chords that pack a pretty powerful emotional punch. A lot of people at the average indie gig have never heard anything that melodically dense. As a result, the band get a lot of raving converts come up to them at shows. “I was saying to someone the other day about being on really inappropriate bills,” says violinist Rhiannon Armstrong, backstage before the gig. “But even when you’re on a bill with a band who you think really won’t have the same sort of fans as you or something like that, we always get one or two people out of that audience. Even with an audience that you think really might hate you, there’s always someone who’ll come up to you at the end.” Guitarist Peter Williams nods: “We rarely get anything other than a really nice reaction. On our recent tour we played this gig in Leicester and we got applause, but it was just a bit quiet and sort of polite clapping. We thought, ‘Oh shit, we must’ve played really badly,’ but afterwards we still got some really nice, ridiculous, over the top ‘oh my god!’ kind of comments. We almost take it for granted that we go down well." “I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t like it,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. “Who are like ‘fucking hell, it sounds a bit like Godspeed, fuck off’.” The backstage area is small and cluttered, with three battered old sofas huddled round a low table a stack of mini-fridges. The interview is sporadically interrupted by members of other bands, who come in to get a drink – each of them has a good word for the Monroe Transfer and their music. The four members of the band currently present seem in good spirits. Armstrong, Williams and viola player Neil Walsh sit on one side of the table. The band's founder, guitarist Nick Gill, sits on the other side. The members had been admiring the scrawls that adorn the walls of the room – most of it rude. “It used to be quite plain in here,” says Walsh. “They’ve obviously had some little rascals in here, who were probably playing quite amateurish, Libertines-y kind of stuff.” “I can’t believe we’re all sharing a beer and talking about how disgraceful bands are writing on the wall,” says Gill. The band has been in it current configuration for about two years, but it has existed in some form or another for the best part of a decade, with Gill being the only constant. As Walsh eloquently puts it, “The original idea has been with Nick since he first learned to ride a tricycle.” The Monroe Transfer started as a bedroom project for Gill, but eventually became a proper band. Members never stayed members for long, but a stable line-up eventually emerged, with cellist Nicole Robson, double bass and piano player Susie Gillis and drummer Ed Howard completing the line-up. Nick is currently the main writer in the group, composing all the parts and bringing them to the band, who then develops it as they go along. The newer material will be more collaborative than before, says Gill: “Because people kept dropping out, so we had to sort of score out the parts of the people that have left and say ‘This is what the last guy played. Can you play this now’ and it sort of got documented over time. But now we’ve been together as this line up properly now for about two years and it seems fairly stable, we hope, so the next load of stuff will be people coming in with themes and melodies and ideas.” The band has tested their collaborative writing recently in a joint project with Her Name Is Calla. The bands have toured together several times and knew each other quite well; the joint album idea developed naturally. The members wrote together and with members of Her Name Is Calla. Armstrong, Robson and Gill spent five days in York recording and working with the other band and the project is nearing completion. “We basically just sat in a room with them and bashed our heads against the wall until we ended up with some music,” says Gill. “Which worked out alright actually. It was a bit of a change from how we normally do things. Especially because they come up with their things through an extended jam and we sit down and stare a bits of paper and go ‘How about C minor?’ So it was a little bit weird. So hopefully that’s what we’re going to be doing with our next album.” “Are we going to reveal our next album title?” says Walsh, a cheeky grin spreading across his face. Armstrong laughs and shakes her head: “No, we’re not.” “No, OK. We know what it’s going to be called, though.” Gill: “Ultimate Power?” Williams: “I came up with so many good album titles. I’m thinking it’d be really good if we had one called ‘Feelings (Got Me Feeling Good)’ I think that’s what we should call our next one.” The band cracks up at this suggestion. Gill is being a tad unfair on himself and his band when he says, “We’re quite easy to mock as it is.” Williams offers another suggestion: ‘Permission to Be Your Man’. “What was it?” Walsh tries to remember another suggestion. “‘Moments of You’, I think that was one of yours.” Williams likes that one. The rest of the band aren’t so keen. “When we were thinking of titles for our current album, ‘Trials’, I have a page in my notebook where we had to sit down and think up titles,” says Armstrong. “I had to make two columns, one for serious titles and one for stupid ones. Basically there was about three in the serious column and about 25 in the ridiculous one, because we could think of stupid ones.” Considering the method of coming up with the titles, is it fair to assume that the titles aren’t particularly connected to the music “They are. That’s why it takes so long,” says Armstrong. “It’s kind of stressful to think of something that’s appropriate.” “It was a bit of a trial to come up with it,” deadpans Walsh. If the band’s sound is close to any type of music, it’s film scores. The music is very cinematic sounding, and the strings/guitars/drums line-up has been utilized many times for the scores of modern films such as ‘The Fountain’, which was scored by Clint Mansell. There are other melodies, parts and pieces that are reminiscent of several other genres, such as avant-garde, modern classical and even folk. What sort of things influence the band’s music? “Dunno really,” says Gill. “ Sorry – that’s a rubbish answer. When I started off doing stuff, Sigur Ros were just starting to do stuff; ‘Von’ had been out for a while, and ‘Agaetis Byrjun’ had just come out. I liked them, and the weird scrape-y noises they make. But I didn’t really have – I listened to a lot of folk when I was a teenager, I never really went through a Nirvana phase or anything like that and I didn’t have a musical education, so I didn’t listen to any classical music or anything. I think it’s just kind of. I don’t know I’ve no idea. It’s just basically nicking stuff off people, I imagine. I was probably lifting ideas that I thought were cool from other people. I don’t really know. That’s a shit answer, isn’t it? I don’t really know a lot about people who do music.” “You do listen to a lot of music,” says Armstrong. “You listen to more music than me.” Gill shakes his head, ”Not any more. The stuff I listen to at the moment is kind of – do you know William Basinski? He makes very long things of just piano tape loops decaying.” “You listen to long music?” says Walsh, his words weighed down with sarcasm. “That quite surprises me, actually, considering the er –“ “The brevity of our material?” asks Gill. The band starts to list some mock influences, all very weighty stuff – Mozart, Beethoven. Someone makes a throw-away comment about the music of a video game. Gill’s eyes light up: “Do you what is an influence on our music, in all seriousness, is the music of the 'Final Fantasy' video games. 'Nobuo Uematsu'.” The other members roll their eyes; they are apparently used to impassioned monologues about video games. “Just say it’s Final Fantasy the band, not the video game,” says Walsh. They laugh again. “It’s too late,” says Armstrong Gill ignores them and carries on: “That is cinematic,” he says, still referring to 'Final Fantasy'. “That’s an enormous narrative that covers the world ending and what happens after it. That’s genuinely a big influence.” “That’s what we do,” Armstrong says. “The world ending and after.” Gill: “That’s kind of true. It genuinely is a big influence, which is pretty dorky. But yeah, it’s 'Nobuo Uematsu'. That’s all 16 and 8 bit and it’s old, and you can’t really tell what instrument it’s supposed to be. It’s really good stuff. And of course it goes on a long time, because you play it for 8 hours at a time if you don’t have any friends and you stay in your room.” The band clearly like their songs long – their sets are usually no more than two songs long and the vast majority of their shorter pieces are still around seven minutes long. As they write more and more songs, is it a challenge to choose which songs make the sets? “I’m the newest member of the band and I’ve been in it for the best part of two years,” says Williams. “In my time, we’ve done about six pieces of music in total that we’ve played live over the course of that time. Three really long pieces and three short pieces that we slot in wherever we can. That’s the extent of it, really.” “That’s why we have to sort of move on,” says Gill. “It’s a big deal to go and do the newer thing, because that’s got to replace your entire set.” William says, “It’s not replacing this two-minute song, or that two-minute song. It’s reconstituting your entire live repertoire, because that’s what you’re going to be playing for the next year or so.” Gill: “We need to replace a good half hour worth of material before we can move on, because we can’t do a couple of new ones and then the other half-hour long one, because nobody wants to hear an hour of that sort of thing.” “And then bring out the hit at the end to really slay them,” jokes Williams. The members have also played some unusual gigs in their time. The cinematic qualities of the bands music were put to good use when they were asked to write and perform the score for a 1920s silent German film at an event at the BFI. “That was fun,” says Armstrong. “That was a collaborative writing process. Not all of us could do it, because they would only let five of us do it, because it was so small.” The screening was part of a season of films celebrating women in cinema. As a result, all the girls in the band got to perform as part of the reduced band. “It was about the number of people, then we had to have the maximum number of girls performing. You couldn’t have fit seven people on there. It was tiny.” “I could’ve done it,” Walsh interjects. “I could’ve bleached my ‘tash.” The band wrote the entire score from scratch, based on a DVD of the film that the band was given to work from. The band scored the piece carefully, but even that didn’t guarantee that the event itself ran completely smoothly. “We’d written out our scores of when things changed and stuff based on the time, because you get a rolling clock to tell you how many minutes in you are,” says Armstrong. “Then when they showed the actual film, they used a film version, as in actual film, which changed the speed of it. It actually added fifteen minutes to the film. When we realized the timing was going to be off, we had a momentary panic.” Gill: “We had to pad it out a bit.” Walsh: “It was very good. The rest of us watched it. It was a good film actually. It’s quite a lot to do play along with a film solidly for like two and half hours.” Most of the silent films showing as part of the festival were quite short, but the band volunteered to do a long one. “We thought ‘we do long music, it’ll be easy', but it turned out we had to play along with the different moods of the film," says Gill. "Rather than what we felt like playing, so that made it more complicated.” At the gigs where the band do get to play what they feel like playing, the sets are based largely around the pieces from ‘Trials’, the band’s latest album. There is some debate among band members as to whether the album is accessible or not. Gill thinks the album is a grower, but Williams disagrees. “I think it’s very easy to listen to when you get past the fact that it’s not two-minute songs. I think there are some really strong melodies on it that you can whistle along to quite easily. I don’t think there’s anything particularly complicated about it at all, so I don’t understand why –“ “Why everyone isn’t listening to it?” Armstrong cuts in. “Yeah,” says Williams, “because it could easily soundtrack a –“ “Citroen ad?” It’s Gill that interrupts this time. Williams carries on: “A really unremarkable moment in your life and make it sound more interesting than it actually is. That’s pretty much what people want from popular music.” Walsh agrees wih him. “Once you get through it, once you’ve played it all, it becomes more accessible.” “Seriously, I don’t think of it as particularly difficult,” says Williams. “I don’t think I’d like it if it was genuinely avant-garde or genuinely difficult in any way.” The band are now looking to get started on their next album. They had planned to have a whole album’s worth of material worked out and played through at least once by the end of the year, but Gill is doubtful that they will manage to achieve that. “We’ve been very busy. But we’ve got a whole load of new stuff ready to go, most of which is preposterous.” In the meantime, the band are set to play Pennyblackmusic’s next band’s night at the Half Moon in Herne Hill, London, on October 29, alongside the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Altai Rockets and Adam Donen. What can people expect from their set on the night? “I’ve done a lot of bartending work in my time, normally as a cocktail bartender, and if something’s got a lot of bourbon in it, you tend to tell someone beforehand, because if you’re not expecting it, it can be a bit much,” says Gill. “I quite like to tell everyone that it’s going to be long, it’s fine, and we’ll look at you when it’s finished.” “You don’t need to tell them that,” says Armstrong. “We’ve had really ridiculous comments from people getting really astounded or really into it after hearing us and not knowing what was coming. We get fans who come out of nowhere who never thought it would be something they would like, and it’s because of the music, but I think not knowing what’s coming is a good way of getting into it.” Walsh agrees and identifies lazy journalism and pigeonholes to be a hindrance when it comes to new listeners and audiences. “A lot of people are put off when they read the reviews and the journalist says ‘they’re a post-rock band’ and a lot of people switch off and don’t have time for post-rock. But I don’t think we’re post-rock, I think we can appeal to a lot of people.” “It puts me off,” says Gill, referring to post-rock. “It just brings to mind two guys with a delay pedal.”

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