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H Bird - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 23 / 4 / 2011

H Bird - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Aug Stone and Kate Dornan from London-based synth pop trio H Bird, who have just released their debut album, 'Operation: Fascination', four years after playing their last gig

Over the summer of 2006 synth pop trio H Bird played regular gigs across London. The group, which consisted of ex-Fosca member Kate Dornan (lead vocals, keyboards), Kasia Middleton (keyboards, backing vocals) and the American-born Aug Stone (music), however, stopped performing live when Middleton moved to Los Angeles to score soundtracks. Four years after they played their last gig, H Bird have released their debut album, ‘Operation: Fascination’, which has been co-produced by Stone with producer Ian Catt, who has previously worked with Saint Etienne and the Field Mice. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Aug Stone and Kate Dornan about ‘Operation: Fascination’, and, with both of them also involved in other projects, whether or not H Bird have now broken up. PB: ‘Operation: Fascination’ comes across as a very seasonal album. There is the very Spring-like wishful thinking and optimism of early tracks such as ‘Violet’ and ‘Fancies and Goodnights’; the buoyant Summer-like songs such as ‘Danger Makers’ and First Kiss Lips’; the more Autumnal and often acoustic songs such as ‘Die Buchlein’ and ‘Lumieries Des Belgiques’ when things are starting to go badly wrong, and then the downbeat Winter tunes like ‘Dear Dead Days’ and ‘Allodynia’ in which the relationship is over and only memories are left. Did you conceive from the outset the album as going to be that way? AS: Wow! I hadn’t really thought about it like that before, but that’s perfect. Deciding on a running order for the album was quite difficult actually. I think this one is the most effective. Ian Catt said, “It’s like the map of a party”, which I quite like as well. I was always tempted to have ‘1000 Lights’ as the closer, a parade out into the night, but then I thought it’s such a good song I wouldn’t want to risk people not hearing it. KD: Aug uses a lot of references to colours and fruit in the lyrics – all the “strawberry shadows” and “violet melodies” - and then also a lot of snow and ice. So that’s probably where the Spring and Winter come in. It’s quite unusual to have all the slow songs at the end of an album but I suppose it means you can start at whichever point suits your mood! If we’d recorded the song “Winter Kiss”, which is wintery but quite sweet and hopeful, that could’ve slotted in before the really sad ones. (‘Winter Kiss’ demo is here - http://www.last.fm/music/H+Bird/_/Winter+Kiss+%28Demo%29) PB: There have been various accounts of how the band met. There is the somewhat implausible version in which you all met trying to steal different spaceships. Then there is a more credible story in which you all first hooked up in a record shop after squabbling over who was going to have a vinyl copy of Yazoo’s ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’. There is also another version as well in which you all first met at a Luke Haines gig. What’s the real story? AS: Heh. Well, it was actually the same spaceship. I remember buying the first Fosca record, ‘On Earth To Make the Numbers Up”, at Brass City Records in Waterbury, Connecticut in 2000. This was also where I first discovered Sarah Records in 1994. And we all loved it. Driving around that winter listening to ‘It’s Going to End In Tears’ especially. And then when the second Fosca record came out in 2002, I got in touch with them about coming to the States for an East Coast tour with my band Lifestyle, who I was also managing. The tour was basically all set up and then for a number of reasons fell through, which was very disappointing, although we kept in touch periodically. I remember e-mailing everybody to check out the rock stone (my solo project after Lifestyle) website when I put it up, and Kate sending me a nice e-mail back. And then I e-mailed her when I moved to London for the first time for a few months in September 2003 to record my ‘Girl Talk’ EP with Ian Catt. She wrote me back when I got to London, and said that Fosca were playing at the Buffalo Bar that Friday and she’d put me on the guest list. There was the problem of recognizing each other, but I told her I’d be “wearing a pink shirt.” Which I did, and still have and think of it as “that shirt I met Kate in.” I believe the first time I met Kasia was later in 2005 when Kate organized a trip for a bunch of us to go see ‘Sin City’ at the Holloway Odeon, which is very close to where I live now. And this was around the time of the Luke Haines gig, which we were all at, and is important because it’s where I gave Kate a CD of the ‘Pink Lights and Champagne’ demo, the very first H Bird song. And it’s also where I first met Alex Sarll who became a very good friend and was a big supporter of H Bird in the early days. Kate and Kasia met at university, I believe. KD: Kasia did our music degrees together and shared a flat in third year, above a florist on the Holloway Road. Our bathroom leaked so if you were in the bath the florist used to climb onto our balcony, and hammer on the window threatening to kill you. Then there were the Rottweilers upstairs. I hope it wasn’t the trauma of being woken by my Suzi Quatro records on one or two ‘morning afters’ that drove Kasia to move to California. PB: There is a spy theme to several of the tracks. Both ‘Sour Matinees’ and ‘Pink Lights and Champagne’ take part of their inspiration from James Bond, while ‘Danger Makers’ takes it name from an episode of ‘The Avengers’. What was the appeal to you of both Bond and ‘The Avengers’? AS: I’ve always been fascinated with spies. Especially when presented in such a elegant and stylish way like they were in the 60’s. I loved James Bond ever since I saw my first Bond film, which was ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ when I was eight years old. Perhaps fittingly our extended family had gone to Atlantic City for the weekend and, while the adults were in the casinos, my older cousins and I stayed in the hotel room and that was on TV. When I was eleven or twelve, I was reading the book at school and the teacher called my mother and told her she didn’t think that was appropriate reading material. But I always loved the books, which are a lot different than the films. There is always a very strong independent female lead in the books, who is often integral in saving the day, especially Gala Brand in ‘Moonraker’. I didn’t discover ‘The Avengers’ until I was older, but I absolutely fell in love with it at first sight. I’ve always thought music should create a world that’s all its own, and ‘The Avengers’ does that in spades. Fun, strange, elegant, stylish. Also there are lots of really good (chapter and episode) titles, and I’m a big fan of a good title. KD: I think there is a strong element of 60’s nostalgia to the indie-pop scene in general, and that embraces other elements of popular culture like TV and films. It’s odd when you go to Sweden, where a lot of the DJs and music fans are so young, but still writing paper fanzines and listening to 80’s and 90’s indie records. The internet makes everything available, even if it was meant to be ‘of the time’, or only to be sold to fifty people. This reminds me that I heard of an artist called Bass Clef the other day who was releasing his single on cassette and download only. I love the way that musicians and music fans seem to be obsessed with both nostalgia and futurism – the two escape hatches from the present. The gadgets in Bond are retro futurism, pretty close to kitsch. PB: Ian Catt, who co-produced and recorded the album, has also worked with Saint Etienne, the Field Mice and Heavenly Records. How did he become involved in the project? AS: When I came over in 2003 to record ‘Girl Talk’, it was with Ian. Matt Haynes from Shinkansen, which was Fosca’s record label and who was going to be coming with them on the American tour, gave me Ian’s number and e-mail. I sent him some of my stuff and he wrote back saying it was the sort of thing he liked, and we chatted on the phone a few times and made a plan. It was very exciting coming to live in London for a few months. I can’t explain it any other way, but the moment I first set foot in London for the first time when I was sixteen it just felt like home. I’ve always loved British culture, music and comedy especially. So I moved over in September 2003, and working with Ian was just amazing. He really does have the pop magic. I was bit worried at first about recording my song ‘Sarah’s Records’ with him (‘Girl Talk’ was five songs with girls’ names in the titles) as he had worked with a lot of the Sarah Records bands mentioned in the song, and I was actually thinking about cutting it from the EP, but my friend Rick Webb convinced me that “that was the genius of it”. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I always liked the song so I’m glad we did it. And shortly before I moved back to the States before the new year, I had the idea for H Bird. And knew Ian had to be the one to record it. I’ve always been a huge Saint Etienne fan and always loved 60’s girl groups and 80’s electronic pop, and had wanted to do a project like that for a long, long time. I had told Ian about this idea too. I remember giving him a CD of instrumental demos at a Saint Etienne film night at the Barbican in April 2004 when I was over for a visit, when I was still looking for a singer, before I knew Kate had such a lovely voice. And when they became songs I got in touch again and he was interested, so it all worked out perfectly. KD: I recorded with Ian for Fosca before H Bird came along. He’s brilliant at vocals, and isn’t fazed if someone demands to record each line of lyrics separately to get it right! I didn’t do that, but 50% of the vocal sound on H Bird is Ian’s magic touch, if not more. What a patient and lovely man. PB: ‘Operation: Fascination’ took four years to make. Why did it take so long? AS: We initially recorded four songs in the spring of 2006 – ‘Fancies and Goodnights’, ‘Pink Lights and Champagne’, ‘Sour Martinis’, and ‘Dear Dead Days’ - that I intended to use as a sampler to see if any record labels would be interested. It’s funny, apart from my first two 7”s, when I really couldn’t sing, no one has ever been interested in releasing any of my music. I always get “it’s good, but we’re not going to release it”. So we gigged every two weeks that summer and it was a lot of fun. All the songs had already been written except for ‘Violet’ and ‘Allodynia’ which were written that July. And then in October I had to return to the States. And didn’t come back until September 2007. And at that point it was really important for me to make the record I had intended, even if H Bird wasn’t going to be a live band anymore with Kasia moving to L.A. And Ian was quite busy too. But we recorded all of Kasia’s parts before she left. And then in 2008 and 2009 I was quite busy doing mu current band, the Soft Close-Ups with David Shah. Kate was doing her group, the 18 Carat Love Affair. And Ian was very busy doing weekly music for a cartoon Saint Etienne was involved in. We released the ‘Fancy Cover’ single with Kasia singing and the BigSexyLand remix of ‘Fancies and Goodnights’ because that song was a bit different from anything else on the album. But towards the end of 2009 Ian started having more time free, and I made a concerted effort to get it done. And we worked quite a bit through the winter of 2010 and finished it up in March. I remember being very affected by finishing the record. It really took a lot out of me, emotionally too. Something you’ve put four years of your life into suddenly being over. I felt quite odd for some time after that. KD: It has been quite fragmented, but the fact that we were all in the same social circle helped –Aug had an ongoing working relationship with Ian, the album sleeve was done by our friend Pippa, and before that I used to do the “artwork” (quote marks necessary – thank god for Pippa). So we could afford to be a bit off-and-on without losing touch. All three of us are the sort of people who have their fingers in many pies at once. Most people I know in bands are like that, and also write or draw or play a whole different genre of music on the side. It’s hard to find one project that does everything you want it to do – maybe it’s not even desirable to. I enjoy the ‘Avengers’-style posing involved in H Bird, but doing that kind of sharply gendered girlie role, and singing lead vocals is an experiment for me. It keeps things fresh to go from one project to another. PB: Kate, you and Kasia are both credited with vocals and keyboards, while, Aug, you’re credited with both “music” and writing the bulk of the songs. What did “music” involve? AS: Basically everything except the hard piano bits! Though I did play all of ‘Sour Martinis’ myself, one take, on Saint Etienne’s wurli.It had to be right because it’s not MIDI capable. I’m quite proud of that. Ian played bass on a couple of songs and did some of the drums too. KD: Aug is a pop music evangelist. All things that Aug does, in one way or another, radiate pop music. His e-mail signature is “POP FOREVER.” PB: All the songs were written by Aug, except for ‘Violet’ and ‘Danger Makers’ which you both co-wrote. How did the songwriting differ there? AS: ‘Violet’, I think, is our best song. And I think that’s due to Kate and I collaborating. Basically the music came from an old rock stone song that I recorded with Boothnavy from Lifestyle in Boston. When H Bird started playing live, I really wanted each gig to be different, special, having a different set each time. This song came on my ipod one day as I was on the bus to Kasia’s to rehearse, and I played it for Kasia and Kate when I got there and they really liked it, so Kate took it home and wrote some very good lyrics. KD: ‘Violet’ is the lyric I’m most proud of. What I generally do is pinch a line or title from Aug and see what mental image it creates. In this case it was “I just wanna make believe there’s a love that never leaves”. The song ended up not being about love, because so many of our songs already were, but more about wanting to hang on to the feelings I had around the time I first met the other two in our early/mid 20s. Kasia and I studied near the Thames, which is incredible to walk by at night, and around the South Bank there’s always a huge sense of life going past. It was about wanting to feel that aliveness despite getting older. I am going to be 30 this month so it feels quite relevant now, for better or for worse. AS: ‘Danger Makers’ was also an old rock stone song called ‘M Appeal’, an obvious Avengers pun, that I changed the chorus to and then Kate added some lyrics as well. That song went through a lot of transformations. It’s a lot different than the way we used to play it live. I’m very pleased with the end result. I like writing with Kate a lot, and this year we’ve written two new songs together for my Eiscafe project, where different singers are writing words to a bunch of music I’ve got stockpiled. ‘Apricot Lipstick’ is up now for free download at http://corporaterecords.co.uk/artists/Eiscafe and by the time you read this ‘Pale Green Eyeshadow’,should be too. I should point out that Kate wrote ‘1000 Lights’ on her own, and it is at times my favourite H Bird song. It was definitely the live favourite before we wrote ‘Violet’. KD: I used to joke that ‘1000 Lights’ was written as an antidote to the American positivity of Aug’s lyrics. But actually, if you listen to the album, Aug’s songs are much more melancholy. I suppose this is the only cynical song on the album - his are more innocent. I also thought it would be funny to take those old super-loved-up Motown stompers (which I love) and write one that’s not about wanting to be in a relationship, not being subject to the other person, and going out on the lash instead. My inner feminist gets a few nasty twinges from those old soul songs, but at the same time I love them so much. PB: Now that the album is out, is this the end for the band? AS: I refuse to say that the band is no more because I like to think the spirit of H Bird lives on. And I’m not ruling out the possibility of more in the future. I didn’t think there’d be any more after the album came out but very soon, perhaps this week, we’ll be putting up a free download EP at Corporate Records with a more rock rendition of ‘Danger Makers’, a cover of Lifestyle’s awesome ‘Are You Coming On To Me?’ that we did at our last gig as a sort of tribute to how we met ,and a thank you to Alex Sarll who convinced us to play one last time before Kasia left. And also ‘A Millionairess in a Ruby Ring’, which is an AUNTIE song of mine that we were going to do at the last gig but had to cut due to time. KD: Funnily enough, it looks like we might be playing for someone’s birthday party this week (sans Kasia). There are lots of “ex-bands” around who are still in touch with each other, and go for a romp every so often. Subliminal Girls have been playing “last gigs” on a regular basis for ages. So never say never! PB: Thank you.

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H Bird - Interview

H Bird - Interview

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Operation: Fascination (2011)
Colourful combination of fantasy and realism on debut album from now disbanded electronic London trio, H Bird

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