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Owl Service - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 15 / 1 / 2012

Owl Service - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Steven Collins about his folk rock seven-piece band the Owl Service, who will be playing the Pennyblackmusic Bands' Night on the 24th March, and why they have decided to make this their last show

The Owl Service was initially formed as a solo project by Steven Collins, a multi-instrumentalist, who comes from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. It quickly expanded into a group and, having gone through various permutations, has now settled on a seven-piece line-up. Alongside Collins (electric, acoustic and bass guitars, banjo, sitar, vocals, piano, organ, drones, glockenspiel, percussion), this also includes Diana Collier (vocals, percussion); Dom Cooper (vocals, percussion); Katie English (flute, melodica, glockenspiel, percussion); Jo Lepine (vocals, percussion); Jason Steel (acoustic guitar, banjo, vocals) and Nancy Wallace (acoustic guitar, concertina, vocals). With their music, the Owl Service explore and reinterpret traditional songs. They fuse this with largely self-composed instrumentals. While their first album, ‘A Garland of Song’, was a psych-folk record, their second album, the much acclaimed ‘The View From the Hill’, was more experimental having in parts a garage rock sound, and focusing on drones and intrinsic, natural production techniques. At the end of last year, the Owl Service put out on their own Rif Mountain label, ‘The Pattern Beneath the Plough Parts 1 and 2’, a compilation album which merges together ‘The View From the Hill’ with a recent EP, ‘The Burn Comes Down’, and some previously unreleased tracks. The third part in ‘The Pattern Beneath the Plough’ series, a set of murder ballads entitled ‘All Things Being Silent’, has also just come out. The Owl Service will be playing the next Pennyblackmusic Bands’ Night at the Half Moon, Herne Hill in South London on the 24th March, but Collins has announced that, while the band are not permanently splitting, this show will be their last. We spoke to Collins about his group, and why the Owl Service have decided to retire from playing live shows. PB: The Owl Service first formed in 2006 as a vehicle "to explore...love of British cult film and television of the 1960's and 70's, the great outdoors and the sound of the English folk revival." Do you see that blueprint for the band as having changed or remained the same? SC: It has definitely changed - I wrote that six years ago, before I'd even recorded a note of music for the Owl Service, and the first releases were pretty much recorded with that brief bio in mind at all times. By the time I was preparing ideas for the second album those words were long forgotten, and only a dedication to continuing to work within the English folk tradition remained. PB: The Owl Service started releasing records on its own Hobby Horse label, then signed to Southern Records, but now has gone independent again by setting up its own Rif Mountain records. Why did you decide having found a deal to go back to self-releasing records? SC: I began releasing music myself on my own CD-r label out of necessity really as I didn't think any established label would be interested in us in a million years. Through a friend, a copy of the self-release CD-r of 'A Garland of Song' found its way to the offices of Southern Records. At the time, Southern's A&R was handled by Tony Sylvester (who used to be in Dukes of Nothing and is currently with Turbonegro). Like me, he is a massive fan of both 1960s and 70's English folk, and heavy metal. He really liked the record and approached me about doing a full release through Southern. It's been said that the Owls and Southern made strange bed-fellows, and I suppose that's true, but I really wanted to work with Tony. That was the big draw for me, so a deal was struck and we worked with them from November 2007 to November 2009. In the middle of 2009 Southern took the decision to downsize their operation, and so we felt that it was time for us to move on. By the end of the year Rif Mountain was born. To be honest, I was never really happy relinquishing so much control while we were with Southern - I like to do everything myself, even if it means botching things or flying by the seat of my pants. I suppose I like to feel that whatever the outcome is, it's all of my own making - if something is a success then I can rightly feel proud, and if it's a disaster then I'll take it on the chin knowing that nobody else is to blame. PB: Your last album, 'The Pattern Beneath the Plough Parts 1 and 2' combined together your 2010 EP, 'The Burn Blows Down', and album from the same year, 'The View From a Hill', with nine bonus tracks. You have just released 'All Things Being Silent' on vinyl, the third part in that series. In what ways do you see this series as differing from your 2007 debut album, 'A Garland of Song'? SC: I think there was no clear direction on the first Owls record. I had these grandiose ideas of it being the most exciting English folk album since Liege and Lief, and I'm well aware that it fell some way short of that, although I'd like to think it did so in the most charming way possible. 'Garland' was a learning process in many ways, and it was also while making that album that we kind of grew into a 'proper band'. I began recording it alone, and by the time it was finished Dom, Jo, Diana, and Nancy were all on board, and by the time we began the ‘Pattern’ series Katie and Jason had joined and that opened things up considerably. With 'The View From a Hill' there was a very clear plan from the outset, and I think I pretty much pulled it off. By the time 'Garland' had been reissued the whole 'psych-folk' thing was starting to feel very hackneyed to say the least. Really, I only ever used psych elements in the past to hide my own shortcomings as a musician and producer - if something was played and recorded badly, I'd smother it in distortion and reverb and call it psych! With the 'Pattern' series I felt considerably more confident as a musician and a producer, and so I really wanted to make a timeless record that was free of all those psych-folk cliches, but one that didn't sound like a typical, bland modern folk record either. One review of 'The View from a Hill' said that the sound was almost reminiscent of a Steve Albini production - I thought that was a very good observation, that's really the sort of thing I was going for. PB: Rif Mountain, as well as the Owl Service, also features on its roster Jason Steel and Nancy Wallace and the Straw Bear Band, the group of Dom Cooper. All also play or sing in the Owl Service. Is Rif Mountain run as a co-operative, with each of you having different roles in its organisation, or do you run it on your own? SC: It is a co-operative, in the sense that we all muck-in, and it's always about working towards a greater good. There are some set roles; for instance Dom does all the graphic design, and generally I'm seen as the head-honcho as I started it all off. PB: You have said on your website that the Pennyblackmusic show on the 24th March will be the "last chance to catch the Owls playing live before they head into hibernation" and this will be their "final live show". What will you be doing during that hibernation? Are you splitting and is this really your last live show? SC: It is indeed the final live show - the Owl Service was originally intended to be a purely studio-based project, but I agreed to a gig offer four years ago and it just kind of snowballed from there. It's been fun, but with work and family commitments I no longer have the time or the energy needed to keep the Owls functioning as a live act. We're not completely disbanding, but the hibernation will be a chance to get some much needed r n' r and to gather some fresh ideas which I'll be able to allow to develop in a relaxed, organic fashion. If I were to try and crack on with the next album now, I really wouldn't know where to go with it, which says to me that it's definitely time to take a break. PB: The group has had a varied line-up and there are currently seven permanent members. How many of them will be playing the Pennyblack show and what can we expect from you for this final live show? SC: I don't know how we're going to be lining up as yet, but seeing as it's the final show hopefully it'll be the full band. And you can expect a pure crowd-pleasing set delivered in our usual shambolic fashion for as long as we're allowed to play! Looking forward to it. PB: Thank you.

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Owl Service - Interview

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