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Glue Ensemble - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 12 / 4 / 2015

Glue Ensemble - Interview


'John Clarkson speaks to Ben Blaine, the singer with 'alternative acoustic' collective the Glue Ensemble about their debut album 'We Used to Live Around Here’, which has finally seen release despite having been recorded four years ago and the losses that inspired its recording

There is a strong sense of melancholy to the Glue Ensemble’s debut album, ‘We Used to Live Round Here’. The album, which was recorded in London in 2011 and has taken four years for the band to release, was recorded in the living room of frontman Ben Blaine’s former family home, in the intermission between the death of his father and then shortly after its completion his mother from cancer. Perhaps inevitably, death is one of the predominant themes on ‘We Used to Live Round Here’, especially on the opening track ‘The More Loving One’, which reflects on the psychology of grief, and the sweeping closing title track, which describes both the selling-up of the family home and examines the wider spectrum that nothing in life can remain eventually unchanged. In between these tracks, ‘Some Notes from My Hospital Bed’ is about Glue Ensemble co-founder Zee Ahmad’s embarrassment at being hospitalised, and the sudden loss of dignity which can come with it. ‘Death of a Civil Servant’ tells of the slow-drip meltdown of its title character, as he finds himself no longer to handle the job he has done for years, and its counter-piece ‘Human Resources’, where perhaps the hapless civil servant has ended up, of the callousness of these departments, and the hard-hearted way in which they both fire and hire people. “I am here to crush your spirit into pieces/It’s not personal,” Blaine leers on it. The surreal ‘Bitter Cut’ meanwhile muses on the unfairness of life, how the haves usually win out over the have-nots. “Why do you good things happen to bad people?” sings Blaine, int possibly the album’s most devastating moment. Yet for all its darkness of theme, ‘We Used to Live Round Here’, which has been self-released, rarely comes across as bleak, and instead both cathartic and surprisingly life-affirming. Much of this comes from the spirit in which it was played. The project, which has a rotating membership, describes itself as making “alternative acoustic music.” The main members of the band consisted for this recording of Blaine (vocals, banjo and piano), Ahmad (bass, banjo, vocals and guitar), Lyllou Chevalier (viola, violin, vocals) and CJ Lodge (cello, vocals, glass harmonium). Additional help was provided by trumpet, French Horn, oboe, clarinet, accordion and percussion players on some songs. While both Blaine and Ahmad had been in other groups, neither of them were playing in the Glue Ensemble instruments that they had played before, and this gives ‘We Used to Live Round Here’ a sense of spontaneity and a freshness. For all it melancholy, there is throughout also an undercurrent of surreal and mischievous humour. Lo-fi and understated, it is an atmospheric, haunting record, and one which takes a quiet but tense hold on its listener. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Ben Blaine about ‘We Used to Live Around Here’, why it has taken four years for it to be released, and, with its members now living in Brussels and Paris as well as London, what will come next for the Glue Ensemble. PB: If one had to sum up 'We Used to Live Round Here' briefly, one might say that it is about the loss of what has become consigned now to the past and the end of the way things have once been. That might apply to most of the songs - whether they are about death, the selling-up of the family home or job loss. Would you agree? BB: I think that’s how it feels now yes. Saying it’s “about” loss suggests too much intention on our part though. When we recorded it these were just the songs we liked best; it’s a record that was lost and it’s a record of a time that has gone, but we didn’t mean it to be. It’s waited some years to be released, and the delay seems to have made it more coherent as a whole. It was only quite recently that Zee suggested we retitle it ‘We Used to Live Round Here’. That creates a meaning that carries through the record but it wasn’t in our minds originally. Feels appropriate though for an album where a lot of the songs are reflections on death. One of the things I find most startling about death is the way it changes the life that was lived before it. It’s easiest to see in famous lives. You can’t read Sylvia Plath or listen to Amy Winehouse without the fact of their death intruding on the work that they made when alive. It’s the same with all lives though, as soon as someone dies they become a story and you can’t help but retell their existence as if the end of it was always a part. It’s an interesting tension and I hope we create something similar with this record. Whatever we may have thought it was going to be it’s now something else, something of its own. It’s grown up and left us. PB: The Glue Ensemble seems to have been formed by people who had all temporarily gone off making music. You left your two electric guitars in the back of your then drummer's car and never taking them out when an important gig for your old band was cancelled after Zee was hospitalised. Zee about the same time, as you describe it, "fell out of love with music and the music industry", and CJ before joining the Glue Ensemble had sworn never again to work with singers. Do you think that is a fair assessment? What was the spark that got you making music again? BB: Oh, we none of us stopped making music, ever. In all those examples it’s always something else we give up on - band mates or electricity or label politics - it’s never music. I think what we all gave up on was that structure of how you make music as a band. Pretty much whatever genre of music you play there’s an expectation that part of the process is to argue in a van. There’s a strong cultural sense of what a “band” is, and that didn’t really fit what we were or wanted to be. A lot of the old cliché doesn’t fit with the reality of making music today, with the role of music in culture but I don’t think we were thinking deeply about it. Very definitely though when me and Zee were trying to work out a name for what we wanted to do the term “ensemble” seemed important. It seemed to matter to give a shape that wasn’t about pub gigs and personalities. We wanted it to be a thing where anyone could move in and out, and feel comfortable that there was no pressure to conform to some group will. That’s how it’s remained. None of us have attended every gig that the Glue Ensemble have played. That freedom to think about no agenda other than music is what’s kept us all together and kept it interesting. PB: The cover of ‘We Used to Live Round Here’ is stunning in its simplicity but also its evocativeness. Is that your parents’ house? The car outside has an old registration. When was that photo taken? BB: Thank you. And yes it is, that’s the house I grew up in, the house we always used to rehearse in, the house we recorded the album in, the house where both my parents died. I don’t actually know when the picture was taken. Very likely it was some years before I was born. PB: A couple of critics have commented on the "quintessential suburban British melancholia " of the album. The album was recorded by people who were gathered in London at the time it was made, but many of them were of other nationalities and are now based across Europe. Do you see it as a British album or do you see it as more European? BB: Is there a difference? CJ is from Ireland, Lyllou is from Belgium and speaks four languages and Zee’s parents are both from Pakistan, so should blood become important at some stage we’re definitely not only global but hopefully eligible for Arts Council funding… I can understand how people hear something British in the record but that’s because whatever else the word might mean, immigration, permanent and passing, is a fundamental part of it and always has been. Historically this country was always the safe refuge for social and political outcasts from the world over. In that sense I hope there is something quintessentially British about our music. PB: On the subject of Britishness, at the mid-point of the album, there is a wonderfully funny and Python-esque moment with 'A Polite Announcement' in which you announce that "were this the past you would need something to turn something over right now." 'Bitter Cut' for all its mournfulness and seriousness is similarly surreal, throwing in voiceovers of the shipping forecast and football results and being at least partially an ode to toast and marmalade. Why did you add those? Was that just to stop things from becoming too bleak? BB: Okay, going back to your last question - granted, no album including ‘Bitter Cut’ can escape the charge of sounding British. When you get an actual Radio 4 continuity announcer on the track a certain line has been crossed… Is it a bleak album? We definitely weren’t consciously trying to lighten it but I think there’s a black humour running through a lot of it. At first listen lines like “Life is just the pause between the curtain and the applause” can sound sad, but I’m just teasing Shakespeare. I think there’s a lot stuff that at least cuts both ways. The sort of jokes you can’t help but tell at grave sides. ‘A Polite Announcement’ is less about wanting to stem the tide of despair and more just a desire to give the record a structure, to make you aware that it is a record. Hopefully marking the mid-point like that pulls you up and in some way makes you think about what you’ve already heard and what you’re about to hear next. Hopefully it reminds you about the technology that stands between you and the music. PB: You have released it on download with ironically a limited edition vinyl to follow in late March. Why did you decide to release it in those formats rather than on CD? BB: CDs are dead. For accuracy of reproduction you can’t beat high quality digital files. Once upon a time we needed those on a portable form, but no one really needs a CD anymore. CDs are just wrapping paper for the same 1s and 0s you can download from Bandcamp. Vinyl is different though. Vinyl is essential because it offers audio infidelity. With a vinyl copy you are forced to confront the recording process as part of the listening experience. It’s one of the reasons we recorded the way we did in the first place. It wasn’t just laziness or cheapness that made us insist Paul rebuilt his studio at my mum’s house. We wanted to capture the sound of us playing live in that room. We want you to hear the room (and the dog in the garden). It goes back to your first question and the tension between what the music meant then and what it means now. You don’t need to know all the biographical details but the recording process, the technology, that’s a frame to the song. It’s good to acknowledge that you’re listening to something that happened but isn’t happening now. On the bottom of the sleeve notes it says “La musique est quelque chose qui se ressent, l'enregistrer est impossible. Cependant, rien ne doit nous empêcher d'essayer.” It was actually something I thought in English, (though I thought it whilst in Paris) but I asked Lyllou and her friend Chloe to translate it as, in a way, that act is in itself essential to the meaning. PB: We Used to Live Round Here' was recorded in your house in 2011. A lot has happened since then. Your mum died, and you’re also a filmmaker and were making your first feature film. CJ and Zee had children, and Lyllou got a job in Brussels, all of which put the release of the album on hold. Was there ever a point when you felt that the album might not be released? BB: Probably. But we were probably also all far too busy to notice that’s how we felt. The album first came up when a small Italian record label approached us on Twitter and said that if we recorded one they’d release it for us. Sadly Italian is not one of Lyllou’s languages so we ended up hammering out the details over Skype text. It might be the first record contract written mainly in emoticons. Sadly the Italians eventually evaporated but there was never any legal bar to the record being released, at least none that would stand up in court ;-) It was always our own fault that no one had heard it yet… PB: Where does the Glue Ensemble go from here? Your mum's house - and your home studio - has now been sold. You're scattered now between London, Paris and Brussels. Will there be a second record or was the recording of ‘We Used to Live Round Here’ also a moment of the past? BB: The vinyl version of this album will be available at the end of March and we’re planning some sort of party to celebrate the fact. Beyond that it’s hard to tell. We have plenty of plans, but if the past four years have taught us anything it’s that all plans are written in water. We did start February with some shows in Brussels which were fantastic fun so hopefully we can go back there. People have generally been very nice about this record so it would be nice to play it more to people. I think I’d really like to tour people’s bedrooms and back gardens. Or perhaps we’ll just film ourselves playing in CJ’s back garden and put it up on Twitter. Definitely follow @theglueensemble and facebook.com/theglueensemble that way you’ll definitely know what we’re doing. And invite us to your house. Especially if you have a piano. Invite us to your piano. PB: Thank you.

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Glue Ensemble - Interview

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