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Ashley Reaks - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 27 / 11 / 2018

Ashley Reaks - Interview


In our third interview with him, Lisa Torem speaks to experimental artist and multi-instrumentalist Ashley Reaks about his latest album, ‘The Earth Swan Sings Again'.

Ashley Reaks’ depth and breadth exploration of humanity (or lack there-of) through blips, bleeps, intrepid imagery, spoken word, blissful dissonance and Bartokian melody continue to inspire. Still an impossible artist to pigeon hole, ever since plucking off synapses from the psyche with ‘She Burns’ or detailing yearning in the self-deprecating ‘Sucker for Punishment’ in 2008’s revolutionary ‘Melancholia’ up through the 2015 collaboration with street smart poet Joe Hakim in ‘Cultural Thrift,’ the multi-talented instrumentalist/songwriter has now returned with another powerhouse, ‘The Earth Swan Sings Again'. For this project, Ashley reinvents himself and creates a stunning new world, something this Harrogate madrigal has become noted for over the years. But in so doing, he also invites introspection, as he has in his past studio works. After poring through this prolific man’s variegated projects, one may justifiably ask: Why has Ashley selected this particular theme and at this point of time? What sonic textures remain to be explored? What elements of his external environment will seep into the studio this time around? Pennyblackmusic is grateful to have Ashley Reaks elaborate on the process of bringing ‘The Earth Swan Sings Again’ to fruition. Each album of his impressive, growing discography appears to convey a two-fold purpose: 1. a meeting-ground for imaginative kindred souls and 2. a golden template for unprecedented, contemporary thought. But appearances can be deceiving. The only way to efficiently unbottle the truth is through an artist’s own words. That said, welcome back, Ashley Reaks. Pennyblackmusic in our third interview with him spoke to him about ‘The Earth Swan Sings Again’. PB: How long did it take you to compose and record the tracks of ‘The Earth Swan Sings Again?’ AR: It was written in a five-day frenzy a couple of years ago and recorded in a week. PB: To get your arrangements done, did you give your band members written charts to read or did you have another way of describing what you wanted to have happen? AR: The arrangements are exactly as the original demos apart from solos. I demo on Cubase so the parts were isolated and re-recorded by Joel (sax) and Nick (guitar). Both of them are such excellent musicians that they can digest the information very quickly. The process is a bit like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. PB: Guitarist Nick Dunne’s solo and rhythm guitar work on ‘Inside Her Shimmering Agony’ is fresh and adventurous. Nick seems to be a newer member of the Ashley Reaks’ recording family. What attracted you to his playing and how did you get together? AR: Nick is from my hometown of Harrogate in Yorkshire. We played in local bands together nearly thirty years ago and have kept in touch ever since. As well as guitar he plays piano and violin just as expertly. We share a compulsion to create and have a common love of some of the Avant-rock/prog guitarists, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew come to mind. PB: If I had to take a wild guess, I’d say you’ve been influenced these days by composers Kurt Weill and Philip Glass, which is something I wouldn’t have said about your earlier albums. Does that ring true? AR: I don’t know Kurt Weill’s music (though I’ll have a listen now). Philip Glass is closer to an influence, though out of the ‘minimalist’ composers it’s Steve Reich that I particularly love. I probably listen to his music more than any other. His playful complexity and gentle hallucinations are right up my street. PB: Is ‘The Earth Swan Sings Again’ a kind of homage to the unpredictable, often cruel elements of nature? To me, some images evoke fatalism--“Mountains imprisoned in themselves,” whilst others embody optimism and courage— “A zebra whistling tunes to the thunderstorms.” AR: ‘The Earth Swan Sings Again’ is a cut-up poem I’ve had around for years and it sets the tone for the album lyrically. I spend a lot of time in nature (I'm known as ‘the man with the dogs’ locally) and feel most at home there in all its terrifying beauty. I was also devouring nature books at the time of writing, especially Jonathan Bate’s wonderful biography of the English ‘peasant poet’ John Clare and also recent books by Robert Macfarlane and John Lewis-Stempel. PB: How did you and your ensemble come up with the striking conversation on ‘I Stroked Her Like a Leper,’ that features Joel Purnell’s saxophone and your keyboards? AR: That conversation was the first musical idea for the album. It was played as written on the demos, albeit not with the appalling midi saxophone sounds I used originally. PB: Maria Jardardottir weaves vocals in and out of ‘The Embers of Tomorrow.’ Maria has appeared on a number of other albums over the years. What qualities do you look for in a studio vocalist? AR: Maria’s been a joy to work with over the years. She’s spontaneous, adventurous and unique as well as technically excellent. Unfortunately for me she’s moved back to her native homeland of Norway recently and ‘The Embers of Tomorrow’ was the last thing she recorded with me before she moved. She’s part of a wonderful vocal trio called ‘Royst’ - https://roystrio.com/ PB: You mentioned the term, ‘cut-up poem.’ Do you subscribe to the William Burroughs’ cut and paste technique that artists such as the late David Bowie advocated? If not, what’s your strategy for generating unique lyrics? AR: Yes! Collage and cut and paste is a natural language to me and I make endless art collages, originally influenced in the early punk days by Gee Vaucher’s artwork for anarcho-punks Crass and Linder Sterling’s for Buzzcocks and Magazine. Writing and recording music on a computer has enabled me to use the cut and paste method in my music though it’s only recently I’ve used the same process lyrically. Bowie made singing cut-up lyrics sound so meaningful and passionate, yet another in his huge arsenal of talents. PB: In ‘Blackness Closed Against the Summer,’ you write, “There’s something secret and magical about confusion.” Do you find clarity unbearable at times? AR: It seems my work both musically and artistically is an effort to make order out of chaos so it would make sense that I need confusion as raw material to work with. Also as I get older I find the saying that ‘The more I know the less I know’ rings true in every area of life. I think the most well-rounded and healthy individuals can hold conflicting and contradictory opinions within themselves. Easier said than done. PB: Do you intend to perform any of these tracks live? If so, will you perform with other players or use backing tracks? AR: I’d love to but no. These songs would need to be performed by a live band and unless I win the lottery it won’t be happening anytime soon. The only time I get to play my songs live (the punk rock ‘This Is Planet Grot’ album) is when LA punk veterans the Dickies come over and tour the UK. Their singer Leonard Philips has become a good friend and has collaborated on a couple of my songs. PB: What other projects do you see yourself working on in the coming year? AR: I’ve already finished the second collaborative album with Hull poet and writer Joe Hakim. It’s called ‘The Science Of Discontent’, the follow-up to 2016’s ‘Cultural Thrift’ and available for download at https://ashleyreaks.bandcamp.com/. I’ve also recorded but not yet mixed a third album this year, a more ‘live band’ and prog-punk influenced affair called ‘The Murmur of Things Divine’. It features the drumming of Rob Hirons, another huge talent from my hometown, though now based in Marseilles in France - https://robhironsdrums.com/ PB: Which artists are currently on your radar/which artists do you feel stand the test of time? AR: As I mentioned Steve Reich is an ever-present on my headphones. The Stranglers’ first four albums are never far from my ears, Their ‘violent psychedelia’ is intoxicating. Also, some of the post-punk bands – Magazine, the Ruts, Devo, the Pop Group. Around that time someone I heard was Captain Beefheart’s astonishing ‘Doc at The Radar Station’ album which still gets regular plays along with some of his other more out there work. His music should be in modern art museums along with his art. I’ve always loved dub reggae from when I first heard Scientist and King Tubby in the early 80s. Joni Mitchell is in a league of her own. Her 1976 ‘Hejira’ album is my favourite album of all time. It’s unreasonably beautiful and transcendent. I saw Paul Simon’s farewell gig in London recently – he was as superb as always and his live version of ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’ reduced me to a trembling wreck. Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ was superb, fresh, adventurous, risk-taking and beautifully played and produced. He left us on a musical high. PB: Thank you.

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Ashley Reaks - Interview

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Ashley Reaks - Interview

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The Earth Swan Sings Again (2018)
Imaginative latest album from Harrogate-based experimental musician Ashley Reaks which is a great culmination of uncompromised talent
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Compassion Fatigue (1-8) (2014)
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