Shield Patterns Discuss New Album & DIY Ethics! ” I Keep Trying To Call Tom Waits But He Won’t Pick Up”
We recently caught up with British electronic music newcomers Shield Patterns, made up of musicians Claire Brentnall and Richard Knox, to have a discussion regarding the duo’s inception, inspirations, aspirations, and everything else in between.
Their critically acclaimed debut album ‘Contour Lines‘, released earlier this year, is currently running as one of our favourite electronic releases of 2014 (which you MUST go and buy or listen to), and is now on the brink of finding a greater audience. But in the meantime, why not acquaint yourselves with this most promising of individuals.
You can check out more from Shield Patterns here.
HTF : How are you doing on this fine autumnal day?
RK: Quite well thanks, apart from the morning spent writing a press release. That’s not a job I enjoy.
CB: Good thank you! I’m writing from our studio in the hills.
HTF : Being fairly new to the scene, there are a lot of people who may still be unfamiliar with the group. How did you both meet, and how did Shield Patterns come about?
CB: I began writing, recording and producing music under name of Shield Patterns in late 2012. I’d always written music and had been in bands before, but making music alone was different. I think it suited me better, as I find it a pretty personal and introspective experience, as well as being a kind of catharsis. Music has always been a huge part of my life, and I knew that there was a lot that I wanted to make. I had all these ideas. I saved my wages and bought a bunch of equipment to record with in my flat. I’d work all night sometimes. I played my first show as Shield Patterns in May 2013, which is where I met Richard.
HTF : Your debut album ‘Contour Lines’ was released earlier this year, and, for me personally, is the best electronic album of the year thus far. Where was the album recorded? What was the songwriting process like? Did it all come naturally / conceptually, or were there any songs that were previously written?
CB: That is very kind! Contour Lines was recorded in our home studios, and we also went to a remote cottage in the Welsh countryside to record. Half of the songs are from the original material that I began recording and producing alone, (Ghost Words, Ruby Red, Carve the Dirt, Dead Air, The Rule) and the other half have been collaborative works between myself and Richard, with my friend and excellent electronic music producer Thinnen adding extra production to some of the tracks. The creative process for the entire album felt completely organic, and the collaborative works felt like a natural progression from the original solo pieces. I always feel open to trying new ideas and taking songs in unexpected directions, and working with Richard opened a lot of doors for me creatively. I feel that our music continues to evolve and we are writing new material, which is my favourite part of the process.
HTF : Claire, we noticed when we saw you guys live at Beyond The Redshift Festival, that you also play other instrumentation aside from electronics. Are you a classically trained musician, and if so what other instruments do you play? Also who are some of your personal musical influences?
CB : Indeed I was playing clarinet at Beyond the Redshift. Yes I was classically trained as a child and finished grades and that side of things when I was 14, and I played in orchestras and competed in performance competitions. I hated the exams! As for classical musical influences, I remember going to see Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester as part of A level music. The dynamics were amazing. I also like Francis Poulenc, his pieces for clarinet are pretty wild. I was lucky in that I grew up listening to what my parents listened to: Neil Young, PJ Harvey, Jefferson Airplane, Carole King, The Pixies. In my adult life, there is so much music out there that I love, but Thom Yorke has always been a big influence for me, and so is Joanna Newsom. I think Ys is one of my favourite records of all time.
HTF : Richard, looking at the live set up, we were quite astounded as to how much work goes within the performance. Could you give us a quick rundown of your live instrumentation setup? Also, how long have you been producing your own music?
RK: We decided fairly early on that we didn’t want to use a laptop on stage so the quest was to find a way to perform as much of it as we can live. We use various samplers and triggers. We both use an MPC for live sample play and mine is hooked up to a drum pad so I can play some of the beats with sticks. The vocals are split in two with a dry signal and then a wet signal which runs through my effects pedal board so I can manipulate the vocals as I see fit. Claire is playing keys, sampler and clarinet live and I also use a Korg synth for some of the bass lines. It’s quite busy in terms of a performance but it’s much more satisfying that way.
As for recording, I’ve always recorded, mixed and produced my own music. With Shield Patterns it was a bit different though as I’ve never worked with wholly electronic music before so that was a new challenge. I guess I went about it the same way as I always do and it turned out ok I think. There’s a lot of experimenting in there but then that’s usually the case with the way I work.
HTF : Are there any collective non-music based influences that have helped mould Shield Patterns?
CB: I find being outside and exploring new places a very important part of the creative process: I have to remove myself from where I am sometimes. I like going to galleries and seeing new things, I like Surrealism and the artwork of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. I like reading about psychoanalysis, and reading Freud and Jung. I studied fine art at the University of Leeds, so I suppose this kind of environment contributed to a way of thinking and creating that was quite free and all-embracing. But I also find a lot of inspiration in personal experience and emotion: love, loss, hate, guilt, regret, obsession, discovery, joy. The usual stuff!
HTF : Richard, one of the most endearing things about this album, is that it is a purely DIY based project that has come out on your own record label Gizeh Records. Can you tell us a bit more about your label and your opinion on the importance of the DIY ethic within independent music?
RK: I started Gizeh in the early 2000’s and it’s grown steadily ever since. It was never really my intention in the early days to run a record label, I just sort of kept releasing bits and pieces here and there, from friends mostly and then it suddenly felt like it had grown into something. Considering the current state of the music industry we’re doing ok. Distribution aside, everything is handled in house and we have no outside funding at all so it’s a fairly precarious situation almost all of the time. I like it that way though and I couldn’t ever imagine a time where a DIY ethic isn’t running through what I’m doing.
Being independent is hugely important in whatever you are doing in life. Music is no different. If more people took the time to learn as many skills as possible then there’s less chance of being screwed by people who only have their own interests and bank account in mind. I can’t understand bands who are unable to stand on their own feet without management or whoever guiding them along, it makes no sense why you wouldn’t want to maintain some degree of control over that.
The music industry is changing at an alarming rate. I feel like it’s the bands and labels at a low to mid / mid level that will suffer the most. These are the people who are trying to do something properly and by properly I mean trying to tour and sell records and do the stuff that is really hard now… basically trying to do it full time, which is what it takes to do it properly. I’m not talking about people who are happy to make a record in their bedroom and put it on bandcamp, sell a couple of downloads and go to a regular job everyday. Of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with that approach and I have a lot of respect for that but it’s when you are trying to get to the next step that’s the hardest – especially without a ton of money behind you.
There’s just too much music around now and there’s not enough room for everyone. The musical money pie is getting smaller and there are more people eating the damn pie, it doesn’t add up. It’s not just the bands either. It’s the label, the distributer, the shops, the booking agent, the manager, the sound engineers, the tour managers, the techs… everyone is suffering and fighting to make ends meet.
There is a lot of great music being made but people won’t hear about it because their label doesn’t have enough money to pay for a PR company to be able to get the press coverage they need to succeed.
I could talk about this all day but I won’t bore you any further… perhaps it’s for another interview that one!
HTF : What are your feelings and opinions on the current state of electronic music and its diversity over the decades? And how do you both individually identify where Shield Patterns stand in the middle of all this?
RK: I have no idea where we stand to be honest. That’s for other people to decide and maybe easier to answer in 10 years time. I feel like were doing something interesting and we’re pushing ourselves forward, that’s it really. I honestly don’t pay enough attention to be able to comment on the current state of electronic music. I keep finding new records that I like so I guess that’s a good thing but there’s also a lot of music I hear which makes me want to run naked into the hills and never come back.
HTF : How has the reception been for ‘Contour Lines’ so far, and how has it translated in the live environment so far this year?
RK: I think it’s been fairly well received – in fact you, yourself gave it a very positive review, for which we are very humbled! We had some great reviews actually, which is a relief as you never know how it going to go. Some people who have written about the record seem to have really understood it and that’s really nice. The shows have been good for the most part. I feel like we have a pretty nice show now and we’ve figured out how to play things in a slightly more comfortable way and hopefully with more confidence. It always takes some time but I’m excited to play these shows in November, I love being on the road.
HTF : Going to a live show is a feeling unlike any other so what have been some of your favourite gigs that you have both been to?
RK: Hauschka was a mind blower recently for sure. Going back a bit I’d say The National at Nottingham Rescue Rooms, The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev together at the Octagon in Sheffield, Godspeed You Black Emperor and Sigur Ros together at the Cockpit in Leeds… far too many to keep going.
CB: I thought FKA Twigs at the Dancehouse Theatre Manchester this year was brilliant. I have so much love and respect for her music and for her as an artist: she’s doing something really interesting. I have seen loads of great shows too but another favourite one for me was Sigur Ros at Jodrell Bank.
HTF : Also, who would you like to see yourselves supporting in the near future?
RK: I keep trying to call Tom Waits but he won’t pick up.
CB: Radiohead would be a dream support for me!
HTF : Lastly, we would like to thank you both for taking the time out of your schedules to answer these questions, it is sincerely appreciated! So as a final question, what can we expect from Shield Patterns in 2015, and have you both any sage words of wisdom, advice, or philosophical know how to share with us all?
CB: Thank you! I suppose I’d like to say that making matters, and I am very aware of how lucky I am that I am able to choose to make music. Finding a voice and a platform for expression has changed a lot for me. Embrace what makes you feel fulfilled, make time for doing the things that matter to you, and let’s be good to each other!
RK: Thanks for taking the time to write the questions. We’re working on some new music which will hopefully see the light of day in the first part of 2015 and there’s a European tour in the works also. But let me wrap the interview up with this :
“Don’t plant your bad days. They grow into weeks. The weeks grow into months. Before you know it you got yourself a bad year. Take it from me. Choke those little bad days. Choke ‘em down to nothin’. They’re your days. Choke ‘em.” – Tom Waits.
BY ZACHARY CORSA FOR A CLOSER LISTEN
You often hear people speak about a turning point in their lives, a great awakening following a tragedy or a moment of sudden joy and clarity eclipsing all that came before. The survival of the car crash, the cold turkey quitting of the booze, the first kiss, landing the dream job. For those blessed (or cursed) with creative inclinations, often this pivot point arrives in the form of the discovery of a new artist that makes you reconsider the entire topography not just of the art form itself, but of everything that lies around you and how it can be interpreted. Whatever comes after tends to define your career as well as yourself, your own indelible mark on this lifetime.
College was a tumultuous time for me. Mentally, physically, romantically and existentially. Like many around me, I was still very much figuring out who I was in the wake-wave of all this new knowledge and cultural experience. By 2007, I had grown jaded with the concept of higher education and how it applied to my future, and was moving towards a realization that I was more interested in making music than anything I was attending school for. I still wasn’t sure what kind of music I wanted to make, exactly, and that golden revelation wouldn’t arrive for two or three more years. However, an important step in this direction came, typically, with a job at a record store.
I’m going to be careful not to romanticize here. The store was an unprofitable little nook that specialized in noise music and metal, in a small college town in an isolated mountain region that was giving more ground each day to boneheaded frat-bros over hippies. My job there was largely boring, messing about on the internet and uploading our store’s albums to eBay while we pulled in at best fifty dollars a day or so. The stock was impressive, but no one seemed much to care.
This was in the days of CD burning rather than downloading as the best way to acquire new music. The shop computer’s media player held a great deal of music I had never heard, including a band with intriguing black and white cover photography that a quick Google search told me was directly off-shot from one of my current new fascinations, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Alone in my dorm room that year (I had ended up sans roommate for awhile when my assigned roommate moved off campus at the start of the semester), I managed to creep myself out delightfully to the strains of F#A#oo, sometimes at the expense of making it to class on time.
Now here were these two new albums to delve into by a collective comprised of a few Godspeed members and others, stumbled upon long after Godspeed’s first phase had ended in extended hiatus. I excitedly burned them onto discs and raced back to the dorm after work to devour them. How my life would be different now if I had perhaps been out of CD-Rs that day, I’ll never know.
The Set Fire To Flames albums are sprawling, massive affairs. The first runs over seventy minutes, the second damn near ninety sprawled across two discs. They’re accompanied by haunting black and white photographs by Michael Ackerman. The cover of Sings Reign Rebuilder depicts a house nearly enveloped in shadow and beset by cold decay, while Telegraphs In Negative/Mouths Trapped In Static shows a young girl blurred in a halo of light. If images alone are enough to draw someone into listening to an album, this sure did the trick on me. These were the first real albums to impress upon me the album as an “entire package”, with cover art given just as much importance as the music within. Years later, I find my own photography, often used for my own music’s cover art, imitating these ghostly, antique-looking images. I have never seen cover art for an album more perfectly suited to the music within than in the case of Set Fire To Flames. My worship began before I even clicked play.
But the music was perhaps even more influential. Awash with ambient noise and samples of dialogue from the apparently mentally ill and homeless, one could immediately draw Godspeed comparisons and leave it at that. But the thrust of this project was more singular, more focused than the epic heights Godspeed aspired towards. These albums were recorded spontaneously improvised by musicians isolating themselves in a specific environment, reportedly depriving themselves of sleep and sobriety for long stretches at a time. In the case of Sings, this was a historic Montreal brothel on the verge of the wrecking ball. For Telegraphs, an isolated rural barn.
I have still never heard anything like these albums. The complete disregard for banal ideals of ‘professional’ editing are astounding and fascinating. It’s like listening in to someone’s private activities in the best possible way. Throughout, chairs creak, musicians whisper, footsteps sound, and dogs bark. Beats stop and start awkwardly, then find a groove and continue for a moment before dissipating, the impermance of such gorgeous concision forgotten. Never before had I heard something that was so clearly musicians in a room, walking around, picking up things and playing for a few minutes before moving on again to something else. The refusal to edit out passing cars and other neighborhood sounds, to let them become a breathing part of the whole recording process, was captivating. I had never considered anything but pristine studio recording as an option before these albums. You could record in a house and leave all those noises intact? This was the start of something falling into place for me that would crystallize a few years later, upon forming Lost Trail. To say it was a revelation would be a grand understatement.
The songs themselves range from rumbles of ominous static and tape noise to lovely passages of intertwined violin, cello and guitar, all bathed in eerie reverb. But perhaps the most thrilling moment for me was a standalone phone conversation, “Mouths Trapped In Static”, included near the end ofTelegraphs. A man (perhaps one of the musicians, as he mutters that he’s standing near a light truck) notes exhaustion to a concerned lover or spouse. “I don’t want to be here, I want to be with you”. The decision to not include any music behind this snatch of dialogue is brilliant and bold. The exchange stands on its own as a beautiful piece of music all the same. The conversation begins to cut out and distort, and is gone like so many spectral melodies here.
As time goes on, I see so much of what I do with my own art in these albums, from the dialogue samples to the use of static, even moving to an old house to record and leaving intact all the ambient noise of both house and neighborhood. Set Fire To Flames shaped something inside of me that defines who I am, as the best music is apt to do, and I have their brilliance to thank for whatever I accomplish in art. Their inspiration has poured forth into everything that I create and call my own, hopefully far short of appropriation and far closer to simple love for their work.
Set Fire To Flames have regrettably fallen quiet following an unreleased third album I’d probably sell my firstborn child to hear (just kidding, but maybe not really). They’re perhaps doomed to be remembered only by a small, fervent cult as an act that had just two masterpieces in them before flaming out. They will forever be under-appreciated. But maybe, hopefully, they’ll continue to enlighten other confused young musicians as the years go on, bored in their record stores and waiting impatiently for their shift to end to race back to their dorms to discover something magical.(Zachary Corsa)