Interview with Tunng: Beyond Nu-Folk Seas

Interview with Tunng: Beyond Nu-Folk Seas

—by , April 6, 2010

Attaching basic organic instrumentation to machine-made computer samples and detached rhythms may sound technologically befuddling, but London-based band Tunng have taken their earthy folk rooted inclinations on a space-age journey beyond the sea. Bending quirky stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a goodly amount of stately low-key charm into freshly coined “folktronica,” they’ve acquired a deeper emotionalism over time.

Getting together during 2003, founding singer/songwriters Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders began experimenting with electronic folk elements from the start. Though Genders left the band prior to triumphant 2010 breakout, And Then We Saw Land, the unique stylistic blend the twosome configured for developmental ’05 debut, Mother’s Daughter And Other Songs, continued to succinctly evolve as Tunng gained momentum.

‘07’s Comments Of The Inner Chorus layered poignant neo-classical string arrangements atop rural folk abstractions and foggy Elliott Smith-affected notions such as the wonderful typewriter-clicked ballad, “Jenny Again.” Lindsay’s sonorously hushed baritone hangs in the air above the dirge-y incantations. Much like Matmos’ musique concrete glitch-pop masterstroke, A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, Tunng also successfully incorporated a brittle admixture of arcane rhythmic sound affects that snap, crackle, and pop inside your eardrum.

Better still, ‘08’s sterling Good Arrows brought crisper acoustical ambience and more pristine percussive clatter to the forefront. “Arms” and “Hands” sling tinselly confectionery and wiry electronic samples across crystalline six-string enticement. Alluring piano-based “oom-pah” lamentation “Bullets,” elegant tape-looped chime “Bricks,” and mystical proggish stomp “Take,” attain a transcending elliptical stillness only the finest folk provocateurs—going back to Dylan—could efficiently and effectively deliver.

Reaching extreme majestic heights, And Then We Saw Land conveys a surging nautical theme to an excellent assemblage of wholly traditional folk amblers. As if that wasn’t enough, Tunng herein merge fascinating indigenous African rhythms into the incipient baroque-bound computer bleats, bleeps, and bloops that consume their anxious elegies. Bongos, shakers, traps, and kalimba deluge an accessibly versatile array of well-defined tunes. Tribal Burundi beats underscore tingly horn-driven drum-clustered hex “It Breaks” and climactic epiphany “Don’t Look Down Or Back.” As an explosive sidestep, Tunng scamper through hard-rocking thrasher “Sashimi” with the riled intensity of The Who—a magical ceremonial highlight and their most thrashing guitar shredder since Good Arrows’ Megadeth-inspired prog-rocker, “Soup.”

But the big news is Becky Jacobs, who has stepped up her involvement to fill in the gap left by Gender’s departure. Her breezily uplifting harmonies add authentic Gaelic flavoring to Gregorian-chanted hummer “These Winds,” and posh echo-drenched seduction to spindly acoustic piano twinkle “The Roadside.” She shares nimble dulcet lead vocals with Lindsay on gentle banjo-laden homecoming “Hustle.” Furthermore, current band mates Martin Smith, Phil Winter, and Ashley Bates affix synths, samples, Spanish guitar, melodica, and harp to the latest cavalcade of sounds. Newest member, drummer Simon Glenister, beefs up the backend.

Put aside any doubts, Tunng’s truly raised the bar with their fourth long-play excursion.

The album title, And Then We Saw Land, seems to indicate musical discovery and its inherent fulfillment.

Mike Lindsay: It’s a compilation of a few things. There’s quite an adventurous feel to the record—it’s romantic journeys and nautical themes now and again—to make it feel like an excursion. It was a challenging record and the title’s a bit of a metaphor for feeling good about our situation.

Despite your latest instrumental experimentation, there’s an obvious traditional folk setting embracing each separate track.

Some people don’t think it’s folk enough, others think it’s funky. Maybe it just has a bigger sound. I don’t know if it’s more experimental though. Maybe it’s more accessible in a way. We never used so many layers of voices before, or electric guitars and drums. The process may have been more experimental, but I don’t know if it’s more so than Comment—just a bigger sound, which we wanted.

Did Tunng’s ’08 tour with respected Malian desert blues band, Tinawiren, affect the jungle rhythms and Burundi-styled drumming popping up on a few tracks?

We definitely learned some rhythms from them. A few subtleties may have rubbed off. There was a way we played live with a bunch of lovely guys who didn’t speak any English at all. But we weren’t trying to make a Mali Blues record after doing the tour. But we may have secretly stolen some rhythms. (laughter)

Becky Jacobs was given free reign to be a front woman. Her evolution within the band has been extraordinary.

She was briefly on our first record’s ‘Mother’s Daughter.’ But Sam left so we had to dig deep and find a new lead vocal sound. She’s great. Live, she’s more prominent than you’d think on the previous records. She stepped up and it worked well. Sam’s now working on his own record. I may try to help out. Now, it’s mainly the five of us with Ben composing some lyrics.

Tell me about the 15-person choir helping out on Land.

They were people I know as friends from an East London school. Some are in other bands. It was a rainy evening and I got them to sing along. Hopefully, in the live setting, the audience will play their part. But that might be a lot to ask.
On antediluvian folk rejuvenation, ‘These Winds,’ Becky’s Gaelic phrasing is reminiscent of the late Sandy Denny.
It is the most traditional tune Becky has written. There’s a virtual a cappella moment Phil put through an otherworldly glitch. It’s kind of about hurricanes. That was done in about half an hour. We were gonna turn it into something else but it just seemed so sweet like that.

On the other hand, ‘Sashimi’ is the most explosive rock song Tunng’s ever attempted.

It’s actually about a weird whirlwind Parisian romance. But you wouldn’t get that from the lyrics. It’s metaphorical. I really like the three-quarter time stuff. That reminds me of a cross between Cornelius and Bruce Springsteen. That was one of the first songs written for the LP—an exploding three-chord powerful beast.

During Comments, there are tender moments where you sing in a hushed moan recalling Elliott Smith’s softer wisps. I notice you adapted that type of phrasing for ‘With Whiskey’ as well.

Becky and I wrote that, changed some lyrics around, and actually did another version for a French film. It was written around that and we did a different version for Land. I just wanted to have a beautifully stuffed tune. Its chorus is in homage to Morten Harket of (Norwegian synth pop band) a-ha in a ‘best ‘80s pop tune’ kind of way.

Though your nautical themes are perhaps less authenticated, they compare favorably to the Decemberists and Port O’Brien.

Port O’Brien are one of my favorite bands. Their newest one, Threadbare, brought the girl (Cambria Goodwin) out front as well—which I found quite interesting after we did our LP with Becky up front. They’re a great band.

Were most of your songs constructed from simple acoustic guitar designs?

A lot of the album started with acoustic guitar. I went to India for a couple months to get a few ideas on electric guitar as well. I fit lyrics to that and built rhythms. The middle section of ‘It Breaks’ was a nice surprise with the addition of swelling horns. All four Tunng records were put together in the studio in a jigsaw manner through trail and error. We work out how to play them live later. In India, I got a chance to breakaway from live playing around Christmas ’08, hanging around and meeting people. There was a great Classical Indian music festival. I tried turning some of those elements into bigger tunes and ‘It Breaks,’ as well as ‘Hustle,’ were two of them.

Would you consider Tunng part of the contemporary nu-folk scene?

I don’t know what we are anymore. I guess just a pop band. Five years ago there was a scene we didn’t know anything about but we got stereotyped—which worked out well for us. In England, Adem, Laura Marling, Rachel Unthank, Beth Jeans Houghton, and Memory Band are considered nu-folk. America had the freak folk scene with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. We just do what we do and I think it’s quite unique.

How has Tunng advanced over the course of four albums?

It has all been natural and organic. It’s easier to say there are differences. We’ve moved forward with production and haven’t stayed with such electronica cut ‘n paste and glitch methods.

Who were some formative influences?

My mom and dad were into the Beatles and liked jazz. But they weren’t massive music fans. I played guitar since age nine. I was a metal head for awhile. Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, and Slayer rules. I got more into Pentangle and Fairport Convention and acoustic finger-style guitar later on.

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