Alex Neilson was near the Scottish border when I reached him, between live dates in Tyneside and Edinburgh with the Alasdair Roberts Trio.
Caledonian folk artist Alasdair’s combo – completed by Stevie Jones on bass and keys – were back on the road after a show at Newcastle’s Cumberland Arms, the fifth date of a Spring tour set to reach Glasgow’s Glad Cafe tonight (March 2nd) before an English return, reaching Preston, Lancashire in time for the climax of the Vernal Equinox Festival this Sunday (March 5th).
And it just so happens that as well as his percussive duties for Alasdair, Alex will perform two sets at The Continental in Preston with his own ensemble, revered experimental psych-folk outfit Trembling Bells, who headline the finale of an ambitious event pulling together divergent strands of underground music.
Alex is not only the drummer but also the main songwriter of a Glasgow-based outfit he formed in 2008 and which quickly carved out a reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting and exploratory groups, critical acclaim the following year for debut LP, Carbeth, setting the tone.
His five-piece is currently completed by fellow founders Lavinia Blackwall (keyboard, guitar, vocals) and Simon Shaw (bass), plus later arrivals Mike Hastings (guitar) and Alasdair Mitchell (keyboards, guitar). And while Lavinia’s fine voice characterises the group’s folk appeal, all five members contribute vocals.
Their first three albums were released on London-based Honest Jon’s Records, Carbeth followed by 2010’s Abandoned Love (with production and mixing input from Stevie Jackson of cult Scottish indie outfit Belle & Sebastian) and 2011’s The Constant Pageant.
They’ve always worn their influences on their sleeves, not least late ‘60s psychedelia and the spirit of the British folk revival, yet somehow Trembling Bells continue to ride a blurred line between all the genres that spring to mind on listening to their records.
For instance, fourth album The Sovereign Self, their first for Coventry-based Tin Angel Records, had more of a prog rock feel, and was followed by last summer’s companion piece, the seven-track mini-album Wide Majestic Aire. And it turns out that a band described by radio presenter/author Stuart Maconie as ‘wild and romantic, witty and heartbreaking’, with ‘both the charm of folk music and the power of rock’, are currently working on a new album, set for release later this year.
Besides, being on the road doesn’t slow the songwriting, as I found out first-hand from Alex. Unfortunately the reception on his phone as he headed ever further North was pretty poor, so there were a couple of nuggets I missed altogether and others I struggled to get down, but I think we more or less got there. So, his track record – so to speak – suggests he does a lot of scribbling while touring. Is he a pad and pencil man when it comes to lyrics and melodies?
“I used to do that much more. The first album was pretty much written like that. And I find the travelling very stimulating. There’s a lot of down-time as well, but I enjoy the company a lot.”
When Trembling Bells released Wide Majestic Aire, Alex recorded an accompanying short commentary, explaining the inspiration and theme behind each track. That seems fairly unusual in itself, I put to him, not least as he seems to bare his soul in those songs. Many seem so personal, and lots of writers prefer to leave such matters to individual interpretation.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t tend to be quite so candid, although a lot of the songs have very specific origins and compass points. It was more an exercise in doing something different for the label. But I’m quite happy to talk about those songs.”
The description accompanying those recordings suggests a ‘bringing together of the mythic and the domestic‘, what Alex sees as an ‘ongoing motivation in the music of the Trembling Bells’. And the imagery of the last LP’s title track is as good a place as any to start, a joyous song up there with past sweeping numbers such as Goathland on the third album, another embracing Alex’s Yorkshire roots.
In fact, Wide Majestic Aire is among the songs Alex is most proud of, this romantic ballad – sung by Lavinia – seeing the compass of the band’s music swing back in the direction of folk after the prog and acid rock of The Sovereign Self. Yet it’s also in some way archetypal Trembling Bells territory, evoking the landscapes of Yorkshire and Oxford – Alex spent a fair bit of time in the ‘city of dreaming spires’ with a past love – and invoking the likes of Larkin, Blake, Lorca, Nash, and Turner. What’s more, it’s suggested ‘such a sweet and melodic song could function as a gateway drug to the rest of the band’s music, which is to be welcomed as there is much to explore in their rich back- catalogue’.
The Aire passes through Alex’s home city of Leeds, and was his ‘sanctuary’ while growing up on a council estate in Bramley (where The Wedding Present and Cinerama creator David Gedge was also born, albeit 22 years earlier). The river was five minutes away, and as a teenager he listened to The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and The Incredible String Band while walking his dogs along the banks on his ‘bible-like Walkman’, an experience that ‘moulded’ him and sent him on his destined path.
“I was always struck by a quote from Albert Camus on the Scott Walker 4 LP, making this entreaty about all art being a desire to recreate the conditions in which your heart is open to some idea or other. And that rings true, being nostalgic towards a time in your life when you’re more receptive to universal ideas in music and culture, trying to recreate that general feeling.”
That Camus quote is that ‘a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened’. And there are elements of that creative thinking in the work of Trembling Bells and other projects Alex has played a part in over the years. So did he see music as a means of escape from a perceived drudgery of daily life?
“A little. Instead of going to school, I’d be looking to play the drums all the time, trading on my imagination and enthusiasm for music to be happy in life. I guess it was a sanctuary and a refuge from the day-to-day reality of being a teenager in a fairly small, downtrodden town. This was my alternative reality.”
Was there music in the family?
“Not particularly, although my older brother was one of my biggest influences. He’s an artist and was interested in experimental cinema, underground comics and music in particular.”
Was that how a fella only born in 1982 got turned on to underground performers like Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band?
“Exactly, yeah. Actually, I hated that music and pounded on the bathroom door when he was playing Trout Mask Replica, thinking he’d completely lost the plot. But then I grew to love it, and it kind of ruined other types of music for me. There’s no real going back to bands like Pavement from there.”
Was it a similar story with further influence The Incredible String Band?
“That was more a personal discovery. I spent a lot of time at Leeds Library, borrowing CDs, particularly things that looked weird, copying them on to cassette and putting them on my Walkman.”
He certainly seems to have absorbed those influences without any snobbery about genres and what was cool or not. Folk music was something I tended to steer clear of until acts like The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Van Morrison, Christy Moore, The Waterboys, Nick Drake and Billy Bragg saw me re-evaluate Ewan McColl, Peggy Seager, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and so on, realising it didn’t have to be about cable jumpers, beards and singing with your finger in your ear after all. But that wasn’t the case for Alex.
“There were a few revelatory moments for me, and generally by accident at libraries or through trawling charity shops buying records. I loved to try different things from what I already had. I guess I was a bit of a loner as well.”
Hearing Liege and Lief also helped me change my mind about homegrown folk, and – inevitably perhaps – Trembling Bells often get compared to Fairport Convention, although perhaps that’s just because of Lavinia’s great voice, bringing to mind Sandy Denny.
”Yeah, but I never really got to grips with them. I was always more interested in the singers on things like The Voice of the People compilations and those singing a cappella folk songs. Having an interest in rock and jazz too, I was always trying to cross-pollinate between, so inevitably those Fairport Convention comparisons would come up. And automatically people use Sandy Denny as a benchmark, whether it’s appropriate or not.”
Alex initially crossed the border to Scotland for university studies in English and art history in Glasgow, but after a year dropped out and concentrated on music, settling at Carbeth, 10 miles outside the city, where Alex and his band have now spent around a decade in an off-the-grid hutting community, finding it inspirational and nurturing, the creative wellspring from which much of their work flows.
Not only did their debut album take its name, but their latest mini-album contains a song, Swallows Of Carbeth, which book-ends Willows Of Carbeth from that first record. And each has at its heart the two most significant lost loves of Alex’s life – Willows a musician, Swallows a painter. It’s all part of that overall effect blending personal history and sense of place. And a few years after that initial move, he certainly seems to be among kindred, creatively-talented spirits in Carbeth.
In Alex’s commentary on further Wide Majestic Aire track I Love Bute, he mentions how Lavinia came up with the outro and how it’s quite a rarity that he lets someone loosen his ‘tyrannical grip’ on the band. Is he having a laugh?
“I think I was being kind of facetious. I like to at least give the others the illusion of democracy! Ha ha!”
“Well, I think I’m learning to trust the others more when they come up with parts or twists into other unexpected directions. I don’t cross the t’s and dash the i’s as much as I did. And they’re all such strong, creative individuals.”
Does he see himself more as a bandleader in that respect?
“Yeah, kind of. It’s also about gaining experience from playing with a lot of talented musicians … like Alasdair Roberts.”
In past interviews, Alex talked of expanding sonic possibilities through self-learning and exploration and experimentation. And one of his band descriptions cites how ‘Trembling Bells seek to reanimate the psychic landscapes of Great Britain and relocate them to some vague, mythic land where basic human crises are encountered and conquered’. With that thinking, I suggest that the world of prog rock was never far away, as explored on 2015’s The Sovereign Self.
“Yeah, I think that’s just the inevitable sound of us all playing together. It’s not something that generally fits my palette, but I think we end up sounding like that because of our collective interests.”
Before Trembling Bells, Alex played with various other bands, as he continues to do. Is that all part of his music apprenticeship?
“I think so. I learn a lot from experiences, working with people whose music I love and I’m lucky enough to play with, and that definitely helps increase my musical vocabulary.”
“I always saw her as a talented singer, although I probably as a little bit too proper in her approach. I was into the idea of being more experimental, paring down the more technical, standardised ways of playing. But we came incredibly close friends and developed a mutual understanding.”
Across the band there certainly seems to be a fusion of ideas and influences, and that works really well.
“Yeah, exactly. I think those influences strengthen the overall picture rather than dilute it. And it’s always good for me to be shocked out of my comfort zone, have my prejudices overturned. That’s the most rewarding path.”
I mentioned before how Trembling Bells walk a tightrope between folk, traditional rock and indie, and if it wasn’t for them being picked up on by presenters like BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley and Stuart Maconie, guesting at events like All Tomorrow’s Parties (2010, an event curated by cult indie outfit Belle & Sebastian) and the Green Man Festival (in 2009 and now again this summer), I might not have come across them so easily.
Talking of Belle and Sebastian, how did that link come about?
“I was a massive fan of their music growing up, and through moving to Glasgow and being interested in their work. I found them incredibly generous and they kind of took us under their wing, always happy to help us out with studio time and so on.”
And then there’s the support of another major influence, Trembling Bells collaborating since 2011 with 74-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band, who just happens to be appearing with them in one of their sets at Preston this weekend.
“Yeah, we were involved in an Incredible String Band tribute concert, as a house band of sorts, and just to be mentioned in the same breath as these people is great. These are the co-ordinates of our music. It’s pretty much down to these people, and we’ve continued to work with Mike, which has been a real pleasure.”
The Vernal Equinox Festival runs at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, Lancashire, PR1 8JP, from Friday, March 3rd to Sunday, March 5th, with the line-up including:
Friday 3rd (6.30pm-12pm, on two stages) – Mugstar, Gnod, Clones, King Champion Sounds soundtrack ‘Man With a Movie Camera’, Pill Fangs, Vukovar, The Common Cold, The Condor Moments, UCLAN Music play Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ plus more; Saturday 4th (6pm-11.30pm) – Galley Beggar, Crumbling Ghost, Newts, One Sided Horse, Sweeney Astray; Sunday 5th (4.30pm-11pm) – Trembling Bells (two sets, one with Mike Heron), Alasdair Roberts Trio, Tricca McNiff, Dodson & Fogg, Howie Reeve.