The talent on tap for Erland & the Carnival, who emerged out of the busy London indie scene in 2008, is more than a little intimidating. There’s the charismatic, angel-voiced Erland Cooper out front, while the Carnival consists of David Nock, former right-hand man to producer Youth, and Simon Tong, one time cornerstone of The Verve and more recently guitar-for-hire for both Blur and Gorillaz.
The trio were always going to produce interesting music, and so it proved with their folk-inflected, self-titled debut, released just over a year ago. But there’s a danger when you throw this sort of group together – particularly when two members are experienced producers – that you create top heavy tunes, more concerned with atmosphere and feel than actual songwriting.
Erland & the Carnival’s new album, Nightingale, turns out to be just such a listen. This is an immaculate record – you won’t find a better produced slice of rock all year – but it’s not always an engaging one. The band have layered so many ideas on each track that the actual songs are often in danger of going missing completely. Still it eventually rewards patience, tunes like “Map Of An Englishman” and the spooky title track growing slowly out of the gloom. Elsewhere, the swing-dancing “This Night” is an electrifying candidate for a single.
I managed to catch the imperturbable Tong while he was recently on tour in Australia with Gorillaz. His quiet, northern timbre couldn’t disguise the idea that Erland & the Carnival are just getting started, and he was happy to chat at length about updating the band’s sound, pretending to be a commuter, and recording Nightingale in the bowels of an ancient battleship. Originally part of an article in Scene Magazine, the full interview is presented below – Matt Shea
You’re currently in Australia on tour with Gorillaz. How’s it’s all been going?
It’s been really good, yeah. Really nice audiences. It’s a shame the weather’s been a bit crap – we’ve just been following the cloud around.
Is it a little odd, the increasing stage presence Gorillaz band has taken over the last couple of years?
Yeah, it’s something they just had to do really. How can you make these cartoon characters come to life? I don’t think the audience isn’t quite there yet – maybe it will be in 20 years.
You’re involved in a lot of projects, Simon. What was the particular inspiration behind Erland & the Carnival?
Every band I’ve ever been in I’ve been asked to join or drafted into – I was joining someone else’s project sort of thing – but this is the first time I’ve actually really started a band myself. It was me and Erland: we kinda met and got chatting and found out we had a lot of influences in common – British folk music and that sort of thing – and we just started writing with each other. Originally I was just gonna write with him – he was going to be a solo act, a singer-songwriter sort of thing, and then I thought, ‘There are so many soddin’ singer-songwriters around. Do you really want to be a singer-songwriter? Can’t we just make it a band?’ It would be much more exciting and different, and there’s so much more you can do with a band, you know? So it kinda stemmed from that, really, and we started off quite acoustically as well – quite traditional – and then we just got more electric and stranger and kinda more modern, I suppose.
Nightingale – your second album in just over a year. Are you pleased with the way it’s coming together?
Yeah. Really happy, yeah. I mean we’d kinda been writing it for about a year and recording it and demoing it and stuff, and then we did about three months in the studio, we found an old boat on the Thames and that’s kinda how we finished it off and pulled it all together. Yeah, no, we’re very happy with it. It’s always hard: we just finished it about a month ago, so you kinda need a while for the dust to settle (laughs) and take stock of what you’ve done.
You seem like busy bunch of guys – particularly yourself – how did you manage to write and record the follow-up in such a short period of time?
Yeah, I think we just didn’t stop writing. We kinda finished the first album quite a while ago – probably like 18 months ago – and it didn’t come out for a while, so we’ve just continued writing ever since then and building up the songs we kinda had. It was a continual process and it still is, I guess – we’re still writing for the next one. It’s the three of us who write in the band so there’s quite a good flow of songs – we’re not relying on just one person to come up with the songs the whole time. It’s quite good to have three people each bringing ideas and developing stuff separately: it really keeps things rolling along.
I guess that means if you’re touring with Gorillaz, for example, the other guys can take up that slack…
Yeah, but I’ve got my laptop with me and you do writing on the road. It’s the 21st century, isn’t it? (laughs) That’s how you do these things.
What do you perceive as some of the big changes between your debut and Nightingale?
I think we wanted to make it more futuristic, if possible. A lot of the reviews of the first album sort of said, ‘Oh, it’s great but it sounds like it’s come from the 60s,’ which is kinda fine because that’s a period of music that I really love. But I think there was a conscious decision to try and still take the template of the first album, which was kinda modernising the old folk songs – that was the idea of it – we’ve still kinda kept that but just tried to make the music more 21st century, really. It obviously still has elements of things from the past, but I think it’s much more, production-wise and sound-wise, a much more modern-sounding record.
You recorded the album in a ship moored at Embankment (in the centre of London) – it certainly has that claustrophobic feel to it. How did that decision come about?
Well we didn’t really want to go into another sterile recording studio. It’s actually nice to go and choose a space that’s going to affect the music, and it just happened to come up. Erland, I think, had a friend who runs some of the offices on this boat, which is like an old battleship that has been turned into an office kind of thing. But he heard about this old studio that’s in the hull and below the water level, so it’s really dark and kinda echoey, and we just went there and thought, ‘This is fantastic.’ I mean, it’s not a pleasant place to spend time – there are no luxurious sofas or table tennis tables. It’s just this place where you go and it stinks and it’s damp. So you kinda concentrate and think, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go there for a day,’ and you spend the day working because there’s nothing else to do, which is a good thing because it stops you from getting too distracted with other things and you can just completely focus on it. Being below the water level as well, you’re constantly hearing strange creaks and sounds and the water lapping, and if a boat goes past you get strange, echoey vibrations. It would definitely influence the music because we’d go home, take a track home, listen to it and think, ‘Where’s that sound we heard the other day. It’s not on the track!’ And then you’d realise that it wasn’t actually on the track in the first place, so you go back and put the sound in – you try to do it with effects or guitars or whatever and recreate what you were hearing at the time.
It must have been strange, but stranger still that such a dark, dank space was actually right in the middle of London?
Yeah, it’s fantastic. I don’t know if you know London at all but it’s quite near Blackfriars Bridge, which is near where the city is and the old law courts, so we’d kinda go to work in the morning and you’re almost commuting. You go into the studio with all the commuters and the suits and whatever, then you end up going down into this dank little studio, imbibing certain drugs and just kinda seeing what happens. You pop your head up in the middle of the day, maybe go for some lunch – have lunch with all the commuters as well – it’s quite surreal (laughs).
Both you and (the band’s drummer) David Nock have experience working behind the boards for other bands – does that change things with the way you approach recording?
Well, I think if you work with different people you see how different people work. You take on those experiences and ideas I suppose, so yeah it just gives you more of a breadth with what you can do when you’re in the studio or when you developing a song. If you get stuck you have so much to draw on, which is great – it really helps to record and produce the album so quickly, because me and David have quite a lot of production history to fall back on. Having said that, Erland doesn’t have any experience at these sorts of things other than being stuck in his bedroom, but he’ll bring stuff that he’s recorded at home and me and David will be blown away: ‘Fucken’ hell, how have you done this?’ He’s catching up very fast and I’m sure he’ll overtake us by the time the next album swings by.
You’ve got the album in the bag. What’s the reason for waiting until March for the release?
I think it’s really because the last one only came out in the UK in February or January [of 2010] and we only got a label in America about six months ago or something and they released an EP of the first album so they didn’t want to release anything too close to that. It’s really just a way to get everything to link together and not be released at the same time. That’s a record company decision, really.
Is that a fidgety experience, waiting so long for music to be released?
I think every band and musician has that. You do something and if you’re lucky it’s released within six months, but often you have to wait a year or something like that. I think that’s why a lot of bands get frustrated, because they record an album and have already slightly moved on by the time it’s released. It’s a little easier these days because you can release stuff online a lot quicker. It is getting better, I think – the time lapse is definitely shorter.
Of the UK albums I’ve listened to in the past year or so, the releases of both yourselves and The Phantom Band stick out for referring quite pointedly to traditional British folk music. Is there a bit of a movement happening there?
Yeah, I think there has for a few years, actually. It’s just kinda comes in waves. I mean, obviously there’s that rediscovery of it as well with bands like Pentangle and stuff like that. But even in America, that last Midlake album sounded incredibly like English folk. I think it’s a bit of an undiscovered musical form that people are picking up on a bit more. But yeah, I couldn’t even really begin to define what folk music is. It’s just such a rich stream of something to draw from when you’re making music. I mean, we tend to take old song lyrics and put our own melodies over the top of it rather than taking traditional melodies – we just take the traditional lyrics and form our own music behind it, which even going back two or the hundred years, folk singers would do that: they’d actually take a poem or a song that had been passed down but actually put their own melody on it. So to us, even though we’re making it sound futuristic and it doesn’t sound musically so much like folk music, it’s still within the tradition of doing that – of taking something that’s very, very old and making it new again – putting your own stamp on it.
What are the plans for 2011?
I think Erland & the Carnival are off to America, around Europe and then hopefully Australia, but that might end up being the year after I think. Yeah, that’s about it really, and then we’ll start working on number three at some point.