Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sleep-Hiking Bastard Mountain

Farewell, Bastard Mountain cover
Originally published on thebomberjacket.com

Traveling to Edinburgh for just a few days, it was hard to imagine that the namesake for the group Bastard Mountain wasn’t in fact Arthur’s Seat, the city’s highest crag with a patchwork of yellow wild flowers and spotted with bunnies darting from stone staircases, behind broken fences and into the bushes. Or to imagine that the grassy field of spirits from “Meadow Ghosts” wasn’t actually hidden around the overgrown river walkway along the banks of the Water of Leith. The music’s lingering, winding guitar parts, the rumbling, hum of the accordion and the subdued voices and harmonies are a perfect companion to the moist green city with black-stained castles and cathedrals.

Neil Pennycook and Rob St. John.
Neil Pennycook and Rob St. John. | Photo by Fi Buckle
“I think there probably is an influence from the city but we’re just not aware of it,” Neil Pennycook says. His voice echoes through the long garage, bouncing off the plethora of instruments, microphones and other recording equipment. He and Rueben Taylor are in the middle of working on an untitled project and are taking a few minutes to sit down on some wooden folding chairs for an interview with the THE BOMBER JACKET. The space is in the backyard of their friend’s house that is crawling with vines and purple flowers. They said it used to be an art gallery, in addition to a studio. Adequately matching the reverb of the space, they are fans of using the word “drone” to describe their record Farewell, Bastard Mountain, even though it’s mostly acoustic. Taylor explains, “It’s a very droning album. The songs move very slowly and don’t have many changes in them.” Pennycook adds a few terms, “I like gloom pop. Maybe doom wop.”
Pennycook is the main songwriter and musician for the group Meursault and Reuben Taylor works with James Yorkston & the Athletes. They explained that Bastard Mountain is actually a collection of musicians from a few different Scottish bands. Pennycook recollects that Bastard Mountain spawned from an idea that he and producer Matthew Young conceived over pints, which is also appropriate for Scotland. “Matthew and I had a drink in the pub and talked about what would be fun to do,” Pennycook says. Taylor adds that Young “was just into the idea of getting people together that we thought would collaborate well and went about asking people and everyone was into it.”
Left to right: Neil Pennycook, Rory Sutherland, Reuben Taylor, Rob St. John.
Left to right: Neil Pennycook, Rory Sutherland, Reuben Taylor, Rob St. John. | Photo by Fi Buckle
The essential concept that they devised was that everyone would bring a few songs and work through the album in a few days.  There are three vocalists on the record and Taylor explains that “Not everybody sang their own songs. Some of the songs were sung by the songwriter themselves, but quite a lot of them were sung by someone else.” Including Pennycook, the other singers are Rob St. John from Eagleowl and also from Merusault and Jill O’Sullivan from Sparrow and the Workshop. Rory Sutherland is the remaining musician from the band Broken Records. “A lot of the songs were existing songs that all of us had played before in some way or another, so you were kind of almost picking songs from your own back catalog,” Pennycook says. “It was like saying ‘Oh, I can imagine Rob singing this one,’ ‘Pissing on Bonfires’ for example,” he continues, “as opposed to writing songs for specific people.” He reflects and shrugs, “That would’ve been cooler!” Yet as Taylor says, “Everyone brought a few songs and everyone brought a few good songs.” As it turned out, Farewell, Bastard Mountain is elegantly cohesive.
Part of the reason for that could be their recording process. Taylor explains that it was “quite a different recording experience than we were used to. We did it in quite a grand living room but a living room nonetheless.” Pennycook elaborates, “The old place had a nice big living room and we used to record in there a lot and we used to have bands come through doing sessions and things and that’s where we always record albums.” They didn’t try too many experimental techniques apart from the fact that there is no bass or drums on the record and all of the lower-end sounds on come solely from the accordion. Pennycook says that the process was very much to just “point a mic at it and go,” and the group finished the album in five days.
Jill O'Sullivan
Jill O’Sullivan. | Photo by Fi Buckle
Yet, the way their songs smoothly blend together may have been a result of the little family they formed that week. “Normally, what would happen is we would record during the day until 7 or 8 and then have dinner,” Pennycook explains. “That actually informed the record a lot, the amount of socializing that went into it.” He goes on to say, “We ate together, we drank together and, yeah, that was a big part of it.”
Although the sound of the songs might have a nature oriented vibe, their subject matter may not. Pennycook explains that one of the songs he brought to the project was “The Mill.” “It’s inspired by this one corporate gig that I did about five years ago sponsored by Miller beer and it was a bit if a turning point for me in terms of realizing everything that music shouldn’t be.” He continues, “That’s what the song’s about essentially, the worst gig of your life.” Taylor adds, “When the song was written the American beers were all rubbish here, but it’s since gotten quite good!”
Pennycook says that if that naturalistic “influence was going to come from anywhere, it would probably be from Rob who usually draws his inspiration from his surroundings.” He makes sure to clarify, “Not to speak for him, but that’s sort of my interpretation of Rob as a songwriter, being very influenced by his immediate geography.” He gives the example, ” ‘Meadow Ghosts’ was the first song that we sort of did and it informs the album completely.”
The name for the band is derived from a similar level of St. John’s subconscious. “Rob is a very vivid dreamer he quite frequently talks in his sleep or he gets up and goes for a walk.” He goes on, “One morning he was sleeping beside Emma, who is his partner, and just went ‘Farewell bastard mountain!!!’ in his sleep.” Taylor continues, “We don’t know what he was dreaming about, but whatever it was caused him to say this. When he woke up he couldn’t remember. Emma told us this later on when we were looking for a band name and we thought it sounded hilarious.”
An appropriate word for the group might be “organic.” A very otherworldly lament seeping out of the dreams into the waking that came together in D.I.Y. fashion in a living room among friends. Farewell, Bastard Mountain is out now on Song by Toad and the group is working on putting together shows around the U.K.
Bastard Mountain
Photo by Fi Buckle
Originally published on thebomberjacket.com