Experimental Music Love

March 22, 2009

Trembling Bells Q and A

Filed under: Interviews — by Free Edinburgh Podcast @ 12:41 am



Bewitching and beguiling, Trembling Bells are the Glasgow folk band whose music conjures up bonfires, nature and Britt Ekland dancing in the buff.  For this is a band who forgo a pop rigmarole, harking back to traditional folk roots, telling stories and chilling bones with Lavinia Blackwall’s haunting voice.  Drummer and songwriter, Alex Neilson (a man who’s worked with Will Oldham amongst others) explains the folk phenomenon.

How did the Trembling Bells come to be?

Each Trembling Bells member has different backgrounds, from self taught to
conservatoire trained, but all are united by a common interest in country music,
medieval music, rock music… pretty much most musical forms between 1920s and
1970s and beyond.

I have played with all of the band members before in various guises. Bass
player, Simon Shaw, was the puppet master behind ‘wegian folk-rock band Lucky
Luke. Ben Reynolds and I exploded anthemic traditional British folk songs in an
improvisatory setting (ala Albert Ayler) in Motor Ghost. Singer and
multi-instrumentalist, Lavinia Blackwall and I combined Earlie Musick,
psychedelia and free jazz as Directing Hand and George Murray and Aby Vuillamy
were core members of my first band, Scatter- a Glasgow based collective who
anticipated the recent free folk phenomenon by some years.

You certainly seem to have your influences in more traditional, folk music.  How would you describe the sound of Trembling Bells?
Traditional folk music (particularly that from Britain) held me in a spell
binding paralysis from the age of 18 to 25. I was so captivated by the poetry,
language, melodies, quasi- mythologizing of familiar places, variety of accents
and the untutored voices that I simply could not imagine beginning to fathom how
to write my own music. I am happy to say that I have made it through the other
side of this tyrannical initiatory process, largely thanks to my coming to terms
with the work of Bob Dylan. Dylan indicated to me that you could use that music
creatively, by internalizing the forms and employing an image or phrase
as a cornel of inspiration to extrapolate more personal creations that reflect
the contours of one’s own creative will. This seems like a more healthy and
organic process than repeatedly ossifying a form that has so much misplaced
emphasis on ‘authenticity’.

What sort of artists have impacted on the way Trembling Bells sound?
An eclectic array of titanic, canonical artists; Frank Sinatra, Bruce
Springsteen, Everly Brothers, Neil Diamond, Elvis, David Munrow, Peter Bellamy,
Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Mickey Newbury… plus lots of
anonymous doo wop, crazed rockabilly and sentimental country compilations. Also,
the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, Fredrico Garcia Lorca,
William Blake and William Morris have had a big impact on this music.

Has music always been a part of your life?
I started drumming at the age of 13 because it coincided with a physics lesson
at school, and I took to it as naturally as Christ took to the cross. Prior to
that, via shows like TOTP, I remember thinking that I could never be a musician
because I didn’t look like Milli Vanilli or sing like Rick Astley. It was
only after a period of personal revelation, through grunge then psychedelia then
free jazz, that I started to really follow my own creative impulses and reclaim
them from the inherited airbrushed, corporate, plastic death-jaws of popular

With acts like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver perhaps opening folk sounds to a wider audience, do you think the sort of music you create will become more popular?
I don’t know their music, I’m afraid. For better or worse I don’t really
listen to much contemporary music, aside from some people I play with (Baby Dee,
Alasdair Roberts, Ben Reynolds, Current 93, 6 Organs of Admittance, Josephine
Foster, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy etc). This might be partly a response to
having worked in a record shop for two years.
If it makes it easier for our music to reach a wider audience then great! But I
would not rely on this possibility and I am certainly not jumping on any
stylistic bandwagon. I am a firm believer that quality will endure and, though
it is early days (this album represents my first attempt at song writing), I
have faith in my ideas, the people around me and I am more than willing to put
in the work to make it succeed.

Is there a worry of diluting the traditional folk with elements of pop music, or should we embrace this convergence?
I consider myself somewhat of a reluctant authority on traditional British
music, having immersed myself in it since I was pluke-farming teenager when
most of my peers where chomping disco-biscuits to the faceless dance-floor
anthems of the day in the QMU. It is with the utmost affection that I regard
that music. But, for my own creative necessity, I am cannibalizing and
reanimating it along with many other superficially disparate enthusiasms. Again, I think this is a healthy and organic process.

What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about your music?
About my drumming from a pie-eyed Irish reveller to Will Oldham at a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy concert in Dublin; ‘My God, where did you find this guy? It’s like, you think it and he just does it!’

In five words, why should people listen to Trembling Bells?
We will fuck you up!


Trembling Bells play The Bowery, Edinburgh on Apr 8; Mono, Glasgow on Apr 17 and Tolbooth, Stirling on May 31.


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