Interview No. 21 – Fieldhead

I first met Paul Elam when he was a touring guitarist for Glissando.  At this point, I was unaware that he was a solo musician in his own right and just assumed that Rich and Ellie were expanding their line up a little.  The truth was that Paul was then, and is now, a solo artist better known as Fieldhead.  His debut record ‘They Shook Hands For Hours’ is a brilliant piece of ambient electronica, which made it’s way onto my top ten records of 2009.  It really is special.  This year saw him release a follow up EP entitled ‘Riser’, which has captured my ears in a similar manner and would be right up there with the best of 2010 to date.  He’s recently made the move from his native Leeds to Vancouver but has kindly found time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions, as I resume the interview series.  You can check out Fieldhead here and buy yourself a copy of Riser on 10″ vinyl here.  DO IT!  Enjoy.

TSP: Riser, your ep from earlier this year is probably my favourite record of 2010 so far. Featuring vocals on each track it’s a little bit of a departure from debut record ‘They Shook Hands For Hours’. Was there a conscious effort on your part to make sure the ep was something different from the album?

PE: It was a conscious effort, but not necessarily a conscious effort to do something different… if that makes any sense. The idea came to me whilst listening to an old Low album and rediscovering how well they use vocals and music together, and how powerful the music was with everything tied together so strongly. It got me thinking that a lot of electronic/ambient music either completely ignores vocals, or adds them on as an afterthought.

TSP: Would you say the introduction of vocals was key to making it different?

PE: Undoubtedly, yes. Pretty much everything I write involves a long drawn out process of finding a central idea and then building the track around it. Changing that central idea from instrumental to vocal did change this in so much as I have tendencies to certain structures and keys, and I was forced out of that by what vocals I was sent.

TSP: The vocalists on the record include Anna-Lynne Williams, Chantal Acda , Anneke Kampman, Elly-May Irving and Esker. I read that each track started with a vocal idea from the singer, which you then built the music around. Is that correct?  And if so, how challenging a process was this for you?

PE: Yup, that’s correct. I asked each of the vocalists to send me some vocal recordings, but as long as they gave me enough to work with I gave them no other guidance. The idea was to concentrate on their individual voices and natural tendencies to certain styles, then for me to build a track from there. I was hoping to have five different starting points but to end up with a relatively consistent whole, and to also avoid the vocals “sitting on top” of the music – I wanted them to be central. I always find writing new music challenging, and I tend to have to make countless attempts at something to find one that will work, and this was very much true of the tracks with Elly, Chantal and Anneke. These three tracks on this EP as all went through weeks of work and editing to find something that would fit, whereas the tracks with Anna-Lynne and Esker were both finished very quickly.

TSP: You’ve recently moved from Leeds to Vancouver. Leeds is well known to have a thriving music scene at the moment but what is the music scene like over there? Any interesting artists you’ve discovered that you’d recommend people check out?

PE: Vancouver is very, very different to Leeds. It’s a much bigger city, and one that feels much more isolated from the rest of the world, so there’s not the same influx of smaller touring bands or links with other cities. Vancouver’s beauty and proximity to real wilderness also means that people seem to spend less time going to shows, so there’s not the same necessity for a live music scene away from the bigger touring bands as Leeds has. This results in a relaxed and sporadic scene and one where there’s much less casual interest in independent, smaller scale music than you would expect. Having said that, the more I’ve looked, the more I’ve come across some excellent music. It just tends to be a little more hidden than I’m used to in Europe, and Vancouver Council’s lack of love for music venues in the city doesn’t help. As for people to check out, Vancouver artists I’ve been enjoying so far are Ora Cogan, Shearing Pinx, connect_icut, Scant Intone, and Loscil.

TSP: As well as Fieldhead you also were part of Glissando’s live set up as well as The Declining Winter. Do you feel that being part of those acts helped your own music, and vice versa, or are they completely independent things?

PE: They definitely help. Richard from The Declining Winter was absolutely key in encouraging me to take Fieldhead seriously, and was the reason for me getting the album released by Home Assembly Music. As for Glissando, Rich Knox has also been incredibly supportive, as well as releasing Riser through Gizeh Records. With both Sarah and Elaine (Fieldhead contributors and live violinists) being members of The Declining Winter, it’s fairly clear that there are very strong connections between the bands. Musically I take a lot of inspiration from being able to make music with different people, and think it’s inevitable that spending weeks on end touring with other acts affects how I make music on my own.

TSP: What does the rest of 2010 hold in store for you?  Can we expect a new long player from Fieldhead any time soon?

PE: I’m not completely sure to be honest. There’s a live album coming out soon on Gizeh, which is a way of documenting the series of live shows we played around Europe and Canada earlier this year. Fieldhead live can be quite different to on record, especially with the addition of Sarah and Elaine, so I wanted to do something with the recordings we got from the tours. Beyond that I’ve been working on a few tracks for compilations, a few remixes, and am in the very, very early stages of a couple of collaborations. As for a new album, I’m sure it will come at some point, but no firm plans at the moment. I tend to be heavily influenced by my surroundings, so I feel that I’m still settling in to the geography that I’m living in at the moment before anything takes hold.

TSP: It seems to me that there is a massive market at the moment for the type of music you create.  At the same time, there are many people creating ambient, atmospheric, electronica. How important is it to be able to stand out from the crowd nowadays given the volume of music being made available?

PE: Although there are loads of people doing this, I think that the number is exaggerated due to the ease of recording and releasing. If all you need is a laptop to write, record, produce and release your music, and then if you can use that same laptop to create a website, set up a label and do the artwork it makes it pretty easy to get it out there. And I think this is a good thing. In an ideal world the best music would stand out from the crowd by virtue of its quality, but it’s inevitable that a visible web presence is now at least as important as traditional publicity, promotion and the like. Personally, I’m always drawn to artists and labels who have the confidence to release their music with care, and if something comes out on a nicely designed but simple physical release, I’m more inclined to listen to it.

TSP: Which leads on nicely to music sharing. Obviously the internet has created the ability for an artist to have their music heard on a much wider level.  With this though comes the problem of illegal file sharing etc.  Do you have any particularly strong views on this balancing act? (I know this is a fairly simple question for a fairly complex subject – feel free to not dive into it too much!)

PE: Ah. Music sharing. I’m torn to be honest. On one hand, I do strongly dislike the idea that smaller labels and artists are losing money after putting lots of hard work in to releases, and I also resent the polarisation of release formats that occur in attempt to deal with this – either cheap and impermanent cdr releases, or expensive and overly fancy packaging that is only really attractive to collectors. I also completely agree with the well documented argument that music sharing is undermining the worth of recorded music. On the one hand. On the other, experience would tell me that the technology that allows small artists to reach audiences across the world is inevitably going to lead to people taking music without paying for it.

TSP: What’s on the stereo at the moment?

PE: At this very moment? Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel. Recently? Sun Kil Moon – Tiny Cities, Rachels – Systems / Layers, Brave Timbers – For Every Day You Lost, Flying Lotus – Los Angeles, Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express, J Dilla – Ruff Draft EP, Seaworthy – 1897, Jasper TX – The Black Sun Transmissions.

TSP: Finally, name your top five albums of 2010 so far.

PE: I never really know how to answer these questions, because I never seem to listen to albums as they come out. And if I do come across something recent, I tend to forget about it until months afterwards. And then I catch up on stuff that everybody else was listening to last year… so I’m a bit useless in this respect. Sorry!