Features I by I 29.09.13

Metaphysics, mescaline and tears in the rain: Alexander Tucker and Daniel O’Sullivan sing the ballad of Grumbling Fur

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On a drizzly day in a suburban pocket of Tottenham, Grumbling Fur’s Daniel O’Sullivan opens his front door and invites me across the threshold to another dimension.

Entering his modest house, which from the outside seems no different to its unassuming neighbours, is like passing through a portal to a wyrd liminal world of visionary eccentrics and dark occultists, voyaging psychonauts and third-eyed mystics, where unruly plants lean against the window panes and stacks of science fiction paperbacks are flanked by stuffed peacocks and lion masks.

The house (which, along with its contents, belongs to the artist Ian Johnstone, former partner of the late John Balance of Coil) is a tangible microcosm of Grumbling Fur’s interior world, at once ancient and modern, domestic and cosmic. It was here that O’Sullivan and his long-time friend and collaborator (and solo artist in his own right) Alexander Tucker spent a year recording their second album, Glynnaestra, released this year on Thrill Jockey.

The pair first met through the hardcore scene while O’Sullivan was still in his teens, and were briefly in an aborted attempt at a “trashy, punk-poppy band”. Years later, O’Sullivan was playing with his avant-rock improv unit Æthenor (alongside percussionist Steve Noble, Stephen O’Malley of metal innovators Sunn O))) and Kris Rygg from experimental Norwegian metal band Ulver), “and we were going to do some shows, so I asked Alex if he would want to open up for us,” he says. “It was a disastrous tour.” “Oh, awful, awful,” deadpans Tucker.

Putting that hiccup behind them, the pair then reconvened to work on their first album as Grumbling Fur, 2011’s Furrier. Recorded with two other musicians – Jussi Lethisalo from Circle and David Smith from O’Sullivan’s old band Guapo – the album is looser and more organic in both structure and instrumentation than its successor, the electronic-leaning, and occasionally even poppy, Glynnaestra. A lushly textured, deeply psychedelic voyage from pastoral England to the edge of the galaxy, with abstract synth and found sound collages, lashings of Tucker’s signature cello washes and even a hymnal ode to Blade Runner’s replicant anti-hero Roy Batty, it’s one of FACT’s favourite albums of the past three months.

FACT took a seat next to the stuffed peacock to ask Tucker and O’Sullivan about mescaline-fuelled writing, “laminated sounds” and tears in the rain.

Glynnaestra strikes me as a very British sounding record, even – or especially – in its more psychedelic moments. Do you see yourselves as working within a particularly British lineage of experimental music?

Alexander Tucker: There was a period of time when I was just listening to American bands, but I’ve always had a really big love for bands like Cardiacs, and their sort of Englishness.

Daniel O’Sullivan: Things like This Heat as well, and Coil and Spacemen 3. There’s a rich lineage of English wyrd, with a y.

AT: Syd Barrett, The Beatles. We’re both massive Beatles fans [laughs]. It’s funny that it’s almost more out-there to say you’re a massive Beatles fan than to say you’ve got the whole Merzbow discography.

DO’S: But then we go one step further and say we’re massive McCartney fans as well.

AT: Oh yeah, early Macca.

“We took mescaline one day and swapped brains – I wanted to write a prog masterpiece and Dan just wanted to mash his fists on detuned guitar.”

But even with these British influences, the album seems quite consciously otherworldly, too. And it’s very different to your first record, which had a looser, more organic feel to its structure and instrumentation. How did you get from that to the electronic palette of Glynnaestra?

DO’S: I think setting up in this house really changed things for us, actually. I was in a real state of flux in my personal life and I found a centre of gravity again in this house. Other than that, we also weren’t really interested in repeating the first album.

AT: Yeah, and the amount of jam band albums [around], especially in the last few years, there’s so much of that. It’s fantastic whilst you’re doing it, but there’s so many examples of it, so what’s the point? And it doesn’t matter what you’re using to generate the sound, we’re not trying to take this genre or that genre and put it together, it’s not about that at all. It’s just using an electronic thing or an acoustic thing, it’s just a tool.

DO’S: Not being afraid to collage elements together.

What kind of machines and instruments did you make use of on the record?

AT: For me, I was marrying synths with cello and getting these really nice laminated sounds, and we just got really into these really homogenised sounds from different sources. We’re big 13th Floor Elevators fans, and you can really look at that music as a whole, as a nucleus, but then you can travel down into it and pick it apart.

DO’S: It’s presenting music without giving one voice particular emphasis. Allowing the whole thing just to be a society of sounds, in a way.

AT: Quite often we’ll start with really abstract elements.

D’OS: ‘The Ballad of Roy Batty’ started with little zen balls.

AT: They’re those little Chinese balls that you turn in your hand and they have chimes inside. I was doing a David Bowie in Labyrinth [laughs] and Dan immediately went over to the harmonium and came up with a riff, and from that we just started layering up the instrumentation, then the vocals, and in a few hours it was done.

DO’S: It’s always a game of exquisite corpse for us, responding to each other’s suggestions.

The first time you came up with the idea for ‘The Ballad of Roy Batty’ and played it through, did you have to laugh a bit afterwards?

AT: I think we cried! I think we got tearful, just ‘cos the emotion behind it was so potent. I mean it is beautiful, that part of the film. We weren’t worried at all about it seeming cheesy or naff or whatever, because we genuinely love the sentiment behind that end scene. Rutger wrote it himself.

DO’S: I think he developed quite a unique relationship with Ridley Scott on that film.

AT: And Harrison Ford pushed so much against Ridley Scott and they sort of fell out. I can’t remember what it was, he was just a grumpy sod or something.

DO’S: I don’t think he liked the idea of it being a sort of non-dualistic outcome. A lot of people have had problems with that film, that’s why there’ve been so many cuts of it, you know. Because Roy Batty is a creature of his own volition, but he’s also something that was made. And the references to Tannhauser [in the speech] are so remarkable, so cryptic, and even the invented terms, like c-beams… I feel like they’re being manifested into reality from something that’s already some sort of archetype, you know what I mean?

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Is it true that your experience of taking mescaline was an influence on the album? What impact does that have on the music you’re coming up with?

AT: I don’t think it really makes that much difference, in a way. We took that one day and we kind of swapped brains – I wanted to write some sort of prog masterpiece and Dan just wanted to mash his fists on detuned guitar. It’s usually the other way round. But I think our brains are already pretty… you know, we opened the doors many years ago.

Alex, you’re known for your untrained, almost naïve approach to making music, whereas Daniel is classically trained. How does that affect your communication with each other?

AT: I think sometimes my lack of knowledge is really good. Sometimes I’ll be doing something that’s quite complex, that has a complex thought process behind it, but I’m not completely aware of that, I’m just using the tools in front of me. We often both get written about as multi-instrumentalists, and I would say, well, yeah, put me in a room with instruments and I can play every single one of them – but I also have no knowledge at all of the mechanics.

DO’S: For me, when I was studying classical music it was always a bit of a problem, because I always wanted to immerse myself in a more intuitive process with music, so as soon as I could get out, I did get out. It’s not really a problem for me working with musicians who are quote-unquote untrained, because that’s something I let go of a long time ago.

“I’ve always loved that tension between the modern and ancient.”

You both contributed to the album’s artwork – what’s the cover all about?

DO’S: It’s a photograph of a road round here, but it’s not a real road, it’s in the park up there and it’s like a road for kids, you know, to go round on their bicycles and go-karts. Walking round there is really dreamlike.

AT: It’s got that sort of unreal feel to it. Dan took a great photo of it. There’s an obvious Abbey Road [connotation]… but that wasn’t the thought behind it really. And I’ve been making a lot of collages with spheres and planets and things, and we got together over in my studio and just started cutting things out and placing things.

Is it a very conceptual companion to the music or is it more spontaneous than that?

DO’S: Well, because the music is triggered from that sort of automatic space, where it’s not overly considered, the artwork is sort of the same. But because it’s come from the original nucleus, which is almost ineffable in a way, it all does tie in conceptually. It would be difficult to articulate what it is.

AT: It’s a culmination of years and years of our interests and loves and thoughts and desires.

DO’S: We’re both massively into metaphysical literature and science fiction and fine art and all sorts of things, so it’s kind of a combination of the things that we’ve been talking about and introducing each other to for all these years.

The artwork also has the look of an old BBC TV show, like The Prisoner. It seems like it’s quite important to you to create a record that can’t be be attached to a particular era.

AT: Yeah, for my solo stuff I’ve always loved that tension between the modern and ancient, and I was brought up with a love of the old and the musty, and collecting things. I’d go to bottle dumps and Victorian refuse sites with my dad to dig up old bottles and things, but at the same time I was massively into comics. It’s a love of the past, but also a kind of hopefulness for the future and what that might bring.

Are you really hopeful for the future?

AT: Oh yeah, always.

DO’S: Hopeful for the present, and that, therefore, is the future. The future is obviously completely abstract and doesn’t really exist – neither does the past, they’re just sort of ideas.

AT: However difficult my day, I still end the day feeling like, yeah, I’m looking forward to getting up tomorrow. Even in my darkest hours, after about 7 o’clock I’m like, fuck it, everything’s gonna be alright.

DO’S: I think we both look on the bright side generally.

Perhaps when you have an interest in all areas of the past, it’s easier to be relaxed about the present.

AT: That’s right, it’s all the same, just the human drama unfolding.

DO’S: I mean, don’t get us wrong, we’re completely aware that this is all being controlled by Illuminati… but we can’t do anything about that.

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