"A cathartic interview" - Nick Magnus talks to TWR about his latest album, Catharsis. Photographs courtesy of Dick Foster, Jo Hackett and Tony Patterson.
TWR: This album, completely different from its predecessor, tell us a little bit about the background to it first of all…
NM: We were looking for a concept which was unlikely for anyone else to do and when we thought of it, it was a fairly unlikely choice to be honest! (laughs).But greatthe best way to come up with an original idea like that is to do something which is personal to you, which nobody else has done, let alone thought of. So, having been to this place for about ten years, we came back with the idea and thought there is some fantastic history associated with it, which ranges from prehistoric right up to the present day.
TWR: So, for those people who might not know, which area/region are we actually talking about?
NM: It's the Ariege, which is the Northern foothills of the Pyrenees which is France. It has everything, it has got history, it has got caves, it has got forts, it has got Cathar castles; it has got Medieval castles, it has got food (laughs) fantastic markets, so we decided to construct an album where each of the tracks was based around one of these things; a place, or a time and place, not necessarily factual either, for example the final track : Mountain Mother is an entirely imagined story but based on likely facts from prehistoric times but the Catharsis title is a pun really, of course, and it refers to the Cathars who were in the Ariege region in fact all the way from the Central Pyrenees to the East Coast was really the home of the Cathars and there were numerous castles around, Montsegur is probably the least well preserved but probably the most famous in terms of history.
The opening track, Red Blood, White Stone is basically the story of the siege of Montsegur in 1234 by the Inquisition who trapped the Cathars in what they thought was a completely unassailable castle and it turned out not to be unassailable at all and they were trapped in there, staved out and finally when they were forced out, those who wouldn't relinquish their faith were burned alive. A pretty gruesome story but a good one to hang the whole album title on and the keystone track as it were, of the album. It gets a little less dark after that! (laughs). We visit various places that we love.
TWR: So, it's a travelogue effectively?
NM: A Progalogue! We didn't want it to come across as a travelogue and there is always the worry that people might think I've just seen this on the BBC Travel show...and that was certainly not our intention! Those who watch the DVD may not agree! (laughs).
TWR: We will talk about that a bit later,but you have the first track which has a very much historical background and then your invention takes off on some of the others but there are two that I particularly want to talk about: A Widow In Black ...is that based on a real person?
NM:. Yes, well the final line of the song is: "Remember the life that Marinot" Well the song starts off using Marinot as the central character - the widow in black and she is actually the great, great, great grandmother of Andre who is the wife of Guy who owns the Gite that we stay in. Marinot farmed up there and what is now the outhouse used to be a sheepfold. So that is where Marinot did all her farming, just traipsing up and down all on foot and meeting the guys coming down from the mountain camps carrying ice packs on their backs because they didn't have fridges.
TWR: So she is a historical character. How did you come across the story? Did you discover it by talking to the people who own the Gite?
NM: Once again, it is part fact and part fiction and what we were writing about in the first couple of verses of that track is basically describing Marinot's life as a farmer,all on her own, tending her sheep and cattle in what must have been a very repetitive and monotonous life, every day she had to do this, winter wet and summer hot as it says in the song. Whatever the weather she has to do it
That was at the turn of the Twentieth Century basically, then we move forward to the middle of the Twentieth Century where the Pyrenees was the escape route for the Resistance to get them into Spain and because the area is riddled with caves, and secret pathways and passages and covered in forest, the hills are covered in forest land so you can move around off the beaten track fairly undetected and we kind of fancied that the Gite and the cowbarn and the sheepfold were used to shelter Resistance people where they would catch up on a few hours of uneasy sleep and then move on.
It is highly likely that it was used for that. we don't have any confirmation from the owners that it was actually true but why not? So we imagined that and that moves forward to the present day and the happier days now where it is all four by fours and children playing and so it just looks at that particular building and its history over a hundred and fifty years.
TWR: There is one theme that seems to run throuhout the album: time and space, so much is evoked in so little time in terms of the length of the album but as you said, before, you go from prehistory right the way through to the four by fours and the kids on swings. It is a frighteningly compact evocation of eight thousand years of history effectively. It looks so easy when you hear the album but was it that easy to try and get those concepts to mesh?To make them convincing?
NM: I don't think we ever thought of it in terms of whether it was easy or not, it is just certain tracks seemed to call out to have something written about them. I think I know what you are getting at, in that our original idea was to have it run chronologically. It was going to start with Mountain Mother then Three Towers, then Convivium and so on up to the present day and if that were the case, it would probably have ended with A Widow In Black. But when you looked at it on paper, or when we actually put the pieces together back to back, and played it through, it just didn't work. The shape was entirely wrong and the chronology seemed absolutely irrelevant. What mattered was the dynamic flow of it and when you are putting it together, an album of songs whatever it is about whether it is completely individual songs or a concept thing, the track order is part of the composition process in itself.
You have to get things right, whether that be loud/soft, fast/slow, the keys they are in and the instrumentation and finding the right order to make it flow and having a sense of going somewhere and arriving somewhere at the end. It became obvious that after Mountain Mother it would really feekill the mood of we followed it with anything else. That had to be the end.
TWR: Knowing that now, as I didn't beforehand as I hadn't heard the album, but knowing that now, that would be a bit like putting Supper's Ready at the start of Foxtrot! There are three which really stand out for me which we haven't talked about yet. Le Pont Du Diable, I love the idea, tell us a bit about the legend and your take on it…
NM: Well it is a bridge fairly local to where we are and it crosses the Ariege at a point where it is in a deep gorge and there is fairly rapid running water under it and it is quite a ruin of a bridge although it has been restored to the point where you can walk over it fine but they have left it looking fairly kind of Medieval and a bit of a wreck. It isn't a Medieval bridge though, it was built in the 1800's and its appearance belies when it was built. It is a lot more recent than that. It's not the first bridge to have been there though,I think this one replaced the one that was there previously.
It serves to join two communities together which, if the bridge wasn't there, they would have to walk five miles upriver and come five miles back again so it was built with a practical purpose and there are several legends that grew up about it and the one that we liked was the one where the Devil does a deal with the local inhabitants and he says: " I will build you this bridge overnight in exchange for the soul of the first living thing to cross it…" and the villagers go away and consider and come up with a cunning plan and the following morning they go down to the gorge and the bridge has magically appeared overnight and the Devil has done his part of it, so the inhabitants...the first thing they send across is a cat! (laughs) and of course, the Devil has to fulfil his end of the bargain so he takes the soul of the cat and he is furious and falls over the edge into the raging torrent below - a moral tale if ever there was one! That isn't covered in the song as such it is just one of the many stories that exist about how and why the bridge came to be.
The song itself is primarily about having to make choices, difficult, no win choices, where you are standing on a bridge and whichever way you go it's a bad deal and no win either way. And you are feeling the bridge crumbling under your feet and if you stand there too long it will crumble and you will fall into the water as well, so you have got to make the choice one way or another. So, the first line of the chorus is: "The world is full of choices, some you make and some make you…" which is a fabulous line that Dick (Foster - lyricist and all round good egg -AH) came up.with and John Armes thought it should be made into a T Shirt ! But there is also a sub text to the song; which is about young suicide and in the first couple of verses you hear Tony Patterson doing an answering vocal which is: " What brought you here so young when your life has just begun?" which is the listener asking, why are you here, thinking of throwing yourself off this bridge , why? You are so young, you have so much to live for, why are you doing this?
So yes, it has this sort of dark sub text given that so many modern suicides are committed by young people. And bridges get involved quite a lot.
TWR: Well, we will move on from that to the track which I thought might have fallen into a particularly nefarious trap but didn't; it managed to sidestep it entirely, and that is the delicious, the delovely, the delightful Convivium! A right Medieval romp that could so easily have become your very own caricature of ..and we mentioned them before so we won't mention them again...but two very well known bands of that era...How did you manage, if you like, to avoid that pitfall …?
NM: By not listening to any of their examples for a start! Basically Medieval music has a lot of very recognisable characteristics and in particular the instruments used; you have Crumhorns, Sackbuts and Harpsichords and Virginals and all this kind of stuff. So the track is just crammed full of those. I wanted it to have a lightness and a humour to it as well and it is supposed to represent a party and so it is keeping that energy up and also trying to be as authentic as possible as I could without reference to those things. I'd watched a lot of old BBC Two David Monroe series on Medieval music and just watching and thinking how is it done?
I love Medieval music but it is not something I have ever analysed in detail. So I watched a lot of David Monroe stuff where you can see them playing and you see the kinds of things they are able to play and the kind of lines that they wouldn't be able to play. So it was just a question of being as authentic as possible.The fact that it is in a rock context as well is going to lead to inevitable comparisons but they are not in any way intended and those people do not have the patent … the monopoly on Medieval music and other people are allowed to do it too!
TWR: You have that and then we come to one of the other tracks which is so brilliantly evoked, more so the lyric, which is The Three Towers, tell us a little bit about that…
NM: Well,it is about the castle at Foix and Foix is the regional capital of the Ariege and it stands at the confluence of two rivers; the Ariege being one and the other is a small river whose name I can't remember! And the castle stands on top of this huge rock, and as we were saying earlier, how the hell did they get all that stonework up there?! I have no idea how they built any of these things and we think we are so bloody clever now, but compared to what they achieved building cathedrals and castles and stuff like that. I think if someone commissioned something like that to be built now, they would say, can't afford it, too expensive and we haven't got the tools.
Anyway it is an amazing castle. And the first time you see it is when you are driving down from Toulouse as Foix is directly South , you could drop a plumbline from Toulouse , it is about an hour's drive and recently they built a long tunnel through part of the mountainside and you plunge into this tunnel and when you come out of the other end you immediately look to your right and you see Foix laid out in front of you and the first thing you see is this castle and it looks like Disneyland!
What I was trying to do was get a flavour more in the instrumentation than anything else, a sense of civic pride, the brass introduction with and everything is in threes in the song, if you have noticed and it is one of those compositional devices where things happen in threes, three tall towers, and so the three figure happens all over the place throughout the song but the main thing that places the threes are the horns at the beginning and the conjunctions between the verses and the choruses, they are doing the three figures there and it is the instrumentation with the tubular bells and everything and kind of reminiscent of Pathe movies, where you have this scene of busy London town and that similar thing where brass is playing figures that sound like chiming bells and imitating the bells of Big Ben .It is a cinematic device really , so basically it is a civic pride that the town has in the castle. That is what it is, there isn't a narrative as such but it does describe the function of the castle and a bit of the history of the town.
TWR: Then we come to another diorama, The Market At Mirepoix…
NM: OK, The Market At Mirepoix - every Monday the whole town of Mirepoix is taken over by this market. Now, Mirepoix is a Medieval town and unlike here where most of our Medieval buildings have crumbled away, we have bits left like The Shambles in York but we have lost pretty much all of them in London but Mirepoix is still all there maintained and restored and they haven't let it fall down.
FeeThis market caters for everything, most of the accent is on food and drink as you would imagine, and you can get anything there, clothes, fish, vegetables, wine, trinkets, gew gaws all sorts of stuff! And it is a fabulous place, it's lovely so we do our weekly shop there basically and the prices are very competitive compared to the supermarket and it has bags and bags of characters and you are highly likely to have buskers all over the place. Some of them will be walking all over the place like a conga line and last year there was one particularly dreadful one and everyone was sticking their fingers in their ears (laughs) but there are some very good ones. Everything from Gypsy Kings to Folkies to string quartets and so what I wanted to put across was, first and foremost to give a feel of the market by having a bit of the actual recorded market noise that brings the track in and takes it out again at the end. And there is a musical intro which is kind of a demented string quartet and they are all playing in ⅞ and they are doing it very demurely, all very Hinge & Bracket…
TWR: Tell our readers the story you told me about the instructions you gave to the violinist…
NM: The piece needed a solo and I wanted a kind of raucous solo and I wasn't really sure what it should be done on and I thought, should it be on guitar? No. Synth solo? No. And what else could it be? And it suddenly hit me because I had just recently been working with the guys on the latest United Progressive Fraternity album and I did keyboards on three tracks and even helped co-write one of them with Steve Unruhe who is a fantastic multi talented musician. He pretty much plays everything but he excels on violin and he did some cracking violin solos on the UPF album and one in particular where he just let rip and went wild and I thought...I want one of those! (laughs) so I got in touch with him and I said, I've got this track and it really needs this completely mad violin solo, would you like to do one? And he said, I'd love to do one! And so I sent him the track but along with it I sent him a picture which Dick made up in Photoshop - to try and describe the photo; it is basically a Hinge & Bracket style string quartet all in Edwardian dress in black and white and then the same picture to the right cracked open and this Rock Chick violinist , blond, flowing hair , basque, suspenders playing the violin like crazy and I sent that to Steve and I said: this is what I am trying to get across. It's Hinge &Bracket at the beginning and the end but one of them just throws off her hustle and her ruff and comes out with the suspenders and the Basque and just does the wild electric violin solo and Steve thought it was hilarious and did exactly that! And he just nailed it in one and the first thing he sent back was just perfect . And so that was that.
TWR: So, we come to the album's closing track and the sort of magnum opus that is Mountain Mother. Dark, evocative, dramatic, what are the ideas behind it?
NM: Mountain Mother,we go back to prehistoric times. This one is , it was really based on the caves, the whole area of the Pyrenees not just the Ariege but all of the region, is riddled with fantastic caves, caverns and some of them have become a very big tourist draw and we got the idea to do this track after a visit to one in particular called La Gritted De Niaux and that is near a town called Tarascon which is only about ten miles south of Foix. It is only about 5km outside of Tarascon but it isn't the easiest of places to get to and there is a perilous road that runs up to it and you can book to have guided tours of the caves but they only take eight people at a time and there is one trip in the morning and one in the afternoon and you basically have to phone and book ahead.
So we did, we booked ahead and they give you torches but they tell you not to turn them in until you are told. And basically they take you into the cave,into the mountain and in this particular cave there is a lot of cave art and there are lots of quite rude sculptures ; penises and vaginas sculpted on the walls and also, very touchingly, there are lots of handprints on the wall, like where they have done an airbrush like round a child's thumb and you suddenly realise that this is a handprint of a child that is 17000 years old! And it is still there! And it looks as if it was done yesterday.
Then you go further and deeper into the mountain and in fact you end up walking about one and a half kilometres into the mountain and sometimes you have to get on your hands and knees and crawl through a small tunnel and eventually you come to the place they really want to show you, which is this huge cavern which is the size of a cathedral inside and it is incredible and then he turns on his torch and shows you the paintings in there on the walls and they are absolutely stunning. The artistry, the craftsmanship and draughtmanship is stunning. Animals in beautiful anatomical detail not these crude things that people expect. It is beautiful artwork and there is a lot of symbolism, strange things that look like noughts and crosses and there is a grid with dots in and you are thinking what does it mean?
And then he eventually shines his torch up and you can see how high the ceiling of this cavern is and it is absolutely huge. And it is breathtaking, the whole thing is absolutely breathtaking and one thing that he is explaining was that families lived in these caves, that's where tribes lived and there are loads of similar caverns that can no longer be reached easily without diving equipment and you think of mountains as a solid thing, but they aren't , it's like Swiss cheese and there are rivers and waterfalls and everything in there and so a lot of caverns are now cut off, you can't walk through them and a lot of them are still unexplored and you would get lost if you didn't have the guide, you would not find your way out very easily.
Because the guide was explaining that these were homes for people and that was where the idea for Mountain Mother came from. Because in those days it was all about Rites of Passage and reaching manhood and everything and do that's the story really. It starts with this young boy looking out across the valley waiting to be called by the elders to be put through the ritual, and it is a simulated death ritual where he has to lie in a grave of ashes and leaves and everything and they give him psychotropic plants and he just has a total acid trip and he has all these visions of buffalos flying around and he goes to the stars on the back of a buffalo and when he finally comes to the next morning with one hell of a hangover, covered in sweat, he is now a man and as he says: " I went a boy and returned a hunter" and he goes off on a big swaggery hunt with his brothers and that is what that track is all about.
TWR: Well, that is the album in a nutshell but we can't just leave it there because we have to talk about the people who helped you out it together. So tell us a bit about those wot dun it…
NM: Vocalists, I have a fairly regular stable of vocalists, Tony Patterson and Pete Hicks and Andy Neve all contributed and Tony features on two tracks, Pete does one and Andy does one and I sing two! And Amanda Lehmann makes her debut in the album series singing The Woman In Black.
Steve (Mr Hackett) appears as well, he is on one track and he does a guitar solo on the first track, Red Blood On White Stone and the violin on The Market At Mirepoix is by the aforementioned Mr Steve Unruhe..Then there is Mr Foster, without whom there would be no albums...weeelll, there would be albums but they would be very different beasts, so Mr Dick Foster who is the lyricist and also responsible for the conceptual ideas for the albums as well. It's his words that I really love to write music to and we used to do it fifty-fifty and I just so like writing to his lyrics because they are so visual and so narrative that I now just want lyrics up front because that makes me write things that I would never think of writing otherwise. I think it is one of the things that helps make things different each time because the lyric is differrnt, you have to write different music and you have to write from a different place each time.
TWR: How long did it take to put the entire thing together?
NM: Well, there were lots of long lay off periods, so in terms of actual time it is very difficult to say but from start to finish it was about two and a half years, possibly even pushing three. The DVD video was put together over a two year period and we had to do it over two years because it was really only done when we were on holiday and we were really tied down by the weather and the first year we managed to get a certain amount done but then the weather let us down and we had to lay it across the following year's holiday where we filmed the rest of it and the weather still let us down but finally on the Mirepoix section of the video, we made a virtue of it because if we were going to have to film in the rain, let's do it at the market!
And there you have it folks, another fascinating look behind the scenes of the creation of Nick's latest album which I am sure by now you will have all heard. My thanks once again to Nick for giving up so much of his time to talk to me about it.