"Talking about Field Day" - Anthony Phillips gives TWR the low down on his latest album. Interview conducted on Saturday 10th December 2005.
TWR: So, here we are yet again; the Trivial Brothers (laughter) for round sixteen of the Name Your Artichoke competition. We are here to talk about Field Day, this wonderful new magnificent offering from Shane Warne, that magnificent cricketing guru of many years' standing. But seriously folks, we are here to talk about Field Day…
AP: I'd much rather prefer to talk about Shane Warne! (laughs).
TWR: when did you originally start work on the album?
AP: I started out a long time ago, way, way back so long ago I don't think I can remember now (in best West Country accent) back in 2001. I timed it with that because being a sort of Cosmic sort of chap I thought… end of 2001, it was actually before 9/11 because I was going to do a much longer spiel on the CD but it was down to six or eight pages and it was a real essay in precis which is a shame in a way because you guys are now going to get the full story! (laughs). I was about seven or eight days into it and I was playing… I was actually playing the English Bazouki as I went from instrument to instrument getting ideas in my head and recording them and coincidentally I was playing quite a dark piece of music and I had the radio on in the background which I always do; and I suddenly became aware that something very odd was happening in America and it became more odd and then more than odd and absolutely terrifying and I didn't go to as TV screen. It is actually true I was writing the piece that is now called Fallen City was actually evolving during that radio broadcast and while that stuff was coming in . It was odd really because whether the flavour of it was affected by it or not it was there before all that happened and I just thought; keep playing I don't want to think about it; it was just too awful. I certainly didn't want to go and look and so that is quite a good time marker on where we were when it all started which was literally about a week before.
There was a gap in the Atmosphere schedule and I was getting more and more frustrated with never playing guitar and I don't know if anyone had said anything; if anyone had asked; 'Why don't you play guitar anymore?' I used to pick the guitar up every so often and have a great time and often if you sometimes don't practice something very much it can be much more fun and freer. Too much familiarity and too much playing can dull the senses, I'm sure and because I did little bits; I mean the track called River Of Life, I always used to play late at night and it almost became a sort of mantra thing if I was feeling a little bit wired up and a little bit slower and the final version is little bit too fast and not as relaxed. When you come to final recording it is often difficult to recreate that relaxation; you are always worried about playing a wrong note. So, one or two of the pieces had been around before but not many. Obviously Nocturne was a re-do but that was because I felt I had never even played it remotely correctly and this one is better but twenty five years on from the first version and I reckon in another twenty five years I might, if I am still around; have another crack at getting closer still! (laughs). I am big on reincarnation because it will give me the chance one day to perfect it! (laughs).
Quique's version (on the Suenos album) made me realise it could be played a lot better although his wasn't in the original tuning so whilst it was played much better than my original version in some respects; it lacked some of the original figuration and I always wanted to do it. So, it really was an assault course; a very pleasant assault course of every single stringed instrument and giving them all a break. I did actually fall foul of a couple of them; because I have this lovely eight string Rudloff which I used on Magdalen and Eduardo and a lot of other tracks and it is a beautiful guitar and somehow I couldn't get anything on that one; it didn't really happen. Most of the others I thought I had ideas which were reasonable and it is ironic that the album took so long in the end because it was one of the easiest to actually compose. Partly because I was so fresh to it all and regardless of the merit of the tracks because that isn't for me to judge; to come up with something that was coherent and reasonably OK was quite easy and then it didn't take that long to structure it either.
|The problem was suddenly being confronted by the fact that I couldn't play. It is easy to write these things in sort of sections but to play them fluently and then you have a long practice schedule; got tough because I was so out of practice. It was a really stupid mistake to go and do five or six hours a day - it's just like an athlete really; you have got to build it up. Playing musical instruments you have to obey the same rules as when you play sport; you have to build muscles up and my stamina was really bad and I got a really tight knot in my left wrist and had a lot of physio on it and it didn't help that some of the strings were quite old and I didn't realise this until quite a lot later when I changed all the strings and it got better because old strings you struggle with and remember thinking; originally I was going to record quite quickly and get this done in five or six months; so I thought not bother changing the strings now; do them a month or so before and so when I did change them I suddenly realised why. The physio really slowed me down in fact and then the first attempt to record as is well documented; was not very successful.|
I wasn't on top of some of the pieces and also stupidly I started with one of the most difficult ones. When I did the final recording I started with easier ones and built up to it but I kicked in with one of the most technically difficult ones in 2002 and of course I couldn't do it. I had all the mics set up so I just downed tools. Then there was a break for work on an Atmosphere album but of course I came back to it and I could remember the pieces but there were odd little link bits and stuff and having to practice everything up again so the stops meant I got rusty and had to come back again and I got bored with the pieces as well! (laughs). I don't try deliberately to write pieces that are clever and that I can't play; there are no sort of intellectual games going on. I tend to write things; it all sort of pours out and you just flick through it and it all sounds fine. When you get down to analysing it; there are a lot of roughnesses that need to be tightened up and when I looked at a lot of the pieces I found that I was along way from firming it up when I put it under the microscope.
TWR: My recollection of this one is that it was originally planned as Private Parts & Pieces XI, am I right in that recollection and if so when did that all change?
AP: I think probably late on but I don't really regard it as being that important and as I was going on I probably began to think that it wasn't that important. I suppose over the years I have got a little bit tired of people referring to it as "bits and pieces" and that is fair enough when they are albums that are; it's fine when it is not meant in a derogatory way; it's fine if they are albums that are compilations of little things that you have pout down over the last couple of years as like a scrapbook that you put together but actually when it is something that is all written of one time one period and there are people whose attitude might be 'Oh well, this is a bits and pieces album' well… hang on this is not really a bits and pieces album this is all now, new and of its time.
I think that was one of the reason why, after a lot of compilations I wanted to lay down a marker and make it absolutely clear that this is not, in any way; a compilation of past bits. Apart from the odd track; it is all new music. I think the old delineation has broken down as well between the acoustic albums and the full rock albums and so having an album as a P P from that point of view is now redundant and so I think I will probably only use the Private Parts & Pieces title now as a compilation. Archive Collection is different because that is delving back into the past and so if I was to release a compilation of improvisations on keyboards that I have done over the last two or three years then that would fit into what I now see as a Private Parts & Pieces album A completely new authenticated album; I wouldn't want to call that because it gives people the wrong impression.
TWR: So, this was the town where you really decided to go to town with all the different instruments even though there are a couple of echoes from earlier albums …
AP: There was nothing conscious that I was aware of but even if you put some music by Beethoven on you could easily get mixed up especially if a composer has a style and it is on the same instrument you are bound to repeat yourself you have paths and nuances which you use and go down and sometimes it can be too close for comfort and I might have missed it. It would be very difficult to do stuff that was COMPLETELY different unless you fundamentally changed your style for instance if I did an Indian album on tablas and switched to an underwater Alpine flugelhorn so there is always bound to be stuff that is the precursor of all this stuff I am sure.
|Ant and some of his actual instruments...|
Photos: J Dann/The Pavillion
Photos: B Brink/TWR
TWR: I couldn’t help noticing that it is the same with some of the titles; for instance you have a track called White Spider and there is a book on your bookcase by that title. Was that the influence for it?
AP: Yeah, it was the second physio who was this local girl and she was great but she has sadly moved back to the NHS and I found this chap at the Lister and by that stage my wrist was OK but my calf muscle kept going regularly and I couldn't run actually. He was brilliant and he was a mountaineer and they are a race apart, I had never really met a mountaineer and they are very different because unlike most of the things we do for fun with that you have death staring you in the face and there is a kind of vitality about these guys and he was not quite manic but very, very energetic. Quick with the humour and a huge zest for life as if each moment might be your last. He lost his beat friend at 21 and he would tell me all these fantastic terms for things and one of the most difficult climbs on the Eiger is called "White Spider". It immediately hit me because spiders are black, aren't they and you would never ever think of a spider being white and it is just a brilliant term. Actually it suited the piece because it is very dark and quite high and cold and it wasn't just sort of dished out to him; it was a title I wanted to use but only if it was seen to fit. Then I added all that echo to it to make it seem even more tingly.
He told me that something to do with a crack in limestone fissure is called a "clint" but apparently there is also another one called a "gryke" so we could have had Gryke Eastwood instead of… (laughs) So, White Spider was inspired by the Eiger. Funnily enough this guy was also a fan! Ironically he knew the stuff and had bought some albums in the past. He was a big fan of Steve's too actually.
TWR: one person has asked about the track Weeping Willow and the guitar you played on that one. Can you tell us a bit about that?
AP: Yeah, that is the ten string Classical which John Marlow… John had made me this twelve string which I had used on White Spider and a group of twelve string pieces. His guitar does not have the most depth but it is very, very bright; it is lovely. He made that for me and maybe it was after that and I turned up at one of the Voiceprint do's at Rob Ayling's place and he brought along this ten string and I had heard of them because there is a repertoire of Classical pieces for them which as you know, I don't really follow now that I am not teaching, but it was made particularly famous in recent times by a guy called Yepes and he has done a lot of stuff and so they are around and John Marlow decided to have a go at making one and he was selling it for a price which was actually pretty cheap for what is actually a commissioned guitar; a proper hand made one and obviously it was a huge beast as well and quite a challenge to play! Because you are not talking pairs of strings like you are with a twelve string; you are talking ten individual ones so the fretboard was wide and very, very confusing; far and away the widest and so one moment you are playing a mandolin and the next you are sort of up here and so as well as the left hand I would also get seriously lost with the right hand because I was used to six strings even if it was pairs and suddenly you have got many more and it took a long time to get comfortable on it. I didn't set off to try and write anything virtuoso on it but that was one of the more difficult pieces, definitely. It was pretty difficult that because as well as being incredibly fast in places it was also incredibly intricate and you would be playing something on strings two and three and then reaching up for string nine or eight or ten and you could easily get that wrong.
I think this thumb got well extended and luckily I didn't get any problems because I get this in my left hand sometimes when I have been playing the piano and I could have got trouble with tendonitis but I was alright on that. I really enjoyed that piece but it was a very difficult one to play. Quite haunting and the title came quite a bit later and I had a lot of different titles for a lot of these tracks. That one was one that came late. John Marlow should have been spelt without the final "E" by the way.
TWR: The other one which comes up regularly is people asking about the cover and the design that you chose for that…
AP: Yes, I wanted to; Peter was… the original idea was to get Peter to do something but it wasn't going to be possible because he was… perhaps I shouldn't say too much about this possible animated adaptations of one or two of his books which is still a work in progress. Also I wanted; I felt in the past that it is Peter's detailed work which I love and sometimes the non-detailed work well; I won't say it is not his strongest suit but it isn't as good, whereas there are other people who probably wouldn't get close to him; obviously no one gets close to him in terms of the wonderful work like on The Geese & The Ghost and Wise After The Event and having seen the guys do the cover on the library album (Soundscapes) which I thought was excellent and also they had loads of other ideas which I thought were pretty brilliant. I just thought it was high time to move away from that kind of homey, jokey sort of vibe and make it look a little bit more like an ECM cover and something like that which might make people take it a bit more seriously as opposed to; 'Oh there's another of those quaint little quirky albums from Anthony Phillips'. That was part of my motivation to try and move away from…and I liked their sort of , not quite Damien Hurst sort of art gallery stuff. I have always liked amorphous shapes; which is a form of Impressionism in a way isn't it?
It was a bit of a leap in the dark, it wasn't quite what I was expecting but I didn't have any set ideas. To be blunt they were also relatively cheap as well whereas if you used Peter for x amount of time, because of his success it gets very pricey, so we couldnae be doin' that laddie! And of course In was able to enlist the services of a world-renowned photographer (laughs) Victor, my old mate Vic and it stank! (laughter). I think maybe people were surprised because they had got used to the covers in the past. Another fact I suppose, is that I think it is good to try and do different things not for the sake of it and use rubbish .
The lucky thing has been that because of the library music I have been able to go and purchase a few of these wonderful instruments and there have been a few of these that have really only arrived in the last three to four years so there has been a certain amount of Puritan guilt too; you know buying these things and not using them and so I decided to bloody well use them!
TWR: What is the difference, by the way between an English and a Greek Bouzouki?
AP: Well, they are totally different . The Greek bouzouki is a totally different design and string wise it is the same amount of strings I think I am right in saying; it is eight strings but if you compare the designs they are totally different. I certainly did feel, these are lovely instruments they should be used and I have enjoyed every single one of them for little periods of time I sat around and played and I thought 'well, come on give these things a break' and most of them seemed to produce some nice little ideas with the exception of the Rudloff. I have a really old antique guitar which is the one called the Mirecourt which is used on two tracks at the end of the second disc and which is the ones which they used when I did this interview for Radio Saga. That was interesting actually because he homed in on the one called Prayer For Natalie and asked me what it was about and so it was a good thing I had done some work on the Internet the day before because ; a friend of mine at EMI his girlfriend has got glandular fever or in fact something else connected to it called Epstein-Barre Syndrome and I think one begets the other and the one about Prayer For Natalie is a sad one really, do you know about Cystic Fibrosis? A friend's daughter has it and I remember being told that you don't normally live very long beyond thirty if you have it and it is basically a death sentence and I was so touched by it that I decided to write that piece really.
Some of Ant's guitar collection...
Photo: S Barnes/TWR
Quite a lot of the pieces have stories attached to them and agendas and that is one great thing about writing instrumentals is that you can get something out of your system without ever having to really lay your cards on the line. If you do a song, unless you are really brilliantly obtuse you are pretty much declaring your cards. Then it is down to you to decide if you are going to tell everyone who that person is that you are talking about. I found with the instrumental album that it is rather good because you can be saying all sorts of things and getting it out of your system and nobody else knows which is one of the great things about music; there is some sort of disturbing emotional thing and there are various things you can do. You can keep it to yourself and go mad ; you can go out and get very drunk or some people just get very violent there are all sorts of things. Being able to do this you are so lucky that you can get it out of your system in a way that is decent and poetic and which can inspire other people and it sort of purges you. I was able to… there were a fair few things going on and it was a pretty eventful time. I was able to …there were a lot of secret programmes as they say going on in one or two of the pieces for which you will have to torture me (laughs). Nobody would have known that Fallen City was inspired by.. it seems so trite doesn't it; but I thought what do you call this thing after something like that? I used to love this with The Beatles tracks I used to love it when I knew what their songs were about.
One of the ones which I am quite proud about not because it is a great track but Open Road is called that because it is the only track I have ever done on open strings and that is why it is called Open Road. There is no left hand part at all. It is virtually all the same right hand part but emphasising different strings so you try and create the idea that it is different patterns but actually it is the same pattern but different through emphasis. It does invert at one point and do the same pattern the other way round.
TWR: Was it always the intention to make this a double album or did it just… like The Lord Of The Rings, just grow in the telling?
AP: Not at all, I didn't know how much music I had and I didn't even know if I had enough to make even a single album at one stage. I just wasn't sure right up to when I recorded it I was still thinking is this going to work? I knew I must have too much music for a single album but I didn't necessarily think that … I wasn't to know how it was going to work out and when I came back to it again I didn’t really know and it was only through playing it to other people that I got the idea that most of it stood up and Jon (Dann) and one or two others kindly came over and listened to some of it and I had to chuck out a few and ironically enough, the charango piece didn't make it neither did two classicals and I couldn't actually find a place for a sitar piece and I did actually do a sitar piece but I couldn't find a place for it because there was too much jangling six string stuff and I just couldn't find the slot and maybe because of the length; the length wasn't completely absurd but maybe because a couple of the classicals didn't work out and that there was too much metallic timbre I just couldn't fit the sitar piece in which was a pity. It wasn't anything to write home about but it was quite fun. And it would have given another instrumental variation.
TWR: For the benefit of those who may not know about such things; what exactly is a charango?
AP: A South American instrument made from Armadillo hide and it is a ten string made up of five pairs of strings all classical, all nylon it is very typical of the one that they strum and there is a South American one called a Quattro it is that sort of happy, chirpy sort of one which has a lot of fast strumming and I have used it over the years on different things but I did come a cropper with my main piece which was odd because I didn’t think it was going to be one of the difficult ones but I could not find a take that really stood out. I had tuning problems with that as well because the strings had never been tuned or changed because it is very hard to change the strings on one of these; it is almost impossible. You can't get at them from the outside, you have to …I don't know how you do it to be honest!
And yes, that is a Mellotron he is sitting next to...