"I feel like this album is a snapshot of a time long since passed” An Interview with Spiral Void

Spiral Void's latest album, Atom Bomb Sky, 1955, gives life to the digital rabbit holes of the present.

Published: October 5, 2018Words: Macon Holt & Spiral VoidInstagram: @spiralvoidbandAlbum: Atom bomb Sky, 1955

Atom Bomb Sky, 1955, is something of a departure for Spiral Void (Will Jarrett and Luke Hilton), who have previously plowed a particular line of jam and lyric-based psychedelic folk.

With the new record, however, these long-form jams have been radically recontextualized as the soundtracks to vocal samples snatched from speeches and interviews, which can be found online, from the last 70 years or so. This is an album that attempts to give space to those insights you stumble across, accidentally, after hours of casual web-surfing, and can slip away the moment you close the tab. It is a record that pays homage to this dilettante approach to cultural history, which is largely unacknowledged but has, for many of us today, helped to form who we are.

The release of Atom Bomb Sky, 1955,marks nearly ten years to the day since Jarrett says he first heard Hilton play the guitar and realized they should work together. And I’m sure they had no idea back then of the experimental direction their records would take. The instrumentals on this recorded in January over the course of three days of a non-stop improvisatory jam session. Then over the following months, Jarret cut them down to 20 tracks, which Hilton then title from a list of phrases they had compiled previously. The tracks were then randomly divided between the two of them to edit and add samples. In a session this summer, the two came together again to refine what they had made and add a little more and edit a little more and finally settle on the 10 tracks on that make up the record. Jarrett, who also records under the moniker drm vzr, apparently recorded what little vocals there are on the record on one Monday morning at around 6 am, after a night of whiskey and cigarettes, which really brings out the wounded quality.

The end result of this process is a record of savant-like sublimity, reminiscent at moments of the time warp effect of musical projects like The Caretaker in combination with the unschooled playing of Daniel Johnston and the soundtracks to as yet unmade movies. This is an album that does not so much occupy space as it gives space to the shared ideas and sensations so vital in the moment but that we often dismiss as resulting from mere meditation. This album finds the emotional validity of your 3 am YouTube binge and lets you linger in it without judgment or false praise. I asked Spiral Void a few questions to find out if I had this records straight.

You guys started out playing psychedelic folk and went on to become a jam band. On Atom Bomb Sky, 1955, you seem to have entered more formally experimental grounds. Not quite ambient, not quite jams, not quite sampling. What took you in this new direction and how would you characterize it?

Luke: We made so much weird shit in the past, stuff that I still really love listening to, but more for nostalgia than anything else. Ten-track EPs that had names like Skag Magic and stuff, and were less musically experimental than they were unhinged. Then we did the album Life from Spiral Void a couple of years ago, which attempted to take in the best of what we’d done in the first 8 or so years. So it had folky stuff on there, jam stuff on there, but it was mostly old stuff. I think the new direction on ABS, 1955 came from partly a desire we both had to do something new and something that wouldn’t have fit into what we’d done on the last album. We wanted a drastic change. In terms of how this particular sound came to be, it was organic in that we were both listening to certain things, which informed our discussions of what we’d do next—we created a playlist that was supposed to capture the mood of what we wanted to create. Then once we decided what it should sound like, we realised that recording it through a series of improvisations would capture that mood, and play to our strengths. To summarise, the new direction was partly as a way of escaping the past, and partly because it was an attempt to make the music we wanted to listen to.

Will: In addition to the playlist, we had a big list of titles that led the way somehow. We like big long titles which often sound pretentious as hell. We looked at a lot of New York mid-20th-century photography. Saul Leiter, William Klein (whose famous photo provided the album title), Vivien Maier, Diane Arbus and Stephen Shore. I feel like this album is like a snapshot of a time long since passed, in places which don’t exist anymore, with forgotten ghosts wandering in and out.

The promotional material for this album was made up a series of compelling video clips with music on Instagram. I found these to be incredibly evocative. What was your motivation for experimenting with this form?

W: it was kind of a lark at first. I happened upon the music of the first Instagram video in the raw files of album sessions when I had to go back into them and thought it would make kind of a funny “teaser” video. And then I started the account and made the first video in about 5 minutes. Then we thought it’d be funny to do it every day until the album came out – but with no music that’s on the actual album. But then we had to 27 of them. We split up the days between us, some of the videos are of photographs, some footage Luke took, some are YouTube but manipulated. The music was all pretty bespoke for ‘the gram’. The last 2 bits of music are actual b-sides but the rest are all from the sessions cos we had so much left over from the 3 days of playing. A lot of it wasn’t great on its own but I just fucked around with it and turned 1 or both of our parts into crazy midi instruments on Ableton then would just find a sample and chuck it in. That might sound quite complicated but I did them all in like 5 or 10 mins tops. I had to make a batch when I knew I’d be busy but in most cases, I would do it the night before or the morning of and either do the video or send Luke the track to do. I really like some of them—we’ve talked about doing an EP of some kind with them. We embraced the shamelessness and managed to get to what I think is the limit of how many people you can follow on insta—7,500 just for people to follow back for a laugh—I’m more impressed with that than the follower number. Some of the people sampled on the Insta tracks are: Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Some bloke who thought he’d died and gone to heaven, Laurence Olivier, Thom Yorke, David Lynch, Ringo Starr, River Phoenix, A man famous for playing Davy Crockett, Eartha Kitt sadly didn’t make the cut.

Previously your work has been quite lyric-driven. But this record only features Will’s singing on only two or three tracks. Why was it important to take a step back on this one?

W: I’m not really sure how that happened—I think the idea was initially to go away with each of our tracks and write based on what we had—whether that be lyrics or poetry—I tried a few other things that were cut cos they just didn’t fit. I feel like the music in most cases just didn’t lend itself to melodies in the same way—because it’s so improvised it just didn’t lend itself structurally to a traditional song structure. We didn’t want to cut it up and impose that on it. The track Meeting Place actually had the “do doos” that you hear at the beginning on it because the mic was on in the room when we did that. So that just lent itself naturally to it. Washing Line was initially about 16 minutes and I improvised over the whole thing just messing about – then we cut it down and stripped a lot of that away. A mutual friend of ours voiced his displeasure at the amount of singing and the register I was singing in, so I worked on that a bit to make it in his words “less fucking Mariah Carey”.

L: Yeah it wasn’t really something we discussed before. We kind of arrived at the decision to make them mostly non-vocal tracks separately but at the same time. It was, I suppose, just obvious to us how the music should and shouldn’t be accompanied.

Obviously, this record will never make a penny given all the uncleared samples, but its beauty stems from their use with such wild abandon. Could you say why it was important for you to present them in this context?

L: We did question whether the album should be called Please Don’t Sue,but we never had any intention of making money from the album, so decided it was probably fine.The use of them at all came from Will, I believe, while creating the demos out of the recording session. I can’t remember the first one he showed me, but when I heard Dot from Eastenders giving a monologue I was completely sold on the idea. I don’t think we intended to use them as frequently as we did when we started, but they kept coming and they kept sounding great and eventually we just decided that they should all be like that. In terms of the particulars, we each took half the demos to work with so we found our samples separately, so I can’t necessarily speak to what Will’s methods were in that way, but for me it was less about finding fantastic phrases and using them, than it was about finding particular moods and auras that a stranger’s voice would present. The preacher and his religious fervor I found to be really powerful, the old man speaking was sad, the cult leader was eerie. To me, it wasn’t that different than picking out an instrument to use to create a certain effect on a song. It is I guess a testament to the power of affect to be found in the voice and words of ordinary people.

Because there is a good deal of improvisation and imperfections in the music on this record, it has a really live feel despite also clearly being the product of laptop composition. Is there a plan to take this record on the road or is it rather a set of perfectly preserved moments?

W: It’s kind of both a live album and a laptop album. All the piano and guitar was improvised live but just fed into the laptop. We didn’t overdub a great deal, but there’s a lot of manipulated midi generated from what we played underneath some of it. Particularly something like Briar Hill. I was very restrained editing wise in not making a tremendous amount of cuts, what you hear is, for better or worse, us just playing together at the same time. I didn’t want to hide the ‘mistakes’ if I could help it. I’m still amazed that we played as well as we did without glaring bum notes across the whole 39 minutes. But then again, those 39 minutes are what’s left of three days of playing constantly.

That’s really what drove the album to sound the way it does. We were only recording at the time, if I remember correctly, with the intention of writing and learning the parts and developing them later. But what was there was too special to fuck with.

L: I like that it sounds live, one of our early ideas was for it to sound as though it was being played in some smoky club to very few people sometime in the past. As for playing it live, as W said, it would be too forced, and I’m terrified of public performances.

View this post on Instagram

#void #ii #spiralvoid #soon #my #pet #soon

A post shared by Spiral Void (@spiralvoidband) on

Spiral Void: Will Jarrett & Luke Hilton

Listening to the record, I’m struck by the interplay of the music with these long vocal samples. To me, it seems to capture a specifically modern form of profundity. That kind moment when you’ve just gotten back from the pub, and you have probably had exactly one too many for a weeknight, and so you’re staring at videos on YouTube and able to jump from some of the most meaningful speeches ever made by human beings to utter banality. And in your blurry, drink-addled brain you start to lose yourself in the ideas of others. Is that what you were going for? And if not what was it?

L: That’s interesting. It’s not consciously what I was going for, but it certainly happened. The videos where I picked up my samples from all invariably led down a steep path of more videos. Watching the same people waffle on about their lives for ages and then having to decide what, of all the words they spoke, would be best to use. I liked the process of finding videos that I had no idea existed, people, who had ideas and simple, personal problems that only had maybe 400 views on youtube, and outside of this process (which started off as a purely stylistic endeavour) I would never have heard them. I like how through the creation of this album I found other things beyond just a new way of making songs. It was similar to the promotional videos too, in that I would make my search terms as broad as possible before randomly selecting a video that I would have no inclination to watch otherwise.

W: Really the song ‘Dragon Weathervane atop St. Mary Le Bow’ was the catalyst for the samples. The actor Leslie Grantham who’d played Dirty Den had died and I saw it on the news and it just sparked in my brain. Remembering reading about June Brown doing an episode alone, which I’m not sure I even watched as I haven’t watched Eastenders since I was a nipper. And I found it in seconds and I knew it had to go with that track (which was titled Maurice Bessinger at the time and was in my half to work on). And I chopped it up then and there and it just worked. I guess that shows how much of the world we have at our fingertips. 20 years ago you would’ve had to have a cd or a videotape of that if you had it to begin with. Funnily enough, the chords of that track actually originated in a little song I had about five years ago when we were in The Memory Hens, but we never did anything with it. It felt quite good to chuck out the vocals which up until then I’d thought I might use.

In choosing a lot of the other samples, I felt like I was searching for people to pay tribute to but trying not to take anything too obvious. Oftentimes, I’d end up down YouTube rabbit holes just the same.

What’s next?

L: Well I’m sure Will will have plenty to be getting on with the number of songs he writes. I’ve been toying with doing some solo things to be written and recorded exclusively late at night after eight lonesome pints in Wetherspoons. We’ll probably come back together in a while for the next SV album, but it’s not really even in germination stages yet. We’ve talked about a bunch of concepts but nothing has necessarily stuck. I would say watch this space, but don’t worry about it, as we’ll get in touch when we next have something.