Bristol based Jazz-rockers, Get The Blessing recently celebrated fifteen years in the biz by releasing their fifth album, ‘Astronautilus’. (Album review here) I was present for their release party/gig at the Colston Hall’s Lantern venue (Live review here) and chatted to the band before the show about the album and other little tidbits.
Get The Blessing are halfway through their soundcheck when I arrive to interview them, smoothing out the sound, filtering out the unnecessary. Running through a few numbers in preparation for the gig later that evening. Introductions are made and some light, relaxed conversation fills the time until we head back to Get The Blessing’s dressing room for a cuppa tea.
Now, I don’t do many interviews so I’m a little nervous. I try and keep relaxed but not too relaxed. I don’t want to look like a gibbering tit. Beads of sweat roll down my temple as I fumble for the voice recorder in my bag. Jim Barr, the bands bass player looks me in the eye. I think I can sense he knows I am nervous. He is a pretty big guy with a dark beard and deep quiet eyes. He looks at me like, “Come on then Mr Interviewer, give us your questions.” It’s like he’s staring into my soul, trying to figure out what sort of interview this is going to be. Luckily, the other guys are very forthcoming, chatting as I’m passed a soothing cup of tea that helps calm my nerves some.
To crack the ice I ask Get The Blessing about the album’s title and how it came about?
Jim: We decided to go to a house in Cornwall that Jake had fixed up and it was fantastic. It was right where the land drops away to the sea and the elements were there. It was quiet bleak being January, sometimes sun but there was always the sea.
So, we would record all day then go for midnight rambles and the sky was just amazing. We all got a bit ‘hippy’ trying to make tenuous and pretentious connections between the sea life and the stars, and it stuck. All the titles on the album are either sea creatures or astronomical concepts or items, or both. So, ‘Astronautilus’ is the obvious, slightly joke-y title.
How about the picture on the album’s front cover?
Jim: It’s an x-ray of a Nautilus shell and looks like some galactic shit. Clive found it actually and right at the last minute the record label who have not been 100% on everything, phoned us up and said, “Oh you know the front cover of your album, we can’t get hold of the guy to get the rights for it. We been phoning him all day every day”.
So, I went home, phoned him and got through to him straight away. He was like, “I don’t hear too well…”. I had an interesting conversation with him with my new phone cutting out all the time, I had to phone him eight times and every time he was, “I don’t hear too well…”. Then I had to get his paypal account and it all worked out in the end. He’s a guy that does lots of x-ray stuff, very cool but obviously he is getting on a bit. He lives somewhere in California.
Did you specifically choose a different colour palette with this album, and did it have any significance?
Jim: (Semi-sarcastically) We were like, ‘if were gonna put cellophane round our heads this time, we might as well make it a different colour’. No significance, it was one we hadn’t used so far. As soon as we saw the pictures we thought, ‘that’s great’.
At the point, Jake pipes up to clarify things.
Jake McMurchie (Saxaphone): All the quasar ‘hippy’ nonsense about the sea and the sky, although in terms of titles, there’s a certain amount of drawing those connections consciously. My memories of recording it are much more the late night walks across the beach, having a cup of coffee just sitting there, listening to the waves. That sense of remoteness, peace and quiet, and seeing the stars very much affected the sound of the album, if only because we did a lot of playing late at night.
We would go out for a walk, late in the evening and we would come back wanting to play. Even though much of what we played at that time didn’t make it onto the album with the beer, wine, gin & tonic, food. The surroundings heavily influenced the tenor of the way we approached it. There’s a lot more space on this album. Even if it’s not deep space, it’s space in the music.
How do you feel about this album and where do you think it fits in with Previous Get The Blessing releases?
Jim: When we realised we were actually going to make another album, the first thing we did was get together and listen to all four of the other albums and work out where we are. So, we did that and it was a bit of a surprise really. There were things we thought were going to be amazing but weren’t that amazing, and things we had completely forgotten about but it gave us a signpost to what to do or what we thought we should do. The last album didn’t really have any writing on, it had a couple of tunes that were sort of written before we went there but we decided on this one there should have some written things, or at least have some that had been started to be written because we thought some structure would be good, you know.
With ‘written’ do you mean things you’ve practiced and practiced?
Jim: No, no, we never practice and practice but someone brings a tune and goes, “Let’s play this”. Most of the tunes we do, they have only been presented to everyone on the same day. One exception is on the third album when we drove ourselves mad by recording then going out on the road, then coming back and going, “Well that’s bollocks. That’s nowhere near as good as we’re playing it now and we chased our tales quiet a bit. The other albums were fresher because the tunes were worked out very quickly. Within a few takes, we said that’s it.
So, that was the same with this record. There were some structured and very formally made tunes but we work on them quiet quick like Pete Judge’s (Saxophone) tune, ‘Carapace’ was quiet written but didn’t take us long for us to…
Jake: It’s pretty much un-edited, one take. The crucial thing about this album was combining those two approaches. the approach of writing stuff with a wholly improvised approach that we used for, ‘Lope & Antilope’. We had to get through it in just those few days. We still maintained element of improvisation and spontaneity. If it wasn’t working then we moved onto something else and allow ourselves a chance to play, letting things happen.
How long was the recording period that you set yourselves?
Jake: Four days?
Clive Deamer (Drums): That included getting there, setting up and packing down.
Jim: And a little fiddling when we got back to Bristol. With this album it was different from the others because the tour had started being put together last year before we even thought about how we were going to make the record so, everything had to work.
Clive: A line was drawn In the sand and we had to aim for that really.
Jim: And we ‘just’ made it.
Pete: Then the tide came in and washed the line away. All very resonant really.
Do you feel it is different from the other Get The Blessing albums? Moving in any new directions?
Jake: It’s hard to tell from the inside to be honest. That is what was nice about listening to the other four albums before is realising what a difference there was between them. It definitely feel like it’s moving on.
Clive: The instrument sounds have changed a lot. In the early records it’s more raw. The horn sounds have changed..wow…dramatically! And the bass sounds.
Jim: No effects on anything.
Clive: Yeah, it’s really raw, just raw energy. I think now there’s far more understatement as well as dynamism in what we do. It’s expanded in both directions. I love to do the dynamic thing we are known for but I think all the other areas have changed shape and colour in a lot of ways.
Do you guys use a lot of tech equipment?
Clive: These guys do but for me it still could be the 1970’s. We still might have some electronic drums, but we tried it before and I didn’t get the right sound. It just seemed to bounce off. The sound of Get The Blessing are the basic things but Jake and Pete in particular, the sounds that they have found for themselves, where they have re-voiced trumpet and saxophone in various ways, really successfully. They sound like distinct new voices, new characters and that’s had a big effect on the last two albums.
Jim: That becomes part of the writing process too. So, that the sounds aren’t built to decorate something that’s already there. The sound is made and then that becomes catalyst for whatever the tune is going to be.
Pete: And you play very differently when you’ve got a particular effect on it.
Jim: The playing is built from the sound, and it’s the same with the bass. When you’ve got a certain bass sound your like, ‘what’s that going to do then?’
Clive: It make me think of animation. The way that it’s got so sophisticated now and animation is on such different levels. The way that actors with fantastic voices are key to decisions in what an animator will do because they’re thinking of the voice. Well, it’s a bit like that. Soon as you’ve got a great voice playing a character, it’s easy (snaps fingers) to make the story, isn’t it. it’s the same thing but in a musical way.
What piece of kit couldn’t you live without?
Jim: Bottle of Gin!
Pete: My bog standard BOSS DD7 Digital Delay pedal. If this is a ‘desert island’ of pedals, that’s the one, along with a luxury object of a nail clippers obviously. It’s like playing under a motorway bridge. Instant spaciousness and resonance and…geography. What about you Jake?
Jake: I don’t know really. I change all the time but the one I use more than any is the Electro Harmonix Memory Man. You can just do so many different things with it. I still couldn’t do without a saxophone. It’s really important that what we do is ‘live’. It’s about taking something that is live and acoustic, and trying to distort the characteristics of it to give a new character. To give it something new you wouldn’t expect. It still needs to be something you can do live.
We have had conversations before about laptops and sequencing things, and recording loops…actually sometimes I wish we were but most of the time, I’m glad were not because the fact that things can change dynamically. The sound of the room, the sound of the audience become part of the notes and become part of the live experience.
Clive: We were doing a gig in Italy and Jake was setting up, putting the sax together in fact and he was just blowing through the top part of the saxophone, wetting the reed and he played three notes, maybe even two in a way that made Jim and I immediately say, “what was that?” It really jumped out and that became the basis for a tune called, ‘Little Ease’. He then used that technique through an effect because the starting phrase suggested it. Jim and I just picked up on it and that was it, we were off. He pointed the way like a…pointer dog.
Jake: I’m just a musical beagle!
Your video director and collaborator, John Minton is providing visuals for tonight’s show. Can you tell us a little about him?
Jake: We’ve known him for years…
Jim: He did a video for our first, what you might call a single, and it was great. ‘Bleach Cake’ was pre-cellophane bagheads, so it’s actually us…scary. He did a load of promo shots for the second album and the third…
Jake: One thing we love about what he does is the same attitude, ‘It has to be played live and you do something else with it’. Tonight he is going to do visuals with live cameras pointed on us and distort them. He has a way of doing them that is like no-one else does. He has a way of using archive footage also, very lo-fi quality we really like. It’s not polished and smooth like, ‘Top Of The Pops’.
Jim: He’s obsessive about his video distortion. I remember going on the road with him and being in some petrol station in Hungary somewhere and John was watching a monitor that was broken with lines going up. You could just see he was, “Yeah, how can I do that?”.
His approach to making visuals have the same feeling as the videos he made with us. Quick and creative. We just got in a room and thought what have we got, let’s just try stuff. He is really good at just saying, “It’s over there!” And we go running over there…
Clive: He became part of the band like the old cliche. Jake brought the cellophane along and suddenly we were these daft, sinister characters. He completely got it, and he knew exactly how to shoot it and caught all the best stuff, like all good engineers do. When something important happens, he’s got the camera in the right place and he captures it.
We noticed there were no collaborations, guests on this album. Any in particular reason?
Pete: No, it’s first one without anyone. The first without Adrian (Utley, Portishead’s guitarist) as well.
Jake: Partly time, getting it together but it was kind of full. Normally we want to get people involved, we really like that additional input. We listened to each track and thought what’s someone going to add to this, there was much more sound in there. Sonically it’s much broader. If it’s isn’t broke don’t fix it. There’s been a number of times where Adrian has come in and we know it needs something, and he knows what to do but it was much harder on this one.
All words by Philip Allen. More work by Philip can be found in his Louder Than War archive.