From a chance meeting at the Jesus And Mary Chain’s first Hong Kong gig to the invention of a genre – it’s never uneventful for Blood Wine or Honey. Their second album, entitled DTx2, was released in June. It’s wild, wacky and blindingly brilliant. It’s also utterly unique. Donning his best light mac, Gordon Rutherford had to investigate for Louder Than War.
They say that everyone who attended the now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall started a band. Nobody knows how many audience members at the Jesus And Mary Chain’s first Hong Kong show were similarly inspired, but we can be grateful for the fact that two of them were. When musicians James Banbury and Joseph von Hess met backstage that night, something clicked. It wasn’t just that they had both arrived in Hong Kong from the UK. No, there was a deeper chemistry and, following the blossoming of a friendship, Blood Wine or Honey was born.
If you haven’t heard it (and you really ought to), their recently-released second album, DTx2, is a slice of sheer joy. In this bland, vanilla-flavoured world, DTx2 is an intriguing, mysterious, genre-defying collection that stands alone. Such a willingness to deviate from the norm should be celebrated from the rafters. Having reviewed, and loved, the album, I wanted to get a sense of where that originality, that sheer sense of uniqueness came from. I had to get hold of the recipe, of all the ingredients that, when mixed together, form Blood Wine or Honey.
The Hong Kong thing seemed like a good starting point. After all, one’s environment surely plays a significant role in the end product. “We get asked this a lot,” says von Hess, with considerably more tolerance than someone who is repeatedly asked the same question. “I guess it’s a fair assumption that the city, being so unique, might exert an influence. It looms, obliquely, a fractured and distorted reflection of steel and glass. It’s a place of strangely intense recursion and iteration, producing a kind of quotidian psychedelia which perhaps rubs off on us more than we might admit.”
So, is that where this hypno-tropicalia genre that Blood Wine or Honey seem to have single-handedly invented comes from? “I think I said it during one of those daft conversations where you invent ever-more specific music genres,” explains von Hess with a glint in his eye. “Then it stuck for some time – but I think we’ve changed it now! There’s a grain of sense to it though: the melding of ‘genres’, a bit of a baroque sensibility, and maybe a bit of an ‘up-yours’ aspect?” That figures. If ever there was a melding of genres, it’s right here. “When it gets quoted back at us, it’s that cliché where you go, ‘oh yeah, we’re hearing this because we said it.’”
With its “quotidian psychedelia,” Hong Kong is a unique city that cannot fail to have some influence on the artists who live there. But what’s the music scene like? How does it differ from the UK? “There’s the never-ending struggle to find places to play live,” explains Banbury. “But it’s what we do in the shadows that can end up being the most interesting. The scene is quite split between the club/DJ world and the band world. We like to think we straddle that divide in some way and some others are pushing in that direction as well. It’d be great to have a proper live venue (with all the attendant tech that’s required) with a massive club sound system!”
Of course, here in the UK, such luxuries as live venues and clubs were rendered virtually redundant in the past eighteen months as that horrific pandemic took hold and disrupted the music industry like nothing ever before. I guess we can’t go very far these days without thinking about Covid-19 and I wondered what effect that had on Blood Wine or Honey and, generally, music in their adopted home city.
“Hong Kong didn’t really go into anything like a full lockdown,” says Banbury with some relief. “In the first pandemic wave, back in early 2020, things did feel strange and worrying and we mostly stayed in for a few months. That decision was helped by restaurants shutting at six, and no bars, clubs or venues were allowed to open. Even shops shut early, which in Hong Kong is a massive deal. There are still measures in place. The borders are mostly shut and masks are well and truly staying on.”
‘So, no gigs,’ I wondered. “The impossibility of travel without doing two or three weeks of quarantine on return to HK, not to mention the moral question of whether travel is a good idea while the pandemic still rages in many places, makes this a rare thing currently,” says Banbury, with a tone of sadness. “We played at the Make Music HK festival a few weeks ago, though. It was such a joy to get out there and things are beginning to look hopeful on that front, here at least.”
Of course, the distinctiveness of DTx2 can’t just come from the city. There has to be much more going on to influence that hypno-tropicalia vibe. Surely there’s something beyond music. “You’re right to suggest it isn’t necessarily other music,” von Hess nods in agreement. “It’s hard to say what the biggest influences are; that’s too much like having favourites. It’ll all be different next week! I can’t speak for James, but there are things that seem to circle back in my consciousness, for example films like Robocop or Stalker, or a book like The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates.
But then it feels instantly reductive to mention those only! There are a few literary lifts, some adapted phrases peppering the lyrics. But also using mangled and weird things people have said. A big thing for me at the moment is the egalitarian aspect of meme culture, the supreme wit of the internet hive-mind, the ‘mob’ manifesting these ever-evolving puns in a gigantic accumulation of densely-layered humour.”
Pretty deep stuff. And what’s on your playlist right now, Joseph? “Sweet Banana by King Sunny Adé, Sad and Lovely by Connie Converse – Empty Pocket Waltz, genius, Individual Beauty by Colored Music, Steve Arrington, both old and recent material, DMX Krew’s track Dejected Ambient Twerp.” Anything else? “Sun Ra Arkestra, Hap a Damwain, De Schuurman, Hamid el Shaeri, Les Filles de Illighadad, some bits on Sneaker Social Club.”
The other fascinatingly unique thing about the Blood Wine or Honey sound is the instruments they specialise in. There’s a heady fusion of saxophone, clarinet and cello. Not every album that crosses one’s path carries those sounds. “Music was encouraged, you could say enforced, one way or another in our respective families,” explains Banbury, almost wincing at the memory. “I started on piano but moved more seriously to cello after a school assembly announcement that there were a couple of them up for grabs. Neither of us are particularly daunted by trying new things: instruments, tech gear, percussion, soldering, etc. and I think we’re both into the play and discovery that a practical musical training can give you. You know – the old cliché of life-long learning.” The thing is, they don’t just play those instruments conventionally. Between them, they have an uncanny ability of crafting quite distinctive sounds from them – play and discovery.
There’s more. The album takes a sharp left turn as we progress through its second half. If you thought things were a little instrumentally avant-garde previously, wait until you get to the Hungarian shepherds’ flutes and the Chinese instruments, the suona and the hulusi. “Some of my family are from Hungary, so I have a few instruments from there,” explains von Hess, helpfully. “It’s mainly flutes and mouth harps”, he continues. “I try to play intuitively; it’s not like we’re faithfully doing a trad. Hungarian thing. I do listen to a lot of old folk revival stuff from Hungary though, like Muzsikás.
“The Chinese instruments are about what’s around. They’re cheap and very effective. I like the way they instantly create expression in the music and I can work out ideas on blowing instruments more easily than on, say, a synth. I enjoy the idiosyncrasies and limitations of something like a suona, so it just follows on from that. It’s a framework, a set of restrictions. I love the suona though, it’s a literal blast.”
When those unusual instruments are introduced in the final three tracks, the album unquestionably takes on a whole different vibe. In fact, the first time I listened to it, I actually feared that I had inadvertently strayed onto another release. It’s still undeniably Blood Wine or Honey, just a different variant from the one that had been serving up stone-cold brilliant slices of post-punk/synth-pop/Afrobeat/disco for the thirty minutes prior. “It’s true that the second half of the record is certainly dominated by a more introspective mood,” agrees Banbury.
“Embers, Embrasure and Echt Embrace sit together and seamlessly flow into each other. They were part of a semi-planned improv session and it felt right to keep much of that in place.” So, sequencing the album was a no-brainer then? “Sequencing a record is an interesting art,” Banbury continues. “You’ll always feel differently about side B. The two-side structure can help sequencing in some ways, although digital, whether streaming or CDs, put an end to ‘sides’ being a consideration. If only vinyl was longer! Maybe we could start a trend for 14” records”, he jokes, forgetting that we’d all need to buy new record players.
Let’s go full circle and return to the top of this piece and that Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. One of the attendees on that momentous night was Paul Morley, who just happens to be one of several collaborators on DTx2. Sure, loads of artists work together these days, but some of the Blood Wine or Honey collaborations are on another level, which is hardly surprising given everything else we have uncovered. I mean, Paul Morley? How did that come about?
“It was a sort of designed serendipity,” explains Banbury. “We asked ourselves: who do we know, or do we know someone who knows someone?” So, what – you just called up Paul Morley? “Well, I did a little bit of moonlighting for ArtOfNoise around their Debussy album, then formed a sort of ambient duo called Infantjoy with him… so I had his email.” What was his reaction? “Paul was very keen to get involved,” says Banbury. “As usual, he had a bunch of ideas up his sleeve. I Shall Rush Out As I Am is the first in a probable trilogy of Morley-prodded productions.”
Morley wasn’t the only left-field hook-up. “KT Tunstall had started doing a live dance-y rave thing on her Instagram and I offered to DJ virtually for one of them, managing to slip Anxious Party People into the mix,” explains Banbury. “She’d never heard it before and quite frankly, and appropriately, raved about it. Once she found out it was us, she immediately offered to do something on our next record.” And she did, on the magnificent single, Attraction.
So, there you have it. The ingredients of one of the most innovative and surprising albums of the year. In my review, I described it as the most fun you will have with your clothes on. And it is. One final question: is there more to come? Please tell me there is. “With a big family, I’m a bit caught up in trying to survive,” explains von Hess. “However, in the near future, we’d like to do more shows,” he continues. “And we’ve been busy recently doing various productions and remixes and making new tracks of our own, so some of that should be out soon.”
And more collaborations? “We’d like to work with Paul some more and we really enjoyed the collaborative approach on the album with our various guests so that will return in some way. Personally, I feel full of ideas at the moment, very excited to create more music.” We are just as excited to hear it.
Photo credit: Manav Shankar
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.