It's been impossible to watch the news over the past 12 months without a gnawing feeling of paralysis.
The roll call of appalling headlines - Brexit, the rise of Trump - have been connected by the migrant crisis, by the sight of helpless people hurling themselves across land and sea in the hope of, well... hope.
Nick Mulvey watched along with everyone else, but he decided to do something. And this sense of action triggered something further, a desire to craft a new album.
Available on record shelves both physical and digital, 'Wake Up Now' is an intriguing return, something that definitely sits outside of the 'songwriter' tag so often associated with his work.
It's an album that flirts with ambience before surging into definitive form, an album that accepts the influence of Brian Eno, an album that continually connects music to the context within which it is created.
Clash took up a few minutes of Nick Mulvey's time to explore it further...
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Is it a relief to be able and go out to play this material now?
Definitely. It’s really amazing to see the faces of people and to see that they can understand what it is we’re singing about, and to get that feeling… that visceral feeling. It’s intense jumping into a summer of festivals without our own venue, club tour. You learn a lot in soundchecks and from listening to your own audience, and it’s been really intense to jump into that festival exhibition, in a way. But it’s been cool. We learn quickly.
And you do like a challenge as well.
Yeah… I’ve been cursing it a little bit but we go with what we’ve got.
‘Wake Up Now’ has just been released, but when did you actually start work on it?
I started with a pretty blank slate. There’s a song called ‘Mountain To Move’ which gave the album its title, and that one was one that I had written towards the end of the last record. But besides that it was all pretty much generated from a blank slate. It started slowly.
I had a lot of time. Basically it was the first few months of 2016, as I was touring all the way up to 2016. So the beginning to ‘16 I spent doing some work with Brian Eno. I was finding my way with it, really. I was thinking about what I wanted to write about and why I wanted to write about it. And then it just accelerated throughout the year, with a real peak and spike about the birth of my first kid… which just seemed to really underpin most of the album.
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It was all pretty much generated from a blank slate...
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Did becoming a parent have an enormous affect on you?
Yeah! I mean, some of it was just practical. At the end of the pregnancy I just remember… You make zero plans – or even less than zero plans. And in that space most of my attention was elsewhere – it was on supporting my wife, and getting ready for the arrival, and for that reason the album benefited as it wasn’t my focus. It helped me get out the way and get focussed on other stuff, and then on the periphery the album got better.
You mention your time with Brian Eno, what impact did those sessions have on you?
His involvement wasn’t focussed on any specific tracks – although he did plant some seeds.
He’s good at that.
Right?! It was such a cool experience – I was very touched that he wanted to give me that time, and from the word go we were straight in there talking about music, taking nothing for granted. Questioning convention at every turn. He’s totally interested in the hypnotic or repetitive, or the ambient and minimalist elements of my guitar playing, and less interested in the songwriting. I like to think that my focus is where those two worlds meet.
My influences run from Paul Simon to Caribou. And of those two sides he was definitely more interested in the ambient ones. Surprise surprise!
So he got me playing the guitar, and asked me to surrender the chord changes over to him – so I would stay on one chord and then he would say when to change. And it was a really interesting exercise. He basically showed me about not changing chords, staying for a long time on one chord. And we talking about how music like Fela Kuti or Talking Heads actually works. How you’d have these repetitive patterns – horizontals, he called them – punctuated by moments of verticality, in the vocals.
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I like to think that my focus is where those two worlds meet.
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Another thing is that he really encouraged me to question the idea of the singer-songwriter, and the artist who works in solitude, with his own relationship to divinity, to inspiration, and instead talk about the fact that we live in a web of influence from other artists… we’re always involved in some kind of scene, of cross-pollination. And actually, I think that’s true.
That directly resulted in the end of the inclusion of a lot of my friends on this record, and really welcoming a kind of communal sound with the vocals on this album.
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Do you think Brian Eno’s contributions aided that feeling of needing your mind to be taken away from the album process?
I mean, I think that’s probably true. In that, I think dealing with our minds is the most fundamental thing that we have to work out on planet Earth – that’s taking your question from the micro to the massively macro. But yeah, definitely. The pregnancy, and the baby, was all about that. It’s about getting your mind out the way but also what comes in when you get your mind out the way. It’s about surrendering control.
A lot of the record was recorded live as well.
Most of it. That was part of my realisation about how to fox my desire to control, and out-fox my mind. Recording live means that you have a lot more sonic spillage over different microphones, you don’t have all that sonic isolation, and you can’t necessarily tweak it and re-arrange it on the computer screen afterwards. You have to stick with how it is.
So if you’re going to record live it demands that you’re going to have to make decisions about the music sooner – you have to make decisions about it, and stick to them. You have much less opportunity later to re-jiggle. So that was… I realised I needed to reach out to those things. They forced me to commit to structures, commit to songs, commit to lyrics, and I couldn’t just… when you record the vocals separate to the guitar then later on you can sub out the vocal or whatever, all of which kind of kills the music.
I had to find a way to be much more committed and vital and making a decision and sticking with it.
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It’s about surrendering control.
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The album was produced alongside Ethan Johns and Dan Carey, two producers with vastly different backgrounds.
It was a mixture of planning and then happy accident, y’know. I had this personal journey throughout the year of realising that I needed to record in these ways. So that led me to Ethan. But at the same time the baby had been born by that point and I didn’t want to be going far away, and I wanted to work in Wiltshire and Ethan was close by, close by the project. So it was a really natural thing to work with him.
Plus, he’s fiercely protective of the sacredness of moments in the recording studio, so it’s all about creating and supporting the conditions that help you to work – like welcoming spontaneity. Recording in a really interesting way where you don’t know what you’re going to get. And it was so thrilling making this record.
And from the very first conversation with him I said – perhaps quite naively – wouldn’t it be amazing if we had to capture the songs in this way, we have these real, living breathing recordings, and then we take them on a file, take them to London and plug them into Dan Carey’s studio where I know he has the real ability with drum machines, with arpegiators, with synthesisers, to honour that aliveness that we would have captured at Real World… but bringing in the element – that’s still more important to me – of more sequence-based music.
And I think I had my cake and ate it on this album. I do! We captured it this way, and Ethan – to his credit – shared the enthusiasm I had, he didn’t freak out about it. Dan Carey – to his credit – also found it an interesting proposition, that he wasn’t involved from the start. We took these really living, breathing recording to his place, and then we meticulously applied, clicked in every beat of each song, we put gridmaps, beatmaps, over the track.
So that in a song like ‘Transform The Game’ where we as players, in that moment, naturally sped up – which is something that’s a good thing… we then retrospectively down the line with Dan Carey and his assistants we put in these grids that then moved with our speeding up. So when we then punched in the drum machines and the arpeggiators they too were subservient to the way we played it a month beforehand live in the studio. So you get these electronic elements that aren’t quantised and gridmapped.
Maybe this is the most normal thing in the world for someone like Four Tet, someone who has that organic, electronic feel but I’m not sure yet…
For me, anyway, it was a new way of doing it and it was significant. Naturally, producers always say ‘work to a click track’ because it makes it easier down the line. This part of me was just having my cake and eating it.-
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I think I had my cake and ate it on this album...
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You’ve been working a lot with Help Refugees, and this in part prompted the song ‘Maella’. It’s a little like Eno’s scenius concept, isn’t it – the recognition that other people’s problems are your own?
Whichever you slice it, whichever you look it: these problems are all of ours. There’s no isolationism, no matter what Brexit means. These boats coming across the Mediterranean are just not slowing down. I even heard Naomi Klein recently saying that boat-loads of people coming across the Mediterranean or climate change aren’t issues in the way that we normally think about issues, they are messages. They’re messages, and they’re basically all saying the same thing. Mass orientation towards monetary profit as the sole impetus of our system is broken.
Now, I’m not an economist. But I really heard what she said there – these are no issues than we can solve and carry on as normal, these are real loud and clear messages. So whatever level you look at it… I had this sense of… People get so easily portrayed in a certain way through media. And so much of that media in the press was de-humanising these people and I just had this sense of despite differences in nationality and skin colour everybody’s a parent, they’ve all got jobs, they’re all football enthusiasts… the differences pale in terms of what we all have in common.
And from that standpoint to imagine the trauma and the horror and the uncertainty they must be feeling… It gave birth to this feeling of wanting to do something. And initially I thought, oh yeah, writing a song feels a bit immaterial but then it was like, well I work in songs, that’s what I’m doing right now, so at least some of my actions should be towards some positive input into this thing.
And then the more I got into it the more I realised, of course I believe in songs. Songs play their part along with lots of other media in informing our outlook and our attitudes, and that outlook and attitudes has every role in creating the systems by which we live. So yeah, it started to become something a bit more concrete. I don’t expect this one action, this one song to be bigger than it is – it is what it is – but I felt personally satisfied that I could do something at all.
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The differences pale in terms of what we all have in common.
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Will you be carrying on this association with the charity?
Yeah. I’d like that, because I really believe in their work.
And it must work, because even a small donation each night on a 15 date tour can make a real difference.
That will do what it does. Sometimes when you think of the scale of these things, and the amount of money that gets spent on other things it can seem like the actual money you make is less… I’d like to normalise, play a tiny part in normalising compassion.
These shows will be much different to those festival sets, so what can we expect?
It’s definitely geared towards the new stuff, although there’s a few tracks from the first record that still feel really a part of this, and make the links to the old stuff. Initially, I just wanted to play new stuff but having done this run I was touched by what happens when you play the old stuff, and it does a lot for the room. For ourselves as performers, but also for the audience – to connect those familiar circuits and do those couple of songs. And it brings me joy to do that.
My aim with this band is to foster a freedom. I’m really watching myself with them playing, to let them as players be really free so that we find this middle ground of honouring the songs, but then also giving everybody… Letting it be alive, so that it can grow each night and go to new levels. It’s got to be like that.
Real music is a living thing. If you’re feeling in a certain mood that night you can really express that certain mood – rather than being beholden to delivering a certain thing. I’m really looking forward to this tour, yeah.
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'Wake Up Now' is out now.
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