JOHN METCALFE
The Appearance Of Colour
(Real World Records)

 

The music of composer John Metcalfe is unique. In fact, it’s so unique that it’s often hard to file it under known music categories. One part avant garde, one part experimental, one part rock, one part chill music, one part electronic… Anyway you get the drift. As intriguing as John’s 2008 album, A Darker Sunset was, things don’t get a lot more "indubitable" on his excellent 2015 album, The Appearance Of Colour. This time around, there’s an even greater emphasis on pop-like sounds, even though the album is mainly instrumental, with glimpses of wordless female and male voices that sometimes drift out and in like alluring soundscapes. There’s still a sonic comparison to the music of U.K. trendsetters like William Orbit and Mike Oldfield, with slightly less emphasis on guitar sounds, which are also played by Metcalfe. Having recorded as a member of Durutti Column, Metcalfe also cites Vini Reilly’s linear approach to electric guitar as being one of his influences. Commenting on the making of The Appearance Of Colour, Metcalfe explains, ‘Perhaps in the sense that colour itself has no absolute meaning but can still provoke strong reactions, my initial notion for the album was to try and write music as free as possible from conscious narrative and create a sound world that triggers more intense reaction in our nonverbal minds.’ In other words, keyboards, guitar sounds and various synth patterns prevail alongside Metcalfe's lush string sounds. Fans of the minimalism of composer Steve Reich, the sheer shock of The Art Of Noise, the producer’s hat of William Orbit and others coming from that U.K. school of sonic experimentation will enjoy Metcalfe’s dazzling and disorienting soundscapes on The Appearance Of Colour. The Appearance Of Colour is an amazing recording that takes its place among the finest musical breakthroughs of 2015. www.John-Metcalfe.co.uk

 




mwe3.com presents an interview with
JOHN METCALFE



mwe3
: I consider The Appearance Of Colour to be the 21st century equivalent of Close To The Edge – especially for the avant gard minimalist post North Star era Philip Glass set. The Appearance Of Colour incorporates so many different moods and settings, including influences from late 1970s prog and minimalists like Glass, Reich, Eno and others. With The Appearance Of Colour was it your intention to create a new masterpiece of the genre?

John Metcalfe: Thank you for calling it a masterpiece! I am always drawn to music that has contrast within the confines of a piece but also in an album overall. Certainly albums like Close To The Edge have a quality that I love - that of a musical argument that can span a good length of time - hopefully a whole record. It’s always been my intention to use classical notions of time, structure and proportion in my writing - whatever the “soundworld”.

mwe3: The album cover of The Appearance Of Colour is sparse yet effective. Is there a meaning behind the title of the album and the artwork concept? The cover art is bathed in blue light. Do different colors have different effects on your music making approach?

John Metcalfe: Colors definitely affect my composing. I associate keys with certain colours. C major is red, B minor is pale blue and so on. The cover is a photo taken when an old cathode ray TV was turned off. The title is a reference to the way that color without form or perspective to define it can provoke strong reactions. In a similar sense I wanted to create intense and contrasting music without any particular theme or conscious narrative.

mwe3: How did you become involved with Peter Gabriel and how many albums and other releases have you done with Peter? When did you join Real World as an artist, as I remember A Darker Sunset came out on a label called The Big Chill.

John Metcalfe: In 2008 I was involved in an amazing live composing project with composer/ arranger Simon Hale, The Bays and the Heritage Orchestra. Dickie Chappell, Peter’s engineer, came to a show we did in Bristol in the UK. At the time Peter was looking for people to collaborate with on a covers record (Scratch My Back) and Dickie made the introduction. We spoke about music, life, different composers, sandwiches and so forth. I came away with 4 tracks to demo and played them to Peter in early 2009. I thought at most I’d have the privilege of doing some strings on one song maybe but I never imagined it would turn into 2 albums, co–producing and MD’ing tours around the world. A thrill-ride for sure but one of the best aspects, apart from working with the great man, was having use of a full orchestra. With sample libraries abounding and money in the music industry getting harder to find it was like being set free to really explore how far we could push the idea of reinterpreting well-known songs without being purely experimental for the sake of it. I guess became a Real World artist when I released an album in 2013 of classical chamber works for the Society of Sound series which they curate for Bowers & Wilkins.

mwe3: I remember mwe3.com reviewing your 2008 album A Darker Sunset and I sensed you had a very special sound. Can you contrast A Darker Sunset with The Appearance Of Colour, as far as your approach to writing and recording? I know you worked with drummer Andy Gangadeen on both albums.

John Metcalfe: With A Darker Sunset my approach, probably due to the live-composing project, was to improvise, then edit and develop material from there. A lot of the original improvisation sessions ended up on the record. With The Appearance Of Colour, I worked in a more classical way. I finished writing the material, printed it up and only then recorded once I’d spent some time with it. But I let the musicians involved in the record do their thing as much as possible without directing them. There’s no point in getting someone of Andy Gangadeen’s caliber and genius in only to over-shape their musicianship

mwe3: Natasha Khan is the lone vocalist on The Appearance Of Colour and she does a great job singing on track 3, “Just Let Go”. What does Natasha bring to the track and what does the track represent to you on the new CD?

John Metcalfe: I had been working with Natasha on her album The Haunted Man and was working on The Appearance Of Colour at the time so it was crazy not to ask her to be involved in some way. She has such an incredible voice. I didn’t want to write a song as such... I’ve always been interested in minimal lyrics which are more open to interpretation. As I mentioned earlier, I’m less interested in songs with a prescriptive narrative so I tend to use the voice as an instrument rather than something with which to predetermine the context of a song. So in answer to your question it would be contrary of me to then say what the song represents.

mwe3: You play viola, keyboards and guitar. What instrument do you most write most of your music on? It seems and sounds that you’re foremost a composer and the instruments are there to provide colors to the sound, not just to be the center of that sound.

John Metcalfe: I think as I spent most of my time training on the viola that’s usually my starting point. But I use the guitar and keyboards a lot. Sound and timbre are crucial to my way of working and quite often are the genesis for composing rather than themes or motifs.

mwe3: What guitars are your favorite to play? Do you have special keyboards, effects and favorite amps that you like to plug in to help you get some unique sounds? Do you consider yourself a “gearhead”?

John Metcalfe: I only play a Fender Telecaster. I have a lovely Gibson given to me by Chrissie Hynde but I never had it set up properly and the Tele is so fab to play that I stick with that. I used to be a gear head and had lots of boxes with twinkling lights but now I’ve sold a lot of stuff and have as little hum in the room as possible. I want gear to be transparent, to allow me to get what I am hearing with as little process as possible. I’ve always loved delay and I use it to create melody as well as for motor-rhythmic reasons. I try lots of different materials for guitar picks - coins, cardboard, nail files... whatever. My other sonic love is reverb, particularly natural reverbs you hear in woods but that doesn’t always make it onto the record.

mwe3: People don’t always remember that you were in the band Durutti Column in the 1980s. They were kind of ahead of their time. Did you record with Vini Reilly too? Do you consider Durutti Column to be the first minimalist instrumental guitar-based band from the U.K. and did you first become involved with Durutti Column when you worked with Factory Records? And what were some of your favorite albums that you worked on during the Factory years?

John Metcalfe: I joined Durutti in about 1984. Around that time Vini was looking to do a neo-classical album, which yes, perhaps, was ahead of its time in some aspects, predating the ‘post-classical’ movement of Max Richter, Johann Johannsen, Nils Frahm etc... Vini was using a violinist from the U.S. called Blaine Rieninger but he couldn’t do a tour so I replaced him. I remember the first rehearsal... Vini wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew all the tunes so that was that. We recorded lots of stuff together and toured all over. I loved it. I was young at the time, so suddenly being in studios and on tour was like being a kid in a sweet shop. Favourite albums are The Guitar And Other Machines and the first set of classical releases which I A&R’d.

mwe3: I hear a little Mike Oldfield and Philip Glass in your sound. That sound really took off in the late 1970s. How important were those artists in your guitar and string ideas and composing?

John Metcalfe: Well I like Mike Oldfield’s music a lot but I wasn’t a real fan as such so I couldn’t say his music was a factor in my background, nor in fact Philip Glass! Steve Reich, however, was a huge influence and I have played his music in my string quartet, the Duke, on many occasions. And of course Durutti is a massive part of my musical life and my sound has definitely been shaped by my time with Vini.

mwe3: What pop, rock and classical artists made the biggest impression on you while growing up? You grew up in New Zealand so when did you move to England? How would you contrast life in New Zealand with living in the U.K.? What are your ties to New Zealand these days and were you influenced by music from New Zealand? Split Enz comes to mind.

John Metcalfe: I left New Zealand when I was 8. I remember liking a record called "Daddy Cool" but I don’t think it left any lasting impressions. Kraftwerk had a big impact on me as did Bach but there was lots of other music... punk... one band in particular called Discharge and new wave and then house music which I spent a lot of time dancing to in the Hacienda in Manchester.

I loved string music for obvious reasons but was also fascinated by production... how instruments worked and how the process of recording and effects modulated their sound. I was in a band at school and we used to take the lid off of equipment and poke around to get it to make noises it wasn’t meant to make. I still have family in New Zealand and visit when I can. I think I will always have a yearning to return there full time even if it’s just for the weather. Living in the UK... always I find I want stronger colours, more contrast, more intensity in the sky and sea which New Zealand has in plenty.

mwe3: Do you consider some rock music, especially the albums made in the early 1970s, from the U.K. to be the classical music of coming decades? Can you see a time when certain music written by artists such as YES or Genesis will be played the way classical music is often played today? Also, have you heard the music of Pekka Pohjola?

John Metcalfe: I think those classic prog rock years produced music that could easily be seen as classical... in terms of the length and structure of the songs. The idea of themes being developed and returning in different ways in different keys and settings... all very classical. So, of course it can all be performed live with orchestras and so forth. I think bands like YES have certainly done that. Though, overall I hope that people are decreasingly bothered about where one style ends and another begins and the discussion about this genre or that hopefully has less and less meaning. Many electronic musicians for quite a while now have loved using acoustic instruments, found sounds and so forth and vice versa with classical, jazz or world. It’s all sound, it’s all waveforms, who cares whether it can or can’t be used in one genre or another. As long as the music has emotion, intellect and spirit it doesn’t matter what you use to achieve that. No, I haven’t heard Pohjola’s music but I will certainly check it out!

mwe3: Do you consider yourself a classical musician first and foremost or a rock musician? How do you find The Appearance Of Colour is being received by the classical music audience and the press / critics as well? Is there still a bias against bringing rock elements into the classical realm? Is bringing the two genres closer together something you changed in your music for the better?

John Metcalfe: I’m certainly happy that my classical training has allowed me to work with some incredible musicians in those areas and then bring that to the electronic side. Yes, there is bias and bigotry. One mentality I encounter is that when orchestral instruments are used in pop/rock music it is deemed pompous or bombastic. A lot of people get very excited about simplicity... the schools of ‘you shouldn’t have/need more than 4 elements in a song’ and ‘you don’t achieve power through complexity’. I’m not sure Stravinsky was thinking that when he wrote "The Rite Of Spring" or when Beethoven wrote the “Grosse Fugue”. Of course there’s narrow-mindedness from the classical side too. People who would never listen to anything with drums or electric guitar for example. Complex music or simple music, if it’s written and performed well, is extraordinary. If you only listen to one or two styles of music you lose out. In a workshop the other day, I suggested the participants listen for a month only to the 3 types of music they think they dislike the most and then to write something in that style for instruments they feel most antipathy to. That process is interesting... to challenge our own opinions ourselves and to maybe discover exactly why we don’t like something.

mwe3: How do you feel the internet has changed your approach to music making and even music marketing? It’s so amazing to feel part of such a big whole, the Earth, via the web, but at the same time, knowing that you’re still stuck in your little town. Is the internet a huge dream machine and where do you see the internet in 2050?

John Metcalfe: Like many people I have a love/hate relationship with the internet. Because of technology I now spend many hours each day staring at screens and I’m not convinced it’s the best way to make music. I try to force myself to close my eyes when listening as the graphics and colours affect my responses for sure. Like most things, the internet has its good and bad points. Sure I can send files quicker and work remotely but I prefer to work with other humans in the same room. You can’t rehearse remotely. Maybe that will be possible in 2050...

mwe3: What do you like to do to relax in your down time or is it always music 24/7 with you? I know you wrote some great music for the Arctic Ice cause so I imagine you’re very active in various environmental causes. Is there hope for mankind? Where do you see Earth in 2099 after 100 years of broad band?

John Metcalfe: I don’t really relax but I should do! It’s 24/7 really... Much as I’d like to be, I’m not an optimist for humankind. I think we are evolving ourselves into extinction, so ultimately the planet will be saved anyway. It’s just that we won’t be there to see it. But in the meantime we have to try! So climate change should be the only game in town. Yes, we have to tackle inequality, the huge gap between rich and poor, the promotion of the individual over the community, poverty, health, education and wars but without a fundamental change of worldwide political will to really take the issue on and without a deep-rooted shift in our desires as consumers, we will not take the steps necessary to stop temperatures rising, leading to weather systems changing permanently. 2099? Faster broadband speeds won’t have stopped the ice-caps melting. If anything the ever-increasing sizes of the huge servers necessary will simply speed up the process.

mwe3: Aren't you also involved in some of the other new music makers on Real World such as Tom Kerstens? What can you tell us about Tom and your involvement with him? What other Real World artists interest you? Does Peter Gabriel do most of the A&R on Real World?

John Metcalfe: I have known Tom for many years now and have composed quite a few short pieces for him and his G+ ensemble featuring 2 guitars, string quartet and vibraphone. I also produced an album for The Creole Choir Of Cuba who were extraordinary although I hardly did anything really, just made sure they were fed, happy and mic’d up properly. Apart from that they just did their own amazing thing. Yes Peter listens to everything that is proposed for the label but is not involved in the initial A+R process as such.

mwe3: What can you tell us about your work with Duke Quartet? How many albums have you made with Duke Quartet and how would you compare those albums with your solo works?

John Metcalfe: I’ve been with the quartet for about 20 years. We’ve made several albums with repertoire ranging from Dvorak to contemporary and plenty of others collaborating with some amazing artists. We’ve toured all over the world and been privileged to play exquisite music in beautiful venues. I wouldn’t really want to compare the recordings to my solo work though. The process of rehearsing and recording existing repertoire is different to creating an album of your own compositions. I really enjoy the collaborative aspect of working with other musicians. While we don’t always agree it’s crucial to keeping the ideas and processes in a state of flux so you don’t get stuck in particular habits.

mwe3: Even though, The Appearance Of Colour recently came out are you planning any other projects in 2016 as far as writing, recording, producing and/or releasing other projects in the coming year?

John Metcalfe: I have another album coming out on ECC records which is a collaboration with writer/producer Simon ‘Palmskin’ Richmond. It’s called Set In Stone. I’m also involved in a very exciting project in Italy which I’m not allowed to tell anyone about yet. I’m also working on new material with an amazing British singer called Rosie Doonan who’s been working with Birdy recently…





 

 
   
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