And so we come to ‘Axioms’. The quintessential ‘cubist folk’ song, and the one which provided the template for the rest of the record.
This track was called ‘Dinas Powys’ before I wrote any lyrics (and before I lived there). It’s a Jim O’Rourke inspired part in DADGAD tuning, which was built on and retweaked to become this 9 minute folktronic monster. The first section I recorded the guitar in a bathroom, the ambience on Cardiff Queen Street, the underpinning drone from a mellotron (not a real one). The last section uses the Reactable app on an iPad to process the guitar through a modulated delay into the percussive sounds that spin around the main track. Things get flipped backwards, requantized, buffer shuffled, live chopped using the monome 64, micro looped using an arc 2. Eleanor returns for more violin…. Basically everything I have I threw at this track.
Lyrically ‘Axioms’ is about what much of this album is about, being wrong about what will make you happy. The sentiment ‘your axioms are wrong’ is nonsensical in itself, the point of axioms is that they aren’t wrong – they’re the immutable, fixed starting point for mathematics, or in looser usage, for a philosophical stance. So if, in that informal usage, your axioms are wrong then everything else you’re building on top of them may also be wrong. In one sense, it could be taken as amongst the most insulting things you could say to someone. I often find myself wanting to say it. Here though, the axioms again are the beliefs about how to be happy, and how to hold on to happiness when you have it.
I sometimes cause problems for myself with deadpan delivery of lyrics intended to convey the opposite of what I actually mean. One particularly witless reviewer some years back really pissed me off by taking ‘The Gentlemen’s Game’ totally at face value – basically accusing me of racism. At risk of making the same mistake again, here is ‘Foreign Players’.
The chorus here comes from the famous line from Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos (No Exit)’ ‘L’enfer c’est les autres’ or ‘hell is other people’ – a statement which I disagree with. Most of this record is trying to articulate how much I feel other people are important to being happy. So ‘too many foreign players’ is both a little pun on the football meaning, and the song’s protagonist’s way or articulating that he believes others get in the way of him doing what he wants. He doesn’t stop to consider how important they really are to him….
Musically this is a great time to mention returning guest violinist Eleanor who plays a stunning part on this song, and Laura Roberts whose multi-tracked vocals on the chorus were so lush and gorgeous that I had to copy/paste them one more time at the end so they could be heard more clearly.
Originally I wanted this to be the first track as it really encapsulates what I was thinking when I came up with the ‘cubist folk’ idea. The riff is built from acoustic guitars both played normally and cut up, reversed, processed, interspersed with field recordings (the clattering background percussion on verse 2 is a quantized recording from Wally’s Kaffeehaus in Cardiff) and a moog bassline underpinning it all. In the end I chose to open the album with the poppiest songs, and a cool opening lyric.
As a song I came up with it after seeing Jeff Mangum perform at the Union Chapel in 2012, just before my trip to Tokyo for the final PWL show. My love of Neutral Milk Hotel is well established, and I think the melody to this song (and ‘the Gentlemen’s Game’) make that clear. Ever since I was about 15 I’ve wanted to have a song with the line ‘One of your days’ in it – not really knowing how to make that make sense grammatically – until ‘…will be your last’ popped into my head in Tokyo. Like The Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realise?’, this song is ultimately very positive about accepting your mortality and focussing on what matters.
Every sound on this track – with the exception of the shakey egg part – is an acoustic guitar. The drums, the arpeggios, the pad sounds…. It was an attempt to recreate a ‘Tree of Knowledge’ style track using only those sounds. So it is reminiscent of my biggest ‘hit’, and intentionally so.
Lyrically it’s about how empathy, whilst natural, needs to be nurtured – and that empathy almost inevitably disappears from people who try and become more significant than they naturally would be.
It is, to my knowledge, the first ‘cubist folk’ song ever to lyrically reference the sneezing panda youtube video.
Track 2: Fine Lines
One of the earlier tracks written for the record – I actually played this during the ‘Signal and the Noise’ shows. It’s a relentless tumbling/marching rhythm, vaguely mariachi, a little bit of Beirut in there maybe? The general approach to backing vocals on this record was really inspired by how Beth ‘Jeans’ Houghton made use of her all-male backing band into a kind of choir on her first album. That’s a bit more apparent on other tracks than this one.
This song was originally a lot synthier, but in my commitment to making an organic sounding record, and one that sounds cohesive I replaced some of it with xylophone. Still got some nice little Prophet parps in the background. Couldn’t imagine it without them.
Lyrically it’s one of those ‘note to self’ songs about negativity, and embracing opportunities. The first few lines make me think I’d like Stephen Fry to hear the song someday and allow himself a wry chuckle.
To celebrate my new album, I’m going to do a track by track each day on my blog…
I was so, so close to just calling the record ‘A Classic Album, Loved By Millions’ – but in the end it just didn’t quite fit. But as a title of an opening track I like to think it suggests ambition.
Lyrically the first couplet and a half of this song basically summarise everything I was trying to say with the entire ‘The Signal and the Noise’ record. The rest of the song is about the creative process. I was pondering recording fidelity, and my intention to mix this record myself for the first time. I was thinking ‘Well Bee Thousand isn’t exactly a great sounding record, and that’s a classic album loved by millions’ – which it isn’t. Maybe hundreds of thousands… Anyway the phrase stuck in my mind.
Musically this song sticks out a bit from the ‘cubist folk’ idea – other than the slight acoustic guitar judder at the beginning it probably doesn’t quite fit the rest of the record. It’s a bit Guided by Voices, a bit Kinks in its thumping piano. I think it sets a tone of optimism for what follows…
Here is a Wordle of the lyrics to Dinas Powys
I’m not sure what we’ve learned.