Monday, November 03, 2008

The Slowfoot Label & Snorkel

interview with Frank Byng & Ben Cowen
text & interview by
Paul Hawkins

Snorkel (promo photo)Posted by Picasa
Paul Hawkins talks with Slowfoot label men Frank Byng and Ben Cowen. Frank is a member of Snorkel, a percussionist and producer and runs the label with Jeremy Wood. Ben is one half of electro outfit 7 Hurtz who released two albums on the Output label. He recently toured with The Sparks doing their visuals, and like Frank, is closely associated with the Slowfoot label as a member of Snorkel and of Charles Stuart`s live band.

We talked about the roots and the journey of the small, perfectly formed south London based Slowfoot label. Slowfoot nurtures, explores and releases music that blurs the boundaries between popular and experimental music. Frank and Ben talked about the labels humble birth right up to its flourishing incarnation in 2007. We also chewed over the influence that Snorkel, an avant-whatever collective exploring the nether regions between the groove and free improvisation, has on the label. Snorkel have their d├ębut album Glass Darkly released by Slowfoot in early 2008. -Paul Hawkins

PH: Frank, so where did it all start? The Slowfoot story?
FB: Hhhmmmm, OK, I was part of Charley Marlowe, along with Piers Faccini and Francesca Beard. I met Piers through 129 (Jeremy Wood - Slowfoot artist, producer and MC) and I bought Lucas Suarez into the equation on guitar. We were a culty underground band, played gigs and wanted to release an EP. We had a few near misses with some labels, and decided we would release it ourselves. The this could be you EP was released in 2001. We had no experience of releasing music before and unfortunately Piers decided to leave for a solo career just after it was released, so we ended up with an attic full of CD`s.

PH: Shit, that's bad timing, where did you record back then?
FB: That EP was recorded in my bedroom, it was later we moved to a studio in Bermondsey. So we recorded drums in the toilet, that sort of thing. It was a shame Charley Marlowe stalled, Piers wanted to move on to new stuff. I think he became impatient with our slow progress. He has done really well since as a solo artist and recorded his second album with producer JP Plunier out in America.

PH: And then what happened?
FB: Well, a little while later, Oren Marshall approached me. We had re-released his album Time Spent At Traffic Lights, in 2003 in fact. I first met Oren in 1995 or 96 out in Ghana when I had gone out there to study music. I was studying with The Pan African Orchestra, Oren was playing with a trio as well and was also collaborating with The Pan African Orchestra. They released an album on the Real World label, it was brilliant concept. A 36 piece orchestra playing traditional African music.

PH: And what was happening with Slowfoot then?
FB: Well, we had 3 or 4 projects on the go and we moved to the studio in Bermondsey. Charles Stuart`s album was started around then in my bedroom. Oren asked if we would re-release his album, which we did, and released another album of his, Introduction To The Story Of Spedy Sponda. It was good to have somebody else's music to work on, a refreshing change. Good to use it as a platform to learn more about running a label. We released that album in 2004.

PH: Ben, did you know Frank back then?
BC: Yes, we go back a fair way.

PH: You were releasing music as 7 Hurtz then ? ( they released two albums for the Output label; Electroleum and Audiophilliac)
BC: Yeah
FB: Anyhow, we put out the re-release, with no fuss. Spedy Sponda was then released.

PH: How did sales go?
FB: Well, Spedy is our best seller which is not bad for an avant garde tuba album. We got a press agent for that one, I have always been in awe of Oren as a musician. He has played with everyone, and when it was released there was buzz - when is Oren releasing his album? ....that kind of thing....

PH: So that helped everyone out, releasing that album?
FB: Yeah, it helped the label and we learnt stuff, and it gave us confidence. The Times called it the best avant garde tuba album to be released that year. In the meantime we were trying to put the finishing touches to the Charles Stuart album.

PH: Yeah, in fact I was talking with Charles before the Slowfoot label gig at The Spitz , he was saying the album was finished for a while, and it just wasn't released there and then.
FB: Yeah, there was a few factors involved...............Charles got kind of caught up in the Oren Marshall and Robert Logan release schedule and the work we put into those. It took him a while to get a live band together and its great that it has finally seen the light of day. I think it sounds great!

PH: It is a beautiful album, the production is so good
FB: Yeah, we put a lot of time into that

PH: Ben, did you play on that release?
BC: No, I didn't, but I do play as part of his live band now.
FB: Charles and I met at college, he joined a performance group I was part of, he got on the piano and I thought.... wow! I was saved.

PH: Charles talked a lot about that in an interview I did with him a few weeks ago. I guess Cognessence, Robert Logan`s album, was next?
FB: That album came about through an old friend of mine, Ivor Guest, who is a producer who had been working with a viola player who was teaching Robert piano. She mentioned him to Ivor, and said that he should go and hear his music. He was blown away and wanted to help him. Ivor discussed it with me and suggested it might be nice to release Roberts album on Slowfoot, rather than a label like Warp, a quiet release, you know? We whittled an album down from 80 or so electronic tracks. Robert had composed loads of songs since he was 11 in his shed or bedroom. Ivor was producing Grace Jones at the time and he pulled Robert in to do some work with her and he collaborated alongside Brian Eno on a film soundtrack.

PH: I have only recently got into Cognessence, it has been a bit of a slow burner. So he has already worked with some very impressive artists, how old is he?
FB: He is nineteen now, and has had some great experiences. He has clear headed talent and is very adept at coming up with the goods. I really enjoy playing drums for him, he just keeps churning out really interesting music. Not sure he knows how to cook an egg mind you.

PH: So, how does Slowfoot go about getting the word out about gigs, news and releases?
FB: Well, we have a press agent, a guy called Jim Johnstone, who has been great. We work with him, adding to what he does. He does a lot of work for the Norwegian Rune Grammafon label.

PH: Yeah, I am familiar with that label
FB: They do some great stuff, electronic jazz crossover stuff. I run a lot of the Slowfoot emailing side of things too.

PH: Does that take up a lot of time?
FB: Yeah, a hell of a lot of time! I have had to learn how to do that really, I am not naturally prone to big up and push my own material, it works ok though.

PH: Jeremy, (129 and Slowfoot label man), was unfortunately not able to make it today. He runs the label with Frank.
FB: Jeremy and I go back a long way, we played together in our first band, when we were at university together, a stoned mess called Lunatic Picnic (laughs)......we cut our teeth with that band, Jeremy introduced me to Eno, Laswell, that kind of stuff. We listened to a lot of stuff then.
PH: What music were you into at that time Frank?
FB: Well, The Stranglers, The Damned, the post punk stuff and then Gong, of course, and the hippy student trail vibe. Jeremy got me into Soft Machine. Still one of my favourite groups of all time. We checked the whole Bill Laswell New York scene, he was bringing so many different styles together. Laswell opened the doors to all that for me; funk, improv, jazz, drum and bass. Not all of it is good, but the ethic of bringing together those varied styles I think lives on in what we do at Slowfoot. Jeremy has a career in Fine Art, he teaches and works on installation projects. So he deals with all the artwork side of the label.

Snorkel (cover art)Posted by Picasa
PH: The artwork is really nice on the releases, a lot of thought and work has gone into it. He writes music as well, doesn't he?
FB: Jeremy plays under the name of 129. He has an album on the way, its quite a surprising record. He suddenly emerged to me as a vocalist/lyricyst. He does stuff, keeps it quiet and then presents it, I was like (laughing) "fucking hell, did you do that?"

PH: A Slowfoot release then?
FB: Yeah, its got a hip hop feel to it, and a 80`s electro feel, along with an Eno-ness and probably a release for next year.

PH: And Jeremy also plays with you in Snorkel, how did that band start then?
FB: After I had met Oren in Ghana, later on we got together in a rehearsal studio in Peckham to play, to jam. That was me, Oren, guitarist Lucas Suarez, bass player Nikko Grosz as well as melodica/clavinet- player Dean Brodrick and a saxophonist called John Telfor.

PH: When was this then?
FB: Back in 1996 playing in rehearsal spaces, exploring the notion of improvisation. We did a few gigs, and our first one with Ben was, Ben, do you remember where?
BC: Yeah, I do, it was way back in 1996 in a £4 million penthouse, a luscious Tower Bridge flat. Before the owner moved in they had a hat show, an exhibition sort of thing and we kind of sound-tracked the event.
FB: I remember it now, so that was your first Snorkel gig?

PH: And at the Spitz last night, a lot of the Slowfoot Posse all came together in one room.
FB: Yeah, we did gather together at the gig last night. Jeremy being the notable absentee. So Snorkel just ticked along. I am the only key central member, the current line-up started about a couple of years ago?
BC: Yes, that's right, we had the idea to just play, and see what happens.

PH: Is Snorkel a departure from what you were doing in 7 Hurtz then?
BC: Errmm, yeah, it is a lot different. 7 hurtz is more of a studio based scene, writing in the studio. Snorkel is live improvisation and recording that, listening back, trying to fathom out what it is, what music we have made.
FB: We got together, and we brought in Tom Marriott on trombone.

PH: Yeah, he was on fire last night, the icing on the cake I thought. He made things leap out and was really vibrant, there was a hell of a lot going on last night at the gig
FB: We feel the same, there is a lot going on live with Snorkel.


PH: The bottom end notes via Oren`s tuba were sounding really good.
FB: Yeah, there is a lot to do with the space or spaces we play in, insofar as how much we can listen to each other. Last night there were some frequencies flying around and, well, you think.....is that supposed to be there?........
BC: We tried different things when it came to recording.
FB: But we recorded the band, a 5 piece (Ben, Frank, Lucas, Tom and Charles), which was different to the line up last night, we did some warehouse gigs and it felt good. Then we went to a studio in Willesden, with Antonio - one of the most eccentric engineers I have ever worked with. We completely filled his studio with the aroma of weed, and played non-stop for 3 days. It was fucking cold, and at times we couldn't hear a lot of what was going on really. Out of this a fighting spirit came out, you know? We had to come out of there with an album. The band went through the tapes, editing and restoring some parts added a few overdubs.
BC: That is the thing with improvising, when we play in a smaller space, we have more clarity of sound, we can usually hear far more rehearsing, you know? Its more organic in how it comes together. Recording is a little forced, with headphones, it did come out really well, when there were times we felt it was falling apart.

PH: Which is the nature of the improv beast?
FB: It was like the gig last night, when you play songs, say with Charles, you all know your parts and you play them. When we do Snorkel, there isn't that kind of backbone to fall back on, the professionalism then allows you to get through it, when we feed off each other and the audience.

PH: Sounds like the space you play in becomes another instrument, doesn't it?
FB: Well that's right. I love all the squeaky bonk electronic improv stuff, you know, having to find spaces within the sound. I love all that. And we don't all like the same music of course!

PH: Its cool how you can keep all these different projects together.
FB: The label is basically Jeremy and I. Ben Clarke left at the beginning of the year. We realised that we didn't really know what we were doing on a business level really. We needed to sort out these different projects, get the music done really and tie up the loose ends.

Snorkel (promo)Posted by Picasa
PH: Yeah, the pop industry artists always reminds me of hundreds of tins of value 7p cans of baked beans, and the real good shit, the top notch organic Whole Earth beans are labels such as yourselves, whose primary drive is to create innovative music, regardless of the business plan and projected sales figures, buying on tour fees and ringtone revenue. The industry has its business plans, but its music is mostly shite.
FB: Well, we try to be true to ourselves, our music isn't for everyone.
PH: So what's cooking at Slowfoot?
FB: We have an album by Crackle going out soon, that's Nick Doyne-Ditmas and I . He currently plays in Shape Moreton and with Charles Hayward, that album should be coming out October time. We have a vinyl Robert Logan EP finished and soon to be released. Jeremy and I have a project called Invisibles, which takes us back to doing computer based stuff with samples, we have an Invisibles EP coming up, with Ben, 129, Charles, they are on it. There is plenty going on.
PH: Cool, looking forward to hearing those.
FB: I could talk for hours on this.............
PH: Lets stop for a fag shall we?(Sated with nicotine, outdoor sunshine, and lime and soda we reconvened to talk some more about Snorkel.)
PH: So we were talking about the dynamics of Snorkel, how you work together.
BC: Well, there is nothing set, so we cant really change stuff, there is no structure there, we don't have a set theme, like in jazz, where you have a theme you play around. We have to think of textures to blend.
FB: We do have a few tunes we can drag out, which are there as props if things dry up, or need a kick start.

PH: Is it tiring, the improvising?
FB: It is demanding, you have to have your wits about you all the time, listening. I was worn out last night, but my brain was buzzing.

PH: Have you ever thought of providing the music to an improvised play, a performance?
FB: Now that would be great to do, you know I have a friend who asked me if I would like her to turn up wearing a Burka and just walk around when we played.
BC: Yeah, that would be good.
FB: It would, I like the idea of that, whatever her idea is, I mean, I have no idea what she means when she suggests that, what it would be like.

PH What, in just a Burka?
FB: (shrugs shoulders) I don't know..................(smiling)

PH: I have done some projects using improvised music and movement, it can be a really empowering way to express yourself, as individuals and as a group of people.
FB: Yeah....

PH: There is something that is deeply spiritual about music which is difficult to ignore. So I want to come and see Snorkel and a Burka later this year. Will you be doing some gigs outside of London?
FB: Well, we go back up to Coventry next month and we hope to do more and more gigs, all over..............Oren plays a lot around the world, we would like to do that too.
**********************

We call it a day and switch off the mini disc player. Frank picks up the tab and we go our separate ways. The Slowfoot label is releasing some more very cool electronic timbre tones and rumble ringing soon. Albums that will cause involuntary limb shudder at beautifully inappropriate moments.

Check out all their artists, gigs, releases and more at Slowfoot.
Many thanks to Frank Byng and Ben Cowen. Best wishes to Jeremy Wood ,who couldn't make the interview.
Undertaken with zero stress and a fistful of liquorice papers by Paul Hawkins.

See Links Below:
Slowfoot
Snorkel
7 Hurtz