James Edge and The Mindstep release their new single ‘Four Two Four’ on September 23rd.
The track has been described as Alt Folk, Punk and Jazz. The band are notorious for performing with little rehearsal, riffing off of each other like a jazz band, somehow following a complex tapestry of beats and melody in a seamless fashion. Their lyrics are often terrifyingly obtuse, pointing to some dark abyss that the listener cannot quite enter or make sense of. GIGsoup caught up with James to ask him about the band’s idiosyncratic techniques, their growing notoriety and what the rest of the year has in store for them.
This track was apparently recorded with almost no rehearsal with a variety of musicians from your band and session players. Could you tell us a bit more about this process? Why have you decided on this way of working and how do you feel it has influenced the final sound?
A number of tracks from the new album (around half) were completely new to the band and string players going into the sessions. Because Andy (double bass) and Avvon (drums) are such great players and because it really works in term of how we play off each other, we like to leave a lot open to the moment every time we play live – we do a lot of improvising and risk taking and on occasion we’ve played songs live at gigs that they’ve both never even heard before.
This approach to the recording sessions was sort of an extension of that. We were keen for the recordings to feel as organic as possible and to really just sound like us playing together, with all the usual risk taking. The material also really benefits from that note of panic that comes with the fact that all of the players are just barely holding it together.
‘Four Two Four’ was actually one of the tracks I wrote well before the sessions and we have played live a few times. So we had had a bit of rehearsal with this one and given how mind-bending it is to play it was probably good we’d had a look in advance.
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You and your band have received a lot of air play from Radio 2, 6Radio and Folk Radio UK over the last year. What’s it like getting all of this attention and what more do you have planned for the forthcoming year?
It’s really nice and, given the amount and quality of what else you know is out there, surprising when people take notice. It’s a good feeling knowing that people everywhere are hearing something you made. And hopefully a few are also enjoying it…
We have the release of the single ‘Four Two Four’ coming up on September 23rd and the album ‘Machines He Made’ on December 9th. Following that we’re going to release an EP featuring some other songs from the album recording sessions.
‘Four Two Four’ is a complex track featuring many different instruments, time signatures and a difficult melody- how do you arrive at your compositions?
In the case of ‘Four Two Four’ it sort of happened on its own. The guitar part came out of a finger picked riff I improvised in a strange tuning. It seemed to extend itself from there and I arrived at the vocal melody by sort of wailing along with what I was playing. The lyrics similarly all came at once a while later when I was recording a demo of it. Songs can happen any way for me, from imagining words, melody, chords and then working on them to improvising on the guitar or piano. Sometimes they come out fully formed and sometimes they take months of development.
I do a lot of musical and lyrical sketches but 90% of the time they will stall and go nowhere, I think this one developed so quickly because I was hooked by it sounding like quite a traditional fingerpicked figure but subverted by the unusual time signature (it’s actually just a straightforward 5, there’s just a lot going on around it) and as I was going I enjoyed adding rhythmic elements to twist it more.
Avvon and Andy write and improvise their own parts unless I have something very specific in mind like the bowed bass solos in ‘On a Red Horse‘, the first song we released from the new album. For Four Two Four I gave them both chord charts and a sense of what I had in mind and we just started playing. It’s not changed significantly since that moment except I asked Howard Gott (Violin) to play on the recording because I thought it would sound awesome.
Again he wrote / improvised his own part for this one. All of them added elements to the song that warp it still more and add layers of complexity.
The lyrics to ‘Four Two Four’ are quite obscure and dark- they invite the listener to make up their own mind about what the song might mean- what inspired these words?
Like a lot of the album its all to do with imagery, stories, dreams, thoughts and feelings that were kicking about it my head while I was writing the album. A lot of it all links together but ‘Four Two Four’ is quite self contained. I like leaving people to decide for themselves what its about, but I wrote it about something quite specific.
Your album ‘Machines He Made’ is released later this year- what are your plans for the release- is there a launch party in the works?
I’m looking at doing a tour of around 10 dates around the time of release and the album is coming out on CD, download and double vinyl LP.
Your sound is generally described as Folk, but other genres have been bandied about too including punk and jazz. How do you describe your sound and how do you feel about these attempts to explain your music?
I’m generally very pleased that people are taking the time to listen to or talk about it at all! But also pleased to have anyone’s help in defining what it sounds like. I think you can get very myopic and lose all sense of what you sound like to other people and how all the things you’re thinking and being influenced by are being changed once they’ve come out the other side of the sausage machine.
Generally I think all those terms fit and I don’t feel too worried about what genres get thrown about because there are elements of all genres I’d be proud to be associated with.
When asked at the moment, given the sound of the new album, I tend to say progressive folk or alternative folk because I think the sound has moved on from the more traditional folk / singer songwriter it once was, although we’re still using the same instruments.