16 musicians; 20 singers; a stage full of instruments, from oboes to wine bottles, tubas to electric guitars, cellos to melodicas. Put them together, and you have the joyous punk orchestra Human Pyramids, a collaborative project between some of the best up and coming musicians from across the UK. Getting them together in the same room is a tricky task to organise – there’s only one or two gigs a year. But when it happens, it’s all down to the work of enigmatic Paul Russell, full-time guitar wizard for punk math-rock band Axes and the multi-instrumentalist driving force behind the Human Pyramids project.
Just last week, fans from across the country travelled to The Lexington in London to celebrate the album release for their second album ‘Home’, out on 10 November. (Missed the live gig review? You can catch it here on GIGsoup) Sound checking almost forty musicians is no mean feat, so we’re grateful to have a chance to chat to Paul before the band hits the stage and find out a bit more about how it all began, what’s new on the album, and what’s behind the scenes of the controlled chaos!
How did Human Pyramids all begin?
So the album was released in 2013, but it was never a band. It was just me. I wrote everything on a computer, and we’d get friends to play stuff. I went to my friend’s house who played the cello; I didn’t know any viola players so she’d play an octave higher and that was a viola… then she would play violin and second violin… Same thing happened with the brass band, with tuba, French horn and trumpet.
The first album was never really meant to be an album. It was me in my bedroom, I wrote a mad album. Then we did gigs, Glastonbury, Arctangent… and it became something else. Now, the goal posts have totally shifted.
With the new album ‘Home’ – what’s different about it from your debut album ‘Planet Shhh!’?
It’s very different. So now when I write an album, I want to do it specifically for the band, and to play it live.
Before, I was really shit at writing for strings and horns – I’d be turning up with these scores, they’d be saying ‘I can’t play this’. I didn’t realise when you play a trumpet, you need to breathe! So there were two main things I did on this album. Firstly, I worked with a string arranger. On ‘Planet Shhh!’, the notes were either on or off – the strings were either playing or not. So now, it’s like ‘how loud do you want them? What’s the articulation?’ We recorded it live in Glasgow, which was amazing.
And for the horns it was the same thing – Simon Dobson, our trumpet player tonight – he is this amazing brass band composer. He helped to work on the tones, and using fugal horns, and French horns, and two different tubas… things I never thought about on the first album.
It took a long time to happen. I got funding from Creative Scotland – it took a year to work on the form – but I got to work with amazing producers, like Paul Savage who works with Mogwai – Rod Jones the guitarist of Idlewild – so it was a long process. So it’s very different. It’s heavier, and more classical at the same time.
With a 16-piece band, and the singers too – you don’t play too often, I imagine? How does it all work?
No – we play as little as possible! I had the grand idea with the album coming out on the 10th, that we were going to do a tour, and Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, maybe Brighton – but with the band and all their commitments, it’s impossible. Do you know about Doodle calendars? We got all 16 people to fill one of them in and figure out dates and we looked at it and said – well, I guess October 27th is the day!
Sixteen is normally the minimum amount in the band – around eight players are normally the same, and eight are different every time. It’s just a bunch of friends coming together. With a band of sixteen, the potential for strange things to happen is exponential. You can never get the same sixteen people together, because of people moving. But I think we’re moving closer to a solid sixteen.
It’s not a full time job – we do a gig a year. Last year it was Glastonbury, the year before it was End of the Road, 2000 Trees and so on. It’s expensive to get a group of us together. For this gig, I drove down from Glasgow on Tuesday, we did three big rehearsals, then getting scores, liaising all the bits – all the logistics and organising everything… and rehearsing with the choir. It’s been a huge job!
I think with Human Pyramids, what strikes me is that music transcends over different genres. It’s a real collaborative process.
In the core group, we’re a punk band. But you put these people together – the core band, a mixture of punks and indie kids – and then the strings, who are classically trained in orchestras… the brass band players are these mental alcoholics who play in crazy swing bands, film scores, Mariachi bands – you put all these people together, and mental things happen.
You should see my phone – if I type in violin, it’s just – crazy. Friends, and friends of friends – that’s how it spreads out. But with sixteen people, the friends of friends – there’s so much potential. You find, there’s all these connections – and you realise how you know other people through the music scene.
I got the impression when I go to festivals like 2000 Trees and Arctangent, that everyone is close knit, that you’re a community. Is that the same with Axes? Do you have the same audiences coming to Axes and Human Pyramids?
There’s quite a lot of cross over – I suppose Human Pyramids is a bit more family friendly, Human Pyramids is normally the first act on stages, and welcomes people into festivals. Axes play more regularly.
With Cleft, we are very close. Very very, uncomfortably close! From the beginning of Axes, we were always playing together – quite often it was Cleft, Axes and Alpha Male Tea Party. It was such a good triangle – we did a European tour together, in a van with the 9 people that make up the band.
This year, with Axes, we’re doing a Christmas party this year to raise money for Dan from the band Cleft and for his cancer treatment – we’re going to raise loads of money from that. It’s tragic, but heart warming that all of the people are there to support him. It raises my belief in humanity that across the board everyone is standing up and saying, ‘I’ve got your back’.
The second album ‘Home’ from Human Pyramids is out on November 10 via Three Mile Town Records.
Find out more about the Axemas Party for Dan, with Axes and Delta Sleep playing at The Islington on 19 December: https://www.facebook.com/events/112624736157686/