Exposure: Trembling Bells
- Thomas Meek
- 30 March 2009
Trembling Bells - Adieu England
Bewitching and beguiling, Trembling Bells are the Glasgow folk band whose music conjures up bonfires, nature and Britt Ekland dancing in the buff. For this is a band who forgo a pop rigmarole, harking back to traditional folk roots, telling stories and chilling bones with Lavinia Blackwall's haunting voice. Drummer and songwriter, Alex Neilson (a man who's worked with Will Oldham amongst others) explains the folk phenomenon.
How did the Trembling Bells come to be?
Each Trembling Bells member has different backgrounds, from self taught to conservatoire trained, but all are united by a common interest in country music, medieval music, rock music… pretty much most musical forms between 1920s and 1970s and beyond. I have played with all of the band members before in various guises. Bass player, Simon Shaw, was the puppet master behind ‘wegian folk-rock band Lucky Luke. Ben Reynolds and I exploded anthemic traditional British folk songs in an improvisatory setting (ala Albert Ayler) in Motor Ghost. Singer and multi-instrumentalist, Lavinia Blackwall and I combined Earlie Musick, psychedelia and free jazz as Directing Hand and George Murray and Aby Vuillamy were core members of my first band, Scatter- a Glasgow based collective who anticipated the recent free folk phenomenon by some years.
You certainly seem to have your influences in more traditional, folk music. How would you describe the sound of Trembling Bells?
Traditional folk music (particularly that from Britain) held me in a spell binding paralysis from the age of 18 to 25. I was so captivated by the poetry, language, melodies, quasi- mythologizing of familiar places, variety of accents and the untutored voices that I simply could not imagine beginning to fathom how to write my own music. I am happy to say that I have made it through the other side of this tyrannical initiatory process, largely thanks to my coming to terms with the work of Bob Dylan. Dylan indicated to me that you could use that music creatively, by internalizing the forms and employing an image or phrase as a cornel of inspiration to extrapolate more personal creations that reflect the contours of one’s own creative will. This seems like a more healthy and organic process than repeatedly ossifying a form that has so much misplaced emphasis on ‘authenticity’.
What sort of artists have impacted on the way Trembling Bells sound?
An eclectic array of titanic, canonical artists; Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Everly Brothers, Neil Diamond, Elvis, David Munrow, Peter Bellamy, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Mickey Newbury… plus lots of anonymous doo wop, crazed rockabilly and sentimental country compilations. Also, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, Fredrico Garcia Lorca, William Blake and William Morris have had a big impact on this music.
Has music always been a part of your life?
I started drumming at the age of 13 because it coincided with a physics lesson at school, and I took to it as naturally as Christ took to the cross. Prior to that, via shows like TOTP, I remember thinking that I could never be a musician because I didn’t look like Milli Vanilli or sing like Rick Astley. It was only after a period of personal revelation, through grunge then psychedelia then free jazz, that I started to really follow my own creative impulses and reclaim them from the inherited airbrushed, corporate, plastic death-jaws of popular culture.
With acts like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver perhaps opening folk sounds to a wider audience, do you think the sort of music you create will become more popular?
I don’t know their music, I’m afraid. For better or worse I don’t really listen to much contemporary music, aside from some people I play with (Baby Dee, Alasdair Roberts, Ben Reynolds, Current 93, 6 Organs of Admittance, Josephine Foster, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy etc). This might be partly a response to having worked in a record shop for two years. If it makes it easier for our music to reach a wider audience then great! But I would not rely on this possibility and I am certainly not jumping on any stylistic bandwagon. I am a firm believer that quality will endure and, though it is early days (this album represents my first attempt at song writing), I have faith in my ideas, the people around me and I am more than willing to put in the work to make it succeed.
Is there a worry of diluting the traditional folk with elements of pop music, or should we embrace this convergence?
I consider myself somewhat of a reluctant authority on traditional British music, having immersed myself in it since I was pluke-farming teenager when most of my peers where chomping disco-biscuits to the faceless dance-floor anthems of the day in the QMU. It is with the utmost affection that I regard that music. But, for my own creative necessity, I am cannibalizing and reanimating it along with many other superficially disparate enthusiasms. Again, I think this is a healthy and organic process.
What's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about your music?
About my drumming from a pie-eyed Irish reveller to Will Oldham at a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy concert in Dublin; ‘My God, where did you find this guy? It's like, you think it and he just does it!’
In five words, why should people listen to Trembling Bells?
We will fuck you up!
Sat 17 April, Stereo, Glasgow (supporting Wooden Shjips); Thu 6 May, The Roxy Room, Edinburgh; Fri 21 May, Stereo, Glasgow; Fri 4 June, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (supporting The Unthanks), Sun 20 June, The Insider Festival, Aviemore