Interview: Northumbria

With every release, the music of Toronto duo Northumbria pushes further outward. The scale of their panorama increases, manipulating the tones of guitar and bass in a manner that not only considers breadth, but also mimics the undulation and fracture of natural landscape. Drones intersect to form glacier tips. Harmonies microtonally melt into the sea. The band are currently working on a trilogy of releases focused on the Norse discovery of Canada over a thousand years ago; the second of these releases, titled Markland, came out on Cryo Chamber back in March this year. Below, Northumbria and I discuss tuning the room, strict minimalism, and the band’s technological evolution.

Markland is the second instalment of your ongoing trilogy, centred on the Norse discovery of Canada back in c. AD 1000. It seems that the albums are titled after the original names of the islands visited by Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson (in which case, I’m guessing the third will be titled Vinland). What is it about this story that interests you, and why did you think that it would work well as the basis for a Northumbria project?

Much of the music we make is inspired by the geography and physicality of Canada – it’s just the way the project naturally evolved. During the initial sessions that would ultimately become Helluland, the first record in the trilogy, we were experimenting with a much more minimalistic and spacious approach; really letting the negative space become a larger component to the songs than on the previous two records. It just naturally sounded like the arctic to us, at least in our own experience while making the music, and seemed to evoke feelings of vastness and the harshness of the landscape. Early on we both thought it would be an interesting idea to try and make it into a concept album of sorts, albeit a very impressionistic one.

Of course, someone could listen to the albums and have their own, very different interpretation. That’s the beauty of the abstraction and non-objectivity in instrumental music; it’s free of any direct narrative through the use of language and lyrics. Really it’s about what we were feeling, and what was directing our sessions in our own minds. Lots of brilliant artists, many of whom we’re big fans of, such as Northaunt and Thomas Köner, have made concept albums about the North. This is just our own very personal reflection on that time and place. It wasn’t too long into recording Helluland that we began to toy with the idea of creating a trilogy of albums based around the Norse exploration of the three main lands mentioned in the Sagas… the next two being Markland, which is believed to be Northern Labrador, and Vinland as you mentioned, which is believed by most archaeologists to be Newfoundland. It proved to be a very fertile source of inspiration for us, and the perfect meeting of two worlds of interest to us both…ancient Canada and Norse culture and history.

This concept puts a real-world landscape through the lens of a unique, almost fantastical circumstance: the very first human encounter with a new island, with all of the wonder and trepidation (the sightings of life, the hostilities of environment and potential predators) that must have accompanied that. How much research/preparation was involved in acquainting yourself with the nature of these landscapes at the time of Norse discovery?

We’ve had a lot of fun fantasizing about what Canada would have been like at that time, so pure and unspoiled, and how it would have felt to traverse such an imposing and massive landscape. Just getting across Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea would have been such a treacherous journey! Many were blown off course and lost forever. We’re both quite interested in the ancient Norse on a personal level, so it was interesting to try and channel their feelings and experiences into music. Their world view was so full of magic and power, and of course they were no strangers to the extremities of the natural world. It’s hard to imagine a voyage requiring more courage…maybe the next stage of manned space exploration would be comparable! Both Jim and I started researching both the Sagas as well as current archaeology, and we we’re blown away by the ever-growing evidence of Norse habitation and settlement. There are more and more sites being uncovered that reveal a much longer stay, and strong trade relationship with the First Nations.

Once we decided that this path was of interest, we began to do quite a lot of research, specifically into the work of Canadian Archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, who has been working on a site in Baffin Island (Helluland) that’s revealed an unquestionable Viking base camp from the 11th to 13th centuries.

Beach

What was the recording process like for Markland? I read a previous interview where you talk about setting up, pressing record and simply playing together for hours. Is that still the case? Are there any ways in which you prepare either yourselves or the recording space to instigate a greater state of immersion?

We’re pretty good at getting into the right headspace, but of course some sessions are more productive than others. This kind of approach, being almost totally improvised, is naturally very sensitive to our mental states. Usually we’re so excited to get to play together and record that we just jump right in. Often the beginning of the session is what gets us in the right frame of mind. There’s usually a period of tuning and centring, where we kind of tune the room…and ourselves! When the sound begins to flow, we quickly adjust from thinking about anything else in the outside world, given that the technology is behaving! We’ve certainly become more economical with our time together, with less superfluous recording happening. There’s a good balance between creating music spontaneously, and also developing music ideas that Jim and I have been working on independently. Because it’s much more based on sound, tonality and the energy of the moment, sometimes musical ideas drift very far from where we consciously expected them to go, as is the case (I would assume) with most improvised music. That’s part of the adventure of it and also the danger, which is appealing to both of us.

The majority of the recordings we’ve released are about 90% live off the floor, with some field recording added in post to tie it all together. To this day we’re still sticking to our initial idea of all released recordings being a kind of raw document of the moment, to try and capture that creative energy and power that rises from a primordial energy, rather than from a cerebral composed approach. With all of the technology available to create elaborate recordings, the temptation is always there to go back a rework, edit and overdub additional parts but for us the “less is more” approach is really central: to try and say as much as possible with as few elements. It can sometimes be a challenge not to overplay, or overthink what we’re doing. We always return to our central tenet, which has almost become a kind of strict minimalism. The only editing that happens is selecting the most effective portion of the song, which is usually quite obvious; sometimes it’s the whole recording, sometimes it’s just a little piece that we could never have arrived at through traditional composition.

This record is the most harmonically/tonally strange project I’ve heard from you. There’s a beautiful, shimmering instability to the soundscape, and I’m often struck by the way that chords seem to microtonally “melt” in and out of tune. Is there anyone in particular who inspires your fluid, somewhat ambiguous approach to harmony?

A lot of the so called “Mystical Minimalists” have certainly had a big influence on us, people like Arvo Part and Henryk Górecki, as well as Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki. The way that they morph from the tonal to the atonal, and use microtonality to increase tension and add density is really inspiring for us. We wanted to explore more complex and atonal harmonies on Markland to create a sense of fear and dread in some pieces, as well as more direct and tonal approaches to create a sense of optimism and hope. Hopefully the dichotomy translates to the listener. This record is full of higher highs and lower lows for sure, following what we imagine the Vikings experience would have been like. Whereas Helluland was desolate and full of hopelessness, Markland contained many more possibilities, and many more perils.

One of the tracks on here is titled “Ostara’s Return”, which I’m assuming is a reprise of “Ostara” from Bring Down The Sky. I certainly sense a thematic continuity between the two. How did “Ostara” find its way into this new record?

Like a lot of our music, it was a total happy accident. We weren’t striving for, or had even though of doing a return to “Ostara”, it just happened naturally in the moment. We were playing this kind of chorale, improvising around this simple theme that gradually and unconsciously evolved into one of the central motifs from “Ostara”. We decided that it seemed like a good honest move to include it as a kind of second part to the first piece. Conceptually it made sense too, considering that the Vikings found this lush new land that had many natural resources to offer, which from their point of view could very well be seen as a gift from the Goddess. New beginnings, new growth and new opportunities.

I returned to the album description on three occasions to double-check that the album consisted only of guitar and bass. I probably shouldn’t be so surprised by the extent to which these instruments can be stretched and manipulated in 2017, but the way you reshape the timbre of your instruments is particularly exquisite. How much time do you each spend crafting the tone of your respective instruments? Is any of this done post-processing?

That’s lovely of you to say, thank you! It’s all guitar and bass. We’ve both always been searching for new ways to push our instruments and sound, but with Northumbria we’ve really given ourselves licence to really go far beyond what either one of us have done in the past. It’s a massive part of the band, and main source of experimentation.

Technologically we’ve really evolved a lot with this band. Musically as well, but I would say more so technologically. Jim is constantly looking for new sounds and techniques to bring to the band. I think it’s fair to say that the amount of time we spend crafting our sound would, in all likelihood, be viewed as abnormally obsessive, possibly outside the parameters of sanity. A lot of tracks in fact start from a sound, or a “patch’ as we call it, which seems to naturally guide the music in a direction that works, and then it’s just a matter of allowing it to develop in the way it seems to want, with some guidance and control. We kind of view our whole setup as a big modular synthesizer, even though it’s all guitars. Each patch is usually unique to that song, and only occasionally used for another song. Plus we experiment with different instruments as well, Jim has several very different guitars he uses for different approaches; one is used primarily for bowing, several are sustainers, which are a big part of his sound. I also have a bass which I use exclusively for bowing, as well as an eight-string which creates this kind of piano-like sound when the attack is rolled off with the volume pedal. The mixdown is always the second stage of adventure, when we’re surprised by what we’ve recorded. Usually the memory is quite hazy and it’s great fun rediscovering all this music.

Northumbria(LAKE) copy

I’d love to know more about your relationship as improvisers. Have you noticed any changes in how you interact with each other over the years? I’m always curious as to whether improvisatory groups are concerned about becoming too familiar with each other’s reflexes and inclinations, although this record makes it clear that you’re still identifying new and unexpected ways to intersect. 

We’re fortunate to be very in sync in terms of improvisation and vision for the band. We laugh about how our backgrounds are very similar, and how we’re almost always on the same page. I don’t think there’s any danger of becoming too familiar with how we play, because each song or piece is its own little sound world full of surprises. The whole modus operandi is based on very pure experimentation, so being a bit on edge is part of the process. We haven’t really changed per se, but Jim, because of his extensive background in improvisation, has really pushed me in new directions and opened me up to a lot of new ways of playing.

What other music have you been listening to recently?

The new record by our friend Thisquietarmy, Metamorphose, has been getting a lot of play in the studio of late, as well as the newest releases on Cryo Chamber. We’re lucky to be a part of such a supportive label and roster of artists. It’s a lot more like a collective or family than a record label; lots of interaction between the artists. Simon Heath, who operates the label, has really created a very fertile environment for ambient and dark ambient artists. Beyond that, the new Colin Stetson metal project Ex Eye, Sleep by Max Richter, Nonland by Aidan Baker, Runaljod ‑ Ragnarok by Wardruna, the new dreamSTATE. I’ve been really getting into a lot of late 50’s exotica too…Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman etc. It’s awesome escapism in the best possible way!

What’s on the horizon for Northumbria?

We’re deep into recording Vinland, the next instalment in the trilogy, as well as working on a vinyl release for Infinite Fog. After that we’d like to do another heavy, more sonic record. We’re also participating in the massive Cryo Chamber collaboration inspired by H.P Lovecraft… the fourth one to date!