Recapturing that Childlike Sense of Wonder
Francis Jones talks to Mercury nominees Guillemots
Rewind to February 2006. As entrances go it was one of the most bizarre you’re ever likely to see. Marching to the solemn beat of a solitary snare drum four figures walk single file through the devoted congregation gathered in Queen’s Students Union.
Striding stage-ward, the veiled, bridal figure at the head, the little drummer boy at the rear, this perplexing procession ascend to their pulpit of sound and, as if from some celestial plane, wondrous music breaks forth.
A lot has happened to Guillemots in the intervening eight months, not least a Mercury Music Prize nomination for their sublime album, Through The Windowpane. Yet, so enamoured were the band with Northern Ireland and its people they determined to renew their vows on their first full-length UK tour.
This tour includes both Derry and Belfast. Talking to band founder and frontman, Fyfe Dangerfield, it is clear that Belfast holds some particularly happy memories.
‘I met my girlfriend there actually. The night of the concert in fact, so yeah quite a special night really. The Belfast gig was really nice. We played in the students union and there was a great crowd, properly enthusiastic. So it was a nice night in all kinds of ways.’
Those present that night can provide witness to the sheer musical spectacle Guillemots conjure during live performance. Not content to merely replicate the sound of their record they reinvent and improvise, each set a bespoke gift to their audience.
‘It’s a bit boring when artists go on about it being ‘all about the music’ and yes, of course it’s all about the music, but live you’ve got to provide a bit more than that or people may as well stay at home and listen to the record.
'Live you have to generate that energy that makes it an experience, something you can only get from being there. The more gigs we do, the more cash we have, we can try different things to make it more interesting.
'For the forthcoming tour we’ve got new songs, but also we’ve changed the way we play the songs, so I might switch from keyboard to guitar, trying out new arrangements, just to keep things fresh.’
The Mercury Music nomination was the culmination of a concerted period of press acclaim for the band’s debut album, Through The Windowpane. Nonetheless, despite the preceding positive feedback, Dangerfield assures me that he did not expect the album to scale such dizzying heights of critical recognition.
‘The album is quite dear to us, it took such a long time to do and was such a big deal for us. The Mercury nomination was just amazing, it really is one of those things you dream about, but never imagine that it might actually happen.
'I’ve not always agreed with the reviews, even where they’ve given it quite positive reviews, I suppose reviewers have to pick out individual tracks and to me the whole point of this record is that it should be seen as a whole.
'When you analyse individual bits it might not seem to work, might seem quite disparate. Ideally I’d like people to be able to sit down and listen to the record in one go. It works like that, the tracks together rather than in isolation.’
Ordinary boys and girl the Guillemots are not. Full of ethereal cadences their music stands gloriously at odds to the prevailing penchant for gritty urban ennui as espoused by the likes of Arctic Monkeys and The Streets. They’ve ditched the mundane and embraced the magical.
‘We just do our own thing; we haven’t deliberately reacted against the type of music being produced by Arctic Monkeys or The Streets. I think they’re both good and, in fact, we actually did a B-side for Mike Skinner.
'As a songwriter I’d be rubbish at writing their type of music, I couldn’t write about getting wasted or going out clubbing all the time. I’ve never been that kind of person, I’m more likely to hang out with my friends and watch films.
The four of us, we’re the kind of people who like daydreaming and drifting off into imagined worlds. I think that comes through in what we do. It’s escapism and it’s about trying to capture that sense of wonder that you had when you were a child.’
That sense of wonder is clearly evidenced in the two recurring motifs in Guillemots music, birdsong and travel.
‘I grew up fascinated by birdsong. I got into bird watching at a young age and well it’s just an amazing sound. I love it when you wake up at about 4am and hear the dawn chorus, it’s deafening sometimes. I find it so inspiring, I guess it’s own of the most surreal, dreamlike experiences that exists.
'What I loved about bird watching was that it was like spying on aliens, an invisible spectator; it’s just this whole other world. Similarly travel, it appeals to that sense of other, humans just want to be somewhere else, you’re never quite satisfied, and you’re always striving for something. That’s why so many people go travelling and why we allude to faraway places in our songs.’
Wikipedia, factual or fictional, it is a veritable Russian roulette of truth. So what substance is there to its claim that prior to Guillemots’ success, Dangerfield was employed as a ‘maverick music teacher’?
‘I don’t know about ‘maverick’, but yes, I was a music teacher. I somehow managed to land a job at a school. Through someone I knew there I ended up playing piano at their Christmas concert. The Principal took me to one side and said how they’d noted I got on well with the kids and that they were down a music teacher as someone was off on sick leave.
'I was only supposed to come in for two or three weeks and ended up staying there for two whole terms. I wasn’t a qualified teacher and really my aim was to get the kids enthused about music. Generally I would play them music I liked and discuss it or get them to bring in their Hip-Hop records.
'Then I’d try and play them something that I thought might have influenced that, like Marvin Gaye. Every now and again we’d have rap competitions. They weren’t the most conventional lessons!’
According to Dangerfield the following eight months promise all manner of new-fangled excitements.
‘We’ve got a lot of touring and a lot of really interesting shows. There’s two nights at the Astoria, which is kinda quite mad. I remember watching a video of Radiohead playing the Astoria and it’s mad to think that we’re gonna play there twice.
'We’re also playing this Electric Proms concert in London, we’re doing stuff with an orchestra which I’m just working on at the minute, that’s amazing and will be such a buzz. Strangely things like that seem quite normal at the minute.’