The Winding Stair
The folk-noir four piece talks technique, pretension and Yeats
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There is a fundamental otherness to The Winding Stair.
Amongst the staid and stymied hordes of indie sound-alikes and rock-by-rote bands, this Belfast based four-piece display a devotion to creating something of artistic value that seems almost, well, deviant. Guitar, cello, violin and voice are cajoled into making music that is technically peerless and, what’s more, genuinely moving.
‘It started off with me on acoustic guitar and Clare (Galway) on violin,’ says Ciarán Tracey, guitarist with the group.
‘I had been looking to get out of heavier music [Tracey is also a member of metal band Hexxed] and wanted to do the acoustic thing.
'At that point I didn’t envisage the full band set-up, but Clare I worked with, I knew she played violin and I asked her to help me out.’
However after a handful of gigs it became apparent that Tracey’s ambitions could not be realised if they continued as a duo.
‘There was only so much we could do with violin and guitar. Then we thought "wouldn’t be great if we developed what we had and formed a band around it".’
'I asked Tom (Hughes, cello) because we had mutual friends, and then advertised for a singer. Mary (O’Halloran) was the first person to respond and the only person I wanted once I’d heard her sing.’
He may not say so, but Tracey is The Winding Stair’s leader; intense and focused, precise in outlining his idea of what the band should be.
His erudition is leavened by the expletives he casually sprinkles throughout the conversation.
‘I’m a Yeats f**king obsessive’ he says, explaining the band’s name. ‘The Winding Stair is the name of a collection of his poetry. This was from his angry period rather than the ‘Celtic Twilight’ stuff.
'This was grumpy old man material, apocalyptic. There’s one poem, Blood And The Moon, and this specific passage about ‘the winding stair’. In terms of image it just spoke to me.’
With a settled line-up and band name suggestive of idiosyncratic majesty and gothic mysticism, the newly fashioned four-piece could start the search for their musical identity in earnest.
‘It started off quite sparse, quite a lot of gaps for us to develop into,’ recalls the quietly articulate Hughes.
‘Initially, in terms of the song structure, it was derived from the metal that Ciarán had played, transferring that to an acoustic level. Gradually we’ve moved more towards folk music.’
‘John Renbourne, Bert Jansch, and Colin Reid from Belfast, who is f**king brilliant,’ says an endorsing Tracey. 'Reid is unreal and not only as a guitar player, but as a songwriter, really dark.’
The erstwhile Hexxed axeman fixes me with a piercing look, keen that I fully absorb the next particular point.
'I don’t see The Winding Stair as in any way a translation of what I’d done previously,’ he states.
‘There is no direct link to metal, this is its own thing and it isn’t metal related. The aggression is in there, the darkness is in there, but Judas Priest this most definitely is not.’
Point taken. The Winding Stair are not Judas Priestly in any shape or form. The question remains, though, what exactly are they trying to convey?
‘It’s quite song-orientated at the moment, whereas I’d actually like to get away from that,’ says Tracey.
‘The concept of creating soundscapes appeals to me. I don’t like being constrained into a four minute song, and I’d personally hope to work towards seven minute mood pieces.’
And what brooding, bewitching moods The Winding Stair summon. Music that alternates between the menacing and the melancholy, music with an ethereal edge, immersing the listener in a cauldron of emotions.
‘I get a bollocking at nearly every practice because I want the music to be darker each time,’ confirms the guitarist. ‘But within the darkest music there is always a redemptive note. At its very core it’s melancholic. If it were any other way then I wouldn’t want to do it.’
‘Yes, it’s dark, certainly,’ agrees Hughes, before elaborating. ‘But more than that, it’s thought-provoking. The darkness provides contrast. If you don’t have the darkness then you can’t appreciate the light. That’s how I see our music working.’
As far as the majority of right-thinking music lovers are concerned The Winding Stair are working just fine.
Similarly the response from the media has been almost uniformly positive. Tracey, however, asserts a haughty indifference to the opinions of the music press, a view somewhat belied by his acute recollection of a recent review.
‘I hold no store by any review, by anyone, ever,’ he assures me.
‘However, I do recall we were criticised recently, and I quote, "for writing music as technique rather than message." It would annoy me if we looked like some band fixated on their instruments.
'I hate that. I went through a decade of heavy metal, of people trying to show how fast they could play the guitar. Not interested.
'Technique is not solely what we’re about. We create a mood; we’re trying to express, to find a way of making the guitar and cello as eloquent as the lyric.’
Their musical eloquence, and honest passion for being, sets The Winding Stair apart.
‘To be honest I don’t think that most people in bands have any greater goal than to be in a band,’ observes Tracey.
‘It genuinely is about whether or not you have something to say. I don’t have a message, a world peace proclamation, but I do have something I want to express and music is how I choose to express it.
'So we’re distinct, simply because we have a valid reason to be. Let’s not beat around the bush, most other bands don’t. The music sounds good, cool, enjoy yourselves, but what about saying something.’
I suggest that espousing such views, valid or not, coupled with their keening intelligence, artistic allusions and musical worthiness could see The Winding Stair labelled as pretentious.
‘We have a literary title and make literary references, and that’s why you accuse us of being pretentious,’ splutters Tracey.
‘But it’s about having ideas. That’s what gives you a drive and a reason for making music and if that’s what you call pretentious then, yeah, I f**king love pretentious.’
And just to make sure there is no room for doubt, he neatly disarms any lingering accusation of pretentiousness with a most anti-highbrow reference.
'I can quote a classic line from Spinal Tap to sum this one up: "There’s a very thin line between clever and stupid."'
A thin line perhaps, but The Winding Stair belong most definitely in the former category. The band has a clear grasp of what they can realistically accomplish.
Their music is not cut of commercial cloth; nonetheless they realise that by harnessing their talent, maintaining their focus and with a modicum of good fortune there is still much they might achieve.
‘The best possible album we can do, with the most authentic sound we can get,’ states Tracey. ‘I want to get on a respectable label; I’m not talking Virgin, more Drag City, Joanna Newson, Devendra Banhart.’
He pauses a moment, deep in contemplation.
'And I want my album in a cardboard digipack, a sexy, cardboard digipack. Hey, don’t laugh; a cardboard digipack is both realistic and achievable.’