Interview: Tunng

Ben Wood chats with Mike Lindsay, co-founder of TUNNG

Posted on Jul 16th, 2013 in Features and Interviews, Tunng, Full Time Hobby / By Ben Wood
Tunng "We got really into the idea of combining folk music with a paganistic folk feel. It felt really natural to us..."

Over the last decade, Tunng have carved out a musical territory all their own. On albums such as Comments of the Inner Chorus and Good Arrows, folky guitar melodies and intertwining vocals combine with electronic glitches, beats and synth textures to create 21st century folk-rock: intimate, emotional and quirky. On a swelteringly hot summer evening, frontman and co-founder Mike Lindsay discusses the band's fifth album Turbines; moving to Iceland; collaborating with the likes of Tinariwen... and soundtracking Red Hot Grannies!

Bearded: A Tunng album is a bit like a really good Spaghetti Bolognese: many of the ingredients are familiar, but they're served up in different proportions every time - so every one has a different flavour! What were your aims when you started making Turbines?

Mike: The first challenge was logistical - how we could all get together and be in the same place. We've moved about a bit over the last few years: Ashley [Bates, formerly of shoegazers Chapterhouse] lives in Somerset, and I've moved to Iceland. When we recorded Turbines we lived together for two weeks at a time in different locations around England and in Iceland. When we met up, we didn't have anything written at all. So we were writing, recording - and drinking - together, which we hadn't done for a little while. That shaped the sound of the record. It became more of a band sound, thanks to a more unified writing process.

Was there ever a time when you thought that there might not be another Tunng album?

With our band, you never really know what's going on! The last one [...And Then We Saw Land] came out in 2010 and there was a chance that one was never going to materialise. Sam [Genders, co-founder] was in the band before that, and he left, and at that point we had to make a decision whether to carry on as the five of us or do something else. That was quite a big challenge. But once the album was done and we were happy with that, we played some more shows and really enjoyed it. We were always confident we'd do another album, we just weren't sure when. We're in the same position now! I did something by myself in Iceland [Mike's solo project Cheek Mountain Thief, whose debut album Strain came out last year]. Meeting different musicians and recording in remote locations was really refreshing. Every other Tunng record has been done in a studio in East London except this one - and I learned that we can work anywhere. It's all about the people and the ideas. The solo album really helped me do the new Tunng one. It doesn't have to be in your own space, at your own desk, near your own toilet...!

The new record has been described as a "sci-fi folk-rock record" based around the idea of an imaginary village. Sounds intriguing! How did it come about?

It's complicated. The sci-fi aspect of it was inspired by spending a month in an analogue synth museum, and those synths made everything sound like it was in a sci-fi movie. We were enjoying that sound, which gave things a sort of post-apocalyptic feel. That feel started to filter into the songwriting as well. As for the village idea... well there's a song on the record called 'The Village'. It's the poppiest thing we've done - so poppy we weren't sure we could get away with it. Originally the chorus came together, which is almost Steeleye Span-ish, and we had a kind of joke lyric which was "welcome to our smug village", which we ended up getting rid of, though I wanted to keep it in. We were recording in lots of little villages. Eventually, the village, lyrically, became more of a metaphor. It could be a twisted party where you don't know anyone and there are characters you're no sure about, and you want to be involved, then you get too involved, then you wake up the next day and you can't remember anything anyway! Or it could be, like me, moving to a different country where you don't know anybody, feeling amazed at everything around you but also a bit scared at the same time. It seemed to spread across all the songs, this theme of human interaction and how that can spark off a chain of events. It sounds a little bit vague, but that's fine....!

You have said Ashley [who wrote many of the lyrics for this album] has a twisted mind...

Well he has! Ashley wrote a lot of the lyrics for this album, more than on our other records, and you have to know Ashley to know his twistedness! But it's in a very positive way...

Since you made the last records there has been a lot of change in the band-members' lives: new relationships, children, travel... did you feel like different people when you met up again to make this record?

We've been around together for such a long time and had such great adventures together that we slip back into the old routines very easily. We call it 'tour Tourettes' sometimes - we'll just start shouting weird obscenities at each other! It was great that we were all living and working together, while doing Turbines. We've all grown up a little bit, had kids, moved out of London, but nothing really changes. It's like old mates you grew up with at school. It's a nice crew.

You're not a straightforward folk band, but you obviously owe a fair bit to the folk tradition. Where do you see the band standing, in relation to the folk world?

Sam [Genders], who I wrote the first Tunng albums with, is quite traditional in his folk upbringing. I was interested in electronica and gritty urban stuff, but I've also grown up playing acoustic guitar and got really into [legendary folk guitarists] John Fahey and Bert Jansch and Pentangle, and [ultimate cult film] The Wicker Man. We got really into the idea of combining folk music with a paganistic folk feel. It felt really natural to us but it was only an experiment and we didn't know it would lead to anything. Since then the new folk / acid folk / folktronica movement has sprung up - but we had no idea about that! We were lumped in with that scene but it was great for us, and we discovered a load of other bands were doing similar things. Regarding the folk influence, there's storytelling, acoustic guitar styles, and that family feel. I don't ever want to lose those elements though I don't think there's quite as much of that on the new record. In terms of genres, Tunng has now become its own thing. We could chuck in a proper techno tune next to a electric guitar solo and a John Fahey beautiful acoustic tune and it would still all be Tunng. I'm quite proud of that - we can do what we want, in a way.

That's the sign of a fully realised band, we reckon - they sound instantly like themselves. Most fans could probably identify a Tunng tune after ten seconds...

Mind you, our sound has changed a lot over the last few years. Some people in the band have had problems with certain tunes on certain albums. There are six of us now we have Simon [Glenister] on drums and everyone has completely different opinions on what's cool and what they want to listen to. There's a lot of cooks - and there's a lot of banter, I'll call it, in the studio. But that's cool - it's real...

So would you say you're a real working democracy as a band?

That's how it's become now. I used to be in charge... I'm not any more! (laughs) It's good... People have taken on all sorts of roles. I've never had a manager but Martin [Smith] has organised a lot of things like flights and dealing with the record label - I've taken a back seat on that. Ashley is involved with artwork and videos. This album's brought the whole band together, everyone's got their role a bit more defined than they used to have. There have been compromises on all sorts of levels, from everybody.

We're intrigued by the spooky, pagan element to your sound... Somehow you've managed to combine it with a really warm, positive feel.

It is good to have that edge. I feel that the new record hasn't got as much edge as we were initially planning. But if you listen carefully there are still a lot of interesting layers in there. I like having something in the music that takes you out of that nice melody, just jars with it a bit. Live, there's quite a joyous feel to our sound.

Would you quite like to do a really weird, out-there Tunng record?

That was going to be this record... but it didn't come out like that. Me and Phil [Winter, the band's electronics wizard] were thinking: 'This is the fifth album, we can do whatever we want, a 40-minute dub track, anything', but when we got in the studio and everyone had their say, it turned out quite differently... What's great about a record is that it documents a moment in time. I'd love to do an EP which is not like that record. We had another idea - six versions of Turbines, everyone doing their own mix. You can do anything these days, it's not about sales is it?

Your music feels quite pastoral. Are you all from country backgrounds - or is it more an escapist thing, trying to create a 'countryside of the mind'?

A lot of the early records were done in a basement in London. Sam's from Derbyshire, he may have brought certain influences in. I have spent two and a half years living in Iceland, where the landscape is prehistoric. It all seeps in. When you listen to music, it takes you out of the place you are in, so if you're in a city but our record makes you feel like you're somewhere else, that's nice.

Haven't you moved to a place where the vast majority of people believe in trolls and elves?

I think my girlfriend definitely is an elf...! The Icelanders are great people. You can see how that idea comes about, 'cos they have lava fields, very odd shapes... in summer there's 24 hours of light but you get odd shadows. They don't call them elves, it's 'the hidden people'. I've met a couple of them...!

You seem to be part of a trend of artists moving to Iceland. John Grant is another one... is there a welcoming artistic community there?

Yes, its lovely, very creative. There's only a few bars where like-minded creative people go, so you can go to your local pub and everyone seems to be a musician. It's a lovely sense of community. I met John Grant a couple of times, once after a couple of weeks. On the same time I met most of Mum, Jonsi from Sigur Ros... it was great.

You've done a few collaborations over the years. Talk us through your most memorable ones...

Our first one was with a Canadian hip-hop artist, Buck 65. We went to the Transmusicales festival in Rennes, and got asked to live in a theatre for ten days. It was five days of rehearsing then five days of performing gigs there as a collaboration with him and Serafina Steer [genius harpist-singer-songwriter whose last album was produced by Jarvis Cocker]. It was really great: we all played on each other's tunes, swapping instruments. Then we were going to collaborate with Buck 65 again, but he got a job on a radio station. We'd already done a session with [nomadic desert blues legends] Tinawiren for Radio 3. Late Junction, I think the show was. We worked up three tunes one afternoon, it was quite a meeting. These guys from the Sahara Desert who hardly speak any English, and we don't speak any French. We had four days in rehearsal then we went off on a ten-day tour. It was really interesting: it didn't always work, but when we did it was great. Playing with people from a different culture, with a different sense of timing... it was a one-off. Sometimes Tinawiren fans would turn up to the gigs and look disappointed when we'd get on-stage in our hoodies! But we'd explain what we were doing, and in the end people loved it. We've toured with Mum, and would quite like to collaborate with them at some point.

One final question: your PR bumf says you and Sam met while you were doing soft porn soundtracks! Please elaborate...

I used to do - and still do sometimes - music for TV to earn money to do my own stuff. One of the jobs I had for about two years in a row was doing five-second idents for [late-night adult cable channel] Television X. It was like metal, with techno and some dodgy punk thrown in there! Red Hot, Red Hot Wives, and Red Hot Grannies I think...! For some reason it got into our press release in 2005.

And into our feature as well! On that note, the ever-affable Mr Lindsay heads off to prepare for what turns out to be one of the greatest gigs this writer has ever seen (read review HERE). Pure joy in musical form. Long may Tunng cast their spooky spell...