Interview by Billy Hell
A dark shadow was cast over Last Harbour's recent and best album Your Heart, It Carries the Sound by the death of our mutual friend Mark Sutherland, so I'd like to dedicate this interview to his memory. Singer Kevin Craig's lyrics are lovelorn and romantic but death, whether literal or metaphoric, often lurks between the notes and chords. Mark's death made some of this Manchester band's greatest songs some eerily prescient especially "The Stars Look Down," which recalls one of his favourite bands Swans: "Your real body is a cold heavy weight, looking out at nothing."
Last Harbour often understandably get compared to Nick Cave and Tindersticks, but since I first met guitarist David Armes at a Come gig (supporting Dinosaur Jr.) and found that he wrote a fanzine in which he interviewed the Dirty Three- these are clear influences. The spacious sound of the album was down to recording St Margaret's Church in Whalley Range, close to where most of the band live. It had previously hosted concerts from Nancy Elizabeth, James Blacksaw, Mark Eitzel, Nina Nastasia and numerous improvisers invited by the Tubers collective, so the excellent acoustics were readily apparent. The map below shows how producer Sam Lench positioned the band to take full advantage of the space.
The first question I asked was triggered by a comment from violin player James Youngjohns. He thought Kev had gone into Freddie Mercury overdrive on "Never" when he sang, "Open up their graves and just jump in." Mark would have laughed!
PSF: Gemma said "Never" reminded her of Queen, so here are some Queen questions first: which is your favourite Queen song?
K: "Under Pressure."
PSF: Would you ever cover them?
K: Oh, yes.
PSF: What did you think of Freddie Mercury's legendary LiveAid performance?
K: We sat and watched it not so long ago. They really were at their peak, relaxed and ridiculous. But Mercury is the King there. If you'll pardon the pun.
PSF: Should shorts make a return to fashionable attire?
K: Short shorts? Perhaps, but only in black.
PSF: Does the short song "Catherine Rising" have any relation to PJ Harvey's songs "The Wind" and "Catherine?" Who is the Catherine, who is rising? Why was she rising?
K: No relation to either of the PJ Harvey songs. The 'Rising' was partly in homage to Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising. I was listening to Bobby Beausoleil's soundtrack and quite into the whole 'Dark '69,' dreamy weirdness. It was also deliberately set during the morning. So that kind of ties in. Catherine is just one of those cyphers, I guess.
PSF: Could you list gigs that you witnessed at St Margaret's Church and if you have time state what you enjoyed about them?
D: It's a great space. The ones I can remember are...- John Tilbury playing the Beckett piano/tape recorder piece "Worstward Ho" – deep, immersive, patient listening.I think Mike and James saw Nina Nastasia there too, and said she was great.
- Paddy Steer, Pascal Nichols and Richard Harrison doing an improv drum trio, funny and inventive.
- Nancy Elizabeth playing her Wrought Iron album in full.
- David Thomas Broughton doing his looping/running around act, ridiculous and earnest at the same time, I like his mix of those feelings.
PSF: How much experimentation did you have to do to find the placings of the players in the church for the recording? Would you try moving people to different spots in the church?
D: Sam Lench who produced the record had a good idea how he wanted to place us. We did a site visit before starting so he could test the acoustics out. He'd used the space before so it made sense. Key to it was what he called his 'ears': he placed a stereo pair microphones immediately above the desk, in the very centre of the church, and constantly referred to them during recording and mixing. He wanted to literally place the listener in the space with the band, and we think he did a great job.
PSF: Which song from the new album was written first?
D: I think it was either "The Heath" or "Never"– Kevin began those two songs using a out-of-tune upright piano during breaks at work. We couldn't decide whether to use piano or organ for "The Heath" so in the end recorded both, and the organ version is the B-side of the "Never" single.
PSF: Which one was written last?
K: "Catherine Rising." I was writing the lyrics up until the moment I opened my mouth to sing.
PSF: Which was the most problematic (to write)? Why?
K: "Narrow Heart"- it's written in what we call 'David Time.'
PSF: Who tends to begin the songwriting process? Do any songs arise from jams?
K: Usually, someone plays a bunch of notes, someone else says they like it, then the process begins. From those few notes or short phrase, the general style is teased out. Occasionally something comes out almost complete.
PSF: Is David ever using slide guitar? If so, on which songs?
D: There's a little lap steel guitar on two songs from the record: the title track "Your heart, it carries the sound" and also on "The Stars Look Down." The drone that rings out between the two sections of the song is from the reverb on the lap steel being pushed as far as possible during mixing.
PSF: Who is playing the drone that ends "If You Mean to be Lost?"
D: That's James, usually the viola/tenor guitar player, on analogue synth, probably a Juno 6. He would've carried it on for eternity, but our producer Sam sensibly stepped in.
PSF: Could each member of the band list their favourite albums from last year?
Michael: North Sea Radio Orchestra
D: Wolves in the Throne Room "Celestial Lineage"
K: Thurston Moore "Demolished Thoughts"
James: Anna Calvi "Howar"
D: Holy Fuck
Gina: Josh T Pearson
PSF: Could you talk a little bit about how Marc inspired Kev to be a singer and your band the Black Dahlias?
K: I was in a club in the late '90's. Marc was dancing to The Birthday Party's "Release The Bats," all kicks and punches and leaps. And we were watching him, trying to work out what he was. Then there was a final trip, stumble and Marc fell to the floor, landing on the final beat of the song.
Then he walked straight up to my friend and I and said 'You in a band?'- 'No.'- 'Do you sing?'- 'Maybe.' And to my friend - 'You play guitar?' - 'Yes.' - 'Right then.' And that was it. We were chosen. On instinct. Shambolic gigs, audience members playing the bass whilst Marc fought the promoter.
I wouldn't have ever have become a singer without Marc. I was chosen.
PSF: The first song especially and the last three now seem to relate to Marc's death, but what inspired the lyrics of these songs originaly?
K: Yeah, it seems strange that some of the songs have had their meaning - to me personally - changed by something as sad as that. "Your heart.." and "If You Mean To Be Lost" were both inspired by the cottage in Northumbria where they we're written, with its fairly wild, pagan landscape.
"This Is How We Disappeared" was just a dreamy goodbye song.
PSF: Was "The Stars Look Down" inspired by Swans song "Burning World?"
D: Not musically. James came up with the main progression on tenor guitar, then we rearranged it to piano during recording. Originally, it reminded me most of Sonic Youth – maybe because of some odd harmonics between the tenor guitar and electric guitar parts.
K: Lyrically, I wanted it to be like a coming of age film. It may not have come out that way.
PSF: Which is your favourite Michael Gira recording?
K: There's a great acoustic version of "God Damn The Sun." All of White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, "The Sound" from Soundtracks For The Blind. And the first two Angels Of Light albums, especially.
PSF: Can you talk a little about the time you supported him?
D: Michael Gira is the only person who, on meeting and shaking hands, I've felt compelled to call 'sir.' It just came out of my mouth – 'pleased to meet you, sir.' His presence does that to you.
K: White suit, white stetson. There was a definite air of the unreal about the whole thing. He sat in the front row, watching our set.
PSF: "Replacements" obviously has nothing to do with the Minneapolis drunk punk band, but do you like them? If so which Replacements album is your favourite? (I like the second one, Stink, best).
D: I like them a lot, not sure if anyone else in the band knows them. Let It Be is maybe my favourite, the one with "Sixteen Blue" on it.
For more Last Harbour fun, see their website
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