It could be argued that Crayola Lectern’s debut album is the result of a lifetime spent listening to, and absorbing music. But what makes it so striking is not just its musical dexterity and almost spiritual cadences, but its musing on the meaning of life.
Whilst Crayola Lectern is an amorphous collection of musicians (including the odd Cardiacs member or two) it is ostensibly chief songwriter Chris Anderson’s way to make sense of the world.
Noting the title of his album, The Fall And Rise Of, we spoke to Chris about his writing process, “doing a Reggie”, and suicidal pets…
Whilst not quite on the same time line as Chinese Democracy, clearly The Fall And Rise Of has been a labour of love. Why has it taken so long for it to come to fruition?
I had a strange plan when I started playing the Crayola Lectern gigs of seeing how far I could go without releasing anything. In retrospect I can’t say I understand quite why I thought this was worth pursuing but as the album says, “to get to where you want to go, you often have to go in the wrong direction,” which I’m quite used to. I did record some home demos but felt that there was a certain enormity to doing the things justice. After initially recording a load of solo piano tracks there was a protracted period of “passive listening” to them and hearing further possibilities in the arrangements. Having a low income from work also prevented things happening fast so I used the time to plan out the arrangements and use studio time as efficiently as possible, which isn’t anywhere near as boring as I’ve just made it sound. The financial restriction was a blessing – it made me able to get it right over a natural, unforced period of time. I also waited a year for Jon’s (Jon Poole, Wildhearts and Cardiacs) keyboard parts to materialise. It was well worth it.
Presumably with time on your side it was possible to settle on the themes that permeate the record. Sadness and beauty, the fleeting nature of life, and a state of flux between confusion and determination are the most obvious. Was there a determined effort in your writing to apply these (and presumably other) concepts to the record, or did it all just kind of fall into place naturally?
There was never a plan as such – it’s just that such themes crop up a lot in my existence and end up infecting my tunes. It soon became apparent though that this collection of songs belonged together like members of a family.
There seems to be a number of influences at work on the album, although none of them are overbearing. It’s a little like hearing a life’s worth of listening flashing through the ears in the final moments to create a sonic patchwork. Are there any artists, musical or otherwise, that you feel directly influence your music?
Tricky one this, ‘cos there are many artists whom I admire and who I can relate to and even draw inspiration from to a degree but influence is a step further on from that state. Weirdly there are motifs on the record which have been pointed out to me, sometimes reminiscent of Motown or Bing Crosby, neither of which are particularly present on my conscious radar, so falling under the influence of something is a very slippery concept to me. When I first heard Mark Linkous’ voice I felt something of a primal connection as I do with some others like Robert Wyatt, William D Drake and others – but I think what I like about them is something which seems familiar to me. I love all sorts of stuff – Hawkwind, Grandaddy, Stravinsky. ELO, Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Can, The Specials, Glenn Miller, Arvo Pärt, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and a thousand others all float my boat but they’re influences are only as strong as say, walking out on the Downs and feeling history underneath my feet. Ultimately I think I draw inspiration from the sound the piano makes as the strings vibrate in their iron frame across the soundboard in the wooden cabinet in front of me – and then the dreaming and making stuff begins to take form.
Robert Wyatt seems to be quite a considerable influence. Is it right that he’s a fan of your music?
Well I’m a fan of his so I had a CD of the album sent to him just as a way of letting him and Alfreda know that I exist and as a mark of respect to him and to them as a couple. He sent me back a lovely postcard saying that he liked it lots and wishing me and Sadie (my wife who did the artwork) all the best. I was/still am/probably always will be chuffed to bits of course. I once had a conversation with another personal hero Tim Smith about Robert Wyatt – Tim said something like, “imagine meeting him. It’d be like meeting God,” which was really funny and somewhat ironic, coming from himself.
The title of the record The Fall And Rise Of brings to mind two things in particular. First of all there’s Reggie Perrin, and secondly, there’s the Madness album The Rise And Fall (which I appreciate is not quite the same thing). What binds these two entities, in my mind at least, is a peculiar Britishness, a sense of place. Along with your mentioning of Vaughan Williams and Elgar, there’s a distinct British flavour to the album, was this an intentional decision or a quirk?
I wouldn’t try to sound say, American or to hide who I am in my voice so you’ll inevitably end up with a British-sounding thing but it isn’t something I particularly nurture. Just seems more real if I sing like me. Reggie Perrin however did become a kind of feature on my landscape recently. A couple of the trumpet refrains (which were originally sung parts) contain ninths which we started referring to as “the Reggie Perrin bit,” as they harked back to the theme tune in a way. Then of course other similarities started becoming apparent and I suppose I just ran with it. Funny, I never considered the Madness album – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust played a part in a way though (also peculiarly British). I do like a Fall And Rise Of as opposed to a Rise And Fall Of though (I must be a bit superstitious about song or album titles) as I think these things can come and bite you on the bum if you’re not careful – so I decided to go with the title that implies an optimistic outcome, the Fall having already occurred I hope.
Apart from the musical allusion to Perrin, there also seems to be a kind of dissatisfaction and sorrow being offset by escapes into a kind of dreamlike existence – something that Reggie did frequently. Is that accurate? Is his influence perhaps a little stronger?
I’m the same age as the character Reggie was when the series began. I relate to some of his foibles, a healthy yet weary disdain for the apparently banal surroundings of our environment and the rat race. Personal dissatisfaction at my shortcomings as a breadwinner or at being a particularly useful human. I should stop about here for now in terms of my own Reggieness. I’d love it if the music afforded a sense of escape but in today’s climate there is no real escape – temporary relief though, perhaps. But if music reminds you that you’re human with feelings, then that’s sort of the opposite of escape. I suppose it depends what we’re escaping from.
One form of escape is suicide, which you touch on with Goldfish Song and the notion of Suicidal Pets…
The dog that jumps out of the window was a real dog who lived with a school friend’s family. I think he’d had enough of the rowing, poor thing. I still go past the house and think “did that really happen?” It definitely did, but as the years pass I wonder about these things.
The notion of depressed and suicidal animals is interesting. Why it doesn’t happen more often? Lemmings don’t actually throw themselves off cliffs (it was a Disney invention apparently), but seeing a penguin lose its mind in Herzog’s Encounters At The End Of The World was really tragic. In fact, it did a bit of a Perrin, and just ran for the hills…
Some domestic pets run off, don’t they, when they’ve had enough. I think the life force is really strong in animals – the problem humans have is language which tries to makes semantic sense of “it all.” Sometimes when humans end it all it’s because a terrible loss has been experienced or a mental illness perhaps – animals do mourn their dead but somehow get on and still are allowed to fit in if they’re a bit bonkers with their animal friends – humans have all these social constructs which result from words and suicide could be one of them.
It’d be possible to suggest that there’s also a religious theme to the album, but there’s a certain spirituality to it, or it feels that way. Is that the case?
That’s just the vibraphone I think – makes it sound all resonant and ethereal. Seriously though, hmmm – Billennia and Old Magick could be said to contain such a thing – they’d be more in the Pantheistic zone if so. The underlying morbid fears of the main protagonist might give it a slightly graveyard feel too.
Getting back to happier subjects. There are three Cardiacs members on there, and there’s an unmistakable influence – as there would be. How did you come to work with Jon, Bob, and Bic? You’ve worked with a bonefide Boredoms member too, how did that come about, and how was it working with them?
I knew Jon Poole a bit before he joined Cardiacs. He is an original core member of the essential trio that makes up our band, Alistair Strachan being the other third. Jon often gets busy and so Alistair and I do a lot of the gigs as a duo. Around 1994-ish my old band Map ‘borrowed’ (drummer and friend) Angus Duprey who played in Bob and Jon’s band, Ad Nauseam. Jon and I were just nodding acquaintances really. It all came together ten years later when we were both living in Brighton and decided we’d always been the best of friends after all. Bob was the singer in Ad Nauseam so we also had a similar passing acquaintance with a similar response to seeing each other again years later. Map played gigs with various Cardiacs family bands and it was supporting Panixphere that I first met Bic. Again years passed but again, geography and mutual friends (Jon, I think) put us in contact. I met E-Da when we first played with Damo Suzuki in Brighton as sound carriers. We just got on well and make a mean rhythm section. We’ve played a fair bit since then with Damo, Drum Eyes and now in LSD-25 with Bic. He sometimes plays with Crayola Lectern but only the freer, less formal (as he puts it) stuff.
Were the songs all written by yourself, or did your guests have any creative input? How did that balance itself out – or are you not to precious about suggestions?
When I write a thing, it usually all happens at once. A chord sequence will almost inevitably hold up a top melody line, which will either become a vocal or a horn part. These things just have to be played thus. But generally speaking, Jon goes away to his sonic kitchen to cook up some killer keyboard parts on his own and Alistair provides his own cosmic hornitude as well as playing my arranged parts. It’s an easy arrangement especially as they come up with such sweet magic of their own. I’m particularly lucky to have two of the most creative musicians I’ve met as the rest of the core band. Bic, Jarv and Bob who guest on the album were again only partially directed – Trip In D is kind of set in stone as a recorded arrangement but there is a long improvised section within the structure which is probably pretty true for all the parts that were made. With Bic and Bob we just agreed which bits they’d contribute to which they did with simple verbal ‘mood’ cues from me.
So how does the writing process work? Trip In D is obviously something of a jam…
Everything is worked out on the piano. I usually play a new idea over and over again, record it, make a rough notation if it’s not too hard (in case my phone ends up down the loo) and come back to it at regular intervals until it starts to beget a resulting passage. Sometimes songs work backwards in this way too. Trip in ‘D’ was different, came from a guitar riff/loop – again, it is worked out and contains lots of cogs in different time signatures which meet up at certain points and trigger new phases in the development. Within this frame there’s a window for some instruments to be improvising and this is true for a few of the Crayola Lectern tunes. Other songs just land unannounced, quite suddenly in my lap. This is rare but they tend to be the most coherent ones (by the standards of the general public).
There’s an interesting dig at “Conservatives” towards the end. What did you make of the recent Thatcher event, and indeed, the Coalition government? It seems that people are focussing on the wrong government… Thatcher’s was years ago, but it’s the one now that’s active and carrying on her legacy.
I think she timed it well to shuffle off now, and so soon after her best mate Jimmy Savile with whom she spent 11 Christmases (eight of which were at Chequers of course). They didn’t mention that on the BBC though as the preparations for her full ceremonial funeral with military honours were getting underway. Yes, her legacy has thrived since she left Downing Street. One thing is clear – if you admire her, you are sick in the heart. There are two distinctly separate types of people: caring/compassionate and merciless/sociopathic – it seems that the latter “type” is doing as well these days as ever and such people (if I may be so general) will continue to beat down the weak and continue to rob and lie and take for themselves without putting anything in to the infrastructure of the future. My poor kids. The Tories have always done this – and the Coalition is to all intents and purposes Conservative. Now Thatcher’s dead, it’s heartening to see that they were down to 28% in the YouGov polls so all is at least not entirely lost (unless UKIP are growing their malignant spores throughout the populace). It will be soon though if these people remain in power. There won’t be anything left. My vocal line on that song is just an impotent rant sung in a Vaughan Williams choral style.
Will you be taking that impotent rant out on tour at all – perhaps with a full band?
Yes but a few here, a few there but no great big long string of dates. Have just done a full band album launch at The Wilmington Arms in London so that’s a start! I’m hoping for some Bristol, Liverpool and Hebden Bridge action at some point as well as the more frequent ones in Brighton and London. Full band or not would be dependent on other tour commitments the others have. I think Jon’s hanging out for a nice Ryuichi Sakamoto support slot in Japan – it’d be great to get things moving abroad.
Crayola Lectern’s The Fall And Rise Of is out now through Bleeding Heart.