Tim Elsenburg is in bright, upbeat mood, a frame of mind not entirely familiar from his reflective and contemplative songs. “Yes,” he confesses, “Im generally used to sitting in a room on my own with an acoustic guitar, looking a bit sad, staring out of the window and taking a long time to write songs and record them.”
The reason for this fresh demeanour, it transpires, is a post-Mercury prize nomination publishing deal that has seen him writing songs to order at high speed, often collaborating with other writers. “Were doing a workshop today, getting lots of songwriters together and writing lots of songs. We thrash out a song in the morning and one in the afternoon. After the Mercurys, I got a small publishing advance which gave me the scope to give up my day job and focus on music full time. It was lucky, really, otherwise this album could easily have taken four or five years.”
This really feels like it could be the time for Sweet Billy Pilgrims ascent – the moment that they move from critically acclaimed niche act to major players. New album Crown And Treaty, every bit as epic as its Mercury-nominated predecessor but somehow cleaner and more immediate, is being distributed by EMI. “I think as a record its a bit more open. This is nothing against the previous record, but I think that was a more esoteric listen.” Part of the albums considerable appeal seems to lie in its sequencing, with a rather melancholy and sophisticated centre being bookended by moments of anthemic power (the urgent Joyful Reunion and the slow-building, transcendent Blue Sky Falls). “I like that kind of Trojan Horse effect, where you make things sound on first listen as if they are more commercial,” Tim explains eloquently. “In doing that, you draw people in, and then they can check out the layers, the lyrics and the detail a little more. A great example is Tears For Fears Songs From The Big Chair. You listen to a song like The Working Hour – a fairly hefty indictment of capitalism, and it just snuck in there amidst the big hits.”
In spite of this, there still seems to be a dichotomy at work between Sweet Billy Pilgrims sound and the music Elsenburg most enjoys. “When I was listening to music as a kid, the kind of bands I made my own were extreme. I like noise bands – Swans, Sonic Youth, stuff like that. If I listen to jazz, Im more on the Ornette Coleman side of things than Stan Getz. But for some reason, when I write a song, its still about hooks, ideas that will stay in peoples heads, and a weave of parts. No matter how hard I try – Id love to have a Tom Waits kind of voice but its just not there, and I love the spontaneous nature of more extreme music – I just cant do it myself.” Why does he think this is? “I guess I must be a control freak, thats what it is! Its like being a fine artist – every brush stroke is there for a reason, theres a lot of control. In the future, Id like to experiment with something less controlled – something where you can hear air moving, the sound of the room.”
He sums up his considered approach thus: “In the end I wanted to make a record that sounded like Abbey Road but which was made in a front room. For this one, we progressed from the garden shed to a bungalow. The owner was deaf, so we could make as much noise as we wanted! It was perfect.” How did this change of environment inform the results? “There was a smudgy, slightly claustrophobic ambience on the last record. With this one, the bungalow overlooked a garden full of stuff from reclamation sites – bits of metal, statues from different eras. It was random, beautiful and strange. Although this could be a distration sometimes, I do think this has translated to the music.” This leads us to muse for a while on the importance of location to music. Elsenburg mentions Small Hours, the subtle and beguiling final track from John Martyns excellent 1977 album One World. “It was recorded outside by the lake and you can hear the geese going by.”
This is just one of several moments when he reveals his vast, boundary-free knowledge of music, a range of listening and understanding also fully evident throughout Crown And Treaty. Later, we discuss how it is possible for the band to explore so many different and contrasting ideas in their music (from the anthemic to the bucolic via the progressive), often all in the space of just one song. “Really, its just having a massive record collection! I used to DJ funk records – mid-’70s James Brown, which I love. I also really love King Crimson. You suggested the music was groovy – but its usually in sevens! I also listen to a lot of modern folk music – Sufjan Stevens, Adem, stuff like that. I was worried about it being a stylistic splurge, but it was all going to come out in some way.”
“So much of our daily lives is about numbing stuff out. Music is a lovely way of stopping things from seizing up.” – Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Tim Elsenburg
How on Earth does Elsenburgs intense approach and attention to detail translate to playing live? It clearly helps that the core of the band have a powerful sense of shared history. “Its been 17 or 18 years now,” Tim explains, revealing that the band has existed in some form or another for a good deal longer than many listeners will realise. “They were all friends with my brother, who sadly passed away, a long time ago now. The grieving kind of brought us together.” The bands mutual understanding incorporates musical intuition and much more. “We have this kind of shorthand now – well, what I actually mean is rudeness! Al will drag me back from the brink of disappearing up my own orifice. Bish is brilliant at arranging. I really wouldnt want to tour with anyone else.” Now with even greater ambitions, the performing unit has expanded: “Now we have Barney – RCM educated, awesome chops – makes me scared every time I pick up a guitar, and Dan, the ultimate keyboard professor. Theres also Jana – I just love her voice, and she actually has the filthiest mouth in the band!” Elsenburg is obviously delighted with how the new arrangement is working: “Its the first time I havent had to compromise by either using backing tracks or by stripping the music down, neither of which have really worked.”
In the bands recent live shows, the rock element seems to have won out, if only marginally. Elated guitar riffing and thrashing cymbals perhaps carry more weight than nuance and detail. Cracklight, relatively light and almost funky on the album, suddenly morphs into a heavyweight piece of swamp rock. The band can be frazzled and intense, but they still allow for moments of contemplation and reflection (not least the lovely Blood Is Big Expense). Elsenburg is right to suggest that the addition of Jana Carpenter has had a substantial impact – another striking element of the show is just how successfully the groups voices blend together. Elsenburgs strong, sophisticated melodies are well supported by harmony too.
In addition to his obvious enthusiasm for music, he is also keen to emphasise the importance of theme and subject matter to the making of Crown And Treaty. “I didnt want to make a concept record as such – not in a narrative sense. The previous record was a journey too, but this time I was able to be a bit more exact. All the songs relate to the idea that we cant get away from our past. All the decisions we make are based on what weve learned from our parents.” It sounds as if Elsenberg sides firmly on the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate, an issue where too rigorous a position can lead to problems. “Im mostly talking about damage,” he explains. “Our parents generation – it was the end of war, the end of rationing – there wasnt time to think about the psychology of rearing children. With the advent of self-help, our generation has more of a hope of coming to terms with those things – but a lot of this record is about what happens when you dont come to terms with the damage inflicted on you, or about how much better it can be when you do. Archaeology (the albums second track) is the most obvious example, I suppose – we can take these things and then bury them.”
Does all this preoccupation with damage not make for a rather melancholy, perhaps even dispiriting listening experience? “I dont mind feeling sad,” Tim explains. “What I object to is feeling nothing. The Rite Of Spring, The Sex Pistols causing outrage, My Bloody Valentine making peoples ears bleed, right to the other end of the scale – Chet Baker singing My Silver Lining, which makes me feel better. So much of our daily lives is about numbing stuff out. Music is a lovely way of stopping things from seizing up. At the moment, I listen to a lot of metal, so obviously Ive got some anger issues I need to deal with!” Once again, we are back at the importance of the extremes. “As an older man, I still have the same response to Rage Against The Machine doing Killing In The Name as I did when I was younger. When that expletive gets repeated, my heart soars. As long as people feel things, things can change. You see kids on the street with that kind of blank-eyedness. With the London riots, there was no feeling there, nothing to reason with.” Although this is clearly intended as a passing remark, an example to illustrate a point, embracing the obvious political and social tangent seems inevitable. Could the riots not be seen as an expression of anger or frustration? “Actually, I saw them as an expression of indifference. It was just desperately sad – what did you miss in your life that somehow made all that OK?”
In essence, then, whilst Sweet Billy Pilgrims songs might seem reflective or poignant, the ultimate resonances are positive. Addressing these feelings can lead to liberation. “At the end of the album, I really wanted it to be the escape. Two people, maybe lovers, making the break for freedom, so that it ends on a big, epic note of hope.” Blue Sky Falls, the final song on Crown And Treaty and the song with which the band are currently concluding their live shows, is a slow-building, swirling, gracefully expanding anthem, similar in theme and approach to something like Elbows Grace Under Pressure. If any Sweet Billy Pilgrim song has a chance of being embraced as a festival singalong, this is surely it. It gets a singular, emphatic whoop of approval when announced at the end of the bands show at Hoxton Square Bar + Kitchen, to which he self effacingly responds “Oh no, that means I have to get the words right!”
The band are often mischievous and mirthful on stage, and Elsenberg runs the bands Twitter feed as a haven for his wit, sarcasm and puns. This seems to contrast markedly with the bands very serious, intense approach to music-making. “Ah, well, yeah, we get told off a lot by management figures for what we do onstage sometimes. I take the musical side of things incredibly seriously but, everything else, I just cant. In this day and age, with the internet being what it is, theres no such thing as mystery. If theres no mystery, rather than not saying anything and it being really awkward, I like to put across the fact that Im in a band with people I really like who make me laugh.” Clearly, he does not view this as being in conflict with the bands musical and thematic seriousness. “As soon as the song starts, its a different thing, but I like the idea that you can acknowledge an amp exploding or a string breaking with the audience and that they can all breathe a sigh of relief. I saw Peter Gabriel play with that massive orchestra recently – and he stopped them all to say hed forgotten the words! It was a really intricate, slick show, but we still got to see some humanity.” It becomes clear how all this squares up – Elsenburg is, clearly, quite serious about this aspect of the bands approach: “I dont want anything to get in the way of communicating with the people who have paid money to see us, which is an amazing thing.” Elsenburg should be enjoying communicating with many more people by the end of this year.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Crown And Treaty is out on 30 April 2012 through EMI. More at sweetbillypilgrim.com.