Erm & Nickname‘s Woodland Ritual fits into that oddly obscure-yet-pervasive niche of outsider music lodged in between free-jazz, early Faust-ian experimentalism, ambient electronics, primal therapy, and neo-pagan psychedelic rituals. It boasts a rich darkness as well as an ephemeral light, not unlike the campfire in the East Sussex woodlands it was recorded around. I chatted with the duo about their unusual, magical recording experience, which just happens to be the latest release in our Extra Limited Runs series (order it HERE).
Arachnidiscs Recordings: Tell me a bit about Erm & Nickname. Who are you and what’s up with this recording?
Nickname: Erm & Nickname are Andrew Newnham and Nicholas Langley. We met at the age of twelve and almost immediately chose the aliases Erm & Nickname for making radio-style tape recordings and comedy videos. We were both enthusiastic owners of recorder-Walkmans so we eventually accrued hundreds of hours of improvised radio, comedy, songs and general silliness, most of which will never see the light of day.
Fast forward about twenty eight years and the Erm & Nickname personas can become a useful psychological retreat for us. We escaped into the woods of East Sussex for four days armed with only battery-powered gear and the sole intention of making music. Not to record an album or work on a cohesive project, but to immerse ourselves in the therapeutic music process. We recorded rock songs, funk tracks, comedy numbers, but sooner or later the wood spirits always took over. They enveloped us, spoke through us. Our thin electronic sounds became one with the crackle of campfires and the wind through trees. The constant activity of arachnids, birds, insects and worms seemed to transmit both the life voice of creation and the deadly sirens’ call into the ground. The song cycle ends with Hope.
There’s this Buddhist proverb “Living without hope is like burying oneself,” which should be the album’s tagline really. It was truly an unintended deep, personal, musical and lyrical experience for both of us….
ADR: You say the cycle ends with “Hope” but it literally ends with a scream. Is “Hope” to you a primal scream in the wilderness?
Nickname: That’s not really a scream, just a thing we do at the end of recordings to make each other jump. We love to unsettle ourselves.
ADR: It definitely unsettled us every time it came around during the dubbing. EQ’d perfectly to sound exactly like someone standing on the walk outside our front door.
Nickname: A primal scream in the wilderness though? Sure that can symbolise hope. Screams for help, mating calls — making sound always involves some form of hope, I’d not really thought about it, but maybe that’s the main function of making music, to hold onto hope!
Erm: It’s almost that there is hope; getting through tough times and challenges… But around the corner something new rears its ugly head. Just when u think its all “gonna be alright” for a time it is… then the dark comes. It is like a cycle… with hands held; with support of others it is conquered for a time…
ADR: I’ve always wanted to record something in the woods but haven’t organized it. Tell me a bit about how you found it affected the recording experience as opposed to recording in a studio setting or at a jam space or something.
Erm: Didn’t feel influenced by life surroundings. We were shut off with no other human contact. Within the three days all life distractions faded. The only thing left was our subconscious. Working in solitude with limited equipment and resources allowed a more relaxed and spiritual result. Those limitations allowed us to let go of ourselves…within time our woodland surroundings, crackling fire, played it’s important part. We allowed the woods and our emotions to take over.
Nickname: Definately. It was good to be away from a computer. Limitations are really positive for songwriting. The play-to-work ratio improves.
ADR: I’m a big proponent of imposing limitations to spark creativity. So what is your usual musical modus then? When you say “good to be away from a computer” is it all Ableton Live and VSTs?
Nickname: Ha, God no, sometimes I think I should try that as I’ve only done three or four tracks that way. I used to just use internal ‘sequencers’ on synths and hardware, and quantised everything. No computers at all. Then I got bored with electronic music and stopped for five years. Since then I started using a computer to record mostly live stuff, as well as sound processing, mixing and mastering. But for this project we were using just a portable recorder, which is how Erm and I always used to record actually.
ADR: When you pitched the album to me, I noted what I sort of thought was a Coil “unplugged” vibe. When I was listening to it over and over and over doing the dubbing, I began to notice perhaps more of a Nurse With Wound feel, perhaps specifically the vocals from their collaboration with Stereolab, actually. You said the Coil comparison was interesting because Erm doesn’t know them, though you of course are a fan, as are most people you make music with. Over on your side of the pond is there a large groups of people who are into the whole Coil / Throbbing Gristle /NWW / Current 93 scene?
Nickname: I really don’t know. Whenever I’ve met someone that I wanted to do music with, it’s turned out they’ve been really into Coil. That’s happened with at least three of my longest-running and significant collaborations anyway. Now it’s happened in a different way, it’s the first time someone made the comparison I think. Other than my own particular kind of music-people though, nobody I meet seems to know who they are. I’m not that familiar with Nurse With Wound but I love what I’ve heard. They seem to be interested in some similar areas to The Vitamin B12. And I do music with somebody who’s friends with members of NWW too so I should pay more attention really. I know I don’t like Current 93. I guess there are thousands of very keen fanatics rather than millions of fans. Coil were just so inspirational. I think that anyone who hears them is compelled to create with sound. It’s the overwhelming freedom of possibility in their music. They were very generous and kind with their time — with their fans — too. I know this for a fact.
ADR: NWW have a pretty vast catalogue that can be hard to delve into. Results may vary. I definitely am not a fan of Current 93 either. They sound like Jack Black doing a goth parody to me, though clearly many would disagree. But I was asking about Coil precisely because of how you put it: “Other than my own particular kind of music-people though, nobody I meet seems to know who they are”. I’m fascinated by that odd mixture of their being a seemingly pervasive, universal influence for experimental musicians of, shall we say, a certain age, yet remaining almost entirely underground even with—or almost in spite of—all the Trent Reznor connections.
My question here is, with your own particular kind of music-people, do you think its hearing music like Coil’s that compels them to create sound or that a band like Coil appeals to a certain kind of music-person? Who’s the chicken, who’s the egg?
Nickname: I’m pretty sure they were all doing music before hearing Coil, but it’s very encouraging to hear music that is outside of genres that can also be very moving and intimate. Not sure if young people are interested in Coil at the moment, but they will be at some point I think, it’s quite prophetic, or futuristic, in some respects. Technological folk music, which is where the music-making process is headed I think. So, not so much chicken and egg as chickens watching one of their own fly over the fence.
ADR: I hope you’re right about their music enduring—it does have a timeless quality to it. Though I wonder without anyone in that camp still alive if anyone’s in charge of their catalogue. I’d almost expect there were clauses in their wills to burn all the master tapes [*during the course of conducting this interview we excitedly learned their lost mid-90’s album Backwards is being released by former—and still living—member Danny Hyde].
Anyway, you mentioned The Vitamin B12, which is another of many projects you’re involved with. Are these all different “nicknames” for you or are these actual bands?
Nickname: Not me. The Vitamin B12 is an umbrella term for a wide range of artistic projects that nearly always include Alasdair Willis. Mostly, it’s a free-improv group. I’ve done 14 complete albums with them but that’s basically piss in the ocean of a really huge body of work. Hz is just me. Babylon was also Erm & Nickname.
ADR: You mentioned Buddhism earlier. Is Buddhism something that informs your creative process?
Nickname: I don’t think so.
ADR: In that case, what does inform your creative process?
Nickname: For this project it’s very loose. It’s playing in the sense of children playing rather than instrumental playing. You could say the process is informed by our long history, reverting back to being kids. We also do a lot of jokey stuff which is the other side of this.
Erm: Working with Nickname for over two decades makes improvising more possible. We seem to know how each other are going to play. I find that starting songs by improvising can allow my inner self to come out. I’m quite spiritual; so allowing my inner self to flow into music seems to work.
Nickname: Spiritual yes, but you might also say witchy or seer-like. I think you described the lyrics as almost channeling at one point. It certainly felt like we acknowledged some ‘demons’ out in the woods. I think your stream of consciousness took a life of its own?
Erm: You’re right there! It certainly was music therapy in the woods…. [laughs] Well, maybe just for me. Maybe I/we needed to face the demons in order to move on? Whatever it was… it was a great escape, a good time out; and its inspired me to do more!
Woodland Ritual released on September 25th. You can order it HERE.
Interred Views is an interview series with Arachnidiscs Recordings artists. This interview was conducted by Jakob Rehlinger.