(FEATURE) A conversation with Kinbrae and Clare Archibald
Birl: a Scots word meaning to spin
Beginning and ending with excavation, Birl of Unmap is an album which brings to the surface many voices, points of contact and response to 'an energy landscape', 'a seeded ecology in flux between human and creaturely worlds'. For collaborators Clare Archibald and Kinbrae (twin brothers Mike and Andy Truscott), Fife is a dynamic site in which artistic, vernacular and sociocultural production is always being passed on, fluctuating and evolving through time. Across eight tracks, featuring voices from local people (including Peggy Crawford, the eldest remaining former resident of Lassodie pit village), radio manipulation, tape, ether and field recordings, multi-instrumentation and Clare's inimitable, evocative poetry, Birl of Unmap is at once a journey and the journey's undoing. If the challenge of site-specific work is to engage with a landscape on its own terms, Birl of Unmap works through the elements — from coastal winds to Charles Jencks' sense of the cosmic — to incarnate something that lives and breathes its poly-rooted origins.
As land is developed, bought and sold, picked up for new use or appropriated under changing conditions, its stories are social, political and communal. Clare Archibald, a Fife-based writer and artist, brings an archival eye, lyric ear and layered, visual imaginary to the project; Mike and Andy weave sensitive, nuanced and immersive instrumentation and field recordings around the album's voices. The ambient qualities do not induce passive listening but rather capture, as in Brian Eno's original use of the term, 'a tint' of environment. Whether in the bright layers of brass or modular synthesis, the guiding piano or the density of sounds whose echo and dissolve captures something of pit-life, or the tangled bracken of the hillsides, this record expresses the textures and variable moods of place. It tells stories of the land's agency while opening new feelings of discovery and wonder; it explores the movement of naming, language and memory between place and time; it glimpses into deep-time through the circular birl of Fife's landforms. The contours of its mapping are fluid, they curl into and over one another; our experience of listening demands relistening, intimacy, rediscovery, attention. Nothing is entirely fixed or solid. History is in the cadence of voice, the rhythms of energy and infrastructure, the sonic expression of elements.
In this interview, conducted over email in November 2021, Maria Sledmere catches up with Clare, Mike and Andy to hear more about Fife's cultural and geographical histories, the experience of collaboration and recording during the pandemic, working with other voices and much more.
Fife is obviously the home and chief sphere of influence on this album. Tell me about
your relationship to Fife — what do you love about it, what’s special about the land
and its history to you?
Clare: I’m not actually from Fife, I’m from Lanarkshire and moved here after a long time in London 12, nearly 13, years ago. I live in Burntisland (pronounced as two words) which looks across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh, whereas Andy lives at the other end looking across the Tay to Dundee (where I lived for a bit in the eighties looking over to Fife) and I think there’s just something quite unique about how Fife is connected to so many different places in line of sight but is also kind of free floating
with the open North Sea on one side and all these inner half connections. I love the fact that there are all these iconic bridges that connect other places to Fife yet it’s not actually an island. It’s discombobulating in a good way and offers different ways to approach it on more than literal levels I think. In a piece he did in The Quietus the Irish writer Darran Anderson (who used to live here), in writing about the Beta Band, talked about Fife being similar to places like Donegal and Suffolk, 'hinterlands cut off from the "mainlands"' and 'the unique cultures that they produce', calling them 'places that feel simultaneously self-contained and liminal. Places with secret histories, with huge skies and wild shores and the sort of boredom that, if it doesn’t drive young people to self-ruin, will drive them to creativity'. I’m not young but I do agree with all of these points.
I find the in betweenness of Fife and its known and unknowns endlessly fascinating. I don’t know if you’ve read This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan but there’s a bit where one of the characters, Johnny McLaughlin, is talking about someone being somewhere on an unidentified coast on holiday. To situate it as properly coastal they say, 'not at the seaside, we’re not talking Blackpool or Burntisland here', which made me laugh when I read it but also is a good example of how places are categorised according to people patterns. When I tell people from the West of Scotland, especially those over a certain age, that I live in Burntisland they will generally without fail say they came here or nearby on holiday or came a day trip to the shows (annual fairground). I actually moved here because I had good memories of coming here with my grannies when I was wee. So in the same way that if you’re from Lanarkshire or Glasgow you’d go to Blackpool for the September weekend you’d come to Fife in the Glasgow Fair Fortnight. These rhythms fascinate me but beyond that I also think there’s an imaginative experience of place so although I totally get the seaside label I also think that anywhere where land meets water can feel unpredictable and unrestrained and Fife carries that
duality. I also love that Burntisland is in the index of This Is Memorial Device – more wee places should be referenced as of significance! I think Fife is one of these best of both worlds areas where you can feel cut off if you want but actually be fairly close to cities. It’s also a Kingdom without a king which I like and for example we have one of the oldest Highland Games here, without being in the Highlands – it’s just a brilliant mass of seeming contradictions and half-truths. Plus there’s all the Pictish history and loads of Neolithic sites, where I live there there’s Neolithic rock art, a
ghost village and an abandoned nineteenth century building in the woods (that I’m making work about), all on the hill here! Obviously music wise on the more well-known East Neuk coast, the whole Fence Collective scene was hugely productive as are its ongoing offshoots, and James Yorkston has done a great job with his Tae Sup Wi’ a Fifer nights in bringing really interesting music here. I think
the music, art and writing being produced in Fife is often innovative but not always seen as such as not networked in the way that areas with big cities are. Also importantly Fife is not a homogeneous mass and that’s what makes it interesting. I’ll let Andy and Mike talk about golf now…
Mike: Andy and I moved to the village of Wormit in Fife when we were 2 years old and remained there until around the age of 18 when we left for University/College. I now live in Edinburgh but Fife has always remained a massive part of my life so it’s there that I always think of as home. My first forays into music were learning to play cornet in the band hall in Tayport which then led to me playing in the brass band there. This let me play music all over Fife and further afield from a young age. We were lucky as youngsters in that we were able to experience a lot of the variety Fife has to offer. We went to school in St Andrews and often took day trips to the likes of Anstruther, Cupar and Elie.
Andy: Yeah we both moved away to Glasgow to study but I ended up moving back six years ago. I guess the older I got the more I realised I missed being near the coast/water and just wanted to get out of the city. My wife and I have a young family and to be honest it’s the perfect place to bring up kids - we’re near some amazing beaches but also a 5 min drive from Dundee and also really close to Tentsmuir forest. I can’t really think of many other places where you get so many contrasting environments so close together.
You have previously made site-specific work, for example Tidal Patterns wove
together field recordings taken from the isle of Coll. What are the special
affordances of working in particular landscapes?
Clare: For me the vast majority of my work is rooted in place, and the immersion that making it affords is just hugely appealing because there are so many layers to place in relation to time, space, sound, language and embodiment. Partly I think site responsive work is as much about realising what you will never know as it is about reaching some understanding. I see Birl of Unmap as site responsive whereas a lot of other work I’ve done has been site-specific and in the moment, like my recent sound
installation for Sanctuary Lab which existed in a specific place at that time. The beauty of site responsive work for me is that you can drift in and out of time with it but can also make it site-specific if you want. Personally I think I’ve explored or am in the process of exploring most aspects of where I live and what I like is that you think you’re done and then realise that you never will be so you have to draw imaginary lines somehow and place is reimagined. I also love how the sense of other places
feed into place, so like earlier the connections of the rhythms of Glasgow life to Fife and what we carry in real and imaginative terms. Also place is ever changing even within endless repetition, like when I take thousands of photos of the same view, it’s always becoming something else. Place is unpredictable but also has underlying patterns.
Andy: I guess as Clare says, place is unpredictable. We’ve always used environment as a compositional tool and I think both our records, Tidal Patterns & Landforms, really reflect how a particular place is totally unique.
What was the seed of inspiration which started the project?
Clare: I wanted to make work about some ideas to do with belonging and language and who has the right to articulate a place and in what way. One of the things that has struck me living in Fife is the idea of incomer and how you can be here 60 years and still be seen to be one (albeit in a friendly way) Also I was aware that not being from here I’m not able to pass on vernacular language and knowledge to my daughter so her experience of the place is affected which in turn creates a new sense of place. I guess I saw the site as a conduit to explore some aspects of what makes the site, and Fife as a wider entity, both unique yet able to mean different things to different people. One of the things I wanted to do was find out about Fife specific words and the history of them because often the words that people in Fife think are specific to here, are actually used in other parts of Scotland and are simply Scots and I’m curious about how we construct these articulations of self, and aware that I was brought up with Scots words as standard but now I more consciously introduce my daughter to them. I think there’s also a language legacy from mining migration routes of which Fife is obviously one. I think there is more of a particularly Fife way in which words like ken are used rhythmically perhaps that I’ve tried to embody in the album. Also I’m interested in ideas of outside and unknown, and concrete and rust, and art and architecture, and archaeology and cosmology so the site is a perfect combination vehicle through which to unmap them. I also wanted to do something that was off the tourist trail or the better known parts of Fife as I believe that all communities matter and have stuff of interest.
This is Kinbrae’s first collaboration. How did you all (Mike, Andy, Clare) get to work
together on this project? Was there anything about this album in particular which
seemed to demand other voices? Did anything unexpected occur in the process of
Clare: I was aware of Kinbrae’s music and liked it a lot and knew that I wanted anything I did with the site to be more than me. Also collaboration for me is always about learning and I felt that we could all do that from each other and develop our respective practices. I spoke to Andy for a thing about Gregory Euclide’s Thesis Project for GoldFlakePaint music journal and it came from that really, we said we’d like to work together, I had this project in mind, and we just took it from there really, swapping ideas and building a sense of it. I think we were all clear from the start that we didn’t want it to just be a do-it-by-numbers ambient album with some spoken word chucked in. In some ways it’s a really ambitious album because we were trying to do lots of different things. Aside from learning and developing and having fun with it, we wanted to build in other artists, musicians, writers etc from Fife and assert that there is stuff going on here. Also I think with any place-based making that isn’t completely personal it would be entirely wrong and arrogant to waltz in and say here’s what I think and that’s all there is folks. Collaboration is about dialogue and place is also about dialogue and generally a polyphony of voices. We were lucky in that we were able to incorporate a range of voices but hopefully it works as a whole. Personally I love the dipping in and out of voices, I would find the album very boring and one dimensional if it was just me. If I’m being completely honest I’m not on my favourite track of the album which was absolutely the right call by me, however, I think Andy’s orchestration on it is really beautiful and there will always be a bit of me that thinks I wish that was me but that’s the nature of sharing a space and the give and take. Artistically and conceptually it was
the right thing to do.
Well obviously lockdown happened! This meant we couldn’t access the site or do the kind of in depth in person community engagement we’d been hoping to do. I also had to research virtually. Me and Mike actually didn’t meet in real life until after we’d recorded when we all met at the site as the three of us for the first time. We all had some life stuff going on at different points but somehow we made it work. On a personal level I didn’t go into it expecting to sing on the album but that’s the beauty (or not) of seeing what happens. I think another unexpected occurrence was that the site went from being largely unused to becoming massively popular as a walking site during lockdown and the Jencks installations became something of an Instagram selfie craze which we definitely did not anticipate and actually made recording difficult at points. However, I think it’s a good example of how a place can be rapidly transformed and again begs the question of who owns the story of a place. This increased use also perhaps caused the sale of the land after many years of no interest and it’s due to be converted into an eco-wellness site so the birl continues in unexpected ways.
Andy: We collaborated with Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers a few years ago but this was the first time we’d collaborated with someone from a different artistic discipline. It was a step into the unknown and we didn’t really know what the outcome would be, but i think it’s important as a creative to continually take risks. I’m really proud of the work the three of us have produced.
Mike: It was exciting to see how Clare would interpret the music we created and develop these ideas. I think initially I’d assumed that it would just be Clare’s voice on the record so it was great to hear the others when these were recorded. Clare also added some great musical parts that really added to the compositional process.
Tell me about the recording process!
Clare: We were swapping ideas and demos virtually for ages and also had the slightly surreal experience early on of having our demo for 'Haul Into Being' played twice on Elizabeth Alker’s Unclassified show on BBC Radio 3. We ended up recording on separate days ( I did a day and a half) at Ben Chatwin’s new studio, The Vennel, in Fife and so in the end it all happened very quickly after a really long build up. I was really nervous and felt a lot of pressure because I like to do things intuitively and had a last minute freak out but Ben is pretty chilled out and knows what he’s doing absolutely so in the end it was fine. He was very kind when I had a I can’t do it when I’m being watched harmonium panic moment. I think like most things nothing is set in stone until you do them so we all had to relinquish some expectations in different ways and I have to say that I found Andy and Mike to be really generous and trusting with the process.
Mike: We’d worked with Ben a number of times before and so he was always our first choice to work with again on this project. I was in at the end of the process so the early stages were mainly listening back to what Andy and Clare had done discussing the best approach for my parts. When I record I always have a mix of rigid prepared parts and looser ideas that I can play around with on the day in response to what others have done. We were lucky to have our friend Sebastian Selke record cello parts for us which he did remotely in Germany and sent across to us. We’re big fans of his band Ceeys (Brueder Selke) and knew that he would do a great job on the parts we sent him.
Andy: Not long after we received funding through Help Musicians for the project, myself and Clare made a site visit in January 2020 to collect recordings and photos and those initial recordings were the foundation for quite a few of the tracks. I’d received a Jerwood Bursary towards the end of 2019 to undertake a self-initiated residency to learn more about modular synthesis so for this album it was the first time I really got a chance to use that experience to form a lot of the music and its direction. There’s a lot of different drones and textures going on throughout and we didn’t use a metronome for many of the tracks with Clare’s voice as we felt that would have restricted things a bit too much. We wanted the music and words to flow naturally and not be dictated by a regimented bpm or anything. As Mike said, we were lucky to get Seb on board to do cello and this was the first time I got to properly score parts for cello. Seb is an incredible cello player so he really brought my basic midi string parts to life and helped shape the sound and atmosphere of the record. I think Clare has an incredible voice that just suits our music really well.
There are so many layers of voice, multi-instrumentalism and sound on this album. Can you talk about how layering works in the process of composition, production and your response to the geographies of Fife itself?
Andy: Layering was a crucial element of this project, especially in tracks such as the two 'Excavate' ['Excavate Of Other (the Unknowing)' and 'Excavate Of Other (the continuing)'] ones where there’s field recordings layered in at a low level, which is something I wanted to do to try to merge the environment sounds and the music and words into one coherent narrative. There’s so many layers to the history of the site so we wanted to try and reflect that through sound and voice.
Clare: For me layers are always just a fundamental part of how I experience life and therefore art. In terms of the project’s physical geography I spoke with the geologist and archaeologist who did site reports prior to the Jencks installation phase then did some research on the social side. I think there’s always a wider sense of Fife so on 'Peer' for example there are references to the Pictish history of East Wemyss caves, which also serves as reference to Fife artist Ian Moir’s vision of a Citizen Spire, equivalent to the Angel of the North, for Fife. On another level on 'Undersouls' for example which is very much about mining and the earth it was important for me to incorporate a physical sense of birl and also allude to other people that make up communities so I used an old fashioned spinning top to do that re: children, whilst also creating a drone. Andy wasn’t too convinced of this but I was stubborn on it so hopefully other people will back me up!
Mike: Clare gave us the choice between spinning top or jaw harp so the spinning top seemed like the lesser of two evils. To be fair it did sound good once we heard it so she was right to be stubborn. On the layering aspect, this is something that is always important to me when composing our songs. In recent times Andy and I have also been interested in using more manipulation of sounds in the studio which includes running my brass parts through a range of effects to create new sounds. The main use of this on the album was the cornet part on 'Peer'.
The album draws upon archives and includes samples from oral history and voices
from locals and former miners — can you tell me more about your process of
accessing the archives and anything surprising you found in there? Did you also get
to speak to local people?
Clare: Unfortunately I didn’t get to physically access the archives and really rummage but I
was able get some stuff sent over and was also lucky to be given personal documents, photographs and stories from people. I think that one of the things we wanted to do in some ways was to pay a kind of homage to the oral traditions of passing on knowledge and stories and so when Alex Black, a former miner, reads the 'Dead Pit' poem that he came to know from going to the Folk Club in Dunfermline, he tweaks it and makes it his own but it’s passed on. I did some phone recordings during lockdown and then Ben got Alex in the studio to record properly once he was able. We had planned to do some events and aim for wide engagement but we just had to go with the lockdown flow so when I could I recorded people on site and with Peggy on 'Carbide Fizz' I went to her house. I actually did an Oral History Workshop with Emily Hilliard who runs Spinster Records and is also the state folklorist for West Virginia shortly after but I wish I’d done it before! I think it’s a huge privilege when people give you their experience and voice to use and both Alex and Peggy are in their eighties and it was really important to me that we did right by them.
Andy: Clare gets all the credit for doing that side of things! She really put a lot of time and effort into the history of the site and its people.
In ‘Carbide Fizz’, the song concerns ‘the women of carbide fizz’ and images of moving
through time and isolation. ‘Half Seen Truths of the M90’ includes the words of
Polish writer and architect Agnieszka Jadowska as a form of prompting on how we
think energy histories. How did you set out to challenge stereotypes of postindustrial
landscapes and their cultural imaginaries? Was there anything you wanted to avoid
and anything in particular you wanted to achieve?
Clare: In 'Carbide Fizz' I guess I’m trying to encapsulate the simultaneity of place, with Peggy in her late 80’s reminiscing and a wee girl playing at the site recently. Peggy’s was one of the last families to be forcibly evacuated from the site and so had the unusual experience of seeing hundreds of house gradually empty around her, and having empty shop buildings etc to play in, so in a way it was a living ghost village and she has really happy memories of it, although it was a tough life in some respects. I used mining terms such as overburden to make the work of women like Peggy’s mum, who was apparently and understandably delighted to be rehoused in a house with a kitchen and hot water, part of the mining history equation, because landscapes are always about more than is visible. I also wanted to make some kind of comment about all kinds of landscapes being open to women being there alone. I guess I mainly tried to avoid cliché or speaking for people. With 'Half Seen Truths of the M90', I did a drive by wind recording of the site that underscores the track because that’s how a lot of people prior to lockdown experienced the site – quick glimpses of funny mounds known locally as the Walnut Whips without knowing the history or intention of them whilst driving up the motorway. With Agnieszka I asked her specifically to respond to a boulder that Jencks used as part of his Scottish World mapping. The boulder says Danzig, with Danzig now being known as Gdansk obviously. I wanted her to explore the linguistic and socio-political implications of that within the context of Jencks’ ideas on cosmology and also to look at migration, immigration and the shifting borders of place. She initially thought I was going to give her words to speak and I think was a bit horrified when I said they had to be her perspective but I think she rose brilliantly to the challenge, and actually we only used a wee fraction of what she did.
I absolutely love the title, Birl of Unmap, with its invocation of the Scots word birl,
meaning to spin and the provocation of what it means to ‘unmap’ a place. As Clare
describes in the album notes, ‘an invitation to wander through the layers’. In what
ways is art and music a resistant cartography, one that doesn’t dominate or attempt
to master the land but unlearn our human name for it, and in the process attune to
it more ecologically — through its ambience and more-than-human forces?
Clare: I’m really glad you like it, I do too. In a way my entire practice is probably predicated on the idea of un! I think language is important in how we have come to know place but at heart it’s a feeling or layers of feeling, even if experienced imaginatively, and really I wanted the album to express that whether through field recordings, voice, words or music. In understanding what we think or feel or know there’s always an element of unwhatevering in acknowledging coexistence and impact I think. The title was the first thing I did and Andy liked it which I felt was a good sign for the collaboration. Titles are really important to me and Mike and Andy were really laid back about going with how I titled all the tracks.
Mike: Song titles have always been important to us as well, particularly as these are a key factor in telling the stories of the music that we make. Clare made suggestions based on her early listens to the demo tracks and I think that we were happy with all of them.
Andy: Yeah I think Clare has a real talent for her use of language in relation to sound and image. She nailed the title straight away.
There is a sense of the spectral, or haunting, in some of your responses to place — I
am thinking in particular of ‘Undersouls’ and ‘Carbide Fizz’. How does sampling and
audio manipulation relate to the themes of loss, grief and recovery that you wanted
Clare: On 'Carbide Fizz' Ben and Andy really worked some magic to take my basic idea and
recordings and make them interesting and have added dimensions for which I will be forever grateful. I think in terms of those themes it was perhaps more memory and communication, land and the human that we wanted to explore and the other side to that is transformation and for me what they did with ether recordings and vintage tape captured the balance and nuance of that. On Carbide Fizz there is an attempt to speak to the in-between state of somewhere that has been largely depopulated but is nevertheless vibrant in ways, and also what’s one person’s fool’s gold is another person’s treasure kind of thing. With the long gone pit village of Lassodie I felt a personal connection to that which again shows how places spin off into other spaces because my Granda, who was a miner, was brought over in utero from Ireland to the now gone pit village of Bothwellhaugh, the remains of which lie under the man-made loch in Strathclyde Park near Glasgow. We are surrounded by these layers of people’s lives and their impact. In 'Undersouls' it’s obviously commentary on the worker/owner power set up and the hardships and dangers and ultimately annihilation of mining life but there’s also positives and regeneration and everyday happiness and life within it. I think that Seb’s cello and Mike’s brass beautifully haunt the whole album but on 'Undersouls' I think the brass is magnificent and even though it sounds relatively simple recording it was a massive undertaking for Mike.
Mike: 'Undersouls' was a track that started as an initial idea when Andy and I were having a band practice. I liked the mournful feel so I wanted to layer this up to sound like a brass band playing. This felt particularly relevant due to the fact that there used to be a brass band in Lassodie that folded a long time ago. Once I’d heard the words spoken over the original demo I’d done I imagined this as being a kind of eulogy being delivered to mourn the loss of the pit, the brass band and eventually the village itself. So this was the reason for the additional layers of instrumentation as the track develops, reflecting the growing emotion and passion of the words and of those listening.
You worked with Murdo Eason from Fife Psychogeography Collective, specifically, the
opening track features Murdo reading from one of his blog posts. Was Murdo’s blog
a key source material for the project? What other things were you reading or
consuming around the composition of these songs?
Clare: I wouldn’t say it was a key source material so much as a key introduction to the site. I only became aware of what the site actually was through Murdo’s post a few years ago, and he in turn only became aware through being taken there by Kathryn Malcolm a Fife artist. Kathryn actually invited me to the site to show me round a while later, not realising I’d already been because of Murdo, and it was really nice to experience it through her eyes as someone who knew it well in its various iterations
having grown up in the area, and as a regular lone walker there. It was important to me that this invitation to, and sharing of a place, was a part of the album. I wanted the idea of the knowledge and experience that we positively pass onto people at the heart of it which is why I asked Murdo to open the album, because he’s someone who introduced me to the site and also because he’s extremely generous with what he shares. I just said I wanted it to start with 'This Is Not The Garden of Cosmic
Speculation', which is a nod to Jencks’ other site obviously, and gave him a rough timing I think and left it up to him how he finished his bit. So when I then kick in with my words I see it as a passing of the baton, of the kind of handed down storytelling that people then make their own or make more
than their own and also of the traces of continuing dialogue. I think some people who have heard the mixes have been quite surprised that it’s not my voice and words right at the start but it’s what felt right to me in terms of the lineage of the place. Others have said it’s a difficult opener and that they’d put it on expecting that they could have it as background music then realised it’s not and that it requires a certain amount of engagement. I can only go with what I felt was the right
Mainly I was visiting the site (when possible) and just being there looking and listening and moving through it taking photographs and video clips and recording sounds. Writing for me is really just a carrying of feelings until they more or less match or find the rhythm of the idea being explored or vice versa. When I’m making stuff I prefer to be thinking about other stuff I want to make or just doing really mindless stuff rather than reading for influence or inspiration, I just let it build until the last minute when I fully immerse myself and see what happens. Which in retrospect was probably exceptionally stressful for everyone else! The key thing for me was to have an imagined sense of the overall rhythm in my head and then the details emerge themselves. I was also doing a postgrad in experimental filmmaking in 2020 and released a solo field recording/spoken word track so lots of that fed in probably unconsciously reading and doing wise. My underlying thing was that I wanted it to have the same sense of being immersed in and and moving through a space that transforms that Mercury Rev’s 'Meth of a Rockette’s Kick' does for me. Although it’s obviously completely different sound-wise, that was the kind of spatial flow I imagined.
Andy: In the Field - The Art of Field Recording by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle was a book I was reading during this process. It’s a collection of essays from some of the world’s leading field recordists on their process, what inspires them etc, so this was something I found really relevant during our project.
How do you think music can help attune people to the mineral and social histories of
Clare: I think music allows people to inhabit spaces in their own way more than wholly words-based work can, there’s more scope for nuance and not imposing narratives. That said in order to understand history there has to be some contextualisation, however abstract, from which people can leap off to find out more if they want. I think spending time making work about a place is a way of saying this place counts in some way, find out what it means to you, if anything. Place based music is about establishing connections, however imaginal, between time, place and people I suppose.
What do you hope this project will help people remember, process or understand about North Sea histories in relation to communities in Fife?
Clare: In some ways I think this question is a whole other project! There are gas pipelines through Fife and I’m slightly obsessed with the rigs that they bring in to the sea opposite my house to be fixed and taken elsewhere or dismantled to die, I love them aesthetically and find offshore life fascinating but worry about the impact. I think for me this project is impacted by ideas of the North Sea but more about the land history, however, size-wise Fife is not a huge area and the North Sea and its trade, energy and ecology associations are always there on some level.
There is a strong sense of poetry to this album, from Clare’s words to Murdo’s and
the sense of continuity, change and refrain. Clare, how did you go about the writing
process in relation to the music?
Clare: It was a combination of approaches I suppose. Once I had a sense of overall structure in my head I could build up a poetic narrative that made sense to me, that although very different in its individual elements was cohesive. I think space for the music was hugely important because that’s where the listener fully inhabits, either taking the words or voices with them or not. I think I was partly interested in trying out song-writing, I bought Jeff Tweedy’s book on How To Write Songs but then I felt it was too soon for me to do that and I’d rather learn by doing so really what you’re hearing is
experiments in an undertaking some time in the future. I think I was consciously trying to keep the words distilled and leave space for everything else but also to see if you can evoke and provoke with less. So on 'Peer' for example there are very few words but when I explained to Max who made the video for it what it was about it took about three pages! I was aiming for oblique but somehow tangible on some level with very few words. Repetition was important for the sense of birl and movement, and also in relation to reuse or regeneration and simply the idea that a place is written by people, and other elements of the natural world, over and over.
Again we didn’t want it to be a static, standard template throughout and I think the balance of everything is a more accurate representation of the layers of a place and how it might be articulated than if we’d just done every track as music words music etc. I think it’s an album that asks for attention so the spaces are different ways to be in that state. Mainly Andy sent me loads of tracks and I chose bits that I liked and wanted to write to and then thought about the words in relation to the whole. Most of them I didn’t physically write until just before recording. On the actual days of recording we got rid of some stuff that wasn’t working in the way it needed to and spliced some other things together in ways we hadn’t predicted.
A lot of the album concerns concepts of ‘excavation’ — what did you uncover in the
process of making the album, and what did you decide to ‘leave in the ground’, as it
Clare: We have quite a lot of recordings from people who generously wrote and recorded perspectives for us that we didn’t use, simply because we needed to keep the overall kilter of the album but we’ll hopefully use these in different ways as part of additional stuff that Andy is doing.
Andy: Yeah as Clare said there’s a lot of recordings that we didn’t use, not just recordings of other voices but field recordings and other music. The plan is to hopefully release an EP of additional material on the project as well.
How do you see the relationship between this work and your previous albums — it
seems like there is something more grounded and specific here, perhaps even political? Clare, how did this compare to your previous collaborations?
Andy: I think it sits alongside the other two records, but the three of us wanted to push boundaries and take a bit more risk in terms of production, instrumentation and words. There are a lot of different textures and sounds throughout the album that I think will draw the listener in and allow them to immerse themselves in Birl of Unmap. I think there’s more ambient sounds and textures on this record, which is an outcome of working with voice and not wanting to drown that out but instead complement it.
Clare: I think that I was aware of a bigger sense of responsibility with this – that I could take something I really liked and respected (Mike and Andy’s music) and really fuck it up, so that brings with it a bit of anxiety but that’s also the reason to collaborate I think. It’s also been the longest period of collaboration so within that we’ve spent a lot of time just chatting shit on WhatsApp which has been nice because then you get a different sense of people than if you’re doing something very specific and strictly time limited. For me place is always political on some level although not necessarily polemical. I think also there’s obviously an added sense of responsibility or accountability maybe in making work in response to a public site. I think Andy and Mike have been exceptionally trusting (and tolerant) of me and I see that as a huge privilege to be honest.
Mike: Both Tidal Patterns and Landforms had a real sense of place which is definitely something that links them to Birl of Unmap. So in that sense this release can be seen as a continuation of the themes we’ve explored in the past. Obviously geographically speaking we are looking at a far more concise area this time around by comparison which has shaped the approach this time round. Clare has been a massive driver in the process and has challenged us to progress our sound so we definitely feel lucky to have been able to work with her. As Clare says our friendship has moved far beyond the studio and as well as chatting generally we’ve also used each other for advice in other areas that we are working on which has been great.
I was thinking about how music allows us to ‘access’ a place. During lockdown, we
were confined for a long time to a five-mile radius. Did that experience change your
relationship to locality and its mediations?
Andy: I actually kinda fell in love with field recording again during lockdown due to those restrictions to be honest. I, probably like so many others, became really aware of the sounds around me as it all changed. We live right near the Tay Road Bridge so I found it fascinating to not hear a single car going over it in what would have been a busy rush hour period for example. Just being home with the kids instead of being at work was a new experience as well! It’s definitely inspired some future project ideas for sure.
Clare: I think one of the great things about music is that it transcends barriers of place and people and can just be experienced at a really fundamental and essential, immersive level so I don’t think that necessarily changed, although I was maybe a bit wary of it emotionally. In relation to lockdown specifically I immersed myself more in endless boxsets to be honest, stuff like Schitt’s Creek and Call My Agent that were more positively kind of grounding than music maybe. One of the things that I found difficult about lockdown was that there were suddenly loads of people in places I’m usually relatively alone and that affected my engagement with photography for example but was also
interesting in making me think about false sense of ownership of place and also how we co-exist within them when rhythms change and collide.
Mike: Being in Edinburgh I had the opposite experience to Clare funnily enough in that the places that were usually horrifically busy became deserted. In the first week or so I would go out at night and be able to walk down the middle of the road in the main streets. This made me nostalgic as this is what I used to do often when I was growing up in Wormit. It was a strange time for making music as we actually managed to be quite productive in writing ideas but were unable to meet to practice/develop these or properly record.
What plans do you have to perform the album live?
Clare: We would definitely like to do it live. It would be great to have a gig where we got to have everyone who appears on the album as part of it as a special one off. For me also I’d like the experience of doing it live, I love reading my work in public but this would be new layers of doing that and I think I’d learn a lot from the experience, plus it’d be fun! We’d definitely need to rehearse though so there are lots of practical considerations at the moment.
Mike: When we get the chance we would love to do it live although with so many layers it’d be a complex thing to bring together it’s something we’d like to do. As Kinbrae we’ve really enjoyed playing Tidal Patterns and Landforms live in the UK and in Europe and it’s a whole new layer to the work.
Andy: Yeah definitely. It’d also be good to do a performance at the site itself - so many of the sounds are from there, whether hydrophone recordings of the loch or contact mic stuff from the steel structures, binaural bird recordings etc so it’d be really great to have the place soundtrack a performance and I think the three of us would be very up for that.
Excavate Of Other (the Unknowing)
Haul Into Being
Warm Water Burn
Half Seen Truths of the M90
Excavate Of Other (the continuing)
'Peer' can be streamed now via Full Spectrum.
Text: Maria Sledmere
Image copyright: Clare Archibald and Fraser Simpson.