(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 nar