Listen to this track from guitar/drums duo from Durham, England Sand River, made up up of guitarist/lyricist/singer Simon Robinson, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Guy Siviour. It’s the final track on their 6 track EP, the cleverly titled Sand River EP currently for sale on a pay-what-you-can basis.
Sure, these guys eschew a bass player, and have some blues influences on some tracks. But don’t stripe these guys white or make with the black keystrokes just yet.
Sand River liberally use folk picking, jazz-inflected drumming, and hypnotic time signature experiments that go far beyond what you might think of as viable for an indie two-piece. Guitar and drums are used less as blunt instruments and more like sonic paintbrushes, with Robinson’s vocals way up front. The lyrical content is also expansive, perfectly suited to music that takes its time, rather than taking no prisoners.
I spoke to the guys about the perils and pleasures of a minimalist instrumental set-up, how less really can be more, and more details about who this Emma might be.
The Delete Bin: This song sounds like a compact survival guide to going out with a high-maintenance woman. I have to ask – is she based on a real life person?
Simon Robinson (guitar, vocals, lyrics): The lyrics [to ‘Emma’] were written when I was stranded in Birmingham after getting kicked off a train home from the Glastonbury Festival. The song is actually based on Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, which is the battered paperback that I had in my back pocket at the time and from which I ‘repurposed’ some choice lines. But the Emma I’m singing about is—as with most fictional characters—at least partially based on my own experiences. Let’s call her a composite.
Alternatively, Guy maintains that I’m singing about him in drag, but that will never be confirmed or denied.
DB: You are a two-piece band, but your music doesn’t sound geared to that set-up. Rather, it’s almost in defiance against it, which creates an interesting effect. When putting together tracks, and in live performance, how does the limitations of a two piece band fit into what your trying to bring across?
Guy Siviour (drums, percussion, etc): Being a two-piece outfit has both a positive and negative side. The scope of sound we can achieve is limited, but even so, we can still draw disparate elements into the music. Limitations force you to be creative, to really think about the instruments you’re playing; how the guitar, vocals and drums interact, whether the sound is going to be homo- or polyphonic, homo- or polyrhythmic.
The first part of ‘Kid Dust’ for example, where the guitar and congas deliberately follow each other to accent the rhythm, is quite similar to the guitar and drums on ‘Emma’; ‘Love’ uses two separate rhythms that complement each other, resulting in something more complex that fits the mood of the song.
Along with all of this, we have to think about how songs can be played live and can be kept interesting. One way we’ve found to achieve this is to focus more on developing the structure of each song, rather than just falling into the same verse/chorus/middle-eight structure every time.
SR: We’ve also done quite a few acoustic versions of the EP tracks live, which keeps us amused and our audiences happy. We liked one so much that we recorded it with just acoustic guitar and congas as a bonus track for the new EP. You’ll have to listen to it to find out which one it is.
DB: It seems to me with a song like “A Letter…”, I almost feel like part of the arrangement of this song, and others on the record, take place in my mind as I’m listening, filling in the gaps that you’ve purposefully left. How much does the musical literacy of your audience play into what you’re creating?
GS: Our music captures elements of whatever music we are listening to at the time. Sometimes the music is very much prescribed; the chords, the structure, the lyrics have all been completely defined and the song is very near completion before we start rehearsing it (e.g. ‘The Reprisal’ or ‘Goodnight, Goodnight’). In other cases, the song comes out of nowhere, usually beginning with an idea that one of us will bring into rehearsal that we play around with, add to and develop until we end up with a full song—as happened ‘Emma’.
SR: What we try and do, in any case, is to make the song coherent and complete, and the gaps in the arrangements are part of the whole effect. As Guy said, our limitations sometimes control what we can feasibly (and sometimes, in terms of live performance, physically) do with the ideas we have, but they also make us think about exactly what we are doing with each song. I think it was Dizzy Gillespie who said that it’s not about the notes you play, but the ones that you don’t, and a song like ‘Emma’ definitely emphasises the gaps—most of the song has that very staccato, spiky feel that is at least as much about what’s not being played as what is.
Sometimes I listen to it and imagine strings, sometimes I hear a big, squelchy synth bass that evolves through the bridge and the final section. As it stands, the space inside the song gets everything across that we want it to. Hopefully whatever’s going on in your mind in the gaps—presumably influenced by your own musical tastes and experience—adds to what we’ve put down on tape.
DB: You’ve listed the blues as a huge influence on what you’re doing. The blues and indie guitar music seem to be crossing paths pretty often in the last, say, decade or so. Where do you guys see the main points of connection in your own music?
GS: Our music throws together all kinds of influences, styles and sounds. Guitar music, particularly blues and indie, is an obvious influence, but we draw ideas from everywhere; rock, classic rock, folk and world music to name just a few. As we have played together more, written more songs and started to define our sound we have started to think of ourselves as less ‘indie’. Our second EP is definitely moving away from that label.
SR: Sometimes it comes down to how we actually play our instruments. Guy has jazz influences on his drumming that lead to weird time signatures and away from straight beats; even when I want him to stick four on the floor, he seems to skew it somehow, which at least keeps things interesting. I play everything on an acoustic guitar in an altered tuning that’s mostly used for folk music, but on the first EP there are a lot of bluesy riffs and ringing chords; my fingers just seem to fall into those configurations.
The combination of indie and blues is tried and tested, but it’s hard to stick to for long while avoiding self-plagiarism. Bands that throw together influences seem to be coming into a resurgence lately—I’m thinking Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer, but also dance-rock bands like LCD Soundsystem. I think that kind of freedom to combine influences is what we’re aiming for. Look out for our eventual third EP, featuring Tuvan throat-singing over repurposed Weimar cabaret.
DB: You guys are from Durham, which (for the benefit of my North American readers) is North-East England. Do you feel that bands like yours still have to make inroads in London in order to gain exposure, or is the North of England a more viable base of operations more so than it once was?
GS: Although the Durham scene has probably dropped off a bit since the 60s and 70s, I think things are just as vibrant now in the North-East as they have ever been. There is a lot done by local bands, especially student bands, to keep the music scene alive, particularly in terms of live music. Ultimately, though, I think anyone will gain more exposure in London; it’s a critical mass thing. There are just physically more people to gain exposure with, a denser population of gig-goers and listeners.
SR: There are some incredibly talented bands in the North-East that ought to (and hopefully will) be absolutely huge, and we’re lucky enough to play with them on a regular basis. You can’t help feeling that they’d have more of a chance of making a real impact where there are more people paying attention—but then again, the scene is so overcrowded in London that it’s more of a rat race. I think it’s becoming more important for bands to promote themselves early on, no matter where they’re based. Online exposure is more important than ever, and so is raising your own profile; you can’t just turn up at an industry showcase and score a five-album deal and a huge marketing budget any more, or it at least seems that way.
DB: You’re bringing out a second EP at the time of this interview. How does the new one help to evolve what this first EP started as far as your artistic trajectory?
GS: Our overall artistic direction is pretty well-defined on our first EP; it’s slightly progressive and quite varied, although it fits together quite nicely as a whole. I picked up a ukulele at the beginning of 2010 and we started to experiment with a more acoustic side to our music, and over a period of about six months, another set of songs slowly developed. At the same time, we were having some success with our first EP, so to keep the momentum going we decided to record a follow-up; it seemed natural to record the tracks that were forming the core of our acoustic set. This isn’t to say that we’ll carry on in this vein in future; neither of us knows what our third release will be like. I imagine that like the first two, though, it’ll capture a moment within the life and history of the band.
SR: I’m telling you, Weimar cabaret with Tuvan throat-singing. It’s the new dubstep!
DB: Any plans for North American live dates in the next year?
GS: We would love the opportunity to tour North America, but as with any independent like ourselves, there is always the problem of finances. If we were able to find a way to bankroll a tour, though, we’d be over there like shit off a stick.
SR: I’ll be over in Minneapolis this summer, and hopefully Austin sometime next year. If anyone reading this can lend me a guitar and is willing to sit me in front of an audience, I’ll play anywhere!