Track by track: Wovoka Gentle

“We like noise,” London trio Wovoka Gentle say understatedly of their sound. With a love of folk as their kernel, Wovoka Gentle build outwards from there, adding jarring bleeps and bloops, field recordings and drum machines to make something truly hedonistic.

A kaleidoscopic soundworld first dreamt up in the minds of twins Ellie and Imogen Mason and Imogen’s husband William J. Stokes, the trio consummate that vision on debut album ‘Start Clanging Cymbals.’ You’d be right to call it experimental, yet as the Animal Collective-esque ‘1000 Opera Singers’ and the soaring piano ballad ‘Gennesaret‘ go to prove, Wovoka Gentle instil their ambition with a down-to-earth humanity that assures they never journey beyond the comprehension of the listener.

With song titles like ‘Tell ‘Em Makoto’ and ‘Punxsutawney Phil’ ambiguity is evidently part of Wovoka Gentle’s flavoursome stew, yet in this track-by-track guide they lift the lid for us a little, giving us a unique view of the ingredients that went into making the most maddening and bewitching debut of 2019. 

Salient Point

We wanted to start things off by making a lot of noise, which is basically what the album title is about and basically what we like to do as a band. We like noise. The rhythm of this opening track came about after Will heard a weird sound coming from his dishwasher where the rotating part was hitting a glass or something and the sound of the water sloshing about was perfectly in time with it. It genuinely had a groove so he sampled it and we ended up constructing the basis of the track around it. We thought it would be interesting if Salient Point gave a taster of as many elements contained within the album as possible – sort of like an overture – so there’s a bit of everything in there: electronic sounds, acoustic sounds, synths, strings, samples, guitars, voices… pretty much everything on our palette as a band. The radio jingle at the start is Imogen and Ellie’s mum singing in the ‘70s for a Christian radio station. The ticking machinery sound towards the end is a field recording Imogen took on her phone of the inside of the Belfort Clock in Bruges.

Punxsutawney Phil

A lot of this record lyrically is to do with uncertainty; kind of a modern age anxiety about what the future holds and the meeting point of dreams and reality. So, the line “How many times have I got to say? / Maybe the time is right for seeing it,” is definitely part of that, and also another example of how we wanted these early tracks to be pointing forward, into the album. Punxsutawney Phil is quite a good microcosm of our method in Wovoka Gentle; on one end of the spectrum is the acoustic element, and on the other is the glitched out electronic element, and the song centres around a journey into the medium between those two extremes. We were also really lucky to have the trumpeter Freddie Gavita feature on this song who is a bit of a superstar of UK jazz.

Small Victory

We recorded a choir called Echo Choir in a church in Stoke Newington, North East London for Small Victory; it was amazing to be there in the flesh, listening to them singing the parts we had arranged. There are a few production Easter eggs in here actually- the shouts in the choruses were done by our friend, the singer Roo Panes when he came to visit us in the studio in Wales, and the clashing, cracking sound is actually another friend, Gaynor, clashing stag antlers together in the middle of the studio space. Of all the songs on this record, this is possibly the one you can most hear the natural reverb of the hall we recorded the album in. Often it wouldn’t be so obvious in the tracking stage, but as soon as we got to mixing and even just added a little compression it was like, boom– that natural acoustic just sang through the mix. Imogen also laid down these really ‘Eleanor Rigby’-esque string parts in the last chorus that somehow gave it a really British feel.

[I Saw A Bright, White Light]

This is a collage poem by William of various internet posts and forum threads by people who claim to have had supernatural experiences of seeing bright lights. One of the poetry books we had in the studio was Kim Kardashian’s Marriage by the British poet Sam Riviere; ‘[I Saw A Bright, White Light]’ is definitely influenced by his style… kind of part cynical but within that absolutely sincere. We were really lucky to have the comedian Rich Hall record himself at home reading this for us. Fun fact about him is that Moe Szyslak in The Simpsons is based on him. So there you go: that’s the official ‘Start Clanging Cymbals’ celebrity cameo.

1,000 Opera Singers Working in Starbucks

This song was the first single from the album and ended up on the soundtrack to the FIFA ‘19video game, which made us feel cool. EA Games actually requested the song based on the demo, so we found ourselves in this weird situation where we were finishing off recording the track knowing that we’d basically be handing the master straight to be put on this huge franchise. It had been percolating as a demo for months before we did anything proper with it, and it went through so many versions before we arrived at the final one. We wanted to push that dream-vs-reality concept further with this song, except it became about painting reality as more of a nightmare. To be honest, most of the darkest lyrics in this song are lines from Psalm 5, which was written in about 1023BC. So I guess you could say it’s quite widely relatable?  

Peculiar Form of Sleep (Tiresias Theban)

Again, going back to that theme of dreaming and reality and the space in between, et cetera… This song was another that percolated for a long time before we started work on the album for real. It’s definitely one of the more ambitious tracks when it comes to section changes and arrangement changes and things like that. That’s one of the things we like about it and probably the main reason we were quite keen to have it on the record. The album version has this extended, kind of Sonic Youth-esque guitar outro which we were sorry to have to cut for the single edit. We were really lucky to have our long-time collaborator, the drummer Oliver Lowe lay down some acoustic drums for that (who, we found out shortly after starting work together, has also drummed for Thurston Moore). We mixed his drums in with an electronic drum sequence which had been fed through quite a saturated cassette recorder… it’s one of those parts on the album where we were listening through during mixing and going ‘yeah, I think we got that right’. Which is nice.

[It’s all OK]

This is a micro-song sung by William, fed through a cassette player again and pitched up so it sounds odd. It’s probably the most political we get, which isn’t very.

Gennesaret

A lot of this track was recorded in a gallery space in Margate, on the South East coast. A real star of this one is the multi-instrumentalist Marcus Hamblett, of whom we’re huge fans. You should keep an ear out for his upcoming solo material because it’s going to blow your mind. Marcus arranged and laid down all of the brass by himself, including the solo parts. We were aware that at this stage on any album, kind of, two-thirds in, you’re most likely to hear a ‘filler track’ (or tracks), so we were stoked to deploy a song like Gennesaret here, which we always thought was super strong structurally and also contained this real ‘weapon in the arsenal’ in the form of Marcus’ brass parts. It’s not necessarily a sound one would associate with Wovoka Gentle, but that’s the fun of a debut album: you can throw down the gauntlet.

Tell ‘Em Makoto

This track didn’t change a huge amount from the demo phase. The parts with the Mahalia Jackson sample actually began as instrumentals, and we originally laid the sample on top just out of curiosity, and unbelievably it fit perfectly with no cutting or pitch-shifting or anything. It’s the kind of singing where you can’t not stop what you’re doing when you hear it, it’s such an amazing performance. She’s singing a standard called ‘Come Sunday’ a capella on a 1958 Duke Ellington record called ‘Black, Brown And Beige’, by the way. So it felt right. And hopefully the reverence we have for it can be heard in the song. Joe Harvey-Whyte is an amazing pedal steel guitarist and really added a lot to this one as well. Oh, and the protest chant heard at the start is an iPhone recording of a load of commuters shouting ‘Southern Fail’ in Victoria station. Kind of a strange thing to protest about.

Oystercatcher

The field recordingthat begins Oystercatcher was taken at the coast in Pembrokeshire, a stone’s throw from the hall in which we recorded most of the album. You can hear an oystercatcher calling just before the piano and synth parts come in. They’re actually really noisy birds, so it’s quite poetic just to hear that one solitary call introducing the song. The lyrics for Oystercatcher are strongly influenced by Dylan Thomas actually, which felt fitting, what with the Welsh connection and all. Gareth Jones had a big role in the production and arrangement of this track; not least in crafting the synth voices that make that deep bottom end in the end section. We were lucky enough to have Emma Gatrill play clarinets and do a bit of singing on this track as well. Ellie actually contributed a remix of a track called ‘Cocoon’ to an EP of Emma’s last year.

Xerxes ‘19

Kids Club Kampala is an amazing charity that works with vulnerable children in Uganda, founded by our friend Olivia White. Her husband Huw had taken some recordings of some of the kids singing some gospel songs, and we were really taken with the result; particularly the recording of a song called ‘Wamilele’. We asked if we could have a go at featuring it in a song and Xerxes ’19 is the result. That conversation, flung across continents, kind of became the launch pad for the quite macro, almost apocalyptic lyrical content. Sam Petts-Davies lent a lot of expertise to this one in terms of the mix and arrangement. The challenge was keeping it structured and flowing but maintaining a level of, kind of, lo-fi density. You don’t want to take a pretty raw sounding recording of people singing and then try and insert it into some kind of really flashy production. That’s not what we’re about at all.

[Josh, Shout Something!]

That’s Ellie yelling at our friend, the musician Josh Flowers to shout something as he jumped into a flooded quarry while we were all on a walk along the Pembrokeshire coast. We had lots of people, lots of musicians, come and visit us which was really nice. Anyway, Josh kind of just yelped and did a bellyflop. Everyone went ‘ooooh!’ It was during the World Cup and when he came out he said, ‘did you hear? I shouted ‘it’s coming home’!’

Sin Is Crouching at your Door (Sad Puppy !!!1!)

We always knew we wanted to end on this one. We’re kind of on ‘maximum apocalypse’ settingnow, helped along by us feeding a drum pattern through a nifty circuit on the Korg MS-20 synthesiser called a ‘frequency to voltage converter’: in other words, it takes a sound and converts it into a synthesiser-playable note. Putting something like a drum pattern through it, with all sorts of atonal frequencies, means that the voltage spikes in this bizarre way and you can achieve this terrifying sort of rhythmic, squealing mechanical sound. We were cautious about making something too self-consciously ‘anthemic’, so were keen not to let ourselves run away with that riffy central motif. Not heavy metal: heavy wood. We chose to bookend the record with the radio jingles featuring Imogen and Ellie’s mum and also Imogen can be heard quietly and creepily singing the theme from Salient Point to round things off. We wanted it to be equal parts foreboding and satisfying.

Start Clanging Cymbals is out now on Nude Music

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