Five years after their début EP was released to critical acclaim, The Pirate Ship Quintet recorded their first full length album entitled 'Rope for No-Hopers', which was pressed courtesy of Denovali Records. The record is a compendium of pieces chosen and refined from an abundance written over the past few years, during which time the band disappeared from the live scene.
You have a DIY approach to music, recording and mixing everything yourself, in many different locations including an old chapel on the banks of the River Severn, a furniture-making workshop, the offices of The Big Issue magazine and the band’s current studio space. You have also talked about being subject to technical failure on the part of cheap or borrowed gear with computers blowing up taking away with them hours of recordings. Is this a question of economics, a fear of compromising your artistic integrity, or simply the working method that suits you best?
Ha, yeah we’ve definitely suffered with a lot of technical issues over the years! I guess our approach originally came of being broke and having to find a way to make recordings without the luxury of money but we’ve become accustomed and attached to it over the years. I guess like you suggested, it does fit the way we like to work pretty well. We tend to spend a lot of time revising and tinkering with pieces during the recording process and there’s no way we’d be able to relax and take our time doing that if we were hiring a fancy studio somewhere.
In a recent interview with Headphone Commute, you described your working method as a continuous work in progress with tracks being constantly revised and whole sections discarded or changed at the last minute. Does this mean you generally end up with a very different product from the one you originally thought you were making?
Although sections or people’s parts in our pieces can end up sounding very different from how they originally began, that process of refinement is usually a pretty considered one. So we’re aware of which parts we’re not completely happy with during the writing process and we know that they are likely to change at least a bit before (and if) the piece is finished. So it’s usually a process of creating focus and making sure the pieces “feel right” before committing them to record.
Your music has always been coloured by melancholy with the cello and trumpet adding an underlining introspective mood. While still retaining a certain ambivalence, with Rope for No-Hopers, though, The Pirate Ship Quintet seems to be battling with the storm riding whilst lost at sea. Reviewing your album on A Closer Listen, Richard Allen writes, “And yet, one wonders what The Pirate Ship Quintet is so angry about. Is it the equine apocalypse mentioned in the press release? Last year’s London riots? The more typical (but understandable) angst at the end of a relationship?” While the track Horse Manifesto might’ve referred to the potential danger of an equine government, you also seem to have predicted the recent horse meat scandal! What role do the political and the personal occupy in your music and where do you draw hope from?
I guess that if our music is broadly pretty melancholic or introspective then that’s because those are the sorts of qualities that we all love in the music we listen to and want to explore in our own material. For whatever reasons those sorts of emotions you mention are ones that resonate with us more than a lot of others and so we obviously gravitate towards them when writing. I’m really not sure that we’d be able to give you a coherent explanation for why that is and I expect that any explanations from personal or individual standpoints would all be contradictory and probably pretty unhelpful. We certainly don’t explicitly discuss political or personal feelings with each other when writing music together. So whilst those sorts of things may influence why we’re drawn to certain parts or moods or ideas on some subconscious level, I think it’d be impossible to articulate exactly how or where or to what extent.
Going back to your working method, could you maybe detail how you go about composing your music by maybe taking the track Horse Manifesto as a case in point with Sandy’s cello parts, Terrence’s “low level desperate vocals” and Moo’s trumpet adding to the richly textured grain of the track?
A lot of our pieces tend to start with an idea that somebody has either brought along to a rehearsal session or that has been stumbled upon whilst jamming on other material or ideas. Most of the time these initial ideas are guitar parts, but it could be anything really. We tend to work collaboratively and everyone offers their opinions on everyone else’s parts or their ideas for where a riff should go next or which instrument should be playing a certain role.
There’s definitely a sort of evolution that happens with the pieces that is a little more complex than simply writing section a, section b, section c and so on. So to take Horse Manifesto as an example, as far as I can remember that originally started with a piano line that now doesn’t exist in the piece at all. That form of the song did eventually contain an ending that was quite similar to that one you can find on the finished record, but everything leading up to that would have been gradually changed and refined. So exactly how many working versions there might have been is really hard to tell, but I think we generally have an idea of what we’re aiming for with a piece. For Horse Manifesto we initially wanted to experiment more with odd meters and more mathy sections and to keep the song at a higher tempo throughout. I can remember having polymeters and more complicated lines and drum fills and big heavy sections in the middle at various points. Those sorts of themes I think you can still hear in the piece, but their exact manifestations are different and I think more restrained in the final version.
We try to use the different elements in the band as intelligently as we can. Things like the screaming or trumpet parts are used pretty sparingly so as to give them more impact when they do appear. I think those aspects of our sound can be really helpful for us to use as we’re keen not to fall too easily into the standard post-rock cliche box. At the same time, however, we want to make sure that we’re using those elements in a way that enhances the pieces rather than to simply try and differentiate ourselves.
After the release of your self titled debut EP, you were signed up by Denovali, the German label with a good track record in the “post rock” department. Rope for No-Hopers sits comfortably in between the metal anger of Omega Massif and the cinematic tone of Bersarin Quartett. Where would you position yourselves and what bands have influenced you the most over the years?
Denovali are a fantastic label and we’ve met a lot of really great people through it including Carlos Cipa, Poppy Ackroyd, Petrels, etc. Those guys are all so talented and great fun to be around. We’ve been good friends with Blueneck since before they signed to Denovali and our cellist Sandy has played on a couple of their records. We’re actually off on a short jaunt to Europe at the end of March with Petrels. All in all it’s been brilliant working with Denovali and getting to meet so many lovely people and other musicians. In terms of influences on the band, we all listen to a lot of instrumental and contemplative music and that’s definitely the sort of stuff we wanted to make together in the first place. We do try to make use of everybody’s more individual interests and influences though, so we’re lucky to have a big classical input from our cellist Sandy for example. Other styles we draw influence from are things like screamo and hardcore, ambient and electronica and doom metal. We also try to listen to and discover smaller, less well-known bands if we can. There are loads of really talented musicians that you might never hear about without a bit of digging!
After performing at last year’s Denovali Swingefest you will be taking the stage next April for the London leg of the festival, which in a way might even seem like a family reunion. How will you approach your live set and is there anything you are specifically looking forward to?
We had an amazing time at Swingfest last year and we’re all super excited for the London leg of the festival in April. We’ve never played at Scala before so we’re looking forward to that, as well as getting to play with and see another great roster of bands and musicians. We are hoping at some point to work with Petrels to create a soundscape that would open our show, however we doubt this will be used at Swingfest as we’ve not begun working on it yet.
You are not the most prolific band around, are there any plans to release a follow up in the near future as you now all seem to live reasonably close by and have more opportunity to get together and play?
Haha, no we’re certainly not the most prolific band around. We do live close to one another again now and we plan to release another record as soon as we are happy with enough of our new material. For a few months now we’ve been working on things in our studio and we have some skeletal structures of pieces and ideas that are starting to take shape. We get together as much as we can and try to fit sessions in around our other commitments, so we’ll see how quickly we can make progress with a new record. I think people get pretty annoyed at how slowly we work but the truth is we write music because it is what we love doing. That means that our priorities are not really aligned with a process of releasing lots of music. If we are writing we are generally content to be locked away for as long as it takes and eventually we might even end up with enough music to release something! We work and write together because it is what makes us smile first and foremost. Making records of course does allow us the funding to tour and play live for people which is the other great joy that comes from being in a band. However we have always kept live performances pretty sporadic and only really do the shows we are excited about being a part of.