Tell us about your new project, The Sly and Unseen.
The Sly and Unseen is a duo between Katie English (Isnaj Dui, littlebow and The Doomed Bird of Providence) & Jonathan Lees who runs the Hibernate and Rural Colours labels. We like to record things at weekends using acoustic instruments such as shruti box, harmonium, flutes, cello, xylophone and guitar.
When did you first meet Katie and at what stage did you become interested in working and recording together?
I got in touch with Katie not long after her Home Normal album Unstable Equilibrium on Home Normal and asked if she was interested on a release on Rural Colours. She said yes. We became email friends and finally met in person at a Home Normal show later that year. Since then we put out Katie’s Abstracts on Solitude on Hibernate, Lowered, and together arranged many Hibernate/Home Normal shows in London. The Sly & Unseen started off when Jonathan picked up Katie’s cello and messed about but managed somehow to get some decent sounds out of it. A little while later we started experimenting with different ways of recording which resulted in a few tracks that have gone on compilations. Since that we’ve worked on our sound more, recording an EP and an album. We have quite a few varied instruments to use so it is a nice process to play around with ideas and then combine them to form a finished album, rather than working to strict confines.
Where did you take inspiration?
The original idea for The Sly & Unseen was for Jonathan, as a non-musician, to play all the instruments, and for Katie to edit these segments into finished pieces. Although we only used this idea for one track it gave us the inspiration for the name which was taken from The Sly and Unseen Day, a book about artist George Shaw. This book, full of paintings of everyday, seemingly quite mundane surroundings, also reflects our approach of making something special out of the everyday.
How would you sum up your music as The Sly and Unseen? What kind of atmosphere are you leaning toward?
It’s really a bit of experimenting, we’re interested in lots of different types of music including Balinese Gamelan, folk songs from India, Central Asia and Russia. Right now we’re listening to Canary Records who basically re-issue old 78rpm vinyl, there’s lots of interesting stuff from Greece, India, Central Asia and so on, a lot of which has seemed to have indirectly influenced what we’re doing, it’s not intentional though. Overall the basis of a track will either come from a folk melody, which we then process or vary in some way, or we put a simple drone in place and then experiment with a suitable melody or rhythm. Some tracks have a calm meditative atmosphere, others can be sinister and a little unsettling.
You use acoustic instruments such as a harmonium, flutes, a cello, a xylophone, a mandolin and a guitar – how do you arrange all of these instruments in a way that keeps the music ambient?
We don’t consider our music to be ambient in the Brian Eno sense of background music that isn’t meant to be paid attention to as this often seems to be a lazy coverall term for instrumental music without drums. There is another way of seeing ambient music as being a reflection of a band’s surroundings which is more in line with what we do. We multi-track all the instruments onto Cubase and work out the arrangement as we go, sometimes the track will end up very minimal whereas others will be quite busy.
Do you favour acoustic instrumentation over the electronic, and can we expect to hear some electronic elements in your music?
We do favour acoustic instrumentation as it sounds more natural to us and gives us more leeway but we’ll also use electronic effects to vary the sounds produced by the instruments if needed.
Does The Sly and Unseen in any way reflect the kind of music you release under Hibernate Records?
Your track Ash Wednesday, recently released on the Home Normal compilation Elements, has Katie playing back some field recordings – where and how were they taken and why the inclusion?
They were recorded in the back garden one afternoon. As they included bird song we didn’t want it to sound too generic ambient so decided to chop the recordings up to create a more rhythmic motif.
You play glockenspiel and melodica on Ash Wednesday, how long have you been playing and do you play any other musical instruments?
For Ash Wednesday we experimented with Jonathan playing random notes to then be edited by Katie. Since starting this project we’ve built up a small collection of percussion and drone instruments and enjoy experimenting with these.
What are your thoughts on ambient music? Where do you want to take the listener with The Sly and Unseen.
We prefer to think of ambient music in terms of being a reflection of surroundings and, as with Hibernate Records, we are inspired by the unpredictable nature of the Pennine Moors. Our music can be quite schizophrenic which we think reflects this.
It sounds like it was a lot of fun?
We make sure to keep things light-hearted as there’s nothing worse than forcing something that should be fun. Sometimes we’ve made a start on a track but it’s begun to feel forced and not true to what we want it to sound like so we’ve scrapped it and started again, that’s usually when our nicest, most natural work comes out.
When can we expect some more music? Is there an album in the works?
We have an album recorded so are hoping it will come out relatively soon. There is an EP due out on Audio Gourmet in the near future. We also have a few tracks on compilations.
Is your rhubarb crumble really the best in the north?
It’s pretty good. Ginger powder, oats and ground almonds are the key!