Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers: seafo od recip es

Navel-Gazers #2 is an interview with Andy Rowe who is going to talk to us about seafo od recip es, his first full-length production as Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers, from 2005. Anyone who’s ever been to a Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers gig will recognize Andy’s disorienting patchwork of tribal rhythms and found-sound recordings. Such sounds are present over the entire 15-album Slate Pipe discography, yet “seafo od recip es” jumped out at me as a special work I’d like to know more about. Maybe it’s a predilection for seafood, maybe because it was recorded in Leeds - a mysterious Northern city I’ve never managed to visit - or maybe because it’s the earliest incarnation of this remarkable music, which conforms to no stylistic genre yet seems to tick along with its own sense of purpose. Let’s find out more.

Andy Rowe: First of all, I'd like to say thanks for choosing this particular album to ask me questions on. When you mentioned that you'd like to base the interview on this I was interested in your reasons but also interested personally as it meant revisiting a piece of work that I haven't really listened to much in recent years and some of the pieces within it would require a fair bit of detective work on my part to go back to them and actually remember how they came about in the first place. I was a different person 14 years ago and the experiences that I was having then and the sounds I was hearing and making all served to personally lock this album to a specific point in my life. Some of the sounds and field recordings I incorporated into the pieces are very evocative and nostalgic for me now, looking back. But then also with a few of the other sounds - I now have no idea how they came about, their origins are lost to me. I managed to find some of the pieces from the sequenced files in Ableton Live files in long forgotten corners of my hard drive but some of the tracks were made using an old cracked copy of Sony Acid 4 and I no longer use that so only some of the samples remain. It’s an interesting reflective process to return to them and acknowledge how I’ve changed and developed (or regressed?) in these intervening years.

AC: “seafo od recip es” is one of those titles that captures the listener’s attention - it captured mine anyway - before hearing any of the music. From the very first encounter, for a collection of someone’s music to be called “seafo od recip es” struck me as humorous, grotesque, cryptic, even a bit menacing; it made me wonder what kind of music such language could possibly describe. The individual track titles are narrower in scope, yet also evocative: the morning chocolate drowneralpine sin balloon.. 

Andy Rowe: I’m glad you find the title humorous. On one level it's meant to be, and humour and a sense of the absurd are important to me in what I do with these sounds. I frequently like to play around with words, language and sentence structure to create titles that 'kind of' make sense but also don't really. I've always been interested in accents and differing languages and communication. I've lived in London for 30 years now, apart from the time I spent in Leeds when I made this album and a few bits of travelling, and I've met and interacted with people from all over the world who speak many languages and who speak English with a wide variety of accents, like I do with my north Yorkshire accent. Mistakes sometimes happen when people communicate with each other when English isn’t their first language and when different accents are involved and I like how it’s still possible to be understood even when you sometimes make mistakes in communication or mispronounce things. I often take these little errors on board and remember them, and use them as starting points to develop song titles or pieces of work. I mean, looking at the title - ‘seafo od recip es’, the spacing was intentional, I think it causes you to question how it’s pronounced, like it almost makes you stutter or glitch your voice, but really you can see that it just says Seafood Recipes, but I guess it’s playing with you, should you say it with the spacing or not? I just call it Seafood Recipes by the way. My idea was to present the album as a kind of recipe book, with each song being a finished dish. There’s also the fact that Leeds has a very good indoor market with many stalls selling seafood. I often went there and ate crab sandwiches and oysters. I did some field recording stuff there too. All these influences contribute.

AC: Do you ever have a similar experience with other artists where a title or perhaps the name of the artist is what draws you in? 

Andy Rowe: Yes for sure, personally I'm a little turned off when I see an artwork or a song title that is just called ‘Untitled’ or something similar. I mean, I've occasionally done it myself but by and large I'll always go for something that doesn't really make literal sense or could be seen as a little absurd or you’re not sure how to pronounce it. Just to pluck a few names out of the hat - I'd mention Trumans Water's second album Spasm Smash XXXOXOX Ox & Ass. And I mean not only for the album title but the band name, what is Trumans Water? And as for that title? I have no clue as to what it means or if you’re actually even meant to pronounce the X’s and O’s. But also the artwork on the album, it was a big influence on me, with the flung together found images and paint. The artwork on the cover of their 10 x My Age EP I like too. This collage style is reflected in a lot of the artwork I come up with for my Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers project.

As "seafo od recip es" was created while in Leeds I'm also reminded of a band from that city who I've been drawn to particularly for their abstract wordplay - The Three Johns. Their lyrics have been a constant source of interest and wonder for me, conjuring up stories and situations that I can only half understand. Sure, some of their songs are about definite subjects but they address them in a wonderful poetic way. They even self reference their wordplay in one of their songs called 'Nonsense Spews From My Song Machine'.

There’s loads more artist examples I guess, I’d could go on all day. But these examples spring to mind first.

AC: Never heard The Three Johns, I’d like to check that out. But I had exactly the same experience with Trumans Water, a great example where the visuals reel you in along with the titles.

So how exactly do you come up with titles?

Andy Rowe: The song titles I use tend to be extrapolations from existing words that I’ve used for working titles while I’m making the song in question. I’ll twist a word or use another word that sounds similar to the original and see what imagery and thought processes start to generate. 

image by tina rowe

You mentioned the first track ‘Alpine Sin Balloon’ in your question. That came from a pair of samples I was playing around with when I first started making the track. One was a sample I took from an album I had called In Praise of the Alphorn. It was an album of people blowing those massive long horns in the Alps. I recorded some of it and used it as a drone to run pretty much through the length of the track. The other sample, which I think got ultimately discarded, was of a cimbalom player. So I had the Alpine word, and from cimbalom I stretched that and came up with Sin Balloon. That then immediately conjured up imagery of a balloon drifting over some mountains, either a child’s balloon or some big Montgolfier thing, or whatever pops into your head really. Then there’s the ‘Sin’ aspect, which darkens the imagery. What sins would you be committing in a balloon? Or what other ideas for sin could you come up with in relation to balloons and mountains? For me it’s like part of a macabre fairy tale or something, but it was actually generated from something entirely unconnected.

Even the name of my project ‘The Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers’…. people have asked me regularly what it means. Normally I say I just made it up and it doesn’t mean anything, which is true, it is made up. But it didn’t just come out of nowhere. By way of an explanation it came from a time when me and my brother would record stuff onto four track tape way back in the 90’s and then listen back to it and talk about the resulting recordings. We decided that one piece sounded like someone dragging some large industrial pipes that were made out of slate, while playing a banjo. Make of that what you will. It’s quite absurd I know, some might say daft, but I liked the name for precisely that reason and decided to use it from that point on.

AC: While watching at one of your gigs recently I was reminded of all the things that are unique about live music, the social aspect, the kineticism of performance and so on. In your case there’s this slippery balancing act of around a dozen temperamental micro-cassette players which is certainly fun to follow along with. Yet something keeps me coming back to recordings, personally - I think part of that is how over the years recordings have developed this unique relationship with language and imagery such as you’re describing. Many musicians would be dismissive of that or consider it superficial but I’d say it’s a big part of how I got interested in music to begin with. Improvised performance of all things, as much as I appreciate it, can never give us that specific experience of recordings christened and framed through language and imagery. How could it? It’s a different kind of experience. I can’t imagine for example a rendition of ice cap cracks jesus puzzle which triggers the imagination exactly as the recording does… or can I? A roundabout way of asking, are your performances improvised, or to what extent and have you ever attempted any of this material live?

Andy Rowe: Imagery and language use have certainly contributed to the listening experience for me. I grew up listening to a lot of punk music and following along with lyrics and absorbing artwork while listening to records just made them more immersive and memorable. I can still reel off some Dead Kennedys songs verbatim today because of that.

The cassette performances are pretty much improvised. I mean, I’ve generally rehearsed a bit and figured out a few ideas beforehand and I know what I’m going to start with and normally know what I’m going to finish with but in between it’s all made up. Most of the other performances I do, in conjunction with multimedia artist friend Mowgli, are totally improvised. We meet up, jam, make sure the equipment works for what we’re trying to do then we go to the gig and see what happens. Some of the sets have a bit more of a narrative through them, as in I intend to use certain sounds at rough points in the set but it’s all pretty fluid and can often go off in whatever direction at any point. I never know what he’s going to do either, so it keeps it fresh.

As regards performing some of the "seafo od recip es" tracks live? I haven’t actually. It’s because they’ve been made primarily just to be listened to and were made at a time when my live performance experience was practically nil. They’ve been built from scratch by me, recording, playing, editing, layering, sequencing, mastering, all that stuff. Sometimes using contributions from other people, but they all took a fair length of time to complete and all have quite a lot of different sounds in from many different sources. Sometimes I’ve listened to them and thought about how I would play any of them live. Some would be easier than others I guess, but I figure it’d be a big undertaking as I really wouldn’t want to just fling them all into a laptop and trigger samples. Although undoubtedly a laptop would have to be used in some capacity if a live portrayal of them were to ever come about. Answering this question has got me thinking though… I reckon the second track, the filth of britain, could be incorporated into my cassette set actually, as it’s quite simple. And the main aspect of it is a field recording. Hmmm…. 

AC: Add that to your list of things to do! 

I wanted to ask you about “the filth of britain” actually. Who is that guy grumbling about Britain? Were you collecting material from jumble sales and car boot sales at that time, as you do now? I also really like the ricocheting clips and tape-rewinds towards the end of crash i come back to it now, I’d be curious what the original found-sound is there.

Andy Rowe: That guy was actually a recording I made myself. I've had a minidisc recorder since about 98 and have collected a lot of personal recordings using it over the years with a little Sony stereo mic. As I remember, it was down in Embankment Gardens here in London. He was sat in one of the deck chairs there when I turned up and sat nearby, just recording the general area. I initially thought he was talking to someone but then realised he was actually on his own and was just talking, engaged in some personal monologue, so he became part of the recording I took. Sometimes I go back through some of those old raw minidisc recordings, they act like a pretty good diary for certain points in my life.

It's interesting that you pick up on those tape rewinds on the 'crash i come back to it now' track. To me they've always sounded obvious, but then I realise it's naive of me to think that other people should get it because they haven't heard the un-manipulated recording. So it shows how my perception of the track, or any track I've made I guess, is always going to be different. It's a tape recording I made of my niece, Amber. She was about six back then I think. She was singing Top of the World by The Carpenters and I recorded her on a Walkman cassette recorder and played it back to her, manipulating the tape as I did so. She thought it was funny and I really liked the way it sounded so I used it in that track later. You'll always hear 'Top of the World' by the Carpenters whenever you listen to that track now. Does that make it better or worse for you? I don't know. I really like the Carpenters song anyway.

AC: What you’re describing there is part of why I find these discussions valuable. There’s often a backstory and a deeper significance to things in the artist’s own head which is not obvious to others but would enhance people’s experience of the work. Most artists seem eager to discuss that and I think yours are very good examples since the context is so vivid.

image by tina rowe

Andy Rowe: I agree, the backstories and ideas that helped to form songs are always an extra little thing that I like finding out about when I'm listening to or experiencing another person's work and so if people care to enquire about where my ideas come from then I'm happy to divulge. It provokes a conversation and can sometimes lead to new ideas forming for either party. It's been satisfying for me to refer back to these pieces on the album and try to recollect how they came to be as some of the ideas I must have been having at the time have been clouded and have changed in the intervening years. 

AC: I’d like to wrap up by asking about your plans for the future. Are there any particularly big or ambitious projects you’d undertake if you ever get the chance, as a “banjo dragger” or otherwise? Or do you just stay the course?

Andy Rowe: It's probably a pipe dream, or a slate pipe dream, but I often think about how the songs on this album could be played live. If the chance arose, and I had the time, then I'd like to get a group of people to at least figure out some ideas of how to play them live. I wouldn't like to just do the laptop thing and click a few samples. Maybe I could get my niece involved to do her Carpenters part again?

Other stuff? Well, as you know I play live solo with a load of cassettes and players of various sizes and that's always developing and changing. I have to rein it in sometimes as it seems to keep growing as I constantly find new players and tapes. I'm also currently working on another project called Floating Arm where I play berimbau, lap steel, vocals and electronics with a saxophone player which we're looking to play out at some stage, maybe exploring a visual aspect too. I'm always into collaborating with people to see what occurs, either with a new project or with them contributing various noises to my Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers stuff.

AC: Sounds amazing Andy, I'll look forward to hearing more. Thanks for talking to me about "seafo od recip es".

Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers can be heard on Bandcamp and on Andy's website

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