In Conversation with…JACK CHESHIRE

Jack Cheshire could be considered proof that in a music industry full of pressure for productivity and races to put out records, taking time over the creative process can have a profound quality that makes it worth it. The Bath-born, psych-folk musician has spent 11 months holed away working on his fourth album ‘Black Light Theatre’, released earlier this month to great critical response. The album, including recent single ‘Join The Dots’, is infused by Cheshire’s literary influences – the likes of David Foster Wallace and Alexei Sayle, and tinged with emotion.

Cheshire’s work is a well-crafted consideration of his influences – the sounds of Television and Can, for example – yet stands out as creatively unique in  its own right. Therefore being given the opportunity to interview Jack following the release and his UK-Wide tour, culminating in a London show at Birthdays, allowed the opportunity for a little more insight into this mysterious musician.

‘Black Light Theatre’ is your fourth album. How would you say your sound has progressed/changed since your first work? Why do you think this is?

My first record ‘Allow It To Come On’ was a home recording, done on a four track in an attic room in Finsbury Park. I borrowed a couple of mics and percussion from friends and made it over a few weeks. It was lo fi minimalist psych folk. At that stage it was very much about the core guitar/vocal parts, and creating arrangements to support them. It was quite insular/introverted music that required a lot of effort from the listener. To be honest I didn’t really pay releasing it any mind, just wanted to get it done.

The next one ‘Copenhagen’, I called in all sorts of favours from various friends. They were very kind to help me out, and work on the album with me, but it meant the process was very drawn out and protracted because they had to prioritise paid work, and could only give it time sporadically. It was the first time I’d recorded with a band, and worked with an engineer. Feel like the album is more expansive, quite dreamy, but certain elements don’t come across; particularly Jon Scott’s drums. Though the recording process was beautiful, the protracted nature of what followed meant that by the time the album was finished I had completely detached from it. It was quite a difficult lesson for me.

‘Long Mind Hotel’ was our first studio album. We recorded at Sawmills over 5 days and nights. Lots of improvised interludes and writing done as we went. It was very much a live album, close mic’ed and unaffected. I feel like it’s the first proper album we made, and the band really came to the fore.

Obviously I’m on a learning curve, with each album the recordings have become more sophisticated and the process has been refined and altered. I’m very lucky to work with the musicians I do (Andrea Di Biase, Jon Scott, David Pearson) and we’ve been playing together for long enough to really understand each others aesthetic, approach and vibe. Working with people long term changed the way I write, because now even when a piece is just an abstract idea, I’m thinking of drum patterns or other parts. The writing process is different as there’s so much more scope to play with things and also imagine what the guys will come up with and leave space for that.

‘Black Light Theatre’ is far more dynamic than previous albums, it’s wide screen psychedelia, outward looking, and much more of a layered complex production. We spent more time over everything; although we were in the studio for exactly a week, the pre/post production was such that everything feels deliberately detailed and thought out. It’s also the first time we’ve worked with a producer (Rob Ellis), and he was a driving force in pushing things further to the edges. I think it has a really lush detailed sound (Peter Deimel is an amazing engineer) & we’re very proud of it.

The album has been 11 months in the making. Has it been a reflective process as well as a creative one?

Off the back of our last album ‘Long Mind Hotel’ we signed with management, and once we’d finished the album cycle, they told me to go away and write a new one. I’d never had that before, had always written incidentally, sporadically whilst life occurred around me. My work gave me a month off and I went and house sat for some friends while they were on holiday. I put myself in complete isolation for a couple of weeks with the intention of finishing a song a day, regardless of how good I thought it was. That was a weird, reflective time. I got into the swing of things eventually, but the first couple of days I really struggled. I suppose during any creative process I experience waves of self-doubt, and in this case in particular, there was this extra pressure of being creative to a deadline.

I think, as a person, I’m quite prone to self reflection. Having time in isolation certainly brought that to the fore, but I was back to London and to work/rehearsals after a few weeks, so it only came in isolated waves.

Every album I’ve made has been a process in which I oscillate between euphoria during the busy creative periods and nihilistic torpor during the limbo that precedes & follows. It’s a strange sensation finishing everything you can and then handing things over to other parties to work on. Suddenly you’re back to your day job, on hold and it’s not your baby anymore. It’s quite weird and frustrating.

I always think of that Samuel Beckett quote;

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Feel like I’m in the process of failing better every time.

It is suggested that ‘Black Light Theatre’ is a more literary-inspired album, influenced by Alexei Sayle and David Foster Wallace, amongst other writers. How have these impacted your work?

I write in a deliberately unthinking way; I have to otherwise the results are invariably terrible. I try and turn off any filters in my mind and allow things to come through. I’m not capable of writing to a brief, or about something overtly. But I read ‘Infinite Jest’ just before I started work on ‘Black Light Theatre’, and it genuinely blew my mind. I felt as though I’d exposed myself to something very significant; I consider it a work of genius and I can’t help but pay homage to that. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, so rich and layered, and such a challenge. I spent the first couple of hundred pages reeling, intrigued but utterly bewildered, and then this incredible narrative emerged and I was spellbound. I feel like, at it’s core, it’s this beautiful distillation of the human condition. Some of the themes resonated with me so much; the notion of success and failure (and how, ultimately, regardless of either most people still feel empty), drugs/gratification/addiction, mental health. I love the way he describes drug experiences (prescription & recreational), in such a nuanced way, so that you’re in this internal labyrinthe with each character. Also, his rich understanding of depression and the way he conveys the complexities of it. I’m not intelligent or eloquent enough to do it justice, but I felt like it was game changer for me in some way, an extraordinary achievement.

I’ve always been a fan of Alexei Sayle, as a child I remember being given this BBC cassette of a hilarious radio 4 comedy show called ‘Lenin of the Rovers’, and I got into him through that. His autobiography ‘Stalin Ate My Homework’ was amazing; funny, candid, humble. He had such an interesting upbringing in Liverpool, such an idiosyncratic way of viewing the world. I got the album title from an anecdote he tells; as a child he is taken on holiday to Czechoslovakia by his parents (Molly and Joe), and I think because they were prominent members of the British Communist party, which the Czech government somehow got wind of, this entourage shows up at their campsite and whisks them off to show them the sights. Amongst other things they’re taken to Prague to see this theatre production where the company employ this technique; BLACK LIGHT THEATRE. Black screen, dimmed lights, actors dressed all in black manipulate fluorescent props under UV lights and it appears magical. What drew me to it is the wonder and awe he experiences the first time round (when he couldn’t see the actors and his disbelief was suspended), which directly correlates to his initial experience of the communist regime, as this wonderful utopian other. Then the reversal, as he goes to see the production again a couple of summers later, as he’s seeing past the positive facade of the state, and seeing a darker more troubling side, so he notices the actors and sees through the trick. It stuck in my mind, felt like this great metaphor for the pay off you get for knowledge and experience.

The art I love provides an unfiltered window into someones mind, can’t help but feel totally inspired by that. Both these books provided that in very different ways, so yes they were great sources of inspiration to me, though whether that comes across to the listener is another matter.

You have chosen to include an instrumental on your album. Do you enjoy instrumental music and is thus a form you could see yourself working with more in the future?

I love instrumental music. When it’s good it’s so immersive. In the right mood/setting you can get lost in it in a different way. It’s as though the lack of language frees your brain to free associate and wander; it’s blissful. Artists I’m particularly into; Augustus Pablo, Alice Coltrane, Boards of Canada, Phillip Glass, Luke Vibert, Aphex Twin, Explosions in the Sky, Jon Hopkins, Brian Eno, Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure….

Some of my all time favourite songwriter records contain instrumentals; like ‘Hunky Dory’ by David Bowie or ‘Rain Dogs’ by Tom Waits. I think in the context of an album with vocals/lyrics, instrumental tracks provide some kind of light relief, almost like a palate cleanser.

I hope I get to make many more records, certainly feel I have them in me. Would love to experiment with instrumentals more; maybe even attempt an album solely like that. Definitely feel instrumental music has great depth and carries just as much weight as songs.

People often talk about the ‘beautiful’ and ‘psychedelic’ qualities of your music. Why do you think this is?

For me music is a transporter, I like to get lost in it, go into some kind of reverie. When I write I like to get into an unthinking state, try and tap into my subconscious in some way. As a band I think we do that collectively, I think it’s quite dreamy and mesmeric. We’re all into psychedelic music, but have quite different aesthetics, which makes our sound a bit more idiosyncratic. When it works, I think we make quite lush hypnotic music.

Is the notion of a ‘Black Light’ theatre a purposeful contradiction and do these contradictions continue in the music?

As I explained above, I learnt about BLACK LIGHT THEATRE through Alexei Sayles autobiography, and it kind of stuck in my head (both the imagery of the technique itself, and also the metaphor that Sayle uses it as). I think my music and lyrics are full of contradictions. I’m into ambiguity, I like for things to be nonsensical, mysterious and strange. I’d like for people to be able to project their own meanings on to the things I write, or maybe not find any meaning at all and think I was full of shit. Maybe I am. I’m just offering a window into my bewildered mind.

I remember seeing an interview with the screen writer Charlie Kaufman after he made ‘Synecdoche New York’ and he talked, amongst other things, about subscribing to the chaos of existence. He said he realised at some point that he was never going to have this epiphany (which he realised he’d secretly expected) where the world suddenly made sense and became ordered and meaningful. His experience of life was as this bewildering and sometimes terrifying mess, and just as he got used to and assimilated one thing, then something else would occur that knocked him sideways. Found that inspiring, thought it was a really brave & insightful thing to say and I’m totally with him on that.

How is touring going and do you have a favourite venue/place you have played so far?

Yes we’re loving touring, just wish we could do it more! It’s been so nice to take take the album around, and meet some really cool people and musicians. I think the highlight for me so far has been the album launch at Birthdays in London. They put on a really cool light show, it was a really vibey night and we had the vinyl to sell for the first time, which made me very happy.

Do you prefer the live experience or studio recording?

I think they’re different mediums, and I like the contrast between them. The challenge of transferring studio stuff to a live set up is really interesting. Definitely not into just trying to recreate the record live, but going for different versions and sounds, playing with it a bit. I like the freedom of playing live; it’s cathartic when it’s good and you’re in the right zone. The key is, for me, focusing on the pleasure of it and having fun, not getting hung up on mistakes or being precious about the sound. When I’m in an audience I love to see performers surrendering to it and just having a ball, that definitely transfers and enhances the experience for me. So that’s what I try and do.

I find studio recording very intense. I LOVE it, like really love it. But as I mentioned earlier, I find I yoyo around a lot when I’m involved in it. I suppose there’s so much scope for being perfectionist. Sometimes you put everything under such a microscope that you can’t even tell what you think about anything anymore. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been mind fucked, and I genuinely don’t know what I feel. But then it’s a very beautiful process, watching something slowly dragged from the ether and then gradually come into sharp detailed focus. Getting the finished record back fills me with so much joy and then in hindsight I realise how much I’ve loved every step.

Recording edges it for me. It’s such a buzz.

What makes your new album distinct in the contemporary field?

I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that. There’s so much good and interesting music out there, I just feel grateful to have been able to make it!

Any upcoming projects/plans for the future you would like to share with us?

Have a new album in the works, feel very excited about it, but it’s a way off yet. Going to start playing electric bass again, after a very long break. I have so many ideas that I want to use for instrumental, more danceable stuff.

Jack Cheshire’s new album ‘Black Light Theatre’ is out now. The album can be purchased digitally or on limited edition gatefold vinyl via Bandcamp.

Find Jack Cheshire on Facebook and Twitter.

Emily Oldfield
Lover of music, poetry and Manchester.

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