Late November 2012 and the Sheffield to Norwich hotline was very hot indeed:
“Jarrod, I really like mix 324 of EIS, but maybe the synth could be a little lower at 2.16 and the guitar slightly louder at the 6.33 tempo shift. Also, how about some Mellotron flute overdubs from the five minute point onwards. A Welsh male voice choir and a completely different drum sound could also work, I think.”
Clearly, the longest gestating album in music history was still struggling to get out of development hell.
Some things work immediately, while others take time to feel complete. In the case of Henry Fool‘s second album, it took 11 years of writing, improvising, procrastinating and mixing to reach a point where we were finally happy to release some of what we’d been up to since 2001. Yes indeed, in pursuit of its second release, Henry Fool unwittingly hit Scott Walker / Kate Bush levels of perfectionism/indecision/indolence (delete where applicable).
Two thirds of the way through making a predominantly song-based album (Henry Fool Album 2, Take 6, to be precise), Stephen Bennett – my main HF collaborator – resurrected some recordings from a two day live in the studio session from late 2006 (Henry Fool Album 2, Take 3 for the fact lovers amongst you).
Like a man possessed – by a 40 year old glitter cape and a 30 year old Keytar, I suspect – Stephen overdubbed some synth parts to show how the material might potentially develop. Although I was happy with what we were working on and the individual songs were sounding good, for some reason the material wasn’t gelling as a whole in a way that the older music was. It struck me that in Album 2, Take 3 we had the basis of a more coherent and dynamic album than the one we were working on. Like a man possessed – by the spirit of a dead tinpot dictator, probably – I announced the birth of Album 2, Take 7.
At the time we recorded it, we felt that the 2006 session music would make for a very strong successor to the instrumental aspect of Henry Fool’s debut album. The performances and writing seemed more fully realised and more intricate in terms of their shifts of mood, texture and ideas.
Where the instrumentals on the first album tended to dwell on one riff or atmosphere, the new pieces went in multiple directions without sacrificing coherence. Our formerly two to five minute instrumental excursions were now hitting the 30 minute mark and both the music and the musicians seemed to be in a constant state of discovery. Andrew Booker proved an inspired choice of replacement drummer and the two Michaels, Bearpark and Clifford, were on superb form throughout.
The problem was that there was just too much music for us to deal with. Using a combination of previously composed riffs and chord progressions alongside collective improvisation, we’d come up with around five album’s worth of potentially usable material. However enjoyable the experience was and however good the pieces were, faced with listening to several hours of not so easy listening that needed editing, re-shaping and adding to, we ran to the exit as quickly as we could (in 25/8 time, naturally).
Stephen – who eventually did do something with the material – toyed with the idea of editing the session as did Doctor Bearpark and Lord Chilvers. Intentions were good and computer screens were looked at, but the sheer volume of work required meant that nothing happened beyond a bit of wild-eyed staring at the bass drum stem.
The only part of the session to see release was featured on the Memories Of Machines song Schoolyard Ghosts. The piece had started as an instrumental composition of mine that I’d asked the Henry Fool band to play through. I edited the results and subsequently wrote a melody and lyrics. After being rejected by no-man – eventually providing the musical source material for most of Mixtaped – the song was subject to overdubs and remixing and became a part of the Warm Winter album. With its combination of descriptive narrative and wistful emotions, it remains a favourite piece of mine.
By Summer 2012 , Stephen and I had narrowed the options down to five pieces and we’d set to work on a comprehensive overhaul of Album 2, Take 3. After restructuring and overdubbing aplenty (something that took a lot longer than the original sessions), a very coherent four track album started to emerge, along with one pretty decent 17 minute outtake. Things were sounding very good, but it still felt like something else might be needed.
Playing one of the unreleased works in progress on Steve Davis‘s radio show in August, the Magma loving snooker legend perceptively commented that it reminded him of Phil Manzanera‘s rather fine 1970s Jazz/Prog outfit Quiet Sun. I immediately knew what he meant. Combining instrumental Rock with elements of Prog, Jazz, electronic loops and Minimalism, and composition with improvisation, there was something about Henry Fool 2 that echoed aspects of the band’s solitary 1975 release, Mainstream.
Sensing that his unique guitar voice would add something to the music, Stephen and I sent the album files to Phil Manzanera. Phil liked what he heard and contributed parts for two of the album’s pieces. Adding some lovely loops, melodic counterpoints and crunching lead sounds, Phil nicely enhanced what was already there and was particularly effective in working with the existing guitar parts laid down by Michael Bearpark (predominantly solo lines) and me (predominantly chord patterns and arpeggios).
Phase three completed, the next step was finding a suitable mixing engineer.
In June, I’d received a demo of an album by a project called Regal Worm. Rich in harmony and imaginative arrangements, the music distinctively suggested bits of Hatfield & The North, Zappa, The Orb, Magma, The Ray Conniff Singers and the more Psychedelic end of contemporary Electronica. Feeling it fitted the Esoteric label more than Burning Shed, I recommended it to Mark Powell, who liked it as much as I did and subsequently signed the project. Feeling a kinship with its creator, it felt like only a matter of time before we worked on something together.
The first move came from Jarrod, the Regal Worm/I Monster maverick himself. I contributed a vocal to a haunting Regal Worm track and within the week Jarrod was adding Mellotrons and glockenspiels galore to the Henry Fool album, which he was also mixing and designing the artwork for. Bish Bosch as Uncle Scott would say.
Gaining another sympathetic perspective on the material helped immeasurably and despite an unusually high number of mixes – mainly due to the complex and elongated nature of the material – from this point on things progressed smoothly with the shape and sound of the album becoming more focused and complete.
So complete in fact that an end result was finally in sight (and actually reached). Retitled Men Singing, Album 2, Take 7 it was then.
Listen to “Men Singing album sampler (Everyone In Sweden part 1, Everyone In Sweden Part 5, Chic Hippo part 1)“
It’s early December 2012 and the Sheffield to Norwich hotline is finally silent. No more Play Your Cards Right (“Lower, higher….”) requests are being made and the Brazilian tap-dancing team additions have sensibly been put on hold.
It’s nice to realise at this stage in my career that I can be a part of something so different from anything else I’ve released before. Both in terms of its playfully creative artwork and its musical content, Men Singing stands apart from the rest of my catalogue. Where it can be compared to previous work, perhaps, is in its attention to arrangement detail, its intentional LP length and its traditional album structuring.
The songs that were scheduled for a second Henry Fool album are still being worked on and many of the instrumentals written since 2001 are also being mixed and considered for site, EP or bonus track use.
After an unexpected 11 year gap between releases, it might be too much to expect 11 albums over the next year, but who knows. A Scott Walker to Bill Nelson transformation could be in the offing!
Appendix 1 – Shut Up And Play Your Guitar:
It’s been tremendous fun to be mainly a guitarist in the context of Henry Fool.
On the self-titled first album, released in 2001, a lot of the music came out of guitar ideas and chord progressions I’d written. None of which seemed suitable for no-man or other projects I was working with. Stephen Bennett, who also contributed a lot of the music, was incredibly generous in helping me to more fully realise my compositions; adding finesse to my raw concepts and playing. Between us we beat the album into an interesting shape and produced something I still feel pleased with today.
Playing with the Fool is amongst the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done musically. My guitar playing brings out influences and moods rarely, if ever, touched on in other projects I’m involved with. In some ways, although its music is more genre specific than say Slow Electric, Henry Fool’s dynamic range and emotional shifts are far greater and there’s a thrilling unpredictability about the band’s music.
The other liberating advantage is that I can listen to Henry Fool in a different way from most other things I create/co-create. As a vocalist, I’m constantly conscious of my strengths/limitations/character, while as a guitarist – which I don’t consider myself to be and often forget I am – I can listen to the music as if I’m not a part of it.
As a vocalist, for better or worse, my identity strongly defines whatever I contribute to; as a guitarist, I’m a more versatile part of a collective experience.
Appendix 2 – Some Background:
Henry Fool was born out of coffee shop conversations in the late 1990s.
Although there’s a recognisable identity and a consistent emotional quality to its music, no-man – like most other things I do – has always seemed to me a band that instinctively evolves with the people involved in it and the times surrounding the making of its music. As I hope the differences between Flowermouth, Returning Jesus and Schoolyard Ghosts demonstrate, the band is a constant contemporary work in progress. Henry Fool, by contrast, started life as a project with a very definite agenda and a consciously limited set of period specific influences.
Along with other friends, Stephen Bennett and I would often discuss what it was that excited us about music when we were growing up.
Although we both had very diverse tastes, we had an enduring affection for the ambition and creative explosion of the late 1960s and 1970s Underground music scene which, amongst other things, produced Progressive Rock, Cosmic Soul, Jazz Rock, Minimalism, Folk Rock, Krautrock and the singer-songwriter boom.
Out of these genres, the most critically reviled was Progressive Rock. In the late 1990s, the music received little attention in print or on the radio and the media view – when offered – was mostly unquestioningly negative. For us, what the press wrote about the music and what much of the music actually was possessed few similarities.
Regarded as humourless, overly technical, unemotional, pompous, lacking ‘roots’, fantasy obsessed, unexciting, overloaded with solos and, crucially, pretentious, our feeling was that the music itself was rarely any of those things. It would be tedious to list the many exceptions to the prevalent criticisms of the genre, but one listen to Dark Side Of The Moon, The Rotter’s Club, Trespass, Pawn Hearts, Stand Up or Larks’ Tongues should dispel much of the received wisdom.
Post-Punk, a type of music I also loved, was rarely chastised for its even more apparent seriousness, affected mannerisms and over-reaching sense of sonic and conceptual ambition (none of those essentially bad things, as I hope David Bowie – who once suggested he’d like to set up ‘schools of pretension’ – would agree).
The first Henry Fool album was created as a means of both reflecting our fondness for Progressive Rock and also showing that it could be a music more about ideas and emotion than technique. When the likes of Genesis, Yes, VDGG, Soft Machine, Jethro Tull and King Crimson created their early albums they were working without templates and making up the rules as they went along. With HF 1 we wanted to convey this joy of often accidental discovery as opposed to aping the genre cliches that had become somewhat set by the late 1970s.
With less reference to things outside itself and no desire to prove a point or evoke a particular era, Henry Fool’s second album has been more about allowing what was good about the instrumental side of the band’s debut to naturally evolve a stage or two further.
Tim Bowness January 2013