Perhaps the most lauded producer still at work in British music, an album of poetry set to music is hardly what Brian Eno was expected to produce in 2011. After all, what was the grand concept, the pushing and pulling of boundaries? But yet ‘Drums Between The Bells’ retains his questing spirit – by no means perfect, it’s collection of powerful, probing tracks often seem like a starting point, a launching pad for future progression.
It’s been a long time coming. Brian Eno first met Rick Holland – whose words ripple through ‘Drums Between The Bells’ – over a decade ago. Holland was already earning a reputation as a promising poet, and was working on a music related project when the pair met.
Exchanging numbers, then ideas the pair worked haphazardly on material for a few years until the impetus for an album grew. Collected into one document, the coherency of ‘Drums Between The Bells’ belies the vagrancy of its production. “It’s quite easy to waffle and sound pretentious when talking about this but every single track was a different organism. They all happened differently – very differently” Rick Holland explains. “The main pattern was that I would go in with some words I had been working on and we would lay down a vocal, either with a vocalist or one of us. Then he would build a track around it. Occasionally he would have some music that he was working on and I would write something around that.”
The flexible nature of the collaboration meant that ideas and discussions could stretch beyond any deadlines. “Sometimes I wasn’t there at all. If we were abroad or in different parts of the country I would send him stuff and he would do the initial work on it” says Holland. “There was even an occasion when I left him a whole pile of notes in his studio, forgot all about it and then about two and a half years later he sent me something through. He just picked something from the booklet I had left and that resulted in ‘Bless This Space’. I had nothing whatsoever to do with ‘Bless This Space’ other than writing the words at the very start.”
Blurring the edges of poetry and music, ‘Drums Between The Bells’ seems to suggest that, in essence, songcraft is poetry and poetry songcraft. Certainly there is an innate musicality to the words on display, something which Rick Holland is naturally conscious of. “My route into poetry was inspired by things that wouldn’t traditionally be thought of as poetry such as MC culture and hip hop. I didn’t grow out of studying poetry on the page entirely, it was a mixture of different things” he says. “I think any poet, no matter what type they’re writing, they are always interested in the sound of words and what happens in-between – the silences, the rhythms. That’s kind of what makes poetry interesting in whatever form you like it, whether that is Romantic poetry or the Wu Tang Clan. I think you can’t be a poet and not be interested in those things on some level.”
Yet on the new album the nature of the performance becomes almost as important as the words themselves. The voice is more than a vessel for the written word: in ‘Drums Between The Bells’ it becomes an integral instrument. “The voices sometimes happened by accident, completely. ‘The Real’ features a young girl who just turned up at Brian’s studio while we were working. It was that random” he says. “As a general rule Brian was kind of bringing voices into the studio. Mainly from London. The voices on the album ended up as a mixture of West London, well spoken kind of a voice – generally female – and then the more scientific side of it is that Brian is into non-English speakers. Just because they had different intonations and would mess their words around a bit. So he collected 90% of the voices on the album or they were just close by and sounded interesting.”
As a studio document, the new album opens up the question of using multiple takes or even different voices to conjure different meanings. “There’s a track on the album called ‘Fierce Piles Of Light’ which actually has four different voices on it. We had a go with lots of different combinations of voices to make it. There’s a track which is not on the album but might appear on some format at some time we originally read by Brian, but we got an actress from Northern Ireland with a beautiful voice to do the final version. There was less of that sort of thing than you might expect actually. We tended to stick with the first voice, and that reading became a component of the track.”
Famed for his inventive prompts for the creative mind, Brian Eno has a strange effect on anyone drawn into his orbit. Throughout his career the producer has honed a need for collaboration, whether that is with Bryan Ferry, David Byrne or Coldplay. With his vast experience in tow, the producer has a definite affect on Rick Holland’s view of the creative process. “The first kind of major revelation to me was that the reading was more than an entity in itself, it was a collection of things which could then be made into something different” he explains. “Some of the voices, I guess my kind of instincts or prejudices meant that some of the voices I wouldn’t have liked just as voices reading a poem. Not in this context. My natural instinct was to flinch a little at them. I learned through this that some voices have a lot of potential and when added to certain sounds can add to the meaning rather than detract from it. I was manoeuvred into a place that I didn’t know very well but I was happy to do it.”
The studio process also had an impact on the evolution of Holland’s contributions. “I never found myself with an accent in mind but I did find myself writing with how we were to go about recording in mind. So I found myself writing using far fewer words – that doesn’t sound very intelligent!” he laughs. “I found myself writing in a different style, allowing more space for the manipulation of sound. It was less me telling a story and more about leaving a few images hanging in the atmosphere. I think as I got more into I began writing more like that.”
Currently plotting a new collection as well as more music oriented projects, Rick Holland is clearly in no mood to rest. Open to live shows (“I wouldn’t count it out”) as well as remixes and future Eno collaborations, the writer has clearly been energised by the project. Yet the scale of ‘Drums Between The Bells’ – sixteen tracks in all – is matched by its lengthy gestation. Brought together as an album piece, its creators are only now beginning to appreciate it. “I’ve never had an experience before of working like this. We had a lot of pieces in varying levels of completion. We were working for such a long period of time, so some pieces that are on the record were written when I was really young. It’s not really a unified being” the poet admits. “There is a thread running through it but at no point did we want it to be a conceptual album, or have a story going through it. Essentially, these are experiments which share similar characteristics. We both agree that the best way to listen to this is in a shuffle mode. Equally the best way to listen to it is when you are doing something else so you can let ideas grab you, let feelings grab you.”
“We tried lots of different orders for the album and we did come to the conclusion that the best way to listen to them was on a shuffle mode” he finishes. “It does take a certain type of listening to get a lot out of the album I think. I’m coming back to the album after taking time off and it takes a certain kind of investment to be rewarded by it, I think. I’m doing a lot of driving at the moment and I find it works well with that. If I’m doing something else, like writing or drawing. Brian thinks it’s good to wash up to as well.”
‘Drums Between The Bells’ is out now.