In Conversation: William Doyle

In Conversation: William Doyle

How English absurdities and Monty Don fuel his terrific new album...

Making room amongst the clutter of guitars, mic stands and amplifiers, William Doyle is busy talking me through his collection of indoor pot plants.

“This isn’t even the half of it,” he says, tilting his webcam in view of the room. “We’ve got a balcony over there which my girlfriend has taken up as a bit of a project. We’ve been growing courgettes, kale, tomatoes, chard and spinach. We’re bit of plant loving household.” Stacked high from floor to ceiling, his spacious living room turned recording studio is a patchwork of leafy green. Vines and creepers perch on top of shelves and audio apparatus whilst Doyle, loosely apologising for the untidiness, sits untroubled in the stereophonic jungle.

It’s in this spot, tucked away in his Hackney apartment, where he’s been riding out the past few months, tying up unfinished music and spending chunks of spare time glued to BBC’s Gardener’s World. Laughing, he defends his soft spot for the show’s iconic, green fingered presenter. “There’s just something about Monty Don that’s a very reassuring presence. I suppose in a time of such turmoil, it’s the sort of thing you look for in people to ground you. Perhaps that’s why this third lockdown’s been so shit. Gardeners World hasn’t been on.”

This somewhat bizarre obsession would go on to provide his new catalogue of music with one its most important contributions. Plucked from the pages of Don’s book, his eloquent definition of depression, 'Great Spans Of Muddy Time' conjured a worthy title for Doyle’s most encompassing project to date. “It’s such a brilliantly economic phrase and just seems to encapsulate so much. It’s poetic and totally abstract, but you completely understand what he means.”

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Still recognised by many as the 21st century’s answer to Berlin-era David Bowie, it’s almost been six years since the once Mercury-nominated electronic prodigy released music under his previous alias, East India Youth. An indefinite hiatus and a long battle with mental illness would follow and whilst 2019’s 'Your Wilderness Revisited' marked a welcome return to form, now releasing music under his own name, Doyle feels rejuvenated by the thrills of a new career chapter.

“It’s almost like I’ve been reset. I’ve had to start from the ground upwards again and I’m okay with that. It’s been a humbling process.” But much has changed, and Doyle has been focusing on new ways to alleviate the pressure that once weighed down on the joy of his work. “These days, I’m not always so blinkered on the current project. In fact, I don’t even know what the current project is a lot of the time until it’s appeared before me.” It’s a process he’s adopted for his imminent, almost totally impromptu new album. “I had no intention of putting any of these songs together when I wrote them. They were just these nebulous things to me.”

As these tracks continued to ricochet without direction in Doyle’s mind, higher powers were already in motion, eventually deeming their fate to be decided not by Doyle, but by an unexpected hard drive failure. With little hope of retrieving the lost ‘works in progress’, a stroke of good fortune meant a few surviving copies had been backed up on an old cassette player. “I’d been running things out of the computer and into a TASCAM 414 tape machine to achieve a more saturated sound, to mess with the pitch control, and generally just transport whatever I was working on into a different realm.” For better or worse, what first seemed like disaster soon opened the door to new revelations as Doyle worked to reconcile his music’s own natural cracks and blemishes.

Doyle doesn’t consider himself to be a perfectionist, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Whereas his vision for 'Your Wilderness Revisited' had taken almost ten years to materialise, 'Great Spans Of Muddy Time' is an album of happy accidents that exercises less of his meticulous compulsions. “It felt liberating. For a long time, I’ve believed that having a concrete concept is the only way to make something of worth. But actually, it can be totally random. This album has taught me to engage with my more immediate side. It feels like the most important lesson that I’ve been able to give myself.”

His newfound taste for impulse even gets reflected in the cover art where after weeks spent on the lookout for something indicative of the album’s patchwork track list, a last-ditch effort unearthed an unlikely candidate, albeit less abstract than Doyle might’ve first imagined. “I really love birds, especially the Egyptian goose. There’s some that live in the pond over the road from me in Victoria Park. They have something about them that I feel a great affinity with.”

Plucked from the archives of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, nestled amongst Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s colourful scene of water birds, the Egyptian Goose’s ringed gaze was enough to spark a visceral response in Doyle. “It mirrored the way the album came together. I’d been trying to make something more composed, perhaps in a similar vein to 'Your Wilderness Revisited'. But in my pursuit, I’d ended up with something completely different. Stumbling upon the cover like that just sort of made sense to me.”

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Although quick to rule out any semblance of a protagonist, Doyle’s scrupulously worded description of an “Englishman-gone-mad, scrambling around the verdancy of the country’s pastures” paints a vivid backdrop. His ability to translate the quirks and ramblings of Lynchian British culture feels emblematic of his work. Whereas 'Your Wilderness Revisited' uprooted the secrets of rural English suburbia, 'Great Spans Of Muddy Time' is by no means as plainly spoken, yet still possessive of its innately Anglican ideas.

He explains, “if you think of Robert Wyatt, Robyn Hitchcock or Syd Barrett, they all seem to evoke a similar psychic landscape. It all tends to be quite absurdist. To me, that eccentricity feels strangely stereotypical of England. It’s that kind of weird, absurdist part of Englishness that I like.”

In many ways, this is a career first for Doyle. He’s having fun and by all means surprised to be enjoying himself. Free from the burden of obsession, there’s an unmistakable spring in his step as he runs me through the track list. “It’s got to be one of the most playful songs I’ve ever written,” he says reminiscing over the pulsating static of ‘Semi-Bionic’. “I guess it’s a love song to yourself if you were living with semi-bionic limbs or maybe even an envisagement of the future. It could be some realist song written thirty years before its time when semi-bionic limbs might just be a problem that everyone has to contend with.”

Conscious of his almost childlike excitement for the insurmountable possibilities, he collects himself. “It’s the same as people saying, ‘I’m really influenced by the everyday’. I’m being influenced by the everyday, just in 2050.”

These off the wall attitudes to pop music seem to spill endlessly from Doyle and though he continues to deny the presence of some deeper undercurrent, it remains easy to make your own conclusions. “Ironically, I had difficulty writing the words to this,” he says nodding at ‘Nothing At All’. “It’s a song about trying to communicate something under pressure, but you’ve jumbled your words and you’re failing to grasp the root meaning of what you’re trying to say.”

Whether obvious to Doyle or not, it’s a headache all too resembling of his own experience being overwhelmed by the grandeur of his work. He explains this was by no means the intention, but concedes to agree, “when you use too many flowery words to try and substantiate a point, sometimes all that needs to be said is fundamental and brief. I guess, in many ways that was the case for this record. Had I tried to embellish it, the emotional part wouldn’t have felt so present.”

It seems incredulous that even Doyle himself is unsure of the context and is still stuck trying to figure out the true purpose of his invention. But you’d be mistaken to believe that it bothers him. “Maybe there is a unifying thread to this record that I’m not aware of and we’re going to figure it out together. It feels good to relinquish control over something and just allow it to be an imperfect thought. It might end up being nearer the thing you set out to achieve in the first place.”

Both in music and life itself, everything doesn’t always need to make complete, unambiguous sense. Sometimes only the faintest wisp of instinct is all we need to go on. No principle seems more important to Doyle as this profound sense of clarity begins to eclipse within the album’s unofficial title track, ‘Theme From Muddy Time’. Carried by the briny ebb and flow that often comes with mental illness, for the first time, he feels afloat of the murky backwaters that once submerged his mind.

Softly, he says, “I have started to understand something that before felt so knotty and impenetrable. It’s okay not to know exactly what something’s about. It’s fine to just express it in some way and try to externalise something that might feel locked up inside of you.”

Though still deciphering how best to come to terms with these moments, the sudden spring of a pandemic has provided Doyle with some unlikely perspective; a message we’d all do well to take heed of. “Over the past year, we’ve all endured this seismic shock that’s taught us life is more unpredictable than we’d ever realised. The best thing we can do is find beauty and contentedness in these moments and live by those principles rather than some fictitious idea of stability or perfection.”

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'Great Spans Of Muddy Time' will be released on Tough Love Records.

Words: Oliver Rankine

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