Just Reflecting: Maps Interviewed
We are in James Chapman’s kitchen talking about his recently-purchased SodaStream machine. He talks with the same even-handed enthusiasm for this bit of reimagined retro kitchen equipment as he does his first guitar or any one of the synths he’s currently got set up in his lounge ahead of the Maps live shows he’ll be doing in June and July.
I gush, with something bordering on a similar but altogether more embarrassing level of zeal, that I haven’t drunk anything from a SodaStream machine since I was a kid, where the affluent family of one of my best friends was among the first to own one; I also remember our local Safeway’s seemingly endless range of syrups to go with the machine, all placed neatly on top of freezer cabinets that seemed to run all the way to the horizon in my recollection.
Chapman smiles at the way his simple offer of some sparkling water prompts this outpouring of previously locked-up memories on my part. Maybe that’s because his new Maps album, ‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’ is deeply concerned with memories – his own, those he has imagined, each and every one obfuscated, veiled or abstracted. “That was one of the big themes of the album – how much of us as we are today comes from our memories,” he confirms. “It’s also about looking at how memories change over time. Everyone has a different perception of different times in their lives.”
Listening to ‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’, you find yourself thinking about things you’ve either cherished or buried under the layers of passing time, even though a song isn’t remotely connected to those recollections. That playing with mood is one aspect of Chapman’s new album; the other is a bold transformation of the Maps sound that sends his music in a completely new direction – with strings, live drums and additional vocalists – one that was completely unanticipated on 2013’s stunning ‘Vicissitude’.
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When Maps first arrived with 2005’s ‘Start Something’ single, much was made of the fact that James Chapman was a ‘bedroom musician’, literally creating music at home, by himself, a world away from the ordinary trappings of the music industry. On the one hand the phrase is complimentary; on the other it sounds vaguely scornful, as if the method of creating the music outside the traditional environs of a studio requires some sort of qualifying prefix to separate it from ‘proper’ music.
However, had you not known the backstory of where Chapman recorded his first tracks and his 2007 debut album, ‘We Can Create’, you’d probably be none the wiser: his music fully transcended that ‘bedroom’ tag, offering a refreshing perspective on electronic music with a sense of breadth and affecting emotional grandeur that surpassed most things realised in a ‘proper’ studio.
Since those fateful early Maps releases, much has changed: the bedroom tag is largely superfluous, since a whole strata of electronic musicians and producers are uploading brilliantly-executed synth-based tracks created at home or on their commute to work on the bus every day, and the requirement to haul yourself into a studio to create something is increasingly redundant.
Chapman still works at home, from a bedroom set-up overlooking the Northamptonshire countryside but there’s no bed, so it arguably can’t be called a bedroom. Even his new Maps album was assembled here, despite its collaborations, its engagement with the classical firmament and its much more expansive presentation.
Choosing the name Maps, rather than his given name, gave his music a specific and telling resonance, even if it was entirely from a personal perspective. “It was me exploring and going on a journey through my music,” he explains, before conceding that the purity of his alias was somewhat ruined by the advent of Google Maps. Untrammelled by that annoyance, that journeying quality has existed as a constant throughout Chapman’s music, from his short-lived, pre-Maps music as Short Break Operator right through to ‘Vicissitude’.
‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’ feels like where that journeying was leading to all along. “I guess it’s that clichéd thing about the album that you always wanted to make,” he laughs, “but in a way I think it is. I think, with this album, I’ve just pushed further than I thought I could’ve gone in the past. I’ve always dreamed of working with orchestral musicians. At the same time, I think all the other albums led to this one. It’s just another part of that journey, but to me, it does feel like I’ve achieved what I was shooting for.”
One of the biggest surprises of the new Maps album is actually not the use of a chamber orchestra, but that Chapman collaborated with anyone at all. “That makes me sound like Howard Hughes or something!” he protests, before admitting that he has always seen his music as a personal endeavour, and not one where its creation could be shared with anyone else. It’s not extreme control-freakery on Chapman’s part; just a difficulty figuring out how to communicate – and then let others participate in – the idiosyncratic vision he has for his music.
That all changed with 2016’s collaboration with Mute labelmate Polly Scattergood for their onDeadWaves album. “That was really the first time I’d worked with someone else as a partnership. Polly had worked with other people before, so it was just me that wasn’t used to it,” he laughs. “onDeadWaves was a totally new process for me. It was the first time I’d received someone else’s ideas, because I’d always just sat on my own and battled it out in my own head before. All of a sudden you’ve got someone sitting next to you.”
“I think it took a while for me to get on the same page as Polly, but we then tried a few things and after a while you could tell the sound was developing. That turned out to be a good experience for me, and that definitely opened me up to that idea of working with other people, and that led into the new album.”
The result was an eponymous album that was umbilically linked to its two creators, but which seemed to encourage both Polly Scattergood and James Chapman into new sonic areas and new ways of approaching the music they both create. It was during the onDeadWaves sessions that Chapman began noting down the ideas for the songs that appear on ‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’
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Even so, nothing about the onDeadWaves project – aside from it being the first time that Chapman had worked closely with someone else and perhaps being emboldened about taking musical risks – provided any giveaway clues to the orchestral textures and full sound of the new Maps album. “With this album it was a case of pushing as far as I could with my ideas, and if I got kicked back, then just trying something else,” he says. “There’s a freedom to that: just trying new things and working in ways that I’d never worked before. And I was trying to get more of a human record, so I thought it made sense to get more humans involved.”
With the bulk of the songs written electronically by himself, in his bedroom/not-bedroom just like he would realise any other Maps record, Chapman then created scores for strings that were performed by the Brussels-based Echo Collective, most recently heard breathing new life into Radiohead’s landmark ‘Amnesiac’ LP and offering a completely different perspective on Erasure’s ‘World Be Gone’.
In writing for strings, Chapman found himself tapping back into his primary school music lessons. “I was that kid at school who carried the violin to school for lessons. At the time, you don’t appreciate that you’re learning a skill, but years later it really helped, because it gives you an understanding of music and theory and stuff like that.”
“I played violin on ‘We Can Create’, on the track ‘Lost My Soul’, but even so, I was going into territory I’d never been in when I was writing the parts for Echo Collective,” he says, with what might be a slight shudder. “I was so relieved when they sat down with me and the notes they played were actually what I’d written, because there was still this voice screaming ‘Is it going to work?’ at me, right up until that moment. They’re all such good musicians, they’re classically-trained, very talented players, and that could have been quite intimidating.”
Strangely, considering he was operating in completely new territory, that initial panic seemed to be the only time Chapman questioned himself in the whole process of recording the record. Talking to him about it, he simply impresses on you that once he’d overcome some initial trepidation, he was left with a real ambition to keep going, to make this album as full as he possibly could.
So much so that his original plan of just using Echo Collective on a select few tracks was swiftly abandoned and, thanks to the help of PRS funding, he was able to take a second trip to Brussels to ensure that the whole album received the Echo Collective treatment.
Returning to rural Northamptonshire, Chapman assembled the recordings made with Echo Collective, adding those to his original electronic architecture and reworking the two strands together. As complete as those tracks might have sounded to you or Me, for Chapman they still weren’t finished. “My mantra throughout was, ‘It sounds big, but is it big enough?” he laughs. He concluded that they weren’t yet large enough.
To build the tracks up even further, Chapman enlisted the help of Matt Kelly, who had played drums with onDeadWaves for their live shows, overlaying real kitwork and percussion on Chapman’s original electronic rhythms at a studio in Hackney. Chapman’s need for a greater scale to the Maps sound rubbed off on Kelly.
“I mentioned about kettle drums and timpani, and one day Matt just rang me up out of the blue and went, ‘I just bought a timp! I’m just going to collect it.’ He’d got this timpani off eBay. We’re going to use it on the live shows as well. It’s insane, because it means you literally can’t fit things in the car, but Matt’s really gone for it on this record.”
To complete the line-up of collaborators on ‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’ are three singers – Cecilia Fage from Cobalt Chapel, Jennifer Pague from Vita And The Woolf and Rachel Kenedy from Flowers. The addition of other voices alongside Chapman’s own quiet, fragile, mesmerising one simultaneously gives tracks like ‘Surveil’ (featuring Fage) and ‘New Star’ (with Kenedy) both a grandeur and tender ephemerality.
“I really wanted to push the harmonies, and just build it up as much as I could,” explains Chapman. “I felt that with the last album the vocals were too sparse in places. For this album I wanted to really build up the vocal layers.”
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The album’s layers draw a neat parallel with Brian Wilson’s own venture into the bold unknown with The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’, an album that Chapman readily acknowledges as an influence on ‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’, but not in the album’s densely-packed sound. “I was really trying to create a feeling of innocence in the songs,” he explains. “‘Pet Sounds’ has a sense of wonder, an untouched joy, and that was what I was going for with the music on this album.”
A song that perfectly encapsulates that ambition is the tender ‘She Sang To Me’, delivered from the perspective of a mother above her baby’s cot. “It’s about looking back to how you felt as a child,” he says. “I’m not sure if that’s true of every childhood, but my memories are just of that amazing sense of wonder and adventure.” After, Chapman shows me a diary he wrote at school as a child, each illustrated page describing quotidian events – violin lessons, going to school, feeding a pet – with exactly that sense of wide-eyed enthusiasm for the world he was growing up in.
The album’s most euphoric point comes with ‘Just Reflecting’, a song that I’ve concluded will be played at my funeral. “That would be an epic funeral,” muses Chapman. “But maybe slightly morbid? It is really uplifting and kind of joyous, but there is a reflective dimension to it, as if you’re looking back at something that’s happened but with a sense of closure. I love that feeling that it doesn’t matter anymore: whatever’s happened has happened.”
Other tracks are perhaps less straightforward for the listener to understand. A key moment on the LP is the electronics-heavy ‘Sophia’, whose opening line ‘Everyday just seems to fade to silence,’ is one of Chapman’s most precisely evocative, pensive yet simple lyrics. I tell him that when I hear that track that it feels like all hope has gone, embodying a sense of despair and irreversibility simply because of that opening line. He tells me I’m wrong; or if not wrong, then that I’m hearing something he didn’t consciously put into the track.
“For me, that’s the most uplifting song on the album, musically,” he says. “There’s themes of negative behaviours and going back to the same bad thing over and over, even though you’re trying not to, but I really feel like there’s a lot of hope in there as well. At the same time, how you’ve described what it means to you, is what makes what I do just so rewarding. Lyrics are very subjective, and I’ve always enjoyed what they mean to other people. I know my lyrics can be quite abstract. They’re not always about a specific time or a specific thing.”
If the effect of Chapman’s lyrics isn’t especially intended, one persistent quality in his music – in ‘Sophia’, in the sudden left turns that occur on ‘Wildfire’ and ‘Howl Around’ – is a sensation akin to the ground suddenly dropping out from your feet, or a dismaying, dizzying feeling like you might pass out because your emotions find themselves running so high. That, Chapman admits, is entirely intentional.
“I used to call it the shiver test,” he says, with a grin. “It’s when you listen to a song and it gives you goosebumps, and that’s when you know you’ve nailed it. I don’t know how other people do it, but for me songs have always felt a bit like puzzles. There’s always a point where it just slots into place and it gives you that shivery, goosebumps feeling, and that might take days or weeks. That’s why I love doing it. Every song has its own different journey, and that’s what makes the process really exciting.”
To call ‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’ an epic album would be stating the obvious. It is a record overflowing with emotional energy, an imprecise, imperceptible, elusive, constantly-shifting series of moods where each and every track aces Chapman’s shiver test. It is a record that has taken Chapman from the insularity of the bedroom studio to the rarefied settings of the European classical tradition and back again. Just like ‘Pet Sounds’, this is a record that buries itself deep into your soul, and one that will more than likely stay with you forever.
This might well have been where Chapman foresaw Maps getting to all along, but it’s an album that suggests this humble, quiet individual has plenty more journeying still to do.
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‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.’ is out now.
Words: Mat Smith // @MJASmith
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