Of Henry Cow and Tape Experiments
Interview, Part II by Jason Gross
In the first part of our encounter with guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter/composer Mr. Moore, he talked about his now re-released album Out (Drag City), his early '70's solo albums and the first two wonderfully odd albums he did as a part of Slapp Happy. Moving the story up a bit, we proceeded to discuss the next period in his life and work, which included the band's collaborations with Henry Cow (Desperate Straights and In Praise of Learning, both from 1975) and a look back at his work in tape experiments.
AM: Somewhen between 1972 and 1975... years that became increasingly dark for me - lost the band (Slapp Happy would eventually disintegrate), marriage fell apart painfully, lived in the back of a truck parked on gloomy street, ingesting long lines of rough speed - yuk. Well, I know it's true when they say doing history is a creative act because I've drawn a fine, obscuring mist over those years in which only vague islands of recall float; and never in the right place. I have no clearly remembered timeline of events between '72 and '75. I know we lived near Sligo on the West coast of Ireland at some point, and Max, my son, was born (15th Sept. 1972), and we lived in a house in a field in Norfolk, but the chronology is skewed.
PSF: How did the initial collaboration with Cow on "Desperate Straights" happen? What do you think that the HC members brought to the work that Slapp Happy were doing and did it change your way of working in SH?
AM: as far as I recall, the collaboration with Henry Cow came about rather naturally. Very similar to the first two albums in Germany with members of Faust, Slapp Happy were a trio looking for a rhythm section. And the Cow were stable-mates at our new record company, Virgin. There was a gleeful incestuousness amongst the artists on the roster. In addition, the nature of Slapp Happy's material was also changing. We wanted to shift towards the more experimental. I started writing exclusively at the piano instead of guitar. A song like "Hats" with its whole-tone runs could hardly have arisen from the guitar. I recall we wanted to write shorter, almost miniature, pieces. Dagmar brought a deep feel for the songs of Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht - political, mid-European and disturbing. So, in some sense, we were already on our way towards the politics and music of The Cow. What they brought to the work of SH was advanced musicianship and therefore a more played, less constructed, way of recording songs.
PSF: The song "War" has an interesting history as it started with Straights and wound up on the Learning album and you later re-recorded it. How did it initially come about and could you talk about the different versions of it you did?
AM: "War" is another piano-driven composition where I play with different time signatures and Peter Blegvad fits his amazing lyrics into the changing time-slots. "Tinted turtle green, she haunts the slender submarine; she shakes her gory locks over the deserted docks", pretty damn fine! So, for Slapp Happy, the song was just another part of the new style emerging for Desperate Straights, more experimental, less pop. But eventually, "War" got recorded for In Praise Of Learning because that album needed more Slapp Happy content to balance the collaboration. Finally, I made a new recording on Flying Doesn't Help because I wanted to try for a new version that was more angry with distorted guitars and less theatrical and playful.
PSF: In Praise of Learning seemed to be more collaborative effort with Cow. Did you think the merger worked with balancing the work of the two bands or not? Yes, I actually think we brought something new and interesting to each other. But I also believe it would only ever have been possible for two albums and not as something with any longevity in it. It worked for a moment.
PSF: On Learning, you played electronics and tapes- what led you in that direction?
AM: The 'electronics and tapes' you mention were not a new direction for me. In our previous exchange we covered much around the making of OUT, 1975/76. This time you wanted to ask about the earlier Henry Cow period before moving on to '76 to '96. But "Electronics and Tapes" is an even earlier chapter, from '69 to '72.
In 1969 I met David Larcher and worked on the soundtrack for his film Mare's Tail. This was a huge moment for me because apart from being given carte blanche to do pretty much what I wanted, the job also came with a modest budget. I spent it all on acquiring old, second-hand, tape recorders. This array of machines became an 'orchestra' and the techniques of manipulating magnetic tape was the craft I got totally immersed in; playing with speed/pitch change, running the tape backwards, splicing and looping etc., along with the use of microphones, hydrophones and contact mics fed through electronic equalisers and organic filters, exploiting conductivity through wood, water, metal, playing with 'foley' objects, whatever came to hand, using resonators and making field recordings out in nature, in the city and so on.
Following Mare's Tail in '69/'70, I found myself living in Hamburg. There I met and worked with a cluster of underground movie makers such as Dore O, Rudiger Neumann, Klaus Wyborny, Heinz Emigholz, Hellmuth Costard, Werner Nekes and others... there was a really active film makers cooperative.
So by the time it comes to working with Henry Cow a couple of years later, I had already done at least a dozen experimental movie soundtracks using exactly those tools - 'electronics and tapes.'
This same period also spawned the three Polydor experimental albums already mentioned, and the first two Slapp Happy LP's. It stretched up to '72 when we all moved back to the UK to sign up with Virgin.
PSF: From your perspective, how did the collaboration with Cow come to an end?
AM: All things die. It was exciting and challenging at first, gradually grew grim and depressing, finally collapsed - it was painful but I was set free to move on - both forwards and backwards, of course. Ultimately, it's all about that endless ribbon of ferrous oxide.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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