1BTN spoke to the maverick Scottish composer ahead of her UK tour.
You’re playing Brighton on the 10th of February, the last date of your uk tour. Are you excited about performing the FIBS material live?
Yeah, it’s great, after tons of time spent behind the scenes, writing it and recording it, getting out there to play, it is an amazing pay-off to that whole process. I’m really excited.
Any trepidation? Is it all worked out?
Well, we start rehearsals next week so it shouldn’t be the case. Some of the music’s pretty hard, so there’s always that to figure out, it’s technically pretty difficult to play, but I’m pretty excited. Some of the tunes we haven’t done yet, so it’s always fun getting them together and figuring out the arrangements with the band. I’m mostly just looking forward to it, the trepidation might kick in later!
You say of fibs; they are “lies – but nice friendly lies, little stories and constructions and daydreams and narratives that you make for yourself or you tell yourself”…
I think it might be a British thing. I think there might not be an equivalent word in other languages – this idea of a bad good thing or a good bad thing. Something we do all the time, like “I’m nearly there” or “Sorry I didn’t see you’d called”, things that ease our way through life. I’d always really liked it as a word, I like this grey area that it occupies, not being one thing or the other. It sorta ties in with the music not being one thing or another, it being its own construct, without being too pretentious. I think, I hope, this music fits in its own landscape, so even if it’s pretty varied within itself, even if there is vocal stuff and instrumental stuff, loud things and quiet things, to me they all are part of the same world. That’s why I think it vaguely tied in for me! I’ve really made that sound more weighty than it needed to be.
It’s taken a while to follow up Varmints. Is that because you’ve had so much other stuff going on? Or was it difficult to finance?
A bit of both. It’s just the time – it’s really hard to emphasise enough how long it takes to make an album, in terms of money, time and effort and lots and lots of people. It really is something I had no idea about until I started making these releases. It’s not, for me, something I can trot out in a couple of weeks. It’s months and months of work and I didn’t have that clear space – with the Eighth Grade soundtrack and I did a piece for The Proms in 2018, and all this other stuff kept getting in the way, things I really wanted to do, and so it meant I had to find a time when I could just clear a space, just say no to everything that was coming in for the best part of a year to make it.
I saw you in 2016 at End of the Road festival, is it the same band, or some of the same musicians?
Yes. That particular festival I can’t remember, maybe we had a dep in for that, but it’s basically the same. I’ve been lucky enough to have the same guys that I’ve been playing with for a few years now, the same line up of cello, tuba, drums, electric guitar and then I’m doing clarinet and electronics and bits of drums, and we all sing badly!
Are there any particular challenges to presenting your music in a live performance?
It is pretty … there’s lots of notes! It’s quite demanding to play, quite tiring, and there’s complicated things where we have to have multiple click tracks – people have to hear different time signatures in their ears. There’s quite a lot of technical stuff to work out to help us do it in time, there’s those kind of things …. It does mean there’s a lot of outputs so we can’t play in certain venues because there’s not enough inputs on the board and the desk. That sort of stuff. It’s not the most straightforward set up in the world. Also I have a very quiet singing voice so there’s all this very loud dense music and then this five year old’s voice!
How long will you spend rehearsing to get the material ready to play live?
We’ve been doing it a track at a time, and of course everyone else in the band is from a classical background as well so we all read music, that means we can send out sheet music and people are hopefully rehearsing as we speak. Some of it takes a while, some of it we get in a couple of sessions and other stuff takes a lot of private practice, which I need to do probably more than anyone else if I’m honest.
Do the live versions end up significantly different than the stuff on the records?
Yeah, I’m rethinking, going through each track. You have to make space for the instruments in the live stuff, adjusting the electronics and changing some of the structures a bit. You can let a few things extend, so you can wallow indulgently in things in a way that you can’t do on record. I also like to end our gigs with a slightly preposterous cover for the encore.
What will it be this time, or is that a secret?
Yeah, a secret encore! All I can say is that it’s pretty silly. We’ve done The Proclaimers and Enter Sandman. That sort of thing. Mixing classics with school disco tunes … I don’t know, would they play Enter Sandman at a school disco!?
Well I look forward to that. Do you conceive of the music as something best experienced in a live setting?
Do you mean as opposed to the studio version?
No I mean, it’s quite challenging music, so when you are composing it, what environment do you imagine people listening to it in?
Ah yeah, I suppose that’s sometimes out of my hands. There’s my favourite environment which is super sweaty, everybody extremely focussed, quite intense shows, but we’ve also played a lot of more classical gigs with people seated, in conventional concert halls. So sometimes I don’t have much control over what kind of venue it is, so we’ve learnt to just roll with it and adapt the set around what type of venue it is or what type of festival it is, or whether it’s in the day or indoors or outdoors. There’s always that sort of stuff to think about and now we have a body of stuff that we can pick between so we can tailor it for a particular set up. But when I’m writing it, when the composing is happening, I’m not necessarily thinking so much about what will this sound like live, I’m more at that point thinking about getting a good piece made for the record, then when I’m looking at the live versions I want to reconsider the work again. This should be really nice cause these are our gigs. Festivals are great as well, but there’s definitely something special about having your own gigs.
As regards the recorded versions – I’ve played Nautilus quite a lot on the radio, normally in the morning, and I’m not always sure…
Goes down well question!? (Laughs)
Yeah, that’s what I’m wondering. Where does it get played? Does your music get played in clubs? How do you think people listen to your music?
I think I’ve been lucky that there’s a huge range of places where it gets played… it gets played in clubs and some quite big bands have used it as there walk on music…
Who’s used it?
Foals, and erm… what’s their name? somebody else, some other massive band! And then I’ve written a lot of orchestral music so people are coming to hear stuff at the proms or straight orchestral settings. I think I’m pretty lucky that my music is played on Radio 3 as well as 6Music, across that spread of people with different backgrounds, and increasingly being used in film and TV as well, which is great, so I don’t really think about it being suitable for one particular context. I love that it’s got that flexibility written into it. I think maybe I used to freak out a bit about not having control of it… it has been used a lot for catwalks and it’s been used for dance a lot. Now I think it’s great that the music can stand up to that kind of flexibility, feels like a real compliment I guess.
I read somewhere that you said you don’t listen to that much music.
Never basically! I don’t find it very useful for me while I’m writing … It’s almost like a confidence thing, if I hear someone else writing an amazing version of something, then for me to think I’ll do something like that, then I end up with a rubbish version of their thing. For me it’s almost better to live in my own little vacuum and figure things out under my own conditions rather than referencing other types of music. I’m not someone who’s thinking about genre at all or let’s add in a poppy this or a technoey that. It doesn’t work like that for me.
Do you think you could say that your music has some of the textures of club music and underground electronic music without necessarily having the structural tropes?
Yeah. Well I’m not literally living in a vacuum, I do hear stuff. I listened to a lot more new music when I was younger, when I was a teenager. That mid 90s clubby sound is definitely something I like without ever having been a massive club goer. There’s definitely sounds I like without ever having directly sought them out. There’s sounds that come from other places but maybe not used in the conventional way.
The FIBS and Varmints material. Do you devise any of that music with other musicians or is it you composing on your own?
The music get’s pretty far on my own and then the only people I bring in are my band members. We’ve been working together for such a long time now and it was really good to get their input on, not just on the individual parts – I’d sit with the cellist and work out her part – but I was also sending them the notation from Sibelius (music notation software). The music goes on there before it goes into any electronic music software, so I was able to send them early bits and we could talk about the stuff that really matters to me, the structure and the pacing of the music. I find that stuff more important than the final sounds – the types of synths and stuff. I find that stage really quick and I’m not that much of a perfectionist, I just find sounds that have the right function, but the real slog goes into the building blocks – making sure things come in at the right time and in the right chords, that technical slog is where I spend the most time really.
And your collaborators, are they all people you’ve worked with in other contexts apart from Varmints and FIBS?
Yeah, I’ve met them in all different ways. Some of them are friends with each other and that’s how I’ve met them. The drummer Sam (Wilson) I’ve been working with the longest …
He’s got a hard job!
He’s got a hard job, and he actually sings beautifully, he’s amazing. I’ve worked with him in lots of different ways, different projects over the years. These guys are all very flexible, they do lots of varied kinds of playing – they play for theatre and they play in lots of other pop projects as well as proper classical stuff so I think that’s what makes them right for this band, that they’re all really talented but also up for getting involved and singing.
Sawbones is the new single. I was reading on the press release about the Shepard tone…
Yeah, did you Google it? It’s quite creepy. Quite a weird thing.
Yeah, what can you tell me about it?
So, it’s like an audio optical illusion… an audio illusion? I’m not sure, but someone played it to me once and the idea is it’s a rising electronic tone that feels like it’s constantly rising, that it never stops getting higher and higher. If you look at the waveform there’s some kind of clever maths going on. The track doesn’t actually do that in any literal technical way but I like the idea of this line that just feel like it’s climbing and climbing.
That definitely is the feeling of some of your tracks, climbing and climbing…
I do love to write a build!
How did you get involved with Bo Burnham and doing the Eighth Grade soundtrack?
I was really lucky with that. He just found me. I think he was looking for something quite specific for his film. He wanted a classically trained musician who was working in electronics. I think he did quite a lot of listening around and he wanted something that he described as a strong warm sound. As my first soundtrack I was really lucky that it was that ‘cause he is a very musical person and he was very interested in getting the music right and also gave a lot of space to music in that film. The music is given proper strength and it’s loud, it’s not background plinking.
Yeah, it’s a really big part of the experience of the film. I think it’s a great movie. Did you like the movie?
Yeah. I’ve seen it tons of times obviously and I’m hugely biased but I’m always bawling by the end of the whole thing. She’s amazing, Elsie Fisher, so relatable in it and I think so many people, myself included, watched it and thought, oh my god that was me, that trying so desperately hard teenager. Yeah, I think its a beautiful film and I feel really chuffed to have been part of it definitely.
And I love the use of Nautilus. That track always sounded like a soundtrack to something but I was wondering what.
I would have probably never thought a teenager’s pool party!
A terrified teenage girl entering a pool party in an ill-fitting swimsuit…
To me that scene, I love it, is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, she’s surveying this scene with absolute horror, all these little vignettes and montages of flirting and hormones and rowdiness and noise and chaos. Just so intimidating and overwhelming. I love the way he’s used it in that film.
What other stuff are you working on at the moment?
Mostly touring and working on the arrangements for that. I’m going to be working on music for a VR piece, that’s quite exciting, although I don’t know the details of that yet. Then some film and TV stuff shaping up for later in the year. I’m mostly gonna be out and about which is gonna be nice after being stuck in a room writing music for the last couple of years. Being able to leave this room is a pretty exciting prospect!
Well, thanks for talking to me.
Anna Meredith is touring the UK from 3rd February and also playing the 6Music Festival in March, details here.