Space is the place - Herschel 36 on silent movies and all that jazz
Although they may make a futuristic, space-age sound, Herschel 36 also have a more retro side to them – their blend of driving krautrock rhythms and bubbling electronic sounds doubtless a surprise to anyone familiar with these stalwarts of the Scottish jazz scene,
Paul Harrison and Stu Brown’s work in more ‘traditional’ jazz combos seems at odds with their side project, but the pair seem to enjoy the contrast.
“There’s an element of just slotting into others’ bands, contributing what you can,” says Harrison, “so the pressure’s off, you can relax and have fun that way.”
As well as making a crust from the jazz circuit, keyboard player Harrison dips into other genres, playing with the likes of with Hue and Cry, but percussionist Brown is the one with more of a background in film soundtracks, working with Grammy winner Craig Armstrong and actually appearing in Bruce biopic Outlaw King.
But it’s the film they’re concerned with now is somewhat older – even if the subject matter is more hi-tech.
The duo, who take their name from a far-away star, have just launched – appropriately enough, at the planetarium at Glasgow’s Science Centre – the album ‘Astrophysik’, which soundtracks 1925 German silent film ‘Wunder Der Schöpfung’.
And with the 50th anniversary of the moon landings upon us, as Harrison says “the whole space thing it reaches everyone, it get kids interested, everyone’s into it”.
“We’re both pretty techy and geeky – famous last words,” he laughs, as our initial attempt to conduct the interview by Facetime fails due to a poor signal.
Brown is the one who’s uncontactable, ironically. “Stu’s always done electronic doodahs,” Harrison says. “It was 10 years ago when we started playing so technology’s changed, but there were always synths involved.”
Brown’s latest computer project not only uses drums to trigger electronic sounds but also video, perhaps a couple of steps on from his previous ‘Twisted Toons’ project – a collection of manic versions of themes from the golden age of Porky Pig, Roadrunner, and Tom and Jerry.
This, and a stint with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, led to the Hippodrome SIlent Film Festival in Bo’ness, which charged the duo with soundtracking the film whose title translates as‘Wonder of Creation’, a mix of fact and fantasy based on people’s understanding of the universe almost 100 years ago.
”A lot of people say the film itself is slow-moving and factual,” says Brown, as we finally get connected. “The visuals are interesting but quite slow so we’re bringing in this contemporary soundtrack and giving it a new lease of life."
Once signed up, the two got to work. “It was a bit pressured, last minute,” Harrison recalls. “We had seven or eight weeks to do it – if you were composing stuff on paper you’d want 6 months!”
Although, the duo weren’t composing in the traditional sense. “This band started as just two pals jamming with whatever was to hand, whatever kind of music came out.”
And the duo adopted this approach – obtaining a DVD of the film, setting up their instruments, and seeing what happened – which was not without its challenges.
“Something might be feeling really good and starting to cook so it can be like banging your head against a wall,” Harrison admits of the improvisational approach. “Suddenly you reach the end of act one and go into act two and a completely different subject.”
“The challenge was that Hershel36 had been entirely improv until then,” says Brown, “each turning up with our own sounds and not knowing what the other was going to do.
“A lot of jazz gigs is that just follow a bit of a formula and you kind of know, you’re improving but within a framework that’s been established over many many years.”
Eventually the pair were ready to play the series of shows from which the album draws. “We recorded four of the tour shows, so we had six hours of stuff,” Harrison explains, “different every night – they were improvised, so sounded different. So that was fun, deciding what was to go on the album.”
“Some would get chucked in the bin but others would stick. The album’s under an hour long so it’s excerpts – basically the good bits!
“Doing the stuff like that was very different from the usual club gigs, we were playing it to auditoriums – a ‘sit down and listen’ kind of gig, in darkness.”
The live shows also featured one element not on the record – an introduction by Astronomer Royal for Scotland, John C. Brown – Stu’s father. Which might explain his technical bent.
“I’m not especially knowledgeable about astronomy, but it’s always been present in my life, ever since when I was 10 and (my father) was working on some experiments which ended up going to the Hubble.“
“It did help us to sell (the live soundtrack performance) to venues,” Harrison admits,” because we got John to do introductory talks.”
Indeed, Brown’s father may for once be following his son’s lead, now he has a book out with ‘Oor Big Braw Cosmos’, a collaboration with poet Rab Wilson. ( ** move up??? **)
It’s not the last time Herschel 36 will work on film, they hope. “If someone asks us,” Harrison smiles.
Brown is no stranger to the world of soundtracking, having also worked on ‘Outlaw King’ director David Mackenze’s early film ‘Young Adam’ with Talking Heads’ David Byrne.
“Semi-improvising some jazz for a Ewan McGregor sex scene… that was a mad experience.” Brown laughs.
But such variety beats sticking to the norm.
“Sometimes I just enjoy sitting down and playing piano,” says Harrison, “but other times I want to do something weirder than that.”