The slender frame of BILL RYDER-JONES is nestled upon a drum stool in his West Kirby studio, located just off the River Dee waterfront and on the first floor of his mother’s semi-detached house.
There’s an upright piano in one corner, an assortment of guitars and amplifiers in another, a drum kit, an AppleMac and a Grandfather clock. A deep, decorative flock wallpaper hangs on the walls. “Yeah, I’ve loved it,” Bill sighs, when I ask whether he’s enjoyed the process of creating If…, “I’m definitely going to make more music, so I must have enjoyed it.”
Having spent the last three days immersed in the symphonic melancholia of If… (Bill’s first full-length offering since leaving The Coral over three and a half years ago), this comes as a welcome relief. When we last chatted with Bill, the sessions for If…, a largely orchestral score written to the Italo Calvino novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, had only just begun, at The Scandinavian Church on Park Lane. After a further series of sessions at Elevator on Cheapside, the process culminated at The Friary in Everton, as The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was committed to tape.
“We rolled in there one day and just set up all the gear we’d rented,” Bill enthuses, the excitement of the experience still tangible in his voice. “It was crazy. I’d used up over half the budget on booking the orchestra. It was the last thing to do, over 60% of the album, and we had to record it in six hours. That was it. If anything had gone wrong, you’re talking thousands of pounds an hour. It was frantic and we had a bit of a sweat on but we just got away with it.”
When you consider the scale of the project, not just musically but also the physically imposing mass of the orchestra, this must have been a daunting proposition? “Totally,” Bill confirms. “When I’m in here writing, I probably feel like ‘yeah, I’m quite good’, but when you get out into the world you realise that these people, they play everything, all the best, they’re familiar with all the geniuses of modern music. They play that work and they understand that work much better than I do and they understand the orchestra because that’s their life.”
Conscious of not wanting to appear the egotistical young ex-rockstar upstart (a label that couldn’t be further from Bill’s unassuming, shy nature), the experience was a heavy one for the composer to shoulder (at one point he retired to the loos, locked the door and immersed himself in his phone… solitaire, naturally). He was lucky enough to assemble a team around him to help make sure the sessions bore the required fruits.
“Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys, Foals, Blood Red Shoes) was there kind of overseeing the recording with a guy called Christian Hildebrand, who I’d brought in to produce the string session. He’s boss, like a Bond bad guy, no bullshit; and a guy called Mark Burnley. The three of them and Darren Jones – who engineered the bulk of the record – came down; the five of us teamed it and everyone just got involved. Afterwards, it felt like we’d just pulled off a bank job. None of us had done anything quite like that before.”
In addition to the team tasked with capturing the orchestral recordings, Bill enlisted the help of a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra maverick Jon Herring, a man that Bill “can’t rate highly enough, a lovely lad,” to look over the final scores. “It was nice to have someone a few years further down the line with that stuff than I am,” says Bill.
The actual piecing together of the resulting record is fascinating, particularly on Enlace, a track which moves from a light, suggestive drum/piano groove, via a brooding orchestral middle section, out of a Harrison-esque, heady guitar finale (the final coda being the only point at which the chimes of Bill’s previous endeavours are suggested; electric guitars are elsewhere conspicuous by their absence). Surely this wasn’t all put down together live? “Most of Enlace was recorded at Elevator by me and Sean Payne from The Zutons,” says Bill. “But when it came to recording the orchestra parts we didn’t have enough headphones for everyone, so half of the orchestra had headphones, the conductor had headphones, and the other half of the orchestra had to just kind play to the conductor. Luckily it came off.”
By The Church Of Appalonia provides another personal highlight. Interestingly, this was the first track recorded for the record. It was completely put together at The Scandinavian Church and doesn’t feature the full force of The Philharmonic. It is also on this piece that the underlying structure to the album becomes acutely apparent, as Bill uses the themes and story-lines of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller’s ten chapters as the bedrock for each section of music. By The Church Of Appalonia vividly portrays the emotions associated with the corresponding section of Calvino’s novel: images of a war-torn Eastern Europe, suppression, the military and a sinister sexual underbelly. “That tune is very direct and quite obvious to me,” confirms Bill. “It needed to sound Eastern European, which I think it does; it needed to focus around a girl, which it does; and it needed to relate to a sex scene. It all kind of felt quite easy really. There is a track called The Flowers #3 (Lotus),which is about an Asian philosopher and his student who has a relationship with the philosopher’s partner and daughter. When it’s that precise you can over think it. I just wanted that tune to move a lot and have an East Asian element to it.”
It is obvious that Bill was conscious of the need to keep the balance right; a blend of being true to the conceptual framework of the novel, without compromising the music in its own right. “The balance was important. Concept albums are typically by prog bands about medieval Britain; it’s a touchy subject.” Bill jokes. “It was always going to be quite high brow and a bit smug, a bit pompous, and may turn some people off, but I just thought ‘I’m going to go for it’. I still stand by it, I think it’s a good idea, and I’m happy. I think if someone else had done it I’d have been like, ‘that’s great, well in for not just strapping the Strat on.’ There would have been a few people who’d have liked to hear me just play guitar on a record, I could have done that and just made a quick buck, but it would have been shit. It’s like anything: don’t over think it, but when it is something that cerebral and that intense, you do have to put so much into it. It completely absorbed me for sixteen months, and I think you can tell. I don’t think you can listen to it and think ‘well that just happened’. It was very laborious.”
Given Bill’s desire to distance himself from the ‘songwriter’ tag, Le Grand Disordre could represent a surprise inclusion on the record. I must say that I’m glad it has made it, the piece’s Drake-ian whisper and fingerpicked guitar, backed by a linear, orchestral homophony takes inspiration from River Man in arrangement, whilst offering its own unique perspective. It provides If… with a truly gorgeous, personal moment.
“I’m at peace now with my songs,” offers Bill; it seems over the previous fifteen months a weight has been lifted. “The album is 80% instrumental. You listen to it and think that this is a musician who’s written a song there, and that’s how I see myself. I don’t want to be someone who’s thought of as a songwriter. It probably doesn’t matter to anyone else but I want to be a musician who may write songs, rather than a songwriter who scores music. I’ve probably got a really unhealthy view of the idea of people who class themselves as songwriters, it’s just that tag, it makes my skin crawl. I love Nick Drake, Mick Head, all the great songwriters, but there’s something about me being a songwriter which makes me just wanna scratch at myself.”
It also seems that Bill’s appetite for live performance may have increased since we last met up, albeit slightly. I suggest that a full orchestral performance of If… would seem a natural progression. “It’d be a shame if it didn’t happen,” Bill agrees. “I’d only do it if there was a real demand for it because it would, without sounding dramatic, be such an ordeal. I’d have to think that lots of people wanted to see it. If something mad like the Proms wanted to do something, or someone wanted to put it on in the Forum in Rome, or something ridiculous. I’m probably just safeguarding myself there…. I’ll do it if NASA are involved and we can do it on the moon!”
If… is out now on Domino Records