Erland and the Carnival are Orcadian folk ace Erland Cooper and musical trouper Simon Tong (The Verve, Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen).
Together, they have created some of the finest folk-rock moments of the last decade, and through side project The Magnetic North (with Hannah Peel) have successfully translated the wilderness of Britain’s remotest outcrops into vivid stereo.
The pair’s new album Closing Time, recorded at Damon Albarn’s Studio 13 and featuring guitar work and whispered backing vocals from Paul Weller, eschews their usual habit of deconstructing traditional folk songs. Instead, this set offers a unique glimpse into their songwriting on a more personal level.
We caught up with Erland to learn more about the record and hear what’s in store for the Carnival….
What’s the inspiration behind your third album Closing Time?
It’s the third Erland album, but The Magnetic North album was my third record really. It’s funny, because when you make a bunch of songs, I like to think you don’t quite know what it’s for and then you have that moment where they all come together. And then you know exactly what you’ve created and how it all fits together.
What’s changed for you with this record?
The way Simon and I work together. The way I work in general – I’m more confident about what I’m trying to make. I actually stepped up and produced this one with Simon. He did the first two. David Nock and Simon are both very accomplished at what they do – David particularly with production and Simon with the records he’s worked on – so I trusted what they were doing and went along with it.
But it was so exciting for me to take on that role for this record and enjoy doing it. That came from doing the Orkney [Magnetic North] record. It’s that show of confidence you get when you do something. You bring that forward to the next project.
I read that you wrote over 40 songs for the record…
No, not 40, 240! It’s like Chinese whispers! We booked Studio 13, which is where we did the first two records. It’s a brilliant place. It’s the right level of bohemian working environment combined with high tech technology – it’s red, and scrumptious and lovely. We had three days there with Damon’s sound engineer, who we’ve worked with before. He’s a little genius. In those three days I wanted to do as much as possible. It wasn’t 40, but it was around 20 ideas. I was just really excited to try them all. Do the maths on it – in three days we tried them all, different takes and sounds, some more finished than others…
When you’ve got a few song threads on the go, how do you know which ones to explore? Is it quite whimsical and spontaneous?
Part of the process of making a record is about satisfying yourself and doing something different. So we ruthlessly chucked away stuff. But it’s often the ones that you think are going to be rubbish that turn out amazing and the ones you have high hopes for – the ones you put a lot of time, energy and enthusiasm – don’t work out quite how you wanted. I don’t know if that’s just an expectation thing. That’s why it’s nice to do things quickly and spontaneously.
What sort of mind frame do you usually slip into when you’re songwriting? How do you overcome those negative feelings when things don’t turn out how you expected?
Often writing something that sounds positive when you’re feeling negative can be quite cathartic. I think this album is a more personal record. The first record explored traditional folk music and we were trying to do something different, or modern, with that – and we succeeded because we made something that was exciting to us. It explored folksong, essentially storytelling. We did that again on our second record but didn’t really make a song and dance about it. The traditional material was snuck in but it was less obvious. But on this one, we’re looking inward rather than outward, and that made it exciting, even though at times the content was a little bit overwhelming or too close for comfort. But it’s satisfying.
So far, your albums have been built on collaboration. How important is that for you?
It’s really exciting when you look at someone in the eye and you can see they like what you’ve done or they want to take it further. I think being a solo artist must be one of the hardest things unless you collaborate with interesting and exciting producers that bring out the best in you.
How do the songwriting mechanics work in Erland and the Carnival?
Myself and Simon used to write quite swiftly in a room together – we still do that – but we also write individually and share it with each other. It’s so easy to share a whole session you’ve done before you’ve even met.
Simon was on tour in Italy for a while so we just sent ideas back and forth. It was a wonderful way to work and it always feels spontaneous. We’ve got a good system going – if the person hasn’t reply quickly then they’re not into it! Generally, if that’s the case, don’t dwell on it. Move on!
What’s happening with The Magnetic North? Is there going to be any new material or are you concentrating on the new Erland record at the moment?
The Magnetic was always supposed to be a one-off project and this little seed of an idea, which was half-recorded in my parents’ house in Orkney, turned into this wonderful monster which was wonderful and exhilarating and scary at the same time. I remember recording guitars and vocals after whisky, and they were just little ideas. Before I knew it, thet were being scored and we were on stage with 40 musicians. It became this massive project. At the moment, like any monster, I’ve taken it out into the garden and locked it in the shed for a little bit.
But I am in fact mixing a live album right now. It’s basically the shows from Orkney, London, Paris and Berlin. We’ve got wonderful photos and it’ll hopefully go out with the film we did. And I think it pulls together the whole project. Where do you go from Orkney? It’s a hard one to follow. I thought about following the travelling routes from Orkney to Canada, like the Hudson Bay Company… I’ve got an idea, I’ve talked about it with the band and everyone laughed! It’s quite exciting but we haven’t started it yet…
Closing Time is out now on Full Time Hobby.