Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Cordelia's Dad - An interview from January 1997

Strange how things come back. Got an email this morning from a friend asking if I knew anything about Tim Eriksen who's playing at The Betsey Trotwood with Steeleye Span's Peter Knight on the 20th July. Eriksen used to play in a band called Cordelia's Dad and he had a lot to do with the soundtrack to Cold Mountain. Now I just happen to have got a new hard drive and I've been moving loads of archive stuff off floppies and zip disks. And amongst this stuff was an interview that I did with Tim and Peter Irvine and Cath Oss in a cider pub in Bristol; it was cold and wintry so I reckon it was January. Anyway this piece never appeared in print and I'd forgotten that it was as complete as it was. This looks like it was ready for lay-out. So why not put it up here? Oh and by the way Cath Oss was there though she doesn't seem to have said anything and she's now Cath Tyler. So imagine yourself back in 1997 and take it from here:

In the wilds of last January I ventured to the nether regions of north-east London and a place called Highams Park. There, in an upper room. I saw three young Americans and an English friend mesmerise a bunch of middle aged unreconstructed folkies. They played a set of traditional American songs and tunes harking back to the nineteenth century, revitalising those tales of passion and intense emotion, gripping us with the starkness of their voices and the simple beauty of their acoustic instrumentation.

A couple of weeks later, at Bristol's Louisiana Club, the three Americans again mounted a stage, this time equipped for electric music. While the songs displayed unmistakably a traditional origin this was a set that was ragin' full on. Power trio stuff but with the poetry that only the finest protagonists aspire to; the balm inside the mayhem. Like Brass Monkey meeting Sonic Youth. In the hurly-burly of the extended 'Rapture Bird' my mind and my synapses were drawn back to the frenzy of Neil Young and Crazy Horse in Hamburg the previous summer as they deconstructed "Like A Hurricane". It was that good.

There are things we accept you can't do and so we don't even try them. It seems like nobody told Tim Eriksen, Peter Irvine and Cath Oss, or if they did they didn't listen. These guys have, in various combinations, been playing together as Cordelia's Dad since the late 1980s. Depending on where you see them, which records you get, they are a noise band, a folk band, a folk-rock band, a folk-noise band, a hard-core band or shape note singers. There's a dozen other categories, all as relevant and as meaningless. They're a band that has steeped themselves in the folk music of America and its English origins, they search out songs and variations on songs. The afternoon of the gig you may well find them digging in the local library.

For some years now they've been disconcerting the English folk music community, or the part of it with less catholic tastes, by presenting both sides of their coinage as Cordelia's Dad. They've now decided to be two bands. Cordelia's Dad for the acoustic shows and Io (pronounced eye-o) for the electric ones. It avoids confusion but lessens the surprise.

I spent some time with them the day after the Louisiana show, in the back bar of the Cotham Porter Stores, one of Bristol's renowned cider pubs. They were on the back of eighteen gigs in twenty days, playing the length and breadth of the kingdom.

BoB:This is an interesting time of year to come to England. You've probably played more gigs here in January than most English bands would play in England in the whole year? How does it work logistically?

Peter: We've only had one or two days off. It sort of worked out that this was when we had the available time. We're very busy on different projects. It's hard but it gets better each time. We've had more than one gig where someone's asked us how we do it as they're handing over the cash. Sometimes it doesn't make sense, but I think playing everyday, keeping expenses real low, staying with people, eating fish and chips a lot.

Tim: We're also, even for an American band, pretty hardcore into playing a lot. We like playing so we play every chance we get.

BoB: There's a feeling here that you should avoid the stage. That if you've done a lot of gigs and maybe haven't been picked up by a label there must be something wrong with you.

Peter: There's a certain amount of that at home. People don't understand how musicianship works, or they don't want to be perceived as people who have this job that happens to be playing music.

Tim: The other strange thing we have is that we play out of the way places. Io didn't do a gig in London on this tour. At home we haven't played in New York or Boston. I'd much rather play in Middlesborough or Newcastle. London's a pain in the ass. We played the outskirts. Cordelia's Dad did.

BoB: I saw you up at Hale End.

Tim: That was bizarre, but cool. Cordelia's Dad has done a lot of those shows on this tour and they've been a lot of fun. They're somewhat unintentionally exclusive. The folk scene is very insular and very unaware of the rest of the world.

Peter: There've been a couple of occasions when people under forty have shown up and this is viewed as unusual.

Tim:At home we've always played for rock audiences primarily. And the thing is when you have your generic rock audience, with the exception of certain real wicked trendy fourteen year olds, when you hear some real hardcore acoustic music they almost without exception get into it.

Peter: It's like Hale End. A nice room where acoustic music sounds good, but they have all these ways of keeping people out, membership rules and not having any signage. Some of the things here are very strange to us, but real interesting. Floor singers and the drinking culture, and just this very specific way of going about things. People seemed to think we'd know about it. Well now we know about it, but at first we thought what the hell's going on.

BoB: You'll go back on the road as soon as you get back to the States?

Peter: As Cordelia's Dad.

Tim: Io is still under wraps. We're figuring out exactly what it is we're doing, record wise and touring wise.

Peter: We really want it to be a new band. Getting away from all this confusion, to make a real distinction and a fresh start. For Io music, start off with a real record release, where people can actually get the record if they want to, and a real tour, where people will know we're playing, and people can come out and know what we're playing.

BoB: Tim, you started off in hardcore?

Tim: I was doing a lot of stuff, but hardcore was the first thing I was involved in really.

BoB: Under the influence of the SST bands?

Tim: Well Black Flag, but mostly not the big bands, a localised kind of thing that was happening. Bands listening to each other, and that was really vital. But being a scene it was really constricting, and I think my band at the time was considered strange within the scene. We did things you weren't really supposed to do. With any scene comes a whole series of rules, and the anarchist hardcore scene has as many if not more than any other.

BoB: Peter, I read you were in country bands.

Peter: I didn't listen to rock music at all till I got to college. Then I got the idea I should join a band. I played in various groups including a country band in Canada.

Their first album Cordelia's Dad came in 1990 after they'd been together two years and then had a year off. Tim had been off to India and other places and three days after he got home they did the album in twelve hours. They call it folk-noise and specify that it's not acoustic. At that point Tim was playing mostly banjo and Tom King was the guitarist. This was in Massachusetts. They then moved to Hoboken, New Jersey.

BoB: I wondered if that was a strategic move?

Peter: No. My girlfriend was going to law school. It was a real pain in practise. Probably the only good thing that happened was we met Dave Schramm, who's a great musician.

BoB: And Dave produced the next album.

Tim: That was a really good experience, but there were other people involved in the project. Unfortunately there were too many hands in the pot. If it had been just us and Dave it would have been a much better record. Most of the good things about that record have something to do with Dave.

BoB: What are you unhappy about with that album?

Tim: It's too measured. It's all overdubbed, just really good songs that I like and they don't have the flavour or energy they do on stage; they don't sound anything like they did live. I was doing all sorts of music, hardcore was still very much in my head and making a pop record grated on my nerves. Being in a studio was very difficult, you have a lot of pressure from the people involved. "Loud distorted music, that's a thing of the past, it'll never be big, you've got to do it acoustic". Couple of months later Nevermind came out - and if we'd done it the way we wanted to !! But I wouldn't say anything bad about Dave.

BoB: Did he do any live shows with you?

Peter: Yes, a couple of gigs. We hosted The Schramms up in Northampton a couple of times, had them play with us. He played slide guitar.

Tim: We learnt a lot in the studio, mostly that we didn't want to be there very long. Since then we've been dedicated to taping things as live as possible. The last records have been a hundred percent live, no overdubs. The next one will be pretty live.

Then Tom left and Cath joined.

Peter: There was an overlap period. We were a four-piece for a while. Then Tom decided to get a job. We had a European tour coming up so we asked Cath if she would learn to play bass. You could say Io started in the summer of 1994 when we spent a couple of months rehearsing five hours a day. That was the beginning though we didn't admit it. We should have changed the name then it would have made things a lot easier.

Tim: We were practising like crazy for this project Trio For Bands, a composition based on an idea by John Cage involving three bands performing different music simultaneously] and in the process we produced loads of material. It was very interesting. There were two performances, the first indoors. One minutes of continuous noise. The loudest thing I've ever experienced. I had earplugs and after a while I took them out and it didn't seem any different. Then there was this incredible physical sensation of noise. At the end I could barely stand up it was so physically draining. I felt like I'd taken some kind of, well something.

BoB: Would you do it again?

Tim: Oh yeah. We're into all kinds of things. We're not really careerists. We're into finding interesting things to do and staying alive. I'd like to do an album of Residents' covers.

BoB: Have you sold the idea to the others?

Peter: I'm into it.

Tim: I feel I've a lot more in common with the Residents than the folk scene. Just their whole take on American music. They had really open ears.

Peter: I heard about them a long time before I heard them and I was really surprised. They were much tamer than I though they would be

BoB: Comet you recorded in the Autumn of 1994.

Tim: With Comet we did a number of things we weren't supposed to do but they worked out exactly right. We went into a studio that does almost entirely noise and industrial stuff, and did really quick recordings with an engineer with no preconceptions of how unaccompanied singing should sound, and it was just fresher.

Comet was the last Cordelia's Dad studio album. In 1996 they put out Road Kill a two thousand copy limited edition compilation of live and radio tracks. They'd now call it an Io release except hardly anybody has heard it. Some of those songs will resurface on Io's first album.

What's so good about this band is that they don't accept limitations and demarcations. They demand an openness from their listeners which if you bring them they will reward. You don't need to be an expert in traditional Anglo-American music, just have the antenna for its gut emotion. Edwin Pouncey once talked about 'spiky music', by which he meant music that didn't just wash over you, that snagged you on its sharp edges. The band took to that, and it suits them.

The band made a brief return to the UK in June and July. They're now augmented by fiddle player Laura Risk. Earlier this summer Io cut an electric album in Chicago with Steve Albini. They got on so well with him that they've scrapped all current acoustic recordings and are going back to do a Cordelia's Dad record later in the year. They hinted at a new record deal soon. When we know so will you.



Cordelia's Dad (1990) OKra 33011

How Can I Sleep? (1992) OKra 33019

Ignore the band's reservations about this; it's a great collection. My choice: a super electric take on 'Delia', Tom King's 'San Francisco' - a grungey reworking of 'Scarborough Fair' - and a brace of banjo pieces 'Little Margaret' (from Bascom Lunsford) and 'Harvest Home'.

Joy Fun Garden (1993) Return To Sender RTS 3 / Limited Edition European Release

Comet (1995) Omnium 2011

Music of the invisible republic. Eleven acoustic tracks from the treasury of Anglo-American folk. A gap followed by three mighty blasts of electricity: first 'Jersey City' (aka 'The Butcher Boy') and then two Tim Eriksen originals 'Three Snake Leaves' and 'Hush'.

Road Kill (1996) Scenescof


Cordelia's Dad, Po Box 175, Northampton, MA 01061, USA.


Omnium (USA), Po Box 7367, Minneapolis, MN 55407, USA.

Normal Records (Europe), Bonner Talweg 276, 53129 Bonn, Germany.

Direct (UK), 50 Stroud Green Road, London N4 3EF.


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