Epic Sail: An interview with Baltic Fleet

Feature by Joseph Viney | 01 Nov 2016

DIY producer Paul Fleming, aka Baltic Fleet, scooped the 2013 GIT Award before disappearing from the public eye – here he tells us about success, Lancastrian churches and new album The Dear One

Baltic Fleet may have nautical nomenclature but in Paul Fleming – the brains behind the Widnes-born, boundary-pushing electronic project – you couldn’t meet a man with his feet planted more firmly on the ground.

The unexpected winner of the 2013 GIT Award (set up by the Get Into This blog to celebrate musical talent from the Merseyside area), Baltic Fleet’s rapid rise from relative unknown to the talk of Merseyside’s music scene and beyond provided a real test of the affable Fleming’s creative and personal mettle. Indeed, getting dragged from crafting sultry instrumental electronica in his bedroom to being handpicked by Yoko Ono to play at a festival curated by the lady herself is enough to make anybody sit up, blink and think twice.

Yet as Towers – the album released in the same period Baltic Fleet picked up the prestigious prize – scaled new heights and looked set to propel Fleming's group to deserved fame and recognition, it all seemed to go quiet on the Northwestern front. Baltic Fleet looked to have sunk without trace. Say it ain’t so!

The Skinny sits with Fleming in the surprisingly cozy yet neon-laden confines of Liverpool’s Brewdog bar. Sipping on iced water, the man who earned his spurs as the keyboard player in Echo & The Bunnymen for six years speaks in reflective, measured and intelligent ways on new album The Dear One, the trappings of fame and the weight of expectation. For somebody undertaking their first face-to-face interview since the release of Towers, Fleming – fittingly – doesn’t seem to have missed a beat.

“Winning the GIT Award brought different attention,” he ponders. “Things span off for a year after that and it took me to places I never expected to go. Baltic Fleet had always been something in my bedroom – my own personal journey – that I was doing for my own ends and then suddenly I was thrown right on the radar. Commercial success was never my main goal but it certainly moved above anything I’d ever imagined it would be.”

So, we venture carefully, what happened? What prompted such an absence just as Baltic Fleet seemed on the cusp of setting sail and plotting a course for the big time?

Life happened. In among the comedown of winning the GIT Award, writing and rehearsing, playing to a swollen Liverpool Sound City crowd and hobnobbing with the likes of Sean Lennon at an aftershow party (“it was a strange experience,” Fleming laughs), a personal tragedy took hold.

“My mother became ill at the end of that year and passed away shortly after,” he says. “For about five months after I didn’t play a note, I didn’t touch an instrument. I stayed strong for my family but I felt totally lost at the time. Over time, I finally switched everything on and began to play, creating songs that became a part of the new record. It represented me coming back after that time and carrying on past the grief that I felt.”

There were also commercial and artistic pressures that came with being propelled unexpectedly into the spotlight. Fleming speaks of certain expectations and how they can cling to you, how others get into your ear and urge you to strike while the iron is hot, even if you don’t feel ready: “I wanted to just follow the path that I’ve always wanted to follow, which was an organic feel. I didn’t want to just jump on the back of an award and push a record out too early.”

He also found solace away from the pressures of expectation with film scores for Liverpool-based features such as Native and short films like Schrödinger’s Waltz. Even in the midst of grief, Fleming remained active in some sense, kept his chops up and helped to improve the sound and concept of Baltic Fleet. His label Blow Up Records also provided a safe, creative haven and allowed him the right amount of time to learn, grow and return to the fold when it felt right.

It’s a tactic that has paid off in spades, the subsequent recording sessions yielding a plethora of material that may be the basis for a quick follow-up to The Dear One as either another full LP or a smattering of EPs.

Baltic Fleet is a labour of love that encompasses the organic, everyday facets of life that go largely unnoticed by many. It’s a project imbued with emotion and catharsis, and festooned with the bookends and circular travels that make up the bulk of our lives. Taking its name from the famous Liverpool pub passed every day by thousands of people, Baltic Fleet provides an enigmatic interpretation of normality, twisting it every which way into something special that leaves much to the imagination of the listener. The story behind the creation of The Dear One provides a clear picture of how Fleming reduces the seemingly ordinary into something wonderful.

“I was in a local church – middle-of-nowhere Lancashire – and I was learning about the man who built it,” he recalls. “He’d built schools nearby and other places and he’d done it all for his wife. I found this diary of his in the church and he called his wife 'the dear one'. As their story progressed through these pages, she became ill and on the last page he called her by her name – Frances – and it revealed she passed away shortly after. I was very intrigued by his total dedication to her. He’d done all of these amazing things for this one person, and I used my imagination to translate all of these other names and places in the diary into what appears on the record.”

The Dear One may just be Baltic Fleet’s best record to date. Deemed “a big step forward” by Fleming, the record is the sound of one man throwing the shackles off. This is nowhere more evident than on tracks such as Swallow Falls, with its shifting, sub-tropical rhythms and faintly ominous aural backdrop that evolves seamlessly into something like laser warfare. La Cygne waves goodbye to prior creative processes and presents a raw, emotional and cathartic soundscape performed via live takes. The stand-out remains the album’s eponymous track; it's spoken of with paternal pride by Fleming as he details how, while it sounds as if it was created by machines, it’s all hand-played and assisted only by a single click-track.

Baltic Fleet quietly thrives on the idea of proving others wrong. It’s not something worn on the group’s sleeve, and so you need to dig more deeply into the psyche of the music to find it. But when you do, you realise it’s a large part of what propels them and encourages them to keep moving forward.

Where others may say Baltic Fleet peaked with the GIT Award victory – allowing successive winners such as Forest Swords and All We Are to take their place in the sunshine of adulation – Fleming sees it more succinctly as an opportunity for laying foundations and growing from there.

Forgive the pun, but The Dear One scales more heights and traverses more peaks than Towers could purport to have done. Fleming notes that, while being aware of the probable consensus of many observers, the best is still to come.

“For an artist like me I could keep going until I’m 60, 70, until I’m playing ambient piano as a pensioner, but I’m happy that I’m always moving forward creatively,” he says. “I want to be progressive and I want my sound to be progressive. I don’t want it to be of a time, I want to push boundaries and change it up.

“Personally I’ve not reached a peak; externally, I don’t really care if anyone thinks that we have or not. This is my own journey and if people want to join in and listen then I hope they enjoy the ride.

“Baltic Fleet is about bringing friends along, working on my ideas, bringing people along for that journey. It’s as simple as that really. It’s just an entity. It’s a shifting thing. The people I work with change that journey and process in their own ways and it works perfectly.”

He laughs, before checking himself and reverting to type; affable, unassuming, curious.

“I’m a pretty normal guy,” he says quietly. If such an attitude pays off so handsomely, why can’t we all be normal too?

The Dear One is released via Blow Up Records on 11 Nov