Hidden Orchestra: In Plain Sight

Joe Acheson talks to The Skinny about Hidden Orchestra's beautiful new album Archipelago, and the highlights of the Scottish urban music scene today

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 02 Oct 2012

Hidden Orchestra are an intriguing prospect – see them live, and you are confronted with drummers Tim Lane and Jamie Graham front of stage, trading heavy hip-hop grooves and delicate (but complex) jazz polyrhythms. But rather than being an improvisation-led jam band, they're more like an actual orchestra – depending on how many guests they have with them that night, you could be hearing a carefully considered blend of traditional instrumentation, featuring horn, woodwind and strings, or if the band are stripped back to their core, the intense, beautiful violin and piano playing of core member Poppy Graham, and band leader and composer Joe Acheson on bass, samples and electronics. Their first album, Night Walks, offered a brooding, cinematic, twilight experience – on new album Archipelago, their scope has broadened, with sounds that embrace the outdoors, the countryside, nature in all its glory.

Speaking from his studio in Edinburgh, Joe Acheson is candid about the amount of control he still retains over the writing process. “The first album, from the time I started writing new material for it to the release, was about eight years. This one's been about six years, so I guess you could say there's quite a lot of planning.” There is a feeling of a narrative at play on Archipelago, even without the use of vocals – this is achieved by careful progression and development of musical themes, Acheson explains. “I did think more, on this album, about the overall structure of it, hence the first track is an Overture, with samples and snippets of other tracks throughout the record. I was really pleased with the way the first album eventually came into this one overall shape, even though it was written over such a long time.”

The sounds of birdsong and the ocean recur throughout the album – is this the reason for the title? “Yes, definitely, that's all a part of that. The artwork for the front cover was from a boat trip that I took with Poppy and her father, who did the etching for the front cover. We went to a small group of islands out beyond the Outer Hebrides, and also, from out there I have recordings of birds and waves, which we used within the album.” So Acheson used field recordings he had made himself, as opposed to pre-made samples? “All of the places where I've gone, particularly on tour, I've been recording some of the nice sounds,” he says. “Last year I recorded a nice call to prayer in Istanbul, some traffic in Cairo, some nice birdsong in France. I try and feed all these things into Hidden Orchestra.” 

The band are signed to forward-thinking label Tru Thoughts, also home to Quantic, Zed Bias, Anchorsong and Rodney P, to name just a few. What has it been like working with them? “They have an excellent distribution network, and they are very supportive,” says Acheson. “I like the model they have for working with artists – they don't give advances, but you do get a budget which you agree on, and the money that you make gets re-invested into each specific act, rather than the label as  a whole. They've got really good business models. But beyond all that, creatively they are very open to letting all of their acts develop in the way they want to. They will step in if there is something they don't like, but they're not trying to steer anybody in any particular direction. They trust in their own judgement in having signed them in the first place. They let them get on with it.”

Tru Thoughts are gaining a larger fanbase and more critical traction all the time – does Acheson feel like Hidden Orchestra are a part of that broadening of the label's appeal? “Yeah, I think so,” Acheson says tentatively, “but I think all of the bands stand out, and I think all of them feel a bit like they are on the fringes of the label. Nobody thinks that they are 'the Tru Thoughts band.' It's quite an interesting thing, and it shows how diverse the selection is.” 

The use of two drummers is perhaps the first thing people notice about Hidden Orchestra, particularly in a live context. How did Acheson arrive at this configuration for the band? “When I started making the tracks in my studio, it was just something I wanted to make, something I wanted to hear,” Acheson says. “I was already working with one of the drummers in another band that we'd been playing with. In the studio tracks, there are at least five or six drum parts in most of the tunes, so I spent a while trying to condense that down to something that one drummer could play, and for about six months we did gigs with just the one drummer. It was amazing, what he was able to do, but he kind of needed to grow a couple more arms or something, in order to be able to execute it all.” 

Acheson explains that the way the drums are layered in the studio led him naturally to the idea of two live drummers: “There are usually lots of layers of drum kits, but broken down into two styles. One is generally always layers of jazz drum solo loops and patterns, and the other is heavier -  more like a drum machine, chunkier beats that bring out the groove of what's going on, more than a kind of skittery solo part. So it makes sense to get someone else to come along, playing digital pads and triggering those heavier beats, so the other drummer can solo more freely over the top, without having to worry about the solid groove. But then, once we had two drummers actually there, the digital guy got a snare, and then a ride, and eventually a full kit. That opens up all sorts of new possibilities – battling, question and answer, trading of little ideas and exploring the ways in which the kits can interlock and react. These days, I find I'm actually writing with the two drummers in mind.” 

Night Walks had Creative Scotland funding behind it – was Archipelago funded the same way? “It was kind of different, in that they didn't fund it directly,” Acheson says. “I still mentioned them in the thanks, because they have been supportive throughout all that time, and got me involved in various other projects and programs. But for this album what basically happened is I had done a number of projects involving funding from Creative Scotland over the past five years, and some of the material involved in those projects eventually evolved into Hidden Orchestra material, and appeared on Archipelago. So in a way, I felt like they had funded it indirectly. I didn't want to approach them again and ask for more money – I wanted to show that everything which they funded that I was involved with, I had then made maximum use of that money... so that maybe some time down the line, I can ask for a bit more!”

Creative Scotland rarely funds bands in this way – how did Acheson pitch his application? “We were very fortunate in some ways, because at the time they had decided that they wanted to look out for more projects involving more cross-artform or cross-genre ideas that had some contemporary pull,” he elaborates. “The fact we were involved in playing in clubs, and were involved with the more urban side of the local music scene, that really appealed to them. So they actually approached us to suggest that we should put in an application. When I wrote the application, I focused a lot on things which are very natural to me, because of the way I like to work, but things that also appealed to them quite a lot. I'd been working with a lot of jazz, classical and folk musicians from all kind of backgrounds, but bringing them in to do this kind of music they wouldn't usually get to do, and not many other people in Scotland were doing anything exactly similar, in terms of the opportunities for involving so many different kinds of people.”

The first album featured a lot of very well-respected jazz musicians, and they return on Archipelago: “There's a lot more of Phil Cardwell,” says Acheson. “He's a trumpeter from Glasgow. There's a whole track on the new album which is all about his amazing playing. There are a couple of tracks which showcase Mary McMaster, another total legend from the folk scene, playing the clarsach – a traditional wire-strung harp – and also her electro-harp, which is amazing – the bass strings... lots of things you can do with effects and stuff. We have been playing live gigs with both of those two for the past couple of years, and they both feature a lot more on this album. We did gigs where we played as up to a ten-piece – we're generally touring as a five-piece. The core is just the four of us, but we're generally doing shows with five or more. With ten musicians, you have French horn, harp cello, sax, whistle... that's great! We like to try and vary things, mix up the guests. We try and do a different show from last time if we are revisiting a place, seeing a city for the second time. We'll bring something different.” Gigs coming up include dates in London with DJ Kentaro and Tru Thoughts labelmate Anchorsong, and a return to eastern Europe to play shows in prague, Bulgaria and Poland. “The thing that's really lacking at the moment is any gigs in Scotland,” says Acheson. “But there are some big exciting plans for next year.”

Bands who use traditional instruments and make non-vocal music are sometimes described as or thought of as background music – how does Acheson address the challenge of drawing listeners in and holding their attention? “It's actually a very deliberate part of what I'm doing,” he says. “As soon as you see a band on stage, as soon as there is a singer, they immediately suck out all of that focus. The other musicians on stage instantly become a backing band for this star. Which is all well and good – often there's a really good reason why, like maybe the front person has all the charisma, maybe they've written all the songs. I really wanted to do something where the focus was on the music, and not having a singer, therefore putting the attention back on the band. In terms of trying to draw people into the CD, it comes down to the structure, the progression, the development.”

Part of this approach comes from Acheson's influences: “I'm really interested in the use of loops, and heavily influenced by hip-hop – people like DJ Premier, who just used two-bar loops,” he explains. “Loads of that nineties hip-hop; I could listen to it for hours, without it changing at all! But that is something that's challenging for people to listen to, so I've always been interested in trying to use those ideas, and making these really repetitive instrumental dance forms, but acoustically. Bringing into it the added levels expression that you can get by using acoustic instruments. A lot of people do this in electronic music production as well – that whole thing of development and progression. Although things are repeating, they never quite repeat in the same way twice. Even if you're just using a long filter, or if it's a crescendo that lasts a whole track, bringing different elements in and out.” 

Acheson intends his music to work both ways: “My music is completely designed to work on those two levels simultaneously,” he confirms. “It often gets bracketed as downbeat, chill-out music. And it is. You can put it on and just relax, have it as background, have some mates round or whatever. But nearly all of the tracks have that half-time and double-time feel. Often it's the instrumental parts which have that downtempo feel, and the beats aren't just doubletime – often there's a slow hip-hop groove as well as a fast, skittery, double-time jazz solo – more of a drum and bass feel. It's up to the listener – both at home and at gigs – whether they want to stand at the front and dance in front of the stage, or whether they want to stand swaying at the back with their eyes closed. We try to be inclusive and accessible, that's part of the design.”

Acheson was involved in the music scene in Edinburgh for a long time – what are the advantages and disadvantages, as a musician, of coming from that city? “For me personally, it's been really helpful to be here in Edinburgh developing this music over the last twelve years, away from the influence of the 'melting pot' down in London and other cities,” he says. “Being outside what is perceived to be the central music scene has really been helpful, in terms of having the mind space to develop without having too much influence from other people. I think it helped us as a band – particularly early on. One of our first gigs was supporting Jaga Jazzist and Alice Russell. I think if we'd been in London, there would have been another hundred bands above us in the pecking order who would have gotten all those shows. So it was helpful to us to come into a scene where we were among the top choices for supporting these kind of artists that would bring in a crowd that felt appropriate to us.” 

There are a few interesting characters in the Edinburgh scene who put on eclectic nights, like Chris Knight (aka Astroboy, promoter of Departure Lounge, who supported Acheson's work: “We do a lot of work with Chris,” Acheson confirms. “We've also had great support from people like Vic Galloway at Radio 1, but at the same time the jazz and folk people from radio Scotland were giving us support too.” 

This ability to appeal to the urban music fans and the traditional folk and jazz crowd is part of Hidden Orchestra's appeal, but early on, they had toruble with bing mistaken for a jazz band. This was due mainly to the band's original name – the Joe Acheson Quartet. “It was hard to remember, hard to pronounce, hard to spell, and made us unintentionally sound like a jazz band, which we instantly got bracketed as, despite the fact I have absolutely no background in jazz,” Acheson remembers. “So eventually when we did get hooked up with Tru Thoughts – and Chris Knight was very helpful in forcing me to follow that connection through – they suggested a name change, which was something we were thinking we would do if we got a record deal anyway. That completely changed everything. Before the name change and the album release, we had only played one gig abroad – a few months later we had played in over 25 countries. Hidden orchestras are the first orchestras in orchestra pits in opera, theatre and old movie halls. That idea of an orchestra accompanying a narrative was important.” 

Acheson works as a sound designer for radio, and expresses an interest in doing soundtrack work for film in the future. As influenced by Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalmenti as he is by Stravinsky and Ravel, his first love remains hip-hop and urban music. Although he does feel a little disconnected from the Scottish scene these days, he is still passionate about the diversity of Scottish urban music: “Profisee is the obvious example – his album From All Angles was great,” Acheson enthuses. “The whole Lucky Me thing... it's a tricky question, because I don't get out much any more! There is still a lot of great stuff though, and it's great because of the diversity. You've got kids from Glasgow doing straight-up hip-hop; you've got all of these interesting pockets of dubstep producers; there's the whole Black Lantern thing; I really love the extreme stuff that Akira Kiteshi does, and the more ambient stuff from Gravious. I love The Blessings. It's the diversity which really shines through. It would be easy to assume that something like Scottish hip-hop would be very small, niche and specific as a genre. But within that, there's a massive array of people doing different things, coming out of their isolated backgrounds and finding their own voice. If you're the only rapper from a tiny village in the Highlands, you're going to have your own style.”

As a producer and sound designer who has built a touring orchestra from a core of four musicians, and found space to feature contemporary jazz and folk greats alongside cutting-edge beats, Acheson remains a vital part of that scene, and one of its most gifted composers. 

Archipelago is released via Tru Thoughts on 1 Oct. http://www.hiddenorchestra.com