Modern Studies on their Fringe show SOUNDING

Ahead of their involvement in the Made in Scotland 2017 programme this August, we speak to Modern Studies about their special SOUNDING show

Feature by Andrew Gordon | 07 Aug 2017

At the onset of World War One, still a few decades before the invention of radar, the British Navy figured that if they couldn’t see submarines coming, perhaps they could at least hear them. It was this reasoning that found esteemed nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford holding a colleague by the ankles and effectively giving him a swirly in the Firth of Forth. The poor fellow “had his head dunked vertically to see if he could hear in the water,” Rob St. John of Modern Studies recounts. “It was like something from a Monty Python sketch!”

St. John had this bizarre scene in mind when the band conceived SOUNDING, Modern Studies’ collaborative concert with Lomond Campbell which runs for three nights at Stockbridge Church during the Fringe. He came across the anecdote via anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, the author of Sounding the Limits of Life, from which the event takes its name. “I had this phrase, this idea in my mind about ‘sounding’... sounding depths, sounding space,” St. John explains. “This idea of sounding out a space, sounding someone out about an idea, this kind of pushing a little bit at the limits of things but also inviting people into a conversation.”

Come August, that conversation will take the form of an audiovisual experience in which band members Emily Scott, Rob St. John, Pete Harvey and Joe Smillie will debut material from their second album alongside a considerable cast of musicians. “We’ve got ten strings, two trombones and three extra singers,” Scott confirms, “so hopefully it'll be a fairly epic occasion!” It will also be the first time that Lomond Campbell will perform his 2016 album Black River Promise as it was recorded, featuring ornate string parts written by Harvey and performed by the Pumpkinseeds Chamber Orchestra.

It’s thanks to funding from Made in Scotland, an organisation that supports homegrown performing arts at the Fringe, that the band were able to put together such an ambitious show. “I really want people to feel like they've had a sort of one-off experience,” says Scott. “I don't know if we'll ever have the kind of funds or the wherewithal to do this kind of thing on a regular basis.”

With this in mind, Scott was adamant her arrangements make the most out of the available resources. “I think a lot of people will have a string quartet on things but then aren't really using them well. It’s like they’re a bed of soggy lettuce and then the band sort of sits on top of that.” Scott believes that strings and brass should be integral to the work rather than just embellishment tacked on at the end, as is so often the case in pop music.

As well as performing their own work as never heard before, the two acts decided to try their hand at each other’s material (and to great effect, we might add). Campbell opted for the Studies’ buoyant beauty Father is a Craftsman, deep-frying its delicate melody in oily psychedelic Americana, while Scott, St. John and co. took on the brooding Every Florist in Every Town.

Modern Studies have established something of a procedure for doing covers at this point, having recorded a few already for Mojo magazine and Earth Recordings. “I wouldn't say we have a standard approach but generally we do like to change the mood drastically,” says Scott. “It's almost like, you don't want to practise the person's song; you want to listen to it and then sing it how you remember it. You obviously don't want to offend somebody by doing it totally wrong but it's sort of easier to interpret something if you don't know it massively well to start off with."

As for their new material, the pair drop intriguing hints. “There's lots of nice old 60s and 70s analogue synths and tube organs and various tape delays and all this sort of stuff,” says St. John. “We're drawing from the same well but everything's going to be louder, weirder, you might even be able to dance to it.” Scott concurs: “I think things have sort of gone in a [slightly different] direction, maybe a little bit darker, a little bit more driven. Rob's guitar playing went from really beautiful tender folk picking to actually slamming his electric guitar with a drumstick six months later!”

They’ve got some exciting news too – the new record will be released early next year on Fire Records, the label once home to acts like Pulp, Neutral Milk Hotel and Spacemen 3. The deal was signed “at Glastonbury of all places, on the bonnet of someone's Volvo in the artist's camp next to some bins,” St. John reveals. “We're really delighted. They're a great label with a real cool pedigree.”

For now though, Modern Studies are focused on making SOUNDING “really special and really generative,” says Scott. “Something where you go and it's maybe just a little bit more than just your normal gig.” With the promise of two stellar acts, accompanying projections and a specially printed publication distributed to all ticket holders, it’s shaping up to be among the most invigorating and immersive experiences going in Edinburgh this summer save being dooked headfirst in the Forth.

SOUNDING is on at Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh, 20-22 Aug
Modern Studies play Electric Fields, Drumlanrig Castle, 1-2 Sep