Trembling Bells' Alex Neilson: "I’d probably be a professional footballer if it wasn’t for Trout Mask Replica"

With <b>Trembling Bells</b>’ third album on the way, drummer <b>Alex Neilson</b> is all too happy to debate the finer points of folk music

Feature by David Bowes | 08 Apr 2011
  • Trembling Bells

Alex Neilson’s musical calibre is not something to be questioned, as the list of his collaborators will no doubt pay testament to. Jandek, Current 93, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy; you name ‘em, chances are he’s got them on speed-dial, but 2009 saw his first release with Trembling Bells, a vehicle for making his way in a more song-oriented world. Two years on, he and his band are about to set off on an extensive UK and Ireland tour to celebrate the release of third full-length The Constant Pageant, another sublime mix of airy folkisms, psychedelia and the powerful voice of Lavinia Blackwall. We manage to catch a few words with him before he leaves for greener pastures.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the Trembling Bells live experience?
Hopefully it’s quite varied from show to show. I like to use the gigs as an opportunity to road test some of our newest songs so they are really well drilled by the time we come to record. We have been expanding our line up to accommodate some brass and accordion players to reflect the fuller sound you would hear on the albums. We’ve also been working with a female Morris dancing troupe called The Belles of London City and my brother, Oliver, has been doing some projections too, so hopefully it is more of an interactive ‘happening’ than a regular basement bar gig.

What do you feel to be the biggest change in your music since the band’s inception?
I guess getting Mike Hastings in on guitar was quite a big change from when the band first started. He has a really vibrant style and puts his all into everything he’s doing. I always think that he could be jamming Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and he would be sweating blood into it. This has opened up more space for guitar solos and things like that – something I would have run a mile from when we first started. I’ve also been much more open to other styles of music infecting my song writing. I’ve been listening to a lot of country, easy listening and show tunes while trying to get to the very heart of classic song writing.

Are there any rituals or patterns to your song-writing process?
I find that mobility helps a lot. If I'm travelling then that helps stimulate the mind and I can think more clearly about what I’m doing, whether this is walking through the Clyde Tunnel to Scotstoun Swimming Baths or gazing at the bone-white remnants of the Acropolis while on tour in Athens. Travelling gives you a much healthier perspective and it’s much easier to see beyond the petty grind that you can lapse into when in the same place for too long.

How much does location play a part in your sound?
I am fascinated by the resonance certain places can have, which invests them with almost heroic proportions. The very name of a place itself can inspire awe and credibility. There are countless examples of this in American folk and pop music and beyond and I am trying to key into a mode which elevates places around Britain, which have a personal resonance, into the realm of myth and mystery. In this sense certain locations play a big part in the music we make; trying to mythologize a place which provided the backdrop to some great personal realisation or other.

You’ve said that the reason the band was formed was to pursue more song-based structures. What do you think are the advantages of that over a looser, more free-form style of writing?
Writing songs was a drastic change from what I had been doing previously – mainly improvisation, traditional folk singing and drumming for other people. It has been a way of combining my experiences of playing with lots of talented and unusual musicians over the years with all my other interests. It is a much more formally considered realisation of my interests than the improvised music that I was doing before but, in some ways, it feels like a natural refinement of many of the same themes. I am very interested in tapping into the elemental energy that traditional music and improvised music smacks of but with more of a directly joyful aspect.

The new album seems to have touches of Scottish, English and American folk music. Do you think that there are universal themes or sounds that are common to folk, regardless of the origin?
It’s interesting to chart the migration of many of the antique British folk ballads over to America. Fragments of native British songs are clearly discernable on the Harry Smith Anthology of American folk, for example, (The House Carpenter or The Cuckoo or Four Nights Drunk). It seems like some of the songs lost some of the paganistic/ supernatural quality when they travelled across the pond and were assimilated more for the purpose of social commentary than recounting some mythic tale of lycanthropy as an example of fatal love (eg Molly Bawn), though I do think that many traditional songs speak of archetypal human experience that are transferable between cultures and centuries even if the details and language can seem anachronistic.

Is there any desire to further explore new territories?
As I said, I am listening to a lot of easy listening music – a term that I find to be very misleading as a lot of the music under this glitzy banner can be very melancholic and death defying – and recently my mother passed onto me details of a competition to submit a song entry for a musical so I might have a pop at that. I’m reading Steven Sondheim’s book to get some insights into the mechanics of The Classics. I’d also really love to do some percussion in an ‘early music’ ensemble. That is another big passion of mine that I would like to get more practical insight to.

What would you be doing in your life if music wasn’t an option?
Taking up music encouraged me to start smoking from the age of 13 and engage with my more feminine side. I’d probably be a professional footballer if it wasn’t for [Captain Beefheart’s 1969 classic] Trout Mask Replica.

You’ve always had quite a hectic schedule. What do you have lined up for the near future?
We’ve just had our third album out, The Constant Pageant, so we’ll be playing some dates around that. I’m also writing songs for our next album which is set to be a series of duets between Lavinia [Blackwell, Trembling Bells singer] and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy with Trembling Bells providing the backing. I’m helping curate a music festival with Alasdair from Le Weekend and Hamish from Café Oto to be held in Glasgow and London next year. I’m touring extensively with Current 93 and Baby Dee this year and playing at Ray Davies’ Meltdown, which I am super excited about as I’m a massive Kinks fan.

What do you see yourself doing in ten years’ time?
Same thing I’m doing now; nursing a failing liver and telling anyone who stands still that I used to drum with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (but with an expanded waistline and a retracted hairline).

Playing Edinburgh Queen's Hall on 15 Apr; Aberdeen Lemon Tree on 16 April and Glasgow Arches on 17 Apr

The Constant Pageant is out now via Honest Jon's