Unfolding The Exquisite Corpse: Grumbling Fur Interviewed

Amidst statements of wanting to transcend the mundane, Alexander Tucker and Daniel O’Sullivan’s latest project really seems to be about their friendship

Feature by Simon Jay Catling | 01 Aug 2014

When Daniel O’Sullivan says that he and Alexander Tucker’s creative and personal relationship exists on an “intuitive” level, he isn’t lying. Interviewed separately, the Grumbling Fur duo’s answers nevertheless fall into easy synchronicity with one another – sharing the description of their creative process as like “putting together an exquisite corpse,” and harbouring the same belief of sculpting music as it comes to them, rather than forcing an idea for the sake of not losing it. “Grumbling Fur is that thing of having a very intense relationship with a friend,” reflects the softly-spoken Tucker down a phone line, following a day of fishing with his band mate and their families.

Although Grumbling Fur as an entity is relatively new, their creative – and life – collaboration is not. Tucker is of course best known for a series of third-eye opening solo albums on Thrill Jockey, likened by some – admittedly to his increasing chagrin – to the pastoral Englishness of Syd Barrett and the Canterbury folk of the 60s and 70s. The perhaps more extroverted O’Sullivan, meanwhile, has an exhaustive list of collaborations to his name; from fronting long-running Norwegian metal and experimental excavators Ulver and his own Mothlite, to working with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley on improvisational project Æthenor – even frequently donning the robes for O’Malley’s infamous doom ensemble.

The pair first came together before all that, when O’Sullivan was still in his teens and Tucker had reached his early 20s. “Dan’s got a great energy about him,” the latter says. “He’s trained musically but can unravel as well – and I’m someone who comes from a pretty unravelled background. I used sound before I could really even ‘play’ music, so to speak.” Both admit that their early musical inclinations together foretold little of their subsequent further flung experimentations however; “We just sounded like Superchunk or something,” Tucker laughs.

"It seemed easier to reconvene via music – it was like an automatic setting” – Daniel O'Sullivan

The two friends drifted apart as the elder artist left behind the hardcore and Straight Edge lifestyle that O’Sullivan was still heavily involved in at the turn of the millennium. However, they reconvened years later after Tucker was asked to join Æthenor on tour. “I hadn’t really seen him in a while but I’d been keeping up to date with what he’d been doing,” O’Sullivan recalls of the man he gleefully describes as “an ambassador for English weirdness.” Re-uniting through a series of relaxed jam sessions, with no pressure placed on anything particularly having to come from them, new bonds were slowly forged. “I’d always wanted to reconnect with him because we had been really close,” says O’Sullivan, “then he went through a big break-up and we both went through changes. It seemed easier to reconvene via music – it was like an automatic setting.”

After recording parts of Tucker’s 2011 record Dorwytch, the pair continued to play together – from which came Grumbling Fur. Tucker admits they’re both big Beatles-heads, while O’Sullivan also agrees there’s lots of common ground. “I think we’re both in love with the process – that’s where we meet. We just play a game really; collaboration for us is more like playing exquisite corpse. It’s call and response,” he says. “We know each other so well that it’s an easy relationship to maintain. It’s about allowing the music to happen rather than getting in the way of it; it almost feels like it’s there all the time anyway, y’know? It’s just choosing which antennae you use to key into it.”

On the outside you wouldn’t have expected that antennae to have produced records so heavy on pop nous – particularly on last year’s second LP Glynnaestra and their new, even more refined-sounding, album Preternaturals. What tracks like the Blade Runner-referencing The Ballad of Roy Batty hinted at, in the undeniable anthemia that broke through their amorphous drones and smudged rhythms, has been fully realised on Preternaturals.

Tracks like All The Rays and Lightsinisters emerge further from the undergrowth than ever before; in fact, as the pair sing 'rapid stars are moving out our way' during the latter’s key-shifting mid-section, there’s the sense of the duo hurtling towards the sort of dizzying high that can leave you gasping for air. “We don’t want it to feel like this obscurantist maze of sonic fug,” O’Sullivan comments. “It’s intended to feel how it felt when the idea was conceived; when you’re making something and the meaning or resonance starts to emerge, the job is preserving it and not caking it with shit.”

A series of epiphanies, Preternaturals breaks up the congealing layers of their previous earthy sound; strings and electronics distinctly separate on the rolling-plains of Feet of Clay, for example, the strains of viola sounding slightly warped and well-worn, but warm and familiar for it. For Tucker, whose past lies in studying Fine Art at Slade, the precision of layering is something that’s long been with him. “I remember when I first got an 8-track and thinking how much it was like painting,” he recalls. “I was making marks on this track or layer, and another track was like creating another surface – and then you were melding them and building a picture.”

The duo partly attribute a more instant-sounding record to music journalist Luke Turner, who – as co-founder of music website The Quietus and label The Quietus Phonographic Corporation with John Doran – is putting Preternaturals out. “I’d been listening to a lot of Mad Lib and J Dilla and we were all ready to make a beats album and then Luke said ‘No, I want a big pop record!’” says Tucker, “So we were like ‘Oh, alright then!” But, he argues, searching for melody has always been key to his work anyway – even in his more off-kilter wanderings. “Even on my noisy improvisation things I’ll try and pull melodies out of obtuse sections – I mean we’re both massive R.E.M. fans! – I like songs, whatever shape they come in, and exploring what you can do within those parameters.”

O’Sullivan’s pop links are more obvious; at the end of last year he released an album of crystalline structures and big Depeche Mode-reminiscent goth-pop under the name Miracle, with Zombi's Steve Moore. He’s also co-written with sometime Radio 1 botherers The Big Pink – at one point he mentions a weekend away in Argyle with the comically incongruous pairing of The Big Pink’s Robbie Furze and Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley (“lots of fishing, walking… and yeah, quite a lot of hedonism.”) However, he’s keen to disassociate himself from the idea of Grumbling Fur ever approaching anything with too many deliberate intentions. “If you’ve got your eye on some sort of defined result I think it’s flawed immediately,” he states. “So when we came upon pop tunes for this it was really quite instantaneous. The most exciting thing for us is when you’re in the creative process and feel like you’re on auto-pilot – but suddenly this web of synchronicity reveals itself.”

Thematically, Grumbling Fur base themselves around the aim of – as they both call it – “extracting the profound from the mundane,” in essence the sense of a truly psychedelic trip where your surroundings take on the extraordinary. It’s something Tucker’s grown up with thanks to a contrasting love of pop art and surrealism, and you only need to listen to the new record’s Mister Skeleton to understand the approach. Taken from O’Sullivan’s daughter – who asked her father at Halloween if the array of fancy-dress spectres and ghouls that kept turning up at their door were their friends – the fleeting moment has been turned into a murmuring cascade, deftly punctuated by finger-picked guitar and the duo’s almost spiritual-sounding tandem vocals. “There’s a certain chemistry when we double track and sing in unison,” admits O’Sullivan. "Although I wouldn't say we were intentionally putting gospel into it, as much as I love devotional music."

More than that though, the stylistic nuance represents an on-record recognition of how tightly-woven the pair are. It’s a union that’s altered just once on Preternaturals, with a cameo appearance by The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess on Lightsinisters boosting numbers to three. “We gelled as soon as he came over,” says Tucker, “literally right up to the moment when he had to get his train he was laying down sections.” Won over by his humility, the pair have become firm friends with the singer and have begun helping him on his own forthcoming record. “I don’t ever think of The Charlatans when I see Tim,” says O’Sullivan, “his trajectory’s really interesting, he’s very chameleonic.” That’s certainly a term you could apply to both Grumbling Fur members too – though their bond remains as it ever was.

Preternaturals is released on 11 Aug via The Quietus Phonographic Corporation. Grumbling Fur play Liverpool Psych Fest at Camp & Furnace, which takes place on 26-27 Sep http://mothlite.blogspot.co.uk