Northumbria: Band Of The Day

By on 6 October 2014


Formed out of the ashes of Toronto based post-rock outfit Holoscene, Dorian Williamson and Jim Field have gone on to scale even more impressive heights with Northumbria. Whilst the pair have described their music as “ambient doom”, there’s an sense of optimism and clarity in their sound that’s somewhat at odds with that “doom” tag, with their expansive, achingly beautiful compositions having more in common with the enveloping electronics of Tim Hecker or the wide screen, hypnotic grandeur of Stars Of The Lid than they do anything in the traditional doom cannon. That said, there’s a heaviness and depth to their work that will ensure the open minded doom fan finds much to enjoy here.

The duo recorded their self-titled debut in a 19th century church in Northumberland County (hence the name), lending its vast drones even more textural depth and sonic clout. The idea of recording albums in somewhat unusual spaces is something that appeals to the pair, as we found out whilst quizzing them on their influences, their recording process and their upcoming release ‘Blood Orchid’…

WHO ARE THEY: Northumbria
WHERE ARE THEY FROM: Toronto, Canada
FOR FANS OF: Nadja, Stars Of The Lid, Sunn O))), Tim Hecker
LATEST RELEASE: ‘All Days Begin As Night’ (2013)
WEBSITE: Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp

Could you tell us briefly how Northumbria formed?
Dorian (Williamson): “I’d been aware of Jim’s music for many years, being a big fan of his band Rhea’s Obsession. Around 2006 when I was playing in Holoscene, He shared some bills with us doing a solo ambient guitar set and it blew me away, especially considering it was totally improvised. When it came time to replace a member of the band who was leaving, Jim was our first choice. Unfortunately Holoscene came to a pretty abrupt end soon thereafter, but I always intended to continue to work with him on something in the future, and in late 2011 Northumbria was formed as a way for us to further explore and experiment together. It was a bit like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of our last bands. A very big, very loud and very emotional phoenix.”

Jim (Field): “My father is a jazz musician and I formally studied it in college. As a result I’ve always gravitated to an improvisational approach to music when left on my own. Northumbria had it’s genesis in the aftermath of Holoscene’s demise. Dorian and I have right from the start shared a common aesthetic towards music so when he suggested we get together and do a jam at at cathedral around the corner from his home, I jumped right in knowing it would be great. We didn’t even talk about what we were going to do other than to establish key and vibe. I had several musical ideas and themes I wanted to explore that I carried over from my previous solo project, but in the end we simply fed off of each others ideas and excitement. What we recorded ended up being as much a surprise to us as anyone else! Our musical conversation has only grown since.”

Did you have a specific sound in mind when you formed the band, or did that grow and evolve as you played together?
Dorian: “We had a pretty specific idea of what we wanted to create from the outset, we have a synergy and history that really coalesces well. At the same time we don’t over-intellectualize what we’re doing, a lot of it’s just natural. We just help it birth, and then guide it in the direction it appears to want to go. We have a pretty unique combination of influences that manifest themselves in different ways, but we are consciously trying to push each other into new territory all the time. With Northumbria it’s all about experimenting and trying new systems and processes for each track. But it’s not just experimenting for experimentations sake, it has to have real power, emotion and expression.”

Jim: “Dorian has beautifully summed it up. Music for me is always in a state of flux and evolution. Due to the improv nature of what we do, it’s more about capturing and channelling a state of mind or emotion than some sort of specific process or approach. In some instances a theme or idea will underpin a piece and we’ll draw inspiration from those images. Other times, the music will firmly guide us some place we never anticipated and we just go along for the ride!”

Black Sea of Trees 720P from Marc Forand on Vimeo.

What kind of stuff are you and the rest of the band into? Who would you cite as influences?
Dorian: “My background is more Industrial and Noise. I was heavily influenced and inspired, as Jim was, by the Industrial Metal scene in the late 80’s. Bands like Head of David, Godflesh, Swans, Skinny Puppy, Earth etc. We’re also really into a lot of the music our friends make, and I’m honoured to call them friends. Menace Ruine, thisquietarmy, Nadja, Theologian, Auditor Insect Ark, Requiem, Gates, Locrian, Compactor. I also listen to a lot of dark ambient music as well. Atrium Carceri, Marissa Nadler and Sigur Ros is getting lot of play these days. Label wise we love the releases that Cyclic Law, Cryo Chamber and Consouling Sounds are putting out. Very intense stuff. Byla, a project by Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston was a big inspiration for Northumbria’s initial experimentations.”

Jim: “I could write a book in order to answer that one! The short answer is I really feel as though there are only two kinds of music for me: that which I feel inspired by and everything else. I have a very broad range of influences: 20th century classical avant garde such as Charles Ives, Gyorgy Ligeti and Igor Stravinsky; Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s ambient work; masters such as Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi and David Gilmour; jazz legends John Coltrane and Miles Davis; N.Y. pioneers Swans, Jim Thirlwell and Sonic Youth; metal gods Iron Maiden and Judas Priest; Sigur Ros and Mono; Bauhaus, Joy Division and Killing Joke; Big Black and Godflesh; traditional Sufi and Indian classical masters too many to list…and on and on… Over the years I’ve been very fortunate to have shared stages with many amazing artists that would be unknown to your readers but who have had just as much, if not more influence on who I am today as a musician as the people I just listed.”

What can you tell us about your upcoming release, ‘Blood Orchid’?
Dorian: “We were invited to do a live session for the London based Mantis Radio a while back, and thought it would be a cool opportunity to collaborate with our friend Famine. He took our live stems and added some percussion and synth. It’s probably the darkest thing we’ve made to date. Jim came up with the title based on a quote by William S. Burroughs. It’s also our longest song, so we felt it deserved to be released on it’s own. A UK-based label called Cathedral Transmissions is gonna be releasing it on a super limited 3” CD this September, with killer artwork by our good friend and longtime supporter Stephen Wilson.”

Jim: “Famine did a brilliant job taking our basic idea and moulding it into something much larger and darker. Really happy to see it getting a special release!”

Northumbria & Famine :: Blood Orchid [Official Video] from F Squared Media on Vimeo.

How does your writing process normally work out? Will you meet up with song ideas pretty much fully formed beforehand, or do you tend to jam stuff out a bit more?
Dorian: “It’s really different for each song, but overall a lot of the time we decide on the tone we want to explore. Very often it goes in a totally surprising direction very far from where we originally intended. Sometimes too Jim has a motif and rough skeletal idea that we then build upon, strip down and totally fuck up. I know it sounds flakey, but really we feel it something that just uses us as conduits, it’s almost always spontaneous. We just try and reign it in, direct it and let it come to life in a way that could never be “written” like a traditional song.”

Jim: “It’s a combination of prepared ideas I’ve been playing around with before we get together and spontaneously generated ideas that we just run with. Often times I’ll create a loop and/or Dorian with create a drone and then we use that as a basis for improv. I don’t like to over-think what we do. I’ve been there/done that and although that approach has all kinds of merit, I prefer the first thought/best thought approach we’re exploring as it keeps things fresh and exciting for me.”

Your debut album was recorded live in a church – what would you say this added to the recording, and do you have any plans to record music in similarly unusual places in the future?
Dorian: “From the outset we knew it wanted to be a live project, with no additional overdubs to speak of, so when it came time to track, we wanted to record in a space that would give us lot’s of flexibility later on when mixing. We wanted it to sound real, physical and natural. Plus we recorded it at levels that would have been impossible in a normal studio. That was something we wanted to test the limits of, and I think it worked out pretty well. The acoustics really enhanced the sound of that record, which was very much a loud record. And yeah for sure, we’re really into the idea of doing things in unconventional places in the future, especially live shows.”

Jim: “The environment of the studio lends itself to the final sound of the recording. The secret to all good recordings is a great sounding room/space. That first recording was deeply influenced by the way the amps filled that space with sound and resonated acoustically. We recorded at concert volume levels and the church’s natural reverb became part of the album’s tone. I’ve always been drawn to non-conventional recording approaches and techniques so absolutely we will be exploring that in the future. I want to do a recording in an abandoned ruin as well as in a remote forest. I’ve also wanted to record in an underground mine or cave. Why make it easy? The process is an important part of the result.”

Your material sounds very textured and nuanced, especially considering there are only two instruments involved. Have you ever been tempted to bring more instruments into the mix, or does this minimal setup have everything you need?
Dorian: “I guess if we ever felt like a recording needed something we’d go ahead and add it later, we just haven’t really felt like it’s missing anything, or could be enhanced by adding new elements. A lot of the time there really isn’t any sonic room left in the spectrum. I’ve always loved the concept of self-imposed limitations, and how they can bring about new and interesting ways of working, and unique results. Brian Eno really inspires us a lot. Occasionally we re-process an element through a granular synth or effect, but it’s always the original performance, and very subtly mixed in. A lot of times we feel more liberated and free working within parameters. It’s Minimalism but it’s also Maximalism, because of the density of the whole thing.”

Jim: “I feel as though we have what we need to get where we want to go. That said, I love the collaborative approach as well. I never say never and wouldn’t be the least surprised if we do an album with special guests all over it at some point.”

Are there are any plans for another full-length any time soon?
Dorian: “Yes indeed, our follow up full-length ‘Bring Down the Sky’ is coming out this November. After some confusion and delays, we’re proud to be releasing it through the awesome Consouling Sounds.”

You’ve also recently released a remix album, ‘All Days Begin At Night’ – what in your eyes makes a good remix, and how did you choose the artists featured on the album?
Dorian: “Yeah ‘All Days Begin As Night’ was a really cool thing to make happen. It had one new song by us… the title track, and remixes of material from our debut. First off, we’re big fans of each artist, and chose them very carefully hoping that their sound would produce an interesting take on our music. It was mind-blowing how bands chose to focus on one element of the original song and then built something totally new out of it, while it was still recognizable as a Northumbria song. We kind of fantasized, ok, who would we have wanted to be a part of the initial session? And how would that have changed the sonic outcome? We then narrowed it down from there. That’s what I love about remixes. The remixer becomes an additional member of the band in a way. We were never interested in a traditional remix, we wanted to invite people to wholly use our songs as the raw materials for something new.”

Jim: “I’m very proud of that recording and love the contributions everyone made to it. It’s exciting to hear your music through someone else’s ears. I’d love to be able to do that with all of our releases.”

About Kez Whelan

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