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The Lockdown Interviews • Hen Ogledd

| January 21, 2021

Hen Ogledd

Given the turbulent, truly batshit-crazy year that we’ve all just staggered through, it was easy to overlook a lot of great, often idiosyncratic albums that continued to be released, pandemic be damned. And we’d like to pause, catch our mask-in-place breath, and bring you up to speed on a few obscure aural delights you might have otherwise missed, starting with Hen Ogledd’s Free Humans, one of the most delightful — and decidedly surreal — records to emerge from out of nowhere in 2020. Picture, if you can, The Flying Lizards in a switchblade fight with James White and the Blacks in a No-Wave New York alley, presided over by Swedish supergroup ABBA. Then you might start to grasp what this lovably eccentric UK quartet is attempting to do on this, its latest prog-folk-pop long-player.

Led by electric, pedal-manipulating harpist Rhodri Davies, the group also features guitarist-vocalist Richard Dawson and his vocalist-keyboardist missus Sally Pilkington, plus co-vocalist Dawn Bothwell on glockenspiel and drum machine, and its unusual name once referred to the Old North, Britain’s Celtic Southern-Scotland/Northern England region in the Middle Ages. All of the members have other projects going on — Davies is a popular session musician. Bothwell is a solo artist, and Dawson recently issued his sixth solo set, 2020, and began tracking home-studio albums with Pilkington during the lockdown, as a duo dubbed Bulbils. But when they come together as Hen Ogledd, the creative sparks start flying, landing on “Free Humans” marvels like the sing-song “Trouble,” the sinister creeper “Feral,” a gossamer synth twinkler called “Crimson Star,” the cobra-hissed “Paul is 9 Ft. Tall (Marsh Gas),” and a blipping, bleeping, vocally-chanted “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song” (and hey — it’s about time he got one!). The member’s lyrical and tonal influences are just as diverse, and they run the gamut from evil-studying author Mary Midgely to 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, the paintings of Agnes Martin, James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, the films of Werner Herzog, and even the sleek autotuned pop of UK diva Hannah Diamond. And if that doesn’t make immediate aesthetic sense, don’t worry — it doesn’t have to. Just put the record on, draw the curtains, switch the black light on, and drift away into the experimental sonic stratosphere like Phileas Fogg. Davies, Dawson, and Pilkington teamed up on a conference call to help draw any lost listeners a map.

IE: You guys are certainly having fun, turning the concept of pop music on its ear.

RICHARD DAWSON: I think with the last record (Magic), we talked about the different ideas that that could mean. Like, obviously, “pop” being pop music, but also bursting some kind of bubble, and how would we approach each of those things. And then with this record— at least in this household — we were thinking more about dance and the idea of party music. But party music for what purpose, because what purpose could party music possibly have right now? And then, since none of us are really coming from pop backgrounds, we quite liked the idea of working in a field that none of us are familiar with.

IE: What are your backgrounds?

RHODRI DAVIES: I’m a harpist, so I play a lot of contemporary classical music and do free improvisation. Then Richard is a troubadour.

SALLY PILKINGTON: Well, I’ve never finished or recorded any music before, so it’s all quite new to me, really. But now I play the keyboards in different ways, and I play the church organ, which is very simple, with no beats — just the organ. But I’ve been doing that in a very improvised way, so this is my first time being part of something that’s actually finished.

DAVIES: And then Dawn has her own band called Pentecostal Party, which is kind of twisted art-pop, and it’s just her solo, using pedals.

IE: How did all of you meet?

DAVIES: I used to live in Newcastle, and I met Richard there, so we started playing together first. And then Dawn joined us for our second album, and then Sally joined us for the last album, so we’ve stayed a quartet. But I’ve since moved to Swansea, in Wales, so only three of us live up in Newcastle.

PILKINGTON: And we’d all been friends for some time, but now me and Richard are a couple.

IE: And Free Humans is rooted in Lovelock’s crucial Gaia Theory, which states that the Earth is a living organism, essentially, and we are its stewards, tasked with looking after it. A role we seem to have forgotten. 

PILKINGTON: We’ve been inspired by Mary Midgely, and she’s really into Lovelock and Gaia. But we were all kind of thinking along those lines anyway. But she’s really been on our radar in particular over these last few years.

DAWSON: And there was a book that had a big effect on me called The Vorrh, by Brian Catling, a sci-fi trilogy of environmentally extreme horror. It has lots of interesting ideas. One of them is these angels coming back from the jungle to save the world, but saving humanity itself isn’t necessarily very high on their priority list. So that was definitely in my thoughts — we are the priority to us, but actually, in the greater scheme of things, that’s where a lot of the problems have arisen – from us not seeing ourselves as part of a bigger system or organism, not seeing ourselves as custodians of it.

IE: What is the Hen Ogledd belief system, then?

DAVIES: I think the manifesto is in the record. It’s hidden in the record somewhere. It’s an attempt to have an openness, an openness to different voices, to different ways of looking at things, and openness to making music differently and in different ways together. That’s what I think is running through it, and some of the songs overtly point to it, as well. There’s so much hatred out there at the moment, so we thought, “How can we counter that with positive thinking on different levels, without some dumbing down kind of thing?” I don’t know if that’s a philosophy, but it’s a unique viewpoint. And that’s our attempt to cope with what’s happening at the moment.

IE: This is interesting because pop music doesn’t traditionally ask listeners to think.

DAWSON: Yeah. And I’ve always really enjoyed listening to pop music. And I’ve not really analyzed it so much. But since we’ve been doing these experimental pop albums, I’ve been looking at things a bit differently in the pop realm. And sometimes in pop, things did get past people, things could be secreted in, in a way. There’s a nice interview with the comedian Stewart Lee, and he was saying, “Standup is great because you can pretend that you’re doing something really trivial and you’re just doing these humorous things. But then you can hide these larger themes that you couldn’t otherwise talk about.” And I think you can do that with pop music, too — you can kind of sneak things in, themes that aren’t being discussed elsewhere or are being passed over by dominant Capitalist music tropes. But personally, I’m quite resistant to pinning anything down to one philosophy because I think if we could do that and express the idea more succinctly, then that’s how we would do it. But I think Free Humans is the most succinct way that we can express how we feel and respond to that. And to dial it down any further would be to dilute the message.

PILKINGTON: If we have some kind of philosophy, it might be about uniting the people in some way or trying to overcome the divisions. But the media fuels divisions, and politics fuels divisions in a way that’s really unhelpful. And I think music can be something that unites. Although I’m sure people have divided opinions on our music, the idea, in general, is that we could all be working together much better, with more understanding and more empathy, instead of fighting.

DAVIES: And I think Sally and Richard came up with a very beautiful response during lockdown with their duo Bulbils. They recorded over 40 albums together, and they were a real tonic at the beginning of lockdown for me. I found them really helpful.

IE: Forty? Really?

DAWSON: Yeah. When lockdown happened here in Newcastle, we made this lockdown pact — we were trying to record an album a day, but we slowed down quite quickly. We only made 49 albums. And they’re short albums, and quite simple, as well — very simple music, with a lot of drone stuff and very synthy and kind of rough. But we slowed down in June, July, and now we’re gonna make one more, so we’ll round out at 50. We were meant to be touring my 2020 album, but we suddenly found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands. But this whole lockdown situation has forced people to confront and reassess the value systems in their lives. And I think we identify with — or make our identities through — our work a lot of times, and that’s quite a tenuous thing for any artist. And I was thinking about that and watching a lot of David Lynch movies, and you get to a certain age, and you start to ask yourself, “How can it be worthwhile to still stay in this fight? Because it really feels like a losing battle at the moment.” But then you realize that maybe the losing battles are the only ones worth fighting. But we wanted to make music that was very practical and useful to people, music to relax them. We started with very simple long drones that were quite mellow, and there four or five albums like that. Then we just started exploring more — we made some purely acoustic albums with just gongs, and some with beats that sound like Kraftwerk. With each one, we tried to change up something about the arrangement of instruments or the way that we did it, just to keep it fresh for us. And sometimes we had vocals, but wordless ones — Sally would do a lot of ‘Ah-woo-oohs.’ But it was mainly instrumental stuff, and it was more about trying to maintain contact with people and offer some sort of solidarity in these really scary times.

IE: There’s a hint of the extraterrestrial in Hen Ogledd’s work. Do you think — as some do — that aliens have periodically tried to help steer mankind away from its own destruction?

DAWSON: Well, the idea that aliens would be a threat to us just doesn’t seem very likely to me. Because if they had the technology to get here, they must have somehow solved the problem of fighting amongst themselves to get that far. So they’ve realized the folly of violence. So aliens don’t worry me, and they’re probably already here among us. They might even be in our band!

IE: Does Hen Ogledd have hope for humanity? Or are you providing a quirky, lovable soundtrack for the end?

DAWSON: I guess it goes back to that thing I said before, where — even if it’s a losing battle — then that’s all the more reason to fight it. But I do have hope. And if we didn’t have hope, we wouldn’t have made the record. So I hope the record can offer some optimism. We don’t want to get too lofty, and at the same time, we don’t have to talk about things just using political language. So this is our way of saying how we feel. And a lot of it is filled with hope and is about not giving up.

– Tom Lanham

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