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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Mick Dillingham Interviews : Burning Ferns

Hailing from Newport, Wales, “Burning Ferns” return with their second album “Public Mono” and what an absolute delight it truly is. Overflowing with a embarrassingly rich abundance of elegant, heart stopping melodies and top end musical invention. It’s a beautiful multilayered captivating Psych Pop masterpiece on which the band never put so much as a toe wrong from blazing start to breathless finish.

Oh there's so much creative depth to enjoy in this effortless pleasure of a listening experience.  “Public Mono” is quite some rare achievement and Burning Ferns are quite some special band to be reckoned with. I could sum up the album with one word and that word would be WOW! 
Time to sit down with chief Fern Anthony Gray and talk about it all.

> What are your earliest memories of first getting into music?

"Music figured heavily when I was growing up. My parents were separated and they both had record collections. My earliest "this is the best thing ever" moment was the Magical Mystery Tour gatefold album with the book inside. I think was about 7 or 8 years old and I had no clue what the hell it was all about but I loved it. It was simultaneously beguiling, cool, funny, strange, wacky, daft, silly and it sounded incredible.

Prior to that what sticks in my mind are things like 'I Want To Teach The World To Sing' by The New Seekers which I remembered from a TV advert, 'Tiger Feet' by Mud which we had on a 7" single. Also 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' and the theme from Bagpuss, which used to make me feel nostalgic, even though I was too young to have anything like the depth of experience that would warrant nostalgia. I can remember being told to shut up quite a lot because I'd incessantly repeat song lyrics and get on everyone's nerves."

> Which music artists first made you sit up and take notice?

"My first proper obsession was The Jesus and Mary Chain. I was about 14. I went full black, Chelsea boots, leather trousers, bad spiky crimped hair and brought ALL their records. I went to see them illegally in Bristol with my mate Jon Hatfield who was really responsible for turning me onto to the whole thing.

Both him, my brother and my sister were all heavily obsessed with music by this point. My brother Matt would buy a lot of records and was heavily into Punk and New Wave, he was always going to gigs and still does. My sister Emma was a full on Goth who was obsessed with Marc Almond, Gary Numan and The Clash. Everyone in the house loved The Ramones. The Mary Chain took pop simplicity and turned it into a motorbike and sidecar of melody and white noise and they looked cool as hell.

They played with their backs to the crowd and started riots. It was an irresistible act of rebellion and for me it was ours because it felt new. It took its influences from some of Punk, but also a great deal from 60's art rock and ended up opening the doors to The Velvet Underground, Pebbles and Nuggets compilations, Can, The Stooges and also eventually Bowie."

> When did you start playing an instrument?

"I saw a Black Kay Les Paul copy in a music shop window when I was 11. I asked for it for Christmas. I didn't really play it. I liked to just look at it. I used to put it next to my bed so it was there in the morning when I woke up. I had no idea how to play it or how to start playing it. My brother Matt knew a bit though and showed me Smoke On The Water.

He ended up playing it way more than me. Eventually he went on to play guitar for The Darling Buds and toured America with them. The Kay Les Paul gathered dust. I never had an amp for it, so never really realised what it was capable of doing. Then someone, an old boyfriend of my sister's I think, left an amp round our house. It was a Vox AC30 head and cab. An incredible sounding amp.

Then, when I was obsessed with the Mary Chain, my friend Jon came over and we started mucking about with this amp. That's when I realised an amp makes all the difference. I got a new guitar, an Ibanez Roadstar, a black one and a DOD fuzz pedal. The pedal was the key. You can create melody with a fuzz pedal while making mistakes, even the most clumsily fingered dead chord sounds great with a fuzz pedal."

> When did you start writing songs?

"I realised you could make up your own stuff quicker than learning other people's. I wish I still had the tapes of me and Jon in my bedroom doing 'King Neptune'. All the lyrics were 'King, King Neptune Queen, Queen Aqua'. It wasn't really a song, it was just noise and not many words. If I could have a time machine I'd go back and watch this, it'd be hilarious.

Recording stuff into tape recorders made me realise that putting something relatively listenable together wasn't that difficult after all and two guitar tracks sounded better than one. At the age of about 17, I got a band together with another friend, Guy, who played bass. We called ourselves 'The Egg'. It was just us two and a drum machine. We used to play open mic nights in the Forge and Hammer in Machen, a local pub which catered well for local bands and musicians.

I only wrote about 5 songs for The Egg. Eventually we recorded them in a mate's studio and played a battle of the bands at Chapter Arts in Cardiff which at 17 felt like a big deal. We didn't win, or come second or third. You can see, a pattern of failure was established early."

> Were you in any earlier bands?

"First there was me and Jon in my bedroom, then there was The Egg, then there was a band that had no name which consisted of Jon again, Brychan Todd (Ferns Bass/ Keys wizard) and Brychan's brother Meirion. ( Side note ! - Brychan went to University in Liverpool, then moved to London and ended up playing for NME/ indie darlings Astronaut and also worked for Creation Records for a while!).

 After the band with no name was College in Swansea, where I played guitar for a band called Solar Bud. The Solar Bud experience was crazy, we did lots of gigs and wild Biker festivals. Then back to Newport and some time as a Roadie and Guitar Tech for a band called Suck on a UK tour with Newport's Dub War.

Then I started making music on a Computer with an old friend called Craig Lewis and also did various projects with some other Newport people. I eventually found my way to Burning Ferns' amazing sleeve artist Gareth Blayney and ended up playing Bass for a recording outfit that he conceived called The Hypnotrons.

He wrote great songs and it was pleasure to play on them. By now, both me and Gareth both knew Crazed Monkey Alike drummer Carl Bevan from Newport's 60ft Dolls, so I ended up doing various things for him too.

I played some bass on some tracks he recorded for a project he had called 'Taisty Bone' after the Dolls had split. This is how I met Nathan Abraham (Abo) from the Ferns who had been guitarist in Newport's Rollerco and Veltones amongst other projects."

> How did the ferns get together?

"In between recording snippets of editable things for Carl to play with me and Abo, we would play songs with each other. Then we started to socialise more. Then one night after many beers we decided we should do something together.

I'd discovered how writing songs on the acoustic guitar was by far the best way for me to give birth to an idea. So I started writing songs and every week we'd go to a studio and record them. This first incarnation was called 'The Good Time Milk'.

> Talk about the first album

"One of the best things Nathan and I came up with as The Good Time Milk was a song called 'Crunch Time'. This was a sea shanty style allegory to the dodgy pirate like machinations of the deregulated banking sector, who'd caused the crash of 2008. At that point I think we knew we had at least one good song.

That song was the launch pad for nine or ten others. Crunch Time, in its eventual recorded form and those nine or ten others would not have seen the light of day had we not invited our, recently repatriated to Wales old friend, Brychan Todd to play bass and get real with some arrangements. He was up for it and we started messing with some stuff I was bringing down to the studio.

We got it together with local man about drums. Simon 'Slim' Short and recorded a four track demo EP in 2011 called "Crunch Time In Shangri Las With The Sand Demons". Imaginatively it had the songs Crunch Time, Shangri Las and Sand and Demons on it. Three of these would make it in re-recorded form onto our first album See Saw Seen.

We sent the Demo to Country Mile records, a local open minded Indie record label who'd put out stuff by the legendary John Langford, my brother's wonderful Gimme Memphis and the amazing Ash And The Oak. We arranged to meet Ray from Country Mile in the Pub, he loved it. We agreed to record an album."

> How was it received?

"See Saw Seen was received way better than we ever expected. We knew what we were doing was quite niche and we didn't expect the kind of national interest it attracted in Wales. Crunch Time got 'Single Of The Week' and ended up being played regularly for about a month on Radio Wales and we got great reviews from the likes of Buzz Magazine.

Then wider interest happened from places like Canada, Australia, Japan and the US. We didn't sell thousands of copies, but it was amazing to know there were total strangers on other parts of the planet who dug what we did!"

> There’s quite a gap between the two albums ..what happened in those years?

"We were mainly in work and being parents, while every Thursday returning to the studio and working on a steady drip of new songs that I was coming up with. We didn't have many weeks off, we're just really slow. Eventually, we had an album's worth of stuff we were happy with, so we decided to start recording it on Thursday nights.

Whilst doing this there was still interest in See Saw Seen and we were playing the odd gig and doing some Live Radio appearances. Me and Abo did a turn on Radio Wales one day and Dave Corten Tweeted how much he enjoyed it. I identified him as another Newport musician.

We were looking for a stand in bass player because Brychan was expecting his second child. Because Dave had expressed an element of enthusiasm toward our nervous live acoustic performance, which was very nice of him, we decided we'd ask him to stand in on bass during Brych's paternity leave. He obliged and ended up staying, because we always had a third vocal harmony and an acoustic guitar on our recordings, and he was alright, you know?"

> While the first record is excellent the new album is epic, a dazzling high concept masterwork, chock full of superb musical invention.  Talk about the recording

"Thank you very much! That kind of comment makes the fun of creating this stuff extra worth it!

We decided that we could take control of recording the vocals and guitars and just have the Drums and Bass professionally engineered by our old compadre Richard Jackson. It'd save some money, which we didn't have and would mean we wouldn't have to squeeze the singing, guitars etc into paid engineer time.

It would take longer, but we didn't care it was still fun! We also had a great idea of what we hadn't done so well on See Saw Seen, so we gave ourselves time as an opportunity to try to improve. For instance, we took the keyboards more seriously, because Brychan is also an amazing keyboard player as well as Bass player.

At times it was laborious. At other times it was absolutely hilarious. We have hours of edited out laughter from corpsing during vocal recordings. We've clearly identified Dave Corten as having a wind issue.

From a song writing perspective, there was definitely now more nuance to the arrangements, better instrumentation, better chord progressions and richer harmonies. The ordering of songs was really important, because we wanted to treat the album as a whole thing that had a real feeling of a beginning and an end."

> What are your favourites on the record?

"My personal favourites are ‘Made Of The Sun’, ’0’s & 1’s’. Made Of The Sun’s got interesting melodic properties. pushed on by a great combined Vibes / Rhodes sound courtesy of keyboard maestro Brychan. I’m pleased with the chords and the singing. It’s also got an extended synth note that bleeds out of a held vocal note after the middle 8.

It’s nice to play live and it transferred to recording pretty well. With slower songs like that, it’s hard sometimes to capture the right vibe, but I think we did it. I like '0’s & 1’s' because it’s a bit angry while still being a bit Psych Pop and has an interesting chord progression. Then it changes into something different, with great slap back echo on the Drums, introduced when the tempo drops."

> How does the song writing process work with you, where do you lyrical ideas come from?

"Either words, then chords or chords which get mumbled over until some semblance of a potential melody happens which I can write an appropriate lyric to. Sometimes I get strings of ideas quickly, sometimes I get no ideas at all for weeks on end.

Listening to new things can help, as can picking up a different guitar. The lyrical ideas tend to come from everyday stuff I’ve been thinking about, or just from everyday experiences. This presents lots of different subjects from the internet of things to (lately) people thinking it’s a good idea to behave like lobsters and celebrities acting like wild over sexed bonobos."

> Are you slow or prolific?

"I’m either Prolow or Slolific, see above."

> What would you say were your biggest influences?

"The Beatles, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, The Byrds, Gene Clark, JAMC, Beck, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, SFA, Elliot Smith….I could go on…."

> Future plans?

Slim Short has now left as drummer to pursue other projects. We are seeking out a new drummer and have some promising prospects. There are 4 new songs on the go, which is nearly half an album, or an EP!. There’s an animal theme happening currently. I’m not sure where it’s going yet, but I’ll keep you posted!

You can listen to both albums here. Public Mono is available from all good online Record Emporiums and can be listened to on the likes of Spotify et al. CD Baby have the album to buy on download or CD here.

You can also support the label, by buying it from Country Mile Records themselves, here.

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