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Album Premiere: Birling Gap by The Catenary Wires

Rob and Amelia of The Caternary Wires
18 June 2021

Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher of The Catenary Wires – Photo Credit: Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher

Indie pop comes of age with the release of Birling Gap, the third album from UK-located DIY indie pop band The Catenary Wires, out today via their own label Skep Wax Records and Shelflife Records.

The Catenary Wires feature music veterans Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, both once in the beloved indie pop (with punk spirit) acts Heavenly and Talulah Gosh. These 1980s/1990s outfits were dismissed as ‘twee’ at the time, but have since been reevaluated (and rightly so) as being smarter and darker than the sweet and light pop music suggested.

Those groups were radically independent, actually wrote songs about women’s rights and travails, and were an influential part of the movement that became Riot Grrrl.

With The Catenary Wires, Amelia and Rob are still in love with making pop songs with complex messages, even after all this time has gone by – but the subject matter has shifted with the passage of over three decades.

Birling Gap is an album is full of melody, and rich with backing vocal harmonies – but now the tunes are vehicles for startlingly honest adult concerns: the fractured relationships, anxieties, passions, and politics of people who live on an island that’s turning in on itself.

The Catenary Wires know that pop music is just as good at conveying dark, difficult emotions as it is at celebrating teenage love and escapism.

While Amelia and Rob are at the heart of The Catenary Wires, they are also joined by other members who have an impressive musical pedigree of their own. Fay Hallam was in Makin’ Time, and now releases records in her own name. She is seen by many as the best Hammond organist of her generation. Andy Lewis, who produced Birling Gap, played bass in the Weller Band for many years, and has more recently worked with Louis Phillippe and Judy Dyble. Ian Button played in Thrashing Doves and Death in Vegas. These talented musicians elevate the songs, taking the arrangements to another level.

The LP’s title refers to Birling Gap, a real and significant place. On the South Coast of England, it’s where steep chalk cliffs resist the rough seas of the English Channel. It’s where iconic images of England are created and re-created. A landscape beloved of patriots – the sturdy white cliffs standing proud and strong against the waves.

Birling Gap is also a place where people, despondent and doomed, have thrown themselves off the cliffs. It’s where The Cure shot their “Just Like Heaven” video. It’s where romantic lovers go for passionate storm-tossed assignations. It’s where Shakespeare sent King Lear, blind and abandoned, hell-bent on self-destruction.

Big Takeover is deeply pleased to host the premiere of the album in its entirety on its release date.

The album depicts England, not just through its lyrics, but in its music. The Catenary Wires have listened to the songs and stories England has comforted itself with over the decades, and re-imagined them. Listeners follow loving to conflicted couples who mis-communicate and also connect on the perceptive and bittersweet songs.

Love, longing, loss, life – they all feature on a gentle to brisk brace of nostalgic songs that tug at pop-lovers’ hearts with their sweetly tuneful, emotionally wistful, and introspective reflection. The group members may be grappling the issues that come with being middle aged, but are still as smitten with melodic indie pop music as ever.

SKEP WAX · The Catenary Wires – Birling Gap

Purchase Birling Gap HERE

The Caternary Wires

Rob Pursey generously took some time to divulge insightful details about each track on Birling Gap:

“Thanks very much for giving us the space to talk about the new album! Birling Gap is a full-on pop record with loads of vocal harmonies, snatches of brass, harmonium, autoharp, keyboards and drums. Our earlier records were very different to this – just a guitar, a bit of harmonium and the two vocals. That minimalism meant we had to really work at song-writing: there’s nowhere to hide when there’s only two of you. On this album, we’ve kept that discipline, while letting things get expansive again. We are very lucky with our band members: Fay Hallam, Andy Lewis and Ian Button are great musicians with impressive musical CVs of their own, and they brought whole new dimensions to the recordings.”

“When we set out to write the album we knew we would share the vocals pretty equally and we decided to explore different approaches to writing duets. There are songs where the two voices argue with each other, or ignore each other, or harmonize with each other and sometimes even fall in love with each other. We realized that duets are like little dramas – the two voices always have a dynamic relationship. In these new songs we aren’t ‘playing ourselves’: in one scenario we might be a reactionary English couple, in another we might be a pair of divorcees hoping for one last chance at romance, in another we might be an old person very close to death and her anxious daughter, looking for signs of life.”

“We managed to rehearse the songs with the full band just before lockdown came – then the rest of the recording was done remotely. But it didn’t feel remote. We’d all talked about the songs, as well as played them together, and Andy Lewis, who produced the album, was in tune with what we were trying to achieve. We knew early on that one of the themes of the album was England – a fractious place full of people with very strong feelings, who’ve been manipulated into bitter arguments with each other. They are all obsessed with the past, but they’re unable to agree on what that past should be.”

“What I love about this song is that everyone in the band sings on it – every single line of it! This happened almost as soon as we started rehearsing – Fay and Ian are very quick to find vocal harmonies. It was immediately very powerful and moving – and unexpected. It’s lovely to be taken by surprise like that. After a while you get to know a song well, too well maybe, and you become immune to its effects. But if you hang on to that feeling you get when you first play it and try to communicate it to the listener, you might just be able to pass it on. The vocals are high in the mix, and the guitar just maintains a scratchy rhythm. The song’s about modern alienation – the sense of being in communication with everything but in touch with nothing. We wanted to marry that feeling of emptiness and anxiety with harmonies that make you yearn for real human contact, which you fondly imagine might have been possible in the past.”

“We could have made this song really loud – it’s got a big chorus, and to start with we did thrash it out a bit. But Ian kept the drums subtle, and we wanted space for Fay’s spooky backing vocals and for the gentler guitar to be heard. The song is an attack on the complacency of British middle-class people who thought everything was always going to be fine. ‘It couldn’t get much better’, the line at the start of the chorus, is a kind of echo of the 1990’s political slogan ‘Things can only get better’ – which heralded in a period of apparent progress – but only for some. Me and Amelia, duetting, take on the voices of a couple who bought into all this ‘modernity’ and ‘newness’, did quite well out of it, and who (maybe a bit cruelly) end up freezing to death on a mountainside in the Alps. (They were probably on a skiing holiday.)”

“This is a really romantic song about finding an old photograph of someone you’re still in love with, and being transported back to the precise moment when the photo was taken. This song was written a bit later than the others, once we knew how well Fay and Ian’s voices could be incorporated, and was designed for four voices. The chorus only really works if there are two pairs of vocals interweaving with each other. We wanted to accentuate that feeling of love for something or somebody in the past by having the arrangement remind you of upbeat, idyllic pop music like The Beach Boys. Your fond feelings for those old songs might help you understand and empathize with the person looking at the old photo.”

“So this is where we meet two divorcees, turning up a bit desperately at a retro 80s disco, hoping to find a new partner. And the good news is – they find each other! When they were younger these two characters were a bit like me and Amelia – disdainful of chart music, too moody to go to discos, and a bit proud. But now, once they find each other, the commercial 80s hits make a lot more sense as they tentatively step onto the dancefloor together. Andy had a good time with this song – he sourced 80s drum sounds, over-produced guitar textures, and even managed to hand the lead guitar tune over to brass. We were thinking of the lovely outro of “Torch” by Soft Cell. I hope the song feels like a celebration. It is wry, but it’s not ironic. People like us have wasted too much of our lives trying to be ironic.”

“Writing this one was quite a challenge. We wanted it to be about an older couple who are delighted with the outcome of the Brexit referendum and who have driven down to the South Coast to look out at the sea so they can luxuriate in Britain’s new-found ‘independence’. Unfortunately, the place they’ve chosen is a cliff rather like Birling Gap (the place depicted on the album sleeve), and their car goes over the edge. Like their counterparts in ‘Alpine’ they end up dead. The song does try to empathize with them, up to a point. They have strong feelings, but they aren’t malicious. They just want to regain something that never actually existed. Me and Amelia wrote our words separately: I think that helped us get more ‘into character’. I love what the band do on this song: Ian’s military drums, Fay’s brilliant fake-harpsichord – like something from a period drama – and Andy’s outrageous inclusion of the car engine revving up. It’s like a carnival of everything that’s a bit crap and nostalgic about this country.”

“We don’t have many songs that are as repetitive as this one, and maybe that comes as a bit of a relief after the ‘Three Wheeled Car’ adventure. It started with the guitar riff that runs all through the verse. It’s one of those chord patterns that never quite seems to resolve, and that’s great, because you can keep on playing it, over and over. I’m not at all technical, but the last chord is a B that hovers between a major and a minor. If you play it too emphatically as a major or a minor the song’s just not as good, so I only play the notes that are common to both chords. Someone with a proper musical education might be able to explain that, but I can’t! Amelia came up with the vocal tune quite quickly and we played the song to ourselves many times, surprised that it never seemed to want to stop. Amelia’s lyrics are quite oblique, but I know she was thinking of her mother, who’d recently died. Jean had lived with us for the last few years of her life. Like a lot of people of our generation, we spent a lot of time trying to look after a parent whose days are numbered, wondering if we were getting it right, and towards the end, wondering how to relate to someone who is only barely clinging to consciousness. My backing vocal is, in a way, Jean’s voice – still haunting the song, but only just audible.”

“So, we live quite close to Canterbury and I got really intrigued by the Canterbury Scene bands of the early 70s. I’d listened to Robert Wyatt quite a bit – I guess “Shipbuilding” was the gateway drug for lots of indie kids like me – and I loved his voice, his way of making uncompromising politics sound so sweet, but I hadn’t listened to Caravan or the other groups that were big back then. I do still find it slightly hard going – if you’ve trained as a post-punk anti-rockist it takes some adjusting to – but in the end what I was interested in was the innocence and idealism of a group of people who were so immersed in their music. I imagined what might have happened to them after their scene died – trying to cope with punk, with Thatcher, with Stock Aitken and Waterman. The song became a kind of duet, with two original members of a fictional band – who’d also had a love affair back in the day – wistfully contemplating a comeback (musical and amorous). The song really came to life when Amelia dusted off the tenor recorder that had sat in a cupboard for years. That’s the instrument that plays the optimistic little fanfare at the start of the first verse and, to me, it sounds like the early 70s calling!”

“This was the last song to go on the album. By now we knew it was going to be called ‘Birling Gap’ and that one of the themes was England, and the people who live in it. I wanted to write something about English attitudes to immigration – not a pretty subject, but it really fascinated me how people who are generally kind and humane manage to ignore the plight of other people who are risking their lives to find sanctuary here. Worse than that, a lot of English people even manage to turn these desperate exiles into figures of hate – and even fear. Somewhere in the English Channel, not far from Birling Gap, Priti Patel’s British Navy is being deployed to scare away little dinghies full of homeless people. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so inhumane. It’s quite hard to write words about all this, but I had recently read a collection of poems by David Herd. David is a co-organiser of Refugee Tales, a group of writers and artists that seeks to highlight the plight – and the humanity – of asylum seekers in this country. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I tried singing his poem ‘As A Last Resort’ over the song. It articulated what I was feeling, and maybe because these were someone else’s (very brilliant) words I didn’t feel like I was being too hectoring or moralistic. Anyway, it did seem to work, with a little bit of editing. I told David what I was up to, hoping to get his permission. Very generously he said ‘yes’. He liked the idea of the poem being re-worked – authorship for him is a flexible concept, and he is not proprietorial about his work. I hope other people will seek out his poems, and also investigate Refugee Tales.”

“When I listen to this song now, I mostly pay attention to Fay’s keyboard and Andy’s bass guitar. All our songs start with rhythm guitar and a vocal, but on Like the Rain it’s as if my guitar was a piece of scaffolding that was useful to start with, but could then be taken away once Fay and Andy’s arrangement was safely in place. Also, they’ve captured something that the guitar couldn’t. The song wants to conjure up a place – a wealthy, privileged place somewhere in California – where a couple suddenly notice that the paradise they have lived in has started to degrade. I guess it’s about complacency again – that assumption that you can just carry on doing what you do, consuming what you consume – and thinking that everything will be fine. The references in the second verse – riding the white horses in the bay – comes from me and Amelia watching loads of Nancy and Lee videos. There’s that crazy scenario in Some Velvet Morning where Nancy picks lovely flowers from her mysterious garden, while Lee approaches, riding his impressive stallion across a Californian beach. Those were the days! We love Nancy and Lee, as I guess is pretty obvious when you listen to the record, but those songs (and those videos) seem almost poignant now, made in an era when no-one had heard of climate change, and no-one would have anticipated that California would become home to catastrophic forest fires and big tech domination.”

“Amelia wrote the words to this song – she’d read how astronauts, on their first trip into Space, looking back and seeing the Earth at a great distance, suddenly understand its tininess and vulnerability for the first time. ‘The overview effect’ is what that feeling is called. I think they are really good lyrics. Normally if a band does an ‘environmental concern’ song you’d run a mile. But I think because she’s written it from the perspective of a lonely astronaut it feels very personal. It’s more like a love song than a protest song. We kept the arrangement really simple and uncluttered. It’s the least duet-like of all the songs, too. (I don’t answer back until the very last few bars.) Amelia really wanted ‘space noises’ at the start of the song. Her and Andy spent ages exchanging various bleeps and sounds of static. In the end, they alighted upon a recording of a star – number KIC12268220C – collected by the Kepler telescope. There were other stars, but this one sounded best.”

“And that’s the last track! I hope you enjoy the album.”

Skep Wax YouTube