...a unity of eyes and firelight...

Dan Haywood

In Interviews, Music on May 20, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I was introduced to the music of Dan Haywood’s New Hawks almost by accident, when I went to see A Hawk and a Hacksaw at Islington Mill in April.  New Hawks were one of the supporting bands, by whom I was really impressed.  Alt-folk, country sounds drawing from pan-British traditions as well as North American.  To borrow a word from Dan, it was superfine.

Afterwards, Dan and I exchanged a few emails, which eventually resulted in a kind of electronic interview.  He was also generous enough to share some of his pictures of his travels, the recording process and the tour.

Enjoy.

 

First things first.  What is a castril?

Castril is just a very old english name for kestrel. I suppose the modern version with a ‘k’ and and two ‘e’s is just a corruption of the original. ‘Five Red Castrils’ is one of the heaviest, most despairing parts of the album, stuck in a stagnant late summer day. Slo-mo.

The only birds around are kestrels, hovering on the spot. Static. Come to think of it, the other creatures in that song are hardly going anywhere fast either: a mole, a slow-worm and me trudging sweatily up a hillside ‘like a clay toad crossing a sponge’.

You seem surprised to discover this theme, the lack of movement.  Does this mean that this was not necessarily something you intended when writing the song?

It must’ve been intended that way. I’ve just rediscovered the theme is all. I repeatedly forget and remember what all the New Hawks lyrics mean or meant. I was in a very strange state of mind when I wrote all of these songs, you have to realise. But I was at an advantage then, creatively.

Movement seems a recurring theme in the album, musically at least, with many pauses, silences and changes of pace.  Lyrically, perhaps it is less obvious, although there are certainly many ruminations on walking and travelling.  Has this always been a preoccupation of yours?  Did it lead you into life as a performer, or was it the other way round?  Or are the two unrelated?

Well, it’s a movement album, among other things.

So there are all sorts of travelling references and songs about exodus, flight, incarceration, liberation, migration, vagrancy… Should I stay or should I go?! There’s a line in Kopper Kettle which goes ‘maybe I won’t have to drown/ if I don’t swim too fast or swim too slow’! Because there’s a fine line when it comes to surviving.

I’m not a particularly well-travelled man, geographically. But the album relates to a period when I was banished from an arty suburban English town to a tiny village in the wilds of Northern Scotland.

So this is my travelling album.

Moving there led me to think about human migration…. particularly the Highland Clearances, which changed that region forever. And some songs touch on that… imagining displaced Highlanders abroad. I was also obsessed with migrant and vagrant birds… irruptive birds, sedentary birds, pioneers, relict populations, stowaways… Yes, all themes of dynamics.

Were you ‘just’ travelling and birdwatching, or working too? Or performing?  Did you know your travels would result in an album?

No.

It was work that took me there and necessitated the move. Doing fieldwork for environmental impact assessments in some very out of the way places. I was collecting stacks of bird data. Mountainsides, bogs, spruce plantations… Mapping merlins and harriers and scoters and crossbills.

I didn’t write anything till I returned to England. No performing either, which was difficult for such a show-off. Just work and more birding and getting into trouble.

What do birds mean to you? Or the actual act of birdwatching.

I’m not sure I should get onto birds here, Doctor. I’d be ranting for days. Suffice to say that I’ve always dug them. Birdwatching is a state of mind that I slip in and out of. You need to get your eye in, tap into some primal hunting consciousness. Very in-the-moment.

Some days I can’t find any good birds and sometimes I just ‘know’ there’s a scarcity just over the horizon. It’s psychological. A friend uses the phrase ‘Jedi birding!’ It’s musical too, when it gets good.

I’m in a comparable state when the band’s blazing away. Ears and eyes wide open, looking for significant movements.

What did you leave behind when you came back to England, and did you regain any of it through making the album or touring?

Well, aside from the obvious things like beautiful landscapes and good people, I left my teens and twenties behind. The experiences up North blew my mind and allowed me to move on. I grew up somewhat. Became someone else.

I wrote all 32 songs a few weeks either side of my thirtieth birthday. It was exciting to escape some of the traits of my twenties, and the songs reflect that excitement, I think.

To whom or what did you say ‘farewell’ at the end of New Hawks of the Great Interior?

I love singing that word. It feels superfine.

The tune ‘New Hawks of the Great Interior’ is fictionalised diary extracts from a doomed exploration. A bit like Robert Falcon Scott (of the Antarctic) and his men on the Terra Nova expedition… except in some boiling continental interior, looking for species new to science. I maybe should’ve called the album Bob Falcon’s New Lands.

 Maybe.

So ‘farewell’ there is primarily Captain Steller’s last diary entry. Meant for his loved ones whether his notes be found or not.

But when I sing ‘farewell’ it feels great. It’s not just for me or Steller. Try it!


Your voice splits opinion.

Yes, some folks think it’s shit, some say it’s terrible. There’s two camps.

In my review of your Salford performance, I described your vocal range as ‘squeezed,’ but actually the album revealed a sort of wispy versatility. Parts of New Hawks of the Great Interior reminded me of David Bowie on Hunky Dory. How do you feel about your voice and about the opinions of it offered by reviewers?

I like my voice. It’s weird but it’s a lyric delivery system, and until I find someone who knows the songs as well as me it’ll do.

David Berman’s Silver Jews line ‘all my favourite singers couldn’t sing’ is lovely and it resonated with me and my record collection. It makes a lot of sense to certain people.  Berman’s great.

All these unorthodox vocalists gave me the courage for this non-singer to sing. So it’s their fault.

I played Hunky Dory a lot when I was young. It gave me the confidence to sing in my own accent. I mean, I prefer American rock to British rock, but it wouldn’t do for me to be singing Mid-Atlantic like I did when I was seventeen.

Glad I ditched that.

On Don’t Listen to Your Heart, you say that you don’t listen to your own heart. Do you listen to your own music?

Well, amongst other things ‘Don’t Listen to Your Heart’ is about overcoming hypochondria and busting self-scrutiny. Coulda been called ‘Don’t Live Inside Your Bumhole’.

But when you’re making music you have to listen to the stuff you’re recording whether you like it or not. Over and over. Climb back up yer arse for a bit. Scrutinised our music every day when I was mixing for the album.

With players as good as mine it’s not all bad, though.

 Whose music did you listen to when recording the album?

In the busiest phases of recording and mixing I only used to listen to Grateful Dead live tapes from ’72, ’73, ’74…. Just to space out and relax, really. Forget about New Hawks for a while.

This is clearly an intensely personal album. How did the other band members feel about it when recording? How was the recording process? How do they feel about it now?

I wouldn’t say it’s particularly personal. Just specific. I’d be more comfortable playing on an album like this than one about love and a couple’s break-ups.

Most of the songs had been played in the live domain many times before we came to entomb them in the studio. So all of the players were familiar with, and into the material.

I’m lucky to have so many marvellous friends to perform my stuff. I’ve taken up a lot of their time and I’m very grateful. There are about ten players on the record. They’re social retards, tramps-to-be and varying degrees of mad but they play so vividly and intuitively that you can forget about the hygiene.

Most of them haven’t said much to me about the album. Perhaps it’s because I erased their favourite solos. Or perhaps it’s because the whole thing is still ongoing, and we’re always approaching New Hawks as the next show.

It’s still unfolding, after six years.

When I saw you perform live in Salford, it was clear who was in control. Has this always been the case?

Who was in charge? Me? The Islington Mill show was with a large band, so I was probably in front-man/ conductor mode that night.

The arrangements are loose but a big band needs steering occasionally. Sometimes to get it back on track but more often than not to de-rail the whole thing. Keep things from lapsing into routine.

You’ve been touring for a while now with the album. I imagine you’ve picked up a fair few new fans along the way, such as myself. How do you feel the tour is going?

The tour has gone well. On the UK tour with A Hawk And A Hacksaw we were on good form every night, we thought.

Bristol and Leeds were good ones.

Got some nice gigs in the next couple of weeks too including Cafe OTO in London with Frank Fairfield and one at the Union Chapel. Beautiful building.

What do you have planned next?  Are you still writing at the moment?

More shows. European tour. We’re thinking of putting out  a live album because the shows have always brought out all sorts of new facets to the suite of songs.

I’ve written a few new pieces in recent weeks. Shuffle/boogie stuff, by accident. I’ll just sit on them for awhile.

They’re not up to New Hawks quality, but you can’t have it all.

XD

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