The Dreaming Spires: ‘We’ve never been averse to a bit of backwards guitar’
When Shire Folk met up with Robin Bennett from purveyors of psychedelically tinged Americana The Dreaming Spires in the coffee shop of Oxford’s magnificent Truck Store, he was still in the promotional aftermath of the release of their second album, Searching for the Supertruth. So first we asked him where the psychedelia came from …
SF: The new album, Searching for the Supertruth, seems to have a late sixties psychedelic feel to it. Is that fair?
RB: It’s certainly got a more psychedelic feel to the new one. It just happened for a few good reasons. Some of the themes … I really had a big bunch of half-finished songs when we started that – including most of the songs for both albums – so it was kind of a coincidence which songs got finished first, so thematically they’re all linked. The ones that ended up on the new one seemed to be more cosmically themed, so it seemed appropriate to make it more psychedelic. Also, for the first album we worked a bit with producers and we had limited time, so they tended to be quite simple arrangements, but with this one we recorded it all ourselves.
SF: Did that give you more time to play around with it yourselves and find the right sound?
RB: Yeah, and the guys who were mixing it spent a lot of time sending it back to us to do more bits. It was quite a long process. I should give a mention to Tony Poole who plays on two or three of the tracks. He had a band in the seventies called Starry Eyed & Laughing, who were kind of an English Byrds; in fact they were almost contemporaries of them. Although we’ve never been averse to a bit of backwards guitar!
SF: You wear your influences on your sleeve, don’t you? In fact you name check of most them.
RB: Yes we probably name check a hundred different bands!
SF: Is this a tribute?
RB: It’s an acknowledgement – a lot of them are part of the story of the album. In a way the whole project is about … it starts with ‘Singing Sin City’ (from Brothers in Brooklyn) when we went to America with Goldrush (the Bennett brothers’ first band).
SF: I was a fan of Goldrush’s Don’t Bring Me Down.
RB: I think one of our first releases was on Loose’s New Sounds of the Old West Vol 4, which included some little-known acts on it like Bright Eyes and Grandaddy …
SF: They were a fantastic series of compilations.
RB: We were in some pretty good company on that. We didn’t get to America until some years later – 2003 – and seeing all these places and discovering bands we knew in their natural environment – it was like going on safari in California. Finding Byrds records and Big Star records.
SF: Do you get sick of the Big Star references?
RB: Big Star was one we discovered quite late really. Our friend Danny would always end up late nights singing songs … we were doing ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ (from Big Star’s #1 Record), but we didn’t know who it was by. We didn’t actually know it was by Big Star for a long time.
SF: Teenage Fanclub are in the same boat with the Big Star references.
RB: They don’t help themselves by doing songs called ‘Alex Chilton’. When Teenage Fanclub played Truck (Festival), at the aftershow party we were singing ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ with them and Norman (Blake) phoned up Alex Chilton’s wife (this was after Alex had died) to let her know we were singing his song. It was pretty cool.
SF: So the Supertruth idea – did you like the concept or the name?
RB: A guy called Rich Blundell, who’s a scientist, was round for dinner – he’s sort of an American Brian Cox – a ‘surfing scientist’. And he was explaining to me the theory of cosmic evolution … an emergent consciousness. ‘Supertruth’ was the word that he coined. I liked the word, but I didn’t understand it. I think it’s quite hard to grasp the concept. Higher truth – it’s a nice way of saying it. I think the songs are in the tradition of songs like ‘The Seeker’ by The Who.
SF: Are you still involved in the organisation of Truck Festival as well as playing it?
RB: We programme the Saloon stage, which is the Americana stage. Clubhouse (The Dreaming Spires’ record label) programme it with us. We programme the Veteran’s stage as well, being the most veteran of veterans at the festival!
SF: How about Wood Festival?
RB: Wood we run – Joe and I. It was an ethical and lifestyle decision to be different from other festivals. It’s fired by our own interests and having small children. Musically, when I’m booking folk acts, I’m slightly out of my comfort zone, but I try and book ones that sound interesting.
SF: You’ve managed to pick really good ones on the cusp of folk and electronica, like Tunng, as well as mainstream folk like Jackie Oates. How do you go about selecting the acts?
RB: Sometimes it’s just serendipity, a lot of it’s just friends and people I run into.
SF: How did you manage to get Songhoy Blues this year?
RB: In the early days of Truck we used to support a charity which works in Mali, which turned us onto Mali music and then we were trying to keep an eye out for good Malian acts and West African acts. We do have a booker that helps us with Wood and I was in her office and the guy that does Mali Express was in there and he said you’ve got to watch this video. It was before they’d released anything here and I was just really fortunate. When we booked them they hadn’t been on Jools Holland at all. It was really good to get them and they were incredible – very charismatic.
SF: You have your fingers in a lot of pies – is that out of choice or is that just how to survive in the music industry these days?
RB: I think you just take what opportunities are there. We’re lucky that these things have come up this year so we’ve been full-time on music. Other times we’ve had all kinds of different jobs.
SF: Folk musicians all interchange and play with other musicians. It’s quite common in the folk world.
RB: The Americana world is trying to build up a similar network which hasn’t really existed. You’ve got the indie world and the folk world and there are those of us who fall in-between – UK acts who are placed in an Americana genre. Acts like Danny (and the Champions of the World) have tried to create a network, like the folk world, where you can do that sort of thing. So we’re having to invent it ourselves.
The Dreaming Spires album, Searching for the Supertruth, is out now on Clubhouse Records