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Papa November: An Interview with Stuart Tonge

Papa November

Papa November

Papa November is a Birmingham based electronic project started by Stuart Tonge in 1997. It is usually an instrumental project however vocals are occasionally provided by Katy Acquaye.

My introduction to Papa November’s music was the album From the Start Line, my collection then grew with other great releases such as Monkey See Monkey Does/Navara and the nineteeneightyseven EP.

Since the 2006 EP nineteeneightyseven a highly noticeable concept within became a reflection and response to Birmingham. This gives the project a regional feel something now becoming a rarity in music. With the city’s reputation as the birthplace of metal, the EP was made of guitar samples from across the genre creating a darker and more expansive Papa November.

Up until this point Papa November was released on a variety of independent labels, however Papa along with several other artists took their independence further and formed their own self financed, self promoted label First Fold Records. First Fold, a definite product of its environment has its own brand of generic packaging and three first fold artists collaborate on the project: Nations Shall Rise. This interview took place after Papa’s first First Fold album release: The Book of Azmaveth.

In your latest record alongside the main story there seems to be a lot of reference to vinyl, with hisses, cracks, and jumps throughout. Is this in reference to the First Fold Records concept of From the Ashes of Industry We Rise? By this I mean that despite the rise of online retailers and MP3s we are experiencing and you are mourning a possible demise of good record shops and vinyl? A dying approach to how we buy and experience music?

The crackle, pops, and static blasts that pepper the album are in part an exercise in nostalgia. Those of us that have a specific relationship to vinyl are, most likely, just as much in love with the sound of the stylus negotiating the well-worn grooves as we are with the music initially pressed on the plastic. Over time those crackles, hisses and jumps become part of the production and part of the sound.

Ideally Book One: Azmaveth would have been a vinyl release and would not necessarily contain any sonic reference to vinyl, because over time the music would continue to write itself.

The release exists on CD so I wrote it’s history, pops and blasts included. There are also references to radio distortion, digital clipping, and clicks, so sounds that should not be present and are objectionable to the ears of an engineer of producer become the rhythmic backbone to the album.

First Fold Records was not created with the idea that the record industry needed saving from anything at all, it was created with the idea that we would save ourselves from the pitfalls of the industry by becoming self sufficient, self-regulating, and self obsessed. Within First Fold I can look at the demise of an established industry that tells me that the digital song is now key, that it is not the body of work that counts but those perfect three minutes of ear candy and I can turn around and say You may not buy my music, it may not end up on your iPod, but I will write twelve albums of soundtrack music beginning with Book One: Azmaveth and I will do it because I believe in a body of work. I am therefore mourning the dying approach to how we experience music, not so much the format or the retail side of things.

With there being twelve albums soundtrack to come, that means a lot of artwork. I have noticed through the Papa November series that the visual aspect plays a very important conceptual part in the project, it’s not just there to make the record look cool and transfer smoothly onto merchandise. I am thinking of Monkey Says Monkey Does, From the Start Line, Nineteeneightyseven EP, and Book of Azmaveth as key examples of this. Is there a usual order in which the visuals and sound come together?

As a child my main skill was that of being able to draw better than anyone else in my class and coming a close second or third in the whole of the school. It was, if I am honest, the only thing I was good at, and up to an extent this continues to be true. I got into music production and sequencing through a university lecturer on a fine art course. He was all about Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Shaeffer and John Cage and they seemed to draw with music a lot more than the techno artists did that I was listening to at the time, with the exception of Richie Hawtin as Plastikman, the work these people produced to me represented the whole package, art and sound as one.

Only a couple of Papa November releases have a synergy between the packaging and the sounds that I am actually happy with and up till Book One: Azmaveth the music came first and the art followed. With the soundtrack work I am trying to match the mood and pace of the music to the stories, so the artwork is worked out and storyboarded before I commit any sounds to my hard drive. I consider myself to be primarily a mark maker who works in sound. Visual art and music demand exactly the same aesthetic sensitivity, When do you call your work finished? What sonic or tonal pallet do you apply to achieve a certain mood? Basic stuff really but when it works the results are potent.

One of my favorite aspects throughout Papa November is the communication of sounds within each song structure, I noticed when you briefly worked as a duo there was a beat, Katie singing and you communicating through loops, noises and samples. Now with Book One there seems a whole lot of conversation going on with each track. How does Papa November communicate within the tracks to you.

I think my main objective, and I guess that of many artists working in sound, is that of creating a language that the listener can identify as belonging to the artist that has created that song. Over time the sounds and sonic pallette develop and at some point the communication between the sounds and the song structure become a language and that framework is the system in which I create Papa November tracks.

I don’t really know how Papa November communicates within the tracks to me. I listen to the tracks that I am working on constantly, up till the point that they are finished and after I am satisfied that I have done the best I can, I tend not to listen to the music critically again. I listen back with nostalgia and on occasions I am surprised by liking something I have written, some songs seem to have a wider context, they sound like they belong out there as sound-waves, no longer only on my hard drive or a CD that no one will ever listen to.

You mentioned you and friends starting first fold records, having worked with different independent labels over the years how are you finding being totally self-sufficient compared to other past labels?

The labels that I have released music through have all been small independents and my experiences with all of them, from my viewpoint, have been really positive. I think that as a musician I took for granted how much work goes into running a label, as an artist you want your music pressed packaged and ready for the shops as soon as you have finished the final mixdown, obviously this does not happen, there is a lot of waiting, so I think I have tended to hand the DAT or disk to the labels and try to forget about the release.

Small labels become frustrated because they front all of their own personal cash and by the time the releases are ready bands don’t have the enthusiasm or commitment to promote the music with live events, obviously there are plenty of exceptions, many bands have an amazing work ethic.

With First Fold Records we entered the project with eyes wide open, keeping costs and expectations manageable. First Fold is a co-op label, this means that every release is funded by the artist producing the music, an unexpected product of this is that lots of music that I might have felt was worthy of a release doesn’t make the cut, because I am doing it for myself, using my own money, money I am most likely not going to see again, so I feel the music must be the best that I can produce. Being involved in First Fold Records has definitely given my music a lot more focus, I am aiming for a higher standard of product, in my opinion anyway.

What are your plans for the other 11 albums of soundtrack continuing from Azmaveth. Will it be one story or interlinking stories?

When you are confronted with a piece of work for the first time, and that work relies on a language or visual reference that you are not familiar with, that work tends to look abstract or surreal, if the language is well developed and the visual elements are believable (not necessarily realistic) then you can accept the work and become involved, sucked in. I’m thinking of the work of Dr. Seuss, he created a body of work, with it’s own unique language, the drawings are sketchy and strange, the language has it’s own specific stile and pace; as a child when I first came across his work I liked it, I didn’t know why but it worked. Dr. Seuss’ work is referenced in film, for me the films simply don’t work, because attempting to translate his scruffy drawing stile into live action de-contextualizes the characters, they have no history and no language, they don’t look like something that could exists in fantasy or reality, unlike the characters in his books.

I expect Dr. Seuss had to start somewhere, I am sure his first attempts didn’t have the fluency of his latter work. His stories are not linked, however his characters do inhabit the same universe; that is the idea with Azmaveth’s world, the stories may link, they may form part of the same universe yet be completely separate, hopefully they will at some point become believable.

I really don’t know how something abstract or surreal becomes credible and believable, but it is definitely what I would like to achieve with the twelve soundtracks and stories.

Furthering upon the artwork question is that I was looking at your website and you even went as far as to display the sketchbooks of ideas building up to your final artwork, openly revealing influences. You are also now illustrating and showing ideas for Book 2: The Well. I am interested in this process as it differs greatly from the usual simple access to final graphics of an album.

I scanned the sketchbooks because I thought that no one would ever bother looking at them, unless they were genuinely interested and people that are interested deserve to have access to as much information about the stuff they like as possible. My obsession with the visual side of the soundtracks probably stems from the fact that I am a frustrated animator, the illustrated cells become storyboards that I have included as part of the CD packaging.

Tell me more about Nations Shall Rise - I have read about this project a few times and am very interested, will it be a First Fold project?

Nations Shall Rise is in turns First Fold’s house band as featured on Book One: Azmaveth and an improvised noise collective. The group features Ben Sadler from Them Use Them, Jim Davies from Spunkle and myself, we are all directly involved in First Fold and any recordings would be released through the label. In many ways it is the project that we are collectively most exited about, it is early days and we have already recorded some reasonable material, we are also looking forward to some meaty collaborations that I don’t want to jinx at present by talking about. Also it is very difficult to talk about future projects because, retrospectively, speculation always sounds naïve, or in the case of Nostradamus plain scary.

Papa November over and out.

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