“I think when I was younger, I was like ‘God, how do you write a song? How the fuck do you do it?! Where do they come from?’” – Ian Maleney talks with Alexander Tucker who plays The Unitarian Church with James Blackshaw and Cian Nugent this Friday.
Dark and warm like the ground it seems to have sprung from, Alexander Tucker‘s music invites close listening. It works best when you have to lean in, when you make that effort to concentrate. That’s not to say it is difficult music in any way, it’s really not, but the sense of something deep and hidden is never far away. In many ways, Tucker has been progressing from the more abstract, found sound feel of his early albums towards a song-based form still littered with subtle moments of strangeness. This development has reached its highest form of expression to date on his newest LP, Third Mouth.
Third Mouth manages the difficult task of sounding both ambitious and intimate, his guitar work and electronic shrouding hinting at vast unexplored territory without ever leaving the listener behind. This down-to-earth quality is a product of the structures Tucker employs, warping verses and choruses just enough to instill a weirdness without losing the possibility of someone being able to give a go at singing along. The progression of his song-writing abilities is something that Tucker himself has noticed. “I think when I was younger, I was like ‘God, how do you write a song? How the fuck do you do it?! Where do they come from?’”, he says. “I didn’t want to use standard tunings and find all the same chords that everyone else put together, so I think I tried my own way of writing songs and now I’m getting a bit better at it in a sense. Just being able to have parts that go into each other rather than just having one single sort of looped thing that just comes round and round again.”
The strength of the songs on Third Mouth will come as no surprise to those familiar with Tucker’s last album Dorwytch. Indeed, some of the songs that made their way onto Third Mouth began their gestation around the time its predecessor was being written, forging a strong link in Tucker’s mind between the two records. “I definitely see Old Fog, Furrowed Brow and Portal, all those three as a trilogy in a way,” says Tucker. “Now Dorwytch seems like it has started a new era in a way but I’ve no idea what the next record is going to sound like.”
“Third Mouth is definitely an extension of Dorwytch,” Tucker continues. “There were a few tracks on Third Mouth that were going to go on Dorwytch that ended up on Third Mouth, like ‘A Glass Axe‘. That was one of the first things that I did for the Dorwytch session, so it’s about four or five years old, the skeleton of the track anyway. I added some more elements and vocals and got my friend Frances to sing with me on it as well. The songs, they often span quite a few years in a way.”
While the fidelity of Tucker’s work may have improved over the years, it is still far from clear-cut when it comes to interpretation of lyrics and themes. This is an issue even for the man writing the songs apparently. “There’s a bit on the track ‘A Dried Seahorse‘ where it’s like ‘Do it to you what you know, you get it in two’,” quotes Tucker. “It’s completely meaningless! It’s what I used to sing when I was working the song out and then I was like, ‘No, it’s great’. I love that thing with language where it’s like you’re going forwards, backwards, forwards. I don’t know, if I looked at them I couldn’t decipher them and say ‘Yeah, that’s about that, that’s about that’. I don’t deliberately make them indecipherable but they just seem to come out that way.”
Not being in total control of proceedings is something that pops up again and again in Tucker’s work and in conversation with him. Some of the inspiration for the album came from a time in Tucker’s youth when his mother would say she could speak in tongues because spirits were communicating through her. The thought of humans as a channel for something outside themselves became central to the album. “It’s that idea of a human being just being a conduit for ideas for things, ideas and thoughts, that have been around for centuries,” he says. “That’s the best part I always think, when you’ve sort of removed yourself slightly from the process and you’re just letting it breathe and happen and come together. Rather than always trying to get in the way and get it to work and get it to do your bidding in a way. It’s quite important just to let things find you and let them take your own course rather than pushing it all the time.”
The moment when a song becomes important to Tucker is built on that spontaneous combination of surrender and consciousness, allowing what’s happening to happen but being aware enough to take advantage of it and make it his own. “Whenever I come up with a song, when I feel like ‘this is something good’, it’s always got that element that it feels like it has always existed”, he says. “It’s that Current 93 idea that, up in the ether, there is this creative pool of stuff and you just have to reach up and pull it down and bring it into your own world and your own working process. Whenever I come up with a song, I’m like ‘Oh, this reminds me of something’, but I think it’s just the fact that it is there sort of around you and you’re just taking it and moulding it to your own interests.”
This approach is something that translates to Tucker’s other great talent as a visual artist. He creates each of the album covers himself and is currently at work on a series of postcards for London-based experimental publishing house and artistic curators, Strange Attractor. “I’m doing these collages from old National Geographics and encyclopedias and things,” says Tucker. “On Third Mouth, on the back of the cover, there’s one of the collages that’s from the same series that isn’t being used in the postcard series. There’s something quite nice about when you use this old print from the 50s, 60s and 70s, they all have this unifying colour in a way. They’re quite sci-fi kind of images, all sort of space and bacteria and molecules and things like that.”
“I found it really good combining older publications that used to do really good illustrations, quite photographic, like the old Ladybird books which always had fantastic illustrations, and then I’ve been putting actual photographic material with that and those two things combined create this really interesting look and feel,” he continues. “You’re not quite sure what has been originally drawn. I’ve been trying to make it look like the images have always existed, so you can’t really tell where something has been stuck down. I do that deliberately with some of them, where you can’t tell if one object hasn’t always existed in the landscape or background or whatever.”
This series of postcards ended up providing much of the artistic direction for Third Mouth, with the striking oil painting of the rabbit on the front cover coming directly from research intended for the postcards. “I was going through these National Geographics looking for images for these collages and I came across this image of this jackrabbit with its back turned and that’s what I used for the painting,” says Tucker. “There’s something about when an animal or a person, when their head is turned away, it says a lot. It’s all about the absence of the person in a way, you’re not seeing the person’s face, their expression, what’s going on with them. In a sense, it’s like they’re not there, it’s just like the ghost of them.”
The night-time setting of the cover image is reflected in the music, which is dark without ever being over-bearing or dreary. The exploration of a dark, hidden world is a positive for Tucker, allowing for multitudes of new possibilities to unfold. Tucker associates the strangeness found deep in the album’s core with that hidden world of night. “In a way night-time isn’t really supposed to be a human time either, it’s supposed to be a time when everyone is asleep,” he says. “The night time has a slightly more magical feeling, of somewhere you’re not meant to be. I live in Highgate in London, I’m near woods and I’m not far from Hampstead Heath, and I keep hearing owls at night. It’s really amazing but really frustrating, you can’t see them. Then there’s something that you really shouldn’t see an owl at night, that they belong to the night and you don’t.”
Wildlife and the countryside are recurring motifs in Tucker’s work, though they are never plainly stated in the music. They become more a sense of something wild and unbridled, operating just outside the edge of your understanding of what you’re hearing. On Third Mouth, more than ever, the scope of the sound reflects open landscapes, despite the urban setting of its birth. “It’s funny I was talking with [artist] Mark Titchner yesterday and he was saying that from my music, he always expected it to be recorded in some cabin in the Kent woods or something like that,” says Tucker. “He was talking about the album Old Fog, which was recorded above Warren St. tube station in the centre of London. The top of Tottenham Court Road at the intersection with Heuston Road, so probably one of the busiest intersections in central London! I think I was deliberately really going into my past and into my collective memory and pulling out these places because I was suddenly in such an urban environment after growing up with the woods and the fields just a few minutes walk away.”
The clash of urban surroundings with the memory of more rural environments provides the catalyst for much of Tucker’s work and perhaps highlights the strain at its centre, giving it an edge far stronger than pure pastoralism. The sense of openness in his work is contrasted by the darkness, a feeling of things being out of place or unreal, a product of using memory as the centre of his creations rather than direct interaction and engagement. The memories themselves are clearly dear to Tucker. “There were different walks in all different directions all around where I grew up so I could go and lose myself in the countryside whenever I wanted to,” he says. “Looking back on it now, I had an incredible childhood just in terms of safety, even as a young boy being able to go off into the countryside with my dogs and be totally alone in nature and experience the sublime nature of my surroundings. It was fantastic, a really beautiful area.”
Of course, the grass is always greener elsewhere and Tucker looks back on the environment of his youth with a fondness that wasn’t quite there at the time, as is to be expected of most creative youths in non-urban areas. “The whole time you’re in the place you grew up, you’re always thinking of how you’re going to get away,” he says. “I was always looking across this amazing vista that was down the bottom of my road, it looked across these fields for miles and miles and I was thinking, ‘What’s over that hill? What’s over there?’. Once again, the fantasy of somewhere else is always more appealing than where you are. We’re such fickle creatures aren’t we as human beings? If someone passes away, you’re always thinking ‘I wish I’d done more’, ‘I wish I’d done this or that’, but if they were still around you’d probably still be saying, ‘I should go see them’ or ‘I should ring them’. The thought of it is more potent than the actual sort of reality of it.”
Alexander Tucker plays The Unitarian Church on Friday 11th May with James Blackshaw and Cian Nugent (tickets €15 from http://www.tickets.ie/skinnywolves) and the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork on Saturday May 12th.