‘shot through with a narrative truth, and drenched with radiant intelligence‘ – David Turpin talks to Siobhán Kane about his new album, We Belong Dead.
Ask no questions fools have queried
What is Time?
The Space of life?
And do the Lower Animals imagine immortality?
In a sense these lines from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Gospel speak to David Turpin‘s new record We Belong Dead, which, over the course of 17 songs, beautifully renders an unburdening, and an even more creative imagining of the human condition.
Our collective condition has often been referenced as animal-like, and this image is one Turpin goes back to constantly, trying to break the beasts back. This record harnesses that impulse on something like the tender, delicately drawn love song “Fur“, which acts as something of a companion piece to the comforting, though melancholy “That’s What Tears Are For“, but then the whole record is something of a love song, dedicated not only to the complex nature of struggling to live in a dissatisfying, pock-marked world, but also to the struggle inherent in creating art.
Though there are many influences here, for example, disco, and chamber music, brilliantly co-produced by Stephen Shannon, and featuring artists such as Hunter-Gatherer, the record is shot through with a narrative truth, and drenched with radiant intelligence, as all of his work is; but this latest piece particularly resonates, placing him as one of the most gifted of songwriters, so it seems fitting for him to take us through his latest record, song by song.
Ecclesiastes 3:19 This is a bible quotation, to do with the false hierarchy of human and animal. I wanted to open with this because the idea colours most of the rest of the songs, although I had to adjust myself to the idea of having an overture. In the past, I’d always been very strict about three-minute song structure, so for this album I had to permit myself to do something more formally elaborate, to have more fragmentary pieces as well.
The Hotel This is the first song I made for the album. I’m really interested in disco music, in the intricacy of it especially, so I wanted the first song proper to have a touch of that about it. As to the words, I was staying in an eerie little gate lodge in the countryside and they kind of popped into my head. I don’t really know what they mean. The song is addressed to somebody called Theo, so I might have been thinking about Theosophy, though it’s also a play on the letters of the title – “Theo” is in “The Hotel”. I think I was trying to spook myself, but it ended up having a kind of comforting quality. Being spooked can be a very comforting sensation, I find.
A Warning to the Curious Another disco song, of sorts. I love the string arrangement Cora Venus Lunny plays on this. I’m really interested in the tension in parenthood between permitting your child to discover the world, and trying to shield your child from danger. I think for a lot of parents that calcifies into instilling a terror of sex in their offspring – and then everybody suffers. Then again, I’m not a parent, nor am I likely to become one, so what do I know? It’s pure fiction. As it’s the first single I’ve had to come up with a pithy description, so I’ve been saying it’s 20 percent Philip Larkin, 80 percent Paradise Garage.
The video for this song, like a lot of the visuals for the album, has a touch of Louis Malle’s film Black Moon, which is a fantasy that begins with a war between men and women. I like the fact that it’s an apocalyptic vision, but it’s also quite bucolic.
Bear of a Star This is structured as a conversation between two lovers, one of whom has died and been assumed into the constellation Ursa Major. I want to say that the idea came from extensive reading into Native American mythologies, but actually it was kind of suggested by the Walt Disney movie Brother Bear. Objectively, it’s not a very good film – and the songs are horrible – but I had a little cry watching it one Sunday afternoon, at the part when the bear cub is embraced by the ghost of the dead she-bear. Musically, this is a warm song, I think. All over, this is a warmer record than anything I’ve done before. I suppose the paradox of the album is that it’s the most thought-through, conceptual thing I’ve done, but it also comes from the heart – if you’ll pardon the expression – in a way that my earlier stuff perhaps didn’t.
Fur This was a song that happened quite early in the record and sort of became its centrepiece. It’s become a sort of Rorschach test for people – some people hear it as something unspeakably pervy, some people hear it as something modest and decent. I don’t find it easy to communicate my affection to anybody, so “put your fur on my fur” is about as close as I get. It’s quite a private song for that reason. The first version came out on a charity album for Dogs in Distress, which did very well last Christmas. It didn’t start out as a song about a dog, it started as a song about a man – but you know what they say about men and dogs, so maybe that’s a false distinction.
Howl I suppose with this song I was thinking of Angela Carter, and the way she links male desire to lycanthropy. I guess the difference here is that I’m imagining what it might be like to experience that from within – to be the desirer, not the desired. Puberty is a frightening time, and it doesn’t take a great imaginative leap to suppose that turning into a wolf might be frightening, too. I suppose in both cases, what one has to do is find a way of harnessing the new ability.
I worked with Stephen Shannon on the production for this album, and he finally managed to bring me around to Krautrock, which you can hear in the drums and bass on this song. It began very guitar heavy and became gradually less so, but you can still hear a touch of “band music” in it, which is pretty novel territory for me.
Never To Be Found Again I like songs with double-meanings, and this functions both as a love song and as a lament for all the species we, as humans, have rendered extinct. You can take something for granted, and then when it’s too late, you realise that you’ve lost it forever – that’s a bit of conventional wisdom we often hear regurgitated about relationships, but it’s equally true of the Western black rhinoceros, you know?
Garland So much of the album is quite contained, I wanted to have some grandiose moments, some parts Mariah Carey could sing over. This is one of them. Part of it is to do with imagining a flood covering the surface of the world, and all the creatures scurrying up the trees to escape. I can see Mariah singing about that, gesticulating wildly.
For the production, Stephen and I were looking at trap music, which is a form of Southern crunk that I believe is named after a slang term for a crack house. When you’re buying crack, you’re said to be “in the trap”. I have to admit to a fascination with American drug slang, even though I’ve never been one for drugs myself, I’m just naturally ebullient.
That’s What Tears are For This is another fragmentary piece, sort of like part of a lullaby. I imagined Grendel’s mother singing it to him in his stone cradle. I think it runs for a minute, if even that. I like the freakish quality of very short songs – they don’t normalise themselves through repetition.
Like Bird and Beast This is the first of the two pieces that Cathy Davey sings on. Here, she’s singing about wanting to transform into an animal, and on the later song – “Deer Fable” – she’s singing as an animal. So much of the perceived “inferiority” of animals is tied to the fact that they don’t verbalise – the suggestion that we are entitled to misuse them, since they’re without speech to protest or otherwise inconvenience us. But speech can be a burden, can’t it? Isn’t it hard enough to exist without having to articulate that existence at the same time? I think that’s what this song is about – the desire to be mute and self-contained, the way animals sometimes seem to be.
It’s caught a lot of people’s imaginations because I’ve used a field recording of a donkey, singing the melody with Cathy. It was pure chance that the donkey happened to match the melody and tempo of the song, with almost no manipulation. There’s real truth and beauty in a donkey’s cry – it sounds like it comes from the depths of the soul.
Cloud Here I suppose I was thinking about clouds as something that transport us: floating away on a cloud, losing oneself by smoking substances, being ushered into extinction by a mushroom cloud. There’s something so attractive about the idea of becoming a cloud, of becoming vaporised, intangible. I suppose, like the previous song, it’s about wanting to push against the constraint of being in a human body. Musically, I wanted it to have a hypnotic, circular feel, like the hydrologic cycle – and it’s full of woodwind, which has always sounded like raindrops to me.
The Man Suit I like the image of human identity as a kind of skin suit that we zip up around ourselves, and inside there’s an animal pacing around in circles. It’s an old idea, but maybe it’s through love and sex that we get to live as that animal – it’s something that comes up a lot in e. e. cummings, for instance. So I suppose the tragedy in this song is that the withdrawal of that romantic and erotic connection means both parties have to zip their man-suits back up around themselves again.
Karl Knuttel sings on this song, and on “Fossils” as well, and I was so happy to have him, because there’s something otherworldly about his voice. It makes me think of sad panthers in an opium den.
Fossils While I was working on the album, I read William Golding’s book The Inheritors, which is written from the perspective of Neanderthals, as their world is encroached upon by Homo Sapiens. There’s a scene where the Homo Sapiens have ravaged the land – because they know how to preserve their food, they kill everything at once – and one of the Neanderthals says “They are like a winter”. I’d been working on this song as an instrumental for a long time, trying to make something that sounded ancient and space-age, and it seemed to fit with that idea.
Deer Fable I worked on the music for this with Hunter-Gatherer. It’s a fugue, in a way. It begins with a spoken narrative about white deer, and then it switches over to a sung section, where Cathy Davey sings as the deer. It’s got something to do with the superstition that anybody who kills a white deer is doomed to die. Some people actually link the First World War to Archduke Ferdinand’s killing of a white deer. I’d like to believe that’s true. This song is not a straightforward narrative, even though it’s spoken – speech can be as abstract as singing, it can be as musical as singing. In writing the spoken parts, I wasn’t thinking of anything didactic. Speaking is primarily a physical act. You have to like the way the words feel in your mouth.
Human Hair / Prelude to “The Man I Love” This piece is split into two. The first part is an original song. I was thinking about the apocryphal story of Mary Magdalene becoming a hermit, and her clothes all falling away, and her hair growing into a gown about her to protect her modesty. I liked the idea of people in isolation, their hair growing longer and longer until it surrounded them – like Cousin It, I imagine he spends a lot of time alone. The second part is a section from the Gershwin song “The Man I Love”. It’s the prelude part, which is hardly ever performed. I first heard it in the Martin Scorsese film New York, New York. Originally I recorded it with female vocals on the prelude, and then it switched over to me and I sang the rest of the song. I chopped off the main song in the end – I felt it was implicit, and I liked the idea of implying a song without it actually being on the record.
The Ballad of Essential Difference This is the last song I made for the album. Gavin Glass played on this, and he brought some Americana to my European sang froid. I was thinking a little about the film My Own Private Idaho, which is sampled in the soundscape for the song, and remembering the slide guitars in that. The song is about a deer who sees a human bathing in a lake. The deer falls in love with the human and takes off his coat to become human also, which he comes to regret. I suppose, in a broader sense, it’s about the folly of trying to transform yourself in order to be loved, especially when the other person is the one who’s more in need of change.
The Anaesthetist I made this song after a friend of mine moved away to study. We hadn’t been getting along prior to that. I don’t believe in writing directly about personal things, because I don’t think anybody’s really interested, so it got me thinking, sideways, about how friendships, and relationships, are like bodies – they’re subject to damage, and that damage can progress to a point where the only option is to anaesthetise them, which opens up a gap in which, hopefully, they can be mended. You know, when we go under anaesthetic – either literally or metaphorically – we hope things will be better when we come back, but we just don’t know. Anything could happen.
The Late David Turpin plays as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival on Sunday 15th September at 9.30pm, at Smock Alley Theatre.