South African filmmaker and songwriter Chris Letcher talks about the intersection of film soundtracks and pop, what it was like growing up in apartheid-era South Africa and how he got the sounds of a heart transplant ward onto tape.
Sounds and Music Together
If you listen closely to the lovely “I Was Awake, I Could Not Move My Eyes”, a track on Chris Letcher’s new album Frieze, you’ll hear a strange sort of percussive background, metallic sounding and mechanical beneath the pure shimmery pop of the melody. That’s not a drum machine, and it’s nothing generated out of Letcher’s computer. It’s audio taken out of a heart transplant ward in London, sounds donated by a friend of Letcher’s who works there.
“I know somebody who is the arts manager in a transplant hospital and they were doing a project that involved doing quite a bit of recording of the ambient sounds, so that’s where the initial idea came from,” he says. “It just kind of spun off into a separate piece of music.”
“The song is all based on the ambient sounds in a transplant ward in a hospital,” says Letcher. “All the percussive sounds come from this sort of clanking artificial lung, basically, that someone’s plugged into.” He adds that even if most people don’t know what they’re listening to, the juxtaposition of real world sounds and lyrical content is what interests him the most. “It is a song about somebody lying in a transplant ward, being surrounded by the sounds, and just kind of trying to imagine what that must be like. So it makes sense to me.”
Letcher is studying for a doctorate in film composition now at London’s Royal College of Music, his dissertation a formal study of apartheid-era cinema in his native South Africa. He’s already worked on a variety of film projects, taking on different styles and instrumentations to suit the director’s vision. “I’ve done everything from sort of orchestral, quite traditional film music arrangements with instruments to things that are just pretty much odd, electronic, ambient pieces, working with kind of non-traditional Hollywood-style mixtures of instruments,” he explains. “But all that work has fed into this last album. There’s quite a lot of making use of the ambient sound and the sounds that we have around us all the time, kind of mixing that with sound that’s more typically regarded as musical sound. And that whole grey area between the two is something that interests me quite a lot.”
“I suppose I had a kind of rebellious streak even from a young age. I was kind of always aware that that was not the way that things should be,” he recalls. As he grew older, particularly at university, he became actively involved in anti-apartheid organizations and demonstrations.
Then, in the mid-1990s, just after the first free elections following the end of apartheid, Letcher and some friends formed a band called Urban Creep. “It was kind of an indie rock band, kind of high energy and African music influenced,” he explains. “It was guitar, bass, drums, and viola playing in a kind of Maskata style, which is a guitar and violin style.” Urban Creep toured extensively in South Africa and played a few festivals in Europe.
Then in the early '00s, Letcher moved to London and began, again, to start looking for people to form a band. He found Dave Webb, the drummer, first through a South African contact (Webb is from the north of England). Andrew Joseph, the bass player, came next. A fellow South African émigré, he was married to the graphic designer who had provided art for the Urban Creep albums. Victoria Hume, a British singer and songwriter, rounded out the band.
Letcher began piecing together the songs on Frieze on his own, culling the lyrics from the notebooks he kept, and creating rough arrangements on the computer. The wonderful, Robyn Hitchcock-esque title track (“Deep Frieze”), started with a few lyrics Letcher had jotted down, then took shape in performance. “I have a very loose way of writing lyrics where I just kind of dreamily connect images together,” says Letcher. “But that song came out of a guitar part we had been playing --an instrumental -- and it sort of gradually evolved into a lyric and a melody.” He adds that the classical imagery, which draws from Jason and the Argonauts myths, was something that occurred to him naturally, rather than involving any sort of research. “It’s just kind of loose jottings that vaguely link ancient mythological images with something more contemporary and personal, I guess.”
Letcher’s work is full of evocative, not-quite-focused images, which float by like a series of lightly connected daydreams. For instance, the melancholy “Architect” observes, “Now the architect’s got no home / He falls asleep with a slide trombone” -- a line with no real linear meaning, but a sense of wistful fantasy. “I quite like that way of writing,” says Letcher. “For me, that sort of non-narrative thing can keep a song quite fresh, especially when you are playing an album. You might be playing that song for two years or more live. It’s interesting how the images take on slightly different meanings from slightly different perspectives over time.”
Most of the sounds on Frieze were recorded at Letcher’s apartment or at engineer Howard Bargoff’s studio. The songs began quite simply, he says, on guitar or piano, then grew more elaborate as they incorporated band members' parts and vocals and an array of sampled sounds. “The people who played on the album played a very big part in how it sounds, but I would quite often take the recordings of them and even take them away and manipulate them and edit them and change them up,” he says. “The album is very much a mixture of that kind of way of working, with great performances from the other people in the band and others.”
Earlier this year, the band took those songs on the road, playing SXSW in March, and then returning to South Africa, where Letcher had been nominated for national music prizes in several categories. “It was interesting to see what had changed...and what hadn’t,” Letcher recalls. “It’s a really divided music industry still. Perhaps less so than it was, but still pretty much the kind of rock side of things is pretty much exclusively white music, and then the styles of music, like quieter, more urban, African styles are pretty much exclusively black. It’s kind of strange, but I guess that is the way things are, to a greater or lesser extent, everywhere in the world.”
Letcher’s album has been out since November in South Africa, though in a slightly different, less finished version. It came out in the US in March, in time for SXSW, though it will not be released in Europe until September. The band will be touring the UK and Europe this summer, then returning to the States in October for CMJ.
“Because we came out to do the South By Southwest...we were kind of advised to just put it out then,” he comments. “In hindsight, that might have been a bit early, before we’d really had a chance to build up any kind of momentum. But I think it’s fine. It’s kind of a slow grower album, I think.” Slow but steady, that’s for sure, and gaining in impact every time it plays.