Interview: Kit Downes

Kit Downes Quintet
Left to right: Lucy Railton, James Maddren, Kit Downes, Calum Gourlay, James Allsopp

Rob Edgar spoke to Kit Downes about his new album Light From Old Stars out on 22nd April 2013. It features Lucy Railton (cello), James Allsopp (bass clarinet), James Maddren (drums), Calum Gourlay (bass) and is released on Basho records. 

(UPDATE Apr 12th: See also Chris Parker’s REVIEW of the album.)

Rob Edgar: You’ve called the album ‘Light From Old Stars’, Why is that?

Kit Downes: I got interested in this title (Light From Old Stars) from watching some documentaries about space, stars, constellations and things and I remember learning from that, that there are lots of stars that you can see in the night sky that no longer exist and all you see is the light travelling from the star which is the only thing left over from it.

RE: And how did that work through to the music?

KD: I kind of liked the idea that the space between objects in the universe is so vast that your concept of time is completely dwarfed, and the idea was to translate that into some kind of vague musical representation. It was just an interesting starting point, that idea of scale and tackling the way we feel time especially in music I guess.

RE: And you’ve had sleeve notes written by Daniella Scalice of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, I think that must be a first isn’t it?

KD: Well, I’m sure it’s happened before, but it was a first for me and a first for her. I met Daniella at the Cheltenham science festival, we’d previously been asked to write a piece by the Cheltenham Jazz Festival with Lesley Barnes (an animator and illustrator who I work a lot with), and Adam Rutherford and the Welcome trust, to make a piece about DNA migration. It was pretty “out there” compared to what we’d been doing before at that point but we got a brief and a science lesson from Adam and we started working on this piece.

RE: How was it received?

KD: It went down fairly well at the jazz festival so they asked us to do it again at the science festival. We did a performance there and then, afterwards, they have this thing which is kind of like the jam at the end of a jazz festival, where all the scientists get together in the bar and chat. We were there hanging out and I ended up chatting to these guys from NASA, one of whom was Daniella who was very nice. She started explaining a load of really cool stuff to me about astronomy, her job and what she does. She was very good at explaining it, despite me not having any of that kind of language, and I liked that vibe of explaining complicated things to people in a to-the-point and succinct way. That felt poignant to the kind of music that I’m involved which is also maybe about getting complicated subject material over to other people. That felt like it could tie in with the whole thing, I’d had this title Light From Old Stars floating around in my head, so I asked her and she said yes.

RE: There’s been a progression from your album ‘Quiet Tiger’ in 2011 until now, how would you say you’ve progressed as a musician/composer?

KD: I guess it’s all quite different; with Quiet Tiger there wasn’t a lot of written stuff in there and it was all quite open. The saxophone, bass clarinet and cello in that album were very much colour instruments or there for much smaller arrangement purposes and all the improvisation was with the trio really.

RE: ‘Light From Old Stars’ has a different approach?

KD: This album is integrated completely so everybody is improvising and it’s a bit more of a real band in that sense I guess. There are more written things; it’s both harder and easier to get into in many ways, there’s more stuff to latch onto because there’s more written stuff but the written stuff is maybe a little bit stranger, and references different things than Quiet Tiger did. I’m happy with this album in that it feels like the reference points to this are quite strong and united whereas Quiet Tiger was quite disparate in terms of its influences.

RE: Textures are important, especially with Lucy Railton being given such a prominent role?

KD: I’m a failed cellist myself, I love the cello and I love hearing it in a kind of more bluesy/country way than in the super classical thing but I love that as well, there’s a very beautiful sound that Lucy can get but she’s got another dimension to her playing in that she can be quite raw and reference other folksy elements in her playing without being too derivative. She’s got a very good ear for sound as has James Allsopp and they sound really great together as well. James Maddren and Calum Gourlay and me have been playing together since college and the really interesting thing came from gigging this quartet before we recorded it.

RE: The cello is presumably difficult to balance in the live situation, and another challenge again for the recording?

It soon became apparent that mic-ing up the cello in clubs just sounded horrible because we’d never have good enough equipment so we had to do them all acoustically which meant that we had to find a way to make the music still feel exciting and dynamic, especially because there’s lot more groove stuff, or time stuff on this album compared to Quiet Tiger (a lot of which was rubato). With this, there’s a lot more of particular drum grooves and to make them the right volume where you can still hear the cello acoustically is difficult and it’s a great testament to James Maddren; he can play all the cool stuff super quietly as he can very loudly which is difficult. That was something that came from gigging that we tried to get across in the recording. It’s still quite quiet but within that there’s a lot of peaks and troughs.

RE: You’re able to be more precise in your arrangements here?

Another nice thing about the cello and bass clarinet is their register. They both have quite big registers compared to other instruments in the same families and it means that the whole concept of swapping roles and things becomes quite fun in that a cello can can take a bass line or it can take a melody line and same with the bass clarinet; it can be really low or squawking up high. The piano obviously has an enormous range meaning I can have an orchestrator role, binding all those things together and I can mess with the arrangements putting them on top of each other and vice-versa so that was a thing that I really wanted to play with in the written things of this new album.

RE: I’d like to talk about a few tracks, the first, “Wander and Colossus” really stands out, can you tell me about that?

KD: I guess in my head it doesn’t really stand out but I suppose it kind of serves the purpose of an opening track! That track in particular was something I’d adapted from playing solo piano and orchestrated into a quintet thing. It’s all based around that first piano figure, every part of the piece is off that in some way. It’s small cell kind of fractal reference where you can have a cell that has unpredictability built into it which can have an infinite number of variations. That’s the reference, how successful it is I don’t know! We also experimented with some textural stuff and some overdubbing, it’s maybe quite different to the rest of the album, but why do you think it stands out?

RE: For me, at the beginning of the track I couldn’t work out how you got that texture with the instruments at your disposal

KD: I wanted to start the album with that very alien sound-world, or perhaps celestial sound-world just to get people into that space to start off with because there’s some other stuff that’s a bit heavier that follows and once your already in that space it makes a bit more sense I guess. That first bit actually went on about four times as long originally but we had to cut it down. I guess it’s just to put people in a certain head-space.

RE: Why is it called ‘Wander and Colossus’? Is it a constellation or names of certain stars?

KD: There’s another tune that’s a bit more like that but the title was actually inspired by a video game called Shadow of the Colossus

RE: There was another track ‘Two Ones’, it seemed to me to reflect the beginning and the end of a star, the birth and destruction.

KD: Could be! I think Daniella heard it like that too. As with any of these, they’re not about specific things. Two Ones though I felt it like, my own constellation has two prominent twin stars called Castor and Pollux. Also, I sort of named it a bit after my girlfriend Ruth [Goller] and my cat Buster and the idea of family being two and three and then become one, but I like that as well, birth and death of a star.

Rob Edgar: And there are some live dates?

Kit Downes: It starts in March 8th in Brighton and then there’s various things until July I think we’ve got maybe 15 dates I think. It’s all on my website (kitdownes.com).

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. Thanks Rob for this excellent piece on Kit's new album. Kits' a very thoughtful musician and it's good to see the scientific community taking music seriously. The Wellcome Trust are supporting a number of new initiatives involving jazz. Liam Noble has recently hooked up with jazz fan and surgeon Prof. Roger Kneebone who is currently on secondment to Wellcome from Imperial College, London. Tim Whitehead's Homemade Orchestra are being funded by Wellcome to develop a new science based music/poetry project with poet Michael Rosen aimed at kids and called “Centrally Heated Knickers”.

    Kit's album is now available to pre-order at http://www.jazzcds.co.uk

Leave a Reply