Interview – The Last Harbour
Here’s a song for your reading experience…
The Last Harbour are a musical collective from all around England, but based in Manchester. Their music veers from the overdramatic (can’t go wrong with that) to that unnamed feeling between sorrow and longing. I’ve been a fan for a while and after being thrown into a train by Nat Johnson & The Figureheads (due to a interview that went awry), I arrived to Manchester Picadilly Station. I then got a lift from two little goblins that befriended me in the concourse and they drive me to a placed called Sandbar in Grosvenor street
There, a man completely dressed in black and nurturing a pale beer and a copy of The Guardian sat. I recognised him as Kevin Craig from The Last Harbour and sat in front of him in order to have a chat …
So…The Last Harbour, that’s an interesting name…
Well, when David (guitar, loops) and I started doing this, putting the band together, you have the awful moment of what you gonna call it. Think what it is, “the last harbour” is the name of the point in Ireland that is further west, the point where most of the immigrants left to travel to America at the turn of the century.
We kinda liked that idea, it kinda fitted. There’s also this influence from Lost Highway, this cinematic thing, we really liked it. Long struggles, terrible ideas, like any other band!
Do you remember any of the other names?
I deliberately forgot about them. They were awful.
Yes, I forced myself!
So it was you and David in the band, and then it’s more of a revolving door of artists?
Yes, we started up just the two of us and various other people joined, but it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that this current line-up really came together. The drummer, Huw, was in another band we were friends with, we had this gig and we were drummer-less, and he said he’d play and he’s still with us.
We met Gina, the keyboard player, through an ad we put up, she turned up, she was great and joined us. Same with Sarah, the violin player. Slowly people from other bands would come in and stayed and it became a bunch of us (laughs).
You have a video for ‘Lights’ made up from photographs. I really like it, where it came this from?
An artist called Andrew Brooks! We decided that as I made up the videos for us before, we wanted someone else, get as many people as possible. We talked to a bunch of filmmakers and he was the one that came up really successfully. It’s a lot of still photographs made into a film. Really great! He’s a really good photographer, he’s had a few exhibitions and we were lucky to have him, really.
Your previous album, Dead fires & The Lonely Spark, was recorded in a week…
Yes, we did it with the same guy with whom we’ve recorded Volo, Richard Formby, in Leeds. We decided to do that thing of rehearse and rehearse and get everything down and go into studio and do it as live as possible. From that, we did the opposite for Volo, recorded over a year and just give him everything to mix, blind, we just said “do with it whatever you want”. So we had no input at all, which was just frightening, but it was a good way to work. It feeds you.
If you trust him…
He’s so good!
Is it true that he [Richard Formby, producer] tore apart a song from Volo into bits and pieces and created this Frankestein of a song with it?
(laughs) Absolutely! ‘The loom’ and ‘The weave’! We had no idea he was going to do that, so, basically, we have one song in the album we didn’t write. It’s parts of ‘The loom’ put together, which is exactly what we wanted him to do. We told him “mess around as much as you want to do, change as much as you want and we’ll accept whatever you do”. We wanted it to be quite collaborative, the whole process. We decided very early we wanted this and once you’ve decided, it’s all good. After this one week period of intense recording [for Dead Fires & The Lonely Spark], we knew how he worked and he genuinely knew exactly what we wanted. It could’ve been horrible, fallen apart and be awful, but we heard it and liked it.
You all live apart from each other, so how does it work for you?
We live so far apart, from Newcastle to London, with a few of us in Manchester. We got everyone together in Dead Fires & The Lonely Spark, the sound of a band in one place. So for Volo, we thought about doing it the exact opposite.
So Volo‘s approach was by sharing the files between each other?
Everyone recorded bits with other people and passed them around. So one time I hear a song, and then the next time, when I do vocals, it had bits that weren’t there before and you adapt. But because we’ve been working for a while together, we sort of know what the other one is trying to do!
You’ve been around for a decade or so.
Ah, you’re making me feel old! ( An idiot in a very loud bike interrupts us). Oh, wow.
Someone’s trying to make up for something else!
That’s my bike, I think (!). Yeah, we’ve been doing it for a while. We had an opportunity to go to Amsterdam and record there for a radio show, that was for the first release, but then, like I said, we had a couple of line-up changes, but this one has been together for four years. When you say “ten years”, it sounds like a long time!
Yeah, you start measuring time in decades and you think “whoa!”
Any highs or lows?
Ah, we did two shows with Mark Mulcahy, from Miracle Legion, I think. That was the first time that someone established took us under their wing, made sure we got paid for shows and it was his choice that we were on the tour, so that was one of the early things that was real good. Made us feel we were actually doing something.
Robert from Willard Grant Conspiracy, we toured with him twice, it was nice, he also looked after us and gave us advice. So when someone you’ve listened for a while helps you out, and you tour with them and gives you advice, that’s really good for us. Then it becomes frightening when you have to tour on your own!
Lows? A couple of people have left, in the early days, when we started, we had a different drummer and a different violin player, and when they’ve left, it feels, you know, a little strange and nothing is happening. And when record labels vanish. With your money. The possible money you might have had. So that’s why we chose to make our own label. So that wouldn’t happen. Unless we steal our own money. Which could happen (!)
You’ve have some of your band members with alternate projects. Jamie with Anna Kashfi and Mike in Crazy Man Michael. Could you tell us a bit about them?
Absolutely! Jamie (violin, anything with strings) was already in Anna Kashfi when he started playing with us. Technically, he can play anything if it has strings on it, anything! Genuinely, it’s strange to watch, it’s really, really good. Crazy Man Michael is Mike’s solo folk project, he comes from a folk background, more than anyone from the band.
Our violinist, Sarah Kemp, she’s just releasing an album as Brave Timbers, she just started playing on her own, that’s coming out soon, in a Norwegian label, I think. We all are friends and whenever someone has a project, we support each other, go to their shows, we are all friends!
I’ve heard one of the compilations of your label, Little Red Rabbit, and really enjoyed Anna Kashfi!
Sian’s got a lovely voice!
I don’t like comparing bands, as it takes away from the artists, but I thought about 90s dreamy bands, like Mazzy Star…
That’s ok, she’d be happy with that comparison!
When we all play together, everyone has different tastes, so we bring something else. No one listens to what the other does! We once sat around trying to work out the connections between who likes what and who’s most likely to end up in a band with who and we came up with no one!
No single degrees of separation?
No, everyone has their little thing! It’s great that everyone has their own likes.
Your particular influences?
We get compared to a lot, which is fair enough. I get compared to Nick Cave and Tindersticks, which is ok, I can’t deny, my voice is what it is. Scott Walker, that’s my benchmark. Some post-rockey stuff, like Godspeed [you! Black Emperor] and those kind of things.
How did the touring with Black Heart Procession went?
Oh, that was a long time ago. That was the worst gig we’ve ever played!
Black Heart Procession were really late, they didn’t have a soundcheck and it looked like they weren’t going to turn up. So we had to play and the sound was terrible and it was genuinely…but it was Black Heart Procession, another band we really like and a big influence. It was quite frightening to do and luckily, I think they weren’t in the room when it happened, because that would’ve killed me.
So it was only one show?
Yes. We also played a couple with Michael Gira from Swans.
He played also with Xiu Xiu, did a cover for Queens‘ ‘Under pressure’!
Really? That’s one of my favourite songs!
It’s in the album ‘Women as lovers‘!
Really? I’ll get that.
Didn’t know who he was before that one, but afterwards I liked him!
Swans is one of my favourite bands! Angels of light too. We had to play two times with him and Devendra Barnhart and it was terrifying, he sat in the first row, he’s six foot three, with a white hat on. Ah, and I’ve nearly forgotten about Black Heart Procession.
I’ve edited my own history!
They are a great band, though.
Yes, I love their music.
The concept of a bargain bin in Mexico is quite different than here in the UK. You sometimes find stuff that’s really good for the equivalente of 2 or 3 pounds, brand new. That’s where I got ‘Amore de Tropico’ from The Black Heart Procession.
Really? Ah, that’s a great album.
You’ve also toured with The Grails?
We did one or two gigs with them. They are brilliant. Really sprawling, epic-ey sound! Playing with these types of bands that you like is always scary. But it’s always satisfying.
Can we go into lyrical content?
I dunno how much help I can be (!) But yes, let’s go.
I might be doing some stupid assumption, but here it goes: Dead Fires & The Lonely Spark feels like a play and Volo like a book?
Yes, with chapters! When we did ‘Dead Fires & The Lonely Spark‘, people said that it sounded like a radio play, because it’s quite narrative and character-driven. Which is how it came out, it wasn’t deliberately. Volo, I guess there is more of an overall concept going for it. Dead fires & The Lonely Spark was about loss, breaking up and that kinda thing, yeah, where as Volo is more about being quite spooky, and stuff that’s just outside of what you’d normally experience, so the characters would be involved in situations where there might be something slightly, not actually otherworldly, not as fantastic as that, but something not quite right happening.
It does kinda feel like, I dunno, like there’s few characters in Dead fires & The Lonely Spark, like a couple or three people, like a play in one room, whereas Volo is very expansive.
Yes! It was supposed to have more ideas, not so interlinked. Dead fires & The Lonely Spark is more of a single situation, and this [Volo] is more like short stories.
I have a weird story with both albums. I bought Hold fast pioneer about two years ago, because the cover looked good and liked it. About six months later, I saw Embers for free in the website, downloaded it, loved it and one day I woke up in the dead of night, scared, with ‘The Revenger’s Waltz’ in my head.
Oh yeah, yeah. Good!
It sounded a little weird. Was it an outtake or different take?
Different take, yes. All in Embers are!
It’s notmusic you’d hear everyday.
No, we know we’re not a pop band you fickle your fingers at (laughs).
About the artwork, specifically Dead fires & The Lonely Spark and Volo, who did it? I like it a lot.
It was me. Thank you! Because Dead fires & The Lonely Spark was the first thing we released ourselves, I tried to do the artwork myself. It was all papercuts, I do design work as well. Foolishly what I’ve done is that every time we release an album, I find a new method of making artwork!
We released a 10”, ‘Saint Luminous Bride‘ and I decided that I wanted to screen print every cover myself. So I worked out it was 6 different prints in every record, and it was 250 records, so it was, well, it took me a while. Probably won’t do it again.
Volo was all woodcuts, I wanted it to look to a book. Trying to tie together all the vignettes together, like each picture illustrates each of the short stories in the album. We always try to tie it all up together.
I think you have a stop video for Saint Luminous Bride, right?
Yes, I filmed that in my bedroom! It took me about seven months, mainly because I’m quite lazy. I had the skeleton puppet that moved its mouth, thought it was funny if it sings along. I thought “I should film this!”. There’s a puppet for each person in the band but it took me far too long. We were happy with it though.
So what do you think about albums right now? A lot of people just keep jumping tracks.
Most of the stuff we have released in Little Red Rabbit is stuff that you have to listen to without skipping and immerse yourself, but comes from us being The Last Harbour and working this way!
People do still listen to albums all the way through. We had this discussion about the ‘shuffle’ button in an iPod, and you only get one track from each album. Partly, that’s why Volo is the way it is, we try to put it as 4 different blocks, with one leading into the other. A lot of people forget that sequencing is very important in an album and you don’t get it as it was originally intended.
So if you listen to it disjointed, you don’t get it as it was intended. You can’t change people from what they do. Sadly. I’ve tried. (laughs)
About what you said about Lost Highway, what do you think about that soundtrack for that film?
It has that great song by David Bowie, ‘I’m deranged’. Did Trent Reznor did something there?
Yes, some instrumental stuff and ‘The Perfect Drug’.
It’s really cool, with the video made by Mark Romanek. It looks very Victorian, in green hues and tints, and it’s about him drinking absinthe.
Nice! Both David and I watched ‘Lost highway‘, and it’s that cinematic thing where you don’t really know what’s going on, narratives that cut off or alter, yeah.
It has that really creepy scene, with the telephone in the party. I prefer horror not when it’s slasher…
But more when it’s subtle, like ‘The Mothman Prophecies’…
Yes, like that scene in ‘Lost Highway‘ with the that call to himself. I love that. ‘Firewalk with me‘ as well is also amazing. Twin Peaks’ continuation, halfway point through, it’s one of my favourites.
I never know half the time what David Lynch is doing but he can continue doing it.
I don’t care what’s he’s doing, I keep watching!
And he manages to do some simple stuff like ‘A straight story’. He’s pretty much saying “I can do this, here you are, bye!”
Yes, and even ‘The Elephant Man‘ is pretty straight.
Much more than ‘Eraserhead‘
Or Blue Velvet! All of that type of films are an influence to me. Do you know Béla Tarr? He’s a Hungarian director, he uses a lot of black and white imagery and he has this nine minute shot of an ambulance…
Like Solaris‘ highway scene?
Really like that scene!
And that scene about the reeds in the water!
‘Solaris’ is one of the albums I really want. All about those glitchy sounds, like from the BBC Radiophonic.
Yes, I like Tarkovsky a lot. Stalker is great too.
Got good memories of Tarkovsky, my exgirlfriend made me a fan, she was always “you’ve gotta see this, you’re not going to understand it, but see it”. Tarkovsky made that sort of film you see, not really know what you saw but feel beckoned back to see it again.
Yeah! There’s so many beautiful, creepy moments in Stalker. Nothing might be happening, but there’s this feeling of unease.
All about those bottles in the end. I also really like this shot in Mirror, I think, with the barn on fire.
And the guy running, yeah! I saw it! There was an exhibition recently in London, in the Barbican, and they showed Mirror and Nostalgia. I walked in when they played that scene, it’s just amazing. Apparently, that was the second time they did it. The first time they did it, they burnt the barn and Tarkovsky said “no, no good”, so they had to rebuild it and re-burn it. I kinda like that dedication.
It has to be better than having Michael Bay doing a cut every 3 seconds…
And then it would’ve exploded! And there would’ve been a robot inside! I do like robots, but there’s a time and place, perhaps not then.
Can’t live on takeaway.
Thank you very much!
That was very nice, it was painless!
All images courtesy of Red Rabbit Records.
The author would like to thank David, Kevin and all at Little Red Rabbit Records for their patience.
You can download a free sampler from the lovely artists that Red Rabbit Records has here.