Captives on the Carousel
Captives on the Carousel are a very interesting duo. Take one guitarist (Sarah Morrey) with a very ethereal voice and a cello player (Ben Eckersley) who sometimes ropes out a BOSS pedal and loops to create an army of ghost cellists to help him.
Add to that mix lyrics that feel like the lost tales you remember reading in a book in a cold Autumn afternoon and you got their sound. Now, in contrast to that very stark setting, we (that’ll be Tonan and Sam) got to talk with the pair after their splendid show at the Folk Forest during Tramlines 2011.
You have a pretty interesting name, where did it come from?
Ben: Well, the name is easy, it’s a Joni Mitchell song! Sarah should tell you how much she loves Joni Mitchell.
Sarah: I love Joni Mitchell! She’s my absolute heroine! It’s one of the lyrics in one of her songs, ‘The Circle Game': “We’re captive on the carousel of time”.
Ben: It fits with the ethos of our band, songs about mystery and magic. We were looking for something that could have a story with it.
Sarah: We needed a name that seemed like there was something happening.
Could you gives a little bit of history about you decided to work together?
Ben: Sarah was there first. How long have you been playing in Sheffield?
Sarah: I moved here when I was 18. Played on my own, wasn’t really going anywhere.
Ben: I thought you were real good! She was also with Legend of Seven Black Tentacles.
Sarah: I was brought there and got asked if I wanted to do a few songs with them. Then we thought about having our own side project. So we went “Let’s do it!”
Ben: 20 months ago we got the name for the band.
Sarah: It’s very equal songwriting, it’s not me going “Ben, could you do something here?” And he’s better at writing songs. He’s properly trained in music.
Ben: She’s the lyricist! It just has been building gradually since we started, really. Our first recording was a couple of years ago but it has been a long time putting the EP together. Our longest project.
Sarah: We have been doing it with friends.
Ben: It only has been this year that it all has really felt like it’s happening. People don’t see us anymore as that “other Legend of Seven Black Tentacles sideproject”, now we are a band that people know about.
I really enjoyed the EP launch gig at the Riverside, did you curate everything? You had Carl Woodford, The Mother Folkes, Gina Walters…
Ben: Yes, everyone was a friend of ours.
Sarah: We sat down and thought: “who are our favourite musicians and poets around?”
Ben: “What’s our perfect line-up?”
Sarah: “Who do we want to have?”
Ben: We asked them and everyone said yes, which was absolutely brilliant! They all are good friends and we respect them. The music and poetry got along so well. It was an honour to play with them.
Sarah: It was like a birthday gig. Acoustics, poetry… I really enjoyed it.
I loved it! Do you plan to do more?
Ben: Probably. That night was special. I run an acoustic/poetry night called Vocal. We did it monthly but felt we were spreading ourselves too thin so now we’ll concentrate in having a few big events per year, so hopefully we’ll have Vocal organise a few more this year.
Let’s go a bit more into your songs. Is ‘Russian Doll’ tiring for you? You mentioned it before playing it a while ago!
Ben: It is!
Sarah: I slave drive him!
Ben: I won’t complain, I only have myself to blame. I have to stretch my hand really bad, but well, you have to suffer for your art or something pretentious like that!
Not only lyrics wise, but musically, it feels like a very introspective song. Is there a very sad story with that song?
Sarah: Yes, it’s basically a simple story. It’s set in the wintertime. There’s a girl and she’s fled from something bad that happened and she ends up in a worse situation and at the end she realises that she’s on her own.
Ben: Our lyrics have some sort of story and that’s why I like working with Sarah. All this songs about things.
Sarah: Or try to be about things!
Ben: They are imaginative!
‘James’ song’ is a little sad too.
Sarah: It is really sad too.
Ben: Do we have a happy song? I don’t think so. Some of them might be musically bright, but lyrically they are quite dark. Sounds funny: dark songs about incidents!
Sarah: ‘James’ song’ is supposed to be like words of advice for modern life. Not telling anyone, just reminding myself about enjoying life as it is, because if you spend too much time thinking and panicking about things, you’ll just look back and say “oh, I was worrying about it all the time I forgot to enjoy it!”
Like a self-affirmation?
Sarah: Yes, just a reminder to enjoy things and not worry about the dark things too much.
Good advice. Now that you mention all these stories behind each song, is there a cohesive narrative in the Captives on the Carousel EP?
Sarah: Not really.
Ben: Probably…it’d be nice to do one, though! The EP came from bits and bobs and some songs were recorded separately by months.
Sarah: This is more of a tester, we’d like to have a story next time.
Ben: It’s our first cd, so it was more of a case of “which songs do we have?” and then work on them! We’ll put the money we make into recording something new.
Sarah: Unless I spend it all on ice cream! Every time we have a gig and we sell some cds and we have money, we think we are going to put it back into all the money we invested for them but we spend it! Food, ice cream, beer, whatever is on sale on that gig, really! Hopefully we’ll have more money next time.
Ben: My housemate Nick, who you might know as the singer in Screaming Maldini, recorded our first CD.
Sarah: He’s great!
Ben: We know how to work with him and the fact that I moved into the same house, well, we know how to work together and we’ll be able to do more stuff in a single session instead of being months apart. Plan it and make it better.
Screaming Maldini kinda scared me!
Ben: In terms of how good they are?
Sarah: Because they are too happy?
No, that quote was from a friend of mine. I like Screaming Maldini a lot, Twins is a little more sad, like getting squashed like a fly, but they are both good. Scared in the sense of their shows being intense.
We reminisce for a few moments about Peace in the Park when a little kid comes to ask what are we doing. Ben and Sarah joke about the interview and the kid scurries away. After a few moments of idle chit chat, we continue our interview.
So you attended music school, Ben?
Ben: Yes. I did my Master’s degree in composition. I love classical music! It’s great to bring out your theoretical knowledge and I get that out in Legend of 7 Black Tentacles.
You have yur studies, you know how to use your scales, and know how to combine them. Do you get to play with that in your music?
Ben: I think it’s all a tool, really. I think good musicians join all the gigs they been to, all the knowledge they have and all their experiences they have and put it all together to create something.
Sarah: It’s really useful because I don’t really know any notes but can play. So I tell Ben: “I want it to go duh DUH dum DUH” and he’ll know. It’s brilliant that he’s trained so he will suggest a chord that would go well! He knows this things on top of his head.
So do you have perfect pitch? I remember you could tell some stuff by ear at the Riverside gig.
Ben: Not really, it’s just a lot of practise. It comes from tuning several times. Perfect pitch is something you are born with!
I was going to ask that, because you see adverts promising to teach you perfect pitch
Ben: I used to tune, per day, 50 or 60 violins, perhaps even more, so I got good at knowing how an “A” would sound in a violin or a cello! I couldn’t just sing you an “A”. I know a person who has perfect pitch and they know which note it is on the spot.
Now that you mention poetry and spoken word, do you have any literary influences for music?
Sarah: Mostly I like reading other people’s lyrics, I do love that. In terms of poetry, I love Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, a lot of the older more traditional poets, that’s where I get some of my ideas. If I buy a cd, I always take the cover out, straight away and devour it. When they don’t put the lyrics I feel devastated!
I feel cheated!
Ben: We didn’t put any!
Sarah: It’s true!
But your EP is handmade, so it buffers it out. How about you, Ben, music, books, any particular influence?
Ben: I love reading. We do love poetry, hence Vocal. I couldn’t think of anything in particular, I just like to read. I wish I could write lyrics.
You mentioned classical music. Any particular composer?
Ben: Oh, well yes, loads. I’ll give myself five. Benjamin Britten. Steve Reich. Oh, I’ll stop there. J.S. Bach.
Sarah: You should make a t.shirt with that “J.S. Bach, there is nothing without him”!
Ben: He was the composer! People study him! When you look how harmony works, you go to him, he was the father of harmony! What can I say?
Agreed! Would you like to talk about your side projects?
Ben: Isn’t this one?
I mean, from the point of view of this interview you’re the main project and anything else would be a side project.
Ben: Well, as you know we both play in Legend of Seven Black Tentacles. We always thrive to do something different, why bother do something similar to what’s already being made?
Sarah: It’s going through a big transformation at the minute, lots of new members, lots of re-writing.
Ben: It’s a very exciting time, really! For a band that really thrives to do something different, these type of changes are always very good! We will stop doing gigs for a while, nothing in the Autumn, I think November is our next one. It’s hard to write new tunes while you’re gigging so we’ll relish in this time we have now. If we had a gig every week, we wouldn’t have time to compose.
Both bands are very organic, that’s very cool.
Ben: Thank you.
I have this theory that music is the words that you can’t write.
Sarah: I really like that idea!
You’re a perfect complement, you work quite well together!
Ben: Yes, she can write lyrics and I can only do music.
Sarah: Perfect complement, we are like an old couple!
Ben: Everyone who sees us think that our banter is rehearsed but that’s just how we are! It’s just a sign of good friends. We are best mates.
Sarah: You’re my best friend too. BFF!
Right, last one of this ordeal. Plans for the rest of the year?
Sarah: We’ll be playing and writing more.
Ben: Yeah, the one we called “new song” it’s at least six months old. We’ll practise a lot, get a song idea and jam with it then we tune it. She’s got tons of lyrics.
Sarah: We’ll record and see how it sounds.
Ben: Now that I live with Nick, we’ll get some recording time together. This CD was a massive learning curve but now we know how to do it, so we’ll be more focused. Once the songs are there, we’ll get it.
Sarah: I want to play in Manchester!
Ben: We have potential shows in Manchester and Newcastle. With any luck, we’ll be there. Sheffield is wonderful, I love Sheffield. We want to get out a bit more to see how the people react to the tracks outside of here, though.
Best of luck, thank you very much!
We leave Ben and Sarah to enjoy the rest of their Sunday in the Folk Forest. The general atmosphere is like their music, with an atmosphere full of feelings and the warmth of family and friends enjoying a day together. Check their music at Bandcamp.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López (additional questions by Tonan)
The authors would like to thank Sarah and Ben for this interview. You can read our review of their EP (link) and of their show at The Riverside (link). If you want more information about Vocal, join their Facebook fan page (link).