The power of Britain’s most popular festival Glastonbury – which kicked off on Friday – isn’t just reflected in the phone-light waving sea of crowds that idolize the gods of contemporary music, it’s also valuable in providing experience for fresh new acts on the smaller stages. BBC Introducing is one of those stages and Reading collective Vienna Ditto (Hattie Taylor, Nigel Firth, Scott Lawrence) have benefited in the past from this opportunity.
This year, however they are focused on promoting their new album Circle, an extraordinarily intoxicating collection of songs that mesmerize the mind, satisfy the ears and creep up the spine. Lyrics inspired by biblical passages and famous explorations whilst simultaneously sound seductive, otherworldly and dangerous. Plus an imaginative use of instruments: found sounds, tape wobbling and vintage synths, should justifiably warrant a Mercury Prize nomination.
Critics have had fun trying to label their wild blend of trip-hop, alternative rock, rockabilly, surf rock, grunge, gothic rock, kosmische musik and cinematic madness, whilst the band themselves have described it as “cosmic gospel” or “Voodoo-Sci-fi Blues“. Their music videos alone – directed by Does It Offend You Yeah?’s Bobby Bloomfield – are wonderfully strange enough featuring hallucinations, human dolls and a heist. Possibly hiding in a bunker, “dodging debt collectors” and “avoiding the Environmental Agency“, we get to know the formation of Vienna Ditto, Reading’s secret music scene and their colourful psyche.
How did you guys meet? How long have you been working under the moniker Vienna Ditto?
I (Nigel) taught Hatty guitar when she was about 11 or 12 – we lost touch and then bumped into each other in the street in 2009. I asked Hatty if she wanted to sing on some electronic rock ‘n’ roll joints I had in my oven. We came up with the name soon after so I guess about six years.
Were you in other bands or projects before Vienna Ditto? For some reason I can imagine you (Hatty) being in a noir-inspired jazz band.
I’ve been in bands forever… Possibly of note was a psychedelic blues band called Riser. We had a funny journey. Hatty hadn’t sung in public before we played.
Where do you hail from? How was that environment helped bloom your music?
I live in Oxford most of the time, on a boat, but Hatty’s from Reading and we’re Reading through and through. Now you might not think that Reading is any kind of cultural hub, but you’d be surprised. The sound of Reading to me is hard stepping dub, soca and calypso – we work in a studio that was part of a squat art complex that has gradually gained some kind of respectability; it has links with the carnival scene in Notting Hill and Trinidad, and the carnivals you used to have here, which were big back in the day.
So that was where we learnt about bass. But there’s a lot of experimental stuff that goes on there too… From Hugh Turner’s jazz parsings to Sly and the Family Drone’s shamanic noise happenings. I live in Oxford now, and there is a persistent murmur of wyrd folk in these parts. Strong women like Sharron Krauss who taught us about story telling and the allure of Ye Olde Murder Ballads.
What is the origin of your name? Have you been to Austria?
A mix up between our ‘band names’ list and my ‘going inter-railing’ list. I had to do something in Innsbruck and the same thing in Vienna. So I have, obviously, but we have yet to as a band.
Why is your album called ‘Circle’?
Cos it’s a Circle! Like, a disc. The phrase ‘a wheel within a wheel’ crept cropping up when we were recording it- I’d been listening obsessively to a CL Franklin sermon about the Book of Ezekiel; – ‘a wheel within a wheel’ seemed to be a very simple description of the infinite.
The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, A WHEEL IN THE MIDDLE OF A WHEEL” (Ezekiel 1:15 – 16).
Who produced the album?
We did, with the assistance of Chris Britton who recorded the drums – and let us use his beautiful Silver Street Studios for untold hours whilst we learnt to use it, and Umair Chaudhry, who neatened it up, which was a horrific job.
Many critics have compared your music to a Tarantino soundtrack. Have you been influenced by the director? What other movies do you take creative motivation from? “Wintertime” has a bond feel to it.
Not really Tarantino – David Lynch and Michel Gondry, yes! ‘Wintertime’ was actually inspired by footage of Scott’s doomed Terra Nova expedition. Found footage is so much better. Bitter Lake, oh my God…
Your videos for “Feeling Good”, “Oh Josephine” and “Hammer and a Nail” are fascinatingly wild. Firstly, can you tell us about the concept of each video.
‘Feeling Good’ (Frank Sidebottom Papier Machet, Mimes, Puppets) is about a strange little character, played by me, who torments a miniature doll version of Vienna Ditto in a doll’s house. Tiring of his play, he set light to it. ‘Hammer and a Nail’ (Steampunk, freaky party) sees Evil Nigel gives naive Hatty some magic goggles. She is subjected to a number of disturbing hallucinations centred on a party, where an evil Vienna Ditto are playing. She kind of loses it. For ‘Oh Josephine’, Hatty and Nigel are holed up in a disused shopping centre after a bank job or similar caper. They have a pram. Bad stuff happens.
Do you work with the same director? How you do you approach the music video process? Is it supposed to reflect the song accurately?
They’re all the brainchildren of Bobby Bloomfield, a good mate and fantastic director. He is brilliant, hyperactive and seems to make a lot up on the spot. he also keeps us in the dark about the plot util after we’ve finished, which makes it weird and exciting.
Your songs are fantastic on the headphones because they explore the different corners of the sonic sphere. What is your methodology to compositions and what instruments do you regularly use on the album ‘Circle’? You appear to use found sounds and unusual percussion in “Hammer and A Nail”.
Hmm. It’s mainly guitar; a tiny analogue synth; a keyboard we found in a skip; a drum machine – although a few songs have live drums by Scott Lawrence, our old drummer; some really beautiful vintage synths we blagged; and loads of bits of crap we bang on for percussion. Coffee tins and teacups and random bits of metal including bridges and a narrowboat. There’s a lot of sneaking round at night with a microphone in places we shouldn’t rightly be.
How did you adjust/blur/block your voice on songs like “A Happy Car is A Stolen Car”?
That’s an old WEM copicat tape delay, one of the ones with the tape loop going round and round on the top – you can fiddle with the capstan with your toe so the tape wobbles and swoops. there’s huge amounts of that on the record. Probably too much.
What kind of venues have you performed at so far? What is your ideal venue or audience?
Oooh a good variety, from a wooden pallet in Milk Bar to the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury. Our ideal crowd would be late-night, rowdy and in a tiny bar with no stage, in a city living through its final days of giddy excess before the soldiers arrive.
What success have you had in the UK and abroad so far? Radio airplay? TV shows?
We’ve had a bit of airplay on Radio 1, XFM and BBC6 – we did a Maida Vale session for them, which was awesome. Bing Crosby awesome. We did do one TV thing, for Channel 4 – the short-lived Hollyoaks Music Show. We played in the ‘club’ on the set, it was bizarre.
On Feeling Good, you comment “cocktails of my own concoction” and “poisons of my divine description“. These are just two examples of lyrics that sound mystical, wizardy and seductive. How do you come up with such mystical phrases? Is it from fantasy books? History books? Fascination with occult?
Actually it’s ‘Poisons of divine PRescription’, so… Anyhow. I personally find fantasy intolerable and the occult rather childish – my God I do like a bit of Edgar Allen Poe though. William Burroughs, Borghes, Cormack Mccarthy… I recently discovered the poetry of Tiffany Atkinson, who makes me excited to be alive in 2015.
Pale Horse Rider seems like a folk tale about about the spouse of a cowboy? Am I close? What is that song about?
Hm, close-ish… Revelations 6:8, ‘And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed’“.
Circle is such an eclectic album; surf rock, alternative rock, grunge, psych, electronica, trip hop, blues rock. Please give us an insight into what music you listen to in your spare time and what you were listening to when you were growing up. I hear elements of Kosmische Musik in songs like “A Wheel Within A Wheel” and “Hold On”.
Yeah lots of Kosmische – I adore Cluster/Kluster/Harmonia; Michael Bundt… and Kraftwerk, of course. OK so the last record I bought was by Harry Partch (ace outsider composer from the 50s, he made his own instruments and musical system), actually I bought one by The Staples Singers at the same time. The last thing I downloaded was ‘ilkilkilk’ by Chango and SysAb, an ace Footwork Jungle-y thing on Ground Mass.
And I’ve been caning ‘I Whipped Batman’s Ass’ by Wesley Willis on the Spotify. He’s just different. Growing up for me was all Benjamin Britten and The Seekers, I got into Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’ as the first thing on my own, then Dire Straits. My sister got me into good stuff like Bauhaus and Robert Fripp’s solo stuff, which I remember frightened the bejesus out of me.
How did you develop your voice (Hatty)? There are similarities to Grace Slick and Beth Gibbons in it.
So I suppose I always preferred male singers growing up, Michael Stipe, Paul Heaton morrisey being big faves for their authenticity and controlled vibrato (totes auto corrected to vibrator) then I started listening to people like Ella Fitzgerald and I suppose I ended up with a kind of mix of these all.
What are your plans for the remainder of 2015?
We’ve put all our pennies into doing the album so we’ll be doing things like dodging debt collectors – I spent my boat license money on it so I’ll be avoiding the Environment Agency. We’re doing some festivals, notably Standon Calling, which run into our Autumn Tour – we’re off to Guernsey, Amsterdam and Cologne at the beginning of September, with some dates round the UK after and – unless we’re wastrels – another single round then.
Can you recommend any of your close musical friends to us?
Yes! Stoddler just split up, but we were honoured to have them at our single launch. Sleep Gunner are a duo from Amsterdam who play twin guitar covers of the Louvin Brothers’ country gospel tunes in an extraordinary forward-and backward- looking noise/baroque/psychedelic way. Made me like guitars again.
Words by Matt Hobbs