Trembling Bells have never been concerned with keeping with the times. Instead of angsty modern themes, they deal with gigantic archetypal forms like love and death, their clattering folk rock writ large in primary colours of bold, crashing chord progressions and songs studded with references to mainstream poets like Dylan Thomas.
They’re anachronistic, but not in a shallow way. Far from the psychedelic folk revivalists they’re often portrayed as, they’re much more redolent of a classicist impulse informed by lead songwriter Alex Neilson’s love for Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, which has in the past made for some potently emotive, sky-punchingly romantic music. Their last album, 2015’s The Sovereign Self made gestures toward more conventionally progadelic moves and scaled back on the impassioned folk tonalities, and that approach still holds some sway over Dungeness. However, while they perhaps aren’t producing skyscraping bangers in the vein of ‘Goathland’ and ‘Willows of Carbeth’ at the rate they once were, this album claws back much of the wonkiness that initially made them so unique. Continue reading
It took almost 40 years for Shirley Collins to recover her voice, and with it her identity. After realising that her second husband, fellow musician Ashley Hutchings, was cheating on her – an actress wore his jumper to one of their concerts – the folk singer was struck by dysphonia, and could no longer sing. Continue reading
Seems like we’re only a few days into 2018 and we’ve already had some brilliant new tracks. Here’s another one, maybe the best. Trembling Bells return with ‘Christ’s Entry Into Govan, a Leige & Leif slice of freak folk, that has this startlingly brilliant arrangement, full of intricate guitars and lovely harmonies, but it’s so packed full of ideas and melody that its staggering. And if that wasn’t enough, it winds up into a wild, folk wig out to close.
The influences that seeped into oth the track and the forthcoming album Dungeness are perhaps not what you’d expect. “I’ve never studied music for fear it would kill my interest, or at least railroad my sense of what was creatively possible” says the bands Alex Neilson, which perhaps explains the beautifully elusive metaphors he uses when describing his own music. “Instead, my musical activity has always been nourished by an interest in other things” “Christ’s Entry Into Govan” was inspired by Flemish Expressionist James Ensor’s painting Christ’s Entry Into Brussels.
With a dark new alter ego, Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson pushes himself into uncomfortable places for his bold and brilliant debut as a solo artist
Opposite Rimbaud and Verlaine’s Victorian love-nest in London’s King’s Cross, in a bedsit up four flights of stairs, sits a folk music veteran wearing aran and corduroy. Pictures of Norma Waterson and Shirley Collins beam from the walls. On the bedside table are the two magazines: Viz and experimental music monthly Wire. “I’ve got a mind like an open sewer,” says Alex Neilson, half-embarrassed, half-proud.
With his riot of red hair, and a talent that hops genres and drops jaws, Neilson has long been folk and psychedelic music’s go-to drummer, a modern Ginger Baker, yelping and skittering on stage. He’s toured the world with Will Oldham, collaborated with avant-garde artists Jandek and Baby Dee, and now drums for folk stalwarts Shirley Collins and Alasdair Roberts, while also being chief songwriter and vocalist for critically acclaimed folk-rock revivalists Trembling Bells.
His debut solo album Vermilion presents him as a provocative, poetic lothario with the alter ego Alex Rex. On record, rose thorns grow in Rex’s throat and he sleeps with girls for their minds as well as their bodies. In person, Neilsen is gentler, and funny, and a considerate shaper of sentences. “It felt too hubristic to release something under my own name,” he says of his recording alter ego. “And in some ways I never liked the name Alex Neilson, but don’t tell my dad.”
Born in Leeds in 1982, Neilson grew up in a council house with his dad, a builder, and his mum, a nursery nurse. “If I have any heroes, it’s them. They were unbendingly tolerant and supportive, buying me a drum kit, piling everything in the back of the car to take me to rehearsals.” He originally only took drum lessons because it meant he could skip physics class. “I’d take 15 minutes walking there, and 15 minutes back to make sure,” he says.
He “discovered pot” in his early teens and the weird records his older brother would play while burning incense in the bath. “Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground ruined normal music for me. At 14, I was straight into the darker end of psych, while my friends were into paler stuff like Grandaddy, which I just didn’t get.”
He then got into jazz and early music, and went to study English literature at Glasgow University chiefly for its music scene, before dropping out, not once but twice. There he formed experimental bands Scatter and Directing Hand after getting into folk, particularly the work of English folk singer Shirley Collins, much to the annoyance of his housemates. “I was living inside her records for months at a time, having this slow love affair … they would be banging the door, begging me to turn her off, then for me to move out.” Collins’s stark, uncompromising approach to music captivated Neilson, something he has always kept with him.
His obsession culminated in a 450-mile trip from Glasgow to Lewes to see the singer giving a talk in a pub. He’s still thrilled they’re now friends, let alone that he drummed on her comeback album, Lodestar. “She has an openness and steely determination that is a constant inspiration. And she always had a pot of soup on when we were recording.”
He’s a well-known name on today’s modern folk circuit, but Neilson has never felt he fitted in with the Radio 2 Folk awards crowd. “I’m not interested in the orthodoxy of an institution … but that world does need a clean broom. It’s very conservative, which is strange when the idea of folk goes against the very nature of conservatism. [Folk] passes through people, doesn’t it? It morphs and mutates.” He shrugs. “The concept of authenticity is a red herring, anyway. It’s better to try something new.”
Neilson’s solo project was driven by this desire for new challenges, he promises, rather than ego. “This was about pushing myself into uncomfortable places.” As well he did. Written during a “particularly self-destructive” period in his life in late 2015, Vermilion begins with the Gregorian chant-inspired blues of The Screaming Cathedral, with a chorus telling of “horror heaped on horror”. Please God Make Me Good (But Not Yet) features a girl sticking pins into a voodoo sex doll of him, before he has a “hit on myself”. Getting the worst bits of himself out there was therapeutic and necessary for Neilson. “I wanted songs that spilt out of themselves. The records I cherish most are asymmetrical things, full of blemishes,” he says. Continue reading