An avant-whatever collective exploring the nether regions between the groove and free improvisation; sub-aquatic observations of dub, jazz, afro-beat, krautrock and electronica, Snorkel have their debut album Glass Darkly released by Slowfoot on 5th October
Snorkel's Frank Byng (drums,percussion,drum samples) and Ben Cowen (synths,sampler) talk about the band (which also includes: Tom Marriot-tuba and fx, Charles Stuart-synths, drum machine and vocals, 129-MPC, casio, unprepared guitar and vocals and Lucas Suarez-guitar), their new album and future plans.
PH: How did Snorkel start then?
FB: I had met tuba player Oren Marshall in Ghana, later on we got together in a rehearsal studio in Peckham to play, to jam. That was me, Oren, guitarist Lucas Suarez, bass player Nikko Grosz as well as melodica/clavinet- player Dean Brodrick and a saxophonist called John Telfor.
PH: When was this then?
FB: Back in 1996, we were playing in rehersal spaces, exploring the notion of improvisation. We did a few gigs, and our first one with Ben was............. Ben, do you remember where?
BC: Yeah, I do, it was way back in 1996 in a £4 million penthouse, a luscious Tower Bridge flat. Before the owner moved in they had a hat show, an exhibition sort of thing and we kind of soundtracked the event.
FB: I remember it now, so that was your first Snorkel gig?
PH: And at the Spitz last night, a lot of the Slowfoot label posse all were in attendance in one room.
FB: Yeah, we did gather together at the gig last night. Jeremy being the notable absentee. So Snorkel just ticked along. I am the only key central member, the current line-up started about a couple of years ago?
BC: Yes, thats right, we had the idea to just play, and see what happens.
PH: Is Snorkel a departure from what you were doing in 7 Hurtz then?
BC: Errmm, yeah, it`s a lot different. 7 hurtz is more of a studio based scene, writing in the studio. Snorkel is live improvisation and recording that, listening back, trying to fathom out what it is, what music we have made.
FB: We got together, and we brought in Tom Marriott on trombone
PH: Yeah, he was on fire last night, the icing on the cake I thought. He made things leap out and was really vibrant, there was a hell of a lot going on last night at the gig
FB: We feel the same, there is a lot going on live with Snorkel.
PH: The bottom end notes via Oren`s tuba were sounding really good.
FB: Yeah, there is a lot to do with the space or spaces we play in, insofar as how much we can listen to each other. Last night there were some frequencies flying around and, well, you think.....is that supposed to be there?........
BC: We tried different things when it came to recording.
FB: But we recorded the band, a 5 piece (Ben, Frank, Lucas, Tom and Charles), which was different to the line up last night, we did some warehouse gigs and it felt good. Then we went to a studio in Willesden, with Antonio - one of the most eccentric engineers I have ever worked with. We completely filled his studio with the aroma of weed and played non-stop for 3 days. It was fucking cold, and at times we couldn't hear a lot of what was going on really. Out of this a fighting spirit came out, you know? We had to come out of there with an album. The band went through the tapes, editing and restoring some parts added a few overdubs.
BC: That is the thing with improvising, when we play in a smaller space, we have more clarity of sound, we can usually hear far more rehearsing, you know? Its more organic in how it comes together. Recording is a little forced with headphones, but it did come out really well, when there were times we felt it was falling apart.
PH: Which is the nature of the improv beast?
FB: It was like the gig last night, when you play songs, say with Charles, you all know your parts and you play them. When we do Snorkel, there isnt that kind of backbone to fall back on, the professionalism then allows you to get through it, when we feed off each other and the audience.
PH: Sounds like the space you play in becomes another instrument, doesnt it?
FB: Well that's right. I love all the squeaky bonk electronic improv stuff you know, having to find spaces within the sound. I love all that. And we dont all like the same music of course!
PH: Its cool how you can keep all these different projects together. Let's stop for a fag, shall we?
Sated with nicotine, outdoor sunshine, and lime and soda we reconvened to talk some more about Snorkel.
PH: So we were talking about the dynamics of Snorkel, how you work together.
BC: Well, there is nothing set, so we cant really change stuff, there is no structure there, we dont have a set theme, like in jazz, where you have a theme you play around. We have to think of textures to blend.
FB: We do have a few tunes we can drag out, which are there as props if things dry up, or need a kick start.
PH: Is it tiring, the improvising?
FB: It is demanding, you have to have your wits about you all the time listening. I was worn out last night, but my brain was buzzing.
PH: Have you ever thought of providing the music to an improvised play, a performance?
FB: Now that would be great to do, you know I have a friend who asked me if I would like her to turn up wearing a Burka and just walk around when we played.
BC: Yeah, that would be good.
FB: It would, I like the idea of that, whatever her idea is, I mean, I have no idea what she means when she suggests that, what it would be like.
PH: What, in just a Burka?
FB: (shrugs shoulders) I don't know.................. (smiling)
PH: I have done some projects using improvised music and movement, it can be a really empowering way to express yourself, as individuals and as a group of people.
PH: There is something that is deeply spiritual about music which is difficult to ignore. So I want to come and see Snorkel and a Burka later this year. Will you be doing some gigs outside of London?
FB: Well, we go back up to Coventry next month and we hope to do more and more gigs, all over... Oren plays a lot around the world, we would like to do that too.
The launch for their debut album Glass Darkly is at The Adelaide, Chalk Farm, London on October 5th.
Snorkel breathe in deeply and exhale here.
Best wishes to Jeremy Wood, who couldn't make the interview.