Maps – aka James Chapman – got a Mercury nomination with his 2007 debut, ‘We Can Create’.
Three albums later, the one-time electronic, ‘bedroom producer’ has ventured out of his home studio and decided to throw the symphonic kitchen sink at his fourth effort, the sumptuous ‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss’, out now. It boasts guest vocalists, live drums and a team-up with the six-piece Echo Collective orchestra, who are based in Brussels. The result is an album which achieves the happy/sad sweet spot between giddily optimistic music mixed with melancholic lyrics. He tells NME how he managed to achieve an epic Brian Wilson-sized album on a budget.
Going back to when you started in 2015, what was your original vision for the album?
“I started writing in 2015. I was really just trying to write as many songs as I could, in between doing the On DeadWaves album [his side-project with singer-songwriter Polly Scattergood]. I always wanted to push further with the scope with this one, because I could hear an orchestra on these songs, but in the past, I never thought that was an option.”
Are you classically trained?
“Well, I was always the kid who was carrying the violin to school. Which at the time was not the coolest thing to do, but I’m pleased I had that basic knowledge ‘cos I did the arrangements for this new album – which was quite a learning curve – but I think having that basic foundation of being able to read music and stuff really helped.”
It’s daunting to go from that to being expected to lead an orchestra…
“I was really relieved it all worked! (Laughs) I did the scores then took them over to work with [Belgium-based orchestra] Echo Collective – they’re super musicians – so I was quite nervous. I was relieved that when they sat down and played the music, the notes were in the right place (Laughs).”
So how did you hook up with Echo Collective?
“They’re signed to Mute, the same publisher as me, so they introduced me to them. Neil Leiter, from Echo Collective, was really helpful because he knew I’d never done arrangements before, so I was sending him things to look over. My first attempt was like I was trying to score for the London Symphony Orchestra! (Laughs) I sent like a million parts and received an email back saying: ‘Yeah, it’s great but I think we may need to downsize the scope a little bit!’. So it was good to get pointers from him and then I was able to do it.”
‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss’ is very reminiscent of Pet Sounds. What was the most Brian Wilson thing you got to do?
“I mean, I did have a bit of a Brian Wilson moment when I went over to Brussels. The night before we were recording the orchestra, Neil said to me: ‘Oh have you taken a session like this before?’. It suddenly dawned on me that they were all looking at me to conduct this session. So the next day, I was in the control room and I had a foot switch to speak to the players and it did feel a bit Pet Sounds-y to be shouting ‘More viola!’ through the controller. Overall, just working with different people was probably the big difference with this album – it’s much more collaborative. A lot of things happened from that as well. When I went to record the drums in Hackney, I heard the girl whose studio it is – Rachel Kenedy – singing along, and that’s how she ended up as a vocalist on the album. So things happened because I left the studio and saw some some daylight.”
“I had a foot switch to speak to the orchestra and it did feel a bit ‘Pet Sounds’-y to be shouting ‘More viola!’ through the controller.”
Musically, it’s very sunny and lush. What was influencing you?
“Obviously there’s the Beach Boys influence, but I was listening to a lot of things like The Byrds – I really got into the [Byrds member] Gene Clark album ‘No Other’ – and Big Star. But I was also listening to a lot of ’60s and ’70s soundtracks, like Ennio Morricone and also ‘70s Italian horror and giallo. I’m a big horror buff. It’s the Dario Argento period that I love – the big one is obviously Suspiria. I drew a lot of influence from that period on this album even down to a harpsichord-ish sound that reappears which is kind of Pet Sounds-y but also a bit Argento. And Vaughan Williams casts a big influence.”
You have a bust of composer Vaughan Williams on your desk. Are his eyes judgmental?
“(Laughs) I’m looking at him right now! I mean, it’s slightly pretentious but it’s just nice to have in the room. The joys of eBay! I’ve also got a little postcard with Shostakovich on it in a little frame.”
If the music is sunny and optimistic, then it’s anchored by cryptic, melancholy lyrics…
“There is a tug of war between the music and the lyrics on this album. That’s intentional to have that push and pull between them, because I really wanted the music to be uplifting and joyous and almost like innocent in a way. So the lyrics are running against that. But there’s reflections on the past and there’s darker stuff in there. I was looking back in a way to memories from my past and when I was a child and that innocence but also the anxiety of modern times was an influence with the lyrics as well.”
How did the anxiety of modern times manifest itself?
“The track ‘Wildfire’ is probably a good example because it’s an organic word but it’s also the fact that things can spread so quickly, like an unstoppable force of nature, so that was influenced by a lot of stuff that was going on the digital age and the spread of information. Things have changed so much since I was growing up and there’s a questioning aspect with the lyrics of whether things are moving on in a good way or not.”
Was there anything that sparked looking back to childhood?
“Noting specific – it was that image I wanted. I wanted it to feel filmic. I always think of when I was really young – just that kind of innocence and you’ve got an endless optimism about the world and I think as you get older, you slowly shed that and I think that’s what I was trying to look back towards for the music – that sense of wonder. I was just reflecting on a picture I had in my mind as a kid. Everything seemed huge and cinematic, like if you were being driven into a city and looking at the lights – I wanted to create that same sense of amazement with the music.”
Are you still based in Slowthai-land Northampton?
“Yeah, I’m based outside in a little village. I like the quietness. I’m always quite amazed by the different pace of life when I come down to London. It’s difficult to pin down a scene here. What Slowthai does is very different to what I do, but it’s great to have people coming out of the same area. There are a lot more venues from when I was starting playing years ago, and there’s a lot of great music from around these parts.”
“What Slowthai does does is very different to what I do, but it’s great to have people coming out of Northampton. There’s a lot of great music from around these parts”
Apparently the album title came to you in a dream…
“(Laughs) Yeah, as pretentious as that sounds! I woke up and those words were in my head. I had been trying to think of a title for ages. Because a lot of the album was about memories and how they change over time and subconscious thoughts, so it felt quite fitting it just appeared in my head! I’ve always been interested in how people remember situations and each person’s truth is slightly different. When you’re looking back to childhood, there’s some things you forget then they reappear. What else have we got other than memories? Which sounds quite dark!”
‘Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss’ is out now through Mute.