The instrumentalist talks solo albums and Morris dancing
Released in September, ‘Quiet River of Dust Vol 1’ is the Canadian multi-instrumentalist’s second full-length solo venture, and marks a decade-long quest to capture the sounds and essence of a life-changing sojourn to a Japanese monastery.
“I really have a natural aversion to finishing things and can really happily drift along with an unfinished idea of a song until forever,” he said. “So there’s a certain point where I was like ‘It’s time to drive it home’. And my friends Aaron and Bryce [Dessner] from The National were really egging me on with this record.
“They had heard a lot of the early fragments that became the songs and they were always saying: ‘you have to finish this!’ I might not have finished otherwise!”
The trip to Japan had been a necessary escape from the gruelling tour demands of Arcade Fire. The sudden gift of headspace and quiet led Parry into some deep existential questioning that he still hasn’t answered. Yet ‘Quiet River of Dust Vol 1’ catches him trying. It’s a compact seven-track album is a delicate journey of pastel-coloured synths, discordant pastoral lyrics and fluttering, exultant vocals.
Parry had only stepped off the main stage with Arcade Fire a few hours before he chatted to NME. Their headline slot at Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas was a career-spanning set, fulfilling the crowd’s desire for arena-dimensioned life-affirming anthems.
But right now, we are talking about death, you see. Parry is in a contemplative mood, revealing an escapade in a Welsh river, the problem with big outdoor music festivals and celebrating May Day in the woods with a bunch of Morris Dancers.
Could you explain the album title ‘Quiet River of Dust Vol 1’
I would say the title of the record is a reference to death and the cycles of life that go on forever. There’s a place in Japan called ‘The River of Death’, that I visited by accident. I had actually named a tune ‘Quiet River of Death’ before I went to that place. I was intrigued because it’s a physical place that represents the metaphysical place. The physical place is a river where parents go to pray at it and it’s parents who have prematurely lost children, and the metaphysical, it’s an old pre-Buddhist Japanese mythological river where the spirits of the children who have died before their parents go to await judgement, kind of a transitional place between worlds. I just thought that it’s an image that is a really beautiful and it just dovetailed into this music.
What about the death poems that inspired the album?
There’s a book that I’m really fond of called Japanese Death Poems and it’s a collection of very short poems, mostly in haiku form, collected from people who have lived over hundreds of years. There’s a several-hundred-year-old tradition of writing a short poem on your death bed. And I hadn’t really heard of that so it made a real big impression on me. Also the poems themselves are such beautiful little puffs of smoke in the wind. It’s a big deal that someone put something into words for the last time, you know? There’s something that acknowledges the kind of big internal-ness of everything and at the same time it acknowledges being a tiny little breath of air on the wind.
With such celestial sounds, are you thinking of more unusual sites to play live?
Yeah, my dream performance for this would be in a dome outside in a field by a river somewhere, where you can hear running water at the same time as you’re playing the music. That’s the ultimate dream but logistically, it’s actually a nightmare. It will definitely happen at some point. I wish that there was a way to perform outdoors that was more quiet. That’s the weird paradox of the outdoor festival for me. If I wanna go outdoors to a big massive field, the first thing I am looking for is that deep quiet experience, you know? And you go to these big outdoor festivals that are like muddy and it stinks and there’s garbage everywhere and super loud sub bass coming from five stages. It’s kind of like urgh, everywhere humans go, it gets smelly and loud.
You’ve previously spoken about experiencing a unique silence when visiting a monastery in Japan ten years ago. Have you been chasing that quality of sound ever since?
It was more about this idea of being in a totally unfamiliar place that feels familiar. Being somewhere that’s unlike anywhere you’ve been, and yet with some sort of feelings or spirit that felt so familiar. I’ve been looking for it for a long time, but it’s such a futile thing to chase; it’s more a thing you have to have your antennae up for areas where that might occur. In looking for it you’re already off the mark a little bit.
You released this album on the autumn equinox, and plan to release the ‘Quiet River of Dust Vol 2’ on the spring equinox in 2019. What’s special about the seasons?
It’s something I really grew up with. My dad was a folk musician and a collector of songs, and my mum actually wrote a book about all of the holidays celebrated in Canada, sort of day by day. She was really quite obsessed with seasonal celebrations, and so we would mark all the occasions of the year, one way or another. Me and my sister would get up at five in the morning on May Day to go to the park to celebrate the return of the spring with a whole bunch of Morris dancers singing in the woods at dawn. I really grew up marking the seasons in very active terms, and so I probably have a predisposition to it!
Did you ever rebel against that as a teenager?
I don’t think I was ever like, ‘this is dumb, I’m not participating’. You just distance yourself from it, naturally. I moved away from home and I lost my father at 17, and those two things bring you so far away from the metaphysical village you grew up in, that you start to really have pangs of homesickness in a way. ‘Home’ is not a physical place but it’s actually the traditions you were celebrating or the community you were keeping, and I found myself gravitating back towards those things and wanting them in my life. Marking the seasons is a super important thing for me, it’s a way to continually reaffirm your connection to the thing or the place that made you.
Were you able to incorporate any of that ‘metaphysical village’ on this album?
Well, in ‘Farewell Ceremony’, that’s my father’s band Friends of Fiddler’s Green; the chorus of voices is them. Group harmony singing is what I grew up doing, and so having them… being my metaphysical village that I grew up in… having them singing on the record was important to me and super natural.
How do maintain your calendar while you tour with Arcade Fire?
Trying to go out for a ramble in nature is definitely the best you can do sometimes. I find it delightful to discover nature in all the different places I get to go, that’s definitely the first thing in my mind. But it makes me quite sad to miss the turning of the season. If we left in summer and come back and it’s already fall, I find that quite jarring on some level.
You often record ideas for songs on your phone. Do you find a lot of surprises when you listen back to what you have recorded?
Yeah totally. It’s the best. So many of these musical ideas happen in this moment when you’re not thinking about it. In fact, there’s many little parts of this record that I didn’t remember recording. They’re actually some of my favourite moments on the record because they’re the ones that I didn’t labour over at all, just little noodles that I recorded. Some of them I don’t even know what I was thinking.
You must look after that phone really well. There’s future hits in there!
Well, I actually dropped my phone in a river in Wales while I was sequencing this record! I was walking from a best friend’s house to her mum’s house who lives about a mile down the river. I said, right ‘I’m going to sequence this record today, and I’m going to be walking through a river while I do it’. So I was walking through this shallow river listening to the sequencing on headphones, holding my laptop and my phone in my hands, but then I took a step off of the ledge into a really steep bit all of a sudden. I dropped my phone into the water to save my laptop. I saved the record!
Richard Reed Parry’s new album ‘Quiet River of Dust Vol 1’ is out now