Sincere Flattery: An interview With Ian Anderson and Stefan Hadjiev Wooden Elephant
Tracing the precise moment back to a flight from Stavanger to London in 2015, post-genre orchestra Wooden Elephant's viola player Ian Anderson recalls distinctly the first time he listened to a Björk album; to be fair, it was long overdue. "I remember it so clearly: I had a packet of salted cashew nuts and a can of Heineken, and I decided that I should really check out this Björk person that I’d been hearing so much about for so many years, but had somehow never actually got round to listening to."
"I put on Homogenic, and I was immediately and utterly hooked. It’s a crazy feeling when you hear a piece of music for the first time, and it feels like it’s a part of you and has always been a part of you. That bizarre combination of full understanding of and identification with the musical language, while consistently being blown away by the alchemy happening in your ears."
During the revelatory listen, tens of thousands of feet up in the fluffy clouds, he encountered an overwhelming urge to arrange the album with his true love: strings. Partly because he wanted to perform the music, and as classical musicians, you don’t always get to toy with the pleasures of pop, but mainly because it called out as ideal for transformation. "I felt that strings could bring a different, interesting angle to the music because of how they interact with each other- the homogenising of sounds and roles within the group.
A most enchanting detail of the band is that members originate from all over Europe: Ireland, Bulgaria, Iceland, Scotland and Norway, but Ian has to admit that it is not always plain sailing to hook up as you can only imagine. "It has its challenges, not least when we are developing a new album, as we can’t just get together one evening to try out a couple of ideas. But I love the internationality of it, especially speaking as a Brit during the time of Brexit."
He recommences, "Musically, we try to unite and combine genres from different backgrounds, and the make-up of our ensemble embodies that. We are not only all different nationalities: Scottish, Irish, Icelandic, Bulgarian and Norwegian, but we also live in different countries: UK, Germany, Denmark, Norway and France." Ensuring an occasion with intent when the bunch succeed in getting together in the same room to rehearse and perform.
Ian moves on to examine the chief consequence of his group's output and the reason for their existence in a globe filled to the brim with musical opportunity, expression and choice, too much choice in moments. "The most interesting concept for me is what happens when you take a piece of music from one genre and translate it into another. And like translating a language, if you want to make it convincing, you can’t just translate each word individually- you need to know each language’s idioms, grammar, slang and personality." They aim to do precisely that, but with their music.
"We are all professionally classical musicians, so we know exactly the strengths, weaknesses, idioms, background, building blocks, and traditions- for better and for worse- of classical music. And we take amazing popular music albums and try to translate them as best we can into the contemporary classical music world, with all the changes that demands, but we also naturally retain characteristics of the original genres and find that idea of more than one genre existing together simultaneously fascinating. However, we are by no means the only people to explore it," he clarifies.
Cellist Stefan Hadjiev of the Woody Els chips in with his two penneth and opinion on his current stance. "I think in general, genre lines are getting thinner and thinner. For me, Wooden Elephant is a group of the future. If someone asks me if we are classical or pop/rock, I am not sure what to answer because we're neither but also both at the same time." He perceives that the world of music is entering a post-genre era of kinds.
"I was listening recently to a fantastic piece for electric guitar and big orchestra by Bryce Dessner, who is also the guitarist in the band The National. Is he rock or classical? And it's similar to the original Kid A- is it an electronic album, or rock, or avant-garde pop or all of it together?"
From the permission of their lionheart Radiohead, Wooden Elephants fulfilled a desire to reimagine Kid A for their second album, plumping for the title Landscapes, Knives & Glue. Travelling back to when they performed their first album Homogenic at PODIUM Festival over with our friends in Germany four years ago, the overwhelming reaction could be classed as 'insane'. "I’ve never experienced an audience like it for a concert I was involved in. None of us was expecting it, but it made us think that maybe there was a future for the group," Ian considers.
Soon after, festival director Steven Walter approached the band, now electrified with self-belief, and asked them what record they wanted to handle the following year. "Just like that, we were an ensemble. Which was great, but then you have to pick your next album. I’ve been a massive Radiohead fan since I was 12, so I knew I really wanted to do an album, but how do you choose which one?"
For Stefan, Kid A hand in hand with Amnesiac are two precious Radiohead works, holding historical aspects of note. "It's the moment which transformed Radiohead into something much bigger than just another great Brit-rock band." He shares, "These are the albums which influenced and inspired a great number of artists in various genres; it's also in a way the beginning of the modern indie rock /pop, which we have nowadays, and which I find very boring, but that's another subject…"
"The thing I admire the most- besides the great songwriting and production- is the fact that after the amazing worldwide success of OK Computer they took the risk to experiment and search for new ideas and to come up with something which is very far away from what they were doing up to that point. Probably the last thing their fans were expecting was an album that sounds rather like a Warp Records release than a rock album."
Acknowledging its enormity, Ian states that Kid A is most probably the record that defines not just Radiohead but an entire segment of the musical landscape from then on. "So what other album could we choose? Last year was Kid A’s 20th anniversary, so we thought it would be nice to pay tribute to such an amazing album by releasing our own take on it." Although, due to coronavirus, the whole thing took way. way longer than anticipated. "We’re now releasing it during Kid A’s 21st year…" He muses.
Landscapes, Knives & Glue put distance between a covers record due to the differing angles that a string quintet naturally brings to music written for a far more disparate instrument. Ian teaches, "By that I mean taking a basic rock set-up, as an example- the vocals are the main melodic line, the guitar provides the harmony, the bass is the bass, and the drums provide the rhythmic drive."
"However, one of the qualities of a string quintet is that although each instrument has its strengths and weaknesses, they all basically sound the same. This totally flattens any sort of hierarchy within the ensemble and opens so many possibilities regarding the interaction of parts and the exploration of textures and sounds." Therefore, to generate a convincing string quintet version of a pop album, they must adhere to their strengths.
"We don’t just transplant each line from the original onto its equivalent instrument and play; we actively have to rewrite the whole thing. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work, and you might as well go and listen to the original. Of course, each track is clearly each track, and we are creating cover versions, but it’s slightly more than that too."
"I think it's just not interesting to play straight," Stefan claims, "Because the original artist has done it already. If you want to play music that is not your own, you have to search for your space in it, explore it and share it. Otherwise, it's just better to listen to the original." An outcome of their version is the removal of every single syllable.
"In many cases, lyrics are very important and, in some cases, can be as much as 50% of a song, or even higher for someone like Bob Dylan. Of course, when text consists of shooby doo-wah la kind of stuff, the music definitely has more of an important role than the text.
"I think in the case of Radiohead, there is a good balance between music and words. There are interesting things to find in the lyrics and interesting things in the music." When presenting albums instrumentally, divorcing the music from the lyrics allows devoted focus on the bones of its musicality.
Over many months, Ian slaves away on the first draft alone until rehearsals kick-off and input gushes from every member; the starting point can, at times, become unrecognisable. "Especially with the double bass as that is the string instrument that is least like my own. There are unusual and brilliant techniques that Nikolai has either discovered himself or has come across, which we will incorporate into the albums." The collaborative phase is what he cherishes most about the process, "Exploring sounds and techniques together as a group."
One point lends a hearty example and forever sticks in his mind: for Everything in Its Right Place, he had written for Nikolai to use blue tack to secure a harmonic, and then play the harmonic with the bow while bashing the back of the bass for the 4/4 beat, but it did not seem to mesh."Then, randomly he started plucking the blu-tacked note instead of bowing it, and it suddenly all fell into place and sounded so amazing."
"I remember just sitting there listening to him pluck and hit, producing this dull, driving, complex rhythm; sitting there listening with a big stupid grin on my face. These moments are amazing when they happen. Someone is just riffing, and an amazing sound comes out, and you know immediately that it's going to form a major part of the album," he decides.
Their LP is oddly beautiful, unconventional and free from oppression; it is a floaty, stirring work that respects the alternative dimension of the original; Motion Picture Soundtrack hits right where it should. Ian speaks of Radiohead inhabiting a world of hybridisation, which can be pinpointed to the release of Kid A. "Jonny Greenwood has been producing what you would class as contemporary classical music for almost 20 years now, for established classical ensembles such as London Sinfonietta and the BBC Concert Orchestra."
"Both he and Thom Yorke have written many film scores, so a large swathe of Radiohead fans are already totally on board with and understand this idea of stepping between genres." Another reason he imagines fans will grasp the project is that it draws on the work of Radiohead from both directions. "As a member of the London Contemporary Orchestra, I worked with Jonny Greenwood on his contemporary classical chamber music, culminating in a tour of Europe with his music in 2014-15, and playing on A Moon Shaped Pool, which used a lot of his more unusual ideas in the string arrangements."
"The way he approached creating sounds on acoustic instruments, often by introducing non-traditional objects such as plectrums and pacy shakers, directly inspired our version of Kid A." Several techniques Jonny explored with the LCO made their way onto their album, complementing thoughts they developed themselves. "I think that really ties our version together- it is not only directly inspired by Radiohead from the alternative rock/electronic side, but also from the classical side."
And what of the opinion of the humble Radiohead? Ian hopes they will gain satisfaction from discovering their baby in a new light. "The best outcome would be for them to hear things in their music that they never intended, but that upon hearing, they think 'that’s cool'. But maybe they’ll just hate it and find the whole concept overblown and indulgent!" Ultimately, the emotional response is out of Woody Els hands. "The aim with all these album reinterpretations is to provide a different angle to well-known and well-loved music, ideally, one that the listener hasn’t considered before."
Article by Beverley Knight