An Interview With Sam James Hill
by Isabel Lockhart Smith
I think the EP’s title, ‘Pictures of Frozen Water’, is brilliant. How does it relate to the songs? Could we see the songs as the ‘pictures’?
I hope they are pictures. I don’t go overboard on lyrical content in my songs, but I like them to have themes and I like to focus on what I was going into writing it. Because my music is based a lot on repetition, the idea of capturing motives, feelings and ideas and rethinking them is something I’m fond of.
Your music is constituted of many superimposed levels. Do you have a particular process of composition, or does each song materialise in a different way to the last?
I write the phrases of a song before I write the song. Usually those emerge by accident when I’m playing around with effects or rhythms or looping things in different moods and then I ram them into ways or working into each other, or build them on and on each other. Sometimes it was difficult trying to take the phrases apart in the studio to record them. Sorry, did I type studio? I meant tiny cupboard under the stairs.
The sound is really clean, despite these many levels. Has the EP been a long time in the making?
22 YEARS IN THE MAKING!! Well, about nine months. I’m very happy with how it sounds- Alex Carson (Barefeet Records/Musician/piano teacher/social butterfly) did a great job. We did it all in bedrooms with basic equipment, but he’s got a lot of recording knowledge and a good musical ear and had some great ideas. We had to do it slowly- we both had erratic amounts of time, and I was terribly annoying and kept changing the songs I wanted on the record, writing new ones or changing the ones I already had.
Having seen you live quite a few times in the past year, I was wondering whether your songs underwent any significant changes in the transition between performance and recorded material?
We tried to keep things as close as possible to how they were played live, but it did give us leeway to make some subtle changes and some crazier-than-Mariah-Carey stuff. We affected my voice quite a lot to give it a bit of a choral, odd timed feel and thickened out some of the bits I can’t do live- drums, effects. Even when Lydia Walker (from Tawny Owl and the Birds of Prey) is around to play bass live, everything is limited to what the drum machine or loop pedal can do at the time, so it’s nice to expand outside those restrictions. However, we tried to stay within the realms of what could be realistically done, just because that’s how I work out stuff. That said, there is one song- the title track- that’s fully created on a laptop using re-samples of the other tracks- specifically Reminiscence- and shares some of the same lyrics, but can’t really be played live without pressing play on a laptop. It’s meant to be a hazy looking back at looking back, or summit.
Do you find certain themes reappear in your lyrics?
Memories, parties, people, books, pie, cheap poetry, things I studied in my degree, other music, feeling guilty for no apparent reason.
So are lyrics important to you? Or does the music always come first?
My lyrics are vague and not great, but I know what I mean and they’re important to me writing a song.
Who or what influences you?
Soundtracks that change the tone of a film. It’s a really odd sensation when you hear different to what you see.
Van Der Graff Generator (the band, not the electric equipment).
Jon Martyn - he played folk guitar music through a rack-mounted delay system in the 70’s and it sounded rad. I remember catching video of him late night on tv and it was amazing.
I like Mogwai, Four Tet and The Books.
The modern music scene loves to impose genres, subgenres and movements. Please, if you can, define your music for us. A safe little sound bite will do nicely.
Experimental folk(tronic) post-rock?
You quite deftly reconcile the mandolin with the loop pedal. Is it fair to say that you are interested in incorporating ‘old’ and ‘new’ forms of music-making? And if so, what do you think is achieved by this?
I’m not sure. I think any and all music that is created today is a reconciliation of old and new. Anyone who cites a previous musician as an influence or had a teacher is incorporating something that has been done before with something else.
Finally, Norwich is in the running for UK ‘City of Culture’. Any other Norwich artists, musical and non-musical, you want to plug (in a bid to up the East Anglian cultural ante)?
Bearsuit (New album soon!)
Follow Your Heart
The Middle Ones
Tawny Owl and the Birds of Prey (although this is a cheat, as I am a Bird of Prey)
Alto 45 (Album soon!)
King Laconic (new EP soon!)
Sometimes I just have a gander at NUCA’s exhibits and realise exactly how good the art is there.
Ditto with UEA’s creative writing students.
Poetry by Adam Warne is pretty sweet. Also, Sam Riviere and Jack Underwood have Faber and Faber poetry pamphlets published, as well as both being in brilliant bands.
The UK’s only music video festival (28th June – 10th July).
If that’s not good enough for a city of culture then I don’t know what is. Although I think the likelihood of Norwich becoming said city is very unlikely. Be nice though, wouldn’t it?
Review of Sam James Hill's Pictures of Frozen Water
by Joshua Jones
Norwich-based musician Sam James Hill’s debut EP, Pictures of Frozen Water, is damn near perfect. Which is not to be hyperbolic – it is flawed in parts, though minorly; and these small flaws only serve to heighten the EP’s charm and promise. In short, it is 25 minutes of icily beautiful pop music.
It is the kind of music that is a pleasure to describe. Its influences are many, all apparent enough and somehow all capitalised on, and, to an extent at least, transcended. It brings to mind, often all at once, The Postal Service and The Notwist, Ulrich Schnauss’s A strangely isolated place, Loveless’s less guitar-heavy tracks, Patrick Wolf circa Lycanthropy, The Age of Rockets, Fennesz, Four Tet...the list could go on. While he isn’t necessarily doing anything radically different from bands like the above, Hill has managed to incorporate his influences astutely and to create something of his own, cherrypicking some of their best features and filtering them through his own sound without ever coming off as redolent.
One of the reasons it works so well, one of the reasons I perhaps misleadingly termed it perfect, is that it really should be taken as a whole. It is meticulously sequenced, each track segueing completely naturally into the next, furthering the sound, exploring itself from within itself, from the base of a very assured and complete palette. All the pieces matter, and it is well aware of how best to serve each individual piece. So I should rephrase myself: it is a perfect example and a perfect rendition of what it is and what it wants to be.
The only organic instruments I can detect are mandolin and bass, both effected wonderfully, never losing any of their human qualities amid the bed of electronics. Actually, bed is probably the wrong word to use here – the electronic element of the EP is its soil, the wash of sound from which the looping mandolin and bass parts expand and thrive, interlacing and growing over the course of the individual songs but never leaving or losing the core. The vocals hang and dissolve and return over and under everything, lyrics less important than the tone. The various riffs and phrases loop and circle, changed by superimposition but still there.
‘Reminiscence’ is my favourite track, at least for the moment. It is the longest of the six, and seems to embody everything that the EP is doing. It opens with echoing rimshots and what sounds like Orb-esque electronic keys, slowly growing, vocals washed out as if coming from somewhere other, filtering from channel to channel in search of whatever or whoever it was that prompted the statement “Some things change.” There is a bridge of sorts; for just a few seconds one wonders where the song is going to go next, as if after all this build up it’ll simply return to where it was, until all of a sudden it begins to swell, distorted mandolin burning its way through the production as the vocals dissolve into swathes of sound, only to eventually, at the end of the song, when everything has winded down, play unadulterated on their own for just a few seconds. It is a fleeting, masterful piece of production, the perfect resolution to all the song’s circular searching, returning to a source that wasn’t overtly there in the first place, sounding like a beginning as much as an end.
The rest of the tracks all work similarly, and none of them are weak. The first two are the most immediately striking, the two in the middle content to maintain the pace before the more condensed closing two. The only real flaw to my ears is that ‘Alfred’s Last Gasp’ speeds by too quickly, loses some of the impact it would and could have contained if it just hadn’t rushed through itself. But even that is hardly piercing criticism.
It is one of the most satisfying debut releases I’ve heard for some time, one that holds so much promise and potential for a longer work but is, at the same time, more than enough for now. A multi-faceted, multi-purpose record that deserves exposure and, especially considering its very reasonable price tag, deserves to be bought and consumed unsparingly.
You can purchase Pictures of Frozen Water here for just £3. It is released on lovely independent label called Bare Feet Records, which in the coming month we will be featuring, as well as reviewing some of their new records, for the simple reason that they are putting out shockingly good music that I hope we can help reach the wider audience the artists involved deserve.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
10 months ago