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Podcast 2. Patrick Curry – Philosophy, Enchantment, and Ecological Ethics

Patrick Curry 2016

Patrick Curry

This is episode 2 of the Sentient Seas podcast series. It is an interview conducted with the London based ecological philosopher and author Dr Patrick Curry. The conversation covers: the position of philosophy in 2016 and its place in a neo-liberal world, academic philosophy and its confines, learning for its own sake, defining cognitive dissonance and its relation to the ecological crisis, the teaching of traditions and the value of having a teacher, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism defined, unexamined assumptions, our frames of reference – the long term vs the short term, human overpopulation – the unexamined topic, scientific ecology vs political ecology, objectivism vs subjectivism in science, becoming a better human being, Val Plumwood and ecofeminism,  human universalism and being top of the food chain, what is an economy actually for?, enchantment, intrinsic value vs instrumentalism, ecocentrism already implicit in human communities in the west, the commodification of life and its future, the Ecocentric Alliance, and Population Matters.


For further information on Patrick’s work go to


ANZAC Day, militarism, and the critical everyday

Australian gunners at Galipolli 1915 - Austr musuem

Australian artillery at Gallipoli, May 1915. Photograph: Australian Musuem Collection (used with a Creative Commons Licence)

by Michael Canning

Today, April 25th, is ANZAC day. It is a sad day in New Zealand and Australian history and I have wanted to write about it for a long time. For any readers who are unfamiliar with this acronym it means Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, which was a military grouping created during World War 1 in 1915 as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Anzac soldiers made up 12.5% of the Allied troops involved, with most soldiers coming from Great Britain, Ireland, France and India, with smaller numbers from Nepal and Canada.

Anzac Day was originally to commemorate the members of that force that fought at Gallipoli in Turkey. Since then it has been widened to include the sacrifices and contribution of all Australians and New Zealanders who have served and died in wars and conflicts since that time.

The date of the 25th of April comes from the day in 1915 when the disastrous battle of Gallipoli or battle of Çanakkale (Turkish: Çanakkale Savaşı) began. Last year I watched some of the televised BBC coverage of the centenary of Anzac Day held at Gallipoli. I was appalled to listen to the inane running commentary of the BBC reporters who were there and in the studio,  as well as the crocodile tears of state leaders i.e. Prince Charles and the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers. For these are the people – symbolic and/or decision makers or uncritical communicators who allow the monstrous war machine to continue.

One of my relatives was a soldier at Gallipoli in 1915 and I think he would be turning in his grave to see how this tragedy for all involved has become exploited and debased over the years. My great uncle was in the British Artillery and one of the fortunate ones that survived being there but like many veterans of war found the experience so disturbing I don’t think he ever spoke about it.

NZ troops, 1914

New Zealand troops circa 1915. Photographer unknown.

When I was a child my family once visited my great uncle where he lived in the Waikato sometime in September or October of 1979. My question cum statement to him went something like “wow great uncle – you were at Gallipoli?” A little taken aback by this he first looked at his wife, then both of my parents, and then looked straight at me and through me with very serious and sad eyes and didn’t say a thing. It took me time to work out what his response meant but the message was transmitted clearly. The memory of his response lingers with me 37 years later and I find it now to be a turning point in my life as a kid who was then in a culture of war commodification i.e. replica plastic guns as toys a la German Luger pistols, and English Lee Enfield 303 rifles, war films, military model kits, toy soldiers in 1/72 and 1/35 scale, and battlefield sticker books.

Many years later I had a job that took me into numerous neighbourhoods and communities across Northeast England. I met a number of ex-serviceman through it and I will never forget an encounter I had with an ex-RAF man after I knocked on his door. He would have been in his 70’s then and when he heard my New Zealand accent I think it immediately took him back to WW2 when he had worked with some kiwi pilots.

The flashback to those terrible times seemed to be instantaneous and tears welled up in his eyes as he told me about the losses of his comrades, and the carnage and suffering of the war. Despite obviously feeling bad he was very nice to me and we discussed what we needed to talk about but he clearly needed someone to talk to in depth about that period.

I was in my late 20’s at the time and it was an unexpected and intense experience. As a male brought up in the über-macho culture of New Zealand it was almost unthinkable to have a grown adult man, especially an elder, cry in front of you. After the initial jarring effect on me of this encounter and once I had thought more about it more I felt privileged.

I felt privileged in that the elderly man had opened up like that to a young man, whom he had never met before, and had trusted part of his grieving process to him about his clearly terrible memories of WW2. The pain of them had obviously been bottled up in him for decades. It was another profound event in my life on different levels and another example of the misery and heartbreak that militarism had brought to people from elsewhere in the world.

Militarism is an abomination that has no place in human life and is something that simply needs to be ditched in the 21st Century. This is a critical time where human beings face the ecological consequences of many of our societies essentially treating the Earth like garbage for hundreds of years, often with an almost militaristic disdain for the blowback from massive alteration of ecosystems and pollution.

Indeed have a look at who some of the biggest polluters and users of fossil fuel are – the US military is one of them. If humans are to approach the urgent need to evolve to something far better whilst acknowledging this imperfect pluralistic existence then serious debates need to be held about the wisdom of allowing militarism to continue any further.

And I, for one, am sick to my guts of watching governments and their yapping media lapdogs hijack events like Anzac Day and the centenary of WW1 with their attendant spin, which is inevitably embued with the gross falsity and emptiness of nationalistic fervor. Nationalism and patriotism being particular scourges that in their modern form originated in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What we effectively witness is, as someone eruditely put it in 2015, the “funnelling of history through the prism/focus of the state or in simpler terms what the state wants the public to know (and not question).” Well, I reject this editing of history and the effective glorification of war without ever questioning the structural nature of the violence and expansionism that wars and other conflicts are about.

Wars, despite their sales pitches, are always about the ownership or control of resources and it is generally always those who have nothing to do with that ownership who suffer after being sold innumerable falsehoods and manipulation by soul-less creatures with vested interests. Needless to say I believe my late great-uncle would have detested and loathed to see the same kinds of institutions doing the same kinds of things now in 2016 that left he and his comrades in arms, and the society he came from so scarred and battered. How ironic is it that WW1, the so called ‘Great War’ that was the war to end all wars is now a footnote of almost 100 years of continual warfare somewhere on the planet.

I may turn on the tv or look up some other media at some point today to see what the 101st commemoration looks like but for the most part I am thinking it is perhaps better left alone. I would rather enjoy some silence than have to experience what idiocy and vacuous sentiments the mainstream media in the UK might provide. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised in the last few days in the build-up to Anzac Day to see some properly researched stories in the kiwi media that doesn’t pull its punches on the horrific nature of Gallopoli, the barbaric way some soldiers were treated by their own command structures, and the bigger picture around it where Anzac troops were basically pawns for continuing the imperial ambitions of Britain.

There has also been, for me, the discovery that some of the Anzac troops witnessed at first hand the horrific events of what became known as the Armenian Genocide of 1915. I first read about the latter more than 20 years ago after investigating the Armenian philosopher Gurdjieff’s book Meetings with Remarkable Men but it seems that only in the last decade or so has more become known about this hideous part of Turkey’s history.

So there we have the crux of the matter – imperialism, and all of its vile manifestations including its latent militarism, surely one of the most useless, wasteful, and destructive things ever to have developed since humans moved away from hunting and gathering after the retreat of the last ice age into settled ‘civilizations’. Imperialism is alive and well in the 21st Century make no mistake just look at what has been going on in the middle east since the beginning of the 20th century and even further back. The latest geo-politicking has long historical roots.

To conclude this essay I want to finish with this quote about war and militarism from the Dalai Lama, which brings other crucial things to the fore – in terms of conditioning, unexamined societal norms, what is legal, and why.

“Of course, war and the large military establishments are the greatest sources of violence in the world. Whether their purpose is defensive or offensive, these vast powerful organizations exist solely to kill human beings. We should think carefully about the reality of war. Most of us have been conditioned to regard military combat as exciting and glamorous – an opportunity for men to prove their competence and courage. Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable; in general, nobody feels that war is criminal or that accepting it is criminal attitude. In fact, we have been brainwashed. War is neither glamorous nor attractive. It is monstrous. Its very nature is one of tragedy and suffering.”


Podcast 1. Mick Collins – The Unselfish Spirit: Human Evolution in a Time of Global Crisis

This is episode 1 of the Sentient Seas podcast series. It is an interview conducted with the author, psychologist, and holistic coach Mick Collins about the content in his 2014 book ‘The Unselfish Spirit: Human Evolution in a Time of Global Crisis’, which is available on Permanent Publications.

Mick Collins 23.3.16.crptThe podcast conversation covers key issues within Mick’s book including transpersonal psychology and its importance, as well as: spiritual emergencies; the role of archetypes in the modern world; the rich interface, power and pragmatism of dreams; the healthy ego and the transpersonal; the power of the placebo; Jung as modern shaman; Ted Kaptchuk; stress has overtaken back problems as the key health issue in the workplace; reflexivity between ones inner and outer worlds in occupational interests; teachers wanting to leave the education profession, SALT magazine; Herbert Marcuse and a renewed politics of consciousness; connecting visionary energies; Theodore Roszak; technology/robotics and estimated 15 million job losses in next 20 years in the UK; co-creation and communities of influence; interdisciplinary work for the greater work; synchronicity; a collective dream. For further information on Mick’s work go to

The music on the podcast comes from Mass Spectrometer and the NDR Jazz Workshop.



The Stone Gibbet – Halifax, Joy Division & the Good Mood Club

by Michael Canning

Halifax_view_from_Beacon_Hill, Mr Barndoor

Halifax, West Yorkshire, England. Photograph: Mr Barndoor (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

In October 2013 I watched a fascinating documentary made in 2007 about the West Yorkshire town of Halifax. It was entitled ‘The Town From Hell: Halifax in the 16th and 17th Centuries’. For those of you who haven’t heard about this place – Halifax is a small town of about 80,000 people, about 13 miles west of Leeds, and is the main centre of the metropolitan borough of Calderdale, through which the upper part of the River Calder flows. It was for centuries known as a centre of wool processing and eventually became a Protestant and Puritan stronghold. The name is very old and the first written mention of the town notes it as ‘Halyfax’ in the late 11th Century.

The town sits on the edge of the Pennine ranges, which are a very old rock formation dating back to the Carboniferous period of 310 million years ago. I’ve only been there about 5 or 6 times in the last 20 years but I always felt Halifax had a bit of a curious vibe and atmosphere to it that is difficult to describe. Its a small isolated place surrounded by huge hills and steep slopes and has a slightly insular feel to it, similar to Greymouth in New Zealand. It still has many charming Victorian buildings, and older periods, but has something else to it. I distinctly remember walking down the road in 2010 after visiting a friend there and getting a feeling of a deja vu, in that it felt and looked like Sheffield did in 1993. Halifax felt like a place where things possibly move more slowly, and that is not in itself a bad thing.

To be fair the whole area of Calderdale is fascinating because of its dramatic landscape, which features a mixture of high windswept moors, ancient barns and walls, valleys, streams, rivers, steep crags and cliffs, and hidden slivers of ancient oak and beech forest. Halifax is the biggest urban area in Calderdale and has as neighbours the small magic places of Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall, which both have much folklore associated with them, and the rough justice meted out to criminals pre 19th Century.

However Halifax had a reputation way outside of Yorkshire in centuries past as being a law unto itself, which probably stemmed from its general inaccessibility and seclusion in the Pennines. Before rail and proper roads were built by the 1870’s the only way into the town was by the ancient walkways used by travellers, and merchants and their packhorses. Because of the rocky and high slopes these would often become washed out after downpours and require considerable work to make them passable again with a bunch of set stones.

A replica of the gibbet in Halifax at its original site (2008). Picture: Paul Glazzard, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the 17th Century Halifax was still governed by what was called the ‘Gibbet Law’. A law which meted out very harsh punishments. It meant that if you stole anything up to the value of 13d (pence) and were found guilty you would be taken on market day to the gibbet and beheaded on it! A prayer by John Taylor (1580–1654) wrote the Beggar’s Litany, in which its text included “From Hull, from Halifax, from Hell, ‘tis thus, From all these three, Good Lord deliver us.”

The gibbet was nowhere as styley and clinical looking as the French guillotine from 1789 – it was a wooden frame with this huge wooden block above the gibbet blade, which was essentially a heavy iron axe. Its usage eventually stopped but there were apparently a few campaigners who wanted to bring it back into use at the end of the 18th Century!

Halifax is not generally known for its musical history aside from Astronomer William Herschel (who discovered Uranus) being a church organist there in the 18th Century, and Tom Bailey, the singer with the Thompson Twins. However there is a tenacious little nightclub called Clarences in the town centre, which sometime circa 1972/73 changed its name to the Roxy briefly. Upon this rebranding they invited none other than Roxy Music to come up from London and play, which they did.

In 1978 the same venue was known as the ‘Good Mood’. Sometime in May or June of that year a young up and coming band called Joy Division drove the 21 miles east from Manchester over the Pennines to play a show at the Good Mood. Joy Division drummer Steve Morris recalled the following: “there were probably around twenty or so in the ‘audience’, I think they were a bit hostile at first but came round in the end. They would pop in for a bit then go out again; one minute there’d be five or six then they’d nip off and another bunch would come and have a look.”

On June 22nd 1979 the band played the same venue again. There have been conflicting reports on this concert over the years with Joy Division bassist Peter Hook recalling in 2007 that they played to one person that night. Every band’s horror. However Steven Morris and a punter who was there that night dispute this with their 2014 accounts of the gig apparently being better attended than the first, albeit only attended by men! For the full story see this excellent article at

JD - YMCA, London 1979

Joy Division playing in London a few months after the 1979 Halifax show. (Photographer unknown)

It is a curious if somewhat tenuous piece of irony with Joy Division playing their doomy atmospheric music at a club called the Good Mood so close to the very site where the town’s gruesome history of capital punishment actually happened.


The Shocking Pinks – Maguires Pizza Bar, Liverpool 10.10.15

by Michael Canning

This is a previously unpublished review of the Shocking Pinks playing in Liverpool in October 2015. This show was part of a world tour for the band which took in shows across Europe, the USA, and China. 

01b SP - Mag, Liv 10.10.15.lo

The Shocking Pinks, Maguires 10.10.15 (Picture – M.C.)

On Saturday the 10th of October I made the 60 mile journey to Liverpool to see the Shocking Pinks. Its a big deal for me seeing a kiwi band these days in the north of England, and going to Liverpool is a bit of a treat as well – its a fascinating place, an ancient port city, eternal party city, with hills running down to the famous Liver building and the Albert docks. I also have a family connection to the city so its always good being there.

The venue was located in a funky part of central Liverpool, which despite nearly 20 years of regeneration thankfully still has some rough edges left to it. It consisted of just a small door and glass front with a small performance space painted black out the back, but what a great idea: pizza, beer and music, what else might one wish for on a Saturday night?

Two acts played first, there was no stage just a small PA at the back end of the room. The first was a singer songwriter who had a line on George Formby jokes, a bunch of resonant chords and a nice rhythmic action on dampening his strings that punctuated his tunes. I liked it, an affecting and engaging kind of urban folk music. The second, another solo act, this time a garrulous dude with a laptop and a looping device. He gave a short set of short concise synth pop-like tunes that kind of resembled some of the approach of the late Michael J. Hex, the less grim Suicide songs, and a less Teutonic Kraftwerk. The audience danced and it set the scene nicely.

02 SP - Mag, Liv 10.10.15.lo

L – Nick Harte, R – Cory Champion. Maguires 10.10.15 (Picture – M.C.)

The Shocking Pinks set up, drums, sampler, bass and guitar and vocals. And then, with no introduction whatsoever, began their set with a simple funk-like bass groove which grew, twisted and mutated over the next 40 minutes into a fantastic set of tunes. At the start, slightly disconcertingly, the bassist Ash Smith, kept his back to the audience as if they were in a private jam session, but then began moving around and swaying quite unself-consciously with the music – utterly aligned with the force and power of it. This occurrence provided the theme for their set and in the next song he left his bass on stage and proceeded to dance off and out into the audience. I hadn’t seen anything like this in years. It was intoxicating.

Some songs like ‘Nostalgia’ were a beautiful mixture of sparse and heavy, with the aforementioned beginning on a simple tom pulse and delayed guitar and then turning into an absolute monster of sound, whilst others unveiled themselves as thumping pulsating psychedelic dance tunes. The audience of perhaps maybe 40-45 people in this small room just went nuts. The energy in the room was incredible. The drums throughout were an utter delight with the kick drum and periodic samples threatening to flick your ears off at points.

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Ash Smith, Maguires 10.10.15 (Picture – M.C.)

On the most obvious level the Shocking Pinks set reminded me of things like Pylon, 1980 PiL, or Gang of Four, and maybe ‘Glider’ era My Bloody Valentine but the thing which really came to me like a real jolt was the absolute parallel in spirit and energy they had at this show with the excellent and much underrated Auckland band Figure 60 who I saw maybe twice in the mid 90’s, once with Superette at the Globe on Wakefield Street.

The Pinks featured Cory Champion on drums, who is undoubtedly one of the best drummers I’ve seen play in many years, and at the end he was punctuating cleverly syncopated drum bursts into a Stooge-ish ‘LA Blues’ type ending with guitarist/vocalist Nick Harte making unearthly noises in the feedback from his guitar and Ash Smith thrusting his bass guitar to the ceiling of the room with electronic growling noises, and the audience howling at the gods with the beautiful din of it all. Blissful and 21st Century bacchanalian. I went home a slightly deafened but happy man.



Jimi Hendrix at the Flamingo, London 1967

by Michael Canning

In 2014 I was given a recording of one of the earliest Jimi Hendrix Experience concerts in existence. It was recorded on the 4th of February 1967 at the Flamingo Club on Wardour St in Soho in West London. I’d known about this archive recording for a decade but this was the first time it came my way so I was pretty excited to listen to it, having a long-time interest in the sonic soaring and the syncopated grooves of the Hendrix Experience.

Jimi Hendrix 1967

Jimi Hendrix circa late 1966/early 67 (Photographer unknown)

The quality is as rough as anything and sounds like it came from a mixing desk feed into a small recorder from a primitive PA system in the Club. The vocals are almost nonexistent with Mitch Mitchell’s snare and Hendrix’s guitar dominating the mix. However, with the specifics of the recording aside what an absolute piece of magical history to hear, but holy hell it must have been LOUD that night, the tape can barely contain the signal!

The loudness of course was part of the act and enabled Hendrix to pull out his feedback and sculptural tricks, which alongside others of the time like Blue Cheer revolutionized how rock music would be done and presented. Frank Zappa, who witnessed Hendrix early on at an Experience concert in New York said that Hendrix played so loud it made him feel sick.

The setlist of the Flamingo Club show only features two of Hendrix’s tunes, ‘Can you see me’ and ‘Stone Free’. The rest of the set consisting of three covers he was to make even more famous, ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and ‘Wild Thing’, with blues standards ‘Killing Floor’, ‘Catfish Blues’, and a curious proto heavy metal version cover of ‘Mercy Mercy’. Hendrix introducing the latter somewhat sarcastically and/or stoned, “a little tune, a very straight, ha ha, top 40 rock and roll record, ‘Have Mercy’, have mercy on me, baby.” The ‘baby’ drawled with particular emphasis on the b’s.

It is a well known fact to how Hendrix was pushed and pulled in certain directions by his management during his brief career, and it seems highly likely that the inclusion of this popular tune at the time by the Dominoes would have been encouraged. An audio recording of an interview from the same year reveals Hendrix’s barely covered seething frustration and disdain at his management’s wishes for him to be an ‘Elvis Presley’. Hendrix was not a fan of some of the contemporary music of the time and is on record castigating on what he thought to be the ‘plastic sounds’ of Motown.

To what it must have been like in that small club in London that night 49 years ago though – this ragged recording certainly gives some clues. With what can be heard in the lo-fi murk the audience were going wild. They were seeing a new form of music being made in front of them, one that was perilous, heady, and a super-somatic experience with the band’s amps cranked to the maximum and Mitch Mitchell’s kick and snare drums thundering out. It had everything to do with the industrial scientific developments of the last war, and the social aftershock of the latter, that was still settling, not to mention another industrial slaughter going on in a place called Viet Nam.

The old order of the contemporary music world in London had effectively been kicked over during the first few performances by Hendrix in late ’66 and early ’67, and the pop cognoscenti of the time knew it. Little wonder that Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck formed a temporary support club, shaking their heads collectively, and wondering where they would fit into this new milieu with the Jimi Hendrix Experience having landed in London.

This essay may be copied for non-commercial use with permission from the author, please contact the editor. Similarly for commercial use please contact the editor.



Opening the Dorr on the Stems

by Michael Canning

John Dorr

John Dorr (Picture – M.C.)

Composer and guitarist John Dorr, 33, is the founder and backbone of the English musical collective Stems – not to be confused with the Australian band of the same name that have operated intermittently since 1983.

Stems create the quietest and most delicate of passages alongside enormous harmonic and overtone-drenched maelstroms. They are Christine Avis on cello, Asher Leverton on percussion and cornet, and Dorr on guitar. Their output can only be characterised in terms of their feel, which to me, has innately a form of north-western European folk music in it, although suffering none of the whimsy or the seemingly forced nature of some contemporary folk music. Stems marry their folk-like sensibility with pulsing and thrusting cymbal edged percussion and the clang and drone of electric guitar in a tradition stretching back to the Angus MacLise, pre Moe Tucker, version of the Velvet Underground. Their music is entirely instrumental, and all enveloping – the sounds of an outer and inner natural history.

Huddersfield is Stems home, a small ex-textile town in West Yorkshire in northern England halfway between Manchester and Leeds with a population of around 162,000 people. Whilst it is not a place with a huge profile it is a small gem in the world of music, with a thriving arts scene, including the prestigious annual Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which plays host to some of the best classical and experimental artists in the world. It is also the birthplace of Orange guitar amplifiers, and the town that hosted the last ever Sex Pistols concert on English soil on Christmas Day 1977 when they played a benefit show for the children of striking fire fighters.

Stems specialise in building textures and timbre colouration, and nothing is extraneous or overworked in their delivery. The last time I saw them play they spent the first 15 minutes building up a formidable tension and then they effortlessly flew and swayed through numerous peaks and troughs over the rest of their set. The experience was elating. It was that feeling of inner peace, joy, and resolution that is implicit in the music that touches you. It moved me fundamentally, and was one of the best gigs I had witnessed in years. It would be too easy to compare them to bands like Godspeed you Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, or the Swans. Stems make intrinsically English music with one foot in the contemporary and the other in an ancient venerable tradition.

I wanted to learn more about Dorr, his background, and what his path has been in coming to now where the Stems music is far better known in continental Europe than the British Isles with six European tours under their belt since 2013. So we spoke one evening chatting via skype with an ever-churning digital miasma decorating the background of our conversation. Dorr was born in 1982 in the small town of Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, 11km north east of Huddersfield. “None of my family were musical or were interested in music in a big way”, says Dorr. “I was kind of forced into going to church for the first 14 years of my life, so two early memories I have are people singing, and a little tape recorder that I was given when I was about seven.” Dorr experimented with the tape recorder and over time discovered the fun and possibilities of overdubbing.

Some years later he acquired a guitar through his family and was given one term’s paid instruction in it. He kept up with his own education in the guitar afterwards although only finding a few other people in Dewsbury to play with. At college his music tastes changed becoming more oriented towards electronic music. A few projects started and finished but it wasn’t until 2003 that he came into his own when made his live debut as a solo performer at the now defunct Cockpit in central Leeds.

Dorr then studied a B.Tech at Huddersfield College. He found it “largely enjoyable” because there were more musicians to play with, and the fact that the course structure “just enabled a lot of time to play.” After a spell of working at Carlsberg Brewery in Leeds he went to Huddersfield University to study classical music. He found the milieu a big culture shock and found some components of the course much to his dislike. However Dorr is sanguine about it, “I took what I wanted from the course, and I’m happy about that, like the ability to notate and arrange, and so being able to speak to classical musicians in their own language.”

As Dorr’s University course progressed he began playing with other musicians on his course and before long the Stems emerged as a new project. “The name ‘Stems’, just fit the bill in every kind of way, because its applicable to music in many ways. But then also everything kind of comes from this one stem. Generally I would say that is a description of the music that you start out with this one idea, this one rhythm, this one melody, this one sequence of notes and then you apply processes, and that that piece, or that section of the piece kind of writes itself.”

Christine Avis

Christine Avis (Picture – M.C.)

During his time at University Dorr began his own deconstruction of musical rules and expectations the deeper he got into his own composition and playing. “Harmony is important, but in terms of chords and progressional movements, it is there but its not as important say as rhythmic structures or cellular development. The thing about harmonious music is that it can be quite boring but its weird in that people might say, ‘oh I don’t like disharmony’, yet think of film music, it generally makes its bread and butter from disharmony and dissonance – it has a wider impact than most bands could ever hope to reach. Almost everybody knows the theme music to Terminator 2.”

Dorr continues, “not everyone can sing you a track from some really big selling album or knows the latest U2 song. Films purvey much more into society in the same way as opera or ballet. Its interesting in the ‘high’ artworks that get accepted into the canon at University level studying classical music that you become aware of, they’re often things that have been aligned with other artforms so the general populace can accept these kind of ‘chords of death’, whether it’s a character on stage whose singing about dying, but if you take away the stage setting or the dancers then people seem to have a harder time accepting the dissonance for what it was.”

One component of his University work that Dorr enjoyed was studying Indian classical music, which opened his mind to several ideas, that he has found useful for writing and structuring long pieces on the guitar. “I was initially taking a certain passage and turning it backwards and playing it on top of the original, or maybe doubling the speed of something, and all these really simple ideas. Although when you perform them they’re not quite so simple but they give you these really beautiful effects, these kind of ‘sound worlds’. I hate that phrase, but it’s like this context you just don’t come across it if you only do harmonies. If you just study the harmony and work to that cadential tonic root note kind of chord system, I find that that leads you into writing music that sounds like its already been written.”

As time went by Stems solidified and for a period extended into to an octet. However as things became more serious Dorr faced the issue that many musicians face in terms of finding fellow travellers willing and able to leave their normal lives or paid jobs behind when the gigs and tours start to arrive. However things and events coalesced and in 2013 the band went to continental Europe for the first time to play a 16 date tour in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

“The minute we got to the continent, and still now, the way the audiences react, I feel like I’m ‘home’” says Dorr. “We get that sometimes in England but I guess the thing is that we arrived in the continent fully formed. There’s also a lot going on in the continent that English people just don’t know about. The amount of bands I’ve been introduced to who are amazing! Germany, in particular, has this network of venues that get good bands, and the places we play seem to have a scene already built there. People generally pay by donation, as opposed to a strict ticket fee, which I think that has something to do with it as well.”

During their first tour Stems began their experiments in expanding their stage numbers by inviting local musicians from the cities they play in. However being in such a position poses risks but Dorr appears to thrive on it. “Its fascinating working with people who don’t have the same language as you. Most German people that I know speak really good English but it never stops to amaze me when hand over a sheet of music and you go ‘one, two, three, four’ and you start playing and it just comes to life, and you’re like ‘wow, I didn’t expect this!’.” The performers being music students, professionals and those who make music part time. Says Dorr, “they turn up and you can tell they’ve had a go at trying out the piece and they know what’s going on.”

Asher Leverton

Asher Leverton (Picture – Anthea Daley)

The effect of Stems music is palpable and Dorr relates how after a show in Darmstadt a woman in her late 50’s or early 60’s came up to him weeping with tears on her face. “She said to me how the music had reminded her of her childhood, and so many other things. I mean she obviously enjoyed it. When I play know there’s no consciousness of anything, I’m just in this world where I’m surrounded by memories and these things that you really like and dislike, and its all kind of raw intent that comes out while you’re playing, and you don’t assume that anyone else is thinking that, and the fact that they’ve never heard this music before stirring memories in them and I guess that’s one of the things that I look for in music something that can put me in place instantaneously, and that place can be something that helps you tap into your own memories”.

Dorr once experienced the same emotional response as the audience member at Darmstadt in being similarly moved to tears when seeing Sigur Ros perform. “It wasn’t because they were playing on the radio at that particular moment in my life but it just really put me in that mood where you think about things in a really grateful way. About the nice things that have happened, and the bad things that have happened. And this great balance of things that almost takes you out of your petty little human self, and, without wanting to sound too pretentious, allows you to see things in a different way.”

Whilst the band have had numerous highlights in their existence like playing to an appreciative audience of 8000 people at the Huddersfield Festival of Light in 2013, they have also had some problems with the fact that the Perth ‘Stems’ still occasionally tour, which causes confusion with some promoters, as well as some websites because of confusion with the band name. However the band since their inception have been highly productive and to date have released two albums and three singles, and will soon be launching a crowd funding effort to release new material on vinyl.

As alluded to earlier, Stems, to my ears at least, have a component in their sound that at least harks back to pre-industrial English folk music. Dorr appreciates the idea, noting that it is not a conscious thing. He sees Stems work as updating similar types of melodies, “they’re generally not major or minor, they hearken to a different period, I wonder if the sequence of notes being used, because there’s no shift between the tonic chord and the dominant chord as such, that there’s more of a kind of a drone that permeates underneath everything. It gets built upon or taken away from – that kind of aspect gives it a folk music edge to it I guess.”

Dorr is interested in folk music, although more so from other countries because “in many other places its still, very much alive, not that its not alive in England, but present in the everyday and in the traditions of that particular place. Last week I heard the original of Dick Dale’s the original version of ‘Miserlou’. It’s Greek and essentially just taken the melody and supplanted it onto a surf rock kind of guitar sound and Mariarchi style trumpets, its amazing that the song is still recognisable yet because of the instrumentation its really taken it to a completely different place.”

In these dark times of increasingly immature, reckless, and outdated politics that do nothing to address crucial issues such as hydroecological degradation and climate change, and that simply inflame conflict, instability and warfare – surely the space and a musical medium to still your core, reorient yourself, and direct your thoughts away from the constant din of bad news into a better context is a precious thing. And surely one such musical medium to do this with is via Stems.

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About the author:

Michael is currently working on a book about the Gordons and Bailter Space.


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