by Michael Canning
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.”
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.”
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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Michael is currently working on a book about the Gordons and Bailter Space. https://30kwattpa.wordpress.com