"The beauty from the top of a mountain is obvious and limitless… you have to focus on the more sombre landscapes. But like you say, one is not better than the other. I love nothing more than a vast empty expanse… its' space is a feast of feeling rather than the easy aesthetic of the dramatic."
On a sunny and cold day I sat down at my computer to have a conversation with multi instrumentalist Ste Benson, of We Are The Wooden Houses
He writes a blog, It's Lost It's Found, on which you will find "alternative, esoteric and experimental music that is not readily available."
He is also part of a musicians collective, Treehouse Orchestra Recordings
Our conversation vaulted from the shores of Cumbria, to the standing stones, meres, and fells of Northern England.
Hit play above, and read on...
Hud: So, could you tell me a little about how you spend your time in England? How do you make money, find time for making work, and all that.
Ste: Sure. After a few years of being in a 'traditional' band, we were getting sick of the cycle of rehearsal, show, rehearsal...at the time we were an alt, country band with an experimental edge, audiences weren't particularly receptive! We pooled our resources, bought some studio equipment and that is where I spend the majority of my time. I belong to a community of artists called the Treehouse Orchestra, we write, record and improvise music and put it online for free. So I can usually be found in our studio. When I'm not there, I can usually be found in the Lake district or in the woods.
I earn my living as a medical laboratory assistant in a blood sciences lab, it's a part of pathology.
H: So that is an interesting story: branching out to do what made more sense to you. How do you find working in collective like that? Is the decision making consensus based? And I suppose you have your own projects?
S: I am multi instrumentalist and songwriter in The Dead West and Hills! Werewolves! Run! and a studio hand for friends projects (most notably The Nightowl Sings). My own project is called We are the Wooden Houses, this has morphed into a partnership with Alastair, who is essentially the enabler of the group. We do a lot in post production and that is his area. The person who had the original concept will usually steer the session, decisions are made based on what is best for the current project. We all have roles in each other's projects, to a lesser or greater degree. The time that used to go on rehearsing can now be used creatively.
My environment feeds directly into my music/art, something you are familiar with.
H: Yes! And on that note, you should tell me what the name of your town means.. Something about a haunted castle if I remember right?
S: That's right! I live in the county of Cumbria, in the north of England. I live in a very small city called Carlisle, but I was born and raised in a coastal town called Silloth. There is a road that runs the length of the beach called Skinburness Road, this is where I, most of my friends (and my parents still) lived. Skinburness used to be a separate entity, and roughly translates as 'The Headland of the Demon Haunted Castle'. I set to work on a album, just so it could be titled that! That should be out next month or March.
H: That is incredible. There must be a real feeling of history in England, especially in the rural areas where you may come across walls, standing stones, and such. Have you ever had a weird experience walking around in such places?
S: Last summer I visited a few bronze age sites, wonderful stone circles and caves. English/UK heritage runs deep, some of it truly ancient. It feels familiar… homely, living in such a rural area affords me plenty of nearby locations that are from such a pre-documented historical and pre-Christian time. Currently Alastair and I are compiling field recordings for a project that presents the sound of a place usually appreciated by the eyes. Stone circles, caves and abandoned buildings too.
Strange events seem to happen to me all the time anyway! A couple of weeks ago, I had been exploring an abandoned hotel, I walked home by the beach. Adjacent to me, and for the the full walk home, a dolphin swam. It's rare that they appear in the Solway Coast, but it does happen. If you were referring to the supernatural, I love the idea of Stone Tape Theory.
H: I haven't heard of that, care to explain? And wow, a dolphin so far north.. that must have been something
S: It's only the third time I've seen dolphins there. Beautiful. Stone Tape Theory posits the idea that a 'place' can absorb energy, an example would be the walls of a room could absorb the emotion and/or feeling of a past event. Hence, a 'stone tape'.
H: Now, your music has a very particular feel, that I feel communicates a sense of place. Could you expand on how your walks along the coast, through the forest and hills, tend to inspire or influence your songs? Is it a translation of that feeling? Never having been there, it looks like a rather sombre place.
S: It's hard to articulate...the North of England can be sombre. Just listen to the Smiths! Rain lashed streets, red brick horror houses built for the workers of factories (now probably closed because of a past conservative government). However, it has lakes and mountains...places that remove the body and mind...I guess my aim with my own music is to soundtrack that place, or transition. I'm never going to sound fresh and vital or any else in a zeitgeist kind of manner (such as larger city based music)... but I believe my music 'sounds' like my environment, it does to me. I started taking pictures last year, and in my mind, it is an absolute visual representation of the music I make.
H: That's just what I was thinking as well. There is the sombre and the majestic, so to speak, in contrast, which in a way causes them to emphasize each other
S: Wonderfully put. One of the reasons I first approached you was that your pictures seem to suggest you were very much a part of your environment; you weren't taking pictures of 'it'. Rather, you were in it taking pictures from within.
H: That is an incredible observation, and actually one of the coolest things someone has said to me about my work. I come from a place that is very flat, landlocked, and mostly comprised of huge tracts of industrial farmland. In these places, the beautiful things, like clouds, or sun beams, or even the bark on a lone tree, really stand out. The sun just set as I type this (I have a notification that appears) and as I look out the windows here, I can see the sky and clouds. There are dramatic, tree covered hills in this place I live now, with cottages raising woodsmoke tucked into the hollows. Cracks in the concrete here, random frozen puddles, dirt patterns after the rain, are less easy for me to see, because there is so much obvious beauty. So the internal view kind of needs a re-tuning once in a while, to be in a bleak landscape and allow the subtlety to come back.
I can't say that the majestic environments are any better than the bleak ones, actually, but for many years I didn't love the flat land of Nebraska. Did you always find beauty in the place you grew up?
S: You are correct about the re-tuning. The beauty from the top of a mountain is obvious and limitless… you have to focus on the more sombre landscapes. But like you say, one is not better than the other. I love nothing more than a vast empty expanse… it's space is a feast of feeling rather than the easy aesthetic of the dramatic.
I think growing up I always loved the sea, and like most people growing up near an expanse of water, I always feel I need it close by. The town I grew up in has a 360 degree visible landscape. It feels like you're in a tiny dome where you can see all there is to see in each direction. So, as well as appreciating what's there, you look within.
Landscape = horizon.
H: I can really see that, I imagine some of the coastal towns I've been too, and they always feel that way. So, in the beginning you said that the public wasn't very receptive of your experimental country.. with your recent work, have you decided "to hell with the public!"? is there a balance to be found?
S: There is a balance to be found if you're willing to compromise, which I'm not.
H: Ah, and that is one of my favorite words: compromise. There is a real trend these days for artists to "sell out," so that they can "make it." This is all about how a person defines success. How do you feel you define it for your work?
S: In all other aspects of life, compromise is key. When referring to one's art, it shouldn't enter the equation. I define success by way of satisfaction I guess. Am I creatively fulfilled? Is this inspiring? Grand failures are fine, as long as it's failed trying.... It's funny...the notion of 'making it'. What does that even mean anymore?
H: Well for some I think it means money in the bank. While I feel what I make should be shared with others, I don't find that receiving money for it is motivating.. but money is the damned thing that is, in the end, necessary for most.
S: Sadly true. I suppose I have to accept I'm never going to make the kind of music that will make me rich! But as long as I have the means and the desire, that's all I need.
H: Yes. I don't know if you heard this question growing up, but in my culture there is a huge focus on the practicality (read: earning ability) of skills someone is pursuing. Do you find a similar sentiment in England?
S: Completely. Education is viewed as preparation for a career, your performance there dictating your abilities in society after. Some European countries get it right I feel… discover what the child loves and is naturally good at, and help them in that direction. Education should be enjoyed, not used as a marker to how much money you will earn later. Such a shame. There is an excellent book called 'Affluenza' by Oliver James. In it, the aspirations of school children from around the world are compared. The most common goal in England is to become 'rich' or 'famous'. Compare that to the children of Norway and Sweden, who answer 'painter' or 'dancer' (for example). That's not to say that England isn't full of aspiring artists! Of course it is, but it has been made harder by successive government policy quashing money for the arts. That combined with the capitalist message of possession and spend will make you happy… it's no wonder one would want to grow up to be 'rich'.
H: Ah, I see, so it is very similar there to here. Almost like the same model of society and economy.
S: Well I guess these ideals were really formed in the eighties with the Reagan administration and the Thatcher led Tory government here. Since then, the balance has really been tipped toward the 1% and our environment, health, well being and happiness are paying that price.
H: Yes. Fortunately we as artists can still break free through creating. That's how I feel at least.
S: I agree. The ability to transcend through art and thought… and if you have friends and colleagues who can do this with you… I can't think of anything more beautifully human.
H: Yes, that is the perfect word for it. So you find the connections you make with fellow creators important? I think that is a big part of this interview series for me. Because I often feel isolated, when I know that is just not true.
S: It's important to me, yes. I have the ability to create on my own (and be satisfied with the results) but there is something different when two or more minds are at work. A kind of 'third' entity is born, one that could not exist without those particular participants. Do you feel isolated because you find it difficult meeting people who share your views? Or because of lack of collaboration?
H: Mostly, because I am, or I have told myself that I am, kind of different. I have found people in my life who see and feel things the way I do, but I have had a hard time relating to people in general, on the deepest level. Those people I have found a common mind thread with often live far away from me, but since coming to Vermont, I have quickly found a lot more like minded people around. So in a way it was based on place, and also a bit of chilling-out on my part. I have high standards, and they were too high, to be succinct.
S: Ha ha. I understand. So, do you think Vermont has presented more similar individuals? Or the displacement has altered your mind set?
H: Both I think. I can be neurotic when I'm all alone, traversing the same routes each day. And at times it can be an exaltation, finding things in the same paths every day that are still novel and beautiful, which is what I photographed for the last six years or so of my time in Nebraska. Pretty bipolar.
S: Well, I can certainly relate to that.
H: Yes, so a shift in place, when needed, can really bring a shift in mindset
S: Earlier you said "I have had a hard time relating to people in general, on the deepest level." Could you elaborate?
H: Well.. say, I often go into the woods and want to just stay silent and stare at things. Honestly, it's hard to find people who can do that. The people I grew up around were constantly doing something: smoking pot, drinking beer, or even just continuously talking.. Now I'm starting to sound anal, but I really appreciate silence and the holy nature I find in the outdoors, when things slow down and the intellect is set aside for a while.
S: Staying silent and staring at things pretty much defines who I am!
H: Hahaha! Well we have a common thread there, as I suspected
S: In the woods, in the fields, by the sea, on the fells… at the risk of sounding new age, it's being silent in those environments that allows you to connect with nature, it enables you to be able to 'listen'.
H: I am with you there
S: A couple of years ago, I was working on a piece of music with Alastair called 'Pica Mast'. It's a long, experimental Future Days era Can ambient guitar piece. That is the closest I have came to absolutely translating what I hear. I'm not sure how we achieved it, but it's like a direct plug in to… ? Where ever that other place is. It remains my favourite piece of music that I have worked on.
H: As a matter of fact, Sunday Song just came on. I've been listening to the Witch Box as we've been talking.
S: Even though that is an acid folk mini album, I couldn't resist including some primitive guitar! I was doodling on the guitar, my girlfriend was in Portugal and my thoughts of missing her turned in that song.
H: Aw. Well, we covered everything I hoped to, and more. What's next, besides the demon haunted castle?
S: Well, my friend (and Treehouse Orchestra founder) Marc has just completed an album in which I had a role. It's called All is Quiet Now and is by The Nightowl Sings. I'm trying to push my friend David Thompson into some more recording because he is a wonderful songwriter, but he has more projects going than me! I am getting more involved with photography, and Alastair and I have begun discussing how we may connect sound and vision. A movie perhaps? It's still embryonic!
H: Wow, that would be incredible.
S: 'Demon haunted...' is only one song away from completion. I would like to send you a rough mix...it more closely deals with the environment/self relationship we discussed.
H: Awesome. Alright, I'm off to cook something. Stay well Ste!
S: OK Hudson, take it easy. bye.
Ste just finished a new collection of music, the cover image of which we collaborated on. Check back in a week or so for more details, but for now you may check it out on his blog: The Witch Box
Ste also has recently gotten into taking pictures. Follow him on Instagram, @stephenalexanderstanleybenson