Canterbury’s prog-rockers reboot for the 21st century.
Music is sometimes likened to “a painting of sound.” But there’s a better visual metaphor for Syd Arthur’s second full-length album, Sound Mirror: “tapestry”—a multicolored sonic fabric woven from threads of prog, pop, jazz, and electronica that unfolds over 10 songs.
With roots in Canterbury, England, Syd Arthur sometimes gets compared to the seminal progressive acts that emerged from the city decades ago, such as Soft Machine, Caravan, and Hatfield and the North. But the collective work of Liam Magill (guitar, lead vocals), his brother Joel (bass, vocals), Raven Bush (violin, keyboards, mandolin—coincidently, the nephew of Kate Bush), and Fred Rother (drums), is much too eclectic to pin down—and much too fluent in digital soundcraft to be retro.
Self-produced in the band’s own studio, developed in part with the help of British rock icon Paul Weller, and mixed by Grammy-winner Tom Elmhirst (Adele, U2, Arcade Fire), Sound Mirror reflects Syd’s growing mastery of the art of recording. Yet the songs also percolate with the organic interplay of live performance, an increasing rarity in the digital age.
When Premier Guitar caught up with Liam Magill and Raven Bush during Syd Arthur’s summer U.S. tour opening for prog-rock icons Yes, we found them in a reflective mood.
Sound Mirror blends a lot of different elements and music styles. Where does that come from?
Bush: We’re very much a band in the classic sense. We feel like the music comes from all of us. Even if the initial idea starts with me or Liam, it always ends up becoming what it is in the rehearsal space or the studio.
Magill: The tunes for this record came together over the year leading up to its release. We started off spending a week in Ireland at Fred’s parents’ house. We set up in the living room and got lots of ideas onto tape. Through the year we started bringing that stuff out in a live environment, getting a feel for it by playing it for an audience, and then eventually crafting and honing it over the year. At the end of the year we got into the studio and started sinking our teeth into it, pulling it apart, rehearsing it a lot, and tracking.
So the songs were fully arranged by the time you started recording?
Bush: We went into the studio with only half the record solidified. “Singularity” is almost entirely jammed. It was very much inspired by some of the Miles Davis recordings with [producer] Teo Macero. I think their approach to chopping up jam sessions is fantastic. The song started as just a guitar riff. It’s the only track on the record that we played to a click—but it’s not a click track. It’s actually a sequence on an old French synthesizer called an RSF Kobol. These things are really rare. It’s my dad’s old synthesizer. We basically got a sequence going, then chopped it up and mapped it to MIDI. Then I started getting my Prophets [synthesizers] in sync with the RSF, because then we could get sequences overlapping with each other. And that’s what we played along to. We talked about some shape to the improvisation and then we just did a load of takes. A couple of days later Joel and I edited the jams, then we all listened and finished it.
“Hometown Blues” is comparatively uncomplicated. How did that song come about?
Magill: We were at Paul Weller’s studio tracking and coming up with ideas for a few days, and Paul wanted to coax this song out of us. Raven had the piano section—the verse—and we started playing through it, building it up, and then I came in impromptu with the second section, which is the chorus. We decided to keep that song straight up—we wanted it to be a simple, kick-back tune.
The lyrics came the second day. Paul wanted to get something actually finished, so there was pressure on me to come up with these words. So I did and we tracked it. It wasn’t the final version, but it was the first proper demo of “Hometown Blues.”
Multi-instrumentalist Raven Bush says that he and guitarist Liam Magill play together like two guitarists. “If he’s high, I’m low—or he’s low, I’m high, more often,” Bush says. “We need to be either voiced very tightly together or we need to leave each other space so the parts can breathe.” Photo by Sol Allen.
Do you have a set writing method?
Bush: Writing music is something we do all the time. It’s probably the number one thing we do individually and collectively as a band. I just try to write in as many different ways as I can. It’s so important not to approach [all] music in the same way. Each song requires a different tactic to get the most out of it—and the most out of ourselves, as well.
You mentioned you worked on the songs in front of an audience. How much room is there for improvisation in your shows?
Magill: It’s open—but still kind of structured, as well. There are open sections in the songs, so we’ll get to a point where it frees up and we do what we like, and then there’s a signal to bring it back down. If I’m taking a solo, I just feel it out. I leave it quite open and free if I decide to go off and take a lead. And there’s always Raven, bouncing off of him and his ideas. He’s been a major influence on me as well. He’s a stunning musician, a classically trained violinist. Then he picked up the mandolin and started shredding it like a lead guitar.
Bush: It’s very similar to how two guitarists might work together. We look for an emotional response. Ranges are a big thing. If Liam and I are in the same range, we’d be fighting for frequency space. If the part happens to be more contrapuntal, you’re actually playing in each other’s gaps. If he’s high, I’m low—or he’s low, I’m high, more often. We need to be either voiced very tightly together or we need to leave each other space so the parts can breathe.
The band’s sound incorporates a mix of electric and acoustic instruments, lots of effects, and sequenced synthesizers. How do you fit it all together?
Bush: We’re not the kind of band where everyone goes into the studio and only thinks of his own part. If I’m laying down a violin part, I’m completely aware of everything else that’s going on. And I think we’re all like that because we’ve spent so long doing it ourselves. It makes you aware of all the other aspects. If you want a great drum sound, the sound is one element, but the part is also important. It’s all intrinsically linked.
Magill: One thing I want to mention is how the effects we use inform our playing. The delays, the electronics ... I’m quite obsessed with sequencing. There’s so much out there to get our heads into with the gear. Delay is a massive part of my sound and Raven’s too. I see my Pigtronix delay as an instrument. It has taught me so much about rhythm. There are tunes I’ve written that can only be played with this thing.
Bush: An EQ setting can be just as important as the actual notes sometimes, especially in the studio.
Do you lay down effects as you’re recording?
Magill: For Sound Mirror, we tried to record as much as possible live, but as we went on, we added some effects “post” and we were like, “I probably should have done that live!” After we record our live stuff, we rip our pedalboards apart and everything is chucked back through the effects and reamped. We go to town on running our parts back through the gear.
The band's third album, Sound Mirror was released in June 2014.
Liam, you’ve also done a lot of solo acoustic work. Does that have any influence on your playing in Syd Arthur?
Magill: The Syd environment is a lot more honed and rehearsed. I’m a bit freer when it’s just me with my guitar and voice. Sometimes when playing solo, I go all experimental and use a looper, use my delays quite heavily, my Moogerfoogers, and step sequencing. Sometimes, it will be just guitar and voice, as it is. That’s where most of the stuff comes from.
Building dexterity and learning chords and fingerpicking patterns on the acoustic guitar informs my electric playing. The way I use my fingers [instead of a flatpick] on the electric guitar helps me approach it in my own little way.
Do you ever bring in songs from your solo work?
Magill: “Sinkhole” is a tune I’ve been playing solo for almost three years. For Sound Mirror, it got rewritten. It was an acoustic solo guitar and voice thing, but now it’s quite a ripping tune in the set. It came out quite differently from how it initially began.
A live studio performance of “Hometown Blues” from Sound Mirror.
Raven, your violin parts on Sound Mirror seem to blend acoustic and electric qualities. What’s your setup?
Bush: I have the amp I’m going through in one room and I also record the acoustic sound of the violin at the same time in a different room. The bow and the air and all the things that bring out the character of the violin—that’s always caught with the mic. The growl and warmth and “rocky-ness” are caught with the amp. I have a Fender Pro Reverb back home, and a Vox AC30. Essentially, I want a valve amp with lots of headroom. I do all my gain stages on the pedalboard, and I want to get my tone as good as it can be straight out of the board. Because I’m playing three different instruments through the same board to the same amp, certain pedals are voiced for different instruments. All the instruments go into a rackmount mixer underneath the pedalboard, so I can get their balance right before sending them into the pedal chain.
The whole band gels so well as a unit, but Liam, you actually grew up with one of your bandmates. What’s it like having your older brother on bass?
Magill: It’s great! We play off each other well musically, and Joel has always been my go-to guy for sourcing music. He’s always coming to the table with new bands and sounds and things like that. He’s key in the production and in so much of this band, as well. Musically, having a brother there ... if it’s blood or whatever, you can say what you want, but it’s a solid relationship.