Stopping in at Bristol’s Arnolfini for one night only on 3 April, Chasing the Whale is a new series curated by Ben Nicholls and inspired by the tales of whaling from times passed.
Kings of the South Seas are a trio of musicians featuring Ben Nicholls (The Full English, Seth Lakeman Band) on concertina and vocals, Richard Warren (Spiritualised, Soulsavers featuring Mark Lanegan) on guitar and vocals, and Evan Jenkins (Bert Jansch, Eric Clapton) on drums and vocals. Their self titled debut was released in November 2014 and produced by the acclaimed John Parish (PJ Harvey) – containing odes to the nineteenth century whaling trade. The album, recorded in London’s Cecil Sharp House, will be given a further dimension as the band reignite the original songs on tour (to begin at the Cutty Sark) alongside visuals provided by film-maker Adam Clitheroe.
“The project Chasing the Whale is based around Ben Nicholls and his band Kings of the South Seas – they have rearranged old songs. I made lots of moving images to accompany the live elements.” Adam explains.
“The films are all very saturated, with lino printing. There’s an artisanal look to it.”
Adam met Ben, when filming for his music documentary on Ben’s former band, titled ‘One Man in the Band’ – essentially, a film to document the existential loneliness of people who play in a one man band. They remained in contact and the project evolved from there.
“Ben is basically a book obsessive. He is a charity shop, book obsessive, he particularly likes the ancient, old books from missionary trips to the south seas. The ones with the lining engravings. He gave me these books and I tried to turn them into moving images. The films are all very saturated, with lino printing. There’s an artisanal look to it. The videos are quite raw and blotchy and hand touched, with violent saturated colours – it really evokes that whaling visual culture. It was nice to be inspired by this – it is very visually tactile.” Adam explains.
Joining Kings of the South Seas will be New England based musician Tim Eriksen, providing guitar and vocals, and Philip Hoare (as narrator). A whaler’s life, from the Moby Dick era, reworked and brought to life through music and visual narratives as inspired by historical artefacts, stories and collaborative efforts alongside the musicians and producer John Parish.
Ben Nicholls, the man behind the project explains:
“It developed out of a project which I was doing at the end of 2014/15 with the Kings of the South Seas band. We did an album of traditional whaling songs related to the British south seas whaling culture. In researching, we realised it is very heavily tied into the whole American whaling trade at the time and the American War of Independence. As a development of that we thought it would be interesting to put something together on the American side of the story too.” Ben says.
Tim Eriksen plays numerous instruments, including the twelve string acoustic Mexican bass (a bajo sexto), fiddle and banjo. His unique interpretations of traditional Americana and southern Appalachian folk tunes and his repertoire which spans through his former bands including Cordelia’s Dad (formed in 1987 alongside Laura Risk), as well as a broad knowledge of shape-note gospel, Bosnian pop and South Indian classical music, allows Tim a competency that enables him to enhance the project that is Chasing the Whale.
“Tim does a fair amount of whaling songs in his repertoire – he’s also an ethnomusicologist – he’s a very clued up bloke. Tim brought a new dimension to it. He has been pulling out songs which he thinks will be suitable. He plays loads of instruments so it will be a surprise.” Ben says.
Ben was motivated to create musical worlds based on the challenging realities faced by folks onboard the whaling ships during the nineteenth century – their endurance tested, with some sailings lasting several years. The songs were created through a resonance with these times – drawing on the mysteries encountered along the way – of tales of personal struggle, political and social commentary and nostalgia.
“The thing that has always been interesting about the music, is that you realise the history of whaling and how it is spread around the world – there are so many interesting facets – the whaling is almost a coat hanger for other cultural history. As you get more involved in learning about the history you learn how much of an impact it has on the world. It sort of highlights the gruesome side of the killing of the whales – the music is focused on the 1780s up to the 1850s – the real harpoon era.” Ben explains.
Trawling through historical artefacts and documents including log books, original engravings and leather bound books, Ben was able to piece together the stories that might otherwise be rendered forgotten – invisible, even.
“All of the songs had some tradition to them, even if heavily adapted – they have all got a basis in tradition. We did adapt a lot of the language. The old style of English gives you a much more direct connection with the song. To be respectful of the emotional intent of the song is always the key, I think.” Ben says.
In researching his subject of choice, Ben found that unbearable conditions for sailors aboard the ships, would result in many of the crew literally jumping ship – only to be replaced by a highly multi-cultural crew from all corners of the world.
“The conditions were so bad that the whalers would be jumping off. They’d suddenly find that half the crew had deserted. So they ended up with a crew from around the planet.” Ben explains.
Ben’s fellow musicians were chosen for their relevant experience and expertise in their fields – Richard Warren, formerly in the band Spiritualised, adds an element of realism to the songs:
“As the subject matter is very brutal you almost need something brutal sounding to do it justice.” Ben adds.
“He was always about keeping the truth of the emotional content of the song as the guiding force.”
Certain songs have been written as recollections of characters who would have lived during these times – including ‘Terrible Polly’ which depicts a sailor’s view of Polynesian girls, as Ben explains:
“This is a tricky song because its origins are not really known. It has been recorded, and there are versions that have been collected in America. It disappeared, but nobody seems to know of its origins. The version it came from was talking about a sailor’s view on women of the nineteenth century. Based on the island of Tahiti which was one of the stop offs during whaling. The islanders had this view that the europeans were Gods – so the women were pushed forward to all of these sailors and whalers – and it almost became a trade. It was a very dark time.”
“It’s more a view of a whaler, coming from the east end of London, being suddenly stuck in this beautiful tropical paradise, and the emotional ramifications of that.” Ben continues.
Ben completed much of the research for his Kings of the South Seas/Chasing the Whale projects while in the library at Cecil Sharp House, during the recording process alongside John Parish.
“The original ideas for the Kings of the South Seas came from reading a book about the island of Tahiti and their realities during the 1800s, and the realisation that the whaling industry had a big part to play.” Ben says.
Cecil Sharp House provided the band with the truest reflection of the sound they hoped to create, and working with John Parish was the obvious choice:
“We recorded some demos with John in Cecil Sharp House and the acoustics sounded great. They were very generous in letting us use the space. It sounded perfect.” Ben recalls.
The process of recording ‘Kings of the South Seas’ involved a live replication of each song, as opposed to recording each track separately and then layering the separate elements and binding them together.
“Our whole band have always had massive respect for the work John has done. He was always about keeping the truth of the emotional content of the song as the guiding force. It doesn’t matter if there are a few mistakes, you need to keep that, which I think is the best approach.” Ben explains.
The band have kept true to their original recordings, and will be bringing these sounds to a live audience at Bristol’s Arnolifini on 3 April.
“It’s about finding a thing that sparks you enough to go off and create a whole album.” Ben says.
Chasing the Whale will be at the Arnolfini on 3 April at 8pm. Tickets are priced at £10 and available: www.arnolfini.org.uk
For more information on Chasing the Whale, and Kings of the South Seas: www.kingsofthesouthseas.com
Listen to Kings of the South Seas here.