If you were to condense everything that was most quintessentially English about quintessential Englishness — from the green man and morris dancing to Vaughan Williams and The Whitsun Weddings — feed it into a liquidiser, have it remixed by an electronica DJ, and then transformed into the soundtrack of some trendy arthouse film premièred at a festival in Brighton, what you might end up with is something like the work of Grasscut.
I hope that doesn’t sound offputting. It’s quite possible that I’ve completely misrepresented them. For a more accurate assessment, I did try asking one of their two members Marcus O’Dair — who spends his spare time as a music journalist. But sadly he was none the wiser: ‘We’ve been compared to all sorts of Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties bands, including lots I haven’t heard of. I’m a bit too close to it, to be honest, to form an opinion.’
When pushed, however, O’Dair says that the comparisons that seem to crop up most are Seventies Eno, Robert Wyatt and Gavin Bryars — especially Bryars’s 1971 composition ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’, in which a loop of an unknown homeless man singing a brief stanza of a religious song is gradually overlaid with harmonies of string and brass to form 25 minutes’ worth of sad, touching and very moving minimalism.
They perform a similar trick on their first album with a scratchy old recording of an elderly man — Hilaire Belloc, in fact — singing in a high, quavery, fruity voice a strange poem called ‘The Winged Horse’. This then merges with what might be a wheezy melodeon and more declaimed poetry to create — well, I’m not sure what exactly, but it’s all rather poignant and elegiac and redolent, perhaps, of that feeling you might get watching a Powell and Pressburger film on a damp autumn Sunday afternoon. Really, you should give it a go.
Grasscut — O’Dair (management, keyboards, double bass) and Andrew Phillips (music, words, production, vocals, keyboards, guitar) — are an unlikely pair of pop stars. When we meet outside the HQ of their trendy record company Ninja Tune on the skunk-smelling streets of south London, I’m amused to discover they look quite like me: nerdy blokes with rectangular plastic-framed glasses. O’Dair is in his early 30s; Andrew is pretty much the same age as me — mid-40s — which gives me hope.
On the way to the pub we talk about Vaughan Williams and how unfair it is that he’s dismissed by the cognoscenti for writing ‘cow-pat’ music. ‘We’ll never be able to experience the English landscape as his generation experienced it, in the context of the horrors they’d just been through in the first world war. I’m sure there was nothing twee or chocolate box about it to them,’ says Phillips. ‘I see his Pastoral Symphony as a really heartrending stripping away of sentiment at a very difficult time when a lot of people had died.’
O’Dair and Phillips, you may gather, are a thoughtful, erudite duo. Phillips comes from Jersey, the son of a teacher and a ‘not very successful’ financier. Marcus comes from Brighton, the son of a graphic designer and a therapist. Both are privately educated with arts degrees. They met while playing in an ‘experimental jazz, post-rock’ outfit called Bellows and realised they saw the world very similarly.
Grasscut seems more than anything like an amusing, self-indulgent hobby for which they just happen to get paid: a side project from their day jobs as music lecturer/journalist (O’Dair) and film track composition (Williams — who is currently up for an Emmy for his soundtrack for The Battle For Marjah — an HBO documentary about a Marine unit in Afghanistan).
But what a side project! Though it’s true that neither of their two albums so far has yet quite propelled them to superstardom, they’re most certainly the kind of grower records which, once discovered, you’ll want to recommend to your friends. Possibly even to those who don’t like music, much. ‘We appeal to all sorts,’ says O’Dair. ‘We’ve played late at night at Eastern European dance festivals; in September we’re going to remix Gorecki with a string quartet at a highbrow festival in Poland; we do electronic shows, we do completely acoustic shows, we do shows for people who are much more interested in landscape or Ezra Pound...’
Landscape is indeed one of their major preoccupations. Each track on their 2010 debut 1 Inch: 1/2 Mile was designed to be played at a specific point of a walk on their beloved South Downs. On their new album Unearth, they have gone one better by burying alternate ‘ghost’ versions of each track at the geographical location that inspired it. (You can listen to them at the site on a cassette player.) Their website — www.grasscutmusic.com — will, week by week, release video clues that guide you to each hiding place. The first person to unearth them all wins a free concert, at his home, by Grasscut.
‘Cut Grass’, the opening track, is based on a Philip Larkin poem (‘We’re both massive fans. And with a title like that we thought: “We can’t not set this to music.”’) and is buried somewhere near a lighthouse on Spurn Head. ‘Hull didn’t seem quite right but then we discovered this ruggedly beautiful spit of land nearby which Larkin used to visit, and Vaughan Williams too — which we thought was perfect.’
Other sites on their grand tour include East Coker in Somerset (for the T.S. Eliot connections, obviously), The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate (scene of Agatha Christie’s disappearance), Lake Vyrnwy reservoir in Wales and the extraordinary Shell Grotto in Margate, a subterranean, shell-decorated chamber discovered by accident in 1835 and whose origins and date remain a mystery.
Though the settings for each track are often very pretty and though the music is often touching and evocative, Grasscut are not — they insist — about nostalgia. ‘Peter Ackroyd, in his Albion: the Origins of the English Imagination, talks about that continuous sense that everyone once had it better than you did, but that’s not what our music is about,’ says O’Dair. ‘We’re much more to do with the co-existence of the past and present. So, when I’m writing a track like “High Down”, I’m trying to express what it’s like to be there right now.’
They don’t expect to make much money from their music — well, not unless they win the lottery of being picked for a telly advert or computer game — but that was never the plan. They’re just happy to create a body of ‘gut-driven’ work in what they believe is one of the best ever times to be a musician — and a fan. ‘I grew up in the era where you’d spend all your pocket money on an album — and it often was shit, all your money wasted,’ says Phillips. ‘But my son, who’s 14, has already heard more music, free online, than I have in my entire life. This is the best of times. It’s a meritocracy. Everything is out there — really thoughtful, well-made music. You just need to know where to look.’
Unearth by Grasscut is out now on Ninja Tune.