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The Story in Sound

08/07/2015 20:04 BST | Updated 06/07/2016 10:59 BST

I talked to, acclaimed musician and arranger, John Metcalfe about his latest album, life in the Durutti Column and the sound of trees.

The UK is a place of quiet talent. What I mean by that is that we've produced some of the most interesting and forward thinking musicians of the 20th and 21st century, yet when you speak to one of them you get the impression that they'd suitably embarrassed by the acclaim.

John Metcalfe is one such humble soul. A New Zealand Ex-pat, John started his career in music in the late 70's/early 80's playing for the iconic Factory Records band Durutti Column, while at the same co-founding the Duke Quartet. Since these early days John has straddled both the worlds of popular music and classical like no one else.

In recent years John has become one of the number one arrangers in the world, working with the likes of Coldplay and Bat For Lashes, and working closely with Peter Gabriel since 2010 on both his 'Scratch My back' and 'New Blood' Albums. Now John has returned to his solo work with new album 'Appearance of colour', a beautiful collection of works which draws on classical music, natural sounds and electronica.

I spoke to him ahead of it's realase.

'Your new album 'Appearance of Colour' has been two years in the making, how does it feel to finally have it finished?'

John Metcalfe: It was certainly a relief to hear the final cut. It was a bit of a thrill for me as I'm old enough to remember vinyl the first time round, and while I know it's making a bit of a comeback, for someone like me hearing the finished pressing is a great thrill. That combined with the relief of that was 'it'. I think when you spend that long on something you're forever treading a fine balance between getting it where you want it to be, without getting bored with the whole thing and loosing the spontaneity and inspiration.

'Are you one of those musicians who even when a projects complete you're never quite convinced it's finished?'

JM: Yes I am a tinkerer and a tweaker, and also I'm a harsh critic. I come from the school of 'none of it's very good, no-one's going to like this'. Obviously I'm not thinking like that when I'm writing it, and there are moments when I'm nodding my head and thinking 'yeah, this is starting to work'.

'Did you have a very specific idea of what you were trying write when you were composing, or was it more a free form experiment?'

JM: To be honest with you it is a little bit piecemeal, a few years ago I was more in the flow with writing and doing gigs, but then quite a lot of arranging stuff came in, including the project with Peter Gabriel which took about three or four years and everything else I was doing pretty much ground to a halt.

When I do write I sort of collected a theme as it goes along and I get inspiration from the music. Narrative will get attached to the music afterwards. Sonics is always where I start with and I get the most inspired by actual sounds, rather than a film I went to see or book I've read. As the clay of an album starts to take a general shape I need it to become a bit more in house and start to look at what works within the whole theme and shape of the album.

'I did read that some of the work on the album had been inspired by natural sounds, trees was one that was mentioned, is organic sound important in you influences?'

JM: It's in the same way that Messiaen was very fascinated and inspired by birds and a lot of his music is based on birdsong. There are some natural sounds but I don't think I set out to necessarily replicate those sounds in electronics or in conventional acoustic instrumentation. I am inspired by the energy of things though, and the movement. I've got a big sycamore tree outside where I work and I can go and sit out, and I do look at it quite a lot, it's very beautiful thing. I've always been excited by the sound of wind in the tree and the sort of natural reverb you get in the woods.

'You pulled together quite an all-star line-up for the album, what was it like working with people like Andy Gangadeen, from Chase & Status and the Bays, and Natasha Khan?'

JM: I've known Andy for at least ten years and also he's played on my records previous to this. I'm not in awe of star status but I am in awe of his playing, he is absolutely bionic and a fantastic musician and drummer. I would never shape any of the musicians that I'm lucky enough to play with, what I do is say 'here's the vibe, just do your thing' and more often than not they do and I'm just sitting there having a nice time [laughs]. The people I work with are not session musicians, they bring their own emotions over to the music.

What happened with Natasha is that I was doing some strings for her on her last album, and I actually chopped up her vocal and moved it around a bit and sent it over to her. She was into it and we took it from there, but that's a much more specific example of collaborating.

'Tell me a little bit about your formative years, what first drew you to music, I understand your father was an opera tenor?'

JM: He was, he almost became an opera singer by accident [laughs] both my parents were musicians, my mum was a music teacher and a pianist, so I would hear him rehearsing and I'd hear her teaching piano so there was a lot of music in the house. When we came from New Zealand to England she got a job teaching music in a school and I got some free viola lessons from there.

There wasn't much electronic music in the house, but I started listening to Kraftwerk which I absolutely loved, and by the time I got to music college I wanted to be in a band more than continue with a classical career. I've also always been more inspired by instrumental music. Despite my father being a singer I'd never been that focused on lyrics, and being an angry young man I didn't want to be told what to think about in a song, and I much preferred a more open environment, which is what you're in when you're listening to an instrumental, so I was much more drawn to that.

I also did some electronics at the college, which I loved, and as well as recording and touring with a string quartet. Around then I joined Durutti Column and that's primarily instrumental, Vini was primarily a guitarist and I loved that delayed guitar sound, and what Bruce was doing on the drums. There was an electronic process happening but it was mainly an acoustic project which ticked quite a lot of boxes for me. And also the time I had with the band there was a lot of improvisation, it was quite modal, it was never jazz but we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted.

'Did you feel coming from a classical background into that post-punk scene you felt you may have had a different attitude to music that say someone coming from a rock background?'

JM: I think if there was a difference it was because of my training rather than my spirit, or what I was drawn to. I've always slightly struggled with the notion of being more of a classical musician than anything else. Although it's formed a large part of my output I always get a little bit embarrassed when people refer to me as a composer as I've never had any formal training so with all of the arranging and dealing with the orchestral sound has been learnt on the hoof by trained guess work. And I'm certainly not someone who can write something down on a piece of paper and know what it's going to sound like.

'What contemporary music is inspiring you at the moment?'

JM: Anything on Erased Tapes I've very into at the moment. I think they're really interesting and no longer even an underground label, and that's as it should be. I used to like a lot of the stuff on Fat Cat when Sigur Ross was signed to them, I really love that sound and also Max Richter I love and I've done a lot of recordings with him. Nico Muhly, he sort of crosses over, he does electronic stuff as well as strings and I love the way his mind manifests itself through his music. Obviously Steve Reich, I deeply, deeply love his music. That whole systems music, most people on Warp, all of that stuff all pushes my buttons.

'The Appearance of Colour' is out now