Memory Band – Collectively individualistic
It doesn’t happen much anymore. You turn on the radio, hear a voice, a band, a song, all quite unknown but somehow privately familiar. You’re transfixed. So you call the DJ, and because there really is a DJ and not a machine sequencing audio files, you find out something about the mystery.
In this case, the mystery was the Memory Band, a London collective whose second album, Apron Strings, was finally released in the U.S. in late 2006 on DiCristina. The scrapbook-style artwork shows no pictures of the band, just a mound of hay, a grey tree with a rune-like mark, a stony field, and a few hunt-and-peck-typed credits.
The album begins with footsteps on wet stones and the drone of violin, guitar and hand drums playing a traditional Irish tune, “Blackwaterside”, then shifting seamlessly into an original song sung by the band’s founder, Stephen Cracknell: “Come write me down, the powers above/That first created a man to love/For I’ve a diamond in my eye/That’s where my fancy lies.” Delicate but intricate percussion loops and circular violin and viola lines push the song into a deep past while simultaneously squinting into a future brightness. Mixing Anglo-Saxon balladry and digital technology is hardly novel, but with the Memory Band the fusion is total, and the result is a sound as resonant and out of time as Fairport Convention or the Albion Band.
“We make quite English-sounding music,” Cracknell says. “But what we do takes from further afield, though it might be subtle. Music travels more than anything else. Thinking about where you’re from isn’t the point.”
But from where come Cracknell and the rest of the Memory Band — a rotating cast, some who contribute to studio recordings, some who form the live ensemble — does matter to their folk revisions. Cracknell grew up west of London, in a village called Hale, also called Hungry Hill (the name of his record label), though that name no longer appears on maps. His parents were carpenters, there was little music around the home, and he had no formal musical training.
“It was all trial and error,” he says of his teenage experiments. “Technology being where it was, we used machines as much as live instruments. I felt quite free between the two, so I never played in conventional rock bands as such.”
He began working on soundtrack recording — The Memory Band has performed their own version of The Wicker Man score — and in 2000 started Gorodisch, an electronica-folk identity that evolved into the Memory Band.
“I did some shows with Badly Drawn Boy, playing bass and guitar,” he recalls, “and around the same time my own records were coming out, and that renewed my enthusiasm for playing live. But the story of the Memory Band is not one of like-minded friends sitting down and forming a band. It is the story of me having an idea, knowing what I wanted to do, and gathering people around. The result is that we’re a group of very independent, strong-minded, very good ensemble players. I kind of lead, but now there’s opportunity for other people to arrange. There isn’t really a common idea that we want to make music that sounds like one thing.”
If Apron Strings was Cracknell’s vision, its sound belongs to the collective, especially Adem Ilhan’s bass, Rob Spriggs’ viola, Jennymay Logan’s violin, and Nancy Wallace’s guitar and voice. A self-professed folk brat raised by musician parents in Suffolk, Wallace sings with delicately balanced innocence and experience, drawing on her skill and background in the English folk and dance scene, as well as her willingness to take chances. Her solo output to date is an EP of acoustic versions of disco hits (she’s currently finishing a proper album).
“When I met Stephen, he was moving toward having a live, acoustic-y band anyways,” she says. “But it was interesting getting it so we could play it live. I was just thinking about this the other day. I always assumed that everybody could sing in three-part harmony. What do you mean you just can’t do it?”
As with her harmonies on a cover of Ronnie Lane’s “The Poacher” and lead singing on a new arrangement of “Green Grows The Laurel”, Wallace both grounds and lifts the Memory Band’s definitive performance, a reworking of “The Butcher Boy” called “I Wish, I Wish”. The song begins with a slow, simple, repeated guitar line and the words, “I wish, I wish but it’s all in vain/I wish I were a maid again/But a maid again I never can be/Until apples grow on an orange tree.” Devoid of fussiness or eccentricity, Wallace simply voices something essential and personal about tradition, much as Sandy Denny did. With the power (but not the electricity) of Fairport Convention’s “Tam Lin”, the song builds through eight minutes toward an exhilarating violin-and-cello climax, before coming to rest on Wallace’s guitar and pure voice again.
“It’s not so much mysteriousness,” Cracknell says of the Memory Band’s traditional spell. “It’s that I quite like simplicity.”