Over my life, I’ve witnessed the evolution of how people reproduce other’s music. When young, it was either orchestras playing classical pieces or choirs singing popular songs, often from musicals. As I began to buy records, the cheap copies came in – session musicians attempting chart songs to make pre-‘NOW’ compilations, but with none of that innate drive that made the originals so popular. Soon after that came tribute bands, as cheap entertainment for Abba fans and the like. Again, it was always going to be second best.
But that changed as the original bands split or stopped touring. Like a modern-day version of classical music, rock acts are now copied for the fans that love the music and want to experience it being performed. Sometimes – like the Australian Pink Floyd – they will have the blessing of the original artists and might even own some genuine band equipment.
Now Held by Trees have come along with yet another variation, taking the inspiration of original artists – in this case, largely Talk Talk, including original collaborators – but adding the freshness of original compositions and improvisations. It works.
I caught up with the instigator David Joseph by email (he didn’t want to do this live after “a hectic church morning with donkeys!” – I didn’t ask…) to find out more about this unique project.
I first came across him as Dave Griffiths, when I was asked to review his solo album and was impressed enough to follow him on Twitter, which gave me the strong impression that he loved the Britpop that inspired his first band Bosh. Then he threw a curveball by releasing an album of meditative music. Having a taste for both of these felt like the musical equivalent of liking liver and ice cream together. So is his taste eclectic or maturing?
“I enjoy a very wide range of music,” he replied. “I just have a go at whatever takes my fancy. Bosh was my first band and took me from boy to man. Britpop was what I grew up around, and it truly lit the flame in me to be in a band. Blur will forever be my favourite band.
“I grew up with my parents playing me stuff like Sky, Mike Oldfield, Hooked On Classics, Clannad. I have always loved atmospheric music. It so happens that when I make that sort of thing, it gets more traction on streaming platforms, which is cool.”
Then I came across your liking for early Floyd. You’re getting more eclectic all the time…
“Early Pink Floyd sits alongside my love of Captain Beefheart, Aphex Twin, Frank Zappa; music that surprises me and makes me laugh with the sheer gall of it. Syd Barrett was a highly inventive songwriter and guitarist. And the albums they made before Dark Side were so organic sounding. That chemistry of four men playing together is still so inspiring. Not masses of overdubs and layering of parts. You can hear what each part does for the music.”
So at what point did Talk Talk come into the picture? I’m guessing that you got on board with the chart-friendly material and developed along with their writer / frontman Mark Hollis?
“Not at all. I don’t actually even like their first two albums. I read about Spirit of Eden in about 2005 and got hold of the CD. I fell in love instantly and it became an obsession. I didn’t know anyone who was into their music. It felt like my own little secret!
“I then got Laughing Stock and Mark’s solo album – the fascination with that sound got deeper. I found Colour of Spring last. I was listening to this stuff whilst in a rock band, hoping one day I could attempt something like that. I guess I’ve done it now.”
Which takes us to Held by Trees and the Solace album… You tweeted almost exactly two years ago about making an album inspired by Talk Talk. No one else to my knowledge has gone where you have gone in re-creating a sound, but with original music, and neither as a tribute that replicates existing songs, nor a pastiche that aims to copy the sound with different players.
The later Talk Talk that inspired you most was considered uncommercial at the time and purist fans could accuse you of using the band as a leg-up – so how scary was it to embark on the venture?
“Pretty scary actually. It was huge roll of the dice to do this. Music critics and journalists as well as Talk Talk fans could’ve easily misconstrued this album as a pastiche or rip off. I think because we’ve been very honest about it being inspired by Talk Talk and Hollis’ solo work, we’ve been received in the spirit in which it was made. I’ve been careful to make it clear I don’t think I am Mark Hollis and that I am a huge admirer of his work. I am not passing some of these approaches off as my own; and I think that defuses any snide comments.
“There’s definitely a sense that their legacy has been a big part of the story of this project, but Mark was the same in citing Miles Davis and Can when talking about his music. We all stand on the shoulders of those that came before and inspired us.”
What gave you the idea that you could get these actual Talk Talk members and collaborators on board?
“When I was introduced to some of the guys who were involved, I dared show them the demos and they were so positive I thought I’d continue to find and ask people who were a part of those albums. Somehow it felt like it came together very naturally and easily from my perspective.
“I also felt it was right to ask more widely than those musicians, though. I’m so glad we have musicians from the stables of Pink Floyd and Dire Straits. It gives the music its own feel as it’s not all about Talk Talk. Someone said that no one band should only have one influence or you run the risk of being a pastiche. I know that we are Talk Talk and Pink Floyd in a fairly equal measure; that’s the Held By Trees parenthood of influences.”
And as several of these actual players (and particularly legendary producer Phill Brown) from the Talk Talk and Hollis albums had worked together, did one of them join up and then help get the others on board? How did you draw the line on whom to invite – and not to? Were any reluctant or refuse?
“No one was reluctant, per se. Some were more enthusiastic than others. I think a couple of them just saw it as a job, to be honest. That’s OK; they are working musicians.
“No one helped me. I approached each musician individually. But Phill Brown did recommend I talk to [drummer] Martin Ditcham – that was the first link that got the ball rolling. I opted not to try to recruit Mark Feltham for harmonica. That would’ve been too close to the Talk Talk bone. I also opted not to ask James Marsh for cover artwork for the same reason, though he did design our logo.
“I asked a few that didn’t work out; Foy Vance was one who is someone I am friendly with and loves Talk Talk, but he couldn’t find his ‘way in’ to the music. That’s honest and I am only interested in real inspiration.”
You have made this project more your own by bringing in Tim Renwick and Eric Bibb. Didn’t Bibb make a big impression on you early on? How much was it the mix of music and faith that drew you in?
“Yeah, bringing in Tim, Eric, Mike Smith on Sax, my old friends like Grant Howard who was in Bosh with me, these touches take it further from Talk Talk, which needed to happen for it to be a project that can be taken seriously as its own thing. Eric Bibb inspired me hugely and still does. He makes his art wearing his faith openly and authentically and I love that. He’s become a friend and a bit of a mentor, which is hugely precious to me. I draw inspiration from how he carries himself in the music world, not just his superlative music.
“Martin Smith from Delirious? is another hero from my youth who has become a friend and co-conspirator with music. He signed me to his publishing company and cheers me on. I hope he can contribute to Held By Trees somehow in the future. We are talking about it. He’s just such a unique songwriter and man.”
Given that improvisation plays a part in Solace, how does the final work compare with your original idea of how it would sound? And could the album have been a bit longer to prolong the calmness?
The album could easily have been a very long and very indulgent affair. I had to keep a strict ethic when editing that I would only keep in what I felt strongly contributed something to the music. I wasn’t afraid to cut. There is a lot left on the ‘cutting room floor’ that is beautiful, but it wouldn’t have given the album the sense of calm and space to have had endless soloing all over it. The parts had to be edited into shades and hues that work together to create the whole. It was intense, but hugely pleasurable and an honour.
My review of Solace is here