Selected as one of BBC Wales’ Horizon acts in 2014, Pontypridd’s Climbing Trees are slated to be one of the next big things to come out of the Welsh music scene. Kevin McGrath catches up with pianist, vocalist and song-writer, Matthew Frederick.
You’ve recently returned to Mwnci Studios, in the wilds of Carmarthenshire, to record your much anticipated follow up to 2013’s debut album Hebron. Can we expect an announcement about a new Climbing Trees record anytime soon?
You can indeed! And we’re doing things properly this time, so to speak, because we kind of fell into the first album. With the follow up we’re putting more emphasis on production. We don’t want it to sound clean and polished or manufactured but we want it to have that extra something that Hebron didn’t have in places. When we first went in to the studio we thought the songs were finalised, but it’s only when you strip everything back to the bare bones and you start recording it, that’s when you realise you need to tweak little things until you’ve got something that’s kind of grown from the original idea you went in with. The album probably won’t be out until next April, which is frustrating in a way, but it’ll be a better record as a result, with three single releases over that period to build towards the unveiling.
Part of what I loved about Hebron was its sense of time and place. The pastoral tone of the album seemed to be a reflection of the working environment at Mwnci.
Definitely! Before we discovered Mwnci, we recorded some demos at a local recording studio on an industrial estate. It was a good learning curve for us, the recording process, but if we’d tried to make an album in there it would have felt and probably sounded stifled, and nothing like the eventual record ended up being. I think you can hear the space and the sound of everything around you on Hebron.
Will the album be as diverse a record as Hebron was? Can we still expect the same eclectic mix of Folk, Gospel, Pop and Americana?
I certainly think it can be bigger. When we released Hebron I remember us thinking ‘this is a big album’, the instrumentals in particular. Then we had a lot of comments suggesting that it was quite a mellow album, which surprised us, I suppose. So in terms of the follow-up, there’ll still be a nice mixture, but it’s heading further in each direction. There’s a bit more of a pop element, not in a Top 40 sense, but we’ve definitely got a few more hooks with this new batch of songs. It’ll be a lot more radio-friendly and expansive.
I think people who have only heard Hebron expect a certain thing coming to one of our shows, but then they find that we’re a much bigger sounding band live. We’re a more rounded band these days, and the new album will hopefully reflect that.
How have you gone about fleshing out the band’s sound?
We’re spending more time on production as well as adding extra percussion and more electric guitar. On the first album the acoustic guitar featured heavily, and although it’s still a feature of the new material, it’s not the focal point that it perhaps was with Hebron.
Was there much discussion amongst you, post-Hebron, about the bands future direction of travel?
We did sit down about six months back and try to come up with a coherent plan. One thing I would criticise with Hebron – and I’m always very critical about my own work – is that it felt, to me, like a compilation album. That’s probably a product of having three main songwriters in the band that are all writing different songs, and in different ways. It didn’t quite focus on one genre, with the upshot being that I think it made us hard to pigeon-hole. We’ve been described as Folk, but I don’t think we are. We’re described as country – again, we’re not Country. There were lots of different elements to our sound at the time, which led to us coming up with the term ‘Cymrucana’, a little tongue-in-cheek, which reflects both the mix of harmonies and guitars as well as the songs where there was a bit more of the heavy rock sound that you associate with the Valleys.
A lot of people are turned off if they see a band described as ‘Folk’, and Gospel has been mentioned, but that’s just the one track, ‘Burning Candle’, which is the most radio-friendly track off the first album and the one that got us quite a bit of airplay. So, when people thought of Climbing Trees, that’s what they’d think we sounded like on every song. That’s where, rightly or wrongly, you’re at a disadvantage when exploring different genres within one body of work.
By streamlining your sound, though, don’t you run the risk of losing the very thing that made the band distinctive in the first place?
We want to keep the elements of the band that struck a chord with people. We don’t want to completely abandon the sound – we’ll still sound like Climbing Trees, but there’s no point in making the same album twice, and we wouldn’t be satisfied if we did.
Will Jethro Chaplin still be at the helm?
We didn’t really go into the first album with Jethro as producer, but we got to the end of the process and thought he added a lot in that sense, so it was only fair to credit him.
So, you were intending to produce the first album yourselves?
Yes – we were clear about what we wanted, but it was undoubtedly a joint effort. You could find yourselves in a recording studio where the person just presses play, and they do exactly what you want, but I think we were happy to have his input. It’s the same with the second album. He knows what works and what doesn’t because he’s been doing it for years.
In terms of the track-listing, I presume live favourite, ‘Amber’, will be on there? Would fans be familiar with any of the other tracks?
You may well have heard ‘Graves’, which is one of the ones we recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios at the tail-end of last year. ‘Cumulo’, originally an instrumental, has been knocking about for a while. That’s one of the ones which, when we got into the studio, we thought “the structure is there for a song, let’s stick some lyrics on there”, and now it’s working a lot better. That’s the kind of thing you don’t realise until you strip it all back and you pick at it, and realise what works and what doesn’t. ‘She’s Got it Good’ is another live favourite that we’ve tried to capture on record three times now, but there’s something about that song that keeps defeating us. So whether that ends up on the album or not, only time will tell!
‘Middle’, too, is another song which may well end up on the album. We’re also thinking of kicking the album off with a big instrumental called ‘Caesar’. It’ll be a minimum of ten tracks, but if we’ve got twelve songs we really like, it’ll be a twelve-track album, with some musical interludes as well, to link the songs. We’re trying to get this album to flow more, which perhaps wasn’t the case with Hebron.
You each shared the songwriting credits on Hebron, so how does the division of labour work within Climbing Trees? Do you write individually or in partnerships within the group? Or is it the case that you might finish off each other’s songs?
It’s more of the latter. I’ve always described it as one of us bringing the bare bones of a song to the table, with the rest of us putting the meat on it. With ‘Aloisi’ for example, Martin had written that when he was 17, and he’d only played it in his bedroom really, and then brought it to the band and we stuck piano and tabla on it and changed the structure of it, and that ended up being Single of the Week on BBC Radio Wales.
To me, there’s a fascinating dichotomy at the heart of Hebron. The album begins with a sequence of songs which focus in on the minutiae of relationships, best expressed, perhaps, in the kitchen sink poetry of ‘Aloisi’ –
Sunlight streams into my eyes / It always brings me to / I didn’t mean to wake you, darling / But I can’t keep my eyes off you…. Turn the landing light on / Turn the heating on full / I know we don’t really need it, darling / But we don’t wanna catch a chill-
before it broadens out to explore a different type of union, our relationship with nature, a journey hinted at in the song titles themselves, ‘River Home’, ‘Setting Sun’, and the remarkable ‘Gone to Sea’, all of which have a cinematic sweep to them. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, don’t you think?
That wasn’t a conscious decision, to map the album like that – we recorded the ten songs without any idea of how they would flow on the album and that’s the order we ended up feeling would work best. The inward-looking songs tended to be Martin’s, while the outward-looking songs tended to be the rest of us. We’ve definitely got different ways of writing that, hopefully, complement each other. I think a whole album of either might not work as well as the balance we’ve got at the moment.
Clearly, having a number of different singers and songwriters within the band can be a real strength but it carries with it, too, the potential for creative tension. Has the process been a harmonious one so far or have you had to call for the odd band vote?
We haven’t argued about what will end up on the album, and we haven’t come to blows as of yet! We have the odd tiff, of course, but that comes with spending so much time together, and I think that’s healthy.
Is it generally the case that the composer of a song will take lead vocal on it?
Whoever’s written the bulk of the lyric will normally sing it and in terms of the second album that seems to have continued. We did a gig in London just before Christmas where I sang ‘Aloisi’. It sounded okay, but there’s something about Martin’s voice as the writer of that song that suits it perfectly. And I think that’s the case with the ‘lead songwriter’ on any of our songs. We tend to write for our own voice, and it’s when we add things like harmonies that it inevitably ends up with more of an all-round Climbing Trees sound.
The more I listen to Hebron, the more the breathtakingly beautiful ‘Gone to Sea’ appears to be at its spiritual core. It has an exceptionally moving lyric: ‘When strong winds prevail / the town’s heart will set sail / for those who are left behind / we fight hard not to cry’. It could be a troopship leaving port, or even the Mayflower setting sail. Does the song have a specific meaning for you?
Again, that’s one of Martin Webb’s babies, so I think you’d have to ask him if you wanted to know the exact meaning. The good thing about analysing lyrics is that you can interpret it in whatever way you want. We sang that for the first time in a while at St John’s Church in Canton last year, which happened to fall on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We didn’t realise the connection until someone came up to us afterwards and told us that people were weeping. That had never happened at a Climbing Trees concert before, but in that context it’s such an emotional song.
If you’re singing a song, though, do you have to have an understanding of what the song is about before you can approach singing it?
We all play on the track, but live it’s just Martin and myself harmonising with the single guitar. We tend to only play it if it suits the venue. I get emotional singing it. I didn’t write the song, and maybe that’s why I get emotional singing it. If I’d written the song, I don’t know if…….
You’d know the secret?
Yes exactly. It’s a difficult one to answer really. It’s loss, I suppose. Beautiful loss!
Was the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Hebron something you dared to dream of?
We were making that album for us, whereas with this second album, we actually have a fan-base (albeit still relatively small) to please, which puts the pressure on, slightly! But, yeah, we just put it out there and the BBC and others jumped on it straight away. It was a pleasure to get that kind of feedback.
There are a number of exciting young singers, Kizzy Crawford and Gabrielle Murphy, to name just two and a whole posse of up and coming bands I could mention, like Houdini Dax and Pretty Vicious, that are starting to make waves in the Principality. Do you feel that there’s a groundswell of talent coming to the fore?
I imagine we’ve got the same amount of talent as we always have done, but there are things like the BBC’s Horizons scheme which supports artists now and can lead to festival slots, but I don’t think there’s any groundswell of talent. Finding your way to the top may become a little easier, or a little quicker, perhaps. It’s whether you sink or swim then, I suppose.
You described the Climbing Trees sound a little earlier as ‘Cymrucana’ but do you feel there’s anything inherently Welsh about your music? Would your songs sound any different if you’d been from Coventry or Clydebank?
That’s a difficult one to answer! I’d like to think that there is something inherently Welsh about us, but I don’t know if there is. We did have a couple of Welsh-language songs that never made the cut for Hebron. We sound different to the Valleys band stereotype of the last twenty years; The Phonics, The Manics, Bullet for My Valentine, Funeral for a Friend, The Blackout. If you were forming a band a few years ago, that’s what you had to sound like. I don’t think, listening to our album, you’d think ‘that’s a Welsh band’. A lot of people listening to ‘Burning Candle’ thought we were from Alabama!
Having performed for the last year, together with eleven other welsh acts, as part of the BBC Wales Horizon tour, do you feel part of a living, breathing community of Welsh musicians?
Definitely, in the last year, we’ve built up relationships. If you’d asked me that question this time last year I would have probably have said we were a bit out there on our own, doing our own thing, but now I feel we’ve built up a web of friends in other bands, which is all part of the fun, of course.
New songs, such as ‘Graves’, that you’ve already mentioned, but also ‘Lost’, with its huge chorus, and ‘Set in Stone’, all seemed to go over well on those final Horizon gigs?
We’ve already had great feedback and it’s made us more confident in what we’re doing. We’re excited at the response to those songs and there will be a chance for fans to hear them again at gigs throughout the year, particularly at the festivals and during the Welsh tour in the Autumn. So keep your eyes peeled for that!
Photo credit: Two Cats in the Yard