Interview with ambient instrumentalist duo Northumbria


The balance of opposites and extremes…

21 November 2014 saw the release of Toronto ambient instrumentalist duo Northumbria’s latest album Bring Down The Sky. Jim and Dorian took time out to speak to MR’s Jason Guest about the band and how they explore the bounds between drone and ambient, loud and distorted as well as the melodic to create a super amplified versions of meditative and contemplative sounds that bring in the spiritual as well as the raw power of metal…

Thanks for taking time out for this interview and congratulations on Bring Down The Sky. You’ve been writing together since 2011. What drew you together to write and perform under the Northumbria name? 

Jim: We’re really pleased with the new album and the warm reception we’ve received. Northumbria is an off-shoot of a previous post-rock project Dorian and I did together named Holoscene. Sadly that band ended but the musical conversation we started there found a new home with Northumbria.

Does this band offer anything that your others don’t? 

Jim: Northumbria is an improvisational open conversation between us that truly has a mind and voice of its own. We co-create the whole thing in a way that goes beyond anything we would do independently. That mutual inspiration is the heart of this band and we both love how it speaks for its self.

The fact that it’s instrumental removes any sort of overt narrative and allows the listener to create with us their own ideas of what the music is saying.

How has the band developed since its beginnings? 

Jim: Dorian and I have been good friends for years and Northumbria is an extension of that friendship. Because of that our aesthetic musically is very in sync. Our first recording practically created itself. There were elements of our previous ambient/post rock band and some elements of my solo material that we used as a starting points for the music we jammed out but I feel that with Bring Down The Sky we have moved past both of those projects and created a true Northumbria recording.

Northumbria - Band2Who are your main influences? This may be subjective but I can hear elements of Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack in ‘The Ocean Call Us Home’.

Jim: To be honest, I’m not feeling specifically influenced by any one artist or band when we do what we do. That said, the list of musicians I’ve felt influenced by over the years is very long! There’s also many other bands and artists that I feel are on a similar path and it’s nice to feel their company and support and offer it in return.

Vangelis is a very interesting name check for me as his music in Blade Runner was one of this change-your-life moments for me, no question! Previous to seeing/hearing it I was mostly a metal/rock musician. After I dug into Vangelis’s music, I became obsessed by synthesizers and sound design as well as more exotic keys and musical scales. The other artist that would have to credit with opening me up to those sort of musical ideas and sounds would be Peter Gabriel with the album Passion.

My desire is to create a super amplified version of those sorts of meditative/contemplative sounds that bring in the spiritual as well as the raw power of metal and all that goes with that.

Dorian: Hearing the excerpt from Heaven and Hell that was used in Cosmos in the 70’s made a big impression on me. I guess as a kid that would have been my first exposure to electronic and ambient music. I watched that show so much as a child, and then later when I was getting into music I searched it out and it blew my mind. In terms of influences on Northumbria, it’s not something we really think about too much. Jim and I have been formed by a wide cross section of music, genres and bands. We have a lot of commons ones though, like Godflesh, Swans, Head of David, Killing Joke, as well as Fripp and Eno, early Tangerine Dream.

What was it that you wanted to achieve with Bring Down The Sky

Jim: I wanted us to find the unique voice of Northumbria by exploring the full range of dynamics and tones both loud and quiet that we’ve been exploring for a while. I wanted the hypnotic drone as well as the melodic voice; the contemplative ambient as well as the huge raw feedback laden guitar and bass tones. Much of what we do is based around the balance of opposites and extremes.

Did you have an idea of how you wanted it to sound or did each of the tracks and the whole thing take shape as it was being developed?

Jim: Often we discuss the general vibe of what we want to achieve in any given jam session: drone; ambient and processed; loud and distorted; melodic and chord change oriented. We also like to have a general concept of the feeling being created to have a reference point for the vibe. ‘Silver Forest’ specifically created using a very beautiful photo of a tree as a starting point. What I love about our creative process is that when we create our mixes it’s as though we are listening to it for the first time, just like our audience.

Is there a theme, a concept, or a philosophy that underpins the album?

Jim: Keep in mind I prefer the audience draw their own conclusions here… If I was to say there’s a narrative to the album it would be the alchemical concept of “As Above So Below”. Unity of nature and human spirt as expressed in our view of ourselves and our place in the world. The title track is about this in that we invoke the “Sky” in ourselves in our daily connection to the spiritual. ‘The Ocean Calls Us Home’ invokes the idea of the ocean being our primal mother and calling us to return to our earlier, less destructive selves. The rest of the album continues with these ideas.

Northumbria - Bring Down the SkyCan you tell us about the artwork, its design and what it represents? 

Dorian: For me it symbolizes an evocation of water as a symbol for life. It’s a simple concept using the basic elements of Water and Sky, but presented in a surreal and dystopian way.

How do Northumbria work together to create songs?

Dorian: A lot of what we do is pretty formal; we’re experimenting on each track and improvising until it takes shape and we can act as conduit, and in some way control it or at least guide it into existence. It’s very trance-like. Although we work together in a lot of different ways, it’s always sonic and built from the sound that we’re creating in that moment. Sometimes we start with a motif and then try and stretch it and morph it into an extreme soundscape, reducing it to it’s bare essence. Then we build on that and take it to another emotional extreme. It’s a weird thing to talk about, because it’s almost always different.

Is it a collaborative effort or do you write individually?

Dorian: Definitely a collaborative effort, because it’s almost always live off the floor. These days we’re moving towards a bit more structure. But as Jim mentions, at it’s core it’s very improvisational. Having said that, there is a kind of overall structure to each piece. The melodies, the tones and the impact points. We just like to give each song a lot of room to breathe and react to itself and it’s surroundings at the time. Often Jim will come in with a pretty solidly developed starting point for us to begin with. And of course we’re both always working with our individual sound and set-up. Sometimes we do things by file sharing and recording separately, but only on pieces that lend themselves to that way of working. More soundscape/electronic type stuff. Like our first record, Bring Down the Sky is live with no overdubs.

Do you discuss ideas about what you want each track to be about or is it an evolutionary process?

Dorian: Definitely an evolutionary process, although Helluland, the record we’ve been working on for most of 2014 has a definite concept. Obviously that’s had a big influence on how we’ve been working and writing. The music and experience is still created in the way Jim described. This one is much more of a dark ambient album,  based on the Norse discovery of Baffin Island here in Canada. Helluland, as mentioned in the Saga of the Greenlanders. Bring Down the Sky is really the document of 2013, and the natural evolution of the band. In terms of ideas, we both are in a very similar headspace about what the band is, and how to sustain it without overly imposing pre-conceived ideas on it, it’s too precarious and dangerous a thing to do to something like this. It’s like the yin and tang, the doom and hope. There’s beauty and terror in each, and that in itself is beautiful. The whole experience of moment is overwhelming, the totality of it all. We just try and tap into that present, pure essence, and let it flow.

How did you come to work with Consouling Sounds

Dorian: ConSouling Sounds is one of my favourite labels! I’m not blowing smoke when I say we’re honoured to release this record through them. Their roster is killer, and includes our friends Thisquietarmy and Nadja. Aidan from Nadja actually introduced me to the label. They released the self-titled debut by Adoran, my two-piece doom/drone band featuring Aidan on drums. Mike and Nele have been awesome from the get-go!

And do you plan to stay with them for future releases?

Dorian: For sure, we’d love to release something through them again! They’re an awesome label, with great ideas and very open minds. They even have a shop in Gent as well… the Consouling Store.

What does the future hold for Northumbria? Is there more music in the pipeline?

Dorian: Yes we’ve just finished our third full-length, Helluland. It’s a very different record for us in that we had a concept, both sonic and thematic during the writing and recording. We wanted to explore the more ambient side of the band, and that massive space that’s alluded to in our heavier pieces. Using the discovery of Baffin Island opened up a whole new way of writing. It allowed us to explore new areas and use our sound to tell more of a story. We were very aware of how songs would fit into the overall flow of the whole record, while at the same time being as stripped and minimal as possible. We want the music to express how it must have felt for the people who set out on such extreme voyages, to such harsh but beautiful new environments. We’re really happy with how it’s turned out! It’s been nice to have the luxury of recording it over the course of a year, letting it naturally take shape. It’s still instrumental, so very abstract, and more of a atmospheric feel thing that a literal narrative. We’re very honoured to be releasing it in early 2015 through the incredible Dark Ambient label Cryo Chamber.

Any gigs or tours planned? And will we be seeing you in England any time soon?

Dorian: We’d love to play in England sometime, but no overseas tour is planned at the moment. We do plan on playing live at home a lot more, and in places close to Toronto. But yeah, getting to the UK and Europe is definitely a priority!

Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?

Thank you for your interest Jason, and cheers to everyone who’s been listening and supporting the band. So many CDs going off to England, we really can’t thank you enough, hopefully we’ll see you there soon! Thanks again also to Mike and Nele at ConSouling Sounds for their support!

Northumbria Links:

 Northumbria - Band1