Moving along with the GIT Award 2017 nominees, Getintothis’ Rick Leach meets up with Baltic Fleet’s Paul Fleming to talk about inspiration, influence, Hollywood and more.
Baltic Fleet’s Paul Fleming is talking about place and music. “It doesn’t matter where I am, I’d be making this music.”
You know this is true. He talks quietly and thoughtfully, weighing his words with care yet despite seeming somewhat hesitant at times, there’s a steely determination as to what he does. An inner core where music is all and the search for music is all.
In late 2016, Baltic Fleet released their latest album, The Dear One. This is one of those rare records, one of those rare pieces of art and creation that seems constrained by any physical format that it’s held in. Like a painting by Jackson Pollock or a saxophone solo by John Coltrane it’s simply bursting to get out and it pushes against whatever it’s contained in. Vinyl, CD, an electronic file somewhere in the ether; it doesn’t matter. It’s expansive, magnificent, ecstatic and speaks of the past and the future.
2012’s Towers was a landmark album for Paul Fleming, garnering praise all around and leading to Baltic Fleet as a more than worthy winner of the 2013 GIT Award. The Dear One has taken things forward and then some more.
It had been a long time coming. There was time and distance between the two records.
“After the GIT Award win and all that it was hectic There was a lot of gigging. A lot happened,” he says. “Then things calmed down a bit. I started writing some songs but it was never anchored. I felt I was doing it for the sake of writing. That wasn’t something I was very comfortable with.”
But something happened to break you out of that, some inspiration? He pauses for a few seconds. He concentrates. You can see in his eyes that he’s going back in time to another place.
“Well, I need to have something to click onto to see me through a project.”
And that was Winter Hill?
“I think it was one day I was walking up Winter Hill with my family- I think I may have had my little girl on my back-and we got up there and it was a clear day and we were high up. I could see Liverpool and I could see the towers of Widnes. And that was it!”
He becomes enthused talking about it and remembering. There’s a sense of communication and a need to explain.
“I kind of saw the light. I could see where that link was for the other album. I could see where to go forward. I’d seen a drone video recorded from the top of Winter Hill with the sound of the KLF. It took me back to where I’d been as a teenager and it all connected. It all started coming together.”
We mention the sense of home, the sense of coming home, and memories of growing up. Seeing the red lights of the now defunct transmitter mast on Winter Hill as a child and knowing when you saw that, well, you were getting close to home.
“I remember driving one night and as you said, I could see Winter Hill and the red lights on the transmitter. And one of early tracks on the album is called Red Lights on the Hill. And one of the other links is that the towers in Widnes had these red lights in them.” He pauses again. “So I made these linkages and maybe I felt as if I was home again.”
And it wasn’t just a sense of place that inspired him. There was something else. An old diary.
What came first, the diary or the location?
“I started writing. The diaries came later.”
Although Baltic Fleet makes music for the now and for the future, and while it sounds like the future there’s an ever-present sense of history.
“There were these diaries in a local church,” explains Paul. “They were these like sprawling moments so I started picking out things and started using my imagination. I picked out names and things and places; Swallow Falls, in North Wales was one of them. It was a place to escape to for the guy who’d written the diaries in the 1800s. I related these things to what was happening in my own head in my own life. Not using the diary as any rules, not that I had to write about it specifically, but using it as inspiration.”
This is the thing that is remarkable. The ability to make sounds, and music and art out of nothing but imagination. Turning silence into…something else.
“As an instrumental musician you need something to start from to give you inspiration. Sometimes there’s no words to bring it all together, but I’m trying to tell a story. Some people think I might not be but that’s what I believe and that’s what helps me to be creative. It gives me a narrative.”
So, we ask, there’s a narrative within the record then? Is there an overall concept to what you do? At this point Paul Fleming hesitates and furrows his brow. He is a thoughtful man and we can sense that he wishes to articulate what he wants to get over in the more accurate and precise way possible. The way that he chooses his words echoes what he does with the music.
“There may have been loose concepts. Like industry for the earlier albums or a diary for this one… but no narrative within the album itself. I didn’t tell a story through that. I throw in those ideas to helps me for inspiration.”
There’s no common thread running through the new album?
He takes a sip of water and waits for a while. The answer comes out slowly. “I…I don’t think so. It’s a deeper record than what went before. Maybe when I look back on it…it might be a bit oblique. I may see things through progressions and chord progressions to see something else. Something different.”
Nothing exists in isolation.
Baltic Fleet, being an instrumental group and an electronic group, have a clear and distinct lineage to music of the recent past. We wonder where the balance between inspiration and influence lie. Paul Fleming’s modesty shines through. He’s not someone who will deny influences and not someone who’ll give you one of those easy lines about how much he’s breaking the mould.
He is of course, doing that with Baltic Fleet’s music, breaking the mould and reshaping things and doing things differently, yet he’s too grounded to think or maybe even realise that’s how the music sounds to us.
“I think it’s about 80/20 percent with 20 percent being influences. I do think on this record I felt a bit freer to bring out where I’m from as a musician”, he says. He carries on. “Because I’d played a long time with Echo and the Bunnymen and I’d been steeped in that post-punk world, I was listening to a lot of that music. That came out in the early stuff, but on this album I’ve been able to release some of the shackles.”
He seems taken aback that he uses that word and he rushes to clarify, to reassure. “Not in a negative way ‘cos I’m very grateful for that. But I’ve been bringing in some stuff that I was listening to as a teenager. Drum and bass and films soundtracks, and as directly for the twenty per cent, I was listening to Tangerine Dream when I was on long drives. And I wasn’t actively doing that, with that twenty per cent, but when I look back on something like the Lights of Rock Savage it’s a bit like one of the live Tangerine Dream albums. It seeped into me subliminally.”
Paul Fleming is looking forward though. He’s looking to the future and what lies ahead for Baltic Fleet.
“I want to free myself up more in the production. I want to experiment a lot more with melody. Melody is very important to me. Growing up, I took a lot from Paul McCartney and his melodies”.
“When I’m sitting at a piano I’m much more interested in melody than production. Production comes later. Melodies stand the test of time and productions date a bit quicker so I always concentrate on that.”
It’s maybe a sign of how forward looking he is about the music he creates with Baltic Fleet that when we mention of the rise of new classical music; Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Erased Tapes Records et al, then talk quickly move to new direction he wants to explore. And it’s a sign that he’s as much as of a music fan as the rest of us. Sometimes that excitement just can’t be pinned down.
“Oh! I love all that!” he enthuses. “I think that I should maybe one day go into the studio and do just that. Just a piano and an analog synth because that’s the sort of stuff I do at home. Just doodling.”
We tell him we’re sure it’s more than just that.
“It’s not! Just doodling! But maybe going forward I’ll do more of that Erased Tapes ambient stuff. On the earlier albums there were tinges of that but maybe I’ll do more.”
You can see him thinking aloud.
“Maybe as I grow older that’ll be a natural place for me to head. But I do love all the piano soundtrack music; Arnalds, Johannsen and all that. It can be a bit morose at times; when I write my own stuff I like to keep it moving along a bit.”
Rather than meandering?
“Well, I do have a bit of meandering stuff on my own albums! But I do love all that piano music.”
Talk of piano music and ambient tinges leads us quite naturally to mention one of the final tracks on The Dear One, La Cygne. Something quite different from the rest of the record, it has a quiet and contemplative air about it and is truly moving. We wondered where that had come from.
“That was the last track I recorded. I’d lost my mum and for the first time since I was about 14 I just didn’t want to play an instrument. I left it for four months. I just couldn’t face playing. And one day I just went into the studio and switched everything on and played it live, straight off. I was back from that weird place. And I really enjoyed it.”
It works really well, we tell him. He mulls that over. He seems somewhat taken aback that his work is so well liked and even surprised a bit.
“It may well be a path I go down in the future. It was completely spontaneous. I didn’t edit it, it was completely linear, it was as it was. I really enjoyed it.” He brings up a very telling metaphor. “I equate it to carving a sculpture out of a single piece of wood rather than a flat pace piece of furniture, putting things together. It felt natural. And I really enjoyed it.
“It’s the most honest and natural thing I’ve done and I like the transparency. It’s stripped down to just me and my mind and that’s where I’m trying to get down to with the Baltic Fleet. It’s trying to get things stripped down to what actually makes me tick.”
It’s difficult to say where exactly Baltic Fleet could go from here. Onwards and upwards surely, but there’s so much going on and so much promise that you feel and you know they could resonate with a massive audience. We wonder if Paul is ready for that. How do you feel about playing live? We have to ask. Do you enjoy it?
“I don’t look forward to it but when I’m doing it I get lost in it. That’s fantastic, but the rest of it frightens me to death! But there will be more gigs. I will keep expanding the live sound.”
The most recent album had your live band playing with you.
“Bringing a band in took it to a different place. I like that looseness of a band- there are guitars in there that add more subtle soundscapes and there’s things with the drums that I couldn’t do. Letting the band put their mark on it. Something I’d like to explore more going forward is working with and collaborating with vocalists. It helps it get a bit out of my world which, being instrumental, can I suppose, be a little bit restrictive to some degree.”
“After doing a lot of live shows with the band on the back of Towers it felt natural that we should go in the studio. It keeps it interesting for me and hopefully it doesn’t stick the albums on a fixed path; they will go where they go.”
“But live the plan is to take the computer away and play everything in real time I’d like to do more with visuals and keep it interesting. Hopefully as the albums grow organically so will the live shows. It will evolve.”
There is a sense that his natural environment is the studio. He smiles.
“People keep asking me when are you playing live and when are you playing in London or Yorkshire or wherever and I feel a bit…” He pauses again. “It doesn’t feel natural…not for me…to be playing live
Makes you feel obliged …
“A bit, but I will be playing more live! I’ve got Psych Fest lined up. I’d like to do a short tour. Maybe if possible a couple of festivals. I’d like to keep it short. Sparse. Playing keyboards in bands and then Baltic Fleet…being a frontman…it’s a bit of weird place for me.”
With such an expansive and near cinematic sound as well as Paul’s interest in soundtracks we wonder if film ever beckons.
“Well, I’ve done a few and the music’s been used a lot on TV but I’d love to do more. I make music a lot quicker when making soundtracks. An album can take me one, two years but with the films I worked I managed to do the soundtrack in like 30 days, ‘cos I was doing it in real time. It’s something I’d love to do more of.”
So if Hollywood came knocking?
He allows himself a laugh.
“I could record an album in the Hollywood Hills!”
We conclude with the obvious question. How does it feel being nominated for the GIT Award again? It’s truly a measure of this self-effacing man that his response speaks volumes and doesn’t really warrant further comment.
“My first feeling when I heard I’d been nominated was that it was an honour and a privilege because I’d been nominated before. I’m slightly embarrassed because there’s so many good artists out there. I feel slightly embarrassed that I’ve taken a place on that roster.
“I love that award because any award that because it galvanises a scene. It inspires young people, it inspires people in school. I love what it’s about and it keeps the scene vital and keeps people string, artist promoters etc.
“When I was nominated before it really helped by because coming from Widnes I’d felt like a bit of an outsider but it made me feel part of something. And I’m hugely proud to be part of the award this year. Hugely proud.”
The GIT Award 2017 takes place at Constellations on May 13. Tickets are available here.