Four Quartets – Instrumentally Intricate “Subverted Pop” (from the Charlie Williams seed)

I found Rob Sharples, Four Quartets, through Charlie Williams.   He described him as “benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs” and “saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits.”  I am loving his creative imagery and beautiful instrumental structure – I kept discovering new things with every listen.  He is a softspoken force in his music, and took a moment to answer a couple questions.

Tell us a little about yourself…

I’m a London-based songwriter.  A couple of years ago I had brief dealings with an indie label who put out a couple of EP’s for me but since an acrimonious parting of the ways I’ve been engrossed in a new project  – ‘Four Quartets’ – which is my new band. I’ve just finished recording an album which will hopefully be released early next year.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents were given this decrepit old piano when I was six and I bashed out my first songs on that with a voice so shrill it’d make dogs wince.  I think I even preserved a couple of recordings from back then (invariably unlistenable) which I recorded on a ten-quid tape player.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

The Beatles’ Red Album on double vinyl from a second-hand record shop on Gloucester Road in Bristol (where I grew up). Sadly, the shop has now closed down – like so many others – in the advent of the digital revolution.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Hmm.. I always feel apprehensive about answering this question because I think that music is a medium that demands the experience itself to attain comprehension.  I can only really answer in generalizations which even then are buried in subjectivity but here goes..

‘Subverted pop with classically influenced progressions, rich arrangements (…sometimes… but sometimes quite stripped back) and plenty of harmonies..’

..but the sentence is meaningless really – just have a listen.

Do you prefer performing solo, or as part of a band?  Why?

I enjoy both, but since I’ve spent the last few years predominantly performing solo in the saturated myre of the ‘singer/songwriter’ circuit in London and been left pretty cold and disaffected by the experience, I’m now excited about gigging with the band.   Partly for the satisfaction of filthing everything up and making a lot of noise, but also for the singular pleasure and rapport of simply cutting loose with a bunch of fellow musicians. It’s great fun.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Ooh i don’t know.  At a push maybe T.S. Eliot or other ‘modernist’ writers like Kafka and Conrad because of their tendency towards an existential outlook and an impressionistic style. It’d be egotistical though to say I really compare myself to literary figures of that stature – it’s more a question of influence, or simply of the type of literature I like.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

I’d have to say that the Beatles (as cliched as it is!), Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Brian Wilson have all had a profound impact on my musical life in terms of what can be achieved within modern songwriting.  The idea of connecting a complex musical backdrop to an accessible melody when writing is one that appeals to me immensely because it leaves the imagination unchecked and free to run riot then tethers it all back to earth by the task of condensing the network of ideas to one through-line for the consumption of other ears. I guess its like the way a novel can lead a reader through innumerable complications by the sturdy guide of a plotline.  It also means that you end up with something that rewards on more than one level should the listener be interested.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Hmm.. Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith (pre-heroin addiction), Led Zeppelin, Dr. Dog, Radiohead, Bowie (seventies era), Rachmaninoff, Rage Against The Machine, Dylan (pre 80’s), Nirvana, Nick Drake, Bright Eyes, The Beatles, The Beach Boys…  I wouldn’t be headlining though – I wouldn’t even be on the bill.  I’d be backstage – weeping.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Well it varies because artists vary.  While I adore Elliott Smith for his imaginative progressions and melodies, I can equally appreciate Dylan for his astounding lyricism.  In general, I’d like to think I keep an open mind with a few exceptions that i can’t abide. Namely:

1) Style Over Substance  – It’s always evident and nauseating when someone is propagating a music style and image just in the interest of being conceived as ‘cool’ as opposed to really caring about the art.

2) Dishonesty of Delivery – We all hate a fraud don’t we? Gimmicky, fake emotion, assumed accents and the like. Horrifying.

3) Cliches – When you can correctly guess the chord progression and lyrics it never bodes well.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Rob Bravery (Interesting progressions, deadpan lyricism, highly melodic and he has a ginger beard)

St. Sat B (Raw unpretentious energy, tasteful lyrics, great sound and songs)

Ashley Eriksson (Eccentric, low-fi, wonderful)

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Four Quartets will have an album out soon – but take a listen to a few tracks here

Four Quartets – “The Spirit Level”

Four Quartets – “Joke’s Over”

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Charlie Williams Four Quartets

Charlie Williams – the Creative, Intellectual, Music-Crafter Seed

Charlie Williams has one of those minds that is frightening in it’s creativity. This is a guy who not only plays beautiful music, he composes, arranges, develops new sounds, and then thinks about physics and builds a circle-of-5ths clock in his free time.

Only out of this kind of brain could Mira Mira emerge, a band where beauty and geekdom live side by side, and inspiration comes from anywhere. Their latest project, Music for Scientists, brings the technical world further into the musical one,and creates some really fascinating songs and sounds.

Having first known Charlie as a classical musician, studying piano at the Meadowmount School of Music, and then through the many various stages of creative development that have come since, I was so happy to hear what he would have to say about his journey and musical tastes.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents got an upright piano from their landlord when I was very small and we lived on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. I wrote songs like “This is a Rocket Ship Taking Off” and “This is a Rainstorm” for a while, and eventually got lessons.  Eventually I got a keyboard and played in a band in high school, and somehow fell into writing music for school plays, which is how I got started writing actual structured pieces of music, as opposed to improvisations.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Wow, that’s a real Freedom-of-Information-Act type question. Um, it might have been: (a) Billy Joel’s “Storm Front” cassette, or (b) MC Hammer’s “Too Legit 2 Quit”, also in cassette form. Billy’s got the better album, but MC has the better single. Can’t touch “U Can’t Touch This”, though. That’s still Stan’s best work to date.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Now? Lately I’ve been trying to focus on what I’m best at— playing the piano and making weird electronic textures. I’ve been inspired by the music of Yann Tiersen (Amelie), especially after I saw him live at Logan Square Auditorium and he wasn’t all sugar and spice. He’s such a master of simplicity, without ever writing simplistic music. Also, his band has ondes martinot, concertina, violin, ukulele and melodica. Wow.

Your band, Mira Mira, has changed personnel over the years – is it a sound you are looking for, or a particular group of people?

I think I was chasing after a sound with Mira Mira, but I also didn’t always make the best management decisions. You might say. I was lucky to play with a large number of very gifted musicians, but several times we added someone to the band who wasn’t making music their way of life, and that brought some stress to the full-time musicians in the group, who were used to a different level of dedication and focus. I’m not saying that we always were ready to know what to do with a higher level of focus, but for whatever reason things never fully coalesced.

But to answer the “sound” question in a different way, I think I’m still searching for a sound. And maybe a group of people will come with that, or help me find that. Right now, though, it’s me and the piano.

How does your classical music background feed into what you’re doing musically now?

On the one hand, it’s great to have an instrument where you know you can play anything, and that’s what classical training gives you. On the other hand, I love to surround myself with instruments I don’t know how to play— lately clarinet and bandoneon, as well as ukulele, have been inspiring. Uke is sort of in a separate category because almost everything you do sounds great. It’s so much fun to play. But when I’m playing an instrument I don’t know, I have to really be fully present and focused in order to do anything at all, and I think correspondingly my musical ideas are a lot more interesting. On piano it’s possible for me to run on autopilot. These other instruments are teaching me how to get out of that habit, whatever instrument I’m working with.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

My music is like a pear tree.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Andrew Bird is a big one. Every time he puts out an album it makes his previous albums look like warm-ups. This is, like, four albums in a row he’s done that for. Radiohead would break the laws of physics if they kept doing that, but of course everything they do is perfect and inspirational. Also since I’ve been working with Max/MSP this year, the fact that Johnny Greenwood uses that program onstage has been prompting me to try to hear what they’re doing with it in albums and live shows. I only recently got into Ben Folds, but I think he’s an incredibly talented guy and I also respect his production skills a lot. I took a break from Wilco for a while, but now I’m enjoying them again. Not the most recent album, but YHF and Ghost.

If you could pick a perfect lineup of bands (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Oh jeez. I don’t think I’d be able to go onstage if these famous acts I admire so much were to stoop to share a show with me. I’d have to pick bands I’m friends with — The Cedar, from Bristol, UK are one of my new favorite bands, and I’d love to play a show with them. Also Rob Sharples, from London. I could play a show with those two and not feel totally ashamed of myself.

What attracts you to a particular song? An Artist?

They have to be trying their very hardest, and not treat the music like they might break it if they get something wrong. One of the reasons I love Joanna Newsom is because of this quality. Also the Magnetic Fields.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

The Cedar and Rob Sharples are two that aren’t well-known on this side of the pond, but should be. They’re both benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs, and they’re both also saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits. That’s harder to do than it seems.

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Listen to some of Charlie’s music:

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Churches”

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Is It Snowing/Part 2”

Pick up an album, while you’re at it: