Mike Atkinson

Interview: James Waring of The Invisible Orchestra

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on March 10, 2013

An edited version of this interview was originally published in LeftLion magazine.

How did the idea for Invisible Orchestra get off the ground?

It’s been a culmination of things, over the years. Playing with lots of different people, meeting lots of different musicians. Everybody’s been in their own bands, wanting to get a bigger project together. And it’s also having a lot of music written that doesn’t actually suit the band I’m in [Royal Gala], and that would suit a much larger band. Then I met Martin, who plays the double bass, and we went on a tour together in Holland. I thought I’d really like to be in a band with Martin. And I just kinda got obsessed with it. It kept building and building. I know loads of brass players, and I’d probably got twenty people in the band by the time I booked the first gig, at the Arts Theatre. People were saying: I think it’s a bit short notice, I don’t think we’ve got enough time.

How far in advance did you book the gig?

I’d got about three and a half months, and we’d got about fifteen minutes of music together. So by having a date booked, it became a thing. I wanted a theatre, because I wanted to put on a proper event: a show, rather than a gig.

I saw a few people in the audience who were clearly Arts Theatre regulars. They looked a bit shell-shocked, that their Am Dram venue was turning into this maelstrom of excess.

(Laughs) Yeah, everybody was wasted and dancing off tables and chairs in the aisles – they were literally dancing in the aisles. The girl behind the bar was crying her eyes out, because she’d got three hundred people in front of her, all wanting a drink, and she was the only bar staff on. The theatre had a massive shock. I was telling them all along that it would be busy; it wasn’t going to be like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

How did you go about matching your tunes to the singers?

I didn’t approach some of the singers until we’d got the tunes done. I try not to have anything to do with the lyrics. That comes from the singers. What I do is to instigate things generally. I don’t write everybody’s parts, although I’ll remember everybody’s parts, even if they forget them. I’ll perhaps write a loose rhythm, ideas for percussion, the main brass line. Then they’ll get together and write around the idea that I’ve got. With some other people, I will write their complete lines. I might suggest something to Martin on the double bass, but he’s experienced enough just to know what it needs straight away. With Percy Dread, who’s been doing roots reggae for forty years, I asked him to do it, and he came along with a reggae tune. He’s been playing music for longer than I’ve been born, but I was getting him into the idea of doing a completely different style, but still in his own voice.

It was a very dramatic and unexpected start to your set. I was expecting Jools Holland-style good times from start to finish, but then Percy came on like this prophet of apocalyptic doom!

Percy’s a great guy, and he’s doing another song with us, for the next show. A lot of people are guests, but Percy’s like a proper member of the orchestra. At the rehearsal studio, the gates are locked and people have to ring me from outside, then I’ll go and fetch them. But somehow, once we start playing a song at rehearsals, Percy will just turn up, every time. He’ll walk straight in and start singing. I don’t know how he does it!

It must have been a huge departure for another of your singers, Ed Bannard from Hhymn. It would have taken him well outside his comfort zone.

I’ve known Ed since I was about 19. I knew him when he was in Skinny Sumo, and we’ve always been around each other. I wasn’t quite sure if he’d do it, but I think he enjoyed it in the end. For that particular song, I wrote all the music, and then Ed came in. To be honest, it took him about two rehearsals, and then he kind of nailed it.

Does everyone in the band come from Nottingham?

We’ve recruited a few people from further afield, but most people come from in and around Nottingham. Justin, the Hammond player, tours with Bad Manners quite a bit. He’s got a Grammy. He’s also played for Lee “Scratch” Perry. So, including all the vocalists, there were twenty-eight of us last time around.

Was it a logistical nightmare, getting all these people in the same room at specific times?

It was, but then it wasn’t so bad for the gig, because we knew that we’d be loading at 12, and we were paying the theatre from 12. We’d not finished some of the tunes on the day of the show. The percussion section sorted out some of Hannah Heartshape’s tune while we were sound checking. We only had about an hour with Natalie Duncan. She came to sound check, and we had a bit of a chat. So before the gig, we were as excited as anybody else to see how it sounded.

How did it feel when you were actually up on the stage?

It felt fucking great, to be honest with you. Everybody was hugging each other afterwards. It was a really, really fantastic feeling. Everybody put in such a lot of hard work, sacrificing their time. A lot of people had cancelled gigs to come. After the show, I said that we should take a break for a month or so. That lasted about a week. Then people were asking: when are we rehearsing again? So we organised the next practice a bit earlier than we intended – and everybody turned up!

What’s the plan for 2013?

I’ve just booked a show at Nottingham Contemporary on Easter Sunday, March 31st. We’ve got the whole of downstairs: The Space, and also the café bar. The line-up starts off with a barbershop quartet, then we’ve got Rollo Markee and the Tailshakers , a swing-blues band who I went on tour with. There’s also DJ Switch, who’s been three times the world DMC champion. He’s also the only DJ ever to play at The Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall. It’ll be like a family thing; we all know each other. We’ve had a lot of support from the Contemporary, and from Ste Allan of Dealmaker. So it will be a lot easier than last time, when we had no funding, no backing, a shell-shocked venue…

We’re also trying to confirm a show at The Scala in London at the moment, and there are a few more London shows in the pipeline as well. We’ve got a booking agent who has been looking for suitable festivals – and for realistic festivals, as this is not the sort of thing that we can go on tour with, unless there’s a lot of help and a lot of forward planning. There’s also a new Royal Gala album, which is coming out pretty soon; all the tracks have been recorded. And Invisible Orchestra have recorded five tracks at Paper Stone, who backed us without hearing us. They just trusted us.

How does this project differ from what you do in Royal Gala?

You get to work with a lot more different people. I’ve been working with Royal Gala for six years. Stylistically, they’ve become a lot more electronic, and a lot more dancey, which was our original plan anyway: to be a dance act.

Perhaps Royal Gala are more groove-based, whereas Invisible Orchestra are more song-based.

I suppose so. We are writing songs, that’s true. And we can go slow in the orchestra as well. Royal Gala are usually on late at a festival, with everybody off their heads, all dancing. We tried putting in a slow tune, and people just stopped dancing.

So the orchestra gives you a chance to explore a different range of emotions.

Yes, a complete range. Within your hour of set, you can have a whole show of emotions. We have been exploring that a lot more for the next gig. I want to work with more vocalists, and I’ve been talking to a few people. There will also be more people in the band; I’ve increased the strings, and there’s a sousaphone player and a really amazing trumpet player. I think there are seventeen in the brass section now.

Do people get you confused with The Hidden Orchestra, who are a completely different act?

Well, there’s fucking thirty-two of us now, so if they want to meet us outside in the car park, we’ll kick the fuck out of them!

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