Shouting With... Modern Studies

by Kyle McCormick
Kyle McCormick
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on 12 September 2016 in Features

At the beginning of last month – August 5th to be specific – I met with Emily Scott of Modern Studies to discuss the band’s debut record Swell To Great among other things. That album is released today – September 12th – through Song, by Toad and is available now for purchase and streaming in full from the label’s Bandcamp page, and the words below are the feature piece resulting from that conversation which took place in Glasgow’s charming café bar Stereo. Including discussion about the Glasgow-via-Yorkshire quartet’s formation and foundation, as well as that pivotal harmonium, you can get up to speed on Modern Studies right below those little stars.

*****

With the known part of its story beginning over 100 years ago in the possession of music teacher named Daisy, the Victorian pedal harmonium which provides the focal point for Modern Studies’ debut album has an intriguing history. In the more recent past, it was bestowed unto another music teacher in Emily Scott, ahead of her journey into Music education. Scott describes the flawed instrument with fondness near the outset of our conversation: “it works but it has so much character and a lot of the notes are missing, and it wheezes a lot and makes lots of extra noises it's not supposed to.” After lugging and traipsing the imposing, six-foot harmonium from place to place over the years, it was finally to be donated to a friend, and take residence in Pete Harvey’s Pumpkinfield recording studio. The resulting farewell recording project is what blossomed into the entity now known as Modern Studies and their first album Swell To Great, named after a label on the harmonium itself. The name of the band however is derived from a stray tweet of “supposedly un-Googleable band names”, which in retrospect is fitting to the classical influences on and historic context of the band’s musical direction. Rather than just one woman and her harmonium, Modern Studies the quartet is completed by the aforementioned Pete Harvey, The Glad Café’s boss Joe Smillie and the skilled Rob St. John, and despite their geographical distribution they have managed to create an endearing musical style and first album.

Explaining how that initial desire to give the harmonium an appropriate send-off evolved into a fully-fledged performing outfit, Scott describes her early motivation: “I guess it was my impetus, I had the reason for wanting to write everything, so I wrote a scrap of every song… little snippets of little composed things and lyrics and had it all there, but it wasn't really formed.” These fragmented beginnings were composed in her usual writing style, an unusually practical approach: “I write it down on manuscript, and I cut it up with scissors, and get the staple gun out, so it's very analogue.” Despite not knowing how to write music “like normal people do”, this more physical approach removes the ease of complete deletion present in more technological approaches allowing passages which may not be appropriate at the time to be recycled in later compositions. The organic nature of this process spilled over into the whole band creative process as layer upon layer of musical compositions were combined to form the 12 tracks which would eventually become Swell To Great. Using an online forum, the band were able to convene over the miles to create music, and whilst this method lacked the immediacy of face-to-face conversation it was certainly sufficient in terms of facilitating the quartet’s needs. From Scott’s perspective whoever, despite any inconveniences, the benefits of having “four brains instead of one” was invaluable for a musician who generally self-composes, self-promotes and self-releases all of her own material, imbuing a whole new sense of freedom rather than suffering in “Administration Hell”. Furthermore, a significant lack of pressure allowed the band’s sound to progress naturally as “there were no deadlines, we didn't have any idea what we were going to do with it even, so it could have just as easily been something we kept in a cupboard and never released or self-released.” Each of these factors inevitably altered the outcome of the album, but in terms of more tangible musical influences Scott is reluctant to name individual artists for reasons explored later, and instead states the influence each member’s musical history had on the musical direction. For example, her and Harvey’s classical experience, and in particular the latter’s talent in musical arranging had a bearing on the band’s historical grounding, whilst St. John’s flare for experimentation and Smillie’s constant exposure to the latest indie vibes helped propel the sound in a theoretically conflicting modern direction. The resulting soundscapes are charming and spacious, and feature an overall sparse feel despite the numerous layers which constitute each track.

Upon completion of the record, Scott tells of a humorous story of how upon originally mastering the finished project, Reuben Taylor cut the harmonium sounds at the beginning of each track under the belief that there were only a supplementary “racket”. However, after explanation from the band these characteristic noises were reinstated in the tracks and including on the record’s final version. In reference to the previous account about the expected destiny of the recording project, and the lack of ambition for a release, the eventual choice of Song, by Toad was on the musicians’ familiar with Mr Toad himself Matthew Young, with this external work again contributing to Scott’s wondrous experience void of crippling and restrictive stress as another section of the responsibility was effectively outsourced. This allowed her and the other to focus primarily on the task at hand: composing music. With hindsight, Scott observes that that music has an unmistakable theme of water throughout, inspired by the seaside-like creaking and wheezing of the harmonium, and St. John’s orientation to landscape influenced material. Looking forward, Modern Studies’ future is unlikely to feature another one-off instrument due to the members having “enough instruments between them to last a lifetime” and the implied lack of necessity in obtaining another. Given the organic and collaborative nature of Swell To Great’s composition, Scott merely hopes that future projects possess that level of ease and is hesitant to place any hopes or expectations on the outcome, something we’ll return to soon.

After asking the entertaining question of whether the massive harmonium is likely to be dragged around the UK on tour, Scott takes the time to explain they take a much less substantial pedal harmonium in its place, and the complexity of Modern Studies’ live performances: “you realise that what you put on record isn't necessarily physically possible, I think everyone is using all their limbs at all times on stage.” She also explains who the amount of talent present in the quartet and their flexibility allows for the switching of instruments and a very fluid atmosphere on stage, as the songs take on a new lease of life. Stating that the attitude of the crowd is a critical factor for enjoyment for spectators and performers alike, Scott crosses the void in discussing her beliefs on the actions of both those on and off the stage. In particular reference to the often hostile attitude towards fans using mobile phones at shows by some artists, she is quick to ask: “I think it's fair enough that people want to take pictures at gigs, because how else will they tell their friends that that were there?" Which is an entirely valid point, and when asked to compare crowds between Glasgow and Edinburgh having been a resident in both cities, she is quite to point out a hypocrisy and lack of willingness on the part of both cities stating: “You just live where you live and you work where you work, so I think there's a terrible problem in Scotland in general, where people think these two cities are so far apart which they're so not.” Drawing particular reference to New York where music fans will travel for over an hour to attend a show, the conversation then veers in talk of the dangers of labelling and restricting yourself to a particular sub-section of the arts, the part of the interview alluded to previously.

The main aspects of this, and Scott’s respectable attitude towards music listening are summed up in the following quote: “I never switch the radio off, because I think you can learn so much from things you don't like as much as things you do like, so it's a bit like what you get with people on Twitter. If they follow their own little world of music and bands and politics and everything that they adhere to […] then they feel that all the news is for them because all they're reading is all the news that reinforces what they're already feeling.” This applies to the nature of pigeon-holing more generally, and how it restricts a band or fan by placing a veil of expectation which automatically includes or excludes other ideas or artists simply through association. For example, Scott explains at the conclusion of our conversation her admiration for those who convey their full selves in politically-charged music, yet despite this she holds no desire to taint her compositions with her own views and the expectation and reactions they will incur. This belief in general could be considered a criticism of the myopic attitude of people, but in linking but to Swell To Great for a resolute ending, it is this lack of expectation and pressure which has allowed Modern Studies to thrive, and despite the labels which will be stuck to them now that they have crossed the threshold into “the real world”, we can only hope this does not have a detrimental effect on the enjoyment of their music or their creativity in the projects and years to come.

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