Forming half of Human Greed, Michael Begg has been releasing increasingly exquisite nocturnal music for the last ten years. Along the way, he has joined forces with Clodagh Simonds' group Fovea Hex and has been dabbling with Colin Potter in various manners. John Kealy caught up with Michael via email to discuss his duo with Deryk Thomas, the changing course of his music and the role that a long-dead Egyptian played in the formation of Fortress Longing.
John Kealy (JK): How did Human Greed come about?
Michael Begg (MB): Deryk [Thomas] and I have been creating recordings, albeit privately and under various names, since 1980. It was our main activity alongside nocturnal hill climbing and very petty crime until I left Edinburgh to go to Chelsea Art School in the mid eighties. We kept the habit up independently of each other right through the 1990s. I was trying to get established as a writer throughout the nineties and that had led to me into closer ties with theatre. There was a strong narrative tradition in Scottish theatre that I actually found uninspiring - suffocating, in fact, and so I began to take a deeper interest in more physical forms; Russian and Polish in particular. At this time my own musical vocabulary was beginning to stretch through one or two serendipitous introductions, and this, coupled with my growing doubts over the written and spoken word, my own grasp of it, its decreasing currency value, led to me trying to evolve an approach to narrative that didn’t require text. It just so happened that the theatre show that I was working on at the time – 1999 – was called Human Greed: A Mortality Play in Three Courses. It just somehow stuck as the name. I am not particularly fond of it. It has always misrepresented what I’m about, but that kind of validates my doubts about language, I suppose.
When it looked like Human Greed was going to get a recording deal in 2000 I asked Deryk to come along. Who wants to have all that fun on one’s own? “All that fun” – if only I knew!
JK: How do you feel Human Greed has changed over its lifespan? The last two albums seem to push far beyond what you achieved previously, is that reflected in your own creative processes?
MB: It’s always going to be difficult for me to isolate the changes to Human Greed outside of the changes elsewhere in life. When Consolation came out in 2000 I was living in Edinburgh, living and drinking hand to mouth, living in a barely furnished flat with my girlfriend. Today, I live out in rural east Lothian with a wife, two sons and three chickens. I have no idea where to begin cataloguing the changes, waypoints, revelations, Damascus moments, that will have impacted upon the evolution of Human Greed. The creating of these recordings has just increasingly become part of the fabric of my life. It provides many functions; part diary keeping, part meditation, part emotional expression, part entertainment. Those aspects are not purely governed or guided by explicitly musical encounters. Drinking coffee with a good friend influences the advance as much as the acquisition of a new piece of audio kit. The experience of birth and death, the amassed heaps of books that one grazes through, drinking red wine to excess. It really is just part of the fabric of my life, and so asking how it has changed over its lifespan really is, for me, like being asked to report generally on what has happened to me, my identity, my life over the past decade.
Taking a more objectively musical position, however… One picks up a degree of confidence over time, and bad habits, or workarounds derived from ones own ignorance become ones signature methods of production. When the technology changes – and I have changed platform and tools many times over the decade – those methods which begun in bad habits evolve again. That process results in the evolution of a voice.
The first album was kind of a sketchbook I suppose. We had no idea how it would be received. To tell the truth it got very little attention at all. It gets more attention now than back then. A certain singularity can be seen in retrospect but it really didn’t exist back then.
Pilgrim, the second album, as I have said before, is like a handicapped child, that needs a little more love than the rest of the family. It was born out of chaos. All my equipment was breaking apart and I didn’t have money to replace any of it. My first son was born and we had left the city for an incredibly remote home in East Lothian. Deryk had long since moved to the south of England, and then his father became very ill. Everything was just breaking apart, physically and mentally, and I just developed this stubborn focus on forcing the work through, no matter what the cost. No label? Fine, I’ll start my own. Broken equipment? Fine I’ll record the sound of the equipment breaking down. The sleeve artwork is mostly a disaster, and some of the production is questionable to be honest. But there are bits that hold up very well in there, I think. "Blind Pig" is something that I am in the midst of revisiting with Chris Connelly of all people. "American Lamb" still holds up well, as does Is That It?
Clodagh and I first encountered each other when I was in the early stages of putting Black Hill together. This resulted in a lot of doors opening up to me. It brought about a certain discipline to my approach (though I can hear Clodagh laughing at the suggestion of discipline!) introduced me to the curious and alien concept of talented musical collaborators and guests, and, with the Fovea Hex live shows, allowed me – through sound checks and other stolen moments – to get a sense of how Human Greed might sound in a live performance context.
Black Hill certainly ended up raising the profile somewhat, and much as I tried to resist the connection I took the raised profile as a signal of encouragement to dig in a little deeper on the work. Which I did. I gave Fortress Longing everything I had. That same stubbornness that forced Pilgrim through allowed me to sustain some kind of concentrated trance for eighteen months. I am only now surfacing from it to be honest.
I was never sure of what our audience might be, and it took me a long time to simply stop worrying about that side of it. I used to trouble myself that our output wasn’t harsh or confrontational enough to seek a toehold in industrial, nor was it musical enough to get purchase with the emerging alt-classical scene. I used to think we’d just fall through all the gaps. And I am happy to say that it really doesn’t trouble me at all. I can’t think of anything more suffocating than the industrial scene, and as for the spreading rash of neo classical acts, to me they all sound like TV adverts for insurance companies. Just really bland. Sickly melodies. No narrative. No purpose.
JK: On Fortress Longing, you attempt to get inside the mind of a sleeping Egyptian whose body now lays in the British Museum. Did having this concept help shape the album or did you have music already that fit the theme? Did you try to use any instruments or methods related to Egypt in composing the album? What kind of connection can exist between men born thousands of years apart in very different lands?
MB: First things first – I didn’t attempt to get inside his mind. When I first encountered him what I felt was a wave, an emotional rush, of empathy and consolation. My relationship to him was, I think, paternal more than anything. He was curled up like a baby on the floor, surrounded by the things he had crafted and loved. He looked cold and naked and so far from home. It’s a curious thing about museums that, in cultural terms, they preserve the dead, quite often at the expense of the living. Strange things happen inside when you put yourself within that context. I mean, during this period I adopted a stance that suggested museums are bad places because they display the booty acquired through plunder. I visited the Parthenon in Athens where the orgy of ecstatic thievery was palpable. I thought it obscene. But then when I visited Heraklion and visited the remains of the Minoan palace of Knossos, I was listening to the guide tell me about how the Minoans farmed bees and gathered honey in these vast amphorae. He said the fragments of these containers could still be readily found in the dust around the site. Well, of course, I saw a really nice fragment of a 5000 year old amphora and despite telling myself quite clearly that it would be wrong to do so I pocketed it, purely so that I could add it to the small collection of emblematic reference points in the studio.
I don’t recall the specific point where the theme and the music came together. For a very long time I was just so caught up – and this will make me sound like Rainman – in the transition between two chords; F#m and D major. I just kept returning to it over and over again, trying to crack some ridiculous code that I felt was hidden in there somewhere. Over a long period of time, a year or so, I managed to extend the sequence of chords to the full line that is exploited in grim detail throughout the record. So its likely the chord sequence at the heart of the record was there already informing the background of each day, just as the growing of the narrative surrounding the Sleeping Egyptian ebbed forward into my mind like some subtle tide.
I never researched Egypt, or any other culture, in strictly musical terms. My interest in Egypt was in the extreme alien beauty of their artistic expression, and in their relationship to death. There is a somewhat blunt sound reference to tombs being opened throughout the recording, and I guess you could project the narrative of the Rosetta Stone onto my self conceived sense of breaking a code with regards to the chord sequence. But that’s as far as it goes.
My God this all sounds so alien and so mad now that the whole project is closed and behind me. I am tempted to ask myself where the hell I have been these past three years!
Not sure what to say about the connection between men born thousands of years apart. I do feel connected to that little soul and I would still like to see him returned back to the desert – but I am aware that this is largely projection on my part. Its also fair to surmise that my respect for creating work – whether it be a pot, a brooch, or a record – is keener, now feeling, as I do, that this is what we leave behind to talk for us in our absence. His little pots, his wife’s necklace, his papyrus lines to himself reach forward through 5000 years to touch me in a deeply tender, human way. It is a shame I can’t send my recording back through the same number of years to touch him. But, you know, looking the other way, I am incredibly proud of the work and I do think I nailed something, even though it almost broke me to do so. My own kids may not be interested at all, even when I am dust. But the work will remain in my absence.
JK: How did you come into contact with Colin Potter?
MB: I won him in a raffle. I was hoping to win a songwriting weekend in Ramsgate with Morrissey, but that was won, surprisingly, by Morrissey himself, so I had to make do with Colin.
It was actually during the mixing of Fovea Hex's Allure EP that we were introduced. Clodagh flew over from Dublin and I joined them both for a couple of days at Colin's ICR studio which was, at the time, in Preston. The studio was located at the very top of a water tower and would sway in high winds. Literally, the whole tower would sway. From the control desk you could see right to the coast and so the impression was of being at sea - which, of course, suited me down to the ground.
JK: Your work with him on Deshret is quite different from Human Greed and the album you did together previously, Fragile Pitches. Did you try something new in the studio this time?
MB: Yes, it is very different, isn't it? Fragile Pitches was worked up mostly in isolation with a lot of phone calls and file sharing, and it was a piece of work with a very definite purpose and context. It was written to be performed, and in very particular surroundings. Deshret afforded us the luxury of sitting in the studio with a whole bunch of sounds, and no great agenda. I was - although I didn't fully realise it at the time - mentally and physically exhausted by the whole period of time surrounding the building of Fortress Longing, and my dear dear friend's fight with cancer was drawing to a close. There was nothing I needed more in my life than to sit in a studio with an esteemed colleague and good friend and just, you know, enjoy the process of piecing something together. Perhaps that explains the languorous nature of Deshret and the counterpoint it offers to the stern unforgiving focus of the album? It was such a tonic to be able to try things out, talk through the changes, share tricks and studio secrets, you know?
ICR, incidentally, had by this time moved to Blackheath. I slept in the studio, under the eves, and shared the space with a bat who came in and out through the night and would swoop down the spiral staircase when we were having dinner in the main room below the studio. It made me a little twitchy but it was far too hot to close the window.
JK: Sounds almost like a therapy session! Was there anything you did in Deshret that you wished you had thought of for Fortress Longing?
MB: There is a therapeutic element to all the work, of course. But I accept that it was much more explicitly the case with Deshret. I think Fortress and Deshret map together pretty well. The little piano figure that opens and closes Deshret was originally intended for Fortress, but I just couldn't find the place where it would sit right, so it seemed natural and right that it should form the heart of this companion piece. Its a great little piano line, and I can't for the life of me remember how to play it. I felt, even before we began Deshret that Fortress was already a solid, impregnable piece of work. Colin and I did discuss co-producing as well as co-releasing it but by the time I sent it to him we had to just agree that the bugger was finished and should not be tinkered with any more.
JK: What are your plans now? You seem to have had a mammoth year with Human Greed and Fovea Hex, are any live performances on the cards?
MB: It was a very big year, but even this little way down the road there seems to be so little trace remaining. The dust is just about settled, and it feels kind of like waking up after a stormy night. You look around, drink coffee and scratch your head. Try and figure out if you said anything to disgrace yourself in the night. Find your balance and ask yourself, What now?
I haven't played a single show this year, and I miss it, to tell the truth. We almost got our American debut of the ground, but it fell through. Almost went to Europe. But it fell through. I really don't know how to get that side of things to work for us. In the meantime I just pootle away in the studio, pausing as small children pass through, then taking up the slack again as they drift through the house.
So, I did some work for Jean Marie Mathoul's 48 Cameras. He's trying to nail down a double album so hopefully that'll appear in 2012. I quietly sneaked out a little digital release called Live Dark Arts at the Classic and I think I may couple that with some of the other Scenes From The Carefree Life of a Roman Lady material to give it the dignity of a physical release. I recently finished a mini album for vinyl release by Lumberton called Klosterruine Snow Chapelle which features a nice contribution from Chris Connelly, and Clodagh and I are at this very minute wrestling with a Fovea Hex remix re-release to, uh, console the world in its final hour. It was going to be done in time for Christmas, but we let it slide, as ever, and manufacturing deadlines got a bit fiddly so we are going to sit on it until January.
JK: Finally, where is YOUR blanket of sand?
MB: Oh, cute, John. Very cute. And not one that I think I can answer. It is the question that keeps us all here and maybe constitutes the one good reason why many of us remain civil to each other. It is repose and consolation, and maybe we look to each other for the answer to the question. This is why it is so closely related to the other encouraging directive running throughout Fortress Longing: Breathe Love!
Photos provided by Michael Begg from his own archives.