In celebration of the January 2019 release of the Lost Crowns debut album ‘Every Night Something Happens’ featuring Richard Larcombe, we here republish an interview with Richard and his brother James Larcombe about their second album ‘In Droplet From’ as the Stars In Battledress.
The article was written by Michael Björn and originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #179, pages 60-64, October 2014*.
Copyright © Michael Björn 2014
Brothers Richard and James Larcombe are members of both the North Sea Radio Orchestra and William D Drake’s band. As a duo they are called Stars In Battledress, and their brilliant 2003 debut album ‘Secrets and Signals’ produced by Tim Smith from legendary band the Cardiacs is today a sought-after collector’s item. Their new album ‘In Droplet Form’ is even better than the debut.
When we meet up at 1930s styled Paddington Hilton Hotel in London, Richard looks like he stepped right out of Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 steps’ and blends right in, whereas James literally stepped out of a plane and just arrived from Germany.
As we discuss their unusual approach to music, it is soon clear that under their endearingly British modesty bubbles a strong creative passion. Read on to discover the advantages of embracing hiss, being willfully irritating and playing a B-flat note.
You started out making cassette compilations?
Richard: Oh, yes, our pre-history. I must have been 17-18 and James is a few years younger than me. We would take the very best bits of something and jam them together; initially it was bits of other music, but then we started learning how to play the results. When we a few years later listened back to the tapes, we thought we wouldn’t exactly want to play that – but it did sound like something. So we tried to write something original in that style. That is how the material for the first album emerged, really.
What is the story behind the first album?
Richard: One day in the very late 90s we said ‘Oh let’s call ourselves Stars In Battledress and book a gig’. We worked out half an hour of stuff in the style of the old tapes, and did the show. Tim Smith who we knew vaguely at the time was one of the few people who attended the show. Afterwards, he said ‘I’m starting a label, the AME label, I think this is fantastic stuff, will you make an album with us?’ We didn’t have to think about it very long, Tim Smith was a great musician and a great producer, so we said yes.
We made the album at his studio in Salisbury, in just a week and a half. This was in 2000 and Tim didn’t release it on the AME label in the end. As I was involved with Kavus Torabi and other people at the time in starting the House of Stairs label, eventually we released it there in 2003. And that was that. It seems like a very long time ago now.
James: Tim Smith also gave us the confidence that it was going to work; he could obviously tell what was going on. It was hard to make the second album since we didn’t have anyone to produce it. It took a long time for us to get good enough to record it. Only in the last few years, for example, have I got any good at mixing.
Richard: It is a contrast. Although we wrote the material over a couple of years, the first album took a week and a half to record, whereas our new album has taken since then to finish.
Why Stars In Battledress?
Richard: It was an entertainment division within the British army during the Second World War, a touring party of army members who would perform to military audiences, as a part of the war effort. The appeal of the phrase at the time was that it was nothing like what we were doing. There is no military side, and we are not stars, so it just sounded like the least appropriate possible name. Not, perhaps, a commercially minded way of doing things….
The two albums are very much of a piece, as if you have found your natural form.
James: Some of the stuff on the new album was written before some of the stuff on the old album. Then it was polished and embedded in other things.
Richard: You sing more in the more recent material than on the first album, James…
James: Yeah, that is very much true, I have really grown to enjoy that.
Richard: We use the two voices and two instruments on almost every track.
James: That’s right, we always have to tell the sound man at gigs that the vocals really should be together; although I don’t sing as much as Richard, it does really need to be in the same volume. The voices make a kind of nice blend together.
Richard: As there’s only two of us, we need as much going on as possible, really!
James: It is the same, to be honest, when we are recording. Unless the piano and guitar are kind of locking in, it doesn’t sound like an awful lot. You just hear half the parts.
Richard: Yeah, it is made to sound like one instrument.
How do you make the songs?
James: We have always made it difficult for us by taking kind of simple-ish songs and then… almost swapping the parts.
Richard: Yes, we’ll switch. I’ll learn the piano parts on the guitar…
James: … and I’ll learn some guitarry parts on the piano. It always ends up quite awkwardly and quite a few of our songs are not very natural. I hope it doesn’t sound forcedly awkward. The primary focus is on the song being beautiful and any kind of awkward moment is just to serve that.
Richard: Maybe we are rather complex and awkward people!
James: Also, there is a sense of trying to do something that is a bit different. Which is good, I am not ashamed of that at all.
Richard: And I must say, I do get a kick out of that. As a performer, I like playing one thing while singing another. It’s not so much a case of showing off, but it’s just a case of… it is very fulfilling to me. It really is as simple as that a lot of the time.
What’s the reason for calling this album ‘In Droplet Form’?
James: It’s a lyric from the first song on the album.
Richard: There’s a beautiful poem called ‘Eyes and Tears’ by Andrew Marvell who is an English metaphysical poet, and it is a meditation on the relationship between the fact that the eyes see and the fact that they weep; the same thing is done by both. That was the starting point for the first song; obviously, it’s a largely instrumental number, so there is less depth to my meditation than there was to his!
‘Hunt The Button’ stands out from a sound perspective. It starts with a loud cassette click.
Richard: Bits of it are the actual ancient cassette recordings that we did; the rest of it we redid using the same kind of equipment, so we had a bit of archive fun with that one. We even used cassette to record parts; or we recorded them digitally and then put it through cassette so it picked up all that noise and all the hiss and that.
James: Also, the style of 4-track recording when both of us play on one track with one microphone and then do it again and again; that lends a real density to the sound.
Richard: And I love the hiss.
James: Yeah, we couldn’t get rid of the hiss, so we embraced it.
I’ve got the ‘Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake’ album on cassette. It sounds like that.
Richard: Yeah, exactly. Hopefully, it sounds like that.
James: One of my favourite albums.
Richard: ‘Hunt The Button’ was the first track that we finished mixing, because it doesn’t have to sound sparkling clean. And for a long time, I had to be dissuaded from saying ‘Let’s re-record all tracks using the same technology! Let’s put them through tape!’
What is the song ‘Fluent English’ about? It is probably something I would need…
James: Ha ha!
Richard: It was a series of unfinished pieces, most of which were written at a different rhythm, so there are bits where the lyrics go across the rhythm, just like singing one song over another song. It is all quite playful on the lyrical front.
Another catchy song is ‘Hollywood Says So’ – it even has a chorus!
Richard: Yes, the song with the chorus. Don’t know what came over us, ha ha! Must have been something in the water that day. It is about trying to live according to the ways of the old Hollywood heroes. The references to Film Weekly and climbing castle walls, it’s all that Errol Flynn sort of swashbuckling thing, I suppose.
The song ‘TKS2’ is the point on the album where my family says ‘Turn that off!’
Richard: Our rock number!
James: I would say that’s the one that’s going to cause people trouble.
It is irritating!
Richard: It is supposed to be irritating!
James: I had to tell the mastering engineer that this is supposed to sound slightly obnoxious, on the edge of ‘Is it too trebly, is it too scratchy and screechy?’ It has to have that edge on it otherwise it just sounds like it is going on and on and being too polite or too mannered. That was deliberate, we distorted everything.
Richard: There is also emphasis on contrast between the instruments and the voices. The voices are very gentle, they are floating on quite a simple unison melody; juxtaposed with quite torturously complex instrumental stuff, that’s all the fun of it. And then it is ridiculous in the end – that still makes me laugh!
The last song is ‘The Women From The Ministry’. There was a radio show called ‘The Men From The Ministry’.
James: Yes, it is a well known English phrase, meaning ’those who are in charge’.
Richard: The lyrics were inspired by some things I read about art created by asylum inmates. Hans Prinzhorn in the 1930s made a famous collection of the artwork of the mentally ill – and there seemed to be a lot of recurring themes about strange authority figures. Adding the Women From The Ministry is simply a twist on a well-known phrase.
The track ends with a long instrumental part.
Richard: Yes, you can’t have too much of a good thing.
James: I like the way it does that.
Richard: What note is that?
Richard: You see, B-flat is, in this country, certainly one of the classic notes. People can’t hear enough of that note. You’ve made the people sit through all this terrible music, now give the public what they want, keep that B-flat going!!
*Footnote: Please note that this is the original English article manuscript submitted for publication, and eventual differences to the Japanese translation made to make the article fit in the allotted space are not accounted for. Also, on page 62, the names were been incorrectly switched under the photo; James is on the left and Richard is on the right.
This version also features a previously unpublished photo from the interview session.