Ned Collette + Wirewalker
Ned Collette + Wirewalker's II is a dry, pragmatic, immediate record, which shares little with the heady avant-rock of 2010’s Over the Stones, Under the Stars. One reason it sounds so soberingly intimate is that it was born, largely, out of Collette's relative isolation after he relocated to Berlin. Shorn of the presence of his bandmates, he switched from his beloved SG electric to a nylon-string, flamenco-style guitar. The dulcet percussiveness of that instrument forms the backbone of the record; its crunchy murmur is framed with furrowed synths and artful ad hoc percussion, to breathe dark atmosphere into songs that seem resigned to accepting the mixed fate of their author.
"As soon as I moved here, I bought a nylon string guitar. I started using it for all my solo shows. I haven't played electric guitar live for two years now," he says. "Ultimately, the reason it happened that way – without such a guitar-band focus – is simply that I was living here alone, and it kind of gave me the freedom to create things in the studio that weren't necessarily ever going to be focused towards playing in a guitar/bass/drums trio."
The economy demanded of playing rock on a classical instrument extends to the record's arrangements. Though heavily layered, each element is carefully balanced and nothing seems to outstay its welcome. But despite its lightness of touch, II feels crowded, beset with an inexplicable and unresolved tension, both musically and thematically. One of the tracks is dedicated to Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, and this allusion feels right; the surreal, fractal narratives of Bolaño's final, unfinished novel, 2666, pose a neat parallel to the sound of Collette's new work. Throughout the book, the most basic and eccentric of stories – an academic love triangle, an obsessive manhunt, a mad father's hallucinatory epiphany – are laden with a deeply unsettling and faceless darkness. This presence looms over the characters, tracing their steps, but never fully reveals itself; it’s always present, just out of sight.
Although the novel acted as a foil to the start of Collette's new life in Berlin, he’s uncertain whether its darkness translated directly into what he wrote over that period. "I don't think it's really darkness – I always think of it more as romance," he says. "Sonically, this album has quite dark moments, but it actually feels quite a lot lighter than, say, the first Wirewalker record, which is quite heavy, thematically and instrumentally. For me, all good art peers into the darkness. I prefer it when it has a cheeky curiosity about it, almost like you have to laugh at the depths, otherwise you might be consumed by them."
Part of what makes Collette’s songs so compelling is the way they outline deeply personal things without making them seem either overbearing or pithy. He intimates that, while much of what he writes is in fact catalysed by what he reads, the process of writing the pieces that do arise from personal events is far from cathartic. "There's stuff on this record that's really personal, and there's stuff that isn't, and I think that things are quite well disguised," he says. "Often if you're writing personally, you're writing about something that isn't so fantastic in your life. Maybe it's easier to walk away from those situations, but I tend to, for some reason, try and document them. It all gets wrapped up – if you're writing about a painful situation, it magnifies that. I don't really get a catharsis from it. I don't feel, 'Right, well that's documented now, so I don't have to think about it anymore'.”
The work of English musician Robert Wyatt is one reference point that goes some way to describing how II sounds. Like much of Wyatt’s work, the record seems to function stubbornly, on its own terms. When his name is mentioned, Collette seizes on it with an eager relief – it turns out Wyatt has been a guiding voice for him for some time, but no one appeared to notice. "It's funny how long these influences take to bubble up through your work. He's been huge for me,” he admits. “He's a guy that's completely influenced by jazz, but doesn't really sound like any sort of tired old black jazz musician that I know of. He's a pop songwriter, as well. It's almost like you want to say he's got such a clear direction, but I think what I love about him is he seems to have no direction, and really just follows his whims in a very thorough way.”
The logic behind giving this record the Wirewalker tag comes down to the hand that drummer Joe Talia had to play in its creation. Talia is an experimental musician with a notable pedigree in is own right, having worked in jazz improv and electro-acoustic composition alongside musicians like Oren Ambarchi, Francis Plagne and James Rushford, who will be playing synth in the upcoming tour for II. Collette explains that Talia's input to the record was crucial to its uniqueness. If a song began to sound too much like someone else, it would be axed. "We were joking the other day about releasing an album of all the songs we've recorded over the years that we've never released, and calling it Songs That Sound Like Other People's Songs," he laughs. "For me, the biggest thing is not sounding like anything else. Because I don't really see the point, otherwise. There's plenty of records in the world already."
BY LUKE TELFORD
NED COLLETTE + WIREWALKER play at the Northcote Social Club on Saturday June 23. They also play at the FBi Social on Friday June 15 at part of Vivid LIVE. II is out now on Dot Dash, through Remote Control.