Saturday 5 September 2020


Iron Henry is an album released in 2007 concerning Whitby Museum. It's as much about the cabinets as the exhibits within, and it captures that feeling of being surrounded by strange and ancient artifacts. It has the gleam of polished brass and the ornate fuctionality of victorian invention. It contains objects of arcane folklore that have spells and legends woven through them.

It was Gareth S. Brown's first solo release since leaving the band Hood, and I asked him about the origins of this extraordinary album...


Gareth S. Brown: I'd had other solo releases doing noise stuff before Hood split up. I'd been doing this project for a few years before the split though, so I always thought of it as more of a side project.

Popwatch: Is Hood officially no more, or is it just temporarily inactive?

GSB: I think it's technically still a hiatus with Hood, although I can't imagine in a million years that we'll ever do anything together again. Most of us are still close (in fact I'm going to Chris Adams' stag do this very evening) but we have very different lives now.

PW: Are you sometimes involved with The Declining Winter?

GSB: That's right. I sort of occupy a 'general utility man' role for Richard Adams' musical endeavours. I play in Memory Drawings too, which is his other thing with American dulicmer player Joel. I'm occasionally roped in to play on recordings but by and large it's a question of helping to make those things work in a live context. 




PW: Did you first visit Whitby Museum as a child, because the memories in the music seem very vivid?

GSB: I did, but I actually have very few memories of it from childhood. I grew up just outside Leeds, so Whitby was often the first choice for trips to the seaside. As an adult I started going back over reasonably regularly and when I 'rediscovered' the museum I wasn't even sure I'd ever been there before, until I went in and was hit with that sense of familiarity. I can now picture myself there as a child, but it's one of those spaces that brings that sort of child-like wonder out, so it's possible some of my memories are products of my imagination.

PW: I think the sense of wonder is apparent in Iron Henry. Some of the instruments even sound like toys. Little bells etc.

GSB: Yeah. That's partly because I have a real love of toy instruments. I had quite a few as a child and definitely used to spend a lot of quality time with the pots and pans in the kitchen. I think there's something about the lack of range or the lack of options with toy instruments that helps to bring out more creative solutions - a river flows fastest at its narrowest point etc.Partly though, I must admit, it's a pragmattic response to the fact that sythesised or sampled versions of toy instruments tend to sound way better than the aproximaitons of 'proper' instruments do.

PW: Yes. I think that sadly a lot of musicians lose that sense of playfulness and become kind of wedded to a mature mindset.The tunes reference the cabinets in the museum specifically don't they? I remember the one with the coral in. I'm from Sheffield and I loved Whitby as a kid, particularly the rocks, the rockpools and the museum.

There's a track about the Sea Bishop, for instance. What a strange object that is?

GSB: Yeah. Some of them reference actual exhibits at the museum and some of them are imagined exhibits. So, for example, I don't recall there being any 'Frozen Charlottes' there (which, in case you didn't know are little dolls people used to put in christmas puddings), but the Sea Bishop, The Tempest Prognosticator, and the Hand of Glory are all jewels in Whitby Museum's crown.

Yes, the sea bishop is very strange isn't it? I've read of examples in other collections too. I just love the idea of a conspiracy of pranking sailors bringing these things back to shore. Of course it's difficult to say whether they were actually ever received as genuine or whether it was a joke everyone was in on.

PW: It's like the snake's heads they used to carve on ammonites to sell to hapless visitors, claiming them to be fossilized snakes.

GSB: I suppose that one has a whole local myth around it doesn't it? Isn't there a story about St Hilda hurling snakes off the cliff? Seems totally unreasonable, but I imagine she would have been under a lot of stress?




PW:I wanted to ask you who the Iron Henry in question is? Is it the servant from the Grimm's fairy tale of The Frog Prince?

GSB: That's right. I'm struggling to remember what the specific significance was, or even if there was one. I enjoy the incongruousness of the character in connection to the rest of the fairy tale though. Obviously in most retellings Iron Henry is entirely absent. If you read the Grimm version it sort of seems like it's probably an amalgamation of two entirely separate folk tales.

PW: From what I've read, he had iron bands round his heart. Not a medical treatment approved of these days.

'The next morning a splendid coach arrived drawn by eight horses with feathers and glistening gold harnesses. The prince’s Faithful Henry accompanied them. He had been so distressed when he had learned his master had been turned into a frog that he had ordered three iron bands to be wrapped around his heart to keep it from bursting from grief.'  From The Frog Prince by The Brothers Grimm.




PW: The composition is a bit like systems music, layers of repeated motifs. This makes it sound dually modern and yet also like an automaton's playing sometimes. I really like that approach.

GSB: I'm very drawn to that approach too. Often when I performed that stuff and other things from the same project live I'd get people telling me (not in an unkind way), how much it would be improved by being played by some sort of chamber ensemble, but that mechanical aspect, the idea of setting something off going and then just leaving it, and adding more stuff on the top that you can also just set off and leave, was always really central for me. Again there's a clear link with toy instruments. The whole project was quite consciously influenced by things like Reich and early Glass.

PW: Audiences tend to have a band that plays every note in real time mentally fixed as a default setting I think, but making the mechanical repetition obvious is part of Iron Henry's charm. The way it sounds like a machine, a machine from the age of the Tempest Prognosticator.

GSB: That's very kind of you. It's a funny balance with the live/non-live thing. On the one hand I think you're right that the default setting is the band that plays every note. On the other hand, the norm for maybe more dance-based electronic projects is still the laptop set, and often with very little of a live aspect to it.

I kind of felt like I was stuck in a bit of a grey zone between the two, where people would perhaps associate me more closely with the former whilst I had a technical set-up more closely associated with the latter. I would tend to play sets that were half pre-recorded, but with stuff played live over the top. I'm not sure anyone (including me) was ever truly satisfied with it.




GSB: I've been discussing the possibility of releasing the majority of my unreleased recordings with a cassette label, so we'll see where that goes.

PW: Sounds very interesting, except I don't have a cassette player. I should get one. lots of good stuff gets released on that format these days.

GSB: Yeah, I'm slightly worried that cassettes are only for hipsters nowadays, but it's true that there's a lot of good stuff coming out. I'm pretty free and easy with CDRs and MP3s though, and it's hard to make a case that someone without a cassette player not buying a cassette is a missed sale. Maybe the thing to do would be to release a tape with a download code.

PW: I remember the culture of passing tapes around in Whitby in the 80s. Local bands you could play in the car, until the tape all got chewed up and you had to hang it from a tree. Remember all that tape hanging from branches?

GSB: I was pretty immersed in the noise and improv tape scene in the late nineties. I do miss it a bit. Cassettes sound great.

PW: They did, and indeed still do, but the hipsterness might wear off. Mind you some CDRs I've had for a while are unplayable now. The digital info on them has vanished.

GSB: I agree. I have a number of commerically pressed CDs about which the same is true. I'm pretty sure CDs were just a big con.

PW: Vinyl seems to be the one.

GSB: Always.

The Declining Winter

Memory Drawings

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