April 2, 2019 by David Soares
Let’s Have A Word #6: The Loafing Heroes
“Let’s Have a Word” is David Soares‘ attempt to make the Lisbon scene spill the beans.
The Loafing Heroes started as the project of Dubliner Bartholomew Ryan, while he was living in Denmark. He has subsequently moved to Berlin and Lisbon — and the band has included members from different origins who have literally joined the bandwagon on the way, making the Loafing Heroes a band in constant mutation.
Their ethereal brand of indie folk glorifies poets, adventurers, daydreamers, and other errant characters who set their own pace outside the humdrum of modern society. They are often multi-layered songs about loss and rebirth, either through regeneration or travels more or less imaginary.
In April, they’re releasing their sixth album, Meandertales, recorded in Berlin under the direction of wizard producer Tadklimp.
The line-up has consisted of an Irishman, an Italian, a Zimbabwean, a German and an American. I talked to the first two, which currently make up the core of the band: Bartholomew Ryan (vocals, guitar) and Giulia Gallina (vocals, concertina, auto-harp, keyboards, percussions). Other current members are Judith Retzlik (viola, trumpet), Carlos Santa Clara (violin) and Jaime McGill (bass clarinet).
I’ve followed the band closely in the Lisbon incarnation of its creative journey over the past few years, this interview is an effort to step back.
Kierkegaard once said: ‘Once you label me, you negate me’. Still, how would you label your music?
BR: Well, somebody labeled us — I think when the last record, The Baron In The Trees, came out — as “dream-folk.” I can’t remember who it was, but we liked that description because I guess it’s definitely in the folky area of things, but not pure folk. I speak for myself: I come from a tradition of listening to Townes Van Zandt and the obvious types like Neil Young and Dylan, and then the Velvet Underground who, like many others, has been a staple. The thing with the Velvet Underground is there is a folk background to them with John Cale, the guitar towed to the harmonica, but then they tune everything down, suddenly it can be something very different. I think that’s obviously our roots. And there’s also a kind of indie element — I guess Giulia’s brought that in more with her voice and her own interests in indie dance music — so it’s a combination of things, if that makes any sense. That tradition of ’67 is there, people have folk roots, but it goes somewhere else. Can would be an example, Germanic band, who were electronic, but if you break it down, there’s something very folky in there as well.
GG: I think it’s not only indie-folk or dream-folk. But this also probably depends on what we listen to, because I also went from a phase of listening for many years to indie-rock or indie dance music to a phase where I’m listening to “world music” or meditation music or Indian music, so I think it reflects also on the album. Mind you, the term “world music” is a bit dodgy anyway.
BR: Yeah, unfortunately, it’s been labeled as something that’s not spoken in English. I also listened to a lot of Caetano Veloso, especially from throughout the whole of the ’70s. So, it’s definitely there.
There’s a strong literary influence: Milan Kundera, Joyce, Pessoa, Yeats, Camões, TS Eliot, Kierkegaard, Italo Calvino, Melville, Irish mythology, and so on, not to mention you’ve also had novelist João Tordo in the band.
How intentional is that influence? Do you source into those references for inspiration or they just keep appearing in the creative process?
BR: It happened very organically, just because, personally, at least from the beginning, I was the primary songwriter, especially the words, and given my other job as academic in philosophy and literature, I loved people like Yeats or Eliot in modes of writing. That was one of the things that I’ve wanted to put decent lyrics beside music — not have something banal — and have both go side by side, and then telling stories through a tradition. So that was just about natural, I’m not trying to be pretentious at all, it just happened organically and it was always influenced by what I was looking for. Or if I was reading something at the time, it would seep into the music and then transfer into our own words. But we definitely see the great poets as former types of songwriters: I mean, they’re writing melodies through words, in a way. We’re trying to do that, bridging the two. And we’re trying to get beyond that now as well. We’ve reached the limit of words in some way, this is the first time we have an instrumental since the first record.
Loafing as a band too. There’s a bit of a leisurely approach to it, you seem to take things as they come and not plan much.
BR: Definitely, I don’t think it’s random, I’m a believer in intuitive unconscious directions, and yes, it’s true, the band name, the whole word “loafing” — we’ve taken it quite seriously since the beginning. “The loafing heroes of folk song,” that’s what the phrase is, it comes from the book by Milan Kundera Slowness, which is about slowing down. I think loafing for a start is a great kind of subversive gesture of affirmation in the age of immediacy, social media, so much fragmented stuff coming out at the same time, information overload, I guess it’s a quite difficult thing to do.
Then there’s the formation and how the band has survived as a result of trusting different people coming in and out. Coincidences, maybe, you can read them as you wish. Sometimes there are gaps, because it doesn’t always work, of course, there is a gamble, you know. You meet some people and it might not work out, sometimes it does and you’re blessed with meeting someone with whom it works brilliantly and then you go with that, but it’s part of the process. I think we look at the process rather than trying to find the result, and that’s part of what keeps us going. It’s like the recording itself: you’re not really sure how it’s going to pan out, you have to trust in it. The Loafing Heroes have had different phases as a result. Sometimes we thought this is coming to the end, and it has suddenly a new lease of life, as one changes country or meets a new person that injects a new fire into the project.
GG: I agree, I can just add that this also reflects on the music of our new album because, for example, I think it’s the first time that in a song like “Jaguar,” we hadn’t prepared at all previously, we only had a rough track, it’s one of the songs that we improvised all together in the studio, and the miracle happened. Now it’s one of the best songs of the album, I think. So this is also in a way the art of loafing.
Picking up on that, you once wrote for Cassandra Voices on the art of loafing: “Today, loafing as a mode of existence, may well be one of the last subversive acts and means of combating and living affirmatively amidst the information and technological age.” Are the Loafing Heroes more than a musical project but part of a broader movement?
BR: Well, it could be. Definitely, it’s a perspective.
GG: It’s a way of life.
BR: Yeah, it’s a way of doing things, so it’s definitely a belief in wanting to invite people to come and let go or be slowing things down. I mean, it’s no accident today that meditation and yoga and all these things are becoming so in mode everywhere because people are genuinely in anxiety from the rewiring of our brains to immediacy and addictions to all the social media. It’s very tricky how to manage that, and music — or just reading a novel in a park (laughs) — is a classic act of loafing. And going to a concert and disappearing into it, I think that’s when a successful concert is, when you’re not thinking any more the rational element, you just play and people are getting the vibe. At least the concerts that I go to and like have the same impact.
GG: And they’re not worried about taking a picture and posting it immediately to show everybody that you’ve been to this concert, so if you can detach from this crazy mentality that we see every day now…
How did you start your musical journey?
BR: It started when I was one year of age (laughs).
GG: I was six years of age (laughs). I started studying piano and theory and then, at the age of 11, I started with the violin for some years. I can’t really play much now because it’s been on and off, but that was my basis as a kid. I had a break during high school, then I started again at university with singing lessons and piano, but more jazz piano, not classical anymore. In that period, I also started composing my first little pieces, and when I came to Lisbon in 2010, because I didn’t have a lot to do, I didn’t know anybody and had a lot of free time, I went to the Academia de Amadores de Música, I enrolled for two or three years and studied piano there. I started playing in a duo with an Italian guy who had already released a few albums in Italy, we played together for one year and a half, more or less, and then I met the Loafing Heroes through Judith (Retzlik), at S.Pedro de Alcântara.
BR: Like many middle-class children sent off to play recorder and flute in orchestras. There was always a piano in the house, except I refused to play it, of all the children in the family. I revolted against doing it (laughs) but then ended up playing guitar on my own accord, relatively late actually, about 16/17. I started wanting to learn guitar to learn some Velvet Underground songs (laughs) and when I went to college I started writing songs at about 19/20. The first song I ever wrote appeared on the first Loafing Heroes album, actually, it’s a kind of silly song called “Welcome To Vancouver,” which I wrote as I was waiting for friends to arrive there, we all went there a bunch of us in the summer of 1996.
I was actually going to ask you if you had been ever been to Vancouver (laughs).
BR: The first time far, far away from small Ireland, and I tried to write a song to welcome the others and that was “Oh, this is actually possible,” because it was a catchy, silly song and that encouraged me to write more songs.
Then, there was The Madcaps in college, it was the first band I was in, obviously influenced by Syd Barrett, it was like a three-piece with cello and another guitar player. And then Da Capo was a band based in Dublin, a six-piece, three guitars, very different. I played guitar and sang in that. It was nice to be in there as a sort of passenger in the band. It was a band which my brother was in before me, and I joined after he died. I guess the idea of the Loafing Heroes began then, when — I was listening to a lot of music — I was discovering this book Slowness through a friend who said “You’ve gotta read this passage,” and I was like, “That’d be a great name for a band.” That was years ago, back in 2003, maybe. And that’s when I left Ireland, so I started writing songs under the umbrella term The Loafing Heroes around 2005/2006 onward, with no playing live or anything, just building a repertoire of tracks.
Ph: Ana Eusébio
How did you end up in Lisbon?
GG: I didn’t plan to live in Lisbon at all, but I had planned to learn Portuguese because I wanted to add it to my work languages, I was — and still am, by the way — working as an interpreter. So, the idea was to learn Portuguese, study for a month here in Lisbon to spend just the month of June 2010, and then the plan was to move to Berlin. But then what happened was, I arrived, and after two weeks, I already knew I was going to move here, so it’s been like love at first sight. Actually, already when I was on the plane, from Milan to Lisbon, I felt something weird was happening, and then when I landed, I felt like… I don’t know, maybe the atmosphere or the light, even though it’s a common place, everybody says that, but I also felt that. So many little things made me choose this as a life destination and then, after a month, I moved all my stuff here and I’m still here after almost nine years now (laughs).
BR: Indirectly. Well. I went to Brazil before I went to Lisbon, I was very interested in the language and the colonial history in this kind of fusion of Africa, indigenous peoples, and the Portuguese architecture and their history, and then I visited Lisbon in 2007, to visit a Portuguese friend here. My first night again was a bit like Giulia’s, I was just like “Wow, this is a place I could live in.” I was at Adamastor — which is no longer available to us — looked at the sun going down and thought, “This is great.” I knew Spain very well, I visited it a lot every year, at least twice a year, that’s why I wanted to move to southern Europe, and when I came to Portugal, it was even more enticing, because it had the melancholic feel — I know the cliché — probably more attuned to me, and also it had the base with other continents, which I found a breath of fresh air: somehow, it had this relationship to sub-Saharan Africa and Brazil and even India, places which I was fascinated by, and it wasn’t treated, for me at least, in a kind of arrogant or superficial way, the way other nations might towards their ex-colonies or something like that. It was there, they’d assimilated it, and you could feel it inside the city, which was very appealing to me. And I’m a very restless person, I’m always moving from one place to the next, so Lisbon is the first time I felt at home.
The second thing is, the reason why I practically moved here, I bid my time, it was 2011, four years later. I wanted to come with a project. Fernando Pessoa was discovered in those interim years: it was an explosive meeting, I was very much interested in this kind of writers of plurality and multiplicity of consciousness through philosophy, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and even in Joyce through various styles of writing, and then I found it very much in Pessoa, through all those different heteronyms and characters and brilliant poets in one human. So I applied for a post-doc position fusing my philosophy from Denmark and Germany with Fernando Pessoa. I was very lucky that I managed to come here and be working very much integrated with the Portuguese mythology and beyond.
In hindsight, how do you think moving to Lisbon has changed the Loafing Heroes’ sound?
BR: Well, the first Loafing Heroes album created and released in Lisbon was called Crossing The Threshold, which was very much a transition of times, when we continued after I left Berlin. We had recorded three albums there, and now suddenly, we’d gone different directions, I was going to continue the name of the Loafing Heroes and other members had gone to different bands. Jaime, the bass clarinetist, remained attached to the band and playing with us, even though she stayed in Berlin. So, Crossing the Threshold, which we recorded in Bica, was definitely a change, and I think the Lisbon influence is very strong there. I was living in Rua da Saudade in my first three years here, most of the songs were written in that apartment with a beautiful view over the Tejo and the Sé, and I was so excited to be here. So, the songs are a bit more wide-eyed and epic, stuff like “Dream Of The Celt” and “Into The Nothing” and the title track, which goes on for 11 minutes, going through a lot of sort of Joseph Campbell mythology to the belly of the whale. The album cover shows that journey that Sara Maia did a great job in doing: that black-and-white kind of kaleidoscope of the journey of the musicians in a small hut cautiously stepping outside their door making their way through all these various kinds of dreamscapes to the one-eyed octopus at the top of the kind of crazy river.
The feel was of a direct record, really, and I found members very quickly, it was the first time there was even a double bass, I met João Tordo on my first night here and we instantly clicked, he was very interested in playing music, he hadn’t really done much in the last few years — he is predominantly a writer, a very successful one — so he brought in that big bass sound as well. He was very much into the idea, we’re both fans of Moby Dick, which is there in that album, (“Orphan and the Call”). It was a very open-hearted record, and that was definitely the shift from the previous three.
And then, we matured sonically (with The Baron In The Trees). We returned to some Berlin sounds with Tadklimp, who produced our last two records, and Giulia joined, which also brought a new color, and sonically it was much more careful and I guess more indie-sound. The dream was there, we used the same artist, Sara Maia, for the cover, who also did a great job. But it was in full vibrant colors, like it would be beyond the threshold into this dreamscape. So the melancholy’s still there, but there is a flavor of openness, I would say. And of course, I forgot to say, the violin — there was no violin before Lisbon — which brings a little bit of that epic feel, along with the trumpet, we’ve toned it down since, actually.
Strangely, by coming to a place where I felt at home, it made me a little bit more Irish in a way. It was the first time glimpses of Yeats showed up or referring to some Irish mythology, by being in Lisbon and looking out and having that openness, I became more attuned to Ireland. It was the first time we went on a tour of Ireland – I’d never done that when I lived in Berlin or Copenhagen – we’ve done three times now it was very much engaging in that kind of indie-folk songs. Lisbon lent itself at looking at my own roots as well.
Some members live abroad (Jaime McGill in Tennessee and Judith Retzlik in Berlin). How do you manage the distance?
BR: It has no doubt become increasingly difficult, the last year has been interesting for Giulia and myself, because we had to regroup and focus on just writing. It’s quite time-consuming. We played very few gigs in 2018, three, I think. Jaime now lives in the States, so we have to adapt, and that’s what the Loafing Heroes have to do, so we have two members that are away, but they’re both excellent virtuoso musicians and can slip in very quickly, that’s the good news about them. They’ll come for the launch and they go on certain tours with us. Then we have Carlos (Santa Clara), who is a violin player living here, and we ’re incorporating him more and more, the last few gigs we played, he’s been playing with us. João Tordo, the bass player, is now focusing full time on writing so we haven’t got him involved as much any more, but he was very much a central part of the Loafing Heroes. So we’re constantly adapting, of course. Ideally, it would be beautiful if both Jaime and Judith lived here, and the five of us, if we had a gig tomorrow, we’d be full gone blazing. But it’s also interesting that Giulia and myself have played two gigs in France where it was just the two of us, and it was also one of our most enjoyable live experiences, so we adapt to the situation. We’re looking for a percussionist or another member based in Lisbon, because we can’t continue in this splintered fashion, we want to be able to have at least three or four of us based here, so we can play more in Portugal and spontaneously do things together.
Who’s your favorite Portuguese artist?
BR: Zeca Afonso for me is very special, he’s so unusual, he’s got it all, in a way: experimental, he brings in the tradition as well, incorporates stuff from Mozambique, Angola, and fado, and also he’s got good politics against totalitarianism (laughs).
GG: António Variações: I just like his music, his attitude, and the fact that he was a hairdresser who became a musician. I like the character, but also, first of all, the music.
Let’s Have A Word: what’s your favorite Portuguese word?
“Xadrez or “Talvez.” I like the z sound in Portugal and the Arabic roots maybe, like in “Alfarrabista,” also for what it means. Some of its Portuguese side, like the ambiguity of “maybe,” the use of the conjunctive in Portugal. “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” “Talvez consiga…” — there’s a complete ambiguity. “Até amanhã,” I’m not going to see you tomorrow. And then for “Alfarrabista,” I love Lisbon for all its antique book shops. And also the Arabic words that one finds, like “Javali” and so on, I love that part.
GG: First of all, I think in terms of instruments, for example, there is no violin, just viola, and then other instruments that are both acoustic and electronic, like the auto-harp. Also, we want to go a little bit into new territories, like, for example, the Indian influence, so we added the tabla and some other “exotic” percussion, I would say. So there are also Moroccan and a lot of different types of percussions, whereas the other albums were not focused on the drums.
Then, in a way, it’s more compact but also it’s more experimental and orchestral, it definitely has — I think this is also a mark of the band — a strong connection with nature: rivers, trees, and forests. Those themes, they all come back, but they’re very strong in this album. Like the last track is called “Forest,” it’s a 10-minute song, in a way it’s very meditative, you can hear different sounds of nature and voices and lots of noises that blend together, and yeah, it’s a little bit New Age, I would define.
BR: Yeah, we’ve listened to a lot of Enya recently (laughs)… I think we’re more mature and condensed again, so through this process, I’m very excited because I think it’s the most careful record. Giulia writes three songs for the album: that’s different, there’s another songwriter there. Every song has a one-word title, and it’s the first album that’s made in a slower time over two sessions. We returned to Berlin, recording in a really nice old studio, so we had time to hone the tracks, and Tadklimp is like a fifth member. It’s the first record actually where we don’t have a new member. It’s just four of us, three for some of the tracks, which gave us the space, I guess, to try different things more. If we don’t like the sound, there’s nobody to blame except ourselves (laughs). We’re really happy with it.
Tell me a bit about the cover and title.
BR: I was visiting my sister in Australia and I came across an artist there outside Melbourne called Albert Tucker. I was struck by his very visceral androgynous humanoid out in the wilderness in the outback, face to face with nature, kind of a death-like figure with masks, and a lot of the pictures were called either “Explorer” or “Intruder.” It was showing various kinds of explorers who went out in the outback, and most of them died, they didn’t realise how large, empty, and inhospitable Australia was. These collections of paintings from the 1960s onward — he’s dead now — I showed them to Giulia and others as the album was forming, songs that pertained to that: I wrote a song called “Intruder,” inspired by that painting, and there are songs called “Butterfly,” “Alchemy,” “Forest,” as Giulia just mentioned, “Wind,” “Silence” — there’s a death-like quality to some of the tracks. We got the rights to use this painting, so it’s a departure from the last two records with Sara Maia, and now this time we’ve gone to a painting again, but it was done already. It shows this colorful nature face to face with a broken human figure. I guess that’s living in these damaged times of ecological crisis. Part of the record addresses that implicitly.
And the title itself, Meandertales, one word which brings in again that idea, the allusion to neanderthal and then meander, the river wandering through, a play with meander tales.
And also a little bit in touch with our literary passions, it’s a word that’s coined by Joyce, deep in Finnegans Wake, which, however terrifying and intimidating that text is for a normal reader, it’s full of music and extreme word experimentation and also a vision of a kind of ecology, that’s mixed with the patriarchal obsession with building and war.
Giulia, there’s an increasing number of songs penned and sung by you.
GG: Yeah, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my ideas or my songs before, it’s just that I needed my time, maybe. I had a lot of ideas written down, and then from these ideas something came out. But actually these songs I wrote for this album, they all came up in Saorge (France), that place is really inspiring: there’s this very old monastery with a great view on the valley, so I think basically all the songs I wrote for the Loafing Heroes were born there.
How do you envisage The Loafing Heroes will sound in a few years’ time?
BR: Metal Machine Music (Note: Lou Reed’s 1975 experimental album consisting of four 15-minute tracks of mostly noise). It’s the only way to go (laughs).
This is an interesting question, because we haven’t discussed that… well, we have, it’s been mentioned a few times, but we might have different ideas because we’re just about to release the new one. But I know in the back of my mind I’d love to make more instrumental tracks, as I said at the beginning of the interview. The use of words, which obviously I’m obsessed with — we both are, I mean, Giulia is a voracious reader, she deals with languages as her day job and I deal with philosophy and literature and academia, so we’re engrossed in words and literature — but at the same time, as a friend said, why not try to really go towards the music. I sometimes feel I hide behind words. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, like on “Ragaire,” this is a different tuning with the guitar, the viola, and Giulia playing percussion over, a friend of mine gave me the tuning and said, try to write a song on this. So there’s a freedom in that. I’d love to make more instrumental tracks because it’s freeing us up to the enjoyment of music rather than the weight of the words. The words have been great in the past — especially on Crossing the Threshold, which is very much a wordy album — that worked pretty well at the time, but I think we’re definitely gone beyond that. Now, we’d like to communicate through sound and music, even though the new record is very precise in its use of words and these words are important there, but we’re already moving beyond these new songs and into experimental sound collages.
GG: I agree. My songwriting style is a bit different from his, and I think my lyrics and songs are a bit more synthetic, so I use less words and they’re a bit more cryptic, let’s say. But I also really like the idea of going a bit beyond, not forgetting the sound of the voices in the sense that it doesn’t have to be lyrics-based, but I would still have, for example, an overlapping of voices that reproduce interesting sounds like Balkan choirs or something like that. This is also in line with my idea of experimenting with more sounds from exotic places or different music from what I was used to listening to until some years ago, and now I’m moving slowly but surely to another territory, so I’d like to experiment this myself.
BR: Words can cage you in, they can restrict you. So when it’s beautifully done, escaping the tired clichés — especially in the English language, you can resort to tired clichés so easily — they work, but say them in a different language and you sound like a schmuck. You can get away with it because it’s rock n’roll language and it’s fun, there’s a place for that. But, again, Finnegans Wake for me is an inspiration because it’s gobbledygook next to carefully thought-out language: this is not random, it’s releasing oneself from the boundaries of language. “Jaguar” was a nice fun song to make, because I wrote four lines for it and the rest is this kind of sound experiment with the vocals — we should do that more. Language has put humans in a bad place as well, but of course poetry is also essential.
The Loafing Heroes will launch their album in Dublin at Bello bar on April 13th and naturally in Lisbon at Musicbox on April 19th.