The Summerisle Six started out as trio. Earlier this year, Sean Johnston (Hardway Bros, ALFOS), together with Duncan Grey (Sons Of Slough, Tici Taci), and Sarah Rebecca, recorded a track for Golden Lion Sounds – a label spun out of Golden Lion pub, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, during the pandemic, as a means of raising funds to keep the important music venue alive.
Sean once described DJing at the Golden Lion as being like a cross between a school disco and The Wicker Man, and both the group`s name, and the tune they chose to cover, Willow’s Song, are a nod to the famous, feted, `70s folk horror flick. When I reviewed the 45 for Chris Coco`s Chillout Tent, I pulled in references to Italian Giallo, Vanishing Twin, Stereolab, Broadcast, Death & Vanilla.
The outfit`s line-up has now expanded, mutated, rotated, to include an all-star cast, with Sean, still ably assisted by Duncan, steadfast, king, at the controls. The new single, This Is Something, due any minute on Is It Balearic?, is another piece of pulsating electronic pop – powered by the percussion of Kev Sharkey – ex of That Petrol Emotion and The Undertones. Andy Bell, formerly of Ride and Oasis, now picking up praise from all quarters as GLOK, ensures that there`s some righteous rock n roll rumble. Jo Bartlett, of the Yellow Moon Band, seduces with her Sandy Denny-esque vocals. The sax of Crooked Man collaborator, Mick Somerset Ward, once a member of Clock DVA, Floy Joy, Was Not Was, and more recently the duo Myzylkypop, provides the track`s climatic solo.
There`s a darker, more pumping, punishing dub, while a seventh element arrives in the shape of legendary producer, Rico Conning. An old spar and ally of William Orbit – they both, alongside Laurie Meyer, formed the foundation of influential `80s ensemble, Torch Song – Rico comes in with an amazing remix – transforming the tune into an epic – an extended, spaced-out, slo-mo stomp. Simmering, bubbling, now awash with whispers and psychedelic sitar drones, wah-wah licks lost in there somewhere. This melting pot, mixture, melodically building, until that sax again erupts, signaling a euphoric liftoff, before dropping back down to a final, fizzing, echoed, delayed, dubwise float.
Sean very kindly answered a few questions about this most excellent magickal musical endeavour…
Can you give me any background around the “Summerisle” project? The first I knew of it was the 7 that you put out with The Golden Lion in Todmorden. Is it something that`s been brewing for a while?
To be one hundred percent honest, it had not been brewing consciously, but perhaps subliminally since the mid-80s… Richard Walker from the Golden Lion approached me about doing a 7″ for Golden Lion Sounds shortly after Andrew passed away. I needed something that fitted that format, and it reminded me of a joke I`d had with Andrew about the Golden Lion being “one part school disco to two parts Wicker Man”, so that’s how the Summer Isle Trio came about.
After recording Willow’s Song with Duncan and Sarah it set me off on a Celtic / Folk leaning tangent, and I started revisiting a few things that I hadn’t listened to since the late `80s. The ones that I couldn’t shake were The Waterboys – This Is The Sea, A Pagan Place, and Fisherman’s Blues. I mean it was pretty weird times, lockdown, no end in sight, Andrew not long gone, and something about the romantic / melancholic vibe of it all really spoke to me. Also as it was lockdown – I had a fair bit of time on my hands and was making a lot of music and I got to thinking it might be interesting to try to make something in that vein just for fun.
Then you were a trio. How did the expansion into a sextet come about? The line-up is a pretty star-studded cast. Are you all old friends?
I recorded a rough sketch – drums, bass, the fiddle-sounding synths, the sitar and harmonium, and the analogue arpeggio. This went to Duncan Gray who added all of the Fripp-like atmospheric guitars. I met Duncan through Weatherall auspices, and have known him for some time… Then it took on a life of its own to be honest. Duncan and I had just done a dub for Andy Bell’s Glok project and he offered to play some guitar on it, and subsequently added the twangy licks and the Neil Young “Dead Man” textures at the end. I had met Kev Sharkey at Convenanza, as he was staying in our hotel, and we hit it off. He`s played drums and percussion for The Undertones, That Petrol Emotion, Thom Yorke, Groove Armada and Elvis Costello, amongst many others. Mick Somerset-Ward, I got to know purely online during lockdown through my supporting his thoroughly excellent Mzylkypop project on my ALFOS EBS broadcasts, but, other than being half of Crooked man he has a musical heritage that encompasses the All Seeing I, Floy Joy, Was Not Was and Clock DVA. Mick added the amazing sax parts. I`d known Jo Bartlett, the vocalist, since I first moved to London in the late `80s. Jo was the booker at The Rock Garden, where I was sometimes DJ. Jo has the most amazing folky credentials, being the co-founder of The Green Man Festival and prominent voice in such musical projects as It’s Jo and Danny, The Yellow Moon Band and Kodiak Island. I`d done a remix for one of these quite recently so it seemed fitting to rope her in. To be honest the Summerisle project is very much born out of lockdown – these are all normally really busy people and had they not had time on their hands I don’t think it would have coalesced.
Did you actually record as a full band, or were you bouncing stems backwards and forwards?
It was all bounced around between us, some of us have never even met or spoken in person!
Rico Conning’s mix is amazing. How did you manage to get Rico involved? Is he also an old friend?
It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of William Orbit’s early production work. I was aware of Rico as being the in-house engineer at Guerilla Records Studio, and as a member of William’s Torch Song. Rico has an incredible production track record that includes Adam Ant, Depeche Mode, Renegade Soundwave, Wire, Swans, Laibach, Etienne Daho. Martyn Walsh – Inspirals Carpets bass player, and my partner in La Ruta – arranged the introduction. Martyn had got to know Danny Briotett of Renegade Soundwave when they were both signed to Mute. Rico had produced a lot of the Renegade Soundwave tracks and they still work together from time to time. It was a friend of a friend hook-up.
What’s next for Summerisle? Seven? An album? Would you ever entertain some live gigs?
I wouldn’t like to speculate, as they are all an incredibly busy bunch. As I said this project was very much born out of lockdown. But I wouldn’t be averse to some more as it was such good fun.
Hardway Brothers Presents The Summerisle Six This is Something is due any second now, on Is It Balearic? Ampo told me that he’s physically holding the stock. You can listen and order a copy over at Juno and Phonica.