A few years ago an impressive folk album appeared out of nowhere with Walker Phillips’ “My Love Sunday”: “Walker Phillips looks on the cover like a melancholic hippie and as if he had come with a time machine from the Haight-Ashbury of the 60s – but maybe he just dropped by Lord Summerisle”, one could read here. Recently, the successor “God’s Eye” was released, on which Phillips sounds lighter and more carefree. Recently he contributed sitar to Adam Cole’s album “The Cellophane Sea”. In addition to his solo work, Phillips plays with his wife Caira Paravel in Tabernacle, a band that plays exclusively British folk songs in the guise of rock ‘n’ roll. On the occasion of their performance at the Freak Valley festival, I met Walker and Caira after their show.
Maybe let’s start rather profanely. How did you, as Tabernacle, decide to record folk songs in this electric way?
First I have to ask how you mean that that is profane.
Oh, basically because it’s a question how it all started. That was what I meant.
I didn’t mean it in a negative way, I was curious because the relationship between the sacred and the profane is something that I spent a long time thinking about. So Tabernacle, Caira and myself, we’ve been singing these British folk songs for a long time independently and together and, I say that a lot, the traditional way to sing a song is a cappella, maybe with a vocal harmony, but when you play in bars and clubs, nobody wants to listen to sixteen verses of a cappella. It just has to capture an audience. Both of us grew up listening to heavy metal and especially late 60s, early 70s heavy rock ‘n’ roll, and we loved to keep playing these songs and if we just turned the amplifiers loud enough, we could play these songs and the people’d listen. That’s how we started doing it and it becomes both an exercise in how do you maintain the songs, the story of the ballad, and rearrange it musically, and be able to preserve those songs. I mean those are songs passed on from generation to generation, and that have existed for hundreds of years. So many people listening to Tabernacle wouldn’t otherwise know these songs. You can reach these people and maybe if you like Tabernacle, then maybe you start to look back and you find your Martin Carthy and then you find A. L. Lloyd and then you go back and back, just try to sort of keep the tradition alive.
You’ve said that you are attracted to music from that particular period. Some years ago there was this book by Rob Young, “Electric Eden“, about Britain’s psychedelic music. Would you say that in the past there was a kind of ideal or idealized period?
I think there were two ways of discovering this sort of music: The first was, as you probably know, The Incredible String Band. They had this influence on me and I wanted to understand – I’ve done that with many artists – I wanted to try to understand where does their voice come from? It’s part of exploring British folk music and trying to understand what they may have listened to, what their parents were playing: Alan Lomax, probably they heard some Ewan MacColl or something, and Shirley Collins. And you get these songs from listening to Shirley Collins. And I wanted to explore a bit about the history of what influenced these artists who influenced us. And then the other way was that once I started getting into these songs and singing them, my father said “Oh, I know that song. Your great-grandmother used to sing that song.“ Because my family came from Wales and Ireland into the hills of North Carolina, into the Appalachian Mountains. And so these songs were actually in my family, in the history of my great-grandmother singing these songs that she learnt from her mother. So as it turned out it was perfectly natural. Somewhere deep in the subconscious these songs were already familiar to me. There are a lot of words and a lot of verses. It takes me no time at all to pick them up. It’s natural. It’s music that is in my blood.
Well, let’s then turn to your second album, your solo album. Because you have a version of “The Song of Salomon“ on there.
And many many bands played this song, for example Current 93.
Yes, on an EP. Also a contemporary American band called Stone Breath.
Yours is a great version, by the way.
Thank you. It’s from Clive Palmer. You know, beautiful lyrics. I enjoy religion generally. And God. These are things that I really dig. I love Biblical literature and poetry.
I remember reading on your Bandcamp-page that in another universe Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath joined another Jefferson Airplane and you get Tabernacle.
Do you think that is an appropriate description of Tabernacle?
I think maybe Jefferson Airplane not so much. Certainly Tony Iommi. He is a big influence. Black Sabbath had an influence on us and I hope that the juxtaposition works; a million bands play Black Sabbath, the folk songs are more important. And then it’s just a bit of fun playing heavy rock `n`roll because it’s something I grew up loving.
Caira: It’s performing these songs i n the sound of their time. The translation that they go through with each generation. This is our expression.
Right. It’s very true. These songs existed for hundreds and hundereds of years and you find the same songs in regional dialects in different countries, and throughout time the melodies and the way they were performed changes and so I think hopefully rather than just more static folk music we’re keeping it alive. Just singing it in our voice, in a voice that sounds like today.
Some minutes ago you mentioned Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax. She has just released a new album and it’s the third one in four or five years after having been silent for decades. What do you think of her way of approaching folk?
I suppose I can’t say much of anything that hasn’t been said about her and her voice and her importance and the way she approaches the songs and Dolly’s, her sister’s arrangements, and some of the other albums that Dolly worked on, like with The Young Tradition she did some arranging. Dolly was incredibly gifted. The two of them together were something special and it doesn’t surprise me that Shirley is still singing songs. In fact we’re playing on Monday night in Hastings and we thought of maybe sending an email to see if she wants to come down to the pub and hear some of those songs. I don’t know if it would offend her or if she would enjoy it.
I saw her live when she returned to the stage and played some songs before Current 93. It was amazing.
That is incredible. When was that?
A couple of years ago. In 2014 or so.
Yeah, I think we’ll send her a message and say “If you want to bring your earplugs“.
Caira: Amongst the songs we’re doing, there’s her “Bad Girl“.
Yes, we didn’t play it today but we play a version of “Bad Girl“, which is based on the version she recorded with David Graham, and then we also our version of “Barbara Allen“, one of the most well-known British folk songs. It’s melodically based on her version, and then the lyric we took from Jean Richie. So it’s a sort of a mix of Jean Richie’s lyric but the melody taken from Shirley.
Are there plans of recording a full length Tabernacle-album?
Yes. It’s being worked on and we’ve made quite a bit of progress. I think when we get back after this tour, we’ll just buckle down a studio and hope to have it done by the end of summer. Out as soon as it can be, and then we’ll come back over next spring and do this all again, maybe with more dates.
Is that gonna be released on your own label?
I don’t think on my label. Probably on another one. I’ve talked to a few. We’ll see.
With regard to your solo recordings…in my review I compared your first and second album and I had to think of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience“, but the experience seemed to be the first album, and the innocence the second one.
What a great way to think about that. By the way, have you heard the record where Alan Ginsberg sings…?
I’ve got the CD.
What a fantastic album that is. And Don Cherry is on that. I think you’re quite right. The first album was a bit dark, and I think I was experiencing in life a lot of dark moods, which I tended to in my entire life. But for some reason, and it wasn’t intentional, I do think the new album is much more lighthearted. Certainly I met her (pointing at Caira) laughter and that brought a little more joy – but it’s not that I don’t have my dark moods. I think you are quite right. It’s the right observation, it is lighter, not intentionally, it’s just where the mind was.
I think the label used as a reference Donovan. The lighter mood also reminded me of bands like The each Boys. Is that something you can relate to?
Gosh. I love them. I love the Beach Boys. To be honest with you: There is not that much music recorded in 1970 or before that I dislike. I really, really enjoy so much of it. There’s a sound that recorded music starts to have later, and I love punk, and I love heavy metal, but there’s a sound that music takes on: this sort of clean recording technology with computers and these kinds of things. I don’t identify with it very strongly. Everything from the 60s to me sounds to me like a golden halo of magic. I love The Beach Boys but not as an intentional influence on that album, but I think also the songs on that album are simple. On the first album I don ‘t know if they were as good as songs, in the sense of songwriting. I think that they were ambitious, but on the new album the songs are better crafted, better songs.
I think you wrote that you used a lot of vintage equipment. How important is that to capture the songs?
Very important. I do a fair amount of recording for other artists as well and it’s artists who want that sound always working on tape. At some point it became clear to me that what I liked so much about music from that era was the sound of it. You can probably get quite close to that sound on a computer and I’m sure some people do but the difference, I think, is not only in the sound of the medium, like tape or computer, but in the way it makes you work. When you’re on tape, you have to make decisions, you have fewer takes, fewer options, you have to edit with a razorblade. It’s a lot of commitment. It has more flaws. I tell you I could never ever make a record on a computer. You have all those extra tracks and you start like spending hours looking which take to use. That’s awful to me.
What made you decide to create this rather long track on the second side?
As I got better recording on tape, one of the things I really enjoy is just the physicality of cutting up tape. On the first album there were some tape loops, and kind of collages and things but as I got better at doing that, I was also listening to [Miles Davis's] “Bitches Brew“ quite a lot and I have always appreciated that album but listening to how it is edited together, I thought, it could be a challenge, but to roll a tape and record an entire tape and then the actual composition will happen later. Just play and later with the razor blade in a room hours and hours and cut it and piece it all together. I read somewhere that “Bitches Brew“ had over fifty edits or something like that, and so I started counting when I first started and I got up to fifty-five or sixty, and I wasn’t even halfway done. I’m happy with it, it’s not perfect.
I think you announced the album about two years ago, and then it disappeared from your Bandcamp-page.
When the pandemic stuff was going on, I had these songs and I said I have enough for an album, and the band is not playing, so let me put these songs together. I’ll just do a digital album. You have to get the old ones out, so the new ones come through. And as soon as I did that, people were very disappointed, they were saying: “Hey, we can’t believe you’re not doing that on vinyl.“ And then Guerssen, the record label, reached out and said: “We’ve heard you have a new album and we’ll do the vinyl.“ I just put everything down real quick. From then it was just my own delay with pandemic stuff, finishing off the artwork. It was no delay on Guerssen’s part. Those two years were just me getting my act together.
Nowadays it’s so crazy releasing vinyl. Small labels were still releasing vinyl when nobody gave a toss and now all the major labels release vinyl again.
The first album I put out myself. It was very, very expensive. It was one headache after another. The first cut didn’t sound good. They made mistakes, and so I had to go back, argue with people. It was such a hassle. So for the second I said I just gonna do it digital and then Guerssen reached out and I thought if I don’t have to deal with all that nonsense, great. They did a wonderful job, it sounds great. It looks beautiful.
My kids like the artwork and the colour of the album.
That’s fantastic. The artwork is very pop. Leonardo Casas is the artist. He is Chilean. He did that artwork for The Partridge Family Temple, I’ve been a member of the Partridge Family Temple for a long, long time. Oh, it’s gonna be a long answer. I had the song “God’s Eye“ that I had written, and “God’s Eye“ came about when I met her [Caira] because she had one hanging in her room. And I thought God’s Eye, as somebody who digs God, I thought that is the most beautiful thing, and I almost immediately wrote the song, and after writing that song I was just in love with that phrase and I had seen Leo’s artwork years ago and I thought that is the perfect thing: It’s just I don’t want a name. It’s a striking image. It’s the Partridges. If you look at the image, it’s the Partridge Family, and it looks like a sort of CBS logo. Anyway, it’s a beautiful piece of art and I really wanted that to dominate the cover.
Is the Partridge Family Temple still playing an important role for you?
Oh yes. We’re both very active members. There are so many members of the Partridge Family Temple. More than ever. But we’ve also been working on a Partridge Family Album with many members of the Temple, including Boyd Rice, who has some stuff on there. We haven’t finished that album yet. So we have to finish the Tabernacle album and The Partridge Family Temple album.
Is that the one where you recorded some sitar backwards?
We’re also working on another album, a Boyd Rice & Caira Paravel-album. We’ve probably twelve albums being done. For the Partridge Family album we had members fly in from Colorado, Oregon, Los Angeles, and we spent a weekend in a house. We wrote all the songs in the moment together. All the lyrics, all the music, and we recorded them as quickly and spontaneously as possible. We did some ceremonies and rituals and we recorded those. There were microphones all over the house and notes everywhere, just sleeping on the floor and waking up every day and going straight to work. The album is done, it’s just a matter of compiling it.
Thank you. That was a lot.
Are you curious about the Partridge Family Temple?
In a way I am yes because it is so far removed from what you know around here.
It was started a long time ago in the 80s in Denver, Colorado. A friend of mine, who lives in Portland, Oregon, Shaun Partridge, he’s the Partridge in the Pear Tree. We all have temple names in the temple: I’m 7up-Partridge, and [Caira] is Wind Chimes-Partridge. Partridge in the Pear Tree took me to the temple when I lived in Portland, Oregon some 27 years ago. The Partridge Family Temple is really a mystical order. We are particularly interested in Carl Jung and the concept of the collective subconscious and the sort of symbols and archetypes. Because you find a strong relationship between this collective subconscious and something like the idea of God. Human beings create these manifestations of God and archetypes. So those archetypes appear in television shows and on cereal boxes. And the thing for us is it’s a religion based on fun: Fun is the law. So the idea is to make religion fun again because we love religion, we love God and our way is just finding the same truths in everything, things like pop culture.
Interview: MG u. US
Bandphoto: La Strega from London