Monday, 30 August 2010

Flying with the New Hawks: an interview with local musician Dan Haywood

new_hawksw.jpg Last job I could walk the length of a country'
- Dan Haywood on the release of Dan Haywood's New Hawks

Five years in the making, Dan Haywood's New Hawks is a 32-song triple album taking folk rock and popular music in exciting new directions. This weekend, the band played a one off event to celebrate the launch of this Timbreland Records release with live performances for the full Dan Haywood New Hawks ensemble in addition to multi-media installation and an illustrated talk.

In the run up to the event, Dan and Tom Bramhall discussed his preparing for the release; the origins of the project in its native Scotland, writing and recording the songs and exploring some of their context both personal and in the wider field of popular music...

Tom Bramhall: Dan, the release date is a fortnight away - what's been happening?

Dan Haywood: Hi - the unofficial/local release date is at the end of this month, but the PR-set UK release date is much later in the year.

As things stand this week, I don't know whether either will be met. In recent weeks, it's been a blur of defective vinyl test pressings, jury service, live shows, sleeplessness and even conjunctivitis.

Tom: I'd hoped to set us up there for debating whether or not things were drawing to a close ... It sounds like new challenges have been presenting themselves?

Dan: Well that's life. And I wouldn't like to guess whether life's drawing to a close.

Do you mean the vinyl release or the New Hawks campaign in general?

Tom: I meant more the New Hawks campaign as it gears up for the album release. What's it like to be on-the-brink of putting this thing out there?

Dan: When I delivered the final mixes to Timbreland back in February I felt satisfied - like I had won. Because that had been my goal for a long time. But now I feel excitable and tense, because I feel like we need to win again.

The Electric New Hawks Band, August 2010., near Playfest site, Warton, North Lancashire.
Photo Richard Davis.

Tom: What's the goal this time?

Dan: To win hearts and minds, like Lyndon B Johnson would have wanted! I want people to take to the album and to get the most out of it, which I believe is a lot. We're gonna have to tread carefully with the PR, features like this and so on.

Tom: With that in mind, I was hoping you could give a brief summary of what Dan Haywood' New Hawks is, as if I were completely new to it...

Dan: To be prosaic (which I believe is acceptable in prose) Dan Haywood's New Hawks is a group of 32 songs. I could have called it Dan Haywood's New Songs or New Bag or Neu Roses at the time they appeared, which are all prosaic too. But since then there's been understandable confusion because it sounds like a band name and I don't always disabuse people of that notion. It works that way too.

When the songs get an airing in concert it's the name of the act, regardless of whether it's a solo, twenty-piece band or a fleet of laptops. It doesn't have to be me performing either, which is an idea I'd like to try. The 32 songs (New Hawks!) were written in a short space of time and reflect each other (like the jewels on Indra's net) and were my grand vision at the time. They live together. And the plan was for all of them to be recorded well and presented together.

Recording session for Dan Haywood's
New Hawks, July 2009.
Tom: - which I guess is what's going to happen with this triple vinyl release? To my ears they sound very well recorded...

Dan: Thanks - most of the tracks have been recorded very well indeed. Largely small groups with vocals in a room with overdubbing in the same space. Mick [Armistead] used some great microphone techniques and placements, especially when we recorded in the church. Like an auditory holograph of where we were spatially. Easy to get into. But the recording period was almost five years because not every take or session was successful. Hundreds of hours of versions, filtered down to this set.

Tom: It comes across like a sprawling - though by no means incomplete arc of songs, and much anticipated over a long stretch of time.

Without wanting to skirt over the effort and investment - which we could probably devote a whole interview to, I wonder if there's any risk that some of the project's subtleties could be dwarfed by the scale - in the writing say?

Dan: There's that risk. I mean, it's not important to me that there are 32 tracks. If the thing said it all just eight, then good! But I kept writing and writing until the circle closed, and it happened to be that way. If you take one song out it collapses. And it's correct to be true to the initial inspiration, to stand up for your instinct. I trust it in this case.

But you're right. It seems like a gimmick, which is not the case. It's the writing and the playing and the recording, which isn't a novelty.

Tom: Well I wouldn't have called it a gimmick. I'm just conscious as a listener and fan that when the scale of the project seems so vast, the risk would have been to lose a sense that there's a rich crop of things going on under the 32 track, triple disc banner.

I'm appropriating you for myself a bit here, but I reckon this is what makes it a complete piece of work: all parts seems to reflect the whole?

Dan: It only seems vast because of the norms of medium. Hi Norm! But the running time of two hours ten is pretty standard for cinema. And because rock music is superior to cinema it packs a lot more in. In terms of marketing the album you can't wilfully neglect the fact that it's a long piece. And that's often the initial point of interest. But it's only the surface. It's complete, not over-complete.

If everyone has the perfection they need (Hubert Selby?) then this is mine. I managed it, after almost fifteen years of writing songs and daydreaming.

The New Hawks lien-up, June 2010. Photo: Darren Andrews.

Tom: At what point did you feel ready to begin working up the songs and sharing them with others?

Dan: The moment that I saw that they were finished. Or as the dust settled ... after 50 re-drafts in the space of a month. It was making a sculpture out of a big, mysterious block of ice ... chipping and carving away, night after night. I wasn't sure how it would look, but I knew I would recognise when it was complete. One morning a sculpture was there staring at me instead of vice versa, with a plaque built in saying 'play to people'! And I obeyed!

It ended a horribly reclusive period, because I knew I'd need help to play them, that I couldn't do them justice. For most of the writing I hadn't touched an instrument. It was all in my head. So I took up the guitar again, sought out some friends and got in touch with the outside world

Tom: I like that you describe it as a sculpture. There's a monumental quality about the whole project.

You mentioned a writing period of 15 years bringing you to the point where you were able to write Dan Haywood's New Hawks. I'm curious to know how you'd describe the differences - if any, between this material and the things you'd written previously?

Dan: My writing didn't really bring me to New Hawks, it was living that did it. I had been bringing songs to bands for years, and the clue's in there - there was often a part of me which asked 'will Bill and Richard like to play this? Will they humour me this time?' So some of my older stuff was perhaps more self-conscious in that way. And often written for a certain arrangement. Also, my earlier songs are more emo-centric, me-me-me, emotive ... because I was a brat and a cad and a less-travelled younger man. And later life and events and places stepped in and blew my mind and de-railed me and I found myself writing outside of myself. On another track. About other people and places, and animals and plants.

Also, I was so thoroughly suffused with nature and rain and sun from 18 months outdoors in Caithness, Sutherland and some of the islands that my new 'country songs' finally seemed more authentic than the old ones. I was finally able to name-check place-names and exalt overlooked fauna without looking too stupid.

The place reinvigorated and rebuilt me and made more room for folk and country concerns in my repertoire. The use acoustic guitar became more valid, which maybe altered the writing a little.

Tom: This 'writing outside of myself' seems really apt, I think. It brought me in as a listener, made me care about the experiences, interests and obsessions - if you like, that were reflected in the songs.

It sounds like you became a migrant of sorts, and in doing so you were able to move from a particular ('emo-centric') to more universal subjects?

It's something I really admire in Dan Haywood's New Hawks - this sense of other: 'other people places ... animals and plants'.

Dan: A migrant would fit. The album's full of migrants. In 'Family Tree' we have a vagrant American bird accidentally blasted across the Atlantic which is transplanted to an apple tree in Britain. A migrant which becomes a vagrant.

And parts of the album consider the Highland Clearances, the disgrace which forced locals to either migrate or starve. And some fled to America, and took their music with them, which fed American folk and later country music and rock and roll. Musically, New Hawks examines those links. Elvis was a Scot! And there's also our songs like 'Superquarry' which are partly about modern American investment and naval and military presence in Highland Scotland.

I had a friend in Caithness whose indigenous family was making a living from 'Texan' oil from The North Sea oilfields, and they lived on a Thurso street called John Kennedy Walk.

And in the Clearances, some Northerners ended up on boats headed for Australia, and it turns out that we have an Outback song on the album called 'Jackaroos', which is a term which means Australian cowboys, (as well as the stow-away Sailor in folk songs like Jack-a-Roe).

'Jackaroos' describes a very isolated community in the desert there -- some of them originally from Scotland- ' ...This town has one Macadamed Street..'. Of course, I don't know much about that outside of Flying Doctors, but I felt it strongly! Because in a small way, I was a migrant for a time.

Mr Haywood, also an ornithologist, outwardly
wrestles with his inner Raven,
Sutherland 2009
I took a job which required me to up-sticks and re-locate in a foreign culture five-hundred miles away. Away from my old life -- had less than two weeks to think about it. I'd finally been chucked off the dole and I was desperate and I migrated to Caithness! Where the flows are paved with gold.

It was wind-farm work impacting on birds, and so these lonely transplanted English birdwatchers spend their time searching for migrant birds up there. Some native migrants, some alien.

As well as the wildlife that should have been there, like the worldwide Golden Eagle and the Black-throated Diver, we came across individuals that 'shouldn't'.

I was lucky enough to come face to face with a rare falcon in Sutherland which had very much over-shot from its target in south eastern Europe. A male Red-footed Falcon, so far from home. Making sorties to seize and devour Highland Darter dragonflies. Mind-blowing. Seen by me and one other one morning. What became of him? What was going through it's mind? Nothing.

And I also found an American Wader up there, a Pectoral Sandpiper, in the course of work. August 2003, it was. It had either just been blown 3000 miles off-course after heading to Central America, or was the progeny of an undetected pair which had.

I was in my element up there. I felt alive in that wilderness. But I also felt a real outsider in those isolated communities. Nobody knew what I was all about and I wasn't so sure anymore. A thrill at times, crushing at others.  The last song on the album is called 'Peatshack McKay' --  'I coulda been a Peatshack McKay' ... or anyone as opposed to what I was born into. So there are these foggy notions of transmigration of souls. Personal transformations. Am I the same person that I was as a child? Or ten years ago? All that kind of shit. Terrifying and or liberating. So I was liberated and was a migrant writing outside of myself, and all the threads joined up.

Does this make any sense? More selfless. Now I'm almost back to square one but the album documents that transformation.

Tom: Again, all the above is why I tend to think of it as monumental, big catch work. Musically, the sonic landscape seems to draw on as many different elements as they subject matter. I wondered if you could talk a bit more about the choice of instruments and how they could be seen to reflect the territory?

Dan: As I mentioned, I felt legitimised to use country and folk instrumentation, rather than just fancying it. So, it's great to have the pedal steel of Gary GT Thwaite, who used to work out of Nashville, all over the record. It works so well. And it's something that Caithnesians would like about the record, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers being very popular in Thurso, even among the teenagers.

The fundament is the acoustic guitar because it runs on natural power. Something you could make sound with in a power cut! What little electric guitar there is on the album tends to represent supernatural agency now I come to think about it!

I remember one Spring day we'd been out on Yellow Bog in Sutherland mapping wader territories, with all these exquisite display flights and reeling songs of Golden Plovers, Greenshanks and Dunlins. And in the evening we went for a drink in Thurso and there was a folk session there, and those repetitions and variations and patterns in the Celtic tunes were so similar to the wader song. I remember remarking upon it to my workmate and I remember him mockingly saying 'deep!'.

The Celtic areas of Britain are the only places where you get these birds breeding and the bird songs and the tunes mirror each other. We were sat there in the pub and it sounded like we were still out on the moors. So it became important to find a band-member or two who knew Celtic folk music. And Mikey (Kenney's) fiddling is so wild and free and perfect for the material.

He grew up going to Irish sessions in Liverpool. So there's the knowledge and the technique along with his natural power! Early on I talked to him about birdsong and he mentioned Messiaen's experiments with bird noise and we came up with a Messiaen-like arrangement for 'Killer of Men'.

It's important to have musicians who have a deeper connection with other musics and other instruments - because I'm more or less limited to guitar and rock music. It's a rock-orientated album, but with a highland/ rural element woven in.

Tom: I wonder whether you see any comparison here between Dan Haywood's New Hawks and the 'new Caledonian' folk music popularised by the likes of Alasdair Roberts, Trembling Bells etc.?

Dan: Well, I wish I was in Trembling Bells. I offered to fill in for Lavinia [Blackwall]'s vocals if she became unwell and they managed to keep a straight face. I have a similar range!

Is it called 'Caledonian'? I think of it as English music primarily. The bass player has got a funky soul. He's from Inverness. Alex [Neilson] is very clever. He knows what he wants and he makes it so ... and I wish I had his direct approach. [Record producer] Joe Boyd is a fan of theirs, but I doubt he'd dig us. Perhaps we'll see.

Alasdair is cool and sly with what he does. 'Spoils' is a very good record.

I'm not sure there is a comparison with the New Hawks and either of the acts you mention, but I'd be happy to be mentioned alongside them.

Tom: Rob Young called it 'Caledonian' I think. I mention these acts since the critical response will often read in their records a similar tact to the one you've described above - mainly musicians connecting with other musics and instruments - Celt et al. They've been credited with invigorating English folk tradition with their nods to lineage and history - an odd sort of heritage trip.

How would you prefer Dan Haywood's New Hawks to be received, critically?

Dan: I'd be happy for our album just to be received critically -- never mind guessing how... because after several years of moderate endeavour we're still under the radar.

You mention nods to lineage and history -- and one of the main themes in New Hawks is broken lineage. And also what happens when cultures start anew from a blank and grim canvas.

To go back to that pub folk session in Caithness - I was perplexed that each time I went, there was a dearth of local tunes. The session players were playing Shetland tunes, and Northumbrian tunes and a couple of Irish ones so there was a giant gap, geographically, and we were in the middle of it. And that's the way that the far North of the mainland seemed to me when I lived there - criminally overlooked and forgotten. A cultural vacuum despite being a fascinating area.

And I thought about lineage and what might been lost musically and spiritually because communities up there bore the brunt of the Clearances. Maybe that was why I wasn't hearing local tunes. And also 'the brain drain' that occurs that affects rural areas like that to this day. And the effect of Dounreay experimental site, the biggest employer on the North coast for decades had and what effects its de-commissioning would have. Further depopulation?

So that was my angle on lineage and history, and the songs seem to part fill the cultural vacuum, whether it's imagined or not! There needed to be a song about Castletown and a song mentioning Dunnet and Strathy, and here they are. Terribly presumptuous, but I felt overwhelmingly inspired and it just happened. It's not all as calculated as it sounds on paper. And I built them from the ground up, to reflect the landscapes and the weather and the fauna. I really think they do -- honest, Tom.

One of the few chord sketches I did when I was living there was based on the shape of the coast from Strathy Point to Dunnet Head. The chords were to a song called Middle Nowhere. That shape (of the coastline) was ingrained in me and still is. But I remember designing the chords while looking at that view from the bedroom window, with Orkney off in the distance. 'Yes, that fits and that doesn't ... an A minor works for Sandside Bay...!'

So it's a kind of country music without much human history to go on, made from studying what remains. And examines the severed links rather than perpetuating traditions like folk tries to. Just because information is scant, doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

In Family Tree', we're looking at significant moments in family lineage - forks, dead-ends, tragedies, downwards spirals. 'There'll be a song new to the family tree'. There's a lost vagrant songbird singing to deaf ears at the top of that tree. The song was valid in the New World. It's still beautiful but now a bloodline has ended. The Proclaimers sang about 'all the blood that flowed away' in 'Letter from America'... I was just reminded of it.

F'amily Tree' lingers in the moment when a family's fortunes (with Les Dennis) change. It's a lament. The moment when the black sheep of the flock is born, if you forgive my mixed animal metaphors. Everything turns around and there's suddenly no immediate precedent. Bad things happen and history is no longer keeping you out of danger.

Your babies are tainted and continue in your image, or you might feel inclined to eat them. The album is full of genetics and heredity: 'I'm sewing a Smiley Patch into my daughter's jeans' when ecstacy comes to town via California, Glasgow, and filters through the umbilicus. That's 'Smiley Patch', and there's also 'Muscle Beach' with sea-life evolving in the wake of that Tsunami. From enzymes up. A churn of plankton. Stunned sharks coming to with a glut of food floating around them. A lazy lady by a Thai swimming pool with a dog that's 'bad and bred for it'. Traditions of change. The ecology of disaster.

Tom -- you're a health professional by night -- do you think I'm mad and sick? I sound it and I worry about that. Anyway, that's lineage and tradition and folk in New Hawks. I don't know whether I'm reinvigorating folk tradition, but I'm trying to do my best for Northern Highland tourism and making the best of what I know.

Tom: Sounds more like ethnography to me say, than tourism. I wanted to ask whether you've ran into many conundrums, ethically - supplanting yourself so completely in this territory and creating/dedicating a monument to it  and how have folk in Caithness/Sutherland reacted to Dan Haywood's New Hawks?

Dan: I was living and working in Caithness and Sutherland (and making brief work sorties to the Western Isles) for a while, but I had to leave there in a hurry and didn't keep in touch with any of the locals. Most of the writing was done after the fact, back in England. So with one or two exceptions, it's probably safe to say that no Cattichs or Gollichs or Hebrideans are aware of our project. For a start, it's a tiny population, so the chances are slim on account of that.

I happened to meet a Caithnesian in Lancashire (very rare!) a few months ago, and I got onto New Hawks and he seemed staggered and pleased by the subject matter -- and the small world syndrome - 'do I know the house? I used to live in it!'... that kind of thing. So that was a confidence booster for me, although he didn't actually hear the material. I do worry a little about what the locals would make of it, but I'd like to think there could be few serious objections. Maybe on grounds of my singing pitch ... but I think they'd recognise at least something of themselves and their environment in the songs and enjoy that.

I don't want this album to be like a Wicksploitation Movie. And since the whole inception of the material was un-self-conscious and spontaneous, I can step back - 'the muse did it, not me!'. I've erected a small monument to a time and a place and how the time and the place interacted with me. It's all true, but it's art too! And that exempts me from being too even-handed.

The album does poke fun at the game-keeping industry. I doubt many keepers would be fans.

Cloud-base permitting, all tourists notice the giant monument looming over Golspie, on the side of Ben Bhraggie. And as you probably know it's a posthumous tribute to the glory of the Duke Of Sutherland, paid for by his descendents. I think they had the locals quarry all those tons of stone near Brora, cart it up on the hill and so on. To pay tribute to a thief and a killer. At least an eagle shits on his head from time to time.

Anyway, by contrast my little monument is harmless and discreet and isn't looking down on you.

Tom: Am I right in thinking the record is dedicated to the people of Caithness and Sutherland?

Dan: Yes, that's right. It's the inside back cover of the booklet. I believe 'The Very Best of Dr. Hook' has the same dedication.

Tom: Will you be touring the record up there?

Dan: I was talking with a friend today about the possibility of New Hawks: The Movie! A documentary/musical that would involve us retracing my steps in the North seven years on. And to film a New Hawks gig in Skinandi's (AKA Skins), Thurso's nightclub, where me and my pardners spent many a refreshing night, would be a key scene.

It'd be testing for my nerves, but I hope that can happen one day. Me in tears of joy thru a barrage of bottles. A kind of closure for me, maybe.

I was never a musical animal up there. A hiatus as a performer. Kept my urges well hidden. So it would be ace for me to do this in those fantastic places. And a general tour of Scotland too.

Tom: I'd love to see that. I hope it happens. Where will the 'tour' be taking you during the next few months?

Dan: The dates are scattered as yet. We are hoping to have a more concentrated run at the end of the year when the PR and the booking agent have created a fearsome machine.

Ones I'm looking forward to as they stand are Shambala Festival somewhere in deepest Northants [also this weekend - Ed], the Union Chapel in Islington, London which is a beautiful venue, and this  New Hawks event at the Dukes.

Tom: Is there space here d'you think to speak about the other people been involved in the project since its beginnings?

: I'd like to do an on-screen shout-out to my main man Bill Myall who was involved right at the start and has now re-joined. He's a graduate of the 1980s/90s Lancashire bands scene, in Krill and Carrot On The Floor, but in more recent years his main job seems to be encouraging and spurring and sparring and prompting Dan Haywood, musician. In fact there are a coupla lines on the album that are just for him.

Jenny McCabe has been greatly helping the visual side of Dan Haywood's New Hawks from day one -- for instance, she put together the lovely big booklet that goes in the box.

There have been over 20 players who have been kind enough to play with me over the last few years, and sometimes I wonder what I've done to deserve their time. I'm very lucky. But there are too many of these funny little commoners to detail them all.

Theresa Standish joined me early on and her wild cello and viola prowess and melodic instinct are a crux of our live shows. And she's all over the record.

As I've mentioned, finding Mikey Kenney was a big step forward for us too. He's a real fan of what we do.

Richard Turner has been invaluable to the project too. As well as being the perfect foil to my wayward guitar he's a guiding hand in our web presence, and introduced my songs to Pete at Manchester's Timbreland Recordings, who released our old EP and take a gamble on this triple album.

Tom: Dan, thanks for taking the time Dan and best wishes.

Dan: Thanks for taking an interest Tom. You are the 'freak press' round here! You the man. Or one of them.

• The New Hawks next local gig is at the Mad Ferret in Preston on 24th September. Check out the next Dan Haywood New Hawks project at

Dan Haywood's New Hawks You Tube Channel

• Tom Bramhall writes and plays for Ponies ( A selection of Ponies recordings can be heard at

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