In late 2011 Empire ran an anniversary feature for The Wicker Man: the director Robin Hardy wrote it for us, which was a bit of a coup. Big features always need sidebars – the smaller pieces that run in the margins – so I thought it would be cool to talk to Candidate, the British indie-folk group behind the Wicker-influenced 2002 album Nuada. The band’s Joel Morris came through immediately, and we had an email correspondence that was actually far longer than Hardy’s feature. “I can’t shut up,” he told me. “This is what we like to call ‘way too much’, but it’s lovely to think about the record and the film again.” Yes, it was. And, sadly, I could only use a fraction of it.
So this is the full transcript, written by Joel (nice easy gig for me – I barely even had to ask any questions), in which he talks about The Wicker Man, its soundtrack, recording Nuada in the film’s locations… and Bagpuss.
When did you first see The Wicker Man and what sort of impression did it make? Was it always the music that particularly affected you?
My brother Alex and I were shown it by our dad on late night telly. I remember loving it, but it was a school night, so we had to go to bed before the ending; I think I left it just as the islanders appear over the sea wall in their May Day masks. It haunted me for years – this was before DVD and even easy access to video rentals of whatever you wanted – and I wanted to know what happened. So I waited for a repeat, and waited. The scheduled reshowing was delayed because of that Orkney false child abuse case, which made it even more tantalising, dangerous, even. So the film had a whiff of the forbidden that it’s lost now you can get it given away free on the front of a Sunday paper.
As a result, and on a geeky note, the first version I saw in full was Alex Cox’s Moviedrome BBC2 edit, which I still reckon is the best take on the story – way better than the director’s cut on the DVD – because it goes straight in at the seaplane, and you’re lost and unnerved (‘where are we going?’) rather than creaking into life with all that judgmental Z-Cars nonsense (‘The sergeant’s a bit of a strange fish…’). The film’s opening these days leads you to mistrust Edward Woodward, something that mustn’t happen; you have to start off thinking the copper’s in the right.
The music was a big part of making the film seem otherly. Folk music was something very unfashionable in the late ’80s when I first saw the film. Our parents were rockers not hippies, a generation too old to have Dylan in the house. Anyway, there wasn’t much folk around. Nick Drake’s revival hadn’t happened, the only folkies I saw on TV had stopped playing the guitar and turned into stand-ups (Carrott / Connolly / Harding), and my only memory of folk music was probably the stuff in Bagpuss.
Alex and I fetishised the weird folky music from those Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate animations. They were magic for us. We used to tape Bagpuss onto a reel to reel tape deck and slow the mice down, which is incredibly trippy, like opening a dusty box that allows you to travel back in time and eavesdrop on Postgate’s shed. We knew the sound of Bagpuss had a resonance, something alien and unfathomable about it. It seemed to go deep and echo inside you. It wasn’t transient and fizzy like the music in The Wombles: it was old. A lot of that was down to the uncompromising ancient sound of the music. And that music turned out to be folk music.
That The Wicker Man was from the same era as Bagpuss probably helped. I think we imagined that gang of musicians in the Green Man scenes might have been what the Bagpuss recording sessions looked like. There’s a lot of ‘hauntology’ in why we found it interesting, I reckon.
The point of the film is that you, the audience, must feel you know what’s going on, until you realise Edward Woodward’s story of kidnap and police work and the Christian sanctity of a child’s life isn’t the story you should be following. What’s really going on, the actual story – a community gaining strength from human sacrifice – springs from an alien culture, with values you don’t share. The music helps cue this up. It’s one of a billion things Neil LaBute got wrong in the remake. You have to know you’re not in Kansas anymore. There has to be music, and it has to be ever so slightly embarrassing.
This is ‘Music & Movement’, school country dancing music: you’re used to being bored or amused by it, yet here it’s bawdy and vital. It’s like someone singing rude words to All Things Bright And Beautiful in the back row of assembly. So this safe music associated with scout camps and tweedy beardy academics is suddenly a torrent of subversive, challenging filth. Nothing better when you’re a teenager.
With ten years’ hindsight you have different thoughts on the Nuada project? What prompted it, and how did the album come together?
We’d recorded a cover of Corn Riggs when we were forming Candidate. After being in noisy bands, we had an idea that we’d like to do something quiet and folky. It wasn’t very good, but it pointed the way. We found out a couple of other bands had touched on the film (the Sneaker Pimps had done versions of Gently Johnny and Willow’s Song, and the Mock Turtles had done a whole EP back in ’89) so we shelved the idea, thinking it’d been done and so we’d be late to the party.
Then on our Tiger Flies album, we put a handful of tracks that we considered wickery: harmonies, finger picked guitar loops, penny whistles, hand percussion, drones, processional bass drums and so on. Those tracks became our favourites, the ones we played a lot at home, and people seemed to like them, so our manager suggested going the whole hog and doing a record of wickery tunes.
It struck us that the film was about to be 30 years old and if we could get the record together quickly, we could be commemorating something. That got round our jitters about not being the first band to stake a claim: we could be the band who commemorated its influence with an anniversary album.
[Writing this, I realise I'd completely forgotten that Nuada was an anniversary project, because it's got its own identity now, but it was meant as almost a side project before we got back to doing a real record.]
We wrote and recorded it incredibly quickly. I’ve got a vague notion of six weeks from starting writing to getting a final mix. Really fast. If you’ve got something to aim at, it’s easy to discard stuff, and that’s always the real skill in making music: deciding what doesn’t need doing.
Knowing it was a ‘soundtrack’ record helped too. That meant that there was space for the non lyricists in the band to take a song from start to finish without it getting hijacked by the singer. The instrumentals are the soul of the record: Island 34, Song Of The Oss, they’re really evocative. A couple of them had lyrics, but we felt able to leave them off, because it was a soundtrack. For example, Tomorrow’s Tomorrow has that mellotron flute line which was Alex dummying in the melody for me to sing, and we decided to keep it and not record a vocal. It’s bloody lovely, that tune, and because nobody’s singing, you can hear how good Alex’s guitar is.
It’s not a Wicker Man ‘concept album’ at all – do you think if you hadn’t told people the link, anyone would have made it? It seems to me that they’re songs about isolation and a feeling of very small communities, and I can see how those themes bled in from the initial Wicker Man idea. But are there other elements that you think emerged on the record specifically because of the circumstances in which you put it together? Or rather, what did the album gain from being made in the way you made it? Would you have written the same record if you hadn’t gone to the locations? Did you go there with any of the songs already begun, or did you start entirely from scratch when you got to Scotland? How did you land on the title?
The album wasn’t based on the story of The Wicker Man as much as its feel, so it felt safe attaching the record to the film. It gave people a handle to understand what we were doing. The film was the starting point for us, so we wanted it to be the starting point for listeners, so they could get the same out of the record that we were. ‘Here, start thinking about The Wicker Man… now listen to this.’
We really wanted to avoid that Iron Maiden thing of singing the story to a film or book (Kate Bush can pull it off, but it can easily go terribly, terribly Sting). So we went for sound and themes, rather than doing a song about riding in a seaplane and a tender ballad about Britt Ekland’s arse.
Lyrically, it wasn’t that long after 9/11, so there was an undercurrent we couldn’t help putting in, about clashes of belief. The film felt pretty topical, I remember, the more we rewatched it. The film – and the album, I hope – are about isolation and misplaced confidence that you’re right, that the way you see things is the only way. Then, smash, you bump into a culture of smiling, happy, satisfied people who have no time for everything you hold dear. That was in the air at the time because of what was happening in the world.
On a lighter note, because we were playing with folkiness, we could be playful with trad. arr., and pretend songs were older than they were. That takes you to nice, primal places. There’s a bit of school hymnbook in some of the record; Save Us is very ‘come and praise’. And we always liked doing unfashionable things like sea shanties, so Beautiful Birds is a Chaucerian lover’s ‘pleynt’, which I remember reading about at school. See, how easy it is to go Sting? Dead easy. That was the dangerous quicksand to either side of the album. Anyway, like Paul Giovanni had done, we could pretend we were writing traditional songs, which is always fun.
None of the film’s shot on an island: it’s all cleverly edited mainland locations, almost all of them in South West Scotland. Looks amazing, though, and you’re totally fooled by the title sequence of the seaplane. Movie magic, eh? Wicker country is on the mainland round Dumfries and Galloway, and we flew up there with a few ideas, which we played in the locations (the only significant Wicker place we didn’t visit on the trip was Plockton, still mainland, but up on the coast in the Scottish highlands, where Woodward’s plane lands; I made a special pilgrimage there a few years back on honeymoon, to collect the set, much to the delight and barely concealed boredom of my wife). We recorded stuff – demos really – in Anwoth church, the Ellangowan hotel and Burrow Head, where the burning takes place. I reckon we had four songs on the go at most (Barrel of Fear, Sowing Song, Circle of Ash, Save Us, possibly). One, Hole in the Wall, never made it because the more we played it, the more it sounded like Boyzone. That’s why you have to stay focused. It was obvious, sitting in the film locations, which ones were starting to sound wickery and which ones sounded wrong.
Bits of the trip made it to the record as audio snippets that Ian knitted into the running order (you can hear us at the beginning sitting between the Wicker Man’s legs at Burrow Head, playing pennywhistles and guitars, and the birds at the start of Beautiful Birds are the gulls from that same cliffside). But the main thing was to spend three nights soaking up the atmosphere, thinking and talking about the film and the landscape and so on, so that when we got home, we knew what we were all trying to capture. Without that, we’d all have been aiming for different things. It’s quite a focused record, I think, and I hope it hangs together, even though there’s everything from electronic instrumentals to banjo country on it, and I reckon that’s because we had a proper bit of thinking and feeling time before starting work.
The title was from Christopher Lee’s speech when he’s dedicating the sacrifice. It’s a good, short word. We liked naming things with invented or unusual words, mainly so that they were easier to search for on Google.
Also, Nuada is identified in the film as the god of the sun. I’ve always had a fascination for how anyone ever persuaded anybody to stop worshipping the sun. It’s huge, terrifying, bright, powerful, the source of all life. How do you sell a grumpy imaginary beardy grandpa figure as a better thing to worship than the sun? Whoever did that marketing job was on fire that day.
And were you pleased with it? Are you still? Did what you came up with surprise you?
We’re really proud of it. Given how quickly it was put together, it’s amazing how it’s lasted. It’s definitely the record people know us for if they know us at all, and a lot of that is because people who like the film and the film music come to find us through their love of that. So it piggybacks on the goodwill generated by this incredible film. Hopefully it has enough in it that people get something out of it on its own terms too.
Every time I turn on Ideal on the telly and hear Song of the Oss as the theme, I love thinking, ‘We did that, and that’s spaghetti on a cardboard box.’ We didn’t have time to set up Chris’ drums for the recording session. It was taped in Ian’s front room using bits from his kitchen. Stuff like that makes me smile.
There’s usually a lot of fuss and fidgeting about putting an album together, lots of toing and froing, people pulling in different directions, endless decisions and remixes and tearing stuff up and starting again. It takes ages. Nuada is a reminder that you don’t need lots of time and technology to do something good. You just need everyone to be facing the same direction.
Having something as inspiring, rich and unique as The Wicker Man to aim at made us a much better band. It’s that good a film.
Nuada is available on Snowstorm records.