Fyfe Danger­field

Singer-song­writer Fyfe Danger­field – front­man of indie rock band Guille­mots – re­veals his pas­sion for birds and their song

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: ED HUTCH­INGS

The rock mu­si­cian with a pas­sion for birds and their song

Fyfe Danger­field is a busy man. It took four years for us to meet. One day, out of the blue, I re­ceived a text from him with a Google Map screen grab. “I’ve just passed this place on the train. It’s an hour from Lon­don and looks per­fect for our walk!” And in­deed, it was. Cat­tawade Marshes RSPB is a SSSI be­tween East Bergholt in Suf­folk and Man­ningtree in Es­sex. It is a Ram­sar wet­land of in­ter­na­tional im­por­tance, part of the Stour and Or­well SPA and Ded­ham Vale AONB. I reg­u­larly lead cour­ses here for the nearby Field Stud­ies Coun­cil at Flat­ford Mill. I have en­joyed many hours here near my home. I lead by ask­ing where his in­ter­est in birds stems from. “It’s hard to know what’s real and what you’ve been told. I sus­pect what might have got me into it all was a fun live bird­watch pro­gramme for a week from the Farne Is­lands in the mid-eight­ies. I’ve only patchy mem­o­ries of it, but my mum was watch­ing it, so I started watch­ing it and it sparked an in­ter­est.” I in­quire if his par­ents have an in­ter­est in birds. “They did, but in a pass­ing way. They were in­ter­ested enough for Mum to be watch­ing the pro­gramme. But then, when I be­came more cap­ti­vated by it, we started go­ing off at the week­ends to bird re­serves and tak­ing walks. "But the Puffins on the Farne Is­lands were mem­o­rable.” I pro­pose that the sight of Puffins is likely to spark an in­ter­est in birds with any­one. “And I guess there would have been a few Guille­mots”, he adds, ref­er­enc­ing the name of the band he is most as­so­ci­ated with. Fyfe Danger­field (real name Hutchins) is a mu­si­cian and song­writer, best known as the found­ing mem­ber of the indie rock band Guille­mots. The BRIT Award-nom­i­nated band was formed in Lon­don in Novem­ber 2004 and cur­rently in­cludes the mem­bers Aris­taz­a­bal Hawkes and Greig Stew­art. Their first al­bum ‘Through the Win­dow­pane’ was nom­i­nated for the 2006 Mer­cury Mu­sic Prize. The band have of­ten been joined by other mu­si­cians known as the Bri­dled Guille­mots, and Fyfe also leads an im­pro­vis­ing group called Gan­nets. I sug­gest that seabirds seem to be a pas­sion of his, see­ing as a few of the bands he is in­volved with are named af­ter them. He smirks. “I do like seabirds, but it wasn’t that. Com­ing up for a name for a band is hard, so I re­mem­ber think­ing we should call it af­ter a bird, as I like birds, and that’ll nar­row it down a bit. And then

I nar­rowed it down to seabirds. “The first low-key gig we did we were called The Kit­ti­wakes, un­til I found out there was an­other band named that. There was no sig­nif­i­cance. You do kind of get an­a­lyt­i­cal about it. Maybe it re­minded me of child­hood, be­cause those were the birds that got me into it, so maybe sub­con­sciously it was hark­ing back to when the in­ter­est was awo­ken.”

Avian in­spi­ra­tion

Birds are a source of in­spi­ra­tion for the Guille­mots not just in name. Their 2006 EP ‘From the Cliffs’ con­tin­ues the Guille­mot theme, the bird’s nat­u­ral habi­tat be­ing steep sea cliffs. In their Mys­pace en­try their in­flu­ences are given as ‘BIRD­SONG first and fore­most’. Their first al­bum fea­tures record­ings of birds such as Red-throated Diver, the line “flit­ting like a fly­catcher”, a ref­er­ence to the mer­cu­rial move­ments of these birds, as well as the song, Red­wings, named af­ter our win­ter thrushes. I ask whether this was his in­flu­ence or whether the rest of the band are bird­ers, too. “Oh no, it was def­i­nitely me,” he laughs. “They weren’t un­in­ter­ested, but they got a bit sick some­times about peo­ple ask­ing them about birds. “It’s noth­ing to do with us,” they’d re­ply, “it’s down to Fyfe.” “Bird­song is an in­spi­ra­tion in that it’s a beau­ti­ful kind of mu­sic. It’s funny, as peo­ple of­ten as­sume there’s more of a mo­tive. It’s just in­stinct. Out­side of mu­sic, it’s one of the real loves I’ve had in my life. Again, bird­song wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly con­cep­tual thing. It was, ‘that’s a cool sound.’ There’s one bit on Through the Win­dow­pane, at the end of Blue Would Still Be Blue, where a Robin is singing. It’s about cer­tain mem­o­ries like that and not just about the song. It re­minds me of a time in my life or a cer­tain scene.


Wood­pi­geons coo­ing has al­ways made me think of be­ing 10 in Worces­ter­shire in the sum­mer hol­i­days. They would sit on our chim­ney and you’d hear the call com­ing down.” I in­quire if be­ing a mu­si­cian is use­ful when it comes to learn­ing bird­song. “I think so, though I haven’t been fully show­ing it to­day with my Sedge/reed War­bler separation,” he chuck­les. “Gen­er­ally, that’s of­ten how I iden­tify birds and then I know where to look. I’ve also re­ally got into sam­pling the past few years. I’ve got quite a few sounds now that I use as mu­si­cal in­stru­ments but made of bird sounds. There was a bunch of birds in Aus­tralia I recorded on hol­i­day a few years ago. A lot of the bird sounds there are so ex­otic, such as the Pied Butcher­bird and Bell Miner. I love that you can just record these sounds on your phone, put it into a com­puter and then use them as chords. “It’s mag­i­cal that I can play a key­board sound of some­thing that is alive or once was. They have much more of a pitch and dy­namic range. I have a segue on one of the al­bums I’m work­ing on, with a weird Welsh­man hav­ing a break­down with Kook­abur­ras in the back­ground. It’s a strange com­bi­na­tion.”

Favourite bird­song

As a song­writer I ask which bird­song he ap­pre­ci­ates the most. “I love the Golden Ori­ole. That’s a mag­i­cal one and I like the way it looks too. And the Sedge and Reed


War­blers we’ve been hear­ing to­day. They’re beau­ti­ful songs and so de­tailed, all these shifts and changes. There’s some­thing about cer­tain sounds from birds that I al­ways as­so­ciate with some­where wilder. It’s the same when you hear an Oys­ter­catcher or a Curlew. “They seem like a gate­way. Then there’s the eeri­ness of the Night­jar call which I’ve only ever ex­pe­ri­enced once. Even the sound of the Redshank re­minds me of be­ing by es­tu­ar­ies or hol­i­days when I was younger. There’s so many as­so­ci­a­tions with bird­song.” I ask if any bird­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in his life stands out more than any other. “I love see­ing Bee-eaters when I get the chance or any­thing that’s mul­ti­coloured. I once went for a walk with my dad in France as a teenager. We sum­mit­ted a hill, turned a cor­ner and, as near as I am to you, there was a Short-toed Eagle just sit­ting there. I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber that. “I’ve prob­a­bly ex­ag­ger­ated it in my mind. I think we’d seen it fly round and so I was creep­ing round try­ing to see it. It looked at me and then flew off. "It was weird, be­cause you’re hardly ever face-to-face with a bird of prey. I re­mem­ber as a teenager liv­ing in Worces­ter­shire, some­one told us about this se­cre­tive place that you could see Barn Owls." Fyfe added: “We went down there one evening and, as it was start­ing to get dark, it came out of this barn. It was the first time I’d seen one. It’s not just the bird, it’s the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. Divers, too. There’s some­thing mys­ti­cal about them. They seem to be from an­other age with their looks and calls. "I re­mem­ber a fam­ily hol­i­day in Scot­land when I was about 10. My par­ents let me go off walk­ing for a bit and, be­ing pre-mo­bile phones, we’d agreed a ren­dezvous time. I came back 20 min­utes late, much to their dis­tress, be­cause I’d found a fam­ily of Red-throated Divers on a lochan.” We pause as Fyfe at­tempts to hand feed a group of House Spar­rows that have taken up po­si­tions near our ta­ble. “It’s amaz­ing when you get to see them so close. There’s not re­ally an ugly bird when you look at them closely. You could say the Cor­morant is ugly, but it’s beau­ti­ful, too. They seem from an­other age.” I ask if there’s any bird he has a burn­ing de­sire to see. “Long-eared Owl. There are cer­tain Bri­tish birds that aren’t es­pe­cially rare, but which I’ve never seen. Black Grouse is an­other.” I in­quire where he would like to go bird­ing more than any­where else. “I’d love to go back to the Ca­mar­gue,” he says. “I went once with my par­ents on hol­i­day. I re­mem­ber as a kid it seemed so ex­otic – the Greater Flamin­gos, Red­crested Pochard and Black-winged Stilts – it seemed like par­adise for me. Do­mes­ti­cally, I just love the Scot­tish High­lands and would like to see all the spe­cial­i­ties there.” I men­tion that the band name Caper­cail­lie has al­ready been taken. “Ah, but they’re not a seabird, are they?”, he grins. Divers it is then.

Guille­mots fre­quently make a pleas­ant, long drawn-out 'aaarr' call, which could even be de­scribed as 'coo­ing'

Fyfe recorded the ex­otic sound of the Aus­tralian Bell Miner to use in his mu­sic

The sound of Wood­pi­geons coo­ing from chim­ney­pots is an evoca­tive one for Fyfe

Fyfe ad­mits he strug­gles to sep­a­rate the song of the Sedge War­bler...

...and the Reed War­bler

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