CHAR­LIE CA­WOOD

The multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist who skil­fully blends East­ern and Western mu­si­cal philoso­phies has just re­leased a de­but al­bum seven years in the mak­ing. Prog finds out what took him so long.

Prog - - Intro - Words: Grant Moon Por­trait: Bo Hansen The Divine Ab­stract is out now on Bad Ele­phant. For more in­for­ma­tion, see char­lieca­wood.band­camp.com.

He plays bass in Knife­world, took over from Kavus Torabi as the mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ist for the Me­di­ae­val Baebes, teaches mu­sic and has plenty else on be­sides. At 29, Char­lie Ca­wood is tread­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing path, blend­ing clas­si­cal Western mu­sic with Asian and Ori­en­tal styles, all with an avant-garde, psych sen­si­bil­ity. His first solo al­bum, The Divine Ab­stract, is a tran­scen­dent work of art, an eru­dite in­stru­men­tal ex­plo­ration of both cul­ture and spirit. It’s been seven years in the mak­ing and has seen him bravely con­front the de­pres­sion that has dogged him for years.

How did you be­come so well versed in non-Western mu­sic?

I started learn­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic in school, did my grades, sight read­ing, the­ory. I was liv­ing in Il­ford, which is a great cos­mopoli­tan part of Lon­don, and I was asked out of the blue if

I’d like to learn sitar. From there I got into In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic, but also fla­menco, which is prob­a­bly the hard­est thing you can do on gui­tar. I also stud­ied the pipa – the Chi­nese lute – at sum­mer school at the Royal Acad­emy Of Mu­sic. I went to a Ja­panese mu­sic con­cert on the South Bank when I was 16 and that re­ally opened my eyes to that part of the world. I didn’t do A-Lev­els, but got a diploma from the Gui­tar In­sti­tute in Lon­don, then a de­gree in Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic from the Lon­don Cen­tre Of Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic, where I now teach. I went on to study East Asian Mu­sic at SOAS [School Of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies].

Was there any rock or prog in your mu­si­cal diet back then? Early on I was into Aero­smith, Iron Maiden, Bad Re­li­gion, then as a 16-year-old I got into Zappa, Gong, Ozric Ten­ta­cles. I never re­ally con­sid­ered these prog, but be­cause I was into more ex­ploratory mu­sic, that was a la­bel peo­ple started ap­ply­ing to me! Later I dis­cov­ered Por­cu­pine Tree, Tool, Opeth. [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew gave me a real taste for jazz, as did Ma­hav­ishnu, but par­tic­u­larly John McLaugh­lin’s work with Shakti, which was a bridge be­tween gui­tar mu­sic and In­dian clas­si­cal. I was obliv­i­ous to any prog scene be­fore I got into Knife­world. But Kavus [Torabi] got me into that Cardiacs-y scene – Stars In Bat­tle­dress, Thumper­mon­key, North Sea Orches­tra, those guys.

How did your as­so­ci­a­tion with Knife­world come about?

Ten years ago a friend took me to what would be the Cardiacs’ last As­to­ria gig. I didn’t know a sin­gle song, but I loved it – it’s prob­a­bly my favourite gig ever. Weirdly, Knife­world’s then­drum­mer Khyam [Al­lami] was a fel­low stu­dent at SOAS. I went to a gig in 2011 and met Kavus through him. We got talk­ing and soon af­ter, he asked me to join the band.

And Kavus was the Me­di­ae­val Baebes’ in­stru­men­tal­ist be­fore you, wasn’t he?

He’s known [lead Baebe] Katharine Blake for years. I re­mem­ber my GCSE teacher mak­ing dis­parag­ing re­marks about them as they were on the clas­si­cal cross­over charts. But I lis­tened and heard them do all this weird, com­plex psych stuff too. When Kavus joined Gong, he asked me if I’d be in­ter­ested in the gig be­cause he knew I played saz, oud and all these non-Western in­stru­ments. That was three-and-a-half years ago. I’ve played with them a lot at gigs and fes­ti­vals, and they’ve got an al­bum out next year.

The Divine Ab­stract brings to­gether the many di­verse strands of your ex­pe­ri­ence. Why did it take over seven years to make? It’s like it needed that time to ges­tate into some­thing mean­ing­ful. I’ve got many friends play­ing lots of dif­fer­ent parts, a cast of peo­ple who’ve only come into my life in the past few years. Amir [Shoat] who en­gi­neered and co-pro­duced it with me, Katharine’s on it, Ch­löe [Her­ing­ton] from Knife­world’s on bas­soon, Diego [Te­jeida, of Haken]. But Knife­world’s been busy, so have the Me­di­ae­val Baebes, and my other bands Tonochrome and My Tricksy Spirit. Be­tween gig­ging, teach­ing and tour­ing, the al­bum got pushed aside.

You’ve been very open about your bat­tle with de­pres­sion. That must have been a fac­tor too?

Yes. I started to ac­cept I suf­fer from de­pres­sion about three years ago, when it was re­ally start­ing to af­fect my life, my abil­ity to func­tion. Then last year I went through a par­tic­u­larly bad bout. Be­ing open about it brings you closer to the peo­ple around you; talk­ing about it with­out the fear of stigma makes you more so­cially en­gaged. It turns out that prac­ti­cally all my mu­si­cian friends suf­fer through de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. When I got back into the al­bum a few years ago, the de­pres­sion scup­pered it – it made me very fear­ful and cre­ated a bar­rier be­tween me and the mu­sic. Then I re­alised that the one thing I had to hold on to, when all other mean­ing had dis­ap­peared, was the al­bum.

And did fo­cus­ing on the al­bum help?

It did. When I set­tled down to work on it, I knew I was in the right place. But it’s not like it cured my men­tal health – it brought a lot of stress of its own! But through the anx­i­ety there was an end goal in mind. I write my­self out of the state, rather than make mu­sic that draws on it. The mu­sic doesn’t ex­press it, but dis­pels it.

Some parts of the ti­tle track ref­er­ence Wil­liam Blake – Fear­ful Sym­me­try, The Earth’s An­swer. Are you a fan?

Yes, and not just his poetry but his ideas about cre­ativ­ity and the imag­i­na­tion, that tran­scen­den­tal thing he had. I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in how in­stru­men­tal mu­sic can form a lim­i­nal space be­tween two dif­fer­ent states.

Eh? [Laughs] The mid­dle part of Earth Dragon com­bines mu­si­cal themes from the first and third parts, so it’s this in-be­tween space with el­e­ments of both the past and fu­ture. I was watch­ing a lot of David Lynch at the time! I just love the uni­ver­sal­ity of the lan­guage of in­stru­men­tal mu­sic. It comes from a purer, more ab­stract place, and helps us ac­cess some­thing that’s higher than mu­sic just tied down with words.

“A FRIEND TOOK ME TO WHAT WOULD BE THE CARDIACS’ LAST AS­TO­RIA GIG. I DIDN’T KNOW A SIN­GLE SONG, BUT I LOVED IT.”

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