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‘A Young Fist Curled around a Cinder for a Wager’ is the second album of 2016 from Rothko.
A London-based ambient and bass project, Rothko was first formed in 1997 and has had several permutations, its continuous link being experimental musician and bass-player Mark Beazley.
Rothko broke up in 2010, having recorded seven studio albums, the last of which ‘Eleven Stages of Intervention’ had come out in 2007. Since Beazley and Michael Donnelly, who joined Rothko originally in 2001, got back together in 2015, Rothko have maintained a furious work rate. They released an EP ‘Severed Tense’ that year, and there have also been the two albums, ‘Discover the Lost’ and ‘A Young Fist Curled around a Cinder for a Wager’, each of which have come out on Trace Recordings which is Mark Beazley’s own label.
Many of Rothko’s albums have been themed. Rothko’s 2003 record ‘A World Without Hurt’, written in reaction to 9/11 and recorded with Washington DC musician BLK W/Bear, for example, is an anti-war album, and ‘Discover the Lost’ looks towards a simpler time away from modernity.
‘A Young Fist Curled around a Cinder for a Wager’ is, however, a departure for Rothko. Recorded without the absent Michael Donnelly, it is rarely for the usually instrumental Rothko an entirely vocal album, their first and only other album like this since ‘Eleven Stages of Intervention’ which featured singer Caroline Ross.
The only other musician than Beazley on ‘A Young Fist Curled around a Cinder for a Wager’ is Band of Holy Joy front man Johny Brown. Another themed album, Brown over its eleven tracks charters the life of a man through his brutal childhood and across drink-fuelled adolescence, while Beazley provides restless and creative bass that shifts from turbulence to gentleness. As the man, who becomes involved in an intense love affair, moves further into adulthood, he finds that he is, however, unable to escape his past life and that it is never far away from the present.
As well as Rothko. Mark Beazley is also a member of duo Low Bias, with Graham Dowdall from Gagarin, and plays with experimental musicians Anne Garner and James Murray under the name Tetherdown. He has also recently rejoined the Band of Holy Joy on bass after a year’s absence. Beazley took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Pennyblackmusic about the return of Rothko.
PB: 'A Young Fist Curled Around A Cinder for a Wager' seems to have come together very quickly. How long did it take from when you and Johny first began working on it to you finished post production?
MB: The album came about from a performance at Sonic Imperfections in September 2015. Rothko [myself and Michael] were booked to play, but sadly Michael had broken a finger since the gig was booked and could not play the show. I had been talking to Johny and mentioned that I didn't really fancy playing on my own, so he said he'd like to join me on the night. This was the Thursday before the gig on the Tuesday. So, I sent over two new tracks, very rough versions, that I'd recently written, and Johny wrote two stories for them. In fact I think he already had one of them written…we played the show without ever having played them together, and it worked really well, and, from there, the idea of doing a whole album was born. At the gig that night was Stuart Wilding, who runs the Xposed club in Cheltenham, and plays in Ghost Mind, and he invited us to play there in March. We only had five tracks ready by then…
We kept rehearsing, and tracks kept appearing…we had all eleven tracks ready about a month before going into the studio in July. So, all in all, with Johny's Holy Joy commitments, and my own with finishing Discover The Lost, the Low Bias and the Tetherdown albums, it took about nine or ten months, but the last three months were the most intensive writing period.
PB: You and Johny originally planned this as a separate project. At what point did you decide to put out 'A Young Fist Curled Around A Cinder for a Wager' as a Rothko record? Why did you decide to release it as Rothko rather than as another name?
MB: Actually, it was always planned as a Rothko album, again, born out of the gig, as Rothko, at the Sonic Imperfections night. It just happened.
PB: It was recorded with Brian O' Shaughnessey at his Bark Studios, who is also currently working with the Band of Holy Joy. What do you think he brought to the recording?
MB: Brian is a wonderful recording engineer, very encouraging, great at instantly achieving a good sound and doesn't waste a minute. He knows his studio inside and out and has decades of experience, so when he suggests something you are compelled to listen to what he says. He also knows when things are not right and he has a wonderful knack of letting you know in the best possible sense. His input was invaluable.
PB: The album was recorded in a series of one takes over the course of a day in July. Why did you decide to record it that way? How rehearsed were you before you went in to the studio and how much did you depend on spontaneity and improvisation?
MB: I'd say we were very well rehearsed. We rehearsed for an hour once a week for a month and played the entire album, in sequence, once each time, at every rehearsal. It was quite intense, but doing it that way really shaped how we performed the tracks. We didn't really have a plan for the studio as such, other than to try and play the tracks as well as we could. We just started recording, and said the usual "let's keep that take and have a listen back later…" We ended up using all the first takes. In fact, there weren't any second takes. Johny added some backing vocals to a few of the choruses, and I added a doubled clean line on the title track, but that was it.
There wasn't any improvisation, we'd played some of the tracks live already and I'd say they were pretty much already set, especially the more structured tracks. Once we started recording, with Brian getting everything to sound so good, that was the inspiration to play well. Everything seemed to flow...
PB: Johny is a very prolific writer. Were these lyrics written especially for ' A Young Fist Curled Around A Cinder for a Wager' or did he have a lot of them already? How did the songwriting for this album work? Did he adapt his lyrics to your bass lines or did you adapt your bass lines to his lyrics?
MB: Johny had a couple of the pieces written before-hand. He is incredibly prolific, and then, after that first performance at Sonic Imperfections, everything was written for the album. I'd send tracks over that Johny would write to. He'd send words over to me that would conjure up feelings or imagery. Ee'd both bring new pieces into rehearsals and try and create on the spot…we'd then find a way to make music and words work together. It was a great way to work. There were no boundaries.
PB: Johny's lyrics are about how none of us are able to escape our past and childhoods, no matter how far we try to get away from it. Do you see 'A Young Fist Curled Around A Cinder for a Wager' as a result as a concept album?
MB: Yes, I would agree it is a concept album that has a core narrative running through it. But then so were Rothko's albums 'A Continual Search for Origins',‘A World Without Hurt' and 'Discover the Lost', where I tried to convey the concept through the album and track titles, but 'Cinder' has achieved that through it's lyrical content, and is therefore a more obvious concept. I could see Johny's words for this album being translated into a play or film, as the story is so compelling.
This album, when we play it, it has to be played in the same order each time. It has a definite starting point, a middle section, and an open end.
PB: The cover art of 'A Young Fist Curled Around A Cinder for a Wager' is spectacular. Where does that image on it of the old-fashioned trawler come from? What does it imply to you?
MB: The photography on the cover art, and the accompanying website for the album - http://cargocollective.com/rothko are all by Inga Tillere. The photo on the front cover is of Hastings, the old town, a place I know very well. If you look closely at the cover photo, you'll see someone in the distance sitting on their own, possibly contemplating their recent trip out to sea, possibly just enjoying a cheese sandwich and a can of Tyskie, and, on the inside cover, there is the black dog, a well known metaphor in these times for the cloud of depression that can engulf us. So, we have the boat, with its endless possibilities to drift out to sea, to travel, to wonder, to explore, discover new horizons, and the black dog, that can haunt us, haunt our every move and waking hour.
In my heart, I'd hope the boats travels win every time, but I am not so sure sometimes. Either way, Inga's artwork and photography sum the album up in a most perfect way; Introspection, discovery, hope, loss, more hope. And more hope.
PB: 'Discover the Lost', which came out in July, was a collaboration between you and Michael Donnelly. How do you see Rothko these days? Do you see it as a consortium consisting of yourself and who is available or does it work in another way?
MB: Well, Michael has been in Rothko since 2001, the longest serving member of the group apart from myself, so I wouldn't by any means say that 'Discover the Lost' was a collaboration, as that implies a new pairing, of people who hadn't worked together before. We had also, in September 2015 recorded and released the 'Severed Tense EP', which was the first new Rothko material since 2010, and 'Discover the Lost' was the first album since 2007.
Michael and I hope to record again soon, but he has a young family now, so that takes most of his time, but, if he has some time, we shall definitely write and record together again. He has been the one constant person who has helped me keep it going all these years.
The album with Johny truly came out of nowhere, so, who knows what will happen next? I know for some it possibly seems unusual that one group has more than one set of musicians, but, all through the time of Rothko, there have been different performers at different stages of the group, so it's just something that feels natural to me. I have been incredibly fortunate that such amazing musicians have wanted to be a part of the group, in all its forms.
PB: You are now back in the Band of Holy Joy after a sabbatical of a year. Why did you decide to leave them and why did you decide to return?
MB: My reasons to have had to leave were personal ones which I can't expand upon here. I was very happy to be in a position to re-join the group. At one of the Rothko rehearsals Johny mentioned that the bass player who took over from me had left, but they had some shows already booked, so, I offered to step in and Johny very kindly let me do so. It's great to be back in the band and the shows with the new material for the next Holy Joy album have been really good. There's a new album in the process of being recorded.
PB: Johny and you have just played a by all accounts a very successful launch gig at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London. What is next for Rothko is any of its forms?
MB: The launch show was a wonderful night all round, supported by the improvisation trio, Ghost Mind, who were absolutely terrific. That gig was the very first time that Rothko have been able to perform an entire album. We played the whole album in sequence. It was an electrically charged night…with Inga Tillere also providing the visuals that accompany the album. An amazing night, great venue, wonderful crowd.
It's always difficult for me to answer 'what is next'…as I simply have no idea. Considering I had no plans to re-form or release anything else as Rothko after calling a halt to the group in 2010, I'm amazed at how much we have done, with myself and Michael, and with Johny, since starting things back up again in 2015.
Following up on both 'Discover the Lost' and 'Cinder for a Wager' is going to be a tough task…but I will happily take anything that happens along the way, in whatever guise the group takes form in. Just to be back making music with/as Rothko, and with all those who are kind enough to travel with me, is something to continue to treasure.
PB: Thank you.
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Mark Beazley talks to John Clarkson about the return of his bass/ambient project Rothko and thir second album of this year, ‘A Young Fist Curled around a Cinder for a Wager’, which features Band of Holy Joy singer Johny Brown
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