Late last year we talked to Jo Wilson, whose album The Grand Complication was released in early December. In the interview, Jo discussed the creation of the album, his songwriting process, and what inspires him. Here, Jo takes us through the album track-by-track and tells us more about each song. Read on to find out about the events and realisations that kick-started his creative process and the musical choices Jo made while creating the record. If you'd like to listen along as you read, then click here to listen to the album via Bandcamp.
Ever had a piece of news that made you age several years in a day?
The inspiration for this song came after learning that a family friend had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and I began to think a bit about how receiving news affects us. Some pieces of news, delivered in just a few moments, have the power to instantly and irrevocably change our perception of what our future might be like.
After my other two albums (released as DLDown), which both began with atmospheric instrumentals, I wanted something more immediate this time around, making my voice the very first thing heard.
2. 'Peter’s Out'
Growing up through Sunday school can make you very au fait with some truly odd stories! Things that you took on board without batting an eyelid in the past, on the rare occasions that you subject them to real close inspection now, can make you go “wait, he did what?!”.
I like to try and think my myself right inside the story: not just how did people feel, but questions like "How did all that food multiply and nobody saw how he did it?", "What did the surface of a stormy sea feel like to walk on? Solid? Sloshy? Like cornflour?”
The tremolo synth in the build-up is a recreation of one my favourite Lightning Seeds sounds from the mid-90s.
3. 'The Watchmaker’s Waltz'
This one wrote itself after I read the obituary of a legendary watchmaker (or horologist, for my fellow pedants) called George Daniels - a fascinating master of dozens of different crafts. The opening line is (almost) a direct quote from Daniels, telling of when he found a broken watch lying in the gutter and knew he’d found his life’s calling. The complex timepieces (usually with all sorts of unnecessary but beautifully intricate features added for the joy of the craft) - Grand Complications – give the album its title.
I know nothing about Daniels’ private life, but the impression I got was not of a particularly happy man; hints in the article about a strained relationship with his daughter were easy to fill out with a little poetic licence.
The setting for this song is a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-type landscape, through which hidden enemies may or may not be tracking you.
It's a song about the frustration of being hit by the same struggles and temptations repeatedly, even after long periods of winning. The idea of the punctured waterskin is an attempt to get across that feeling of our new year’s resolutions being sabotaged, whether by human nature or external influence, and having to constantly go back to the tap for a refill. I suspect none of us are as good as we’d like to be, when we allow ourselves to think about it, and I don’t think that’s too unhealthy a position to find oneself in.
Leading a song from electric is new for me, and I’ve enjoyed the broadening of the sound palette that brings.
It seems to me, the courage and sacrifice of individuals who fight and die to defend us notwithstanding, that the history of warfare is underpinned by the constant drive to be as cowardly as possible: to deal as big a blow as we can whilst keeping the other side as far away (in sight and in mind) as possible. In doing so, we lose any perception of the humanity embodied in those we face - which is what makes recent rhetoric from right-wing politicians and media - now seemingly mainstream - so terrifying. We’ve come a long way since Christmas football between the trenches.
Musically, this is the centrepiece of the album. In my head at least, the song can work equally well as a brooding acoustic piece or as a full-on multi-movement prog-rock extravaganza; I think it’s ended up a kind of combination of the two.
6. 'Still Life'
Some claim to have heard God speak, audibly, with actual sound waves. I haven’t, but this is perhaps the closest I’ve come to that. In ancient Celtic spirituality there was the concept of a Thin Place, a location/time/circumstance where the physical and the supernatural seem somehow closer together than usual. I think I found one in a little room in Sick Kids hospital in Edinburgh, when we went to visit a relative who died far too early. Psychology and spirituality have a tendency to overlap, never more so than at times of high emotion: I'd be prepared to admit that it was all in my head, but then, to quote the great Dumbledore himself, “Of course this is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
From a perusal of my listener stats (always a dangerous place for the self-esteem, so I don’t dwell there too long!) it’s fascinating to me that Still Life has by far the highest ratio of listeners listening to the whole song, right through to the end.
I miss those friendly arguments you used to have late at night as teenagers, once you’d exhausted all the “who d’ya fancy?” chat, and got onto deeper subjects. I’m less concerned about the particular viewpoints (deliberately mixed up throughout the song), but about the acts of discussing, imagining and wondering. Perhaps we learn the most from moving our heads a little to see from the other viewpoint. I don’t get out to look up at the stars as much as I’d like any more.
Much as I love odd time signatures, this one ended up as it is (after trying all sorts of more standard rhythms) purely because the lyrics flowed much better in 5 than in anything else I tried, rather than oddness for oddness’ sake.
8. 'There Is No Plan B'
A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door and asked me if I’d thought about the end of the world enough. So I did. But probably not in the way they meant. I started wondering about the human race’s capability, and to what extent our future is down to us, and how much is beyond our control. We can do some amazing stuff, but is it enough? Would we have the capacity to move out if the Earth was threatened?
It was fun to do something with a bit of a different sound, though I was determined that it would still be playable as a solo piece. Despite all the synthesised sounds, the only sequenced item in here is the drum machine - every other track was me playing live.
9. 'Alea Jacta Est?'
The perhaps inevitable product of having too many snippets of music lying around, the vague stirring of a memory from Higher Music about aleatoric music, and a long-standing mild annoyance about bonus tracks that really don’t fit the album, these are intended to be the result of the dice being (drum-)rolled at the end of There Is No Plan B - an uncertain future crystallising in a particular way. [NB. each copy of the album contains one of 11 completely different 1-minute instrumentals, randomly selected by dice roll. Which did you get?]
The track title comes from a phrase attributed to Julius Caesar as he made the decision to send his army across the Rubicon (which is also where that phrase comes from!), meaning “the die is cast”. My (dubious) Latin knowledge comes almost exclusively from reading Asterix, rather than from any formal education.
10. 'The Music In My Head'
I have a fondness for music with decent instrumental sections, whether composed or improvised, which can often convey emotions better than lyrics can. This is kind of a hybrid of many of my favourites from various sources: Pink Floyd-style guitar & pads, Phish-like jams and build-ups, Rick Wakeman-esque synth leads, and a Springsteen-ish saxophone victory lap at the climax! This, more than any other piece, was written as I was recording it - I had no idea how it would end up. I really had fun just experimenting and seeing where it would go next, and working out how to pass the melody line from instrument to instrument. And I recall polling fellow musicians for suggestions on how on earth to get the F# major chord at the end to drop into the Ab/Bb at the start of I’ve Seen Enough.
11. 'I’ve Seen Enough'
For some, faith is awakened suddenly as the result of a particular event or experience; for me it’s been more of a slow build. As something of a scientist by nature, I’ve long had trouble with the idea that somehow science and faith are incompatible. For me, the two spheres of thought address different types of question, yet each can inform, inspire and challenge the other.
The ending of this one has undergone several re-writes, as it felt far too unequivocal, as if I was now settled and immovable, entrenched. Instead, I’ve tried to get across the idea that whatever we believe, we need to be constantly re-evaluating it, as our ideas of what we think scripture says are challenged by life in this broken world. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded.