Sieben is the solo project of Sheffield-based musician Matt Howden, Sieben’s distinctive sound is constructed from multiple layers of looped violin and vocals, with occasional percussion. The first Sieben album, Forbid The Sun's Escape, appeared on Tursa Records in 1999, and there have been seven subsequent releases, most notably the ambitious concept album and film package High Broad Field, which was released by Iceflower, a division of German label Trisol, in 2006. The latest Sieben album, As They Should Sound, was released in March 2009, on Matt’s own Redroom Records label, simultaneously with The Matter of Britain, a collaborative book and CD project by Matt and his father Keith Howden, released on Italian label PREcordings.
Heathen Harvest: We should start by talking about the new Sieben album, As They Should Sound, which has an unusual structure. To quote your own words:
In addition to his work as Sieben and several instrumental albums released under his own name, Matt is well-known for his work with other musicians, in particular Tony Wakeford, the founder of leading neo-folk band Sol Invictus. Matt contributed to many Sol Invictus albums, including The Blade, In A Garden Green, In Europa, The Hill Of Crosses and Thrones, and he has collaborated with Tony Wakeford on a number of other projects, including Howden / Wakeford, Duo Noir, HaWthorn and L'Orchestre Noir (now known as Orchestra Noir).
Matt has also worked with numerous other artists, including Défilé Des Âmes, :Of The Wand & The Moon:, Cadaverous Condition, Kuu, Harvest Rain, Faith And The Muse, Der Blutharsch, Naevus, Ostara and Spiritual Front.
‘This is not a ‘best of’. Though some are the best of what’s gone before. This is as they should sound. Songs honed live by hundreds of concerts. Washed, dirtied, recorded fresh. Calibrated, loosened. Double-distilled. Tightened, trimmed and unleashed. No fat, no flab. Violin and voice. As they should sound.’
As I understand it, As They Should Sound is intended as a studio rendition of an ideal Sieben live set. Was this your intention?
Partly, I suppose I had this in mind. It’s certainly true to say that these were the songs that fared best in my little book of live sets. I have a book that is always with my violin, and when I write something on the road, I’ll write it in my little book. And if I’m gigging, my set list is in there. These were the songs that I often turned to live, because they seemed to have the best effect on people.
HH: I guess the obvious question is: why didn’t you simply release a live album? Is it to do with the technical limitations of your loop-pedal technique in live performance?
I suppose the other reason I re-recorded these tracks was because I felt I didn’t do them full justice first time around – mainly just because songs always continue to develop even after they are written and recorded. And I wanted nice, snappy short and to-the-point versions, without the clutter of guests. Just Sieben, as he should sound ;-)
HH: I've seen you play live several times, and on one occasion, I recall you starting a song and then aborting it several times. I think you only played it to completion on the fourth attempt. Are you a real perfectionist?
I’m an ex-perfectionist. I had to fight my obsessive nature with working and re-working songs. Live is a different matter. What I do with the looping is pretty hard, especially under concert conditions (flashing lights, distractions, poor foldback sound
etc.), and occasionally when I start a loop it goes wonky. Sometimes I can pull it back, but not always. I did go the whole Faun
tour without ever starting a song again. And generally I don’t mind stopping and starting again; some people who don’t get that it is live-looped can see more clearly that it really is live. And it’s a nice talking point with the audience and draws them in, in a conversational way.
HH: As They Should Sound – that’s a very prescriptive title, isn’t it?
It’s just how I felt they should sound. And it was also a goodbye to those songs, and that style. Another practical reason was the fact that I decided to leave the Trisol record label, and all copies of songs from these albums are sold out. I could have re-released the old albums, but I’m always keen to do things properly and I thought that would just be lazy. It’s also for people new to Sieben; I think this album is a great overview of Sieben if you haven’t heard any of the music before.
HH: What precipitated your decision to part company with Trisol? They did a great job on packaging your last few albums.
Quite a few things, to be honest ;-) Mainly there was the desire to re-establish my own label, Redroom, on which I released CDs many years ago. The way the industry has changed now, if people know who you are, it’s often better releasing your own music yourself. You retain control, and see more money at the end of it. The price of the euro was also a factor, as I was ending up buying my own CDs at roughly the same price I was selling them on again for, at concerts and online. And I was shifting a lot of CDs live and via mail order, so it was really a crazy situation.
HH: Are there really no plans to re-release albums like Sex And Wildflowers and Ogham Inside The Night?
Nah. Maybe at some date in the future – when I have rights to release them myself. But really I'm just happy making new albums, as always. When my arms drop off I will consider re-releasing ;-)
HH: I hate to think of people being unable to hear that music. Are they available as downloads?
They are – I've put them all up on iTunes
, both Sieben albums and Matt Howden ones. As They Should Sound is also being digitally distributed by Tesco
in Germany, so it'll be available at other places online too. It was quite a task preparing them all for iTunes etc – I’d forgotten quite how many albums I'd made over the years...
HH: Do you always use the same violin, or do you have a selection and use them for different things?
I have had the same and only violin from the start. A girl at school, Gillian Strachan, gave me this violin. I should really try and find her once more, and thank her from the bottom of my heart.
HH: Is there a violin of your dreams which you aspire to own?
HH: How about hardanger fiddles – have you ever experimented with one of those?
I haven’t. Sure, they’re lovely, but I’m satisfied with what I have, and have no aspirations whatsoever. I’m more concerned to continue to explore the sounds from what I have, and continue to explore and push myself musically. Unlike the guitar, or most other instruments, where I can pick up any old one and knock out a tune on it, the violin is very particular. It’s hard to play a different violin convincingly – your whole body shapes to what you have, the specific angle of your strings affects the muscle memory in your bowing arm. And I’d feel like I was cheating on my girl by playing with another violin!
HH: You’re an indefatigable live performer, with over a thousand shows to your name. I'm very much looking forward to seeing you play again in London at the Ship of Fools club night in May, but where else are you planning to appear this year?
I’m planning less this year, after 67 concerts last year and two years of full-on touring, teaching, recording, producing and session strings. Not that it’s getting too much for me, or I’m losing the love for it – far from it, I still adore playing live. I just don’t adore hour upon hour in Stansted Airport, or whatever cowshed airport I’m being shunted through. And I’ve decided I needed to renew my powers by catching up on three years’ lack of sleep! When you do slow down and finally get some sleep, boy does your body let you know you’ve been bad! I feel like I could sleep for the next three months. But there’s always much to be done. I’ve taken it easy this year so far – but I’ve also managed to release As They Should Sound, and The Matter Of Britain. And I’m working on the new Sieben album already.
As for gigs (to finally get to your question!) I’m doing some local concerts in Sheffield at my beloved Lantern Theatre
, and even at the local City Farm. As well as that, I’ll be playing two special concerts at Summer Darkness
in Utrecht, and a beautiful concert in Rome to help close the Post Romantic Empire
project. And possibly a return to Lithuania and Norway later in the year too.
HH: You just mentioned your new release The Matter Of Britain, a book and CD set in which you’ve recorded music to accompany your father Keith Howden’s readings of his own poems, which he’s also illustrated in the accompanying book. How was it working on a creative project like this with your father? I know you’ve previously used some of his poetry as Sieben lyrics.
It was fun and strange. Strange because this was the voice that told me to go to bed, when I was five. An oh-so-familiar voice, but not one I was familiar with in the context of a recording studio. We sat one afternoon in my little red studio, drinking absinthe
and recording his poems. After that, I worked on the music for each poem over time, linking some of the poems together musically into longer pieces. I think my father’s words are powerful and resonant. And actually his voice is pretty good too, it works really well with the music. And I’m so pleased with the product that the Post Romantic Empire label has produced – a beautiful hardback book, with quality paper, my father’s illustrations, and the CD nicely tucked into the back of the book.
HH: I'd like to ask you about the last Sieben album, 2007’s Desire Rites. A lot of Sieben’s music is very lyrical and romantic, but Desire Rites seems agitated, nervous, and often even angry. It’s an abrupt departure from earlier Sieben work, a change which is signalled by the opening song ‘River Sheaf’, which starts off as a seemingly typical Sieben song, only for you to say, ‘Oh, fuck this!’ after a minute or so, and then launch into a different, much more urgent-sounding song called ‘Learn Some Sense, Howden’. What was going on at this time?
He he, apart from a crazy Polish girlfriend? ;-)
HH: Were you feeling dissatisfied with your previous work?
Nope! Not at all. I’ve always wanted to develop, to refine, to push on ‘my sound’. And I felt it would have been lazy to produce another Ogham… or High Broad Field, I felt I’d explored this side of myself enough. And I suppose I was more under the influence of other styles of music, newer music, through my work teaching studio production at Red Tape Central
, the college where I teach in Sheffield. Desire Rites was a new direction for me, one I’m equally proud of.
And I suppose I got a bit of a slagging at times from certain quarters of the neo-folk community for the new sound. Which is fine. I exist (happily) on and off the edges of the neo-folk scene, though sometimes neo-folkers can be a bit blinkered or restrictive in what sounds or styles they accept. Which is fine – I just like to push myself and my sound. It would have been lazy and easy for me to just knock out another nature-sex-religion-mellow-hypnotic album. The next album will be clearer and more modern-sounding than previous ones, and different again from Desire Rites.
HH: So, is there anything else in the pipeline for Sieben at the moment? Do you have plans for the next studio album yet, and if so, what can you tell us about that, e.g. working title, theme, possible release date etc? It seems from reading your website that you’re intending to make some big changes to Sieben.
As mentioned earlier, I'm already working on a new album. It might be called Was I Born Yesterday?, though it might not. I’ve already written and recorded one song, which is called ‘Am I Not Sweet Enough?’ and it has a bold new sound, if I can be forward enough to say so myself. Not sure when I’ll release it. I did have thoughts of cracking on and getting it done for this year, but then I remembered my own pledge to take it a bit easier this year. I’m so enjoying releasing on my own label, this is the future for me – my music is my own (apart from being published by Universal) and my deadlines are my own to decide. And fulfil.
HH: You’re also noted for your work with other bands and musicians – what’s happening there?
Not a lot hopefully ;-) I say no to 90% of stuff I’m offered. Not out of arrogance or contempt in any way – quite the opposite really, I’ve been too nice, working myself into the ground trying to do what I do and fit everything else into my time.
HH: Are there any collaborations or guest appearances coming up?
I’ve recorded some strings for Naevus and Spiritual Front, and a few other people lately, for their upcoming releases. And I’ve been working with In The Nursery
lately, on music for their silent film score pieces. We performed these together at a festival of film called Sensoria
in Sheffield recently. It’s really nice working with them, and hopefully we’ll be working together on a collaborative album sometime soon, as well as playing live together, and them remixing a Sieben track for me.
HH: I notice that you have plans for a new website – what’s wrong with your existing one? It seems very informative and complete to me.
Thanks. It is, due to the hard work and dedication of my webmaster. I just thought I’d do a bit of historical revisionism, and clear the clutter of old work that is no longer relevant.
HH: What new stuff are you planning to have on the new site?
Some new summations of all the Sieben albums, with retrospective notes, better layouts that are more clear, a few technical improvements that will allow me to blog, accept new forms of payment, etc etc.
HH: A week ago, I took a bus between Manchester and Sheffield for the first time, and the scenery that we travelled through was so outstandingly beautiful that I looked it up on the road map when I got home. The route followed the A628 through Tintwhistle and Woodhead over the Pennine Way, in the northern part of the Peak District national park, the so-called Dark Peak, with the road running through a wild and dramatic terrain of lakes, mist-topped hills, cliffs and pine forests. Saddleworth Moor is just to the north, traversed by the A635 running from Manchester to Barnsley and then on to Leeds, which is a route I've taken many times. I also noticed, though, that the area south of the A628 is called Howden Moor, and there's a Howden Reservoir too. I know that you come from around this area, so I was wondering whether there was a family connection. Are there a lot of Howdens around there?
Unfortunately I own none of it! And I have no elderly relatives about to croak and leave me their expansive estate ;-)) My own Howden family tree traces back mainly to Lancashire, and further back, Lincolnshire. Howden Moor is beautiful though, and I should really go and do some publicity shots there, and then try and claim it as my own!
HH: I was checking out your MySpace page recently, and you have a song on there, ‘Dominatrix (By Domin8)’ which sounds very, very different to anything I've ever heard from Sieben before, being hard, sexy techno. What’s the story there?
I was part messing, part experimenting, and part researching – my Sieben work uses no MIDI
or sample tracks, but at work I need to use (and teach) these very often, so I was just practising and relearning some things in order to be up to date with my production skills on new software programmes such as Logic Pro 8
and Pro Tools
. And it was really fun and a good release to mess with different approaches to writing music. I may well release some (very) different stuff through my Redroom label at some point soon, possibly under the name Eight or Domin8…
HH: Anything else you’d like to add?
Hello there, everyone. Thanks for the lovely feedback on As They Should Sound and The Matter Of Britain. And for the great response from people, after finally getting my shit together online and getting into the modern world with Facebook
– which I am particularly enjoying using to find and rediscover great music. And thanks to those who come see me play live – there’s no finer way to hear me, I guess…
Other than that, sleep beckons! Sleep good. Thanks for the interview.
This interview with Matt Howden of Sieben took place by email during April-June 2009.