TRCH Soundstage

The Invisible Orchestra

25 May 16 words: Ali Emm

I had to roll them into the recovery position and then say, "I'm not being harsh or anything, but shall we just play the next song?"

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photo: Ralph Barklam

There’s 25 of you now – is that your final answer?
James: Yeah, that does include four vocalists. We’ve had as many as 32 in the band, although we didn’t really count how many people there were before we said 32.

What are the logistics around rehearsing and sorting out gigs – do you ever feel more like a manager than a musician?
It’s called The Invisible Orchestra because every fucker disappears when there’s something to be done.
Justin: I had to carry my own stand at the last gig.
James: Oh my God, are you alright?
Justin: I am now…
James: There’s a lot of organising. Sometimes I’m like, “Oh shit, I can play now.” It’s like a music break in between all the logistics, but it makes it all worthwhile. It doesn’t seem that big to us anymore, but we’ve recorded an album, we’re playing gigs out of Nottingham and getting there and back in one piece. It’s going down excellently.

Other orchestras manage it…
Yeah, there’s a lot of normal people in those orchestras, though.
Justin: There are orchestras and there are orchestras…

Does it ever come down to playing a gig even though a couple of folk can’t make it?
James: We organise well in advance, but you have to either replace them or…
Justin: Threaten them…
James: With violence. Miles Davis used to have a gun… I’d love to have a gun. We’re lucky in that people have seen how popular the nights are so they’re willing to sacrifice things to come.

You formed around 2012, were you [Justin] one of the original members?
I would have been part of the core. James had written most of the songs in a loose form before we got the band together. It initially started off with just rhythm section rehearsals, putting together the structure of the songs and then built up from there; brass arrangements, string arrangements, that sort of thing.

How long was it in your mind as a concept?
A long time. When I was eighteen I was in an eleven-piece band and was doing more orchestral and instrumental stuff. I did the Royal Gala thing – there were nine of us – so people had more confidence in me, seeing that it worked with them.
Justin: Same principles as well. You did all the arranging even though it wasn’t on the scale of the Orchestra.
James: It was harder in a way because at least with the Orchestra you can avoid certain people if you get sick of them.

So you’ve got a lot of people in the band because your interpersonal skills are lacking?
Pretty much.

How did you go about ‘collecting’ the players?
I definitely had a hit list in mind, but when people come in, they know other people and they get brought in too. Some people don’t work out, though.
Justin: They can be really good musicians but they just don’t fit in. There’s a lot more to it than skills, we’ve got to work as a unit. We can’t afford to have personality clashes.
James: I’ve also had people saying, “How much do you get paid for rehearsals?” and stuff like that. “Urm. You have to put a quid in the tin…”
Justin: That’s the first thing James said to me, “This’ll be great and will work really well but you’ll earn no money.” That was the pitch.

Finding space must be one of the major challenges for you, as well as the cost…
£500 to get us to a gig and back.
James: We have to get a coach, it was a 49-seater last time…
Justin: And two bouncers. To bounce the band.
James: I’ve got me own bouncers. That’s great.

What are the coach trips like?
At service stations, someone will ask me where the toilets are, I’m like, “I don’t fucking know – I’ve never been here before in my life.”
Justin: We have to call a register at every stop. Count the heads. It’s like a school trip.
James: And the older ones are the worst. On the way there I get asked the same questions over and over again, “What time we on? What time’s sound check?” On the way back it’s like a horrible, bright nightclub. The only people actually on a chair are unconscious.
Justin: The poor coach driver. They think because we’re an orchestra we’ll be absolutely fine. Then they get to take us home.
James: Last time they said, “I’ve took a few brass bands before. We took one to Caernarfon Castle the other week.” I was like, [deadpan stare] “It’s not going to be like that.”
Justin: The Invisible Orchestra as a name is very deceptive, it has an air of respectability about it, which it doesn’t deserve at all. We had one coach driver who was in tears, he was actually crying on the way back. The coach didn’t break down, but he did.

Your debut album is out in June. How long did it take to make?
We spread it over two years. It was the same producer but over time.
James: The whole thing was a proper labour of love. It was quite stressful for me because I had to pretend that I wasn’t trying to raise lots of money to pay for it all so that everyone could be creative. Matt Terry, the producer, was fantastic and he introduced us to Gareth Cousins who’s done Elvis Costello and was house engineer at Abbey Road. The results hopefully speak for themselves.
Justin: He’s done everything – he worked on the soundtracks for Batman Begins, Gravity, Notting Hill. Loads. We needed someone with that experience.
James: He knocked a chunk off the price for us, which was very decent, especially as I don’t think he was expecting the amount of hassle he got from me, either.

What can people expect from the album?
There’s ten tracks. Harleighblu’s on two tracks, Percy [Dread], Ed Bannard is on one, and Hannah [Heartshape] are on a couple as well. It’s goes from a real quick, Arabic punk-sounding track that’s really hectic, to soft instrumentals, to passionate vocals and big band-style funk and soul stuff.
Justin: You certainly couldn’t categorise it. Stick it under miscellaneous.
James: I always categorise it as soul, but more putting your soul into it rather than soul music.

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Percydread with the Invisible Orchestra at Nottingham Contemporary, March 2013
photo: Daniel Whiston

How does the songwriting process work?
I’ll write an instrumental piece that’s kind of structured, leaving space for a vocalist. We’ve tried out different vocalists with different tracks and it’s whoever works the best. I don’t walk in with sheet music and say, “Right, this is it”, and I don’t write the lyrics because I want the vocalists to make it their own. That’s when you get the best performance. I do ‘join in’ sometimes though, I can’t help myself.
Justin: The songs gets refined and changed during the rehearsals. We might change our bits to fit in with the new vocal bits, and gradually it all comes together as a finished piece. It’s crafted over time.

You recently played a series of gigs in Manchester, Gloucester and Cardiff, the latter for the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show. How did they go down with the album not yet released?
We played to 1,000 people in Cardiff. When they see everyone on stage they don’t know what to expect. It looks good, but when we started to play you saw everyone’s face drop. At the end of the gig we got a standing ovation. Everyone went mental.
Justin: It was a ready-made audience because they’d bought their tickets to see Craig. They wouldn’t have seen anything like us before. I don’t think they were expecting a 25-piece band.

It’s quite rare, mainly because it’s probably such a ball ache.
I know why it’s rare. We were in Manchester and everyone was out to go for it and have a good time, and I was on stage making sure everyone was line checking and everything. We’d gotten a massive spread of food and beers – I got upstairs and there was one bottle of beer left, and a square of pizza about an inch big. After we’d done two Cardiff shows, they were all of a sudden really thankful. Some people do come up to me and say thank you. It’s nice, but that’s not what I want.
Justin: The first gig we ever did, writing the rider was the most fun. Just a trolley load of drinks and spirits, and you think, “This is going to last forever, we can take it on to the party afterwards.” An hour before we got on stage it was dry. The whole lot had gone.
James: Even the bottles of expensive spirits that I’d stashed in a locker. Someone had broken into the locker and stolen them, someone out of the fucking band. Don’t trust musicians with liquor. New Year’s Eve I bought myself a bottle of Balvenie Caribbean cask, kept it in my bag in a locked room.
Justin: If that’d been on the table with the rest of the rider it would have been gone in minutes.
James: They wouldn’t have drunk it, they’d have stolen it. “Ooh, it’s my dad’s birthday next week, that’ll make a nice gift.”

For the album launch you’ll be playing at the Masonic Hall again. Did they not learn after you played there last April?
They were actually really pleased to hear from me, which I was quite surprised about. It was great seeing people queueing past Rescue Rooms to get in last time.
Justin: We had to put decking over the entire carpet because it’s worth hundreds of thousands. We thought we’d burnt our bridges – they took a picture when everyone had left and it was such a mess.
James: There was no trouble, though. It’s an amazing space, and they’re letting us use the Ionic Temple, which previously no one had ever been in. Until a couple of years ago, it was only ever used for their meetings and their rituals and whatever the fuck they do there.

What made you think of asking them in the first place? 
I like to research into places that will not only fit us, but that aren’t necessarily places that you’d expect to see a band.
Justin: We didn’t want to play Rescue Rooms or Rock City…
James: No, they shut at ten. It’s nice to be independent to those places and make your own success. We’ve done seven gigs in Nottingham and they’ve all sold out.
Justin: With the album not being out, selling out by word of mouth is really good. The first gig was the most exciting because nobody knew what to expect, we hadn’t even really let anyone into any of our rehearsals.  

The first one was at the Arts Theatre, wasn’t it? Is the seating a bit of a problem?
There was no one sat down at New Year’s Eve. We’ve also never had a bar that hasn’t been drunk dry. They weren’t ready for us.
Justin: The first one they only put one person behind the bar. She was in tears.

I’d have snuck in a bottle…
I pay the bouncers so that’d be fine. It’s only if anyone’s doing anything violent or wrong that they’ll step in. That’s another thing about being independent, people respect what you’ve done and they don’t think, “Oh fuck it, it’s only this place.” Someone said about the Masonic Hall, amazingly, “I’m going to do a shit on the floor.” I was like, “Don’t, because I’m going to have to clean that up.” He said, “Alright, I’ll put a hole in the wall and put some shit in it.” I was like, “Let me get this straight, you’re going to put a hole in the wall and put some shit in it? Can you hear yourself – what are you on about?” He were like, “Alright then…” all sheepish.

Is there an instrument you’d still like to have in the band?
I always think about things in the reality of playing live. You wouldn’t get a harp player because it wouldn’t be heard over a ten-piece brass section and a booming Hammond organ playing through a huge amp. We did have a choir for a gig, but that was when I thought, “Oh, I’m going too far.”

You always promise debauchery, any stories to share?
Rehearsals are more outrageous than the gigs sometimes.
Justin: We’ve had people collapsing at rehearsals and having to be carried off into the corner.
James: Someone was unconscious on the floor, naming no names, I had to roll them into the recovery position and then say, “I’m not being harsh or anything, but shall we just play the next song.”
Justin: Just check for a pulse every five minutes. So long as they’re still breathing. We normally behave ourselves at gigs.
James: It’s hard sometimes because people get carried away, particularly on the way there because they’re excited. It was bad at Cardiff; we’re all dressed up in suits and such and Percy had his green parker on with the hood up and the fur around his face, lumbering along. He walked in after us and this lass came up to us and said, “Is that guy asking you for change?” We were like, “No, that’s Percy!” He likes to come on stage and be like, “Right, I’m here!” All dressed up.
Justin: He always pulls it out on stage. A few people have pointed it out, he’s like Yoda, shuffling around.
James: And then he’s like Willy Wonka with his walking stick, he does a forward roll and is like, “Welcome!”.

What you got planned for the album launch, then?
It’s going to be completely different to last time but much the same quality. It’s over two rooms, and I’m going all out this time on lots of décor and different areas of the building. We’ve lined up some apocalyptic space funk in the form of The Comet is Coming, four times world champion scratch DJ Mr Switch is back again, Bendigo Band will be playing, plus our usual guests and lots of other surprises.

Anything else you want to say?
I have got one thing. That LeftLion tea towel. The one with the map on it. The lake next to the university, I don’t know anyone in Nottingham who calls it Lakeh. I was disgusted at that.

Champagne Taste Lemonade Money is released on Saturday 4 June 2016. The Invisible Orchestra album launch, Masonic Hall, Saturday 4 June, 8pm - 1.30am, £16.50.

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