The Tower Gardens estate. It’s a world away from the noisy thoroughfare that is Tottenham’s Lordship Lane, minutes from where riots flared and spread countrywide in 2011. Here you’ll find no concrete jungle scarred by urban stress, but a century‑old garden city suburb of two-up two-downs, with quirky arts and crafts features shielded by privet hedging and plane trees. And in one of these little hideaways is Fur Island, the studio HQ of London duo Grumbling Fur.
Dropping by on a sweltering August evening, Prog is welcomed in by Fur man one, the slight, sandy-haired Alexander Tucker, already a solo artist long on our radar since the looped guitar miasma of his 2008 self-titled LP. We’re handed a glass of water and then a cup of tea as Fur man two, the rangy, dark-eyed Daniel O’Sullivan, steps through the front door. Although not their place of residence – the house belongs to artist Ian Johnstone – it certainly is a homely set-up for the men who create the otherworldly textures that make up third album Preternaturals.
Sitting in the eclectically decorated front room amid paintings, dolls, plants and intriguing-looking paraphernalia, O’Sullivan is the confident yin to Tucker’s laid-back yang, their charming – and sometimes cheeky – friendship now committed to several long-playing records.
Dublin-born and London-bred, O’Sullivan’s musical CV is ever-growing, including Ulver, The Big Pink, Sunn O))), Mothlite and Guapo. Learning piano as a kid, he was “coerced into a classical music education”, and though grateful to his family for the encouragement, ditched the lessons as soon as he could. “I resented it. I didn’t want to learn other people’s repertoires. I wanted to write my own stuff.”
“That’s exactly what I did,” affirms Tucker, a Kentish lad from north of Tunbridge Wells. “I had about four classical guitar lessons before I bought an electric guitar and mucked around with feedback.”
While O’Sullivan’s initial musical thrill was to “correlate with my intuition, as a way of sitting down and getting ideas out”, Tucker’s was dealing with insecurities. “I had problems with dyslexia, stemming from emotional problems that I was having, and so learning became a demon for me. This method of creativity is how I saved myself.”
The pair met in their teens at gigs and bonded through a love of hardcore punk. Then their boundaries expanded via Slint, The Doors, The Velvet Underground and Bowie. In 2007, a collaboration started as a jam with friends, and debut Furrier mewled into life in 2011. It’s an experimental patchwork driven by O’Sullivan and his Mothlite partner Antti Uusimaki, with contributions from Pharaoh Overlord’s Jussi Lehtisalo, Guapo’s David Smith and Tucker.
By 2012, “Our friendship had evolved,” says Tucker. “We realised how many similar things we were into and that would come into the compositions.” The next year, second album Glynnaestra’s polychromatic beatstronica was the result of setting their inspirations to work. Sights and sounds of the conscious and unconscious became their stimuli – such as the house in which we meet today. It’s where Preternaturals – their ‘pop’ album, with a core of thrumming psychotropic electronica – took form using the roomful of instruments next to where we’re chatting.
“It’s very peaceful,” smiles Tucker. “And it’s hard to leave,” agrees O’Sullivan. “You’re constantly distracted by something in here…” “Like trying to fix all my broken instruments!” laughs Tucker.
O’Sullivan first visited Fur Island in 1999 after meeting Ian Johnstone at a gallery in Bloomsbury. “It was so beautiful, like a really ornate museum. I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “This house is imbued with so much energy and it’s taken on the characters of various people who have lived here. Ian was [Coil man] John Balance’s partner for the last few years of his life, so a lot of the Coil art collection is here and under Ian’s care now. There’s paintings by [occultist] Austin Osman Spare, avant-garde photorealist work, and amazing furniture and exquisite objects.”
Within the playfulness of some of the band’s work, there’s also a darkness present. Has the occult been an influence on their writing? “For a long time, yes,” reveals O’Sullivan candidly, “but for me it’s experiential, so through books and fine art.”
Your music’s often been likened to taking drugs, too. “We only take Throbbing Gristle, regularly,” chuckles Tucker. “We don’t really take drugs any more.” There’s a pause, then they both burst out laughing. “Tea! We drink a lot of tea when we’re recording,” Tucker says.
“Consciousness is there to be played with,” O’Sullivan shrugs. “It’s fun. A drug will interface with everyone in a different way. Drugs don’t ‘help’ the music but they have been present.”
Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess also contributes to a track, Lightinsisters, showing himself as a champion of the avant-garde underground these days. “He was tweeting about us and we asked if he’d get involved,” says Tucker. “Now we’ve worked on his stuff too. He’s like the Damo Suzuki of Manchester.”
“I always love that, when someone from the pop world gets subverted,” nods O’Sullivan. “Like Mark Hollis from Talk Talk, who’s one of my heroes. For me, his last two records are so rich and oceanic. I’ve never met him, but he’s aware of Mothlite. He said he liked Dark Age.”
It’s an impressive endorsement, but which other prog heroes inform the Grumbling Fur sound? “Christan Vander of Magma,” says O’Sullivan. “Dave Smith introduced me to Magma when I started playing in Guapo. It’s dark and theatrical – I’ve never seen anything like that live. I suppose I’ve always loved the fantasy element too.”
“Grumbling Fur is all about fantasy, surrealism and sci-fi,” says Tucker. “But my prog hero is Tim Smith. As soon as I heard Cardiacs, I thought, ‘This is unbelievable!’ Like a puzzle to be unravelled, and completely its own thing as well.”
Talking of ‘its own thing’, Tarka the whippet – the canine muse that partly gives the band their name – is curled up close by on the sofa. “She’s a beautiful celestial being on a plane that we can’t access,” notes O’Sullivan. The other side to their moniker is Kranky Klaus, a film based on the Austrian Christmas tradition of people dressing up as hairy monsters who accost you for fun.
“They’re called Krampusses,” says Turner. “They go around houses and hostels and wrestle people to the ground. Sometimes they make people really cry!” The celestial mixed with the beastly. Grumbling Fur in a soft, fuzzy nutshell then – with claws.
Preternaturals is available now from The Quietus Phonographic Corporation. See bit.ly/grumblingfur for more information.