Meet Haiku Salut, the trio forging a progressive future from a traditional past

(Image credit: Elly Lucas)

Labels have never been easily applied to Haiku Salut. Quietly defiant, the Derbyshire trio have single-handedly created their own universe to inhabit.

Though they emerged from the UK's flourishing indie-pop scene, they never quite fit that mould thanks to their blend of organic instrumentation and electronics. Too folk for the electronic crowd and too electric for the folk crowd, Haiku Salut always felt at odds with whatever ‘scene’ they found themselves part of. But now with third album There Is No Elsewhere, they've shed their esoteric fanbase to connect with wider audiences and be fully embraced by the electronica world.

We meet with Sophie Barkerwood, Gemma Barkerwood and Louise Croft in their quaint new studio space nestled in the Peak District, as their latest album seeps into the world. We've caught them just ahead of a run of in-store gigs and tour dates where they'll take their magnificent Lamp Show back out on the road, to discuss the enigma that is Haiku Salut.

The trio are relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings; it's clear they've carved out the right environment for them to create. They're a band that, essentially, don’t fit anywhere except the world they have created – a world that stems from the rolling Derbyshire hills, from rural nostalgia, forward-looking technology and an optimistic aspiration for a better world.

Sophie explains how this resolutely self-referential approach has created their unique hybrid sound. “I’ve never liked the idea of changing what we do to try and fit an audience," she says. "We’d lose some form of authenticity and enjoyment of what we're doing. I think if we were like, ‘Let’s scale back on the electronic things to suit those people’, it wouldn’t interest me at all.”

Following those interests has made Haiku Salut’s identity hard to pin down. They're a band who play into the whimsical imagery of indie-pop, but are also recently back from performing with the Manchester Robot Orchestra as part of Brighter Sound’s Hexagon Experiment. They're accessible to anyone, but they come with ideals, politics and an outlook that challenges the status quo.

Everything Haiku has come to a head on There Is No Elsewhere, the critically acclaimed third album that has been breaking down barriers and garnering praise from all areas of music press – not to mention radio play from some of the UK's most prestigious alternative music stations.

Of course, this elevated interest will have been helped with the band’s collaboration on the last Public Service Broadcasting album and joining them on tour – a moment the trio says was a big one for them.

“Playing with Public Service Broadcasting in front of 5,000 people, was incredible," says Gemma. "I felt like teenage Gemma had achieved her goal, we could tick that off and get on with normal life now.”

Louise, however, isn’t sure how much of a direct impact it had, “I don’t know," she counters. "Someone came up to us after the gig the other day and said, ‘You reminded me of Public Service Broadcasting’. I said, ‘We’re on their album and co-wrote a song’. She said ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ She had the album and was at the Apollo gig. We were on stage! She said she could tell there was a link.”

This new record marks a clear evolution in the band’s sound, with the ‘tronica making its way to the fore. Its big bass and dancefloor-ready synth merge with post-rock ambience and found-sound layering, creating a work of immense warmth. Each part slots in so effortlessly, we're curious if the band had a master plan before recording.

Sophie suggests not. “We patchwork stuff together, so we will have a melody that’s been written before and other things get layered on top. I think sometimes you can forget how things came together. For For Twinklr, the third track on the new album, that just appeared out of nowhere, I couldn’t tell you how it was written.”

In talking to the band, it’s immediately apparent how in-synch they are as people, often finishing or augmenting each others ideas. Gemma adds: “Although we do patchwork stuff together, we do that for the bare bones of the songs, so we’ve pulled together bits that we think will fit together. We make it as a whole project after that.”

Strangely, having produced their most coherent record to date, the band suggest that earlier efforts came with more planning.

“Originally we’d have little themes,” says Sophie, before Gemma interjects. “...Or sayings," she continues. "We had an early song called Snaffle That Library. And we had this idea where ‘And on this bit it’s going to be like walking into a glorious library’. We built up a picture in our head of what the song was about. I guess, at that time, if we were getting stuck in songs we could create a story behind it."

“We were trying to work out who we were, and how we write together as Haiku and what we wanted,' adds Sophie. "We don’t do that now. I guess we start off with a mood or a feel for the album.”

In the past, these moods always evoked other worlds – fantastical places not necessarily tethered to the real world we live in. But Elsewhere feels like something very much born from reality. Given the current climate, this makes sense.

“We didn’t map it out from the beginning, but came to know what it was about as we were progressing," says Sophie. "It was written at the end of 2016 and the world was just a bit shit, politically with Brexit, etc. I personally felt a bit weird about writing stuff that didn’t mean things when so many people were having such a shit time. It just felt massively privileged. We wanted to address that in our own way and have a sound that was more together and triumphant.

“It was partially escapism from that, and partially about addressing it with that idea of togetherness as well.

“Music and art can provide emotions that you can’t necessarily evoke with words. With Occupy we wanted to evoke a sense of pride in occupying your own space and who you are. Not listening to people who are disparaging about what you think. If you feel you are making good headway, having positive conversations and trying to be a better person, then that’s the feeling we were looking for.”

This slight change of political tack could be linked to the PSB collaboration on They Gave Me A Lamp, a song based around the political awakening in women’s support groups in South Wales during the 1985/86 Miners' Strike. But without the spoken-word samples utilised by PSB, Haiku rely solely on sound to tell their tales.

On the aforementioned Occupy, this is skilfully achieved with a kinetic electronic chime and bouncing glockenspiel evoking a sense of running or marching, while the synth-surge brings to mind dominating a space. Elsewhere, collaborations with the Glastonbury Brass band add a nostalgic bombast to Cold To Crack The Stones and The More And Moreness.

While their recorded work has taken a more defined shape, the Haiku live experience is still what makes them them truly stand out. When Louder first saw them during their early stages, they were a band with clear ideas and ambitions – but the execution was shambolic and fragile to the point of near collapse. Three musicians swapping instruments, both organic and electronic, throughout their complex tunes was always going to be complex live undertaking.

“There are so many things that we have to remember to do mid set," explains Louise. "There’s a lot going on, with so many moving parts. If we go to use something on stage and it’s not there [because] it’s on the other side of the stage, we have a real problem.” 

Despite this, over time they've developed into an exceptional live act – if anything because of the fragility of the performances. As a viewer, you understand the skill involved and will it to all come together. When it does, it's truly magical.

Gemma states that live is the only time they really think about their art in respect of what an audience wants. “The only time we would ever think about something like that is when we are thinking about performing it live," she says. "Is it visually engaging? I don’t think we’d ever change how something sound based on appealing to people.”

“I do find it quite stressful, because we don’t speak on stage," says Sophie. "So if something does go wrong – which does happen quite a lot – it's a bit like, ‘How are we going to address this situation with the audience?' It is quite a worry to me personally.”

But this is exactly what makes the performances so great. The mix of ambition and real, human capacity for error makes something that audiences can truly immerse themselves in.

Since the early days, Haiku have been a ‘different’ type of live proposition. Three mute performers dancing around myriad instruments, patching together their complex compositions live. In theory, the introduction of more elaborate technology should have alleviated the live tension, but with the band’s ambitions, the opposite has happened.

“We’ve created a bit of a monster – we’ve just added things," says Sophie. "On this new album, there’s some big sounds on there with a depth that we haven’t explored before. There’s the brass element of it. There’s some huge things on it, and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to pull that off with three people live with samples and loops. It’s enjoyable but there’s a lot of stuff.”

“If we lose stuff, we’ll have to shed songs from the set that we really enjoy. If we got rid of the Uke, for example, we wouldn’t be able to play Bleak And Beautiful (All Things) or Choke. I won’t be writing with it again.”

Even as we sit with the latest album just out in the world, the next stage in the Haiku evolution is showing itself – a clear sign of a band always growing in confidence. Gemma explains the band's new ambitions.

“I always used to use a classical guitar on stage, but I got bored of it, and now I have an electric guitar. I have an Afterneath reverb pedal that creates these really earthy, cavernous sound. I’ve also recently brought a Tonal Recall, which is a great pun anyway, it’s a really warped delay pedal, which I am very excited to play with. I’m trying to restrict myself till after this tour.”

“It sounds like a dying ice cream van, in the most wonderful of ways,” adds Sophie.

And it’s not just in the traditional ways that Haiku are progressing. Their recent performance with the Manchester Robot Orchestra yielded a new composition in which their new electric guitar collided with real, innovative tech to create a mesmerising, emotional track – one that points to even more impressive things to come.

The innovations stretch further than the music. The band are about to embark on another stint with their acclaimed and improved Lamp Show, in which lamps flicker in time with the music and have just premiered a virtual reality video for Occupy created by Aaron Bradbury.

"We’ve been working on a VR video for our next single Occupy," says Sophie. "It’s a performance video with memories and ghosts around in the shadows. People can experience that alone with a VR headset, and they’ll be part of that performance. We’ll be there performing and you can walk around and see what we are doing, out of the corner of the headset you’ll see ghosts kissing and then moving away. At the end there’s a big joyous uniting. We were approached about doing the VR video and it coupled brilliantly with Occupy, because it’s about occupying your own space. People being in our space and celebrating that is something that we wanted to put across.”

Their accessible sound, progressive views and innovative tech experiments put them at odds with expectation. Does this cause issues when they take their art out on the road? Louise immediately brings up the recent Greenbelt festival, a progressive but full-on Christian gathering.

“When we looked at the bands that had played their previously, there was loads of bands that we respect and are fans of. So we thought that it wasn’t going to be full-on Christian, maybe only slightly Christian. It was just unfortunate that when we pulled it up was full-on hymns.”

“We were like – we’re having a drink, this is too much," Gemma adds. "So we went to the bar and it was called The Jesus Arms. Jesus had his arms out holding two beers.”

“But the gig was brilliant," Louise adds. "When we come off stage, there's usually one of us that isn’t happy, but we all were with this one. Loads of people wanted to talk to us afterwards.”

As our time with the band winds down, they finish up with a bizarre tale. “After one gig, we found a used condom and a neck brace in the toilets,” says Gemma.

“There’s no party like a Haiku party!”

And that is undoubtedly true. The band have crafted a record that inhabits its own space whilst commenting on the world at large, and a live proposition that is as endearing as it is impressive. Standing on the forefront of innovation and technology and pulsating with ideas, Haiku Salut are finally getting the kudos they deserve – and this is just them getting started.