The Light Fantastic: Sanguine Hum

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Joff Winks is busy. When not fronting Sanguine Hum, the singer and guitarist also tutors his instrument and composes songs and music for other projects. He’s currently working on the score for a computer game for the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality helmet used for 3D gaming.

“It’s called Private Eye,” he enthuses at his Oxford home. “It’s this neo-noir detective story that’s in the development stage. We’re doing a playable demo for it at the moment.”

He’s been steeping himself in the music of David Shire, who soundtracked Francis Ford Coppola’s classic thriller The Conversation and David Fincher’s serial-killer hit Zodiac. A real film buff, Winks estimates that he watches at least three a week, and he recently completed a course in Composition For Film And TV through Berklee College Of Music.

Whether discussing all this, Björk (“The most progressive person I can think of”), Bill Evans, Stravinsky or Knifeworld, he’s friendly, engaged and well-spoken, his words chosen with an engineer’s precision.

“Joff does have a very technical mind,” laughs Hum keyboardist Matt Baber. “If his Mac goes wrong, he’ll take it apart, find the component that’s broken, then find a cheap replacement part online and fix it himself. Me? I panic if I have to wire a plug.”

Baber has known Winks since they were kids. As teenagers, the two would mangle Crimson and Yes songs in each other’s front rooms, and when Baber relocated to Manchester to study jazz drumming at college, the two remained in touch, and have been in bands together for most of their adult life.

Their early incarnation, the Antique Seeking Nuns, was their “tongue-in-cheek Hatfield And The North moment”. The Joff Winks Band saw them get radio play on Zane Lowe’s Radio 1 show and indie station XFM, and after going through the rite of getting royally screwed by the music biz, they emerged as Sanguine Hum. “We just found ourselves stuck between jazz, classical and rock,” Baber reflects. “We had to sculpt our own place in the music industry.”

The progressive music scene has proved to be sculptable ground for this most sophisticated, melodic band. To date, their two albums, 2010’s Diving Bell and 2013’s The Weight Of The World, have earned them much attention. And if you’ve ever considered them overly cerebral or – whisper it – a bit dull, then their extraordinary third album (with bassist Brad Waissman and drummer Andrew Booker) is going to change your perception entirely. Welcome to a concept piece set in an apocalyptic world featuring a hapless hero called Don, buttered-up cats, time loops and a beautifully illustrated booklet that opens with the line: “It’s the future, and everything’s pretty much gone to shit.”

Now We Have Light has been in the works since the late 90s, and is predicated on the jokey paradox of the ‘buttered cat’: if a cat always lands on its feet and toast always falls buttered side down, just what would happen if you attached buttered toast to a cat’s back? Maybe it would just revolve, forever.

“My brother and his friend started talking about it years ago,” recalls Winks, “and Matt and I kept coming back to it. For the last 10 or 12 years, we kept inhabiting that world. Some of the music here has been gestating for that long, or even longer. [Opener] Desolation Song was the very first thing I recorded on my very first Mac, about 16 years ago.”

Over time, Winks and Baber began to construct a fabulous story set in a future world where a man-made explosion has ravaged the earth, spewing ash into the air and blocking out the sun. Only thousands of us remain, mostly living around ‘The Circle’, an exclusive compound inhabited by the super-rich. We meet the dishevelled Don recycling a teabag for the 100th time, and it’s through him that the perpetual motion machine – and infinite energy source – of the buttered cat comes to be. Cue the government muscling in on his invention, and intrigue, and ice creams. All quite baffling, all completely charming, surely the product of a lifetime fuelled by sci-fi novels and movies.

“I actually don’t read that much,” admits Baber, rather sheepishly. He’s the one who forged a decade’s worth of ideas into a cohesive plot. “The last thing I read was Kafka’s The Trial but as a kid I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy over and over. I don’t think anyone’s incorporated the buttered cat into a full story like this before. All the music has come from it, and I’m surprised just how emotionally invested we got in this stupid story! It was the same with Arthur Dent. His situation’s absurd, but you always care about him, and we hope people get that with Don too.”

Behind the oddball story is Sanguine Hum’s trademark musical class – beautiful, imaginative compositions articulated through the harmonic language of prog. Knotty and melodic, it’s wrought from Baber’s modern and retro keys, and Winks’ elegant, arpeggiated guitar lines, his crystal-clear voice in peak form throughout.

A double album, …Light brings out the finest moments of their existing catalogue and expands on them, with a notable contribution from guest vibraphone player Jim Hart. It nods to the modern progressive movement of Steven Wilson et al, but also the conceptual, story-led approach of Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, a touchstone album for the band.

“It’s one of my favourite records,” Winks enthuses. “If I could have gotten away with it, I’d have put a Central Scrutinizer-type narration on ours! I just love the whole feel of it; it’s so cinematic. And I completely relate to Frank’s whole idea of conceptual continuity, where melodies influence the next song, or will propagate across songs over different albums. We’ve tried to do that too, to have all these ideas bubbling along.”

Joe’s Garage is in our bloodstream,” adds Baber. “It’s part of us. Same for me with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – every minute of that record is mapped on my brain. There have been other concept albums we’ve noticed. We’ve been working so long on this that when The Mars Volta came out with De-Loused In The Comatorium [2003], we thought, ‘Oh crap, another band’s doing what we’re doing!’ The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots was contemporaneous too, and so was Bowie’s Outside, his reunion with Brian Eno. That blew us away with the world it created.”

In the spirit of Douglas Adams, they’ve gone as far as to write Now We Have Light as a radio play. Sadly, that’s been shelved for now, but it’s the sort of grand work that lends itself to other media. In the accompanying booklet – which you need to see to get the most from the record – designer Meriel Waissman (wife of Hum bassist Brad) brings an art deco, ersatz Soviet grandeur to the cat-obsessed tale. Winks sent her storyboards and mood boards – shots of the 1930s Commodore Vanderbilt streamliner train, the Empire State Building, zeppelins and other retro technologies that point to, in Winks’ words, “A lost future, one that never materialised, and nicer than anything we have now.” You can’t help but wonder how Terry Gilliam might stage the rock opera.

In the context of the new album, The Weight Of The World now becomes a prequel of sorts, and with the whole thing ending on a cliffhanger, there’s already a sequel in the pipe, called Now We Have Power.

“It’s indulgent of us, I know,” says Baber. “But there are loads of musical clues and in-references across all our albums. I’m hoping in a few years’ time people will be listening to Now We Have Light on headphones and think, ‘Holy crap! That tune is from there!’ I think it’s a statement, saying that we’re in it for the long haul.”

You can well imagine Winks and Baber making music together years into the future. There’s something very endearing about two old friends whittling away at this work for over a decade, and each is very keen to point to the strength of each other’s contribution to the final product. “There’s a lot of give and take, and trust,” says Baber. “We were together day after day in front of the computer for this album. It was high pressure but our respect for each other and the music gets us through it. But we’re both trying to earn a living, so we’d be really getting into it, then look up at the clock and, damn, one of us would have to go and teach.”

They’ll debut the new material at HRH Prog this month, though Winks readily admits that this most cerebral of bands are more comfortable in the studio than on stage. “We make most sense in the studio, in that Brian Eno way. It’s where we can experiment. Most people think we’re quite serious, whereas I don’t think we are at all. We’re serious about the music, but I listen to Robert Wyatt and so is he, but there’s playfulness in his music. But if you’ve watched any of the documentary footage of us in the studio, you’ll see we’re pretty silly.”

This is the album to prove it – fat-smeared felines ’n’ all.

Now We Have Light is out now on Esoteric and is reviewed in this issue. For more information, see http://www.facebook.com/SanguineHum.