We’re looking forward to welcoming Lunatraktors on 8th February. Truly original and absolutely mesmerising, this unique duo are putting their own spin on tradition. We caught up with them to find out more about their music and what they have planned for the coming year.
We’re so pleased to have you with us! For anyone who hasn’t come across Lunatraktors before, how would you describe your sound?
We’re very pleased to be involved! Well, we call what we do ‘broken folk’ – we’re very inspired by polyrhythmic percussion-driven music from the 80s and 90s like new wave, breakbeat, drum’n’bass, jungle and triphop. So we’re into broken beats; we started out as a percussion and vocal harmony duo, stripping everything down to the bones. We build that back up with drones from reeds, whistles, analogue synth – it’s often described as quite an ancient sound, quite raw. But we’re also both from performance art and theatre backgrounds, and there’s a lot in there from clowning, music hall, and cabaret. It’s about storytelling – very emotive, expressive, embodying different characters. It’s trippy psychedelic folk really; we’re exploring different landscapes and still haven’t found the edges.
Your music is rooted in tradition, but reworked into something totally original – what’s your creative process for approaching traditional music and putting your own stamp on it?
We don’t seek originality, actually – we look for simplicity. It’s about distilling what we hear in a song, focusing it. We start with a lot of archival research, finding all the versions we can, as far back as possible, and then listening for the spirits in it. Re-assembling traditional song as a hybrid, broken thing. We’re both queer, and came to folk music quite late. We don’t have traditional training; we make music very intuitively, it’s very vulnerable and exposed. We use a lot of tonal percussion – we’re looking for sounds that don’t respect the binary between rhythm and melody. Perhaps we could say it’s radical in the literal sense of building things up from the basics again, refusing to accept anything as given.
We love how percussive dance is woven into your music – could you tell us a bit about your dance influences and how you approach choreography as part of your arrangements?
Carli has been dancing since she was tiny: tap dancing and lots of other styles, before touring with Stomp for some years. Percussive dance felt like a powerful expressive voice that made sense to her. We’ve both trained a bit in flamenco, and that’s a big influence. Our work is not so much about fixing choreography as building up a vocabulary of gestures. They often appear spontaneously on stage in dialogue with the audience, and then get remembered, repeated and refined. You might call it performance research into the language of the body.
Your music has a wide range of influences – which artists are you each inspired by?
We absolutely love Ukrainian folkhop group DakhaBrakha, and First Nations Canadian artists Halluci Nation and Tanya Tagaq. We’re also deeply into the heavy Irish folk band Lankum. Actually, we both grew up enjoying the same music: PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, DJ Shadow, Radiohead, Portishead, Talking Heads – all the heads really. Clair is a big Sheila Chandra fan, she was a huge influence on their singing.
You wrote an updated version of Rigs of the Times, with a really powerful video. Could you tell us a bit about that?
It was an outdoor shoot in February, so absolutely freezing! We had planned to make a 20ft Maypole but it was just so windy. The whole shoot – design, build, direction, production, camera, edit, performance – was just the two of us, apart from the shots by our drone pilot pal Tristan. All done in lockdown so very limited contact, distance, masks. Quite an apocalyptic time, which certainly influenced the video. We watch a lot of folk horror films, so that aesthetic is certainly there. The sense of Brexit as something created by irrational rituals, the rebirth of old evils partially-buried in the land – the spectres of invasion, witch hunts, burning Catholics, land enclosures, colonial atrocities, class war and xenophobia. Both of us trained in a contemporary art context, so we love making everything ourselves. Every object is really carefully considered as part of the concept. We made a series of Rigs tarot cards describing each of the Brexiteer scarecrows, which you can find on our Instagram.
Your most recent album, The Missing Star, was number 2 in MOJO Magazine’s Top 10 Folk Albums of the Year! Tell us a bit about the album and the inspiration behind it.
Someone recently described the title track as being like Pink Floyd and it’s true – The Missing Star is basically a concept album. It’s a psychic road trip through 800 years of British song, exploring our deeply messed up national psyche. That sense of dysphoria, of deluded self-mythologising, hypocrisy and double standards, twisted power structures. It’s a Brexit album, and became a lockdown album too. We wanted to go for a more expansive, cinematic sound than our first record, and were incredibly lucky to find Space Sequoia – a little boutique studio tucked away in the Kent Downs near Canterbury, where we could record under lockdown conditions. Julian Whitfield really believed in the project, and helped shape the sound so much we ended up giving him a co-production credit. He also introduced us to Geoffrey Richardson (Caravan, Penguin Cafe Orchestra), who made the string quartet on our Leonard Cohen cover.
The rest of the record is just the two of us, layering harmonies and different instruments. No MIDI, no stock sounds, no click tracks – most songs are built onto full live takes. Jools and the two of us sat through every edit together, and the mastering too. We also did the concept art and packaging design. We’re a bit obsessive. It was so amazing to be able to have that luxury of real studio time: time to perform, improvise, write and create, to process the extreme emotional rollercoaster of a really unique moment. And it is wonderful that people have responded to it, have been moved by what we’ve made. As totally DIY artists – plus our indie PR wizard Joe Cushley – it means a lot to have that recognition.
What’s in store for Lunatraktors over the next year?
Well, we’re moving out of the flat in Margate into a bungalow on the south coast of Ireland. A bold lateral move, since we’ve just started getting known in the UK! But it will give us space to create, to record more, make more video. More distance from the insanity of British political life, which gives us both anxiety. We’re going to dig into even more ancient music – we’re doing some research about music in the Bronze Age and Neolithic. We’re also doing more collaborations: we’re part of a research project with Kent University about gender in music hall and pantomime. COVID has really opened things up in that way, because people are more willing to collaborate remotely. We’re hoping to make more soundscapes – for museums and artworks so far, but we’d love to do work for film, game design, theatre and circus shows. We feel that’s on the cards for us. We’re also going to start recording our ‘pagan Christmas’ album Yulatraktors, plus an EP of ambient dance music.
Our gig with Lunatraktors is on Tuesday 8th February at 8pm GMT.