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25 Years Later, Part II: A Conversation With Martin Curtis-Powell About My Dying Bride’s Turn Loose the Swans

Turn Loose The Swans is up there as a favourite album of any band, not just My Dying Bride. It’s been in heavy rotation for the last 15 years (I was a little young to appreciate it on release) and will be for another 15. For me it represents the essence of what My Dying Bride is; crushing riffs laced with elegant, melancholic violins. Any of the tracks fit perfectly in a live set, and it was a phenomenal experience to play the whole album at Roadburn a year or two ago. To me it’s the best ‘original violin’ era album the band released. – Shaun MacGowan, current violinist/keyboardist for My Dying Bride

I’m going to be brief here, for two reasons. First, I already gave Turn Loose the Swans the retrospective treatment in Part I of this double anniversary feature. Second, I’m way too geeked about this interview and want to get out of the way and let everybody get to reading it.

For the sake of background, though, Martin Curtis-Powell played on every My Dying Bride recording from 1991’s Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium EP through 1996’s Like Gods of the Sun, first as a session violin player, and then added keyboard duties when he became a full member of the band. For a lot of My Dying Bride fans (myself most certainly included), his tenure with the band coincides with their golden age, when they recorded the two albums many still consider their finest: Turn Loose the Swans and The Angel & the Dark River.

Curtis-Powell is still active musically, though he’s been keeping it much lower key since leaving Cradle of Filth after Nymphetamine. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have gotten an opportunity to talk with him about Turn Loose the Swans, as well as some of his post-My Dying Bride musical activities. I cannot thank him enough for not only taking the time to answer my questions, but also to have done so in such a thorough fashion. I also need to give a massive shout-out to Black Metal Daily‘s Chief Kvltist Aaron Dexter Bray, who somehow worked his Aussie black magic and made this interview happen.

Indy Metal Vault: So first off, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Considering that you left My Dying Bride in 1998—which, for the benefit of our younger readers, was before the Internet became as pervasive as it is now—I really haven’t been able to find any interviews with any members of MDB from around the time of Turn Loose the Swans online. The earliest I’ve seen is from ’96. So let me start by asking this: when you entered the studio with Robert Magoolagan to start recording Turn Loose the Swans, did you have any inkling at all that you were doing something that would prove to be a classic of the genre and that people would still want to talk to you about a quarter of a century later?

Martin Curtis-Powell: Firstly, let me take the opportunity to say thank you for asking me to contribute here; it’s probably been 25 years since I talked about that album too, so I will do my best to recall what I can.

I suspect that my memories will be coloured by time and that errors may be present, but such is the nature of recollecting events from 25 years ago! I don’t recall that as a band we had any expectations as to what we were creating or how it would be perceived at the time, or indeed, historically. I am aware that many consider it a specific benchmark in the genre but for me, and perhaps the other band members, it was simply what we had created at that moment with honesty and a free reign. Without a doubt, though, we knew that we were attempting to try something a little leftfield; opening and closing an album with keyboard, violin, and spoken word pieces of music was definitely bucking the trend at the time

.I suppose whenever one creates music one cannot be divorced from it, as it is an intrinsic part of one’s own experience, so other people’s appreciation and experience of it is not something which one can easily understand. Nostalgia plays a huge part in anyone’s critical appraisal of music and, as I am sure many will agree, music brings back memories of the time in which it was experienced – both for good and ill. The music represents your artistic expressions at that moment and is a sum of your inspirations, influences and thought processes, and with a group of likeminded musicians writing with a similar musical mindset, who were not afraid to approach writing slightly differently, the end product became something a little less ordinary, shall we say?

I do recall a bet placed between Mags and Rick, the drummer, stating that if we sold 250,000 copies within the first year following the album’s release Rick would owe him £20 (I believe – I don’t recall the exact figure). Needless to say any critical approbation never quite translated into huge commercial sales and Rick won his £20.

IMV: Before we can talk about Turn Loose the Swans, we should at least touch on As the Flower Withers. From what I’ve read elsewhere, you actually auditioned to be the bassist in MDB but didn’t get the gig. Instead, you ended up playing session keyboards and (more importantly) violin on both the Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium EP and As the Flower Withers. I honestly can’t imagine 90s My Dying Bride without your violin, and the thought that you may have never played violin with MDB had they added you on bass instead of Ade…I can’t even wrap my head around the idea. How did you end up going from that failed bass audition to eventually joining in that other capacity? Had they even been considering adding violin before you came along?

MCP: I had actually seen My Dying Bride in a nearby city, Bradford, supporting headliners Paradise Lost in 1990. They were playing on stage as a four piece as they had not engaged a bass player (to my knowledge at the time). For whatever reason I was somewhat entranced by the music and picked up a flyer to contact the band ostensibly for a demo (cassettes in those days!). When writing to the postal address for the demo I thought to enquire as to whether they needed a bass player (I play guitar and bass too) and also mentioned that I was a classically trained violinist and pianist. Aaron’s reply (after the anxious wait for the postal reply – do people remember those days of anticipation in the current days of instant response?) was that Ade had been engaged as the band’s bass player, but had not been able to play that concert. Aaron’s interest was piqued by my mention of my other instruments, and he asked if I would care to contribute on a forthcoming recording of Symphonaire… with some violin melodies. I still recall the adrenaline rush upon being asked and I eagerly agreed. I don’t recall whether the notion of adding a violin to their music was something which they had considered before my letter, but it certainly seemed like a fruitful and possibly interesting endeavour.

Since the band was based in a city 45 miles away, I wrote the violin parts by playing along to the demo cassette and cobbled together a makeshift recording with a trusty tape-to-tape deck and a borrowed microphone (from school nonetheless – I had only just turned 18 years of age and was finishing up my A levels). I sent my version back to Aaron and a week or two later he and Andy (guitar) drove down to meet me and I played the parts to them with a the demo backing track and we agreed to work together. This trip concluded with a legendary party at an acquaintance’s house – one which I still recall with amusement and an associated grimace.

IMV: After As the Flower Withers came out, My Dying Bride did a fair amount of touring in the UK and Europe, and by the time the band started recording The Thrash of Naked Limbs in late ’92 you’d been upgraded from session player to full member. Aside from the upgrade, did anything else change in terms of your role within the band while writing and recording Naked Limbs? Did you contribute much to the songwriting on any of those pre-Swans releases, aside from (presumably) composing your violin parts?

MCP: There was an interesting hiatus in my time with the band at the outset. I had been hired as a session musician for both Symphonaire…and As The Flower Withers and I had thoroughly relished the experience. I had wanted to be a more concrete part of the band, but I can only assume there had been some reluctance to add me to the fold, so to speak. For all intents and purposes I had written and played live with the band as an equal, but at times I was still made aware of my status as a session contributor. I loved my first experiences of writing as a band, recording in the studio (though it was certainly a stressful environment at times, largely due to my relative inexperience, young age and a somewhat overbearing and sometimes tactless engineer/producer). I relished the opportunity to play live and travel abroad, too.

The turning point came on a short UK jaunt supporting the American band, Master. Our touring affairs were remarkably low budget (par for the course back then) with band and equipment precariously lodged in the back of a small transit van; three seats up front and none behind. Travel between concerts was usually hours wedged between speaker cabinets drinking cheap beer to while away the time and numb any physical discomfort. That’s not to say anyone was miserable, though. We were, after all, young guys excited to have our music and to have the opportunity to play with established bands in front of fans (though we were relatively unknown in the UK at that point, so fans were very thin on the ground). After one concert in London, there was a momentarily thoughtless comment from one of the guys, and I came to the conclusion that I was still being regarded as somewhat of an outsider. I had been travelling and playing with the band for the sheer enjoyment of it, and though I had expected no recompense for doing so (and received none), I was cold and hungry and decided that I did not wish to contribute on that basis any more. We drove home after the concert to our respective homes and I believe there was to be at least one further concert a day or two afterwards. At that point I simply decided not to join in.

I don’t recall how long I was without contact with the band at that point, though I suspect it was only a few months. There were no mobile phones or Internet in that time, so communication did not occur easily. One day a letter appeared at my accommodation (I was a university student at the time, living in Bradford) from Aaron mentioning that they were writing a new EP and that they would like me to be a full member. I got back in touch, met the guys again, and was very happy to finally be considered worthy or an equal musical partner. At that point, The Thrash of Naked Limbs was just being written. Only the song ‘Gather Me Up Forever’ had been composed, so the title track was my first collaborative effort as a full member

.I always wrote my own parts for violin and keyboards in entirety and took input from the guys as to when a certain part should be included or omitted. As a guitar player I did compose a riff or two up to this point also. The section in “The Return of The Beautiful” from As The Flower Withers (3:53 – 5:22) is my own. I have a good musical memory, which, although not wonderfully useful considering I forget many other things these days (!), is always useful with reminiscing in this sense. I do remember feeling perhaps a little exasperation from Andy when I asked to borrow his guitar to show an idea or two. I could not use Calvin’s guitar, as he was (and is) left-handed. That aside, I liked being able to contribute on guitar in a limited role and I did so more so on Turn Loose

IMV: Turn Loose the Swans ended up being a pretty significant stylistic shift for My Dying Bride. Aaron started incorporating more spoken word passages and that plaintive baritone that’s now his trademark. It’s much slower than Flower, and the death metal elements were largely replaced by a pronounced gothic influence. Most significantly, your violin and keyboards played a major role in the album’s sound – so much so that “Sear Me MCMXCIII” and “Black God,” the songs that open and close Swans, are basically just you and Aaron (and guest vocalist Zena on “Black God”). How much of that shift was planned, and how much of it just occurred naturally as you were writing the album? Did you actually go into the record with an ‘and now for something completely different…’ mindset?

MCP: I’m not aware that we approached the writing process with anything other than the idea that we would do whatever we felt we wanted to do. Clearly, stylistically, the non-traditionally arranged songs that start and finish the album were a break from the established norm for albums of our genre at that period. We were all fans of the experimentation of Celtic Frost (putting aside Cold Lake…) and embraced the idea that change and experimentation would be interesting. It was the first record wherein the violin and keyboard elements were intrinsic facets of the music, and they were written throughout the creation of the songs themselves as opposed to being created as an overlay to existing music. I fondly remember Aaron’s words about adopting a cleaner singing style: to paraphrase, he mentioned something along the lines of  ‘I heard Ringo Starr singing, and it was terrible. If he can try to sing so can I!’

IMV: Sticking with songwriting for a second…if I’m not mistaken, “The Sexuality of Bereavement” was written during the Swans sessions, correct? That particular song definitely has more of a Flowers feel to it. Is that why it was left off the final track list for the album, or was it more of a time constraint thing? Swans is nearly an hour long without it. Was that the only real Flowers-esque song that was written during those sessions?

MCP: To my mind I agree, the song seemed to harken back to the writing style of As The Flower Withers, and as such didn’t seem to fit the album as a whole – especially with the harsh vocals present throughout. In all honesty, I am not one hundred percent sure of the stage when it was written. I believeit was written before the sessions for the album as a limited edition release for the Peaceville singles collectors’ club and only initially released on a 7″ vinyl single, though that may not be the truth of the matter. It may well have been recorded after the album.

IMV: I’m curious about how “Sear Me MCMXCIII” came together. Musically, it’s remarkably similar to “Sear Me” from Flower, except that it’s all piano/synth, and you play the guitar melody from the original on violin. The lyrics, however, are completely different. Why did you rewrite/redo the song? They also did a third “Sear Me” after you left the band, on The Light at the End of the World. Is there some special significance to that song in the band’s history?

MCP: In all honesty, I don’t recall how the idea of creating “Sear Me MCMXCIII” arose. Certainly, we liked the idea of re-imagining and re-arranging the musical theme from the first iteration, and it was my task to create this song using the instruments I played. I took the main theme from “Sear Me” and incorporated it into a structure that took it elsewhere with additional parts and sections. I fondly recall writing it by programming it on a trusty old Korg M1 synth (quite a laborious task) and creating the violin parts by playing along in a less than salubrious dusty old rented room in summer of that year. We did play it live on numerous occasions with the keyboard parts played back via a DAT machine. We were never bound by any fears of audience reception. We simply choose to do exactly what we wished to, for good or ill.

When I listen to the song now, more than anything I am struck by how dated the keyboard sounds are. I rather tended to stick to a lot of the standard presets on those trusty old keyboards! That is not necessarily to any detriment, and bands that have followed now often employ string and orchestral arrangements instead of keyboards per se. It often feels like artists in the metal genre try to elevate their songwriting by adding bombastic string and brass sections and so forth; I am not the biggest fan of that approach (please excuse my own dalliances with it with Cradle of Filth!). I quite like the simpler, digital approach these days, as those omnipresent ‘orchestral’ textures, as people tend to label them, grate with me after a while and can be superfluous.

I had noted the third iteration of the song after my departure, but I am not overly familiar with it. I cannot say why it was recorded again though I do like the idea of a theme being re-imagined at different stages of a band’s musical journey. One receives a sense of musical development over time and there’s always an additional element of familiarity and nostalgia present in such ideas.

IMV: I know it’s been 25 years, but is there anything that stands out in your mind from the writing or recording of the album? I’m guessing there has to be at least one or two good stories from that time.

MCP: I am certain that there must be, but it is always difficult to recall any specific stories as time has delivered many other experiences (in bands and otherwise) in the intervening period. One that I do recall is writing the song ‘Black God.’ I had just had an upsetting telephone call with my girlfriend at the time, who had just decided to end the relationship. In a state of distress I sat at the keyboard, which I clearly recall was on the floor in Andy’s apartment, and composed the song. It was, and is, a very simple song, but one that reflected my emotions at that point. Once in the studio, Aaron did an alternative version of that song, with comedic lyrics. I cannot for the life of me remember much of what he narrated but I do remember the line “Take me, to the chip shop” alongside various sound effects. I am reasonably certain that no copy of that version survives, which may be either a shame or a blessing depending upon your point of view.

I do remember how we used to write together in the rehearsal room. We had a very old (even at that time) cassette deck, and Aaron had a little condenser microphone, which we would position in the centre of the room. With this hi-tech set up we would record our songwriting rehearsals and Aaron would take the cassette away and use it for reference for his lyrics and vocals, as well as for piecing together the arrangements. We would often listen to the cassettes in his car on the way home after the songwriting sessions. Typically, the recordings were extremely loud and quite rough, but I do recall them with fondness.

IMV: Turn Loose the Swans is considered a classic at this point, both in terms of MDB’s discography and in the development of gothic doom as a genre. What were the responses like when the album first came out? Did critics and fans receive it favorably back in ’93? Or were there a lot of confused ‘wait…what the hell happened?’ types of responses?

MCP: I am always hesitant to ascribe classic status to this album. My experience of it was understandably unique alongside my fellow songwriters. As the creators of the music, one cannot stand outside of it and appraise it without prejudice. I have, as I write this, listened to the album (the first time in many years) and my initial responses are largely related to aspects of the sounds themselves and technical considerations of the recording. To me, they are songs that have a vibrancy and a determined passion, which, given that we were all young men in our early twenties, is not entirely surprising!

I am never sure how much of an influence the album has had in terms of the growth of any particular genre, but having considered it, I do see that there was an upsurge in similar approaches from bands following on afterwards. The use of traditional classical instruments with distorted guitar music certainly found a foothold in our efforts; I would suggest, however, that Paradise Lost’s Gothic laid more of a foundation for the development of this newer approach to the genre than Turn Loose

In terms of responses, my recollection is hazy. I certainly do not remember any spectacular press reviews in our own country, but back then, any popularity we had was largely in European countries on the continent. Concerts in places like The Netherlands and Germany were very well attended with enthusiastic fans, whereas I do recall a concert in Newcastle (UK) where only two or three people attended!

IMV: I have never been able to figure out what that is on the cover of Turn Loose the Swans. Aaron did the art, right? What is that a picture of?

MCP: This question has been asked almost constantly for the past twenty-five years, ha! If you are speaking of the CD cover art, it is of a wax-covered statue of the Virgin Mary, with hands clasped in prayer, which had been set on fire. The statue was perhaps somewhere in the region of 50cm tall. Before the days of digital photography, the photo was taken (by Aaron, who almost exclusively created all the artwork) and a print of the negative (hence the reversal of the image brightness) was used. I shan’t mention where he found and ‘borrowed’ the statue…

One interesting aspect of the album was that each version—CD, vinyl, cassette—had different cover art. Again, this was something a little out of the ordinary and an idea that, whilst causing headaches for our record label, we sought to pursue as a different approach to the album’s presentation.

IMV: You left My Dying Bride in 1998. I’ve never read anything about why you left, though. If you don’t mind my asking, did it have anything to do with the shape that 34.788%…Complete was taking, or was it something else?

MCP: That was a very contentious issue at the time. The truth of the matter is that I was asked to leave. We had completed a tour in the USA supporting Ronnie James Dio, and upon our return to the UK, Rick, the drummer, decided that he was no longer interested in being a part of the band (citing health issues) and would not be returning to the USA for our scheduled second leg of that tour. After a brief hiatus with no permanent drummer, the band recruited Bill Law, a Canadian émigré who played with fellow Peaceville artists Dominion, and began work on the aforementioned album.

Up until this point the band had written in collaboration; songwriting was a process in which we gathered together in a rehearsal room and thrashed out new material. This process had now become largely one wherein the songs were written and arranged largely by Calvin and Bill (as far as I recall). I was living in a different city at that juncture and when I came to rehearsals, violin and keyboard parts were suggested to me as opposed to our previous collaborative method. I certainly became a little disillusioned with that state of play and lost any real vigour for the music. The music itself was a departure from the norm (though there is nothing inherently wrong with that) and this, combined with what felt like an enforced new role, generated a fair amount of frustration for me.

My recollections are that the music was largely Calvin’s, though since I departed before the album’s finish I have no real knowledge of who also had input. I do know that the title of the album was Calvin’s. There were also a few financial constraints of my own when it came to travelling to the rehearsal room to be a somewhat demoted contributor to the album, and my enthusiasm waned. I was somewhat unceremoniously (to my mind at the time) asked to leave, though I did record on the album demos. Something that had been immensely rewarding and an intrinsic part of one’s everyday experiences had been taken away, and I was saddened by that.

The reactions to the 34.788%…Complete album were very polarised, but I think it was a very brave work and despite what many decry, it shows some good writing and arranging for the most part. Many people object strongly to the album and a song like ‘Heroin Chic’ was a bold move, but ultimately one that was completely out of character and at odds with what one would normally expect to hear. I have always skipped that track. The sounds and studio technologies employed contributed a great deal to people’s initial surprise upon hearing the album, but I believe that some of those songs stand on equal footing with the rest of My Dying Bride’s canon. It is an album that is referred to as experimental, but in context to what we are familiar with these days it is not a huge stylistic leap anywhere remarkably unknown.

IMV: If you don’t mind my asking a couple of post-MDB questions…even though I was listening to a lot of Cradle of Filth during your stint with them, I didn’t realize how big a part you played in the songwriting – particularly with the orchestrations on Damnation and a Day (which is an album that really doesn’t get the respect it deserves) and Nymphetamine. Cradle of Filth and My Dying Bride are obviously very different bands. How did you end up joining Cradle?

MCP: That in itself is perhaps a whole new article! I’ll try to summarise. After my departure from My Dying Bride I was asked to play live keyboards for Anathema. I had known those gentlemen for many years, and we had toured, socialised, and played together numerous times. Their keyboard player, Les (Smith), had left to join Cradle of Filth, and though he played with Anathema whenever there was a lull in Cradle’s activity, he could no longer spare the time to do so. So, I joined Anathema as their live keyboardist. When Les then left Cradle a couple of years later, I contacted the Cradle gents and asked about the vacant position. In a literal sense we swapped jobs, as Les returned to Anathema.

I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of Cradle of Filth, and yes, I wrote and arranged all the keyboard/orchestral parts in my tenure as well as writing songs on guitar and playing them on the studio recordings. That in itself was fulfilling a childhood ambition. My 14-year-old self who had sat in bedrooms learning thrash metal songs yearned (as perhaps many do) to be a guitar player on a record or two, and I finally achieved that accolade (for what it’s worth).

IMV: After you left Cradle of Filth in 2004, you went back to university, eventually earning your PhD in music composition in 2013. What made you decide to trade band life for academia? What have you been doing since completing your degree?

MCP: I left Cradle of Filth in early 2005, and went back to university the following year, 2006. I had become very weary of being in bands. The long periods of travelling away from home, hectic schedule, overindulgences, and sometimes-petty squabbles and fractious relationships had left me very jaded. I did endeavour to start a project with a few musical friends, and though some material was written, the geographical challenges of working with colleagues in different countries and cities meant that any initial impetus eventually dissipated.

After a complete break, a friend suggested a return to university. After all, what possible dramas could unfold there? (I’m not sure whether the sarcasm is explicit in that statement…). Nonetheless, it was a wonderful time, and my years of experience held me in good stead for my musical studies. I was able to learn myriad new things, stretch my understanding, and compose in entirely new methods. I did play with Tiamat a few times as a live keyboardist, and even had an offer to join Type O Negative in that role in 2009, but was sadly unable to accept due to teaching commitments whilst conducting my PhD research. That was a great shame, but the timing simply wasn’t fortuitous.

Since completing the PhD I have found work in a few humdrum jobs, largely nothing of note, but I now work for a large UK ISP in a rewarding role related to legal requests and high-level escalations. My work colleagues did discover my past life, as it were, and sometimes relish asking questions regarding it. I am largely quite coy in my responses!

I do write and record music for bands, though it is somewhat limited to existing friends or friends of friends requesting my contributions. In 2013 I wrote and recorded keyboards for Australian band The Eternal on When the Circle of Light Begins to Fade.I had met my dear friend, Mark Kelson (singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer/engineer) in 1999 when I flew out to Melbourne, Australia to record violin and keyboard parts for the band he had at the time: Cryptal Darkness. The creation and recording of that album, They Whispered You Had Risen, was a truly wonderful period replete with extremely fond memories and was the beginning of a long lasting friendship. Recently we collaborated on another album from The Eternal, Waiting For The Endless Dawn, which was released only a few weeks ago (though took three years to make given everyone’s schedule and other inhibiting external factors). Mark and I also toured together a few years ago in a perhaps little known band called Alternative 4. This band was formed by Duncan Patterson, another old friend who was the former bass player and songwriter for Anathema, and although it was tremendous fun to play with established, very professional musicians, the band seemed to eventually quietly fade away after a few moments of internal discord.

I toured with Icelandic band Solstafir for two weeks in 2016 as they took the album Otta on the road to perform in its entirety, complete with a string quartet as heard on the album. That tour is one of my favourites, and again, I had the opportunity to work with highly professional and accomplished musicians and became firm friends with them.

Last year I was asked to provide keyboards for the Dutch band Bleeding Gods, and I am very proud of the end result which can be heard on the album Dodecathlon. I do enjoy the process of session work, and despite offers to play live with a few artists (including one very high profile one) I don’t really have much inclination, or indeed time, to take part in that capacity. I have always favoured the initial creative processes instead.

I also created keyboards for the UK band Lawnmower Deth on their single I Am Cob, which was a little bit of fun for old friend Pete, the band’s singer. Perhaps the most cherished moment of that song is that there is a harpsichord solo!

IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?

MCP: I am sure there will be a multitude of things that I wish to say after submitting these answers (isn’t that always the case?), but perhaps for now it’s been a remarkably pleasant experience to trawl the memory banks, listen to the music again, and remember a little of that time 25 years ago, so thank you for the opportunity!

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