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Like Watching a Bunch of Clowns – Darren Hayman talks to Vortex about his journey from familiar Indie terrain into the mysterious, chaotic world of Free Improv.

Hackney Marshes, August 2013

Words by Rebekah Robertson


I meet Darren Hayman at the table on Hackney Marshes. This local landmark is a sits rather conspicuously in the grasslands just south of the reservoirs, directly west of Walthamstow where Hayman lives. With the quintessentially British late summer soundtrack of planes flying overhead, and the rustle of the breeze in the brambles, it feels like the ideal setting to talk to a songwriter with a back catalogue that includes albums about English summer holidays, outdoor swimming pools, 17th Century witch trials and the English Civil War.

Hayman is most famous for fronting the band Hefner, much adored by the late John Peel. Since the group split in 2002, Hayman has gone on to release ten studio albums, eleven EPs and a live album, as well as contributing to various compilations and slipping a couple of producer credits under his guitar strap. In July this year, he embarked upon a series of twelve monthly live shows at The Vortex, and I’m guessing his choice of venue may have come as something of a surprise to many of his fans. I’m intrigued to know how this cult Indie hero ended up with a residency at one of London’s most famous Jazz clubs.

“When I was younger I would have been like, anti-Jazz. Everything that a Punk Rock kid thinks Jazz is, I thought. But then just in the same way that, now I’m in my forties, I quite like trains, and I like real ale, I started to like Jazz. I started to think of it in a completely different way. In my youth I thought of it as selfish music, because of the soloing, and how the focus seemed to be on one person who can play for as long as they like. But then I began to think the complete opposite. That it was actually very open, that there’s no set format, and anyone can solo. The bands switch around, and sometimes people just turn up and play, and that all seemed very free.

And then, well, I just got it, I suppose, in a way that you can’t sort of intellectually deconstruct, you just suddenly get something don’t you.”

So what kind of things did you start listening to?

“Well by starting to listen to the famous Jazz people, pretty rapidly I started to like quite progressive, avant-garde Jazz, and then I started to like Free Improv; so I arrived at Evan Parker via John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. But I also came to it through Stewart Lee who lives close to The Vortex, and he has sort of championed that music. I became interested in Evan Parker on Stewart’s recommendation.”

It must have been an interesting experience, the first time you saw Evan play. Do you remember it?

“I had quite a sweet introduction to him actually. The first time I saw him was in Whitstable. He likes this church down there and does these days of Free Imrov. So I’d bought some records, and I thought, oh this will be a good introduction, but I couldn’t find anywhere online to buy a ticket. So not really knowing much about the scene I figured I’d try and go early in case it had sold out, and you know, it would be nice, a drive to the seaside. So I drove down and got there early and knocked on the church door, and this man opened it, who I assumed was perhaps the caretaker or the vicar. I asked him if he knew if there were any tickets left, and he said he’d be able to squeeze me in. So obviously I’m really happy that my plan has worked, but then when it came to the gig, I realised the man was being ironic because actually, you know, Free Improv. events can be quite sparsely attended sometimes, and well, you know, it was quite a big church. I also then realised that the man I’d spoken to was in fact, Evan parker. So yeah, he squeezed me in, and that was the first time I saw him play. I feel very attached to Evan just because he was the first guy I saw doing this.”

What is it about free improv. that has won you over?

“Sometimes I don’t really understand why I like it. I remember once I was listening to a record at home, and my wife came in wondering what was going on. It wasn’t that she thought I was playing bad music, she actually thought I was sawing something. She said, “What are you doing?” Not, “What are you listening to?”, but “What are you doing? To the house?” I’ve been doing music for fifteen, twenty years now, and I just want to be surprised. When I first saw Rock music or loud guitars, I didn’t really know why I liked that either, it just felt good and I wanted to see more of that, and I think it’s the same when I see Evan play.”

It’s interesting that you would compare the experience to the gigs you were going to as a teenager. Do you think Free Improv. has a similar kind of punk attitude?

“If I’m taking someone who hasn’t heard it before, I wouldn’t be describing it as the most welcoming music. But the people are, and in terms of what the musicians can do, it’s very open. It can seem really abrasive, but I have also seen some really sedate sets from Evan. About two years ago he made a CD to fall asleep to. It takes ages to fade in, and then you get a sort of wash of saxophone. It’s very soporific. That would be a good brief I think, to have a Free Improv. night with some kind of restriction on it, like ‘Don’t wake the baby!’, and put the cradle in front of the stage.”

Another plane draws a line across the sky, and somewhere hidden in the trees a dog yaps happily. Aside from the sleeping-baby-Jazz idea, we talk some more about the emphasis on performance he has noticed in the scene.

“There was this one band, Instant Composers Pool, from Holland. They’re half improvised and there’s about twelve of them, they have these real moments of chaos. I don’t know what they’re doing but it seems like someone looks over and somehow suddenly the brass section are playing something all at once. Sometimes a bit of Thelonious Monk blasts in, and then someone else unsettles the whole thing. It’s really entertaining, because one moment you’re like, oh, that sounds really pretty, and then, woah, someone has set off a drill! I saw them one night and just had to come back and see them again the next, and I brought my wife too, because I felt like I could take anyone to see that. It was like watching vaudeville or a bunch of clowns or something. I thought, from any direction this is entertaining.”

And what about your shows at the club? Did the way the Free Improv. guys perform have any influence on you to taking up your Vortex residency?

“Yes definitely. What I do is Indie-Rock-Folk – I like to fancifully call it Folk sometimes – and there’s a certain type of venue that music is always performed at, and there’s a certain culture around those gigs. My albums are sort of, Barbican style, but I have to play in the venues I was playing at when I was fifteen, and it’s the same for my audience. So all that tied into The Vortex really, just seeing how different a gig could be. You can reserve a seat, you can have a bottle of wine, you can even eat. And then there’s the way the music is presented in those places. Sometimes a band would play two sets. You never get intervals in Rock music. And with Jazz the sets can be about exploration and experimentation, whereas the forty-five-minute Rock set is like constantly writing your CV; it’s like saying, here’s the three you know, here’s some new stuff, here’s the slow ones in the middle. It has a set pattern.”

So has it been a very different experience then, doing these shows?

“I sort of had a fair idea of what it would be like from being in the audience. Which is another nice thing about a venue like that, you have to climb over the tables to get on stage. Most of the times I’ve been there the artists are standing at the bar during the interval. I hope that the band will get used to being there. Emma my keys player is getting used to the Steinway, and Dave is getting to know the drum kit, and that familiarity I think will encourage confidence, and bravery. We are already doing some things that I would never dream of doing anywhere else.”

What kind of things have you been experimenting with?

“For the September show we had Gail Brand and Mark Sanders doing a Free Improv. set. And I like the idea with Jazz clubs that you often hear music you haven’t heard before. I’m sort of doing a break up album, at the moment. We’re going to record it soon in Wales in a chapel, but then it’s probably not going to be released for a year. But for our October show we’re going to play the whole thing, so I’m going to play that album live, before it’s been released, probably before it’s even been finished. In November it’s going to be me and my friend Jack. He used to play with me in Hefner, so we’ll do two nights of a lot of those songs.”

No plans to branch into Free Improv. yourself?

“I think a common mistake with that kind of music, it’s like with modern art, you’re tempted to think that anyone can do it; that anything chaotic is childish or easy. But you can’t think that with Free Improv. For some reason it’s really clear that they can play, even though it quite often sounds like a cacophony. I’ve actually started playing tenor saxophone a little, but I don’t really like musical tourism. I feel like the singularity focus is quite good; I know what I do and I stick to it. I don’t think that I could ever really belong there, and I don’t really want to. I want to be a fan.

It has definitely opened my mind about ways to approach different instruments though, I’m much more aware of the textural qualities of any instrument. One thing that kind of music makes me think about is not notes but sounds, that sometimes it’s not even really about the note at all, they’re actually thinking, what can this do? John Edwards who is Evan Parker’s double bass player, he can stay on one note and make it sound like a million different things. And I found myself doing things like that, with the guitar, you know staying on one note but trying to make that one note sound different, in what you do with the hands or the amplifier or something, which isn’t to say, you know, it still sounds quite ordinary compared to those guys, but that has definitely influenced me.”

So you are now three shows in with nine to go. What would you like to see happen over the next nine months?

“My hope is that it’s not going to be the same hundred people for twelve shows, maybe some of the Free Improv. crowd will come. You know, it’s funny, I teach ukulele at the Duke of Uke sometimes, and at the end of term the class did a performance at this place round the corner. Then the next night I went to Café Otto to see John Edwards, and this guy next to me at one point lent over and was like, ‘Were you playing ukulele on stage last night down in Shoreditch?!’ So we were both pretty surprised to find ourselves at that gig.”

A swarm of schoolchildren suddenly descend upon the table and we figure it’s time we made our exit. As we walk in the direction of the path that leads east to his house and west to mine, we talk about that Christmas Eve feeling of anticipation and the excitement of unwrapping something new and undiscovered.

“For me I’m still at that stage where, even though I’ve probably got a good thirty, forty CDs of this stuff, I still think of myself as a beginner. I’ve definitely bought some stuff and thought, hmm, that doesn’t really work for me, but I also don’t think I’m an aficionado. But I’m revelling in that because I’m enjoying this moment, and this stage of mystery, of not really knowing why I’m listening to it, or why I’m going, but I keep going back.”



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