Experimental cellist Jo Quail on collaborating with metal artists and playing Roadburn.
Cellist extraordinaire Jo Quail, a classically-trained musician who’s been embraced by the metal scene as one of their own, released her latest solo full-length Exsolve late last year; an experimental album incorporating elements of dark ambient and drone. Quail has an immense ability to create otherworldly sounds from her cello, taking on a more exploratory and avant-garde approach to playing her instrument. Exsolve was recorded and produced by Conan‘s Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studios, becoming her most acclaimed album yet (find our review here).
One of the hardest-working musicians in music, Jo Quail has collaborated and toured with a host of esteemed metal artists including MONO, Myrkur, Winterfylleth, A-Sun Amissa, Wren and more! Her hard work culminated this year at Tilburg’s Roadburn Festival, where she and her quartet, which includes Holy Roar’s A.A. Williams on cello, performed three sets. Over the space of one weekend, they performed with Myrkur and MONO and even found time for a surprise meeting with Roadburn curators and Gothenburg legends At The Gates!
Between all of this madness, though, Jo still found the time to talk with Astral Noize, and as you can imagine she is absolutely lovely, down-to-earth and full of excitement and enthusiasm…
You’ve been very busy at this year’s Roadburn. Tell us about each of your collaborations and how have you found the time to rehearse with all these artists?
I work with Amalie [Bruun, Myrkur] regularly and we rehearsed last week in Copenhagen. When it comes to recording string arrangements she has a very firm idea of what she wants, but then I have a little bit of freedom in that to contribute as well, so we write the parts and then make the concerts happen. With MONO, I’ve worked with them before and I know the album Hymn To The Immortal Wind [which they performed in full together at Roadburn] very well, so we were able to get the arrangements transcribed by a colleague of mine at home. We rehearsed individually and then put the whole thing together at Roadburn! Bringing the quartet together was quite simple; we know we’re a unit and we know what we’re all trained to do. It sounds like we’re all dogs or something, but this is what we’ve been trained to do – playing dots on a page in a sympathetic and graceful fashion, so that’s what we do! It just so happens that when we work with MONO there is a reciprocal arrangement because they’re not click[-track] bound, and so there is a lot of fluidity.
You’re playing with At The Gates as well later today…
Tonight, yes, with the quartet! We just had a rehearsal and it was awesome. It’s a very special set today, they’ve got some really cool things happening in it [Anna von Hausswolff and Matt Pike also appeared]!
How was your experience recording Exsolve with Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studio?
That was mint, it was absolutely brilliant. I loved it! He’s known for doing things in a certain field, but I would say that he has an enormous creative range and wealth of experience that he draws from, so working with him was great. Whenever I go [to record] I have my pieces finished, so I don’t have a producer in terms of arrangements, but in terms of recording I instil some of his techniques. He would record things using different microphones, kick drums and amps, and then we take these things, and I’ll go back and remodel, and incorporate those ideas into my live setup, so it’s a real two-way street, I love working with him. I’ve just done the fourth [bonus] track for the vinyl release, so I went back to Skyhammer to do that. That will be released in the autumn; I’ve started my own label to release it!
Chris Fielding is so good at capturing deep, low-end sounds, which really comes out on Exsolve…
He’s really good at that and he’s great at placement. There are a hell of a lot of layers in my music. You don’t even know he’s doing it, you’re playing and recording and he’s producing and engineering at the same time! So when you are then listening back you’ve got this great broad spectrum of sound.
Was it a challenge for him producing Exsolve, as working with an experimental cellist is surely out of his comfort zone?
He said to me it was outside of his normal sphere and a challenge, but he really enjoyed doing it. I definitely don’t think he was bored! *Laughs*
Are you pleased with the reception Exsolve has had?
Yeah, it’s been crazy; really, really good! I’ve never made anything that has sold so fast and had really good reviews before. I think it’s attached to the gigs I’m doing now with higher profile artists and there’s been a bit of noise, but it’s still the way I wanted it to be. This is why I wanted to start my own label because I want to do it this way for as long as I possibly can, until I can no longer manage to go to the post office every day!
Tell us more about your custom built electric cello…
Well, there’s a bloke called Dave *giggles* in Scotland, his company is called Starfish. They made my cello for me probably about twelve years ago. They don’t make these any more. Every single one of their instruments is custom made to the size of your existing acoustic instrument, and then they made some special modifications for me. Interestingly, Poppy Ackroyd has the sister violin to my cello, so that’s why we get on so well together. I also have a luthier in London who takes care of me. It’s a beautiful instrument and they don’t make them any more, I’ve only seen another one once. It has it’s own particular energy which has grown. With the sort of music I write these days, this cello suits it. Now the things that I’m writing seem to be partly inspired by the aesthetic of the cello!
Do you prefer acoustic or electric cello, and do you feel your electric cello is more suited to the experimental music you are making?
It depends. I’m making a record at the moment with a classical pianist; it’ll be a completely improvised experimental album, but for this I’m playing both cellos. There are many things you can do on an acoustic cello which are experimental, but with the electric you can then add in things like reverb and delay, and you suddenly get a bigger pallet. I love both of them, and I would choose which one according to which project. But if I’m going to be performing with a metal band I’m probably going to choose the electric purely for sonics and ease of monitoring, but then again if it’s piano and violin music, I’ll probably go for the acoustic.
You did a collaborative live performance with Wren recently, how did that go?
Oh man that was awesome! I think you probably had to be there. Wren are amazing, at this particular show I was working with Seb [Tull, drums] and Rob [Letts, bass]. It was the Nine Years of Chaos Theory festival [in London]. We played some of my tracks, ‘White Salt Stag’ and this new track that I’m going to release, but a completely different version of it. The only thing that was the same was that it was drone-based and in 7/4, but other than that we just went for it and didn’t even rehearse it! Then we played ‘Mandrel Cantus’, which was amazing. Seb is like a machine, he didn’t drop a beat and he totally got the ’80s thing. He was doing these tom fills on this small kit that he uses incredibly creatively!
Do you find it hard to balance touring life and being a mother?
Yes, it’s very hard! I mean, practically it’s not hard because thankfully my husband is brilliant. When I’m at home, he works, and when I tour, he’s at home, and we see each other occasionally! The hardest thing for me is that I don’t want to leave my girl. Each day something different happens, terribly important things that I don’t want to miss, but she seems happy and well balanced, so I think we are doing the right thing.
Does your daughter listen to any of the bands you work with?
She’s listened to Myrkur and MONO but not At The Gates. Anyone I tour with, she listens to them. I’m very proud of her because she can spot AC/DC and Guns ‘N’ Roses from the first bar, so I’m training her up! She’s quite musical as well; I’m not pushing it, but she does play piano and recorder in school, and she likes to sing.
She’ll be playing Roadburn someday soon then! How does it feel to be playing Roadburn and which acts are you excited to see?
I saw Heilung last night who are absolutely amazing. I’m excited to see Alex [A.A. Williams] and I want to see a bit of Anna von Hausswolff. It’s the kind of festival where you could just walk into any of the venues and see something excellent and of purely high quality. Whether you think something is your cup of tea or not, this festival gives you a guarantee to discover new things you haven’t heard before.
We bet you’ll get offers for more collaborations whilst you’re here!
*Laughing* Who knows! It’s a lot of fun and I love working with the quartet!
Exsolve is out now on CD/digital download and is coming soon on LP. Purchase here.
Words: Chris “Frenchie” French
Photo: Simon Kallas