For his latest outing, Leafcutter John walked the Norfolk coast and recorded the sounds he heard along the way, mixing them with modular synth melodies. Released on James Holden’s revered Border Community label, it’s his most direct and delightful work yet

“When you go out onto the salt flats, the sense of isolation is pretty intense, and your idea of scale in the world is changed,” says Leafcutter John, on the wild and windswept inspiration behind his new album, ‘Yes! Come Parade With Us’. “It’s really massive, some of it. Sometimes you’re on these little wooden walkways above the marshland, and sometimes you’re walking through these huge reed beds. It was an environment I could put this modular synth stuff inside, to make it make sense to me.”

In 2017, Sheffield-based experimentalist John Burton, or Leafcutter John to us, ventured to the wide, open seascapes and enormous skies of the north Norfolk coast and taped the intriguing sounds he heard on a long walk between the towns of Hunstanton and Overstrand. These field recordings, made in remote dunes, on gravelly beaches and tramping through marshes, form the basis of his new record for Border Community. It’s an optimistic and accessible blend of found sounds and vivid modular synth melodies, alive with the overwhelming wonder of nature at its most elemental.

Leafcutter John’s musical journey began in 2000 with his ‘Concourse EEP’ album for distinguished left-field electronic label Planet Mu and, since then, he’s made a series of records broad in scope and hard to categorise. If early works such as ‘Microcontact’ concerned themselves with outlandish machine tones, then 2006’s ‘The Forest And The Sea’ shifted tack entirely, moving to the fringes of folk and weird baroque pop, with Burton’s voice and guitar upfront.

Though his vocals are absent from ‘Yes! Come Parade With Us’, there’s a new melodic sensibility and directness here. It chimes with other releases on electronic maverick James Holden’s Border Community label, responsible for modern classics by Norfolk-based artists Nathan Fake and Luke Abbott, among others.

“It was the pure unbridled joy of it,” says James Holden, when asked why he chose to sign the record. “Over the years, we’ve been sent hundreds of records that ‘sound like they should be on Border Community’, and usually that suggestion makes us retch. This is the first time we said it ourselves. John captured the spirit of those early days of the label without being in the slightest way derivative, but he also brought a freshness and relaxed openness that I’ve found very inspiring.”

In the years prior to making his new album, Burton had been building a modular synth set-up. He loved the sounds he could coax from the complex, versatile units, though was unsure of how to apply them to his own work. One thing he didn’t want to do was experiment for sound’s sake, as he had done in the past.

“I’d always made records as experiments in sound before this,” says Burton, “and this time I wasn’t as turned on by just messing about. I really wanted to make something that felt like people could easily access it, and it would make people feel a certain way.”

Inspiration came when Burton’s girlfriend suggested they take a holiday in north Norfolk, traipsing along the full distance of the 60-mile Coastal Path. Having studied painting at Norwich School Of Art at the end of the 90s, he’d visited the broad beaches of Holkham, so knew the area a little.

“She said, ‘You should take your field recording stuff’,” says Burton. “She insisted, and it turned out there was lots to record. As I was walking along and listening to the sounds, the rhythm of the walking made me think, ‘That’s what’s missing from the modular stuff, this walking rhythm’, which to me is what the album feels a lot about – pushing forward. As we were going on, I thought, ‘I can’t wait to try to put these recordings with the modular stuff and see where it takes me’.”

Burton revelled in the area’s emptiness and raw nature, taping everything from the rhythmic crunch of feet striding across drizzly gravel to the caws of seabirds, to more unusual noises. On ‘Doing The Beeston Bump’, the walking powers the track along, with distant voices and the sounds of waves merging with interlocking melodic synths, and darker bass stabs that loom like gunmetal clouds drifting in from the sea. The combined reverberations strongly evoke the coast’s epic sense of scale, something reinforced by the strident live drums of Tom Skinner (aka Hello Skinny).

“I just got him in a room and he played that, basically,” says Burton. “It sounds amazing. He played it twice as fast as I thought he was going to.”

Throughout the record, the seaside is brought to life via sound. You can positively feel the spray and smell the brine as you listen to ‘Pillar’, where the plaintive cries of seagulls and terns mix with the watery bob of the harbour at Wells-Next-The-Sea, before a pulsing electronic rhythm rises, and a warm aquatic synth motif floats above the swell like a seal through waves of painterly grey. On much of the record, there’s an optimism in the melodies, which is rare in the sci-fi obsessed soundscapes of much modern electronic music.

“It’s meant to offer some positivity,” says Burton, “rather than being an inward-looking, scary sound world that electronic music can be sometimes. You can’t escape the confusion and division in society, so I felt like if I was going to do another record, it had to be hopeful.”

Not all of ‘Yes! Come Parade With Us’ is so joyous, however. On ‘Elephant Bones’, there’s quite a different feeling, as clattering percussion and a buzzing rhythm sound like an arcane ceremony taking place under the cover of night.

“That was from the Blakeney boatyard, where you get these amazing chiming sounds out of the rigging,” says Burton. “It was weird because boats are meant to be boats, but it felt like a graveyard or something. The vibe was a bit darker, but I thought, ‘I’m not going to run away from that’. I wanted it to sound a bit like John Cale, or The Velvet Underground when they start going for it, so it’s got a rawness and a slight darkness to it as well, I guess.”

Another unexpected aspect of ‘Elephant Bones’ is the sinister interjection of what sounds like violin (actually the Cretan lyra), which helps to lend the whole thing a nightmarish, hallucinogenic aura.

“I wanted there to be a lyrical quality to the melody,” he says, “and that instrument is often used to accompany singing in Greece. I can’t play the instrument, but I had a go. It gives it a slightly mournful element.”

In addition to his own material, since 2004, Burton has been a part of experimental jazz group Polar Bear, a band nominated twice for the Mercury Prize. The bandleader and drummer Seb Rochford plays on ‘Dunes’, the final mystical track on ‘Yes! Come Parade With Us’, his beats collapsing in an ebb and flow of tidal electronics. Burton has also produced Melt Yourself Down, Shabaka Hutchings’ post-punk/jazz project, and the resurgent jazz movement has had a significant influence on his own music.

“All the work I’ve liked in the last couple of years has been no bullshit, just really direct,” says Burton. “It’s definitely had an influence. I think some jazz is quite ornate, and that’s never been something I’ve resonated with, but I think Seb’s writing is very pure and there’s always an idea to it. It’s been amazing. Shabaka’s great to play with, and so is Seb.”

Leafcutter John’s current preoccupation is with live performance, something he recently brought to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust centre at Cley, along his original route. His show is operated through light interfaces and software he coded himself, adding an extra dimension to the gigs.

“I use lights to do all the sound for the show, and I’m just going to develop that,” says Burton. “It’s more engaging than being lodged behind a laptop.”

Making his electronic music interact with the real world, and bringing the great outdoors, indoors, is his motivation, after all.

“I want people to feel like they can come together and move with it,” he says.

‘Yes! Come Parade With Us’ is out on Border Community

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