Moulettes – Interview – 2014

So, what exactly is a Moulette? An inter-web search reveals nothing except this band and some rather unlikely reference to a hairstyle, as defined by the rather wonderful Urban Dictionary: the moulette is a stylized modern mullet, originating in Canada. It is essentially a curly combination of hat hair (in Canadian winters, hats are a must), the mullet and the famous hair swoosh (optional but encouraged)." Could this be the inspiration for The Moulettes? As Hannah Moulette (they refer themselves individually as a Moulette) has said before: "… I had a free haircut one day that turned into a mullet. We were joking that it was a moule-ette…." So, there you have it, a female mullet!
Not that they 'wear mullets' of course, that would be crass. Instead, they are a remarkably intelligent unit of musicality, sensitivity and adventure, a wild fusion of classical, prog, rock, pop and 'fantasy folk'. Comparisons are nigh on impossible but Bellowhead springs to mind or maybe the crazy alt-prog 70s rockers Gentle Giant (look them up!)? In any case, they make fresh and original music, helmed by the core unit of Hannah Miller, Ruth Skipper, Jim Mortimore and Ollie Austin, although the extended Moulettes family runs into double digits including recent recruit Eliza Jaye. Moulettes are female AND male…
Now based in Brighton, I went to visit Ollie and Hannah at their Queens Park residence, where a welcoming atmosphere of coffee and biscuit making was in progress, although Ollie is in tour preparation mode, which means he's off the booze and on the de-caff… And, almost immediately upon arrival a parcel arrived with a new batch of their bespoke Moulettes tea towels, designed by Hannah. Excitedly examining the goods, Hannah and Ollie give the thumbs up, a piece of band merchandise that apparently sells very well at their gigs (someone else once told me that their biggest seller on the merch table was mugs…), alongside the usual CDs.
One of the things about the band is the unlikely associations they have, including that with Mumford & Sons (more of that later) and Led Zeppelin. Their former manager Joe Cushley used to manage Seasick Steve (former Moulette Georgina Leach played violin for Seasick Steve), whose bassist is non other than John Paul-Jones, Led Zep's bassist/keyboardist extraordinaire. Of course, The Moulettes got to support Seasick Steve on occasion, including at Hammersmith Apollo… "We ended up in a room, backstage," says Hannah. "I decided to tell him about the dream I had about Led Zep the night before and his wife was there… I think he definitely thought I was weird; it was a really strange dream with people like Odin & Thor in it. I had never had a dream about gods, but I had been reading a book about gods, where all the old gods are pissed about the new gods, because they're stealing their thunder. And in my dream Odin and Thor were pissed off because Led Zep were more well known than they were…"
Initially formed by Hannah and Ruth when both were 'music scholars' in 2002, with Ollie (drums, guitar), Ted Dwane (bass) and Rob Skipper joining up soon after, the Moulettes has over the years featured many members who come and go as well as huge number of guests, whether on record or on stage. "We always liked playing live, finding small niche venues…. we didn't do much stuff on the circuit, but eventually we got those residencies in London (their Den of Inquity nights at the 12bar) and from that we invited bands like Mystery Jets and Noisettes. The first album was a culmination of playing these events," says Ollie. It was, however, the legendary Eel Pie Island events that really set the wheels in motion, a place steeped in rock'n'roll history and mystique. Off the coast of Twickenham, bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Who, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath performed in the island's hotel until it burnt down in 1971. Then, in the mid noughties, The Mystery Jets started staging parties on the island. "I've said this a few times," says Ollie, "but I think those parties they put on were really significant. You look back at all the players who played there, many of them are still going and it's a real treatment to what The Mystery Jets achieved. Unsung heroes!" The fledgling Moulettes were one of those bands… "Laura Marling was one of those who hung out at those Eel party events and I introduced Ted to those people. Ted Dwane then started playing with Laura Marling first (whom Marcus Mumford was playing drums for at the time and dating…) and then onto Mumford's… Last year The Mystery Jets supported Mumford's at the O2 arena.. wow!"
Marcus stole my moves! That whole guitar drum thing," exclaims Ollie. That is the combination of guitar and drums which Marcus Mumford made as a centre piece of the band's act. "Oh man, anyway…!" laughs Ollie.
Ted Dwane played bass on the first two Moulettes albums, but eventually choices had to be made… "Laura Marling and the Moulettes were both booked to play at Bestival and our sets clashed, which he didn't know about. And that's how it literally happened; he decided to play with Laura and that was the summer she broke and then Mumford's came quickly after that."
The phenomenal global success of Mumford & Sons means they have seen little of their former bandmate over the last few years. "We did see him last week, he came to one of our gigs. We love Ted. His health problem was a rollercoaster (he was diagnosed with subdural hematoma). Thankfully, his girlfriend gave us the heads up before it hit the press. That would have been weird. He's looking great and has been given the all clear. We miss him as a friend, it happened all so quickly.
As well as the Led Zep and Mumford connections, they have become good friends with Brighton's folk-rock legends The Levellers. "We did a lovely tour with them, in fact we've done two," says Ollie. "Their last record was really good; a lot of bands do burn out, but they haven't. They are such a hard working band; they love it, they live for it and are full time musicians in the true sense of the word. Such lovely people too."
Pray tell, any tour stories? "Touring with them was fun, they still have a good time on tour. I don't think I ever felt as bad as that last gig," says Hannah. "They have a couple of regular stops on tour, like friends who own hotels, so at the end of the last tour in Yorkshire they invited us back to this hotel, where there was a jacuzzi… There was a lot of whiskey! It wasn't their fault though….
"One of the most surreal moments was when there was a full moon, which I don't think should be under estimated," opines Hannah, "and we were in Harrogate Royal Hall, which is just gold and red, exactly what you would expect for a Royal Hall. Everything was really nice and then a massive fight broke out at the front (when The Levellers were on) and Ruth had to do a doctor moment; everyone went mental – it was very surreal – but it got quelled quickly.
"There is an element to that old Levellers crowds," continues Ollie, "the punk thing. It's a good thing, but some people take it in the wrong way. In a weird, sick way, it was nice to see The Levellers get that response! Everyone is now so polite and boring in rock'n'roll!" No aggro at Moulettes gigs them? "Hang on, there has been a fight!, exclaims Hannah. "It was amazing, it was in Swansea…. Someone started a punch up during 'Songbird' (a quietly sweet tune from The Bear's Revenge album), which was really funny." Hannah proceeds to hum it…
"For us, touring is really important – you get to go to the most odd, well actually the most normal corners of the UK and people are really grateful that you have made the effort to come and play. The pattern for us is not people fighting at gigs though, but having babies at gigs. We've had messages from people saying we came to your gig, we got it on, 'we' got pregnant!
"Someone came to a gig we did in Oxford and I think they were late in labour and they came to see if it would help and it did… Within an hour, healthy baby boy… really nice."
After a hectic gigging schedule since the release of their second album, The Bear's Revenge, The Moulettes took some time out to record Constellations at the Old Foundry Studios in Lewes. Their third long player and first for the esteemed nu-folk label Navigator, Constellations was co-produced by Ollie and Joe Gibb and it's another giddy ride; complex yet structured, full of verve and imagination, propelled by Hannah's extraordinarily lively songwriting, singing and cello playing. Upon release it charted at number 24 in the album charts. And, as mentioned before, it's full of guests, many of the great and good of Brighton, but also beyond. There's Emma Richardson (Band of Skulls), I Am The God of Hellfire legend Arthur Brown, Herbie Flowers, Blaine Harrison (Mystery Jets), Marcus Hamblett, Nick Pynn, harpist Emma Gatrill, Rachel and Beccy of The Unthanks, singer Faye Houston and many others. "We just asked people we knew and had seen," says Ollie. "We are so spoilt for great players in Brighton, you only have to walk out the door and you bump into a player! We asked people as we went along.
"Playing with Herbie, that was an amazing experience; we went to his house, had biscuits and just listened to him talk. He's just so matter-of-fact about what he's done (he's played on hundreds of hit records), which is humbling… There was this documentary I saw on TV and Herbie was going through his diary: 'In the studio today, Lou Reed, Transformer, Take a Walk on the Wild Side, bassline!'. £2 That's it, one of the most famous pieces of music written…£2 He said he got paid double because he overdubbed the bass part! We went to his lovely sounding music room, set up, did a few takes and it was done… He's had the same two basses since 1961 I think, an electric and double bass."
As a storyteller, Hannah Miller is the lyrical driving force behind Constellations and underlying the album are themes of universality, myths and legends and the dramas that humans play out in the everyday, but which are somehow aligned to the stars in the night sky. As she has said: "Far off mysterious events on a vast scale come to have microcosmic significance and resonance for people and communities. I really enjoy fantasy realms, going to other worlds, like you do in Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Philip Pullman books. The songs draw on this love."
The Moulettes do worry about whether there is too much going on and it is obvious that Hannah's natural inclination towards musical progression and complexity has to be reined in here and there. "Is there too much?" they ask. "We were not sure…. we do have to reign it in a little in the studio," says Ollie. "I had a great cello teacher," says Hannah. I would mainly play Eastern European romantic classical music in minor key – there is a lot going on there…. Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff… there's been different ways of going about different songs. Some of the best ones just draw themselves out and the others are actually rewarding to keep working on them," she says. "And then you ask everyone to calm down a little bit," concludes Ollie with a smile.
"The good thing is, because we've had different players come in and out, is that everyone comes from a different discipline; there's a couple of classically trained, Jim and I are self-taught and from a rock background, jazz and folk musicians, someone like Hannah who comes with her great sense of melody and words," says Ollie. "It's like for instrumentalists, it's a proper playground. We get into the stories and try and think of ways that musically can express what the songs are about. It's loads of fun. We can get carried away, but it all pans out in the end."
"In my house, my Mum was a classical musician," says Hannah, "and my dad a luthier, a folk player who makes quite a lot of our instruments and also really loves prog and acid rock. My sister gave me a Bjork CD when I was nine… I was like, 'wow!' That got me on the path of liking everything that she does, evolving and trying to make something new."
Everything about the band is thoroughly thought out and worked at hard, from the music itself to the business side of the the band (a lot of it is done in-house), the design of the merchandise and the artwork for the releases, which in the case of Constellations was geared to visually represent the places, characters and stories that Moulettes songs are made of. Artists such as Kit Williams and his famous Masquerade book was an inspiration, where clues are littered along the way. "Adam Oehlers was the illustrator, I do the tapestry bits and Aaron Miler did the graphic design," says Hannah. "The front cover was a 3D model, planets suspended from thread so they spin, some have lights inside, which took three months to do. We tried to photograph it with a digital camera, but I was like, 'where is the depth'? For ages we tried cross-processing slide film and used a1921 Voigtlander pinhole camera. The margin for error was massive and that shot was the only one that worked, very difficult to predict the results."
Once again, the band are playing many festivals this year, 30 at last count, but actually less than they normally do as they focus more on the the folk circuit. "Secret Garden Party, that's when we first started to get on the festival circuit,"says Ollie. "We blagged it in, pretending we were part of a fire troupe. And from playing around the communal fires we got three extra gigs. This year, Cambridge Folk Festival is the flagship one, because we have just signed to Navigator, so in the folk world there will be a nice amount of people who will know the record by then."
Forming in Glastonbury, the band moved around, first to Manchester and then Southampton before settling in Brighton. "Glastonbury, that's where I grew up," says Hannah. "I lived over the hill, in West Pennard, just by Pennard Hill where the stone circle is. That's my hill! That's where I met Ruth and Rob and Ted."
"We've got that horrible Brighton smugness now, haven't we, now that we have been here a few years. It's an illness of Brightonians!" laughs Ollie. "Manchester is overcast much of the time," says Hannah, "but there are some great musicians and people. One of my friends always says, 'imagine how good the people must be here to make us stay, because it rains almost every day'. It actually does rain 300 days a year. It gradually erodes you," says Hannah, not entirely seriously.
"I think it's true to an extent, that Brighton is a bit more open and communal, musically speaking. I've never lived in a place where there are so many working musicians. That's why its good to do an album because it's the only extended period of time when you are still, when you actually get to hang out with your friends who are often off touring."
Constellations is out now on Navigator.