Day 17: Dead Orchestras

One of Swimmer One’s Dead Orchestras promo photos – don’t we look young? Pic: Jannica Honey

Dead Orchestras was the opening track – and the title track – of Swimmer One’s second album. The title comes from a mistranslation. I’d read, or been told, that the Japanese word karaoke meant ‘dead orchestra’. I loved this phrase, and immediately pictured a whole orchestra in cryogenic suspension, frozen and preserved for the future – which is, in a sense, what happens when you record music. I kept thinking of all those classical music recordings from the early 20th century whose musicians have long since passed away – a whole orchestra, gone – and imagining people in the future humming along to them, like karaoke singers in a graveyard. I was also thinking of the TV writer Dennis Potter’s final works, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, in which the head of a 20th century writer is frozen and revived in the 24th century, where a media mogul wants to broadcast his memories on TV.

As it turns out, the English translation of karaoke is actually ‘empty orchestra’, which isn’t quite as evocative, but by the time I found that out I’d already written the lyrics, which are about the songs, and memories, you leave behind for your children when you die. So the title stayed.

It’s a song partly inspired by guilt. I had been spending a lot of time away from my young daughter, mostly because of my day job but partly also because I’d been working on two albums simultaneously, an often time-consuming activity in a different city which was becoming more difficult to justify. The line ‘will you forgive our numerous failures and the fact that these songs were mostly about ourselves?’ was addressed directly to her.

By our second album I was also starting to wonder what the point of all this was. Our first, The Regional Variations, had some lovely reviews and a bit of national radio play, but commercial success wasn’t exactly hammering on our door, and I was reaching a point in my life when I wasn’t sure I even wanted it to. After all, people I’d met who were in very popular bands didn’t seem conspicuously happier than me.

In short, I was probably having a bit of a mid-life crisis. I was even questioning the point of recording, the thing I loved doing most. I’d read that we were living in a fleeting moment in human history where recorded music was considered more important than music performed live, and that the internet’s impending destruction of major record labels, and perhaps the entire music industry, was evidence that this moment might be approaching its end. There were all sorts of other interesting ideas about the future of music floating around at that time – that the line between artist and audience would disappear completely, that music would be self-generating, that listening to exactly the same piece of recorded music twice would become a thing of the past, regarded as strange and quaint, its only function being educational archive material.

All this existential doubt fed into Dead Orchestras, the song and the album. The album contains most of the best lyrics I’ve written, I think, partly because by this time Hamish was doing the vast majority of the studio work (he was much better at it than me so I just left him to it) so I spent ages honing the words in order to feel that I was making a valuable contribution while, due to my mid-life crisis, questioning and unpicking every single creative decision we made. The result, in places, is probably an album that has had far too much thought put into it – stylistically it’s completely all over the shop – but there are a lot of layers to it.

Here’s one that no-one probably knows about apart from me. The main reason why I wanted Dead Orchestras to be the opening song was my Pet Shop Boys obsession (a bit of a recurring theme on this website, sorry). Dead Orchestras had the same rhythm, more or less, as Can You Forgive Her, the opening song on their 1993 album, Very.

Appropriately, given the theme, Dead Orchestras the song has now been brought back to life for the new album, After All Of The Days We Will Disappear. The original music was written entirely by Hamish, pretty much, and I was never sure that the lyrics I’d come up with quite gelled with it. So I’ve recorded a new version, which is slower and sadder. Because, obviously, I’d not made enough slow and sad music already. As slow and sad songs go, though, it’s a winner, and has an added resonance for me now I have four children rather than just one.

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