The Matthew Herbert Big Band ~ The State Between Us

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The full name of the group is The Matthew Herbert Great Britain and Gibraltar European Union Membership Referendum Big Band – a little unwieldy perhaps, which is why it’s been conveniently hash-tagged as #brexitbigband for all your social media needs. We’ll stick to the shorter version here, but if you are in any doubt: yes, this is a record about Brexit. The release date was scheduled for ‘Brexit Friday’ which at time of writing may not actually be the 29th March. This uncertainty is no surprise given the history of Brexit thus far, but it is going to be a little annoying for all the artists who have worked on projects for this particular moment. Still, it’s totally in keeping with everything that has gone before that the leave date still has a ‘TBC’ next to it. But how did we get into this mess? And does The State Between Us help us understand the whole Brexit scenario? And thirdly, can all this be answered in the space of a record review?

Well, with a few links for further reading, we shall try… First of all, it’s worth going back to a previous Matthew Herbert Big Band 2008 album, There’s Me and There’s You which had a list of names on the front under the statement ‘We, the undersigned, believe that music can still be a political force of note and not just the soundtrack to over-consumption’ so it’s no surprise that they would engage with the thorny issue of Brexit – but is a two-hour opus the best way to make a point? To be fair, if anything has defined Herbert’s career thus far it’s the lengths he will go to in order to Make A Point, having started out sampling kitchen items to make Around The House, before becoming increasingly engaged politically with Plat Du Jour and the One… trilogy which come with extensive notes to explain exactly what has been sampled and why. In that sense, he’s the musical equivalent of Cornelia Parker, the artist who uses very specific items to create her works (for example, earplugs made from dust found in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral). But do you want to slog through an essay explaining the reasons for each sample, or do you just want the music? And is The State Between Us a work that will engage, without pages of explanation?

Before that… By some happy coincidence, Cornelia Parker was the official artist for the 2017 post-Brexit elections which saw Theresa May barely hang on to power – and if you want some idea of the state of the UK at this point, one of Parker’s videos is below. Have a quick watch and I’ll see you in three minutes.

If you’re feeling suddenly very worn down after watching that, I understand – it’s like watching the news for the past four years or so in a single concentrated burst. But it gives some indication of the division and toxicity that have bubbled to the surface around Brexit. There’s been countless newspaper articles, TV programmes and radio debates about it. There is any number of blog posts, and podcasts that you can ignore. Social media has become even more of an open sewer in this brave new Brexit world. It’s like a continual blaring siren which has become noticeably louder the closer we get to the 29th March, but for the most part, it’s just so much white noise; you get desensitized to it. In a nutshell, though, at this stage, everybody – those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain in Europe – is annoyed, with each other and with the government.

Right, then – Europe. The continent has experienced a lot of conflicts over the centuries; quite a lot of internal unrest, and a shocking number of wars between nations. This peaked with the Second World War; after this point, it seemed that the next progression was surely nuclear armageddon. There had to be a better way, and just 12 years after the end of WW2, nations who had been on opposite sides (France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations) signed the Treaty of Rome to form the European Economic Community. The UK declined to be a founding member but joined in 1973, following an act of Parliament. Just over two years later, a referendum was held to see if the UK wanted to stay in – and Yes was the answer with over 67% of the vote, with Yes backed officially by the Conservatives but opposed (albeit not formally) by Labour. Relatively speaking, though, everybody’s happy.

Let’s skip forward a few years. We’ll pass over the nation’s refusal to join the Euro and our collective heel-dragging about switching over to the metric system, but we will note the increasingly anti-Europe and anti-immigration bias of the rightwing press, which for our American friends is like having a paper form of Fox News arrive on your doorstep every morning (this is principally the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and two of Rupert Murdoch’s titles, The Times and The Sun). Europe remains a big issue within the Conservative Party – that Yes vote seems a long time ago – and the division within the ranks was one of the factors in the Tories losing the 1997 election to Tony Blair’s re-branded ‘New Labour’. Under Blair, and then Gordon Brown, Labour had 13 years in power, but contrived to lose their majority in the 2010 election. The Conservatives under David Cameron don’t have enough for an outright majority but persuade Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government. Clegg gets to share a podium with Cameron but any notion that the LibDems have any real say is swiftly quashed; the party haemorrhages votes at the next few elections. But the Conservatives still don’t have a clear majority which allows groups within the party greater leverage, particularly the anti-Europe faction.

Cameron promises an “in-out” referendum, principally to keep the party unified for the 2015 election, which sees a huge shake-up in voting with the Scottish National Party winning virtually every seat in Scotland (mainly at the expense of Labour) and the LibDems going from 57 seats to 8, but the Conservatives keeping a clear majority. So, the die is cast and a referendum is called for 2016. The question is, literally, in or out – there’s no further explanation on the ballot, it’s just Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? Despite being the person who called the referendum in the first place, David Cameron is in favour of remaining, as is the Chancellor George Osborne. The recently voted leader of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, also supports the Remain vote. However, they aren’t making the most forceful arguments. It’s the Leave campaign with UKIP’s Nigel Farage and a selection of Conservative MPs who are shouting the loudest, with their big red ‘Battle Bus’ and adverts threatening a tidal wave of immigrants arriving just to take advantage of the benefits system. For example:

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The Remain campaign is, understandably, a bit less belligerent but crucially a bit less focused – Cameron and Osborne brought ‘austerity’ to the UK following the financial crash of 2008 which saw millions of pounds used to prop up the banks but funding pulled from thousands of beneficial projects (libraries, social clubs, playgrounds and swimming pools etc); Corbyn is at heart, old school Labour (the ones who didn’t want to join Europe in the first place), so his arguments don’t have the power of conviction behind them. I’m reminded of the TV drama GBH by Alan Bleasdale, which featured Robert Lindsay as a confrontational politician who develops a remarkable array of physical tics as the show progresses, facing Michael Palin who grabs his wrists and repeats ‘calm, calm’ as a mantra in times of stress. Although Palin’s character does finally step up, he is passive and consequently intimidated to start with (it’s on All 4’s streaming site in the UK if you want to watch the whole thing). You can guess which each represents in this case.

The main flaw with Remain though is that the belief that, frankly, the UK would have to be collectively insane to side with Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson and vote to leave. Yet, thanks to over 30 years of toxic anti-Europe views in the press, disillusion in the political status quo thanks to austerity and some unsupported promises and dodgy financing that in any other situation would be called electoral fraud, the UK did. We won’t go into the demographics too much here, but the under 24s overwhelmingly voted to stay, because it is their future and the over-50s voted to leave because – well, who knows? The leave voters I’ve spoken to (and there’s a lot where I live) have been generally vague on the subject, often referring to the time before the UK joined Europe as preferable. Many of them are a lot quieter about it since the vote, as the impact of Leave has become more apparent. Other areas with high unemployment, caused by the Tories, instinctively voted against Cameron and Osborne, on the basis there would be less competition for jobs if the Eastern Europeans left. This was never going to work on a practical basis but it gave some illusion of power to the electorate. Clearly, as with many elements of Brexit, there was a lack of foresight.

The majority was 51.9% which even now doesn’t feel like a convincingly enough gap – to give some indication, a swing of around 600,000 would have seen a narrow Remain win; around the population of Leeds in the UK, or Baltimore in the US. It’s fair to say that the UK’s civil service didn’t expect it, nor did the Conservative party themselves as both were caught unawares. The civil service – who, if they are based in Brussels become ‘faceless bureaucrats’ – had nothing planned regarding a leave vote. The Conservatives were in turmoil, with Cameron and Osborne resigning which eventually led to Theresa May (a remainer, lest we forget) being voted leader, triggering Article 50 and coming out with the “Brexit Means Brexit” slogan. Because at that stage, she had no idea what Brexit actually meant. What of the leading lights of Leave? Having financed their campaign through extremely dubious means, the leaders immediately disavowed their promises the morning after the vote.

So, here we are: with Brexit being led by a Prime Minister who is at heart a remainer, seemingly unable to change tack and with a majority solely down to the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland and an opposition under a leader who is unwilling to argue for the process to be cancelled. Had Cameron followed the approach of the government in 1972, and put it to a vote in the House of Commons in the first place the referendum would have been a non-starter because leaving the EU is not just as simple as ticking a box; it’s a messy, brutal and fractious divorce. The 5 million plus who signed a petition to stop Article 50 over the weekend have had a response which in part reads “Revoking Article 50, and thereby remaining in the European Union, would undermine both our democracy and the trust that millions of voters have placed in Government.” Except, there’s very little trust in government at this point and arguably by allowing a small group of liars to skew the referendum, democracy has already been undermined.

Let’s make a cup of tea and put a record on. There’s a raft of releases scheduled for 29th March that take Brexit as a theme but The State Between Us is the most ambitious work, both in scale (100 musicians from across Europe feature) and length (it’s pushing 2 hours). The project, which started on the day Article 50 was triggered, has managed to annoy the Daily Mail already, by getting funding from a government grant (you’ll have to scroll down to view) although for considerably less than the Mail is claiming. Given the project’s scale, it would have been impossible for Matthew Herbert to pull something like this together without the generosity of his collaborators, as he says in the liner notes: it is a testament to the idea of collaboration that more than a thousand people from not just across Europe but the rest of the world gave their time, skills, trust and energy to this project, often for below market rates, and in many cases for free.

The State Between Us opens with birds singing in a forest, as a tree is chopped down. This, incidentally, is the end of Matthew Herbert’s ‘single’ release the 166 hour A Week In The Life Of A Tree (and you thought a two-hour album was a long listen). The felling of the tree underpins the soft choral, meditative singing of an extract from John Donne’s A Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions, the origin of the phrases ‘no man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls’. I assume the singing is deliberately arranged so as not to be entirely clear; the gradual build of the song grabs the attention and is a powerful opener, with or without looking at the sleevenotes. “You’re Welcome Here” is even more direct, beautifully sung by Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne and choir; ‘if a man in uniform tells you that you don’t conform, you’re welcome here’, a generous, warm-hearted message to the marginalised in the UK, as well as refugees and migrants, this is what Britain should be all about.

These two vocal tracks are placed early in the sequence; there’s also “Fiesta”, not as party-friendly as the name suggests, being an arrangement of Ford Fiesta car horns alongside the recording of one being demolished. “Run It Down” is an under-stated big band piece with a lyrical flugelhorn solo from Enrico Rava accompanied with the sounds of a sheep farm and the demolition of a factory. So, The State Between Us is not just about the process of Brexit itself but also looks further afield to the loss of industry in the UK; and perhaps not consciously, the recording of sheep reminds us what a mess farmers find themselves, unsure of how many lambs they need this year if they are unable to export, to name one single instance.

As noted near the start, much of Matthew Herbert’s work leans on the origin of the sounds incorporated in his music. This may work if you keep the sleevenotes to hand, or if there is a programme provided at the live performances. Where it will lose the impact, unfortunately, is the increased adoption of people listening via streaming or download – a major change in habit which has occurred since Herbert’s previous Big Band album, and even his last solo work in 2016. So a listener dipping into The State Between Us on Spotify may well have their heart broken by “You’re Welcome Here” but fail to grasp hold of “Reisezehrung” or the point of “Moonlight Serenade”, the Glenn Miller standard that’s turned into a haunting re-work that would make The Caretaker proud, and is preceded by the sound of a WW2 plane. I must admit I’m a bit baffled by this one, as well; is it about the war, the need for allies, or the dangers of crossing the English Channel?

The second half of The State Between Us opens with the most direct and personal song of the entire record, dedicated to the memory of Joe Pickhaver who tragically took his life at the age of 16. Sung by Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne and choir, once again, the band is soft and delicate, with a couple of solos, ‘Be still, and still, be here’, pleads Rahel as the song gives way to more sounds of nature, birdsong and rainfall. It’s a heart-breakingly poignant piece, and ushers in a sequence with more vocals – although “The Words” has developed into an instrumental piece, with the original words (the text of Article 50) now removed. “The Special Relationship” co-opts Caryl Churchill’s play Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? which looked at US and UK relations and angles it between the UK and continental Europe; the recording of a cross-channel swimmer removes any doubt regarding this particular special relationship: ‘You have to love me…’ are the despairing words at the end.

Such are the details that Matthew Herbert applies to his recordings that, as mentioned, some of the impact will be lost for many listeners. Equally, sitting down to listen for two hours might work better if you’re in a theatre or concert hall, where there’s more interaction and you can see many of the sounds being made (the choir tearing up copies of the Daily Mail, for example). There comes a point when even the most ardent remainer will go ‘Yes, you’ve made your point’, and even fans of the big band sound, many of whom may have voted to leave (just given the demographics), won’t make it past the sound of a tree being felled. Even a Herbert fan might be tempted to give up before the beat on “Where’s Home” kicks in, sounding like the fiesta that was promised in “Fiesta.” It ushers a brief flurry of tracks that raise the tempo. “Fish and Chips” and “Backstop (Newbury to Strabane)” retain the party atmosphere – again, I suspect that this sequence works better in concert – before the sweary torch song “Feedback” (lyrics credited to ‘various strangers online’, I assume comments that have been directed at Matthew Herbert during the making of The State Between Us, probably stemming from the Daily Mail article).

By the time the boisterous call to arms “Women of England” rolls around, the overall effect of listening start-to-finish is beginning to wear me down; and theoretically I’m the prime market for this, having listened to Matthew Herbert’s work since the Wishmountain days and not being averse to the odd big band, and I voted remain. Plus I hate the idea of editing an album after the artist has put their heart and soul into it. After a handful of listens, though, I’m looking at ways to cherry-pick The State Between Us which is not my preferred response. I’m also struggling with the whole concept as it does feel irritatingly insular. If you really wanted to make a point about Brexit, surely you could aim for the middle ground by getting Mark Ronson to produce Adele and Ed Sheeran covering “Let’s Stay Together”? Maybe not as clever as the #brexitbigband – and it sounds awful to these ears – but more direct and more likely to have an impact on those who voted to Leave and are now regretting it.

So, a partial success from Matthew Herbert – the songs with Rahel are very, very good, and deserve a much wider audience than the Big Band is used to getting. The rest of the album could probably have benefitted from a dispassionate editor in the journey from performance hall to disc. It’s been timed for the original Brexit day; since I started writing this, there’s been no end of political turmoil and there will no doubt be more by the time you read this. Possibly even between the first paragraph and this one. So let’s finish with a tune that currently sums up the Brexit mentality, dating from before we even joined the European Community. (Jeremy Bye)

Available here

[This article was amended on 29th March, the figure quoted by the Daily Mail in their article for the grant is erroneous and we’ve changed the text accordingly]

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