After a couple of low-key EP releases, Whin, a duo featuring Martin John Henry (De Rosa / Henry & Fleetwood) and Robert Dallas Gray (Life Without Buildings), are about to release their debut LP ‘Dawn Firth’.
Although Martin and Robert have been friends since Robert did the artwork for De Rosa’s debut single ‘Camera’ in 2004, prior to Whin, their musical collaboration had been restricted to Robert playing guitar on De Rosa’s second album ‘Prevention’ in 2008 for one simple reason.
Robert: “I had stopped making music when we had our first kid in 2011. I just didn’t have any time and life kind of got in the way.
“But Martin started gently pestering me to start doing something again. In 2017, he sent me a De Rosa track and, although I never really managed to get anything together, I started thinking of playing again. I bought myself an amp again and started playing and, before I knew it, I was playing every day.”
As the De Rosa invitation hadn’t worked out, Martin tried a different approach.
R: “He called me and said he’d booked a day in the studio with Andy (Miller, Gargleblast Studios). And I was like “Whit?”. But at that point we had to get something together!
“I hadn’t done anything like this for a very long-time so I had to figure out how to play my guitar and what my style is and what I was going to bring.”
After initially exchanging ideas via email, the pair finally went into the studio in October 2018.
R: “We were playing together and rehearsing quite regularly and were also making phone recordings of stuff, but they were just meant to be notes. The idea was we’d go in and out of the studio and build something up in there with Andy.”
“However, we found that when we tried to replay these things, they lost something.
It started to feel like the phone recordings were a thing in themselves and the domesticity that came out of them was actually part of what we were doing. So we started to figure out ways to use the phone recordings.”
Martin picks up the story.
“We’d really enjoyed getting together and being in the same room. At that time, it was going to be about improvisation and responding to each other live.”
R: “But very quickly, it moved away from that and we just followed it. Instead, it became a studio project in the way that Eno’s stuff was. He always considered himself a vector for being able to bring the right people and the right sounds together to make music. And that’s part of the Whin stuff as well.”
M: “Doing the EPs was us figuring out how it was going to work because they’re made up of such a mix of processes – we’ve got the recordings we did with Andy, the phone recordings and Robert starting out doing his own engineering at home.”
At this point it became apparent that the record could not just be completed by the two of them.
R: “Martin’s quite good as saying this is quite good but it needs something else. And quite often something else is somebody else. Some of the rewarding stuff has been thinking maybe so and so could do something nice. So you send it off to them and get something totally surprising back.
“The first time that happened was with Fritz (Welch) the percussionist who played on the track ‘Kris’ on the first EP. It’s when someone has taken what you’ve done and understood it and taken it off completely in their own direction. I was jumping about the room for joy.
“That also happened a couple of times with Craig Mulholland who played keyboards on a couple of tracks and he did a remix that’s going to come out at some point.”
One of the collaborators on the record came from slightly further afield.
R: “In late 2019 Dylan (Baldi) from Cloud Nothings did a listening party on Twitter for Life Without Buildings’ album ‘Any Other City’ and I got in touch with him because of that. We corresponded a bit and I asked if he’d be interested in collaborating. He was!”
M: “All these different collaborators and instruments have got their own little response to the duo thing which is sitting there as a bed for it all.”
Whilst predominantly instrumental, Dawn Firth does feature Martin on vocals one track but he stresses that ‘Dams’ didn’t arrive as a fully formed song.
M: “It’s just another element which is responding to the playing of the other instruments. It doesn’t feel like there’s a singer/guitarist there, it’s almost like another collaborator.”
Looking back on the creation of the record, both found it a very positive experience.
M: “It was really freeing for me as Whin is all about what I’m interested in when I’m listening to music – the nuance, space and people’s touch. So, it was really different.”
R: “We both approached it with the idea of being very open, of wanting to accommodate improvisation or mistakes and collaborations as well and for it to be quite an expansive thing as well.
“I think it’s turned into something quite distinctive of its own.”
‘Dawn Firth’ track by track:
M: “This came from playing guitar in my back garden. It was a perfect summer’s day, the kids were playing, maybe in the paddling pool. I was just letting my fingers do the thinking and I developed it into a wee riff and sent it over. Robert did a great job with the mix, Craig’s synth strings swelling to almost submerge everything else then flowing away. It kind of takes my breath away, listening now. It’s no longer about chilling in the garden.”
2. ‘What Are You Looking For’
R: “It’s a recording from a holiday on the Isle of Skye, I think I had been trying to record bees and my daughter interrupted me!”
R: “I always had the idea that we could be something other than just two guitar players and I had this beat in my head for ages. So, I recorded this drum part but I sent it out to my guitar amp, through a real spring reverb, and played with delays on it, and that’s what I sent to Martin. I didn’t really expect him to respond but he played this absolutely perfect guitar part, which took it right into mid–80s Cabaret Voltaire territory, exactly what I’d been thinking. Again, it seemed like it needed something else on it, and what Craig did – the synth bass parts particularly – completely brought it into focus. It creates a real pivot for the album.”
R: “I loved Martin’s guitar part but I could not for the life of me do anything with it. This was the first thing we sent Dylan. He came back, really quickly, with his guitar part, which he’d played into his laptop at his partner’s parents’ house, where he was locked down. Anyway, this sat on the back burner for ages until we finished it off with some really simple organ; it’s just a joy of melodic invention and conversation, I think.”
M: “On one of our EPs we collaborated with improvisational musician Fritz Welch, who played the most unexpected, inventive, musical, drum part. This inspired me to make a multitrack song with an improvised approach. So each of my takes – guitar, vocals, drums – were recorded as an improvised single take. It was very cathartic to work like that. The lyrics, although improvised, tell a surprisingly clear story about two people connecting in a city.”
6. ‘First Frost’
R: “I had this guitar part which felt like venturing out of a log cabin in the morning, reluctantly, to gather firewood.”
M: “All the guitar parts I had for this seemed to clutter it up. My best pal Kenney had recently
given me a drum kit so I thought I’d have a bash at something sparse.”
R: “It’s a recording from our favourite beach on Skye, where if you stand in the right place, the tide comes in and leaves you on a little island.”
M: “For me, this is a nice moment to reflect on sound as the movement of air. And a recording is a weird attempt at making that concrete. Solid air.”
R: “This is the only thing on the album where we’re playing in the same room. It’s based on this little arpeggio in C. It wasn’t a song at all, just a thing I played to hear the sound of the guitar. As things went on I realised that ‘the sound of the guitar’ was actually important, and relevant, and maybe something could be made out of it.”
M: “We had played this a few times months before and it was very much a call and response, improvised performance. I love this recording. You can hear the room, our movements. You can tell we’re really listening to each other. There was no point in going any further with it because it was about that performance in that room at that moment.
“Shaun Nicolson (4 Songs and a Dream) referred to these as ‘conversational guitars’, which I thought summed it up nicely.”
9. ‘Tutti Frutti’
M: “My daughter liked Little Richard when I put on a video of him singing Tutti Frutti. She was only four and she started dancing around and singing along. I managed to record a bit of it. I think although this is sometimes a sparse and slow album, there’s also a good amount of pure joy in the music.”
10. ‘In A Field’
M: “My wife and I managed to take a rare walk around the farmland near where we live without the kids. Time alone together, walking in a beautiful place. Important, happy moments. The drum march was Robert’s idea. It’s a ramshackle march because I played it. And because I’m a ramshackle husband.”
11. ‘Dawn Firth’
M: “The backbone of this is a phone recording of me playing our old, out of tune piano. I’ve grown to love records where the piano sounds real, bad or ugly even. The Ruins album by Grouper was a huge influence. Robert’s rich guitar responses are a welcome counterpoint. You can hear my wee boy interrupting, I think he’s saying something rude. There’s something so matter of fact about this song, yet it’s just as unlikely as any other moment in time.”
R: “When I heard this, I felt like it had the immediate emotion of all of the things that had succeeded that we’d done before.”
12. ‘First Frost (Reprise)’
M: “I accidentally slowed down the original version of this which was a happy accident that allowed my busy guitar parts to not sound so busy. I love the lapsteel parts Robert added.
“We’ve recently begun to acknowledge our country influences.”
13. ‘Dunbeth Park’
M: “I recorded my guitar part on returning from an afternoon of playing with the children in Dunbeth Park in Coatbridge I tried to keep things simple and there’s calmness, restfulness, like a lullaby.”
R: “I just responded to that stunning guitar sound, tried to match it with something. And then the incredibly pure bass guitar, I just tried to get out of its way and let it be.”
R: “I think this is one of the first things we had. I had the guitar part for ages, and Martin played a lovely part on top of it, then I put in the organ, then got the kids to do their thing. I never thought of it as an ending track, but Sorley, our middle kid, says ‘can we go now’ so I guess it’s perfect. It’s nice to end on a high.”
‘Dawn Firth’ is released on CD and download on 8 April 2022 via the Whin Bandcamp.