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In Writing

A new dark age

September 2018

Gazelle Twin shares her forthcoming album Pastoral, which examines the fear and loathing behind the lace curtains of Olde England: “I felt like I was bristling with dread, like things were closing in on us all. I suddenly felt very aware of the violence and injustice that lay behind almost everything I deemed nice.’’

Gazelle Twin aka Elizabeth Bernholz returns with her first full length release since 2014’s Unflesh. Called Pastoral, the album examines the darker side of the often misconstrued idyllic setting of rural England. “There is a horror in every idyll,” she declares, “and danger lurking beyond the ‘quaint’. The village square – once host to centuries of public torture – becomes a floral framed postcard, dolled up for the summer fête. Bigoted vitriol gently murmurs amidst tearoom chatter, as the neatly framed pastoral picture dissolves into a solemn ennui.”

Pastoral’s lead track “Hobby Horse” juxtaposes childhood innocence and playfulness with anxiety, brutality and confusion. In the accompanying video Bernholz takes on the persona of a jester, mocking the viewer while angrily proclaiming in a devilish whisper: “My eyes are stinging/My ears are ringing/My hands are tied and I can't get out of here”.

“I am feeling like it’s very much a tabloid demo,” she explains. “It’s the devil acting the fool, playing us ALL for fools.”

The Wire Online Editor Daisy Hyde catches up with Bernholz to discuss notions of the idyll, far right ideologies, and the personal experiences surrounding the record's release.

Daisy Hyde: What have you been up to since the release of Unflesh in 2014?

Gazelle Twin: I toured Unflesh and its live soundtrack counterpart Out Of Body all over the place until the tail end of 2015. I was three months pregnant by that time so I began work on a new commission from Future Everything Festival to create an AV show for other performers still under the Gazelle Twin moniker. Called Kingdom Come, it's been touring festivals since March 2016, with Jez Bernholz (BERNHOLZ), Lone Taxidermist and Stuart Warwick performing all the parts.

I started work on what would become Pastoral around the time I was touring Unflesh, but had many (mostly welcome) distractions. My son was born in spring 2016, and I finished the album shortly after his second birthday this year. It was a long, slow, painstaking process and delivered much later than planned, but I still don’t really know how it all got done, because most of the time I can’t even make myself lunch these days.

I see you moved to the countryside. How did the move inspire certain themes on the release?

Yeah, my husband Jez and I had lived in Brighton for well over a decade, and we fancied a little adventure. We had a chance to tour the world, but to make it at all financially viable we needed to get out of the relentless, rising rent trap. It was meant to be a temporary thing, but we quickly lost track of time, and then we had a kid, and then time became a very strange thing that seemed to swing from treacle to sand falling through our fingers. We found ourselves a little bit stuck, rather than completely content or settled, but it was better than the various alternatives.

The Brexit referendum happened around the time we moved, and we were dreadfully aware of the right-shifting political mood sweeping across Europe. It all seemed to be closing in and reaching a head as soon as we became parents. In a place which should have been a very gentle safehouse for us, an easier life, and a chance to save some money, instead we have often felt like our lifeboat back to civilisation (our old life) has drifted away. Obviously we are not trapped here, but it’s hard to leave a place when you feel like there’s not really anywhere better right now.

I hadn't set out to write an album on the themes of rural life at all. The birth of my son slammed us into a strange and alien new role – with heightened anxiety, and a very protective, slightly paranoid and fearful state (not helped by Post-natal depression), which seemed to jar horrendously with the very idyllic and quiet setting we were living in. Loneliness is something to quickly get accustomed to when becoming a parent. The birdsong, the parks and friendly well-behaved neighbours are often a pleasant thing, but most of the time as a new mum, I felt like I was bristling with dread. Like things were closing in on us all. I suddenly felt very aware of the violence and injustice that lay behind almost everything I deemed nice. I was thinking about how country life has always been this way. I have heard it said on more than one occasion that we are hitting a new dark age. Things are reverting backwards, like they seem to do with human civilisation. Casual aggression, casual racism, casual xenophobia, casual evil, all readily in the air once again.

Can you talk me through the album title Pastoral?

I was kind of raised on a Classic FM playlist, in mostly rural settings, but also in a cul-de-sac on a Victoriana housing estate in the 1980s. As a general theme – ie something I had in my mind whilst writing it (the overarching theme and title came later), I was thinking about growing up in Britain, what it means to be English in this laughable age of over-egged national pride, and how the many tropes and cliches we have about ourselves or seen from afar tropes are reflected in art, history and in modern politics. I was thinking about the Romantic art form of the Pastoral especially, of course – the classical symphony, the landscape painting, and how that romanticism still very much continues to inform the contemporary branding of rural life here. I knew I wanted this to be my parody on that longstanding mythology.

How would you describe a rural idyll in Middle England?

In this particular one, which is largely Conservative and still very much existing in Manorial-law-style submission to the rich and privileged landowners, I would say it is: silently hateful. Subtly violent. Rustically greedy. Quietly predatory. And SUSPICIOUS.

What is it about folklore that you find so intriguing?

I take an anthropological interest in many things. I find it especially fascinating how humans of any origin, rural, urban, remote or living in high rises, cultivate rituals, as if it’s a very deep-seated survival trait and/or identity building process. It’s always been a thought-habit of mine to trace such things back as far as they might go to get to the crux of it, perhaps. I like to muse on and learn about what drives modern humans and their actions; their eccentricities, their tribal tendencies, their propensity to violence, their self-destruction. Folklore tradition often involves characters which represent all these traits, and I think that’s why it becomes such a useful agent in revealing the darker and more subliminal aspects of these very odd times.

Dismantling collective memory or romantic notions of the past is something that reoccurs throughout your work. Do you think that reframing the past can help shed light on the present?

Yes, I do, at least for me looking at things in this way, offers clarity, together with a sense of disbelief and madness. Are we really this ignorant and forgetful?

When starting to focus on the horror behind every idyll, I was thinking about far-right history and its propensity to adopt folkloric, romanic traditions and rustic nostalgia as part of its dogma. Mussolini, Stalin and of course Hitler all utilised this in their own convenient ways. I was particularly drawn to a mid-90s Jonathan Meades programme – Unholy Relics Of Nazi Germany. He visited a thatched cottage in rural Germany. At the time the locals believed it was a sports training centre but it housed all the lectures for the SS doctors to learn how to effectively exterminate large numbers of humans.

I suddenly felt intoxicated by that image of the beamed, thatched cottage in a golden pasture, and then I thought about how this dark secret could apply to the ye olde image of merrie Englande and it certainly does, almost wherever you look.

How do you compare the "murmurs amidst tearoom chatter" to platforms such as Twitter or comment sections on Instagram and Facebook?

Those with un-PC opinions got their confidence boost, for sure. I once nearly had a nervous breakdown after getting bullied on a moneysavingexpert forum for being an artist choosing to have my income supplemented by housing benefit in order to ‘build my business’. The abuse I got was severe and manic, and seemed to be from a group of sixtysomethings who claimed to have ‘worked hard’ all their lives not to have the likes of me scrounging off their tax. It’s that same manic but mega-confident approach to telling people that immigrants are the real problem, not government or policy etc. I think it’s true to say that inter-generational clashes have always been there and tolerance and progressive thinking is often the lacking aspect in that, but now it feels like you can’t just laugh off casual racism as a generational or even a class quirk – the secret is out and everyone wants to find a way to justify their perspective, quite aggressively in whatever way they can.

Previously, your work has dealt with physicality and the body as a place of anxiety and something to be examined. How would you frame a connection between your own physicality and that of shared experience?

In the same way I like to dissect human traits I’m also very interested in tracing the physiological drives and effects of evolution in modern life. Costume has become a very essential tool in communicating multiple ideas about physicality (personal or not). It enables me to communicate these anxieties in an unrestricted physical form, to transcend my own flesh, and reflect, adopt, embody or caricature a range of roles to get points across. In Unflesh I used the PE kit from my school days, representing a point of extreme physical anxiety – to express ideas about my own messed up sense of being. But the act of performing this to people very quickly became something greater – it felt like a vessel for which I could carry others. I experienced many people sharing their experiences within and through this very specific figure and voice. This was, is, a very, very powerful thing.

With the red imp of Pastoral, it’s less personal, so it has a slightly different role. Here I am taking the social anxieties I have about fascism in all its various forms, as a kind of scarecrow figure, maybe it’s even a role-reversing concept, it’s the oppressor, not the oppressed. I like mixing up stereotypes too, because they say a lot about class culture especially. But it’s no one thing in particular. With the performances, the songs themselves are the agents which alter and move the puppet (me) on stage and through these various voices, movements and moods. It’s pretty fun.

How can folk music and electronic music production influence/complement each other?

I think there’s an interesting intersection which I have indulged in a fair bit on Pastoral. The modes and instrumentation of folk music (specifically English folk, as well as early English music) when mixed up with electronics, can end up sort of harking back to 1970s prog and psychedelia. I tried to keep it mostly quite sparse and restrained so as not to have a bit too much of a ‘King Crimson’ on my hands. The specific elements I wanted to include were fairly basic: the recorder (a solo shepherd, the pied piper), the harpsichord (a medieval, music of the royal courts feel), the tambourine, bells and tambour (again, to allude to the folkish, traditional dances), all offset with quite manic, machinic industrial beats, with lots of looping and repetition. I tried not to get too earnest with it all, as was definitely the risk(!). I wanted it to feel a bit jaunty at times, and for there to be a bit of frolicking going on, with a counterpoint of deep, dark, powerful driving rhythms and bass. That’s where the electronics play their vital part, bringing in a bit of pylon electricity, the terror of the industrial revolution, a physical tension, a manic trance, and also lending me the freedom of voice manipulation to bring all the various voices in the story to life.

When Adam Harper interviewed you for The Wire 368, you talked about duality as something you will probably ‘spend the rest of my life trying to flesh out’. I wonder how the final output of such a personal project (such as Unflesh) has affected your work since? Does it offer a sense or closure, for example? Or open up more layers to work with?

Actually, I had thought it was the former – closure – and in lots of ways it was, but since having a child some of the psychological wounds I was dealing with in Unflesh have re-opened in a fairly monstrous way, to the point where I’m now in therapy, but it’s a good process to go through in more detail, and it’s ALL about the detail, especially when going through EMDR therapy. It's the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced.

On the other hand, I do feel as though the no-secret, brutal-truth strategy that began with Unflesh, has helped cement an artistic method. It’s useful not least for scavenging ideas, but to purge the myriad everyday frustrations I accumulate as a (somewhat) repressed white middle-class low income British mum! It could very well be that one day these things overlap and I find myself operating in everyday situations, just as I do with my creative work, but that’s probably a way off yet. I’m not about to start torching my local co-op newsstand for stocking the rags. I might end up in the village stocks if I do, anyway.

Gazelle Twin will perform at Rough Trade East on 27 September, and again at Somerset House on 16 November as part of a new series called Assembly. Pastoral is released on 21 September on Anti-Ghost Moon Ray.

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