Interview: Art-Punk Marching Band Perhaps Contraption on bringing their Carl Sagan inspired theatrical show ‘Nearly Human’ to The Vault Festival

The last time we crossed paths with nine-piece art-punk marching band Perhaps Contraption, they were bemusing market traders in Tooting by leading a parade of music lovers on a brassy perambulation between the stalls.  Since then they’ve been focussing their creative energies on a full-blown theatrical performance, Nearly Human, and following a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, they’re bringing the show to London’s VAULT Festival from 18th – 23rd February.  We caught up with band member Squier Squier about what they have in store.

Give us a little bit of background about Perhaps Contraption

Perhaps Contraption have been doing various musical and performative things since 2004. This ‘device’ has had so many incredible musicians and minds involved with it over the years.

Beginning life as an ultra-spiky avant-rock quartet, and after many lineup mutations, the ensemble arrived as a 7 piece, marching band of sorts in 2011, which gradually swelled to a 9 piece by 2012. This device appears to have found a fine equilibrium of personalities and instruments, plus, being able to play completely acoustic and in procession is an amazing attribute.  It means we can do so much beyond normal amplified shows. We’ve paraded through muddy fields, up mountains and across beaches; it feels good to activate unusual spaces with unusual music.

The band have rarely been ones for a ‘standard gig’ performance, but what prompted the decision to take the leap into a full-blown theatrical performance?

Ever since the band’s inception, there was a strong sense of performance art imbued into the gigs.  Initially, we were really inspired by the Fluxus and Dada movements, and would often use props, costumes and theatrical segues to create this (probably very unrehearsed and semi-improvised!) live art / gig-theatre type experience. I’ve always been drawn to the way gigs have the power to morph into the theatrical realm, and what actions you can employ to blur those lines.  In 2017, much to my delight, we were accepted on to Snape Maltings’ ‘Open Space’ Artist-Residency scheme for 2 years, which gave us a huge boost of resources to actually create a set piece for theatre. We spent a long time developing the compositions and concept, and have arrived at what I think is our strongest work to date.

Perhaps-Contraption press gala Terry Murden
Photograph by Terry Murden

There must be so much more to think about with a show like this – what have been some of the challenges and what have you learned along the way?

Yes indeed, theatre is much, much trickier, and so much more expensive! Thankfully, we’ve had some experts along the way to hold our hand, including Lucy Ridley and Christa Harris advising on choreography, Les Enfant Terribles’ Oliver Lansley helping with Dramaturgy, and various brilliant people from Snape Maltings to help when we’ve been stuck in a rut.  But the main area of learning and development has been lighting design. Our brilliant designer Pablo Fernandez Baz spent well over 100 hours programming our spectacular lighting. I never new the precision and technicality required for theatrical lighting, and feel like it’s the unsung hero of entertainment, but is just so essential to creating heightened experiences.  Learning how to make that sync with sound design, acoustic instruments and choreography was a seriously steep learning curve.

Without giving away too many spoilers, what’s the story and what can we expect from the show?

Nearly Human is essentially a euphoric celebration of existence, seen through a cosmic and abstracted musical lens.  Using lots of Carl Sagan’s beautiful prose, we arranged our songs to suggest the life cycle of an atom, and how this atom is part of various different beings who all have their own individual stories to tell. It’s meant to instill this sense that we are all rare and connected, and that the chance we even exist at all is astonishing.

I think the reviewer from the Scotsman explained it really eloquently and succinctly:  ‘A beatific meditation on the micro and the macro… a beguiling, euphoric blast of energy’

PC in Britten Studio 489-C1 by Matt Jolly (Medium)
Photograph by Matt Jolly

The show had a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer – how did that go?

Edinburgh is INTENSE. It was a baptism of fire. It’s certainly the most difficult thing I’ve done, creatively. The level of exhaustion I felt (performing 26 times in 27 days, PLUS street shows nearly every day to promote the work) combined with the financial risks, is really tough on your body on mind. However, being around this enormous explosion of art and creativity is something else; totally inspiring and invigorating. There is a real sense of connection between the performers, a celebration of art itself. Being a part of that huge wave of creativity felt good.

The main thing for me was connecting with audiences and seeing how the piece made them feel. When you’re incubating work for so long, it’s easy to lose a sense of what it even is, and how people will react to it. I was delighted (and surprised) to see that Nearly Human moved people so deeply, often to tears. I couldn’t believe the impact it had on some people, one person came to see it 5 times! He told me it helped him get through the unexpected loss of a close friend. And even though it’s a cliche, that really made all the hard graft worth it.

As performers, how has the experience of playing a series of shows at the same venue differed from the usual touring schedule?

Theatre is a completely different beast. Personally, I love the discipline and precision involved. I love the groundhog day type feeling, going through the same motions. After mainly working in music/festivals, which is often quite chaotic, I found it strangely refreshing!

I also really appreciate the specialisation and expansion in theatrical roles – an amazing company that has sprung up around the work, including Alex Ferguson on Production, Chaz Webb on stage and technical management, and Louis McHugh on sound and light and Winter James as an associate artist. Building the creative family around the band has been one of the most rewarding aspects of taking our music into a new area of the arts.

PC in Britten Studio 493-C1 by Matt Jolly (Medium)
Photograph by Matt Jolly

This set of performances is part of the Vault Festival – How did that come about and what else is going on at the festival?

We’re honoured to  be part of VAULT festival, I’ve been going for a while so to be part of the program feels great!

We were offered a slot after one of the festival directors saw us in Edinburgh. VAULT festival has an incredible array of things happening over 8 weeks, there’s really too much to mention here.

However, we are also putting on our own Late night club at VAULT, which is an accompaniment to Nearly Human. On Friday 21st we are running BEAUTIFUL COSMOS, which is a curious club night full of extraordinary brass-fuelled music combined with a series of short lectures from scientists who will explore the themes in Nearly Human

Amongst a stellar lineup we have Dr. Teppei Katori, an expert in experimental particle physics, as well as 17 piece big band Patchwork Jazz Orchestra.  I’m really interested in the intersection of art and science, and this is another step in that direction.

Can we expect more theatre shows from Perhaps Contraption in the future, or will you be back on the gig & festival circuit?

Firstly, we will be completing and releasing the concept album that accompanies the live experience. We’re about 70% through that. We have various other outings of Nearly Human in the midst (including a European premiere in Milan in March).

We would love to create more theatre down the line, and it’s certainly a strong possibility after the dust has settled from this monster of a project!  For me, I’m also really keen to get back to our roots; writing more songs and getting back on the festival circuit to test run them.

Nearly Human is on at The Forge from 18th – 23rd February as part of VAULT Festival.  Tickets starting at £14 are available here.

Interview by Paul Maps

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