Working with the Poet Laureate: Little Machine
"When we get together we just argue about it until we get something that everyone’s happy with!"
OX discovered more about Little Machine with lead vocalist and guitarist Walter Wray
How did you get into combining music and poetry?
We kind of arrived at it by accident. There are three of us in the band: myself, Steve Halliwell who plays the keyboards and guitar and our lead guitarist Chris Hardy. I used to be in a Heavy Rock band with Steve about 25 years ago and we lost touch. We met up again about 5 or 6 years ago and started writing songs.
When the band broke up in the early 90s Steve went on to be an English teacher and one of the things that he’d done was set ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by Yeats to music and when we re-established our working relationship he said “why don’t you have a go at singing this?’
And everyone really loved it. So we did another one – ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams. And then we did ‘Ozymandias’ by Shelley.
Everyone said we should get out and gig and so we started very small doing little poetry societies and book groups in London and it gradually grew from there.
Is it quite far from the musical shenanigans you got up to when you first started out?
Well I started out a very long time ago! About aged 20 or 21 after finishing university in Sheffield way back in 1980. For the next 5 or 6 years I was in grim northern Indie bands which was the thing to do in those days and it was a wonderful time to be doing that.
I moved to London in 1987, met Steve, joined a great big posturing stadium rock band and ended up touring the states with big hair and leather trousers.
So playing very sensitive and quiet arrangements of brilliant poetry is quite far removed from those days!
How do you decide what poems to do?
We all have a bit of a literary background. Steve was an English teacher, Chris is a published poet and I did an English degree all those years ago and always loved poetry. We have a collection of riches there when we get together; someone always says “Oh I’ve had a go at this” or “I’ve had a go at that”. To start with there was no logic to it. But as we’ve gone on there’s been a demand for a certain style.
We’ve developed an educational show called “EPIC” which is 3,000 years of poetry; we go from Homer to Hip-Hop in one hour! It’s a bit like Horrible Histories with a poetic soul.
That was quite a big defining thing because we realised that we needed something medieval, some ancient stuff, Victorian things…so for a little while we worked on broadening the range. And then of course the First World War centenary came up and we focused on World War One poems. (The last album we put out was A Blackbird Sang which was a collection of poems associated with The Great War).
So circumstances do have an influence but generally anything is up for grabs!
What is the process of putting music to a poem? Is there a step-by-step that you always follow?
The three of us all have very different ways of working. Because I do most of the lead vocals I really concentrate on the tune. I spend a lot of time learning the poem, speaking it out loud to find the rhythms and phrases in it. I think the other guys tend to look at it from the other direction, the atmosphere and rhythm of the music and then the way the words fit over the top.
When we get together we just argue about it until we get something that everyone’s happy with!
You also run workshops that teach people to do what you do don’t you?
Yes we do. It’s a lot of fun. I don’t suppose it’s exactly teaching people to do what we do because that depends on having 30-40 years of musical experience.
But what we try to do is get people into the idea of performing their poetry. We invite people to bring a poem, something they’ve written or just a favourite poem. We work with them to find a way of setting it to music. The different ways of doing it become apparent, you either work from an atmosphere towards a melody or maybe find a melody in the words, or you find a rhythm. The wonderful thing about it is you don’t know what’s going to happen. You get a bunch of people in a room with varying levels of confidence. But everyone is so supportive and willing to pitch in and have a go. By the end of it we’ve got people performing, people doing backing vocals on others’ stuff, clapping along and making sound effects!
You’re sort of part of an ongoing campaign to get people in touch with poetry aren’t you?
I believe we are. We’re coming at it from a different direction though. I think the main impetus of such a campaign is for people to write their own poetry and to look at some of the exciting new poets like Kate Tempest who is doing fantastically well crossing over into that alternative music scene which is brilliant.
Our little niche is saying that this new stuff is brilliant but there’s a history there – Byron, Shelley, Shakespeare, Chaucer. This stuff is worth having another listen to and we’ll give you an excuse to listen to it because we’ve set it to music.
I listened to your take on ‘London’ by Blake and it reminded me of Nine Inch Nails! Do people compare your music to different bands a lot of the time?
Yes. Back in the day when we were in Rock bands and people said we sounded like this band or that band you almost felt offended: “We’re original, we do our own thing!”
Now I like the idea of people being reminded of a genre. You will have realised listening to the stuff that we pick and choose lots of different styles. This is the advantage of being a bunch of guys that have been around for a long time; we’re all like little Wikipedias of musical styles. If we use a little bit of Blues or Jazz or Folk or even Prog then that’s going to come through.
We do a great version of ‘Jabberwocky’ that sounds like Jethro Tull and people say it takes them back to the 70s!
I’ve never had Nine Inch Nails said to me before so that’s brilliant!
Any ideas set-wise for TAL Festival?
We’ll probably do a variety of really well known stuff that people remember from school…things that go down well. We’ll do Shakespeare, a bit of Chaucer because it’s a bit rude and gets a laugh, the Romantic Poets always go down well (Byron, Shelley, Keats), some moderns like our thumping version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, and ‘Jabberwocky’ of course!
What else is coming up for Little Machine?
We’re working on a very exciting project at the moment. We’ve done quite a lot of work with Carol Ann Duffy and she approached us about collaborating on a Christmas album. She’s been writing Christmas poems for the last 6 years – a poem every year for a collection called The Twelve Poems of Christmas. She said we ought to set her Christmas poems to music so we did those 6 which we performed at a show in Edinburgh and it went down a storm. She said “how many more do you need to make an album?” Then she wrote 5 more poems…5 unpublished poems by the Poet Laureate for us to put to music!
It’s called Dark Rose for Christmas, it’s going to come out towards the end of November and there will be a bunch of gigs to promote that.
Little Machine will appear at TAL Festival on 17 October, 6:00pm at Players Theatre.
Related Articles: The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival