Phoenix Foundation drummer Richie Singleton talks about becoming Rebel Peasant on his new solo album, The Walls of the Well. Interview by BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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THE SIX-PIECE Phoenix Foundation are bigger than most bands in terms of its members. However, in addition to the three excellent albums the band has put out, each member has now completed some sort of idiosyncratic solo project. Drummer Richie Singleton has, under the guise of the Rebel Peasant persona, put out a moody instrumental/dub album The Walls of the Well. But unlike many of the Capital’s other dub albums, the album approaches dub from a production point of view. It’s more downbeat, moody, visual. While at points, the album lacks the tension that the best instrumental albums have, the album is a compelling and evocative listen. It features some intricate interplay between the songs, and Singleton throws in some unconventional instrumentation and some melancholy musings.

Singleton took some time making the album, no doubt constrained by commitments to his other projects. “About two years all up. Two years all in terms of recording those tracks. I had been thinking of those ideas for the last three years. [It was] on and off though. I had to put it away for two or three months at a time and then come back to it again.”

While the album is being called a solo one, Singleton doesn’t necessarily see it as a solo album. “I just see it as another body of work I’ve been involved with as a musician. I’ve primarily driven this one myself, but I’ve always written compositions, and it got to a point where I was making lots of them myself, on my computer, and I really wanted to release something.”

However, Singleton admits it was quite difficult not having a band to fall back on. “It meant I had to make executive decisions, all of them myself. When you’re in a band, when someone’s really got a problem with something, you’ll give credence to that, but generally if they’re obsessing over something you tell them to ‘get over it mate, move on’. When you’re on your own in the bedroom, you can go crazy on that.” This long self-driven process also was quite difficult to work through when it came to maintaining the album’s mood (and not lose it by becoming too perfectionist). “When you’ve got all the time in the world, because it’s your little self-produced thing that no-one else is putting pressure on you to sign off on it and finish it, you can end up taking all of the music out of it by refining it and making it more and more sterile and making it more correct.”

That said, Singleton did have plenty of famous visitors onto the album – including his fellow Phoenixers. But the decisions and planning were solely Singleton’s to make. “They’d come in and do a session and lay some beauty on it, but once they left again it was totally up to me whether I wanted to persevere with that or even release the track or whatever. There were a few songs I worked really hard with people, but we just decided not to put them on in the end.” Singleton admits however that the sessions were totally collaborative, and half-way through the process, he made the recording sessions more improvisatory and less structured, which opened the songs up a bit more.

Instruments like piano accordions, melodica, strings and clarinets make their way onto the album. Singleton says “they were all deliberate except for the clarinet, on ‘Inundare and the Moon’. Just because Sam [Flynn Scott of the Phoenix Foundation] was going through a clarinet phase at the time and he always had it with him, and he was like ‘oh let’s try a clarinet on it’ and it was the perfect thing.”

Singleton says that while the main driving factor of making a solo album wasn’t the fact other people in the Phoenix Foundation have already done so, he does enjoy being part of a band with such a diverse range of output. “It’s cool that we’ve all done one, because it gives the band a huge volume of material that we’ve done as a whole, and everyone has been involved in each other’s stuff and encouraged each other along the way, and it’s been a cool family of music coming along. We did a gig a little while ago, and someone wanted us to sign an album for them, and we said ‘come back stage, sure’. And when she pulled it out of the bag, she actually had the whole lot, all of the solo albums and the Phoenix albums. That was the first time we’d seen them together and realised there’s this huge body of work. Pretty cool I reckon.” This diversity assists with the Phoenix Foundation too. “Everyone’s feeding on all of these different influences at band practices. I reckon that’s why we’re not too derivative or generic sounding, because everyone’s interested in different stuff.”

The Walls of the Well is dub inflected, reflecting Singleton’s past as a percussionist in a reggae band, and his love of the Congos, the Abyssinians and the Wailers among others. However, Singleton was conscious of not making it sound same-y or simplistic. “I wanted it to be weird, and that was I drawing from. I didn’t want to make classic reggae, I just wanted to do my own thing, I feel like I can’t appropriate it, but I’m so heavily influenced by it, I wanted to recognise it.” However, there’s no guarantee any follow-up would follow this template. “I definitely in the last six months to a year have been feeling like ‘I’ve been finished with that side of me’. I might go back to it, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve definitely been moving on from that.”

The instrumentals have a filmic quality, and Singleton halfway during producing the album ditched plans to include lyrics in the album. “I wanted it to have this really reflective and non-specific aesthetic to it. I started writing some and singing on it a bit, and I decided to flag and go all instrumental. I still had specific themes. All those tracks had ideas and concepts behind them. In a way, I found the lyrics that I was writing were too specific and the idea could be expressed more broadly without lyrics.”

Singleton however does construct the album around stories, and around personas. The Rebel Peasant for example is a character with an extensive back-story, who “through the misgivings of him and his village comrades, they’ve got themselves into this position where they’re facing this time of resource scarcity and they need to turn the situation around. That idea is on a real basic level, or water, or firewood are things they’d run out in a simplistic sense, but obviously you can extrapolate it to the bigger problems of the world today. That track ‘The Meek Shall Inherit What’s Left’, that expands the idea of the rebel, in Rebel Peasant. He’s one of the peasants, one of the dudes who stuffed it all up, but now he has to rebel against the system that continues to perpetuate this destruction and degradation and find a new way of going about things.”

This character informs the feeling of the album, and the album’s mood is impacted by Singleton’s fears around the environment and resource scarcity. (Singleton used to work for the Sustainability Trust). The album if bought online at Amplifier comes with a Hippo, a water-saving device that goes into one’s toilet to save water. “I had heaps of Hippos that were left over, so I rang the guy who stocks them in New Zealand and said ‘I reckon it’d be cool to give away Hippos with the album because it’s about water and resource scarcity’, and he was totally into it and said ‘I’ll totally send you up a whole lot more’ so we thought we’d give them away. I’ve still got a whole lot. The ones we’re selling on Amplifier, we’re putting with them. It’d be cool to put them in the shop with the CD, but it just seemed like it’d be too much of a mish.”

Singleton didn’t want the album to be about “Richie Singleton”. “I find it way more interesting to invent a character and base the whole thing around that. I’m not really interested in it being about me. (I guess if I was really like that I wouldn’t do any interviews). I just think it’s way more fun, to do the whole thing based on this character. When we came to do the artwork for it, we came to this bridge we had to cross: were we going to give this character a face, who was this character, and the only person I could get to do all the photos was myself because I didn’t have a budget to pay someone to become the character.” He’s not sure if the follow-up album to his fascinating début would be a Rebel Peasant one either, and perhaps a Bowie-like shift in personalities might occur. “Yeah maybe. I don’t know what’s going to happen to that dude. I’ve got a whole lot of compositions on the go at the moment. We’ve got a pretty busy six to eight months with Phoenix, and other things I’m up to, And the follow-ups a wee while away. And I’m not sure what’ll happen in that time. He might die out.”