Free jazz and doom metal – It’s a combination that makes a lot of sense; both are, in their own ways, about a deliberate yet liberated distillation of noise. There aren’t too many sonic alchemists playing with these particular elements, but Free Nelson Mandoomjazz are masters (and mistress) of the craft. Originating in Edinburgh, now apparently scattered to the four winds (their tour logistics must be a nightmare) the trio’s second album, “Awakening of a Capital” was released in February is still receiving the proverbial rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the first in a series of three 7 Questions interviews in which Rebecca Sneddon (alto saxophone), Paul Archibald (drums and percussion), and Colin Stewart (electric bass) each answer the same set of questions. Should be fun. First up, ´Becca…

©Seamus Conacher
©Seamus Conacher

1. What was your first musical instrument, and what did it mean to you?
My first musical instrument was – like many British children – the recorder, and it meant nothing to me but pain and misery. Mostly of the inner-ear variety. A couple of years later, I picked up the saxophone – my first instrument not purchased from the Early Learning Centre.

2. What’s your ‘guilty’ listening pleasure? (i.e. something you listen to in secret?)
I think I’m pretty open about my bad music taste. It’s vast and varied – from Tom Jones to Nicki Minaj; I wouldn’t say I listened to anything “in secret”. As I type, I’m listening to Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind”. When touring, we take turns being in charge of the music… my turn never lasts long. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient sound to help my concentration – I guess you could say that was “secret” listening. Maybe the secret is that I actually take a lot of pleasure in ambient soundscapes.

3. What are your non-musical influences?
As a media composer, I take a lot of influence from visual sources. This translates to my performance, where I often relate my sound to a visual idea; an illustration of a mental image. Whether this comes across on stage or is just in my mind I’m not sure… As much of my performance is improvised, I have the freedom to follow ideas as they manifest – whether they be musical, visual, emotional or otherwise.

4. What’s the balance of preparation vs. improvisation for the average live set or recording?
With Free Nelson Mandoomjazz, the balance of preparation vs. improvisation is surprisingly balanced for what comes across on stage. We do have a very clear idea of overall structure, mostly dictated by the bass. Each track has very defined sections which help us move from one idea to the next, although the actual performance of a section may vary greatly. My own parts are mostly improvised; I will have a sense of what tone/style to aim for but generally no written part. There are times where I play set riffs, although the length of these fragments can vary. Perhaps the only notable exceptions are K54 and The Pillars of Dagon, which are pretty strictly composed (and both Archibald tracks!). As a performer, I greatly enjoy the freedom of improvisation and the ability within the performance to explore ideas and sounds.

5. What have been the best and worst moments playing live?
Worst moments? We managed to blow out an amp in Le Havre and had to cut the set early, so that was pretty shit (although also kind of rock and roll). I also had a couple of keys fall off my sax during a pretty energetic, full-band gig once – and finding a tiny screw in the middle of a set with twelve people dancing around is something I wouldn’t want to repeat. I take much more care in regular maintenance now!

Best moments are always when you can feel the audience appreciating your sound and performance, however large (or small) that audience may be. Audience energy can really influence the music itself, and I definitely feed off that.

6. Where do you stand on the streaming/downloading/file-sharing/musicians-not-getting-paid-for-their-music debate?
Digitising music has undoubtedly vastly increased the scale of music piracy, and unfortunately as technology advances I doubt there is much way to curb this. It’s interesting to me that music piracy, with the growing ease of media duplication, has become viewed as a solely criminal act. I remember burning CDs and making cassette mixtapes for friends purely because I wanted to spread good music – it would be a shame to think that this intention was completely lost. Would the equivalent now be uploading albums to a fileshare site? Being a relatively “underground” act, I can’t see digital music piracy as much of a threat to our income.

I have mixed thoughts about streaming applications – on one hand, I do use such services and it would be hypocritical of me to condemn them completely. However, I do think they devalue music and certainly the artist, who ends up with little to no revenue. Listeners now expect the convenience of a free and easy to access library of music, which although an amazing feat of technology has caused a shift in the value placed on music – if it’s available all the time for free, why pay? Of course, this is a generalisation and as a user of streaming services I do still purchase music – perhaps interestingly I tend to buy physical formats such as CD or vinyl. My listening habits via streaming tend to be records from the 1950s-70s, while any new music I usually buy from the artist – with the exception of old vinyl (which can come from all manner of places, usually charity shops). Answering this question has made me question my use of streaming services… perhaps it’s time I packed in the streaming altogether.

©Seamus Conacher
©Seamus Conacher

7. What’s next? (musically, geographically, recording, tours, ensembles, anything…)
Free Nelson Mandoomjazz will be recording their third studio album early in the new year, so I’m psyched for that – we’re working through lots of new sounds and ideas and looking to tour the album later in the year. Geographically, being situated in Bristol and surrounded by such a vibrant and open-to-anything arts scene, new collaborations are always in the works… watch this space!

“Awakening of a Capital” and “The Shape of DoomJazz to Come / Saxophone Giganticus” are both available from RareNoise Records.