Orchestrated by singer-songwriter Rose Dutton, Rokurokubi’s debut album Saturn in Pisces is a kaleidoscope of mesmerizing psychedelic-folk songs. Over the last couple of years, the Brighton based group have amassed a loyal following, opening for the likes of Puma Rosa, Zofff and Jouis, embedding themselves in the UK psych scene with a unique stamp. Produced by Lauro Zanin (Wax Machine) and Wyndham Earl (Khruangbin, Bonobo), Saturn in Pisces sounds like a continuation of the psychedelic-folk of the 60s and early 70s – as if Rokurokubi have gone back to these roots and carved a distinct path to that of their contemporaries.
Can you elaborate on the formation of Rokurokubi?
Rose: Rokurokubi started as a solo project… me writing songs in my bedroom, recording some demos, and wishing to add more instrumentation to my creations. I met Edmund just under six years ago at a party. We started talking and realised we got along very well.
Edmund: Rose played me an early recording of “Meathouse”, and I found it to be just about the most honest thing I’d ever heard, instinctively finding the chords and playing along on guitar. We moved in together and the house quickly filled with instruments.
Rose: Through a mutual friend we met Daisy, who is so musically talented… she can play everything. I showed her some of my songs and she accompanied us on double bass mainly, as well as doing some drumming. Then Daisy introduced us Nina, a cellist who had recently moved to the UK from Sweden. Cello was always the instrument I had fantasized about when coming up with my songs, so it felt like kind of a gift from the universe to meet a cellist who was interested in playing with us.
Edmund: We jammed for ages, because I think for all of us, playing with other people was a learning curve, and it seemed about the most fun you can have with your clothes on. We also did a lot of campfire jams, and would just play whatever for hours in the woods or at parties in our house, which earned us a lot of noise complaints. But our lovely neighbour Viv, who was an old hippy who slept in a hammock with her Staffy dog Mr. Buster Blue (who she also referred to as Mr. Diesel Bear) always spurred us on. One morning she told us she had snuck into the garden of the neighbour who kept complaining about us, and put slugs all over their clean laundry hanging on the washing line.
Rose: Ha ha. I loved Viv. She was the ideal neighbour. I baked her a cake once.
Can you share some further details how your latest album Saturn in Pisces was recorded and released?
Edmund: Viv’s son ran a guardianship scheme in an old Victorian orphanage in Brighton, and we moved in there and started recording with Lauro Zanin of Wax Machine, another band in the Brighton scene that I order you to check out! We worked between two massive Victorian bedrooms, recording the strings in the hall and trying to do as much live as possible. We’d tried twice before to record, but hadn’t really felt that we’d got the right energy. Living at the orphanage meant that we could set up the kit as we wanted and record at home.
Rose: We also recorded some of the album at Lauro’s house which he shared with all the Wax Machine folks. Around this time I started playing the drums for Wax Machine, and it was sweet but nerve-wracking to suddenly be presented with all these interesting new people who were musically inclined too. I had always wanted to be a drummer since I was a child, before I wanted to do anything else musical. I think my drumming style is probably quite simplistic and maybe a bit idiosyncratic, and it was a real challenge trying to learn the tight and complex rhythms they required. But that process gave me the confidence to play the drums for Rokurokubi. Before that I had been shy, and I think it helped me move from having quite a passive stage presence to being able to shout and give things a heavier edge, which we are moving towards for the second album.
Edmund: Then, in the rather synchronistic way things happen, we met Wyndham Earl just as we finished the recording. He came up to me after a gig raving with praises and asked if he could record us. I said that we were recording with Lauro, but that he could edit and produce the tracks if he wanted, and so started at least a year of post-production. This was where we managed to really capture the power and visceral nature of our live show and enhance it with his exquisite ear for detail. He hears things I just can’t, and is so driven by a sense of perfection, which was helpful in sculpting the space or realm that the album creates.
“If you upset me I will probably write a song about performing a ritual sacrifice on you!”
What’s the songwriting process with Rokurokubi like? Who wrote the lyrics?
Rose: I write the lyrics and melodies. Often I will hear the melody along with the lyrics at the same time in my head, and will transfer this to a notebook, and maybe record a lil video on my phone. Then it’s a case of trying to explain to the others what I want, usually by singing, since I have no knowledge of all the musical terminology or which note is which or whatever. To the trained musician I am definitely a complete philistine. Often, to create a feeling, I will explain things like “well, the song is about a spurned lover who, with her sister, plots to kidnap and torture the man who didn’t want to be with her. I want the cello part to sound very loose and unhinged.” I might even refer to paintings I enjoy, which I think visually capture the vibe of what I’m trying to achieve. Writing horror-movie lyrics can help release some bunny-boiling impulses. It is a way of getting my own back on people who upset me. If you upset me I will probably write a song about performing a ritual sacrifice on you!
Edmund: Rose has an amazing talent for receiving a song fully formed in her head. She’ll get the melody and the lyrics but also hear the counter melody, the drums, the strings, whatever else… it’s like it’s being beamed into her head from the aether. Most of the songs came like this in fluid fashion, but some, like “Yoke” and “Wyrd Sister”, were more collaborative. “Yoke” in particular was so amorphous that it took ages to pin down for the recording, as it was a jam that became structured then went chaotic before returning to order. I still have recordings of the early rehearsals where it became cosmic jazz for ages before returning to the simple cello plucking that underpins it. “Wyrd Sister” however came from me mucking about with a loop pedal and falling in love with the hook, and imploring Rose to write something that went with it.
Rose: I originally wrote the lyrics of “Wyrd Sister” for Edmund to sing, but I ended up singing them. It’s about a lonely necromancer who has no luck with women so he conjures a woman from beyond the grave, but she drives him crazy because he can never satisfyingly possess her, since she is a ghost. Edmund added the “I put my cards down on the table…” and the “can you hear the wind moan” parts.
“I like thinking about the duality of things.”
What does the name “Rokurokubi” refer to in the context of the band name?
Rose: I was trying to find a suitable name for ages while I was writing songs as a solo act. For a while I was considering calling myself Roberta Blue. I found a black and white photograph in an antique shop of a Victorian woman in mourning attire holding a little dog. The woman and the dog both have the same wide-eyed stare. I decided she was called Roberta Blue and her dog was called Bones. But I was never fully settled on this name. Then, shortly after meeting Edmund, I met his housemate, who showed me a tattoo he was planning on getting. It was a Japanese illustration of a woman with a very long neck. I was intrigued by this and started looking into it. The tattoo depicted a Rokurokubi, which is a folkloric Japanese she-demon. By day she is a normal young woman. She will act exactly as is expected of a ‘proper’ young woman. She will seem innocent and probably submissive too. But really she is possessed by a demon, and by night, her neck will stretch very long, travel far from her sleeping body, and attack unsuspecting men. The Rokurokubi was borne out of men’s fear of female power, the fear that women can be active instead of passive, the fear that there is more to them than their appearance or society’s definition of them. I enjoyed this idea. My sun sign is Gemini, and like the Gemini twins and Steppenwolf I’ve always felt a bit of a split character, full of contradictions. I feel as if the Rokurokubi fits this nicely. I like thinking about the duality of things.
“It represents escapism, freedom, creativity and magic.”
Is there a certain concept behind it?
Edmund: I feel as though the name has always hinted at something occluded or hidden… it is after all not the easiest name to remember, and I’ve lost count of the amount of people who’ve said we should change it cause no one can remember it. But for me it represents escapism, freedom, creativity and magic. We live in a very complicated world and there are a lot of very good bands out there whose answer to the way they see the world is to sing about it, to politicise their music overtly and use it as a vehicle for their message. I just happen to believe that what the world really needs is to bring its dreams and imagination a little bit closer, and to let enchantment back in to the lives of the people.
Rose: I agree with Edmund.
Who is behind the artwork?
Rose: It’s by Edmund’s very talented brother, Hugo Lloyd-Winder. He got it exactly how we wanted. We love it so much.
Edmond: Rose asked Hugo to design the album artwork before we’d recorded any of it, and he came up with the design in a few weeks. It was (as his work always is) just as I imagined. The design shows a giant sleeping foetus in utero, surrounded by a circle which is Rose’s natal chart, for those of you interested in astrology. That in turn is surrounded by daemons, rabbits, snakes, dragons and geese, and in the centre, the all-seeing eye. We had it as a sort of mandala for ages as the record was being made, something to represent the birth, the journey, the goal.
Rose: The goal, the journey and the birth.
What would you say influenced you the most to record this album? Are you a fan of those less known bands that played similar music, like for instance Trees, Mellow Candle, Forest etc.?
Rose: I do enjoy Trees. I have listened to them a lot. As for the other bands you’ve mentioned, I am not familiar with them and will have to look them up. In terms of influences, I suppose originally the album that really made me want to record my own was Broadcast and the Focus Group: Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age. I also really like the soundtrack Broadcast made for the film Berberian Sound Studio. At the moment a big influence is the Japanese band After Dinner. In my teenage years I spent a great deal of time listening to Kate Bush and Björk,and will never get bored of Captain Beefheart, so I’m sure to some extent they are in there too. I have always had quite a whimsical understanding of the world around me, and enjoy music which reflects this… There is an album from the 70s which is self-titled, by a duo called The Sun Also Rises. It is really good. Dark and scary at points, but also full of that sort of, hmmm… ‘Alice talking to the giant flowers’ feeling. I like creating music that feels like a trip, in the sense that it could go either way… there are points of extreme beauty and this feeling of inanimate objects being friendly, and then you notice the cute teddy bear has sharp teeth and might want to hurt you. I am mostly influenced by other forms of art though, I think. Visual art, poetry and writing. I went through a long phase of being obsessed with ‘Outsider Art’, such as the work of Henry Darger. I love stuff that has a naivety to it… feels truly from the heart but is kind of off-kilter too. I like the Symbolists, UnicaZürn, Hans Bellmer, fairytales, Greek mythology, Ancient Egyptian art, old religious depictions of hellfire and damnation, and a lot of faery art, such as the work of John Anster Fitzgerald. I hope I can be a faery in another lifetime.
Edmund: There is a lot of folk in the album, but I never really thought of it like that until I heard it finished. For me there were always the influences of early Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, and I guess Pentangle. Personally, I was listening to a lot of world music, particularly desert blues, and Japanese psychedelia like Osamu Kitajima, Makoto Kwabata and Acid Mother’s Temple. Also, Bobby Beausoleil’s Lucifer Rising Soundtrack, which is sublime.
What should people keep in mind when listening to the album?
Edmund: That it belongs to you now… you can make of it what you wish.
Rose: I’m not sure exactly. I guess it’s better for people to listen with a clear mind free from expectation. I’m sure people will develop their own meaning and come to their own conclusions. I feel we have elements of psychedelia in our music, but I don’t believe the word really sums us up, even though we are constantly called a psychedelic band. Maybe that’s something for people to think about.
Do you have anything else going on right now as far as music goes? Are there any bands or side projects that I missed?
Rose: All the people involved with Saturn in Pisces are extremely talented. Our cellist Nina is both a visual artist and an incredible songwriter in her own right. She is starting to record some of her material and every song is so powerful and moving. One day I would love to go on a tour with her. Edmund is also recording some of his music. It’s genius…very Dr John meets The Bonzos meets Captain Beefheart. For his birthday we rented out a studio and he directed a big group of us in playing one of his songs. For one night he became the cult leader I always knew he could be. He’s got lots of charisma. Daisy is a film-maker, artist and photographer. She is based in Berlin now, and is always involved with a million interesting projects. We have already mentioned Lauro’s band Wax Machine, and Wyndham Earl is also involved in many projects, including his own music and stuff with the band Khruangbin. Another side project, though not a musical one, is a novel I have been trying to write for a million years, which I am now about halfway through. I am hoping to finish it before I am dead, but at the moment I don’t have the time or patience. I also draw and write poetry, and am collecting some poems and illustrations for a book which I would love to publish.
What are some future plans?
Rose: We want to do some touring and complete our second album, which is well on the way.
Edmund: We’re playing as a duo now, which means that we have a lot more individual control but a whole lot more work to do to make the music dynamic, both onstage and in the studio. But it feels like when we get it right were really doing something incredible. We have to keep pushing and testing ourselves.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
Rose: My favourite band right now are called Księżyc. They are Polish and made music in the 90s. They quite recently reformed. I love their self-titled 1996 album, and also their album called Rabbit Eclipse. Also every Spring I listen to Vashti Bunyan’s album Just Another Diamond Day over and over and over again and get all sentimental about flowers and lambs and bird song. I have been doing this for a long time. If Vashti could ever listen to my music I would feel so happy.
Edmund: Right now I’m very enamoured of an Israeli guitarist called Yontan Gat who’s doing some pretty experimental things, also Akalé Wubéwho are making amazing Ethiopic inspired jazz that is an absolute pleasure. While you’re at it, check out SsingSsing from South Korea, cause they’re just a brilliant mix of world folk, rock, funk, disco, shamanism and drag.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
– Klemen Breznikar