In his series Too many birds, Ruben van Dijk highlights overlooked albums, new and old, that renegotiate our human relationship to all that is non-human. What can we take away from these albums that might make us look a little differently at the natural world around, and within us? This time: the wintery and pastoral How I Learnt To Disengage From The Pack by English folk musician Ben McElroy.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
It’s early March. I bought a discount bouquet the other day, on impulse, because they reminded me of flower picking in some coppice woodland. There were China asters in there, common columbines, willow branches, mums, and baby’s-breath. But I bought them at a big city Albert Heijn, and I soon found my joy replaced by slight embarrassment, precisely because I had chosen to have my familiarity mediated by a megacorporation. Upon arrival at home, my flowers had already begun withering, and now, three days later, I am sat writing this while bluebells perish before my very eyes, a constant reminder of my cheap mistake.
Nevertheless, I will give them a few more days. For the more my not-so-wildflowers wither, the more beautiful I’m starting to find them. I had, until recently, never thought of dying as growth, but it is. My flowers are growing not in size, but into a new condition. Why this dying brings me comfort, amid spring blooming, I am not sure. Maybe, subconsciously, the flowers have come to represent the late-capitalist convenience economy I am desperately trying to escape. Maybe it’s the same elusive comfort I have recently felt listening to Ben McElroy’s How I Learnt To Disengage From The Pack.
Much like the withering bouquet on my dining room table, How I Learnt To Disengage From The Pack comes from longing. The imagined pastoral scenes were concocted many, many miles from the nearest wood- or moorland, in McElroy’s Nottingham studio, all in the depth of winter. The field recordings that fill the silences are muted: there are but a few autumn leaves left to be crunched; only evergreen foliage is left for the wind to rustle; and the resident birds seem to be appreciating their sonic respite. The ambient sound of an overhead plane (which functions as a drone on ‘See More’) is the loudest on the entire album. Lone birdsong is drowned out by a passing car.
How I Learnt To Disengage From The Pack exists far from the natural abundance of life – physically, seasonally. But the absence of abundance and the stillness of life does not mean there is none, and if anything, McElroy points out that the death of winter is as much a part of life, as he actively seeks out and embraces the season’s potential. I reached out to McElroy to further discuss his album over several emails.
There is a weariness to this album; an air of death and decay. It’s in the sounds of your disintegrating preamps and your £30 accordion, and in the general imagery of songs like ‘Collecting Bone Dust’. What inspired such melancholy?
“I guess there is a sense of foreboding underlying everything at the moment. A sense of: is this the end? Have we fucked up? Climate breakdown is already underway and those who could do anything about it are just outright denying or pretending to make changes whilst still powering on with the very things that need to stop. Our dependence on fossil fuels and continued destruction of the natural world.”
“The disintegrating equipment was a bit of a happy coincidence to be honest - and I’d possibly have a less broken accordion if I could afford it. I was really taken with the idea, however, of disintegration actually being quite a comforting thing. It’s a natural process every living thing will go through and will bring us all together to bed down in the murk someday.”
Are there any particular field recordings that stand out to you on this album, and why?
“Not really, to be honest. They are more of a timbre thing than any meaning attached to them (though the listener is welcome to attach their own meanings). Sometimes I just feel a track needs a bit more something (a bit more life?), so I add a bit of field recording. It is something I’d like to explore further and with a bit more meaning in future works though. Particularly how nature makes its own music. And bird songs – which I love the sound of but am pretty ignorant on which bird is which! I get crows and wood pigeons, but apart from that I’m rubbish.”
How do you see yourself in relation to nature? What are ways in which you, perhaps, try and get closer to nature?
“I live in a city, which I like for the people who live here, but I do feel a bit starved of nature at times and try to get out as much as possible. Having a dog helps so we do lots of walking. Nature is so important and its importance for mental health is very neglected – despite growing research to the contrary. Just being able to see a bit of greenery, hear a bit of bird song, is so good for lowering stress levels. There’s even research that soil has healing properties… Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones is a great book for scientific info on the importance of nature in our lives.”
“I have a bit of an ongoing thing with my 10-year old son, where he always wants to head into town on Saturdays, but I always feel the urge to head out to nature. Town always leaves me feeling wound up – too much noise, too many people, too much concrete, too much smog, whereas getting out into the country all the tensions just drop! You can breathe easier, there’s the delicate sounds and sights of nature… and less people (I’m a bit of an introvert).”
“Children today, especially in cities, grow up with so little access to nature that it seems unnatural to them. We are lucky, middle class, city dwellers and we have a car to escape plus I was brought up in more rural surroundings and have always understood the importance. But for less fortunate kids nature isn’t very easy to access in many cities and I think a lot, maybe even think it’s something that’s not for them. I’d love to see more easy access to nature for people from more deprived areas – and the knock on effects on mental health could be huge. There are little shoots of progress but it would be great to see more.”
Can you describe the setting you recorded the album and how this may have affected the sound of the album?
“I think what I've always found slightly contradictory about making music inspired by nature is the amount of time that's spent in a dark-ish room staring at a screen! It would be nice to imagine it just floated out of my head when lost in the bliss of nature, but my process isn't like that. It involves draping a dark theatre curtain around the room to minimise reflections and a lot of hours in front of DAWs editing.”
“It's something I would like to look at for future projects, actually. In fact, I have just applied for some Arts Council funding to further explore the relationship between music and nature, so fingers crossed. That will be what the next project is about. Spending more time outdoors and engaging with like-minded artists.”
How I Learnt To Disengage From The Pack is available through The Slow Music Movement.