Interview : Matthew Frederick of Climbing Trees

Climbing Trees' second album Borders has been hailed by no less an authority than Wales Arts Review as "exactly the expansive, exhilarating album (they) set out to make". Here we compared it to the majestic big music of Mike Scott and the Waterboys, and New Sound Wales came to a very similar conclusion. Now it is released the band are fully engaged promoting it; home from Festival No. 6, they will now appear at the The Big Cwtch before heading to the main stage at Conwy's Gorjys Secrets on September 17th.

Whatever the plaudits Borders has gathered, Climbing Trees have clearly hit their groove. The new album is a more driven, heady set of songs than their bucolic debut, and they have a live show to match its energy and excitement. Worth the cliché - Climbing Trees are, still, perhaps one of Wales' biggest musical secrets.

I caught up with Matthew Frederick with a set of questions prompted by the new album, to which he gave thoughtful and insightful responses. Below is the transcript of our exchange.

"Your 'difficult second album' has just been released - it's a worth-the-wait triumph - but why did it prove so 'difficult' ?"

"We kept referring to the record via social media as our 'difficult second album' - tongue-in-cheek of course - and perhaps that was a way of taking the pressure off somewhat. 'DSA' was actually the working title for quite a few months until it was usurped by 'Borders', which was probably for the best." 

"In truth, it was difficult, but then again it probably should be."  

"Making an album - and not just a collection of songs but a real album of material - should be a challenge, and we certainly felt that throughout the process.   There are songs that worked really well live that we couldn't quite capture in the studio, for example, and some that were scrapped entirely.  Others evolved in the studio, which is always an exciting process, and as much as you can go in with a perfectly-formed plan, until you actually start putting the pieces together you never know exactly how things will turn out."  

"We spent a lot more time (and money!) making this album, and it was almost an overwhelming feeling of relief to finally put it out there, to relinquish ownership of it in a sense, and just let people make of it what they will."

"Some of the tracks on this album have a much harder sound than your debut, both drums and electric guitar being more prominent; was that a conscious decision, or is it just about the individual songs?"

"It was conscious in the sense that we wanted this album to sound a lot bigger than 'Hebron', and I think we've definitely achieved that.  But at the same time it never felt forced - it was more of a natural evolution.  People were always surprised coming to see us live for the first time that our shows were perhaps more energetic than they expected after listening to 'Hebron', and that's something we really wanted to capture on the latest record."  

"We were branded as 'folk' in certain quarters after the first record came out, and it was a term that never really sat comfortably with us in the sense that we didn't feel that it accurately represented our sound.  Then again to call us a 'rock' outfit now is also probably a little wide of the mark.  We don't fit neatly into any particular box, which can be infuriating at times - particularly for someone with mild OCD (laughing) - but is probably one of our greatest strengths as a band."

"You've been together for a while now - has the way you write and record evolved, and has that made recording this album a different experience to Hebron?"

"It was definitely a different experience, yes, even though we chose to return to the scene of the crime and record at Mwnci Studios again, as we did with 'Hebron'.  That first album we were really making for ourselves.  We knew we'd release it, of course, but we were only actually three gigs in when we began recording 'Hebron' and very much still finding our feet as a band.  We had no real fanbase to speak of at that point - other than family and friends - and so there was no real pressure to make a great album.  In fact, we originally intended to record an EP, and it ended up as an album almost by accident, really." 

" 'Borders', on the other hand, was a much more considered project.  We not only had something to follow but something to surpass, and with that comes a certain amount of pressure and expectancy.  That said, we took our time with it and made the album that we wanted to make first and foremost, although we were able to road-test a lot of the material live during the making of the album, which was a luxury we didn't really have the first time around."

"On this album - a good example is Fall - for a number of the songs you seem to have perfected the delivery of elemental, repeated phrase lyrics to compliment the music and create a mood - is that something you have striven for, perhaps due to influences? Or is it just how your (I mean the band's) songwriting has developed?"

"It's not something we've really thought about or discussed, so it's always interesting when those outside of the Trees bubble pick up on things like that.  Another of our strengths as a band (in my opinion, at least!) is that we have three primary songwriters, each with our own style of writing but all very much identifiable as 'Climbing Trees', and that's certainly helped us in terms of making two well-rounded albums thus far." 

"Myself and Colenso are probably similar in that we tend to favour repetition around a melody (whether consciously or subconsciously), whereas Martin is perhaps more meticulous with his lyrics, and arguably a whole album of either side of the coin wouldn't work quite as well as the formula we've managed to stumble upon."

"The decision to use strings has really elevated some of the songs - was this an idea at the conception of the album, or something felt vital once it was finished?"

"It was always at the back of our minds, and even though they were recorded in the very last session, we always knew that they'd be integral to the overall sound of the album.  Again, it comes back to the necessity to make this album bigger and better than the last.  There are a number of tracks on 'Hebron' which lend themselves perfectly to orchestration, but we weren't in a position at that point to make that a reality.  We were extremely fortunate to be able to get the Cambria Quartet on board for 'Borders', and it really helped to give the whole record that extra kick that it needed, and that the songs deserved, more importantly.  It's pretty hard to replicate live with just the four of us, though!"

"You have said before that the hard work with an album starts once the boxes of CDs arrive - what do you have planned to promote Borders?"       

"Social media is obviously a big part of the picture these days, but you really can't beat performing live, particularly at festivals where it's likely that the majority of the crowd have either never heard of you before or are at least yet to see you live.  That's where you've really got to up your game, as that may well be your one and only opportunity to convert the curious punter into a dedicated fan."  

"We played Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons a couple of weeks back and, although it was our second time there, it was probably safe to assume that eighty percent of the crowd were catching us for the very first time. Fortunately, the energy and enthusiasm of the other twenty percent who were already on board seemed to spread through the crowd, and the response we received was really heartwarming.  In a way that's more satisfying than playing an absolute stormer at a headline show because, rather than preaching to the converted, you're introducing new people to your music, which is always a great feeling."

"For us now it's really about playing as many shows as possible and, crucially, in as many different places as possible to keep that momentum going and get the album out to the maximum amount of people we can over the next few months."

"You have extended the activities of your label, Staylittle Music, this year with the release of the Tendons' EP and single - do you have any further plans?"

"Staylittle was originally a vehicle for the Trees and our various side-projects, but we always knew that it had the potential to grow into something that incorporated other musicians and, crucially, friends that were planning on self-releasing.  The idea is to give Staylittle a real collective feel, very much DIY, very much grassroots, and to promote the local music that we love listening to on top of the music we're making ourselves."  

"Within a few months of its existence we were putting on shows under the 'Staylittle Presents' banner and I - almost by accident - ended up presenting and co-producing 'Staylittle Sessions' for MADE TV, so it's gradually become an entity in its own right rather than just the folly of the Trees.  The addition of Tendons to the label is a great example of that, and I'm sure we'll be bringing more acts on board further down the line."

"Finally for the uninitiated can you describe Climbing Trees in four adjectives?"

"That's the hardest question of the lot.  The only one I can think of is 'beardy', if that helps.  Probably not!"

"And your appearance at Gorjys Secrets?"

"We're really looking forward to being a part of the inaugural Gorjys Secrets. The location looks absolutely stunning, and we can't wait to share the stage with some of the UK's greatest contemporary singer-songwriters. We've pencilled the words 'Magical Weekend in Conwy' into the Trees' diary, and we're pretty sure it'll live up to expectations!"

And with that exclamation the interview closed; with Matthew Frederick back from Portmerion, in Pontypridd for a few days of rest before the next festival.

You can lay out the hot coals and we'll walk over them - Climbing Trees are a magnificent band on form at the moment - seeing one of their last few festival dates of the summer is a must.



CLIMBING TREES I Amber (Release date 23.09.16)