Posted by lahar9jhadav on March 4, 2007
The Lick On The Tip Of An Envelope Yet To Be Sent
By Will Hodgkinson, writer, music journalist
Music melts time. From the primordial squelch of creation to the kettledrums of the apocalypse, the music of the universe travels out of its era and into a parallelogram of eternity. Circulus have, pedantically speaking, been performing in and around the London area for the last few years, but the fantastical seven-piece make music as timeless as the soul itself. This album has the history and mysteries of Britain etched into its grooves, and contains pure songs played with passion, wit and more than a hint of despair.
As King Harold breathed his last, medieval wind instrumentalist Will Summers sat perched on the battlements of the doomed monarch’s tumbling Sussex castle and played his rauch pfeifer. While the peasants revolted over the inequalities of the feudal system, the band’s leader Michael Tyack grabbed his cittern and a joint and told the tragic tale of a scarecrow that, running to make it to his field to protect the farmer’s corn before daybreak, stops to light a cigarette and foolishly sets himself on fire. A longhaired beauty freaked out on bad acid at London’s legendary UFO club in 1967 to the sound of master keyboard player Ollie Parfitt’s killer groove, and as the ancients raised stones to the sun and stained their hands with the blood of sacrifice, Circulus’s singer Lo Polidoro wailed her ghostly harmonies and floated three feet above a patch of parched grass nearby.
Circulus provide a beautiful soundtrack to the present, too. My Body Is Made Of Sunlight tells of a woman’s astonishment as the magic plant she has ingested changes her molecular structure, while Power To The Pixies relates the moving tale of an English race of little people that, incapable of peacefully co-habiting in a world of out of town superstores and Ford Mondeos, have been hiding in the forests for the last century or so and preparing for their glorious return. Candlelight is simply a lovely piece of music, with the elegance of Greensleeves and the earthy charm of early 70s folk evoking the pure joy of staring at a candle for hours on end.
Circulus are psychedelic, open-minded and idealistic. The Lick On The Tip Of An Envelope Yet To Be Sent has captured their ethereal power in a tangible form that can be enjoyed on all modern stereo systems. Circulus cannot fail to uplift, entrance, and yes, give meaning to the life of all who embrace them. They didn’t ask for greatness. Divinity blessed them with it.
‘I like tights – and very pointy shoes’
Their clothes went out of fashion 500 years ago, but Circulus are playing some of the hippest venues in the country. Alexis Petridis meets Britain’s number one medieval folk band
Friday June 17, 2005
On an overcast Tuesday afternoon, a commotion is taking place on the roof of a terraced house in south-east London. Circulus, a septet who can lay claim to being Britain’s foremost medieval-influenced progressive psychedelic folk band, are having their photograph taken. This is proving to be a complicated and noisy process.
Firstly, one has to contend with what multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and band “auteur” Michael Tyack refers to as the group’s “cozzies”, a selection of capes, floppy hats and flares that he has spent years painstakingly sourcing from charity shops. Tyack himself is resplendent in an outfit he announces has been “pretty much modelled” on his favourite style icon: Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy between 1419 and 1467.
Indeed, with his cozzie on, some of the spirit of medieval Europe’s most extravagant monarch does seem to have settled on Tyack. As he marshals his bandmates into position, and puts me in charge of a dry ice machine deemed necessary for the all-important “magical” vibe, he certainly commands more respect than you might expect of a man wearing glittery black tights.
Unfortunately, not all of his bandmates are present. One, Mexican percussionist Victor Hugo, is swiftly replaced by Circulus’s press officer, who after some cajoling agrees to wear a large rubber horse’s head. More difficult to substitute is singer Lo Polidoro, who, judging by other photographs, is the kind of lady the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood would have done their collective nut for: a vision of tumbling, ivy-garlanded tresses.
Demonstrating the kind of initiative that has seen Circulus through eight years without a record deal, and the kind of personnel upheavals that would cause most bands to give up – at one point, all but three members left, refusing to “go the full hog with the medieval thing” – Tyack suggests her place be taken by his housemate Kevin.
A skinny, bearded man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure early-70s rock, Kevin has been around all afternoon, offering the occasional laconic interjection into some of Tyack’s more fanciful speeches (when Tyack announces “my dream is to be able to live in a progressive folk psychedelic fantasy world 24-7”, Kevin interrupts with “so you take a lot of drugs”). He used to be in Circulus, but was, he claims, ejected for failing to believe in fairies – a problem in a band whose big number is called Power to the Pixies.
However, he seems perfectly happy to temporarily rejoin, and struggles into a long woollen dress. The effect is distressing in the extreme. “Christ,” mutters the photographer. “He looks like Christopher Lee at the end of The Wicker Man.”
To add to the general air of pandemonium, “master baroque and renaissance wind man” Will Summers declares the photo shoot the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his rauch pfeifer, a medieval alto instrument that comes with its own health warning. “It’s shockingly loud,” cautions Tyack. “It’ll make you jump. The sound isn’t really acceptable to modern ears.”
This turns out to be the afternoon’s second big understatement (the first is something about Circulus being “a bit different”). When Summers blows the rauch pfeifer, you fear not just for your hearing but for the structural safety of nearby buildings. As it blares and the smoke machine blows, and the cape-clad, cross-dressing members of Circulus strike suitably majestic poses, the press officer’s mobile phone rings. “I’m sorry, I can’t discuss this at the moment,” he says. Then, with a hint of bewilderment in his voice: “I’m standing on a roof in Plumstead dressed as a horse.”
His bewilderment is not shared by Circulus themselves, who behave throughout as if this type of thing happens everyday. This may well be because it does.
With its rauch pfeifers and crumhorns, psychedelic guitar solos, squealing vintage synthesisers and songs about pixies and burning scarecrows, Circulus’ debut album, The Lick on the Tip of an Envelope Yet to Be Sent, is so far removed from anything else currently available, so blithely unconcerned with any contemporary notions of cool, that it makes for genuinely shocking listening.
It is by turns preposterous, unsettling, tear-jerkingly beautiful and wonderfully refreshing: the one thing it is not is a concerted effort to storm the charts by sounding a bit like Coldplay or Franz Ferdinand, which may explain the flurry of critical excitement the band are currently generating. But it is merely the tip of the iceberg, the musical wing of a wilfully skewed world view that Tyack has been formulating since a visit to America in the late 80s, when homesickness led him to begin attending Elizabethan music concerts: “When I discovered Elizabethan music I was like, wow,” he says. “It was exactly what I was pining for, some ancient culture. I didn’t really want to hear any modern music at all. All I did was go to early music concerts and mix with early music boffins for about five years, discovering a whole world of …” His voice trails off as he searches for the right phrase. “Something great,” he decides, with a beatific grin.
The medieval era, he says, “is my ideal, the whole style and the music. I mean, I like tights. I like the way those dresses look on women. It’s all just beautiful. Take away the diseases and the brutality and it’s a very stylish period. Very, very long pointy shoes.”
As a result, he says, he has dedicated his life to creating his own world, “which has nothing to do with Tesco or anything. You get people in Finland doing it, they live their lives as Iron Age people and have a good time. That’s the plan, to set up an alternative way of life, where all like-minded people can congregate.”
But isn’t Plumstead an odd location to do that in? It doesn’t look like the kind of place that would exactly welcome alternative ways of life. Tyack looks a bit put out. “Well, you have to start somewhere. There’s definitely plans to move on. You can buy a small turreted castle in Brittany for £10,000. In five years’ time, Rubberton – that’s what we plan to call it – will definitely exist in some beautiful part of the countryside.”
Tyack’s vision also encompasses a fairly unique take on home decoration (several charity shops seem to have disgorged their entire stock into the house, which also features rooms covered with distorted fairground mirrors or swathed in batiks and drapes, a pair of tiny circular wickerwork hi-fi speakers and a large framed poster of Demis Roussos), a love of psychedelic mushrooms that he doesn’t really want to talk about (“let’s not come across as druggies”), a superstition “or a kind of insight or instinct” regarding the mystical powers of the number seven and the aforementioned belief in fairies and pixies.
The rest of the band seem to go along with it with varying degrees of enthusiasm. You can see why. Tyack radiates a highly infectious kind of bonhomie and contentment. After an hour in his company, you suspect even Britain’s most renowned hippy-loathers – John Lydon, say, or Julie Burchill – might start thinking that the path to personal fulfilment lay in wearing a cape and listening exclusively to madrigals and long-forgotten 70s bands called things like Fresh Maggots and Dr Strangely Strange. In addition, as drummer Sam Kelly puts it: “Whether you want to subscribe to the mysticism or not, it gives the band a drive, a focus and a sound.”
Ignored both by the academic early music boffins Summers describes as “the lute mafia” and the mainstream folk scene, Circulus have been forced to forge their own, highly idiosyncratic path.
Their album has been released on Rise Above, which is apparently “Britain’s leading doom metal label”, run by the former lead singer of Napalm Death. “Such brilliant people,” Tyack enthuses. “They totally know where we’re coming from, because doom metal is really the only other form of music where it’s accepted that you dress up on stage and you go as freaky as possible.”
Live, meanwhile, they have played everywhere from hip Shoreditch warehouse parties to festivals held in old-fashioned town fetes alongside morris dancers and steam rallies. “We’ve never had a problem getting gigs,” says Tyack. “People invite us to play because we’re colourful and we don’t care, and people find that refreshing. I’m quite excited by the fact that you can totally gobsmack people. People see us come on stage in our cozzies and they’re almost angry. When we played in Manchester recently, there was one bloke who you could tell was really upset that someone had had the audacity to do what we do.”
“Sometimes audiences don’t know what to make of us at all,” nods Parfitt. “We’ve had reviews that just go: ‘Who are these people and how dare they?’ ”
“Ah yes,” smiles Tyack. “But when they hear the whole band kick in and realise what a serious sound it is, that we’re dead serious, somehow we slip through a loophole in their mind. And they let us in.” And with that, he goes back to his world of maidens, mushrooms, madrigals and mystical numbers.
If you go down to the woods today
… then you’re sure to meet Britain’s finest neo-medieval psychedelic folk-rock band. Or you are if you’re author and journalist Tom Cox, who for the best part of a decade has cultivated an unlikely bond with Circulus that has survived their differering tastes in fashion, recreational pursuits and – most alarmingly – his relentless championing of their music.
Sunday June 19, 2005
Observer Music Monthly
Musicians break your heart and, on the whole, it’s a good idea not to be friends with them. For someone who interviews them for a living, it is even less of a good idea, as the natural etiquette of give and take can so easily give way to uncertainty and paranoia. From the journalist’s point of view, the ultimate question, beyond the immediate buzz of being associated with someone creative, must be: ‘Do I really want a friend who takes too many drugs, suffers from chronic oversensitivity and is rubbish at returning phone calls?’ The musician, meanwhile, must ask himself… well, the same thing, really.
If you knew in the first place that most friendships with musicians ended in tears – or, at the very least, ate away at your enjoyment of their music – then being part of the rock media would be nowhere near as much fun. John Peel had to go through the highs and lows of nurturing and being dropped by Marc Bolan in order to realise that he’d be a far more content Fall fan if he didn’t get to know Mark E Smith on a personal basis (although that might just be a general rule of thumb for fans of the Fall, rather than a lesson about media-musician alliances).
On a more minor level, I once thought I had something good going with the lo-fi American group Guided By Voices but it was probably because at least three of them fancied my girlfriend of the time. Other than that, and the instance when I hit it off with the guitarist of a briefly chart-topping British indie band, only to find the friendship mysteriously peter out after his maiden appearance on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, I’ve realised that God made those familiar 45-minute modern-day hotel foyer encounters with rock stars 45 minutes long for A Reason. Sure, you can moan about the lack of depth and the PR-interference, but you have to say this for the modern interview: it leaves no one under any impression that they’re going to be attending one another’s future birthday parties. There’s (if you’re lucky) the brief buzz of a stimulating conversation with someone whose art you admire, and then you’re out of there, free to concentrate on more rewarding friendships – those that involve normal, reliable people.
But then I examine my friendship with a bunch of people like Circulus, and all this just sounds like so much deluded waffle.
Circulus, who are undoubtedly the best psychedelic neo-medieval folk rock band in Britain, have been breaking my heart now for seven years, and could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as ‘normal’. They are, however, extremely good at returning phone calls, brilliant at helping me move house, and we have nurtured a band-journalist understanding that neatly bypasses the typical ‘What can you do for me?’ viper’s nest of such a relationship. It’s tended to work like this: I bang on about them to the point of distraction to anyone who will listen and, as a result, they stay as unknown and cult-like as ever.
Circulus aren’t quite like my other friends, many of whom have children, mortgages, 9-5 jobs and waistlines of more than 30 inches. Three and a half years ago, at my wedding, my dad pointed to them and asked: ‘Who are the people in fancy dress?’ Decked out immaculately and exclusively in a wardrobe that, like their music, mixes the best of 1970 with the best of 1270, they have been referred to, variously, by my other acquaintances as ‘the gentle people’, ‘the ace pixie folk’ and ‘them bloomin’ hippies’ – none of which has stopped them blending in beautifully at social gatherings, or at least the ones that they manage to arrive at before everyone else has gone home.
So, who are they? That’s a more difficult question than one might presume. An 11th-century funk band? Perhaps. An acid folk nightmare filtered through an American West Coast haze? Sometimes. At any one time, there can be between five and 11 of them on stage – at least one of whom will be in a horse’s head mask. Over the years, more members have passed through their ranks than even their most devout followers can remember. Some of these will be complex, unpredictable characters with a penchant for wigs and sitting for over an hour making exaggerated purring noises at your cats. Others will tenderly assemble compilation tapes for you, bring you an abundance of prudently selected thrift store gifts, and add immediate warmth to any occasion. All, however, will be united by a sense of not having been quite constructed for the times they’re living in. The one constant is Michael Tyack, a man with one of the largest collections of capes in southern Britain.
Michael has an amazing knack for attracting the only people in London even more horizontally inclined than he is. ‘I like to surround myself with really laidback people – partly because it kids me into believing that I’m a driven person,’ he explained to me recently, at a residential studio in the heart of Essex Witchfinding Country, as a recent addition to the Circulus clan failed to meet his 4pm alarm call. Over the past decade, Michael’s cult has grown, to the extent that he is rarely now seen without the company of at least one white witch, Seventies kids TV presenter or gothic artist. If there is a man in London called Thogdin who does intriguing swirly prog drawings, the chances are that Michael will, without any great effort, seek him out. As Gustav Temple, editor of The Chap magazine, who has known Michael for more than 20 years, would have it: ‘Every time I see him, he seems to have just met a girl who thinks she’s a spider.’
The typical Circulus fan is hard to pinpoint, but could loosely be summed up as the sort of long-haired, living-too-late drifter you tend to see sitting on a wall near Greenwich market, rolling a cigarette unhurriedly, possibly examining a rare medieval artefact picked up in an otherwise unexciting charity shop. Typically, they will know Michael personally, and be willing to do almost anything he asks of them. A good example is Nikki Hirst, the ‘webmistress’ of circulus.org, whom he recently persuaded to go topless for a photo shoot. ‘It was fun,’ she told me.’ [Moog player] Ollie was lying on the floor like some kind of Satanic sacrifice and nearly burnt his coat on the fondue set Michael was pretending to boil plastic models of fly agaric mushrooms in!’ Another Circulus acolyte, Alice, recently accompanied Michael into a river for another shoot – a moment Michael describes as ‘my most mystical of the year’. She subsequently caught a nasty cold, but this didn’t stop her subsequently agreeing to pretend to be dead in Epping Forest for the OMM shoot.
Next to all this madness, I can often feel acutely conscious of my Square World credentials in Circulean company. Nevertheless, Michael and his inner circle have shown great tolerance in not holding the fact that I play golf and occasionally shop at Gap against me. This might just be because I once secured him a gig at a cider shed in Norfolk – for which they were entirely paid in the local speciality – but I like to think our friendship runs deeper than that. In instances of crisis in the past – the time that I asked him to look after one of my cats at only two hours’ notice, for example – he’s helped me out. Similarly, a couple of years ago when he stepped out of one of the sliding doors of the living room of my then-new house, not realising that it opened straight onto the ice cold river beneath, I was happy to pull him back from the brink of his soggy demise.
Sometimes, I think I know a lot about Michael – more than he knows I know, even – but every so often he will surprise me, and, say, casually tell me about the time that he lived in America and was married to a stripper. Just the other week at my birthday party, he told me that he’d ‘founded a career on despair’, which left me flummoxed, because I’d always been sure he’d founded a career on songs about pixies and candlelight. It made me realise that, when you’re mates with a periodically mustachioed songwriting maverick, you must always be ready to be thrown off balance. ‘What kind of despair was this?’ I wondered. ‘Was it the kind that emerged from his split with his long-term songwriting partner, Emma Steele, a couple of years ago?’ I was going to probe a little, but the conversation had been interrupted, since someone had spotted the wicker man on my lawn and loudly suggested we burn it as a tribute to a lyric on Circulus’s imminent debut album, The Lick on the Tip of an Envelope Yet to Be Sent, which describes a scarecrow meeting the same fate.
When the first version of Circulus split up, I was devastated. I felt like I’d witnessed a divorce, but it felt more like my children had split up than my parents. Surely this wasn’t supposed to happen? Already, it seemed that the band had passed through so many interesting and diverse stages of their career and had left them sadly undocumented. Michael and Emma had been inseparable, and things had just been starting to take off for them, in a slow, Circulus kind of way, what with the fact that Toni Arthur, the former Play School presenter, had said that she liked them, and Rich Hall, the American comedian, had been seen walking down Tottenham Court Road singing one of their songs. During a brief spell acting as their manager, I had almost succeeded in persuading Michael Palin to witness their performance at the European Car Free Day Festival in Bloomsbury, only to watch him disappear in a cloud of waggling Monty Python books. Having milked my most prized music business contacts to the maximum, only to attract vague interest from a label based in a barn near Swaffham, I’d decided that perhaps I wasn’t cut out as a svengali. Still, it felt like good things were happening for my favourite British band.
It’s been suggested that the split came about after Emma’s burgeoning love affair with the group’s loveable, cheekboned multi-instrumentalist, Robin Cieslak, began to pull her away from her musical union with Michael. It’s also been said that Robin and Emma’s experiments with electronica jarred with Michael’s largely Early Music-based vision. Whatever, I know Emma was annoyed when Michael bought a copy of a rare album she was hankering after by underrated early Seventies Simon Napier-Bell proteges Forever More, and then kept it himself without telling her. After that, I suppose you could say that nothing was quite the same.
These days, I must be careful not to show favouritism to either Emma and Robin or Michael, all of whom I love equally. Ultimately, I would like everyone to get back together and be one big happy, hairy family, but I also have to acknowledge that Circulus are now fulfilling their promise like never before, and that Michael – always the most relaxed member of the band – has surprised every one with his drive, securing the band a proper record deal, and making the spooky medieval picnic in his head sonic reality on The Lick on the Tip …. He has reached this new level, it also has to be acknowledged, without my help. Once universally ignored, he now has cred-conscious journalists queuing up to write about his band. NME recently hailed their ‘mad, bad blend of Moog, lute and massed choral arrangements that put the Polyphonic Spree to shame’.
Has the world come around to Circulus, or have Circulus come around to the world? It’s hard to tell, but, whatever the case, their dress sense doesn’t look quite as off-kilter as it once did, and they can now justifiably call themselves a success, securing support slots with the likes of Pentangle and Arthur Brown and becoming that most venerable of things: an Influence (see fellow acid-folkers Tunng and The Eighteenth Day of May for evidence).
In the end, though, they’re still Circulus: amiable, hobbit-like and just a little bit scary. And it’s hard not to think of Emma and Robin as still being in Circulus, in as much as everyone who is associated with Circulus is sort of in them. In the same way, the terraced house where Michael lives in Plumstead is still very much Circulus HQ, despite the fact that his housemate, Kevin, no longer plays in the band. Here, Greenwich Mean Time slips away, and Circulus Mean Time takes over, as you walk dizzily past lutes, Moroccan wall hangings, obscure early Seventies British horror movies and folklore almanacs.
It’s perhaps not the most appropriate place to bring a minor, but when I was writing my last book, Educating Peter (Black Swan), and trying to provide a DIY musical education for a 14-year-old wannabe rock star, it was here that I brought him, to give him an example of true, unadulterated bohemian living. When you’ve been a musician or been around musicians, you tend to leave this kind of alternate dimension behind after realising its debilitating long-term effects, but Circulus manage to make its possibilities seem eternal.
‘You’re the only one who knows the true story of the band, who’s been there from the start,’ Michael reassured me recently. ‘What about if you get on Top of the Pops, or get to play with the Medieval Babes. Will we still be friends?’ I asked. ‘Of course.’ ‘So do you fancy having letting me have another crack at managing you?’ ‘Wow. Is that a toadstool growing over there?’ he said, suddenly distracted.
I like to think he wasn’t deliberately avoiding the subject, but who knows? Whatever the case, I’m not taking it personally. After all, earlier on that day, he had admitted to not changing his underpants for 54 hours, and I think it takes a special kind of trust to confess a detail like that to a man who makes his living by writing for national newspapers. Misguided, perhaps, but special.
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