INTERVIEW

Amy Pettifer meets Claire Titley and Christopher Tipton in a nature reserve

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Approaching an evening turn of the River Lea Navigation, as it snakes off into the distance, I spot the figures of Claire Titley and Christopher Tipton perched on standing stones in the jewel quiet of a north London nature reserve.

Out of a list of suggested meeting places (including an overgrown church rotunda and the desolate shore of Queenhithe Dock) this so called ‘Hackney Henge’ seemed the most welcoming. The henge isn’t some terribly documented prehistoric treasure, it’s a new-age art monument built in the ’90s of stones dredged from the surrounding mill beds, several of them pierced with rusting apertures left by industrial rods, others subtly marked with wear, work and age. At its centre, Titley and Tipton, otherwise known as Way Through are waiting. “I’ve just been slobbered on by a gigantic dog,” relates Titley as I approach, “there are parakeets too!” Sure enough, over the next hour, swathes of displaced tropical pets zoom overhead, drowning out conversation with squawking.

This carnival of nature feels portentous and wildly atmospheric; actually it couldn’t be more perfect as it’s details like this – which mark the particular experience of a place and moment in time – that are at the heart of Way Through’s music.

Hailing from Shropshire – a landscape they remember for its ring-roads and retail parks rather than any inherent bucolia – the pair are now rooted in London where they founded Upset the Rhythm, one of the most inspiring DIY labels in the country. On top of this are backgrounds in biology and archival research and on top of THAT is their life as a band, making what Tipton calls “post-pastoral, post-punk” – although he recoils at that summation as it’s nothing quite so glib. Their aesthetic, put simply, is a sonically dismantled clash of guitar and drums, but the third, looming member of the group is the English landscape, a source of detailed and infectious fascination for them both. Tipton explains how their interest “seemed a brilliant way to step outside the tired conventions of punk and try something new. After writing songs about places we broadened the challenge and started trying to channel what we thought the landscapes we were looking at would sound like,” he says. “How do you try and convey a place in music?”

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The day after we meet Claire sends me a quote by WG Hoskins, a pioneer of local history study that references the experience of our natural surrounds as symphonic. With their second serious album ‘Clapper is Still’ (a stolen line from the Hillair Belloc poem Ha’nacker Mill), Way Through delve into what Hoskins calls “the historic depth and physical variety that England shows almost everywhere.” Alongside their vibrant punk racket, tracks are composed of field recordings, broken loops, lyrical echoes, improvisation and passages of spoken word filled with snatches of text from information signposts and bus stop graffiti.

The 13 songs cover as many specific locations, from the picturesque heritage of Constable’s Dedham Vale, to the plague village of Eyam, to Wharram Percy, one of Tipton’s beloved DMVs (Deserted Medieval Villages). Titley remembers visiting the site under a blanket of snow; “we were on tour with Gentle Friendly and Peepholes, who we sort-of forced into a trip there, although I think they got swept up in our enthusiasm! The village itself has all but gone… the main feature is the church, which though roofless, remains and actually retains the only clues to the village’s inhabitants through its handful of memorial tablets. I remember feeling slightly guilty for dragging everyone else to investigate such a niche interest, especially when the weather was so bleak, but the place had a compelling melancholy and peacefulness that didn’t only seem to affect us.”

Out of the experience comes an emotive recording that features the refrain, “Listen to the voice that’s no longer here,” the echoes of which seem to resound in each of the liminal places they capture. Most fascinating among the ghost villages and ruins eulogised on the record are the sites that have been uprooted by more recent history, like Sipson, a town on the outskirts of Heathrow Airport’s third runway. “It’s amazing,” says Titley, “you’re barely outside London but the place has totally gone over to nature… the people still living there have nets up around their roofs to catch any falling tiles that there’s no point repairing…the abandoned garden centre was full of horses!”

Throughout our conversation they relate encounters with nature spilling over and glimpses of feral dominance that linger precariously outside the bounds of city life. But they’re both eager to eschew hypersensitivity and romanticism; nature can be scary, landscapes and the stories they conceal are complicated. The pursuit of this sonic cartography takes guts and endeavour, trailing endless dirt tracks in unsuitable cars, following poetic instructions in ancient books, rooting around the burnt-out houses of MOD training sites – it’s no walk in the park.

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So if the countryside as we know it is changing, littered with industry and the scars of modern warfare, does the nature of the traditional music that documents it need to change too? I ask about classifying Way Through’s output as Folk, both in the sense of it passing on stories and histories, and in its Morrissey-esque cadences – whose poetry of the urban pastoral is perhaps the most interesting of the last 30 years. “We’re delighted with that,” enthuses Tipton. “The thing I really admire about Folk music is the idea that each singer or musician can make their own mark with the song, there’s no definitive recording or version written down, it’s a living organism evolving from one performance to the next, lyrics can change so that the whole meaning can slip into another realm that’s spontaneously generated.”

They critique the boundless British Heritage industry too, viewing it in a way that perhaps only generations whose childhoods are coloured with endless forced (or willing) school trips and rainy holidays to National Trust sites can appreciate. “Yeah we can probably never tour!” Tipton jokes. But what they do is clearly fascinating, to art and literary audiences as well as musical ones. They’ve played in front of Turners in Tate Britain and dedicated an album to the streets of Bethnal Green, a project that that fans of psycho-geographic fiction would surely appreciate. But, in that Folk tradition, it’s not about creating definitive soundtracks or rendering everything explicit. As Tipton explains, “the very essence of our songs is that they try to document a rarefied moment, that’s the only honest way of dealing with place in song.”

The cover of the new record shows a Shetland grazing by the Whiteleaf Hill chalk drawings (Track 12 and another perilous undertaking in the scope of their adventure), these ancient markings serving as a further tribute to the joy of the inexplicable; as Tipton explains, “there’s something terribly poetic about leaving a message for future generations to puzzle over, intended or not. As time gathers and original meaning is lost, the very processes of memory, guesswork and fable takeover. I think this is something we’d love to achieve with making an album.

“That people thought to express themselves by chopping away turf to expose the chalk hillside astounds me, it’s literally writing with nature, a two-way conversation, what’s more inspiring than that?!”
What indeed.

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