How John Burton turned a coastal hike into a modular synth peach
From the comfort of a thatched birdwatching hide perched just above north Norfolk’s endlessly flat Cley Marshes and gazing out beyond the empty fenland into the North Sea, “Leafcutter” John Burton – electronica auteur, noisenik contributor to experimental jazzers Polar Bear, builder of boutique microphones – interrupts his own story of playing guerrilla punk gigs while at art school, and gestures towards the horizon. “Erm, I think we’re about to see a murmuration,” he says, quietly excited, as several thousand starlings coalesce from nowhere on the skyline. Seconds later, the birds begin soaring and swooping across the Saturday dusk as one huge black cloud, its outline constantly shifting like a lava-lamp blob, its density and colour pulsing to an inaudible rhythm with each synchronised figure-of-eight or divebomb. “That’s pretty cool, isn’t it,” Burton offers with childlike awe as he peers down a telescope clamped to the hide’s table to get a better look. “That’s really cool.”
Quite apart from its intrinsic magisterial elegance, it’s fitting that Leafcutter John should be so taken by the spectacle: after all, his new album, Yes! Come Parade With Us, is something of a murmuration in sonic form, the sound of individual elements – synthesisers, drum machines, field recordings and acoustic instruments – coming together and vibrating in loose unison, each ingredient simultaneously separate and inseparable from the whole, shifting and morphing over 45 minutes to create an uplifting, positive gestalt. Inspired by the weeklong hike he and his girlfriend took in the summer of 2017 along the North Norfolk Coast Path, a 60-mile stretch of sand dunes, salt marshes and sea air that links Hunstanton in the west with Cromer in the east (via the Cley Marshes Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre, where he will tonight debut the album to a mix of curious north Norfolk locals and die-hard travelling fans), the album is a love letter to the virtues of walking and being outside, and to a peculiarly English kind of unpredictable weather: its seven pieces boom with dark-skied thunder or beam with sunshine, gambol along with a spring in their step or lumber forward as if headfirst into a gale, all the while anchored by beautifully detailed field recordings that Burton made during the trip.
Not that this outcome was part of the plan all along. Previous Leafcutter John records have been microscopically fascinated by their own form; explorations of sound undertaken from within the confines of a computer, which Burton freely admits were designed to satisfy little more than his own curiosity. At its outset, his new one was to be little different: “Like a lot of musicians, I’d kind of got into modular synthesis, and I’d made all these noodly things,” he explains of the record’s genesis, “and it’s quite magic, because if you let it, it’ll just lead you somewhere, but not always somewhere that you know what to do with. So I had lots of sketches – just recordings of me experimenting – but still wasn’t resolved about how I felt about them.”
Around this time, he met his girlfriend, who, after a couple of months together, suggested they do the hike. “I wasn’t the fittest – I usually just sit down and make music on a computer,” Burton confesses, remembering the idea originally being floated. “But my girlfriend said that there might be some good sounds, and I should bring my stuff, so I thought, if you’re volunteering to sit on a wet grassy mound for half an hour while I record, that’s great!”
Despite reservations, however, what ensued appears to have been rather life-changing for Burton. “I wasn’t expecting it to be so great,” he recalls of their week walking the coast. “I was a little worried: I wasn’t a seasoned walker, that’s for sure – I mean, I had to buy some waterproof trousers – but it turned out really fucking brilliant. It was the most energising thing.
“For some of the walk it feels like you’re a billion miles from humanity: you can’t hear anything, you can’t see anything, you’re just in the elements, it’s very raw, and it’s genuinely a little bit scary at times – and I guess, with that sense of scale, there’s that old chestnut of realising quite how important you are in the world – or how unimportant you are. You’re just another animal in that environment: we would just walk, and for about 10 or 20 miles seals were just swimming alongside us going, ‘what are you two up to?’.
“I had this physical reaction to the countryside, like someone’s whacked me and I’m resonating,” Burton continues, making a cartoon jaw-drop/eye-pop to demonstrate his sense of wonder. “It’s a ‘what the fuck is this!’ sort of thing.”