Words by David C. Obenour
In a time of near instant possible exposure, it can feel surprising to experience the discovery of the out-of-leftfield musician. Though much of the money has been sucked out of the industry, there have never been more opportunities to create, produce and connect with an audience. Of course much of that is a myth and for every Youtube video that won over thousands of fans overnight, there are hundreds more artists still out there earnestly creating.
Wonderfully toiling away in his corners of Wales and Scotland, Edwin Stevens as Irma Vep might be Great Britain’s best kept modern secret. His latest album, Embarrassed Landscape mixes feelings of anxiety and assurance, depression and carefree ease – building and deconstructing over two to ten minutes, whatever that song needs. Just how good it is feels like a simultaneous confirmation of how rare – and at the same time everyday – great music is.
Off Shelf: I hope you’re well in these frightening and uncertain times. How are you holding up?
Edwin Stevens: I’m doing fine, thank you. I hope you and yours are too! I’m pretty good at being by myself, I just worry for the people who aren’t.
OS: I have to imagine the world feels like quite a different place from when you wrote the songs from Embarrassed Landscape. Do you hear them any differently than you had before?
ES: In a way. I feel like the songs have been reinforced, that they mean more to me now than they did before. When they were written the world as I saw it was at a nine on the bat shit scale, now it’s at eleven.
OS: The word “anxiety” is thrown around as a descriptor for your music, is that something you hear or feel?
ES: Yeah, for sure. Panic attacks have been a part of my life since I was small. I haven’t had one in a year or so now thankfully. I think I play guitar in a pretty anxious way. I think Andrew who plays drums with me does too and I think that’s why we have such good chemistry – the release of it or whatever. Talking to a friend who shares health anxiety stuff the other day, we were wondering why we felt eerily calm about it all this shite and came to the conclusion that everyone was now on our level or something…
OS: With all of this as a backdrop, how are you dealing with having an album come out in the current climate?
ES: I know it’s not fun for Matt who runs the label, Gringo. I feel really shit about that. The timing of it all – but what can we do? It’s unprecedented.
I’m just really humbled and chuffed people are still buying it during all this. Hopefully it can help them in some way and when it’s all over we can still go out and play and have fun with everyone and all that… but that’s up to our government, they’re going to fuck it for a lot of people unfortunately.
OS: I hear that Glasgow is your adopted home, but I’ve also read about your relationship to your original hometown of Llanfairfechan. How much does a sense of place translate into your music?
ES: A lot. Shit loads. Llanfairfechan is the bedrock for Irma Vep. I lived there until I was twenty and moved back there three years ago before making the move to Glasgow. It’s maternal and brutal and beautiful and weird to me and I think the people who live there would agree, even though it’s changed quite a bit since. You know when you lie in bed at night and can’t sleep and shit swoops through your mind? That’s Llanfairfechan for me. You should go if you can. It’s on the beach but below the mountains, on a motorway.
The only thing that’s impacted me about a place I’m in musically is the people – meeting friends, sharing ideas, getting pissed and jamming etc. Glasgow is so great for that and Manchester was too. Llanfairfechan wasn’t so much but it’s been burned into the back of my eyes, so…
OS: I admit that I’m a bit gobsmacked listening to Embarrassed Landscape. It’s such a remarkable record from completely out-of-left-field for me and I’m having a hard time digging up much information about you. Can you tell us about your musical past? How did you grow up listening to music and when did you start performing your own songs?
ES: Cheers! I’m glad you’re gobsmacked! My mum has a great taste in music so her records obviously resonated with me a lot; Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Kevin Ayers, Incredible String Band, Richard Thompson etc. I hated them when I was small but got well into them in my teens. Also having curious, weird friends and COB Records in Bangor helped a lot too.
Family friends would leave random instruments at the house and I’d fart about on them, I guess. My mum got me a bass when I was thirteen and I’d play random gigs when I could with my friends in Llandudno or Anglesey or wherever would have us. I played in a few bands in Wales but really started sitting down and getting weird when me and Jake met James and Dylan in Parc Menai and formed Klaus Kinski, which is kind of a no-wave, post-punk noise thing that I love. No one liked us in Wales apart from Emyr Ankst who put out our first record and Alan Holmes who is also a legend.
A man down the road from us flogged my mum a really shite four track and I began to experiment on that when I was sixteen, that’s when I started doing Irma Vep, I guess. All my friends moved to Manchester for University when I was twenty so I moved down with them and played a lot of music with lots of people and it was really really fun.
OS: The album has songs that sprawl out under ebbing and flowing jams and than other songs that are in and out in around three minutes or less. How do you approach these songs differently in how you write them and what about each appeal to you?
ES: Even though the songs all come from a completely personal and selfish and narcissistic place, they all have voices or characters that kind of control them take them where they need to go. I just have to play them out. Does that sound dramatic and ridiculous?
It’s mostly all lyrics first so I just kind of work it out from there. Fart about on the guitar watching something on the telly and think ‘oooh that would be good for this one’.
At the end of the day, I like listening to records with variation. Life is funny and sad and slow and fast and happy and stupid so my records should be too?
OS: The sequencing of the album is also great. Were there songs that were recorded and left out? How did you pick the cut and the order they played in?
ES: Cheers! Yeah, there was about five or six songs left out. It’s not like they didn’t cut the mustard – their themes just didn’t sit well with the rest of the tunes on the record. Possibly because they were written at different times. Track order is kind of the fun part for me. It takes a while but I guess you have to look at it like you’re editing a film. I’ve had ten minute bangers at that start of my last two records so I may need to change it up for the next one.
OS: For people just finding out about you with Embarassed Landscape, how would you say the new album fits in with your back-catalogue?
ES: Urm, I would say that it’s probably the best place to start. Work yourselves backwards into the muck. There’s a lot of it. Embarrassed Landscape is the poshest record I’ve made to date, for sure. The other ones were all four or eight track recorded, bar Disappointment, which was recorded by Dominic Tanner. Embarrassed Landscape is purposefully the easiest to listen to. Hope you like it!
OS: You’ve had a string of limited run vinyl leading up to this release, is vinyl as a format particular important to you? How much thought do you put into the artwork and medium in which the music is conveyed?
ES: Yeah, it is well important. But I don’t really put much thought into the art apart from ‘I really want these people to do the art’ because they’re amazing artists. I’ve worked with Mike Redmond and Faye Coral Johnson over the past few years because their work is incredible. They suit the music. I’m lucky to have lots of talented art friends who have done covers and t-shirts and posters for me: Dylan Hughes, Lucy Jones, Alex Humphries, Jessica Higgins, Matthew Walkerdine, Mattie Roberts to name a few.
OS: Are you under mandatory stay at home orders currently? I’m wondering if you’re writing any music in the midst of all of this and what you might be trying to get out musically.
ES: I guess, yeah, but the Tories aren’t helping by being super fucking weird and vague about it all. Me and Mattie have been staying home and watching films and cooking and that for a week or more now? Occasional bike ride but not going out or socialising or nothing. It’s weird.
I’m either demoing or recording the new record at the moment, I’m not sure yet. I guess we’ll have to see what happens with all this. I’ve got a lot of other music bits I can be working on too so I’m not going to get bored any time soon.