Orbury Common: Welcome to Club Bucolica

If England has one thing it can remain proud of throughout history, it has to be its countryside. The rolling hills, the picturesque villages, the winding roads; there’s something to be said of its timeless charm. Dig a little deeper though, and there’s more than simply meets the eye. There’s a more freakish side to the country, one with bizarre rituals and pagan traditions that doesn’t get observed as much as the beautiful pastures and thatched cottages we’re known for. A fascinating and fantastical history lies beneath the surface, and it deserves to be noticed. One such place you can find all of the above is the mythic location of Orbury Common.

While it may only exist as a figment of the combined imaginations of Bristol/Stroud duo Josh Day-Jones and Emlyn Bainbridge, Orbury Common is somewhere we’ve all been before. With their music, they tell the stories of this make-believe place through the medium of electronic music that draws from past and present. While in some ways it may appear stuck in tradition with its references to old world customs, there are elements of modern life permeating through. The village has been influenced by the big city, making reference to welcoming change on ‘The Crooked Bayleaf’ and bringing in their technology and their nightlife. The merging of these two thematically distant parts to Orbury Common feels seamless and is dealt with immense care and attention to detail; there’s enough room for both processions of worshipping the lord and the dancefloor.

With this in mind, it seems the duo are very much capable of transcending the boundaries of electronic music, testing the notion of what the genre can be, fusing elements of folk and psychedelia into their beguiling world. Their latest EP, The Traditional Dance of Orbury Common is a curiosity shop of ideas that invites you to poke your head in and explore. Released by PRAH Recordings, perhaps the perfect place for a record brimming with this level of creativity, the EP pays homage to the likes of Boards of Canada and Autechre whilst still managing to feel like a singular listening experience. It eschews being bogged down by wanky concepts in favour of something fully realised, offering a solid explanation for everything they do rather than shrugging it off as trivial. There’s no need for succumbing to draping it all in irony, nor is there need to seem overly po-faced; this is a fascinating project that deserves every bit of your time and attention and for you to lose yourself in a world of intrigue.

On a glorious summer day, Josh and Emlyn took me for a walk around the idyllic Blaise Hamlet on the outskirts of Bristol to tell me all about the customs and history of Orbury Common and how it has come to be what it is today – a brilliant surreal reimagining of the English countryside.

I want to start off by talking about where we just visited. You invited me here because you say Blaise Hamlet signifies everything you imagine the fictional place of Orbury Common to be like – can you just expand on the setting that you have in your minds?

Emlyn: We were saying just now it’s quite a timeless place, almost like periods of time collapsed into one. That’s what it feels like.

Josh: A bit too perfectly kept and green – well trimmed and stuff.

Emlyn: It seems like the design of those little cottages were picked and chosen from different periods of architecture. I guess, in our mind’s eye, it’s hard not to imagine quite English stuff, like village greens and things that have been at the fringes of what we’ve seen around the UK. A lot of things that seem to be kind of dying out.

How does that compare to the areas you both grew up in in Gloucestershire? Was there a lot of influence coming from there?

Josh: I think subconsciously. Stroud especially is just lush valleys and everywhere you look is picturesque.

Emlyn: Also around Stroud there’s a lot of new age-y stuff, a lot of born again hippies that are into goddess temples and crystals and supernatural stuff. I think that finds its way into Orbury Common, sometimes in quite a tongue in cheek way, but we also sometimes find stuff like ghosts and haunted technology quite interesting.

There’s a lot of what you’ve seen that goes into it.

Emlyn: I guess there’s elements of folk customs and traditions as well. We imagine that there’s these subverted versions of something like maypole dancing or vintage fayres, and we imagine that in Orbury Common there are these alternate versions of those that are quite ritualistic. Maybe a bit more timeless, they might have kind of futuristic elements to them as well. It’s hard to say.

How did the idea for the project initially come about and how did you meet in the first place? Were the initial collaborations that you made as a duo anything like what you’ve produced since?

Josh: The first thing we made is the first thing we released. We met through Katy J Pearson when we were playing in her old band, but then after that, we just bonded over music tastes and just decided to start making music together. We made ‘Ecto’s Chasm’, which was a self-released single we did. The idea sprung up halfway through making both of those songs.

Emlyn: The vision of Orbury Common came from what we were hearing in the music that we’d started. We weren’t trying to make a conceptual thing when we wrote those songs. I think we were trying to find a name for the songs, and we were trying to work out what we thought it sounded like. The thing that sprung into both of our minds was this strange, parallel world, that was quite ghostly. I think both of those first two songs that we made for us had quite a ghostly sound to them.

Do the sounds you draw inspiration from go back a long way for you or were these the first forays into electronic music?

Emlyn: I think what brought us together was that in that band we both played instruments, but we had very varied music tastes and were quite into electronic music. We’d both dabbled with our own separate projects.

Josh: I think we bonded over shoegaze. The key to a lot of music we listen to has some layer of atmosphere to it.

Emyln: We both have a self-taught background in electronic music that we both brought together which complement each other’s way of working.

Josh: The way we were approaching it was using the gear we had – just computers and synths and not with a band. I guess it naturally comes out being electronic because you sit down and start cutting sounds up and finding samples.

Emlyn: I don’t think we’ve always intended to make electronic music, its more just the way we can make music. Because there’s two of us, we’re not really able to practice songs as a band so we just build stuff up slowly with different layers.

Is there much of a process of sending things back and forth?

Emlyn: We moved in together fairly recently. Before that we were meeting up quite a lot and doing stuff in the same room before, but with lockdown, we started a new process of, sending things backwards and forwards – even just giving feedback, or transferring the Logic project and rearranging something that the other had made. We’re still in that phase, even though we live together.

Josh: We sit down and try and do music together, then within an hour, we’re both on our laptops making different things.

Emlyn: We’re still post lockdown and trying to get back into being in the same room.

How easy would you say the marriage of themes and sounds is when putting things together? Do you have ideas that quite often don’t work or do you fiddle with things until they fit?

Josh: I’ve done that a lot in the past and I think I want to stop doing that because a lot of the time when I start a project, if something’s not working out I’ll spend hours trying to put things right.

Emlyn: I’ve had times where I’ve really thought about a theme and tried to make a song around that theme. A couple of times it’s worked, and sometimes you what comes out is nothing like what you’ve heard in your head. You can either let it go, or it can be really frustrating and you give up quite easily. Other times we’ve made stuff, like with Traditional Dance, which is a more dancey EP – that’s a good example of something where we’ve started quite naturally without thinking about concept that much and worked out how it does fit with our overall themes of Orbury Common. We’ll arrange in our heads and with artwork to make it fit the overall project, which I think also works. When we first started, we were both making a lot of dance music over lockdown – quite ironically, really. We weren’t sure whether that was going to be something for Orbury Common.

Josh: We like shelved some songs like ‘The Cutting Edge’, but then came back and found some samples we could put on it which worked really well. A lot of the stuff was teetering on just being functional dance music, so we had to do something to make it fit the concept.

Emlyn: I think having that theme helps us to rein stuff in order to keep some consistent sound. I’m sure a lot of people have the same issue, but we’re inspired by varied music tastes like a lot of people. I might start a couple of different things in one day, and they all sound vastly different. It’s quite a good way of bringing some consistency to the music.

I wanted to expand on the concept of ‘traditional dance’ – a play on the two different themes in terms of tradition and dance music, what was the idea behind that? There’s another reference in ‘Club Bucolica’, which I also thought was quite an interesting turn of phrase.

Emlyn: ‘Club Bucolica’ was a potential name for the EP, but it ended up as the name of the first track. It’s kind of what we were just saying about when we realised how things tie in with this imagining of how dance music has been used in ancient history, or maybe 300 years ago, as something ritualistic and almost like a practical thing as part of a custom. We realised there’s a parallel between that and modern dance music. It’s not just music to listen to – it can be – but it’s got more of a communal purpose to it.

Josh: I guess there’s a common feeling between an ancient ritual and a 12-hour rave set, although both of those things we’ve only experienced second hand.

Emlyn: We’re observers in that, we haven’t done much raving.

Josh: We haven’t done many ancient rituals either.

I suppose that ties in with the whole idea that Orbury Common is a timeless place.

Emlyn: We’ve never written down what these rituals would entail, but we imagined people in some kind of frenzy around a stone circle, with loads of lasers going. That’s what The Traditional Dance of Orbury Common would be, maybe a canon of dance pieces that they can pull out of this little old book.

You’d hope that in hundreds of years’ time, they’ll look back and think this is what they were doing in 2022.

Emlyn: We’re just trying to plot Orbury Common on the map.

Another thing that I picked up on throughout was a childlike innocence, especially on songs like ‘Playing With Friends’. Going back to your upbringing in Gloucestershire, what early memories do you have, and do you feel like it still feeds into your music and creative practice?

Emlyn: That’s a good thing to point out. I think there’s a bit of a theme, or a thread of childlike sounds in our music. We seem to both be affected by children’s TV themes.

Josh: We talk about that a lot actually.

Emlyn: I quite like Noddy. Some of them are really melancholy, like that one.

Josh: You were also really obsessed with Coronation Street, although that’s not a kids’ show.

Emlyn: There’s ones that we haven’t seen as well that weren’t part of our childhood, like The Moomins and Bagpuss. There’s something about those things – almost someone else’s childhood memory is something quite evocative. Something about those soundtracks is quite surreal for something that kids are watching.

Josh: When I was younger, I was really into Doctor Who, but the 70s doctors. It was all I used to watch; I obsessively collected the DVDs. I’m not sure exactly why, but it might be because the newer ones felt like they were set in the world I was living in and then the older ones were like a really weird, different world – but it was just the 70s.

Emlyn: Even the real world bits in that are still a bit alien.

Josh: The whole demeanour of all the characters and stuff. I liked watching older TV shows.

I watched a lot of things like my parents’ VHS tapes of The Clangers. There’s a real eeriness to it.

Emlyn: It’s something that’s already otherworldly. I don’t know if it’s escapism or just imagining a different reality to our own, but there’s something about that that probably draws us to building this world that we place our music within. I don’t know about like the innocence of it – I haven’t really picked apart why we’re drawn to that, but you’re right that we are drawn to those kinds of melodies or sounds.

You do a track [‘Devil Gurning’] with Mermaid Chunky, who have a similar approach, on the EP. Have you known them a while and how did the collaboration come about?

Josh: I think we’ve been fans longer than we’ve known them personally.

Emlyn: We had done a couple of gigs with them, and were in touch mostly just through being two duos from Stroud.

Josh: With that track, I guess we liked their vocals and their lyrics, and we had a track we felt we needed to put some vocals on. That was another one that was finished for ages but we didn’t really know what to do with it. We rearranged into a bit more of a song structure and thought they’d be good.

Emlyn: Mermaid Chunky are quite improvised and unpredictable and we didn’t know what we needed. We didn’t say “oh, we want someone who sings exactly like Björk sings here”, we just wanted to be surprised. They were perfect for that.

Josh: I wasn’t there, but Moina brought her little sister into the studio, so it’s her on one of the verses.

Emlyn: She’s 9 – it was a pretty informal studio setting but she was quite nervous. Moina was quite persuasive and it ended up working really well.

I really think they share that quality with you. The times I’ve seen them I’ve ended up fascinated by the table of wind-up toys.

Emlyn: It’s really refreshing.

Josh: Also very genuine.

Emlyn: They’re absolutely mad really. They haven’t thought about things too much, but it’s not just random avant-garde noise. They’ve thought about it quite a lot in their own strange way of thinking.

Josh: They’ve got their own little universe going on with their costumes and the sound.

There’s something else on that track which reminds me of my childhood which is the use of the ‘DJ’ button.

Josh: [laughs] That is probably the most childish thing on the EP.

Do you feel you have many other peers who are influencing you at the moment and what other influences went into the EP?

Emlyn: Lockdown was quite a big influence on us starting to make dance music. I don’t really know exactly why but working separately and dance music feeling so far removed from the situation we were actually in led us both to making that at the same kind of time. I don’t know about peers that influenced it – I guess the two others that feature on the record, so Mermaid Chunky and TENCHPRESS.

Josh: He lives in Leeds and is in a duo with his girlfriend called jellyskin; they’re really good. We did a couple of gigs with them pre-lockdown.

Emlyn: His own music was something we thought would work really well with ours, he’s a great lyricist and there’s something quite surreal about TENCHPRESS musically. It also seems like a warped version of reality in 2022. A lot of the songs sound like they’re based on current affairs but with a strange worldview on them.

Josh: It’s just the ramblings of a crazy guy. He’s taking things and spewing them back out in an indecipherable way.

Emlyn: More since we made the EP, we signed to PRAH Recordings because we were drawn to some of the people on that label like The Umlauts who are doing a relatively similar thing in terms of songwriting with electronic instruments and an ambiguous blend of genres. They probably don’t sound that similar but have more similar sensibilities. Others on PRAH like Uh – we saw them live recently and felt a good connection with the way they make music. Closer to home in Bristol we’re really arrested by Quade’s music when we first heard them. We’ve since played with them in a crypt. It was great.

Josh: We first heard them supporting caroline at The Jam Jar, that was a pretty impactful gig. I love them and think they’re one of the best bands at the moment. I feel a sense of relief listening to them among all the other things out at the moment.

Emlyn: We also discovered Dear Laika at that gig as well. I think it goes back to what Josh was saying about creating a sense of atmosphere and all the bands we’ve just mentioned do that in different ways and are quite emotive or create cinematic textures with simple instruments. Even though our sound right now might not sound exactly similar to these bands, we feel some kind of musical connection in the ideas that influence the music subconsciously.

You’ve been doing quite a bit of remix work for labelmates like The Umlauts and Yama Warashi, and also Katy J Pearson, how do you go about approaching someone else’s track compared to your own?

Emlyn: It’s a lot of fun. When we make music we’ll usually start off with a sample so making remixes has felt quite natural.

Josh: I’d say it’s actually easier than making our own music. We probably start off a little differently with it.

Emlyn: So far we’ve been taking turns, usually one person will either do most of it and the other will add bits and pieces.

Josh: I just go through all the stems and elements and pick my favourite bits. I’ll listen through each one and try to hear bits that might be interesting to write something with or loop. Even just a texture that I can use or stretch out. Just fuck it all up.

Emlyn: In regards to Orbury Common remixing, it makes a lot of sense the way we do it and processing other people’s sounds. We’ve talked about it as though these sounds have found their way into Orbury Common and been mangled by the strange world and have come out of the other end.

When you’re making your own stuff and searching for samples you can use, I suppose it becomes a completely different thing approaching it that way to being given a finished article to disassemble and work with?

Emlyn: I love finding samples, it’s probably one of the most fun parts of making the kind of music we do. I think there’s a couple of songs where we haven’t used samples but perhaps not. We’ll trawl through YouTube or sites like Freesound where people have just uploaded random stuff. I found one the other day where someone had recorded their 4 year-old son singing a Norwegian lullaby and the texture of that voice was perfect for what we were making.

Josh: There’s a really good shortwave radio website called WebSDR where you can just trawl through the airwaves, and you can just hit record and download it. There’s a chatroom and it’s really good, people will just post frequencies in there. You can spend hours going through it, and there’s an audio stream you can just go through. Most of it is just static, but every now and then you’ll find something really weird. It’s a goldmine for samples.

Emlyn: We’ve used a lot of vinyl records we’ve found in charity shops before as well or obscure folk things. On the track ‘The Cutting Edge’, we just dropped the needle on this album I’ve got of people taking about old Cotswolds woodcraft, so there’s little phrases like “this is the cutting edge” and talking about working with oxen pulling ploughs.

Josh: I think a lot of the phrases we use often fall between sentences, or we’ll be drawn to the accent.

Emlyn: It’s all a lot of garbled or misremembered anecdotes. Sampling is just a channel for our interests and just gives us a nice excuse to be on YouTube or in record shops and learning all of this pointless stuff, but we’ve actually got a reason to do that.

There’s a common trope within electronic music where the live show will just be two guys behind a desk twiddling knobs –

Josh: Yeah, that’s the scariest bit. [laughs]

But your EP launch contained a lot of non-musical elements such as maypole dancing and elaborate costumes– do you anticipate yourself adding a lot more visual elements to the live show in the future to express your creativity in other ways?

Emlyn: I think part of it is to try and stray away from that trope.

Josh: It’s almost the first thing we said when we started playing live. We can’t just be two guys on stage, we’re also bored of that. We’ve done a couple of gigs like that where we haven’t been able to have visuals, which is a bit of a shame, but I think it’s a really important element of our show.

Emlyn: We always try and do something even if it is quite hard to set up; partly because we’re trying to make it more interesting, but also because Orbury Common is quite a conceptual and is a visual thing in our heads that we’re trying to express. It’s quite nice to have a bit of a hand in all of the stuff around it like music videos, live visuals, stage setups etc. The gig we did for our EP launch felt really rewarding because once we’d got it all set up and people started performing in the space, we’d actually managed to manifest what we’d had in our heads for three years. It looked just as surreal as we’d wanted it to and with the help of a lot of talented artists.

Josh: I think it’s the most excited I’ve ever felt about any show we’ve done. We asked a local arts collective in Stroud called Mould to make the maypole, and I’d done a really rough drawing of what I thought it should look like, then we gave them a few pointers. What came out was really interesting.

Emlyn: We realised for the launch that we try and do a lot of this stuff ourselves, but for this we really wanted to hand some of it over to others. They made a load of other installations for the room and really understood our vision.

It sounds like you’ve got quite the community around you.

Emlyn: I think that’s probably just a by-product of being part of the Stroud scene.

Josh: It’s almost quite a cult in itself. I went to college there and used to be quite scared of going for a drink with friends because it was so cliquey and a pretty intense place to be when you’re that age. You feel like everyone’s aiming to be the best artist or the most eccentric person in the room, but after a couple of years I grew to really love it.

Emlyn: We’d like to collaborate with people a lot more though, so if there’s any artists or video makers out there… [laughs] I feel like we spend about 20 percent of the time doing the music and then the rest is working on the visual side of things more.

What else can we expect from Orbury Common in the near future?

Emlyn: So The Traditional Dance of Orbury Common is our foray into dance music, but I don’t think it’s what you can expect from us. There will be similar themes and sounds, but I think the stuff we’re making at the moment isn’t so strictly tied to a genre and is a bit more on the experimental side of things. We’re probably going to try and make more songs with singing and traditional structure.

Josh: I think our remixes are quite a good indicator of where we’re heading with our songs, because we’ve been able to use them as experiments.

Emlyn: Yeah, just give ourselves a consistent palette of sounds for the next release; hopefully an album.

Finally – what happened to the Felt Beasts?

Josh: They’re just on our windowsill – all of them. I pick them up sometimes to have a look at them. I want to make more of them but they’re kind of disgusting. I had this felt lamb that I bought in the Lake District but its tail was coming off, so I bought a kit to fix it and then got carried away.

Emlyn: I think it’s quite a nice thing to do while watching TV. I’d be up for making some more. I think while we were making the video for ‘Haberdashery’ we thought we were going to keep making and selling them, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Words & Photos: Reuben Cross

‘The Traditional Dance of Orbury Common’ is out now via PRAH Recordings. Stream or purchase the album via Bandcamp.

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