By: Dan Salter
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This month saw Her Name Is Calla celebrate a decade as a band with a series of shows in Leicester’s Firebug where each night they played one of their 3 albums in full. Ten years at the coal face of being an independent band in the twenty first century is a mighty achievement so it seemed like a good time to take a moment to step back and appreciate one of the finest bands this country has produced in that decade.
We have something of a special affinity for Calla here at E&D. The Heriatage was one of the first albums we reviewed way back in 2008 and it made such an impression on us that we’ve been staunch supporters of the band ever since and I has been a pleasure watched them grow and develop as we’ve grown ourselves.
For those who are new to the band, they play what could be ostensibly be described as post rock in the very broadest sense of the term; epic in scale, brimming with grandeur and often an intense melancholy. What sets them apart from the field of EITS and Godspeeed copyists though is the extraordinary voice and songwriting talent of Tom Morris. The only member that has served the full 10 years, Tom is the burning fire at the heart of Calla and without doubt for me one of the finest songsmiths of his generation.
The seeds of Calla first sprouted way back in 2002 when Mike Love was witness to Tom’s first solo show and enjoyed it so much that he started playing bass for Tom. After knocking about a few bands together they then formed Her Name Is Calla in the middle of 2004, although shortly after drummer Scott Everett left to live in London and was replaced by Thom Corah. The band recorded a few songs at home focussing mainly on an acoustic sound with a dark and coarse electronic overlay. In that same year, Tom got married.
In late 2005 Andy Coles joined and the band begin a rockier sound, revamping early songs ‘Hideous Box’, ‘Nylo’n, ‘Hidden Body’ and ‘The White and The Skin’ and began playing their first shows out of town. By 2007 they’d been out on their first UK tour supporting iliketrains and released a couple of singles, including the mighty ‘Condor and River’ which would crop up again in a much augmented version on their second album, The Quite Lamb. Towards the end of that year Andy Coles left the band and current drummer Adam Weikert joined, just as they finished recording their début album The Heritage.
“It’s 4 am, it’s dark. I’m alone with the remnants of another embittered argument, and the taste of a turgid affair in my mouth. The air is littered with half truths and broken promises, and the come down is hitting me hard – ‘What’s the point? What’s happening? Who am I? Where am I going?’ Cleaning away the debris, the guilt and the ashes of a broken fantasy, what should be the soundtrack? I’ll tell you; Her Name Is Calla is what.”
– Geoff Morey on The Heritage for Echoes And Dust
Back in the summer of 2008 we’d only been up and running for a few months and were having to go cap in hand to bands and labels to ask if we could review their records so getting unsolicited submissions was a big deal for us. As a result, when a package arrived unheralded from Gizeh Records containing two actual CDs (the other being Glissando’s With Our Arms Wide Open We March Towards The Burning Sea, which is also a great album if you are post rock inclined) it caused a flutter of excitement. That excitement quickly turned to stunned awe when we played The Heritage for the first time. Here was a band we’d never heard of playing music that was comparable to our better known heroes like Godspeed and Mono, only with Jeff Buckley singing for them.
“As post rock becomes something tired, dull and predictable, Her Name Is Calla have created something that could not only invigorate, but save the genre and give it its ‘Rebirth’. This album doesn’t just hint at greatness, it brazenly wears it tattoo’d across its forehead.”– Geoff Morey on The Heritage for Echoes And Dust
After Geoff’s review went up Tom graciously got in touch, through our MySpace page if I remember correctly (yes, it was THAT long ago), to thank us for his words and thus began a relationship, and eventually a friendship, that continues to this day. It marked a turning point for us, from us regarding the site as a bit of fun, a way to incoherently ramble about the music that we loved, to thinking of it as something that could actually make a difference, in some very, very small way, and something that could be worthwhile. I can not overstate the importance of that moment to our nascent little group of writers and I can say with some confidence that without it the site wouldn’t have become the slavering behemoth that it is today.
Also in 2008 Sophie Green joined the band on violin, further expanding the breadth of the Calla sound, and work began on writing their follow up record. When I asked Tom why the aforementioned ‘Condor And River’ didn’t appear on The Heritage he said “Just because we’d planned to hold it back for the next record. We thought it would fit better.” which made me realise that he’d obviously already been thinking, like some sort of chess grand master, about the next record before the first was even finished. To this he replied “Yeah ‘The Union’ and ‘Thief’ were sort of semi written just after The Heritage was finished. It sounds corny, but I normally sort of have a picture or a vision of how a record should be. I see it more as a whole as opposed to a series of tracks. So, even though we didn’t have all of the songs yet, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted The Quiet Lamb to be structured and sound.”
I think that is a tremendous insight in to what sets Calla apart from their peers. A scope of vision that is beyond most artists and goes some way to explain why The Quiet Lamb became the magnum opus that it is.
“It is an example of the album raised to work of high art; an incredible achievement. It contains many counter directional tides; it is lush and full yet bleak and melancholic, it is dreamy and light yet it is dark and powerful, it is all of these things without any of them jarring together. Honestly, it is a masterpiece.”– Dan Salter on The Quiet Lamb for Echoes And Dust
As you can see, I quite liked it at the time and the years have only deepened that love. In years to come, when the annals of post rock are finally written, I fully believe that The Quiet Lamb will sit comfortably alongside the likes of Lift Your Skinny Fists and Happy Songs For Happy People as high water marks for the genre.
Not long after The Quiet Lamb was released we finally got to see Her Name Is Calla live for the first time. Our colleague Tom from GoldFlakePaint was making his first foray in to gig promoting and he’d booked Calla and another band we really liked at the time, the much missed To Bury A Ghost, on Record Store Day 2011. So we made the sojourn down to Bristol, spent a pleasant day pottering around the record stores of that fine city and turned up at the venue entirely unprepared to have our souls flayed open by the intensity of the performance we witnessed.
A few days before the show, whilst on tour in Germany, Sophie’s mother had been taken gravely ill and she’d had to fly home to be with her, meaning she couldn’t play the Bristol show. The emotional strain on the rest of the band was obvious and it seemed they poured all of it in to their performance that night. There is little I can say to truly describe the night except to say by the end there was barely a dry eye in the house and even the venue’s sound engineer had been reduced to floods of tears; we were shattered.
“With ‘The Quiet Lamb’, Her Name Is Calla have established themselves as a band of enormous depth, ability and vision who really have carved out a unique sound and a place in the musical firmament with very few peers. My only hope is that they are able to sustain this level of output without the emotive turmoil that seethes just below the surface of this record tearing them apart, because if they can then further truly great things can be expected.”– Dan Salter on The Quiet Lamb for Echoes And Dust
At the time of writing that I had no idea how close to the truth it was. Unbeknownst to me, in the run up to releasing The Quiet Lamb, Tom had relocated to Yorkshire following a breakdown/overdose. The emotions displayed on the record, the raw pain and melancholy, are drawn from a well of genuine personal experience and the effect, both on record and in the flesh, is devastating to witness.
This and other events combined to cause a four year gap between The Quiet Lamb and its follow up, leaving many of us wondering if we’d ever actually see one. I asked Tom about that tough period.
“I guess the wait was because there were so many things going on in our personal lives which meant that we had to shelve things for a while. As you know I had a bit of a breakdown and….yeah….went into hospital….But 9 months or so later, when I felt I was able to come back to the band, things still weren’t going right. We had some very sketchy tours where we lost a lot of money, Mike and Thom had had enough of that side of things and wanted to get on with focusing on other more important aspects of their lives and away from the band, which at that point had become a bit like one long drawn out car crash.
A few months before they left, we had been on tour…I believe we were about to go onstage in Dresden…it was quite a packed gig; but about 5 minutes before stage time we had a call from Gav (worriedaboutsatan), Sophie’s boyfriend, telling her that her Mum had had a massive heart attack. She had been resuscitated, but was in a pretty bad way. Obviously she was distraught, and we just wanted to look after our little sister. I remember the support band were total twats and just being very rude to us and unsympathetic. We tried to delay our stage time as we were trying to sort out how quick and from where we could get Sophie a flight home. It turned out it wouldn’t be until about 3 in the morning. We ended up going on stage about half hour late without Sophie, who was backstage crying her heart out. We really didn’t want to play. We tried to let the audience know, but I feel there was a bit of a communication breakdown and we were just met with a blank wall of faces and silence. It was pretty horrible.
So after that, Mike and Thom leaving, I guess we were in limbo. I got back from that tour and my wife asked me to leave the house and that she wanted a divorce. So I guess that is why things were so up in the air for a while. We were just trying to get back on our feet again. Johnny from Maybeshewill joined on bass temporarily for a while but ended up staying almost two years until Tiernan came in. Nicole has played cello on every record of ours and she started playing with us a lot. Eventually though, she had so much work as a session musician and was away on tour so much, that it wasn’t feasible for her to stay with us full time, though she does still come to play some shows with us, and I’m sure she’ll still pop up on recordings. ”
“With all this going on, I think we were in quite fragile places. We had also had enough for a while of the big guitar driven band sound. Without trying to sound too up our own arses, we started to see a lot of bands doing things like finishing songs with everyone thrashing drums. Not trying to make out that we were trendsetters or anything…but seeing it happen more made us want to go against it all a bit more. I wrote ‘Dreamlands’ and sent it to Adam and we worked together piecing it up. Then I showed him ‘Navigator’, something he said he remembered me playing to him two or three years previously. With those two tracks in mind, and Soph, Adam and me fresh from writing ‘Burial’ together, I had a good idea of how I wanted the record to be – quiet, understated, organic and full of subtle harmonies and pauses. I think it’s very reflective of where we were at that time. It became obvious after it came out that some weren’t happy with the change in sound, but in our opinion, we never want to repeat the same formula each time.”
“The journey starts with the melancholic and stunning ‘I Was On The Back Of A Nightingale‘ that is a dense mix of acoustic guitars, piano and soft strings and achieves such loveliness you don’t want it to end. It dissolves into the hypnotic ‘The Roots Run Deep’ and just after it it’s the turn of the gentle instrumental two-minute long ‘It’s Called Daisy’. It’s sunrise and your room, your heart is immersed in a bright light. There’s no boundaries between you and the world around you.”– Dani Patrizi on Navigator for Echoes And Dust
If I’m entirely honest, it took me a while to get in to Navigator. Being the selfish music obsessive that I am, I wanted another Quiet Lamb but why should a band ever pay heed to people like that? Instead it must surely be more rewarding to confound expectations and take your audience somewhere new? Once I saw them play these songs live, in the beautiful setting of St Pancras Old Church, it all clicked in to place and I now love the album at least as much as its older siblings.
To get something of a second opinion and reassure myself it wasn’t just me obsessing about this band, I canvassed some of our team to find out what Her Name Is Calla have meant to them over the years. Hannah, our webmaster and violinist in Rumour Cubes, said “They’ve definitely been an influence on me as a member of Rumour Cubes; I didn’t really listen to post rock before I joined a post rock band and they were the first band that I came to that made a feature of the violin and Sophie’s playing made me realise what I could aim for. For us they set the standard of what we should be aiming for and what we could achieve.”
Meanwhile Bruce, legendary videographer of the Scottish post rock scene, was even more fulsome in his praise, “I have no idea when I first became aware of Calla, never mind when I became a ‘fan’. They just seemed to seep into my consciousness over time. It must have been more than 5 years ago, anyway, as it was in 2010 that I first went to see them play, in an arts centre in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I remember we had to hang around for ages to see them, but, oh yes, it was worth the wait, and I have gone to see them at every opportunity since. And they have never let me down.
They play with a raw passion and honesty. There is absolutely nothing false about them, nothing hidden. They can be fragile and they can be ferocious, but they are never less than mesmerising. Calla are a band which seems to engender a fierce loyalty in its fans. We – and I do include myself here – seem willing to go just that bit further to support them. To travel a long way for a gig, to spend a bit extra money on records, even just to spread the word. It’s like a family.”
And for Stuart & Kerry, from Leeds promoters Bad Owl, Calla are “one of the most important bands on the scene – there aren’t many DIY bands who can claim the fan base that they have and, to still be here 10 years later, making music that’s relevant, inspirational and hugely appealing is a testament to their hard work and durability as a band.
We couldn’t believe it when we managed to secure them as headliners for this year’s StrangeForms festival – they brought the weekend to such a beautiful and powerful close. Tom’s songwriting is emotional enough as it is, but the impact of the band as a whole – especially Sophie’s contribution on strings – make them one of the most memorable and tear-jerking performances Bad Owl has had the honour of putting on.”
Finally for Photo editor Magda it’s very personal, “the first time they used my photo first to promote their Bandcamp sale (I binged like crazy on that one!) and then put another one on the cover of the ‘Live At St Pancras Old Church’ – that was the moment I genuinely thought my photography is finally getting somewhere and they gave me a confidence kick on. And that was a beautiful gig. The moment that one guy decided to open a can of beer during the quietest moment and everyone laughed and Tom mocked him from the stage, and it’s actually included in the live album – that was absolutely priceless.
So here’s to another 10 years of Tom’s heartbreaking voice, Sophie’s longing violin, Adam’s magic on percussion. Here’s to 10 years with Anja on strings and Tiernan on bass. Another 10 years of getting drunk at festivals with Calla and wiping a shy tear off my cheek at gigs.”
And Magda’s right, this is not the end, merely the story so far. This year has already seen them release A Wave Of Endorphins and there is a ‘proper’ album to follow later in the year. Put simply, Her Name Is Calla are a national treasure and we should appreciate, nature and celebrate them accordingly. So few bands in this crazy niche of weird music that we cover make it to anything like 10 years as a going concern, let us take the time to recognise their achievements and raise a toast to the next decade of wonderful music.
Catch Her Name Is Calla live in the coming months, firstly at ArcTangent Festival in August and then Wharf Chambers in Leeds and The Sebright Arms in London in September. Details here.