At a time when real instruments are simulated on digital audio workstations with plugins, I've often wondered what electronic music would sound like if played on real instruments. Somewhere in the early 2010s, I chanced upon The Showhawk Duo, doing acoustic guitar covers of chartbusting electronic dance classics. Since then, and thanks to the internet, I've come across a plethora of musicians playing electronic genres and subgenres on all sorts of instruments, modern, classical and indigenous. Closer to home, here in Mumbai, we’ve had groups like Tribal Flora with their earthy and primal sound fusing jazz, classical, rock and psychedelic forms.
But I can tell you today, nothing comes close to the Hong Kong-based duo, Blood Wine or Honey; A sound they describe as "created in the industrial warehouses and hidden rural settlements of Hong Kong, surrounded by the low-end throb of heavy machinery, the lingering scent of hand sanitiser and the humidity of the South China Sea."
A sound that a Mumbaikar might ‘get’. After all, the two super cities are not that dissimilar. Crowded, crazy, vibrant and eclectic. In fact, one website describes them as "...a bit like Marmite, you either love or hate it."
Well, I love Marmite, BWoH and the fact that they've collaborated with Grammy Award-nominated Scottish singer KT Tunstall (Yes!) on a single that I can only say is unimagineable to even the most musical of ears. Of course, this had to be followed by a prompt chat with the duo, Joseph von Hess and James Banbury.
Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds in music and the story behind how you guys found each other, which I'm sure is quite mad!
Joseph: Our backgrounds are pretty different. My dad was a small-time music journalist, so I got taken to shows from about the age of 2 onwards. I had a few music lessons early on but I’m mostly self-taught as a musician and performer. I’m a bit of a late developer. I never really enjoyed being a punter and I usually couldn’t afford to go to things anyway, so I always got involved in some way behind the scenes, on the door or doing flyers or whatever. I DJed for a few years and then I ended up doing a lot of music on the street, and in festival bands in the UK. Here in Hong Kong I started a street-performance outfit with my wife (we were sick of trying to work with unreliable musicians) but then somehow Blood Wine or Honey did come along after that!
James: I grew up in Sheffield and was forged in the sound of northern dance-pop. I studied cello in London and then sidled into an unwelcoming band called The Auteurs, trudging through the 90s on the periphery of so-called Brit-Pop. For a while, I moonlighted as a go-to emo-indie string arranger and then as an ambient electronic artist. I still write music for TV when not doing Blood Wine or Honey.
Joseph: We actually first met backstage at The Jesus and Mary Chain’s first Hong Kong show back in 2012. I was valiantly polishing off the band’s cheese and wine rider and James was being obsequious around the apparently famous brothers. However we didn’t work together until a bit later on, around 2015.
Of all people, why KT Tunstall? And the result is amazing. Tell me everything about Attraction including how it came about!
Joseph: Thanks so much! James met her years ago in London. More recently, she was doing a regular sort of lockdown survival thing live on Instagram, her ‘KTRaves’, and James offered a mix and put Anxious Party People on it. She loved that track and offered (jokingly, we thought) to do something with us. We'd sent her an instrumental we were working on and then a few weeks later she sent us a pretty much fully-formed song! It was kind of a surprise but we’re glad we went with it. We think it’s a good track.
The music video is like one of those late-70s disco music videos where putting visual effects into music videos simply because they existed was the order of the day. Again, very interesting.
Both: The video for Attraction is very much a product of its constraints: KT is in LA and there was no way we could get together irl… So she shot green-screen footage over there and we worked with a young animator and video artist, Wyatt Lau Tsun Wai, using some foraged stock footage. Yes, we like that gratuitous use of 70s disco-inspired visual effects and Wyatt was very open to it all. He’s been very patient with us.
Trivia: Did you know James Branbury arranged and conducted the strings on the global mega-hit Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol? He has also worked with U2, Natalie Imbruglia, Richard Ashcroft (The Verve), Talvin Singh, and on the Jerry Bruckheimer film Coyote Ugly.
I loved Anxious Party People and Fear and Celebration. You have an interesting sound there. It’s hard to tell what it is and I don’t know if I should be dancing or doing Capoeira to it. It was also good to hear the saxophone in Loosefoot. How do you go about creating your music?
Both: Anxious Party People came out of loose improvisation, then we did a tight drum edit and layered things back on. For Fear & Celebration something similar happened, borne out of long recordings honed down to some key bits we liked. It has always been very collaborative, everyone contributing ideas at all stages really. For Loosefoot, we actually finished that track and mastered it and then something wasn’t right, so we re-recorded a lot of it and mixed it again.
Now, working as a duo, we generally start with some drums, or make a beat, and then play around until we’ve narrowed down what we want to do a bit. I do words and James is good at making the sound we envisage ‘happen', working with synths and so on. Some recent tracks are based on playing beats and bass in the studio and lengthy improvisations over that, using pedals, loopers and our various live instruments. All of the ‘E’ tracks on our new album DTx2 (Embers, Embrasure and Echt Embrace) are based on a session we did that way.
Awesome, let's have a bit of fun now. Tell me something about yourselves that no one knows!
Joseph: I was in an advert for British Telecom when I was about 9 or 10. We had to cheer and wave flags as Joanna Lumley was shown arriving by helicopter to our tiny Welsh village and pretending to formally open a new digital telephone exchange. The location catering was off-the-hook good.
James: I once had a photo published in a children’s comic. My grandma sent it in. It was a picture of me in Ireland, stroking a donkey!
And finally, what does BWoH have in store for us next?
Both: We’re working on new music all the time! Slowly… Actually we’ve still got several ideas we’re hoping to work on with Paul Morley, stuff that didn’t make this album. And we’re hoping there’ll also be some more live shows as venues, festivals and worlds slowly re-open. Plus there’s a remix coming out soon on Lo Recordings. We’re pretty pleased with that, it’s heavy.
Announcement: Following their 2018 debut album 'Fear & Celebration', Blood Wine or Honey are set to release their second album ‘DTx2’ on 25th June, 2021. In the past two months, they've released two singles - Testing Time Featuring Zoë Brewster and, of course, Attraction, as a build-up to their album release on 25th June.
WATCH ATTRACTION BY BLOOD WINE OR HONEY FEAT. KT TUNSTALL
LISTEN ON SPOTIFY
Vocals: KT Tunstall
Drums: Tim Weller
Backing vocals: Zoë Brewster
Produced by Blood Wine or Honey
Mastered by Antony Ryan at Red Red Paw
Released by Bastard Jazz Recordings 4th June 2021
Video created and directed by Wyatt Lau Tsun Wai