Interview with Oliver Cherer

Oliver Cherer (photo credit: Tim Nathan)

A prodigious musical polymath whose varied musical guises include his multi-faceted alter-ego of Dollboy, the electro-stylings of The Assistant, the motodisco of Rhododendron and Australian Testing Labs Inc., and the freshly-minted ambient Gilroy Mere, Oliver Cherer returns to his folk heart-land with The Myth Of Violet Meek, his first orthonym release since 2014’s critically acclaimed Sir Ollife Leigh & Other Ghosts. A formidable, multi-layered and psychologically nuanced work, Violet Meek draws, musically, on the classic English folk-rock of Fairport and Fotheringay and the wilder imaginative shores of Robert Wyatt and Roy Harper with an abundance of pure, original, idiosyncratic Cherer talent. Morally akin to a Ben Wheatley film rendered into music, Meek takes us on an historically-flavoured yet timeless journey through hard lives, harsh judgements, misogyny and sexual transgression in a musical/lyrical melange best described as ‘folk-rock Lou Reed’.

And, if you go down to the woods today, don’t ever ask “who killed the bears?”

This album has three song titles with ‘bears’ in. What’s with the bears, man?

I spent my teenage years living in Cinderford in the Forest of Dean and there is a local true story about two bears that were hounded and killed by a drunken mob. Dennis Potter wrote a TV play about it where he expanded the idea that a girl had been attacked in the woods into something even darker.  All I’ve done is take this story and bent it into a myth so that I can discuss the misogyny I remember from when I was in my teens.

I understand that the album is partly autobiographical and yet it also sounds, to me, like a concept album. There’s a strong narrative feel to it, mostly a rather dark one. To me it’s reminiscent of a folk version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The song “Violet Says” standing as proxy to Berlin’s “Caroline Says”, for example. And is Violet Meek herself a historical character or a fictional creation?

It is partly autobiographical in that it is based on what I remember of the general and accepted misogyny and sexism of the Forest of Dean in my teenage years, (i.e. the 80s).  Violet Meek is an invention.  Meek is a common surname in the FoD and I liked the juxtaposition of Violet (violent?) and Meek. She’s either a young girl or an older woman who is condemned by her sexual appetite as a ‘slag’. Men and boys could be jack-the-lad but this wasn’t an option for women. She could have been the murdered victim of the bears or an ageing ‘witch’ to be avoided. There isn’t a coherent linear narrative but there is an attempt at multiple narrative possibilities.  There’s a lot of stuff about sex and death and rebirth, the forest as a metaphor containing all that’s dark, dangerous, sensual and self-perpetuating. I grew up in this forest and lots of people had lots of sex in it.

And to the rest of my theory…?

I hadn’t thought of the Berlin comparison but it makes sense to me.  I’m a long-time fan of VU and Lou Reed, with Berlin being a particular favourite.  I have nicked the Caroline/Candy Says naming convention before but I think this is the first time a song has made it through to release.  I love Lou Reed’s direct approach to lyrics and “Violet Says” is an attempt at something similar.  “Poor Violet” too.  I think “Violet Meek had sex with her horse” sounds like something Lou Reed might have written if he’d lived in the FoD.

All of the songs on the album give the impression of reflecting onto each other. Did you set out to make a song-suite?

It started with “A Bear With Two Backs” as an attempt at a non-misogynistic murder ballad!  As soon as I had that tune I knew I wanted to expand on the idea and so the set of songs I had been working on was shelved and I started writing all these thematically related things.  They’re mostly just strands of a central idea, innocence, darkness, birth, corruption, life repeating etc.  Written down like this it all seems a bit precious and pretentious but really it’s just a set of reflections of my distant past.

As well as the matter of misogyny and chauvinism that you deal with in some of the songs, could you enlarge on the song subjects in general? How the story unfolded.

Photo credit: Joseph Lee

“Poor Violet” is about a woman’s sexual reputation and how toxic that can be in a village community. It is the central ‘myth’.  The dirty stories and the filthy rumours. The myth could also be her death at the claws of a bear. “Violet Says” is Violet telling it how it is.  Its defiance tempered with an acceptance that this chauvinism is just ‘how we live’.  It’s also mixed up with the stuff about the bears.  Was Violet the girl killed by the bears?  The mob that kills the bears was most likely motivated by xenophobia (the bears were Italian or French) rather than a sense of justice or even revenge – so, more chauvinism. “A Bear with Two Backs” is Violet teasing a lad, tempting him to join her in the woods for a secret liaison.  He turns her down because he is frightened of association with a girl like her.  And she is killed by a bear.  Or, maybe he killed her and allowed the bears to take the blame.  Dennis Potter went here too.

“Slag” – there really was a polaroid that did the rounds when I was a teenager.  A girl whose name I won’t mention is apparently seen felating her horse.  When I recently mentioned this to an old friend I hadn’t seen since the 80s he pulled her name out of the ether in an instant.  Her reputation was entirely intact.  I never saw this picture, just heard tell of it.  The chant of “Slag Slag Slag” was the hardest thing to sing (that word has to go!) both in the studio and recently live too.  It comes from a story Tracy Emin told when I went to see her as an art student. She had been a promiscuous teenager and got chanted off the dancefloor at a disco competition by a crowd containing lots of much older men who’d all ‘had her’.  It’s a harrowing word I think.

“Violet And Her Sisters” is the last track and was born as a concept.  I went to the woods with four female friends and asked them to improvise, singing in a key I gave them.  I took the recordings home and made them into a piece which is meant to represent a healing/cleansing of all the rancid filth peppered throughout the album.

The anti-war song “Unspoken” paints you as a bit of a conchie

Possibly a little conchie round the edges, yes!  Again, it’s about losing innocence and also the notion that not all soldiers come back feeling patriotic.  I think I’d just read Goodbye To All That. I tried this out just after I’d written it, at the RAFA club in Bexhill, slightly nervously. It went down a treat and I had an old RAF man shake my hand afterwards.

My favourite song on the album is “Ruined”; a fascinating chord sequence, melody and lyric; it’s an exceptionally original piece. The only comparison I can think of is Anthony Phillips-period Genesis, which is tenuous. What are the influences, here?

“Ruined” is a kind of five-line poem (with clearly more lines than five).  It’s really a love song for Violet.  It’s a way of showing that there is love for Violet, even with her damning reputation of promiscuity.  In the end kids grow up, the ‘slag’ is forgotten or no longer important and the whole cycle repeats.  The forest is reborn.  You could read it another way though.  The lad is seduced and falls in love with Violet and is ‘ruined’ by association.  I’ve tried to be ambiguous about this stuff where I can be as I look back at all this behaviour and see it all in flux.  But really, this is saying – in the middle of all this chauvinism, love happens.  I hope that outside the context of Violet’s story it’s just a love song. I don’t write many.

The lyric was written in bed on waking one morning, totally from the heart and a little gushing so it got shelved.  Sometime later my fingers fell into the shapes that make the chords (it’s a DADGAD open tuning) and the tune was improvised using the earlier words, written in not much more time than it takes to sing. This being the case I have no idea what influenced it, musically, I’m afraid. I wish I could do this more often!

Many musicians work under a number of aliases but you’re practically notorious for it. Why so many guises? Do you get bored easily? Are you trying to confuse us?

And yes, the pseudonyms. It’s as much accident as it is a strategy. I do many different things and these days people seem to need neat boxes more than ever. I guess that my folkier stuff would be seen by some as getting in the way of my electronic or ambient things and vice versa. These days I’d do it all under my own name, I think, but I wonder if that would be equally confusing. As it is there are different sets of people who see me as primarily an electronic keyboard artist or a folky type or even a free improviser. It has been suggested that I might be more successful if I were to stick to a line but I don’t crave any more success than I have. I’m happy to keep poking about as I am.