The thing about hobbies is that they will eventually come to mean more to you than your job. It's something about the lack of deadline, the pleasure of spending borrowed time, that turns something from an idea into a lifelong labour of love. That's why the old policeman from the Wire is so good at carving, and that's why the music of Sleeping States is as beautiful, detailed and finely crafted as anything you'll hear.
Sleeping States is the hobby of Markland Starkie, and began, in his own words, as a 'relatively short-lived, twee-ish project strictly in the vein of cassette four-tracks and such', while he was studying sound art at University. It's since blossomed further than the boundaries of those early intentions, and experiments with recording environments, the addition of backing musicians, and a continuing interest in recorded music have spawned several singles, an album (2007's There Are Open Spaces) and a recent EP, New vs. Old EP. Last year's signing to Bella Union might indicate a measure of professionalism creeping into this hobby, but undoubtedly the music will continue to be what it is – understated, educated lo-fi, unpolished to the point where you can hear ideas developing from release to release. It's all in all, extremely honest music, difficult to slot into categories and contains all the contradictions that real things contain. It's music that deviates from pop but is compulsively listenable, music that is simple but filled with intricacies, music that is immune to trends but resolutely un-retro. And did I mention that it's beautiful?
I took a break from listening to Old vs New to email some questions to Markland, who is working on a new album in Bristol. He explained how the process is changing with the input of his drummer, Rose, how the Bristol DIY scene compares to London, and how Life Without Buildings was one of the best bands of the last decade.
He also shared a photo of the snowman he made. A little over-achieving, Markland, but sincerely one of the best snowmen I've ever seen. Maybe it's time for a new hobby?
You've studied Philosophy and Sound Art at degree level. To what extent has this informed your music or the way you make music?
Well on a technical level the Sound Art studies definitely helped as I was taught how to record, what recording equipment to use, how to use microphones, etc, etc. Although ironically when I started that degree I was fairly adamant to keep my music separate from what I learned at university, as I had undertaken the course for other reasons (vocationally for film sound recording and design, but also to study sound art itself, as opposed to music) and at the time I was really heavily into the lo-fi aesthetic and bands - Beat Happening, Avocado Baby, early Guided By Voices, and so on - and the idea of using Pro Tools to record with just seemed a bit distasteful.
I started Sleeping States roughly the same time as starting the Sound Art degree and I envisioned it being a relatively short lived, twee-ish project strictly in the vein of cassette four-tracks and such. But as time moved on and I became more aware of the technical side of things, I gradually incorporated more of what I had learned into recording my own music. The good thing about studying Sound Art in relation to Sleeping States, as opposed to embarking on a Music Technology course or something, was that it encouraged me to really think about how I wanted something to sound and what that sound emotes to a listener - ie. making a good sounding record isn't always about getting everything to sound 'perfect' and cleanly produced and stuff, often a technically not-so-perfect recording can evoke a much greater atmosphere.
The Philosophy perhaps doesn't so consciously inform my music, though I do try and write lyrics that are somewhat thoughtful and there are certain songs I've written that reference ideas directly studied in that degree. I did take creative writing classes as part of that course though (UEA, where I studied Philosophy, has an excellent creative writing programme) and I'm sure those classes probably helped on the lyrical side of things too.
One of your lecturers in Philosophy was a famous author who died suddenly. Could you tell me a bit about this?
Well he wasn't actually one of my lecturers, he was a professor of German literature at the university while I was studying there - W. G. Sebald - and he was killed in a car crash at that time. I wrote for the student newspaper and I remember his death being a big deal, though not having read any of his novels or taken any of his classes I didn't really share in the collective grief particularly. But in the years since I have read most of his novels and I realise now what a utterly profound loss it was.
You write and produce all your own material. Do you sometimes find the recording process happening alongside the writing? Do you find one aspect of it easier than the other?
To answer your first question, this is actually the standard way I write, or has been at least until recently. My earlier stuff was very improvisational, generally I'd figure out a simple guitar line, record it on the spot, then figure out a vocal line, record that, etc. If I messed up I usually kept it in. The recordings were more documents of the writing process than anything else. I still hold onto that discipline a little I suppose, but yeah the only time I've ever written a batch of songs and then taken them somewhere to be recorded was for the last EP I put out, Old vs New, which were a group of older Sleeping States songs that I'd reworked to play with a band live. And it doesn't really count 'cause the original versions I'd done the usual way (ie. written with the record button on).
I'm currently recording an album at the moment though, and it's the first time I've tried 'demoing' material before recording it properly or whatever. I just figured I'd try a different approach. Most of the demos are fairly loose though, so there's still room for experimentation when it comes to it.
Where do you record your music?
Um, lots of different places. Rarely in a studio though - the only time I've done that was the last EP, which my friend Rory engineered and recorded at his set up in Dalston. I've always found studios very unconducive to creativity, perhaps because of the improvisational writing style? I don't know. I usually record at home and at friends' houses. Some friends of mine and I have recently taken over a large basement of an abandoned fire station in Bristol, which we're converting into a music space so I'm looking forward to doing some stuff there when it's done.
Why did you want to rework some of the songs for Old vs New?
Well the idea of the EP came later, after the songs had been reworked. The idea to rework the songs was to play them live with a band. I started playing live with a drummer a few years into Sleeping States, as I thought it would be a fun thing to do and would just develop the live show a bit further. But up to that point none of my songs had drums on them, and once I did start to play them with drums they started to sound pretty different.... obviously. But yeah, anyway, there were a group of songs that became set staples over a couple of years worth of touring, so at the end of touring a year ago I thought it would be a good idea to document these versions and that's what turned into Old vs New. I suppose it's like the missing link between what the Sleeping States live show morphed into and what had been put out on record up to that point.
You're working on a new album now. Where is that happening and what does the process involve?
The recording is currently being split between my place and my drummer, Rose's house. She lives in this old cottage in these woods outside of Bristol, it's a great place to play as there's hardly anyone else around to disturb or anything. I had a bit of a creative block when I was starting to approach the writing of this album, I'd taken a fairly long break from writing music after the last album came out, for various reasons, and when I started to get back to it again I just was quite apprehensive about doing the whole completely solo thing again. So I started working more with Rose, who played drums for me on a tour I did in October, and just doing songs more with drums in mind, and that seems to have made it a lot more interesting again for me.
At the moment you seem to have a rolling cast of backup musicians, are you planning on finding a permanent lineup soon?
Ha, well yes it certainly is easier to keep the same musicians involved, and I hate the idea of just playing with personality-free session musicians. But at the same time I don't always write stuff to be played by the same number or types of instruments, and also, well I played with the same guitarist the whole time I was in London, from when I first started Sleeping States, and I'm sure we'll do the odd show or tour together in the future, but I can't expect him to follow me as I swan from one city to the next. As long as I can find people willing to help me flesh out the songs then that I'll be happy.
I was really excited to hear your Life Without Buildings cover. Were you a big fan?
I still am. One of the best bands of this decade in my opinion. I don't usually cover a song just because I'm a fan of the band, as more often than not it produces mediocre results, but I just think they were amazing. I wished I could have seen them live, the posthumous live album that came out a year or so ago captured so much energy. I wish I could write and deliver lyrics like Sue Tomkins. Totally killer.
Speaking of lyrics, a lot of yours seem to focus on small events, are you the kind of person who has an eye for detail?
Ha, yes I suppose so. As far as writing is concerned, I find it much harder to write successfully about big sweeping ideas. Especially within the confines of a three minute song. As a listener I tend to be drawn to lyrics that describe specific details, it gives me something concrete to latch on to - David Berman, for instance, does this brilliantly - and I suppose I'm influenced by that.
Do you place as much importance on the lyrics as on other elements of composition? Are your lyrics personal to you?
I do, more and more. Obviously it depends on the style of music you're playing, but when it's quiet, relatively simple music like a lot of Sleeping States is, then lyrics become pretty central to the song. Lyrics are often the area I have most difficulty with as well, probably because I place such importance on them, I'm very critical and I probably think about them too much. As I'm writing them I generally swing between thinking of them as excruciatingly mundane or wildly pretentious. Or both, heh heh. A lot of my lyrics are personal, not necessarily about myself (although again a lot are) but about people I know, etc. Some are very heavily influenced by what I'm reading at the time or whatever, but yes I generally stick to the old English GCSE maxim, write about what you know.
So you have a job outside of music?
Actually I have three - my main one though is working on a research project at Bristol university. I love it. Music's always been a hobby for me, it's something I enjoy in my spare time.
You lived in Norwich before you lived in London and now you're in Bristol. What was the reason for each of these moves and how does each city compare?
I can't really remember what the reasons were for me wanting to move to London. I grew up in a small town in the Midlands and went to Norwich for university, and it was always my plan to move to London after that - I don't remember making the decision, it was just always something I intended to do. Bright lights, big city, all that. As far as moving to Bristol goes, after six or seven years living in London I just wanted a change of scenery. I mean, there were a lot of reasons, but they basically just boil down to that. As far as comparing each city, they are all completely different. I do feel in some ways in moving to Bristol I'm picking up the life I left off when I moved from Norwich. I have more time to myself here.
Is Bristol a good place to be a musician?
Really, really good. There's a lot of artists and musicians in Bristol, the scene is very active and there's a big DIY ethos, which is great. The Cube Microplex, Cafe Kino, Illegal Seagull, Stitch-Stitch Records, there's a ton of stuff going on. I'd met a fair amount of people from the Bristol music scene over the past few years, through playing shows and whatever, so when I was trying to decide where to go from London, Bristol was a pretty obvious choice.
What was the last piece of music that really affected you?
Oh god, I'm not sure. There are a couple of pieces by the German composer Hans Otte, Siebensang and Wassermusik, that I've been coming back to a lot lately. I don't have that much of his music, just those and part of his Book of Sounds cycle for piano - his stuff is quite hard to come by - but his music is very beautiful.
What are you using for inspiration at the moment?
Ha, the same things as always, books, the things I can see. Borges. Comics.
What did you do today?
Like the rest of the country, I made a snowman (with my friend Rob)
Listen to Sleep States at myspace.com/sleepingstates