Dream team: how Stealing Sheep gave psych a new vision

The psychedelic trio have ditched the pagan folk for a hallucinatory new art-pop direction – but it’s not just limited to their recordings, they tell us…

“It’s all about perceptions and reality,” says Becky Hawley, the free spirited keyboardist in psych-folk trio Stealing Sheep, as she gazes ahead at the wild, weird dreamscapes full of fierce spirits and mysterious goddesses. We’re at Tate Liverpool, in the band’s home city, taking in the work of Lancashire-born surrealist Leonora Carrington, and the band are pleased to find that the painter’s themes echo their own music. “It’s that warping-reality thing,” Hawley says. “You think you’re looking at something, and then suddenly you look closer and you’re actually looking at something different.”

Like Carrington’s paintings, Stealing Sheep’s music has a dreamlike feel and an existential edge. Their acclaimed 2012 debut Into The Diamond Sun landed them the rather dubious tag of “pagan folk”, thanks to its slightly medieval-sounding rhythms, sweet three-part harmonies and psychedelic glaze. But on album number two, Not Real, they’ve moved to an art-pop sound, with sharper hooks and shimmery synths. The psychedelic feel is still there; it’s just more modernist than Middle Ages.

Liverpool has long had a history of bands that sound like they’ve run their tongues along an endless tab of LSD, and many of the acts that rise out of it stick to its psych-rock template. But Stealing Sheep devour a broad range of styles, incorporating everything from the dark dance-pop of Grace Jones to the experimentation of Radiophonic Workshop pioneer Delia Derbyshire and John Carpenter soundtracks. The hypnotic track Greed echoes the Saharan folk rhythms of Tinariwen, while Evolve & Expand, says guitarist Emily Lansley, was written when they were listening to “a lot of exotica, like Les Baxter and Eden Ahbez. But none of us have ever wanted to go: ‘Oh, we’re going to write a tropicalia song now.’ It’s more [that we were] getting into the mood of things.”

As well as absorbing the avant-garde, they’re also interested in warping pop’s glossy sheen. Not Real is lo-fi and intricate, not lush and expansive. Hawley, the most vocal and theoretical of the three, cites Björk as the gold standard for subverting standard pop formulas. “She’s such a master of finding extraordinary ideas and putting them into a pop context. I like that idea of going: here’s a pop bassline, but what instrumentation can we use to make it sound interesting? Instead of using a drumkit, mic up some insects or something.”

“Or tramp on gravel,” dreamy drummer Lucy Mercer interjects.

Similarly, Not Real experiments with new textures, instruments and effects, spurred on by the fact that, this time around, they recorded and produced it themselves. The experience encouraged them to be both more exploratory and to focus their sound. “With a song like Greed,” says Lansley of their influences, “we were watching [Jodorowsky’s film] The Holy Mountain and we heard a lot of quite droney tracks, and that was something that we were into. We had bassoon and clarinet players on Apparition. And, on Not Real, we made my lap steel sound sort of sparkly, almost like a synth.”

The mixture of treated and organic sounds on the record echoes the album’s surreal themes. “Like, you can’t tell what’s the real drum or what’s Logic drumming,” says Lansley. She pauses and laughs. “We weren’t posing these questions on a daily basis, though. That’d be quite pretentious. [It’s not like we were] holding a guitar, going: ‘But is this really a guitar?’”

The trio’s creative exploration extends to their visual presentation: they shot their album sleeve, an optical-illusive tangle of their limbs, with photographer Charlotte Rutherford and collagist Louise Mason at their “pop factory”, Vessel Studio, where they also shoot their videos. Their work has attracted exciting collaborations from further afield, too. In 2010, they made music for a short film starring Tavi Gevinson, editor of young women’s magazine Rookie, directed by her sister Rivkah. Last year, meanwhile, they worked on a live soundtrack for Le Planète Sauvage, a stop-motion sci-fi film from 1973, and took part in the Barbican’s David Lynch musical tribute In Dreams, which they’ll rejoin on tour in November.

Back at Lansley’s flat, and given these forays into film, I ask if they’d be interested in soundtracking, say, a young adult blockbuster.

“I’d be up for doing anything”, says Hawley.

“I thought you said an adult film,” gasps Lansley. “I’d be really into that.”

“It’d be really abstract…” considers Hawley.

Lansley ponders this for a minute. “Yes, it’d be just shapes, coming in from the sky, and moving against each other. Ooh, that was erotic...”

Perhaps their artful playfulness is actually best summed up by the more safe-for-work Mythopoeia, the theatrical-musical-art spectaculars that the band have been running for the last two years. They’re taking it to Festival No 6 in September, and have pipe dreams about a Mythopoeia film, as well as plots for sound-sensitive clothing and other such stage wizardry at their gigs. “We were talking about how we wanted people to watch our gig and for it to be like an image – a sort of illusion,” says Lansley. “It’s evolving all the time.”

And 2015, as they remind me, is the year of the sheep in the Chinese calendar. What better time to warp reality their way?

Not Real is out now via Heavenly Recordings


Emily Mackay

The GuardianTramp

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