Features - Interviews

Album Premiere/Q+A: Bamboo – Prince Pansori Priestess


Comprised of Rachel Horwood and Nick Carlisle (originally from Northern Ireland) London duo Bamboo are a curious proposition in the most nonpareil sense of the term. Melding influence from various folk tradition with far-reaching synth-pop, their sound (and new debut album, Prince Pansori Priestess) is a feat of spirit and ingenuity. We chat to the pair about their craft and process.

Hi Nick, Bamboo are based in London but you’re originally from Northern Ireland. Did you make music or play as part of any band(s) when you were based here?

Nick: The first band I was serious about was Peepholes, a band I am (still) doing with Katia Barrett. That happened after I had left Northern Ireland.

Bamboo is a project between yourself and Rachel Horwood. Can you recall how you first got together making music and were their obvious parallels between you both as musicians and music fans from the get go?

Nick: Rachel also plays in Trash Kit, and Peepholes have shared the same bill with them a few times since around 2008 or thereabouts so I’ve known her for quite a few years. I remember playing a gig in Leeds where Peepholes and Trash Kit were both supposed to travel up together, the others had somehow got delayed along the way and Rachel and I arrived at the venue first and had a good long chat about music, perhaps the seeds were sown then.

Then a few years later she had a band called Halo Halo. They were one of the few bands it’s ever happened where I’ve watched them play and started humming my own keyboard parts along with what I was hearing, I really thought I could bring something extra if I joined. So when they asked me to remix one of their songs I kind of half-deliberately just added keyboards as if I was in the band all along rather than remixing it – it worked and they asked me to join. So I would play keyboards with them at the odd show, and by the time that band reached its end it was obvious that Rachel and I would carry on from there really.

Rachel: Well I was always a massive fan of Peepholes, I always just wanted to be in the band! But as Nick said we initially started collaborating when I was in Halo Halo. I really loved what Nick added with the synths so when Halo Halo stopped playing I knew I wanted to carry on doing what I had started with that band and it kind of seemed obvious to me to ask Nick if he wanted to collaborate with me.

You’ve a wonderfully idiosyncratic sound, touching upon various genres and disciplines. What informs your collective drive to create something so comprehensively unique?

Rachel: When I was playing with Halo Halo I was trying to create a kind of music that expressed my Filipino heritage and I wanted to continue doing that with Bamboo but also exploring ideas of Asian-ness. I really like how Yellow Magic Orchestra played with those ideas and the rest of the world’s perceptions of what it was to be Japanese.  I’m really influenced by a lot of different musical traditions and combining them all together.  I really love a lot of the music thats coming out of Niger at the moment like Mdou Moctar and the style of guitar playing they have there which I like to combine with ideas of ways of singing which I may get from listening to Pansori. 

Nick: For me it is important that because I am playing synths, particularly with the old analogue synth, that I want there to be something in the sound that goes against that so that there is no danger of making something that sounds too synth pop or EDM or industrial or whatever. Rachel’s Asian banjo is the perfect foil for that, so when we’re improvising together there’s no danger of ending up with something that’s basically been done before, some one dimensional synth thing.

Also I use an old Kaoss pad too a lot to kind of saturate the synth, in my mind I’m kind of washing it out and making it sound much more rural than urban.

More generally though it’s not something I’d say we’re overly aware of – I’m definitely pleased when I read people saying that we have an idiosyncratic sound, it’s easy to forget that aspect when you’re working on producing the same songs for thousands of hours! But yeah it’s something I used to think about a lot when I was doing Peepholes, the idea that a band should be a chemical reaction caused by the collision of personalities, so me and Kat in Peepholes are best of friends but very different people in a lot of ways, plus factor in the instruments we decided to play and naturally the music we make comes out like it does as a result. Same for Bamboo I guess! When you think of it that way it’s surprising the amount of bands that all sound the same.

Stream Prince Pansori Priestess below.

I’m very curious about your songwriting process, if you in fact adhere to any particular approach when creating and assembling material. Is that the case?

Nick: The first track we made was ‘Auroch’ – that was a bit of a one-off as Rachel emailed a demo which just contained the instrumental verses repeated over and over. All I did there was write a chorus and kind of do a cut-and-shut, pasting my choruses in between those verses. Then we rerecorded the whole thing at a later date.

With the rest of the Prince Pansori Priestess tracks Rachel and I met for one day at a rehearsal space in Brighton and just improvised. Rachel already had the synth riff for ‘Stone’ and some of the other isolated banjo riffs, and I really mostly just added counterpoint bass lines on the synth underneath – all you really need for a song to start forming. I think when we finished up that day it probably wasn’t that apparent that we really had anything but over the next weeks and months I worked the tracks up at home adding overdubs and melodies, drums and stuff and generally arranging them.

Rachel came down again a few times and we’d work together, adding more constructed chord progressions and stuff, and she’d record a few backing vocals here and there. So yeah – it was quite loose, for example the track “Islands” is basically two halves which came from two separate jams, it just seemed to fit when one day I spliced them together. Then probably a few months after that Rachel had the lyric and recorded her vocal, it was only then that the song really came together and a lot of parts that I had already recorded underneath seemed to suddenly make sense with the vocal – so there is a lot of chance involved too!

Rachel: I think the only song that was created a bit differently was Be Brothers, that was a piece that I started on my own at home just playing around with my loop pedal.  But I wouldn’t say we have a special technique.  As we live in different cities the easiest way to build up the songs was for me to go to Brighton and add stuff and Nick would produce and patch things together.  I really enjoyed this way of song writing, the other bands I have played in have always jammed and created the songs and played them live before recording but this was the other way round and we have had to learn how to play them live! 

But it was exciting to be able to create such huge soundscapes with only two people and we both enjoy adding lost of small details and layering and layering.

Although it’s a lot to do with semantics, I sense very few limitations in your sound. Do you feel any sense of restriction writing or recording or is – as it seems – a very open-ended, “first thought best thought” approach?

Nick: You would like to think that the creative process should be as unrestricted and intuitive as possible, with the only requirement being that the song obviously has to work in some way. But there would definitely be areas you can wander into where perhaps you would want to pull back and avoid any connotations with other eras or genres too much. It’s also easy to find yourself repeating yourself. So you’re kind of trying to find that sense of freedom really, it’s not something you’re granted by default. Occasionally restrictions and discipline can point you in a more creative direction, and put you in a place where “first thought best thought” can happen. Actually to go back to what I was saying about the synth contrasting with the Asian banjo – that’s a restriction in itself if you like that worked as a good foundation for new ideas.

At the same time though it doesn’t always work out as “first thought best thought”. For example ‘Hexagonal’ off the album went through many different changes and versions, I just couldn’t get that song to work for months but there was something about it I liked so I persevered and now it’s probably my favourite track on the album.

Rachel: I think the only limitation I feel is that as it is only Nick and I, we can’t exactly jam or experiment in the same way if we had a full band.  One of my main aims is to try and figure out a way to recreate the songs live but to incorporate a bigger band.  We have currently been playing shows as a four piece, so we have two extra vocalists and some live drumming, but we’re still relying a lot on a drum track and I’d like to find a way of playing thats slightly more organic and that has more room for improvisation, but I think thats something that will come with more gigs and more practise.


Your debut album Prince Pansori Priestess is an ambitious, fully-realised, masterfully prismatic release (in both senses of the word, it seems). Was recording a fulfilling experience?

Nick: Definitely. For me it was the first time where I had collaborated with someone to create a whole album of “hit the spot” moments, normally in anything I’ve been involved with before those magic songs have been a bit more limited to one or two a record. I think obviously this is down to the fact that Rachel not only brings half the songwriting to the table but also her voice and lyrics are enough to transform any song I’ve worked up into a finished piece that I can almost hear as someone else’s, so I can enjoy it unashamedly and with a certain amount of objectivity. Actually there are a couple of places on the album where when she added the vocal, ‘Be Brothers’ and ‘Islands’ particularly, I found I had something in my eye haha.

Rachel: Yes it was really great.  I really enjoyed working this way as it was a completely new way of working for me.  With the other bands I play in the songs are fully formed before we go into the studio.  The three other albums I’ve played on were mostly recorded live and I always found it a bit stressful and felt anxious about that being the only version that some people would possibly ever hear, and could it be as good as how we played it live.  But this process felt a lot more methodical and I really liked having a long time to work on and write lyrics for the songs.

How much of your recorded material (namely that of the debut album) lends itself to improvisation in the studio? The songs feels strangely loose and very consciously constructed at the same time.

Nick: They did mostly come from improvisation, but then they’re arranged afterwards by myself on the computer. For some songs this can mean shaping it into a verse/chorus/verse structure, for others it can mean stringing it out into a long instrumental like ‘Khene Song’. I think the random, spur of the moment playing can sometimes be the most inspired – perhaps when you don’t know what key the other person is playing in, or you’re not thinking too hard about what should go with what you’re hearing.


Which artists, if any, do you feel made a dent of influence on the material on the new release?

Nick: It really is mostly the product of Rachel and I in a room together, we’ve both been playing for a long time and so it’s not really like we’re aspiring to some genre or other or any musical hero. Actually we cover the song ‘Sangokushi Love Theme, written by Haruomi Hosono of Yellow Magic Orchestra so I suppose there’s a hint of that kind of influence. But we were listening to music not always by other known artists, we were watching YouTube videos of khene players and some pansori videos and so on. Also you wouldn’t necessarily hear it but I tend to do a bit of “drums” research-listening to people like Arca and Cut Hands but yeah, nothing that would have really transferred that obviously to the record.

Funnily enough I did have Lou Reed’s Berlin album in mind with the end of Prince Pansori Priestess. The tracklisting originally ended with ‘Be Brothers’ going into ‘Islands’ but I thought I’d stick that ‘Stone… Reprise’ section in just to make it really depressing haha. I always loved the second side of the Berlin album, the songs from ‘Caroline Says II’ up to ‘The Bed’ going into ‘Sad Song’ has to be some of the most beautifully sad music on record. But yeah, you couldn’t really say his music had any more direct an influence than that, it was just the idea of making the tension get higher and higher.

Rachel: Yes like Nick said definitely Haruomi Hosono and the rest of YMO, I was listening to a lot of late 70’s early 80’s Japanese music at the time like Dip In The Pool and also a few musical ensembles like Mkwaju Ensemble and Geinoh Yamashirogumi who did the soundtrack for Akira which I was listening to a lot, and of course Kate Bush.

You’re signed to Upset! The Rhythm. Has that association and tie-in worked well for you in making connections and getting your music out to the right people?

Nick: We both really wanted the album to come out on Upset The Rhythm – it’s where both our other bands have released records but also I guess over the years we’ve both had so much fun at the shows they put on in London. I probably wouldn’t be in the position of having made this record if Upset The Rhythm hadn’t asked Peepholes to put out a 12” a few years ago so yeah, it’s been a good association.

Rachel: As Nick said all the other bands we’ve been in have released records through Upset The Rhythm. And I just really like Chris’s attitude and DIY approach.  When I was first living in London me and my bandmate from Trash Kit Rachel Aggs used to go to UTR gigs and just feel really inspired.  I just love the gigs and the records they put out and feel really proud to be a part of that.

Finally, what are the plans looking forward in 2016? Will there be a return to NI for a show?

Nick: We’ve just finished a video for the song “Hexagonal” which will be the next single, and then we have the album launch gig at Total Refreshment Centre in London on the 23rd January. Hopefully also we’ll be doing a UK tour – we’ll gladly come and play in Northern Ireland if anyone asks us! We have also started what will be the next record so fingers crossed that might see the light of day this galactic cycle.

Get Prince Pansorie Priestess by Bamboo via Upset The Rhythm here.

‘Hexagonal/Diamond Springs’ is released on Friday 29th January on Upset the Rhythm

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.