feat. Flit

27 Oct 2016

A visually rich production that explores themes of migration through darkly atmospheric songs and breathtaking stop-motion animation with Martin Green (Lau), Adrian Utley (Portishead), Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai), Becky Unthank (The Unthanks), Adam Holmes and Whiterobot.

Martin Green is well known for musical experimentation as accordionist and composer in electronic folk trio Lau, but now he has taken this to the next level with Flit, a project combining music with stop-motion animation and 3D mapping to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.

Flit is a collaboration between some of the UK’s most respected musicians. Conceived by Martin Green, the line-up also includes Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai) as the band, with vocals from Becky Unthank (The Unthanks), Adam Holmes and John Smith. BAFTAwinning animators Whiterobot have taken this project to new realms.

The show was well-received when it premiered at Edinburgh International Festival 2016 with three performances, and is coming to Brighton Dome as part of a short UK tour. Green is looking forward to it though jokes that he always feels very badly dressed when he gets off the train at Brighton.

‘It feels like a real band now, a new living entity,’ says Green of the Edinburgh Premiere. ‘It all felt like a whole; I’m delighted. Unfortunately, as musicians we can’t really see it; we can’t really bathe in the glory of the animation.

The inspiration for the music comes from first-hand tales of migration personally collected by Green, who is based near Edinburgh, starting with his own family. He recorded his grandmother talking about her life – she fled Austria in the 1930s as a Jewish refugee. Green then began to collect other stories, and says that finding interview subjects was not as difficult as one might imagine.

‘Once you are looking for something, there are people everywhere,’ he says. ‘One of the things I learned was if you go and find people and tell them you are interested in something they have to say, they talk in such a different way. Even shy people became animated.’

Green also spoke to his wife’s family who are from Shetland, and who talked about large numbers of people leaving due to increasing pressure of not having enough food.

‘What they have got is land masses which have been nearly deserted, that’s the other side of having to leave where you are from,’ says Green. ‘Many moved from Shetland to Canada. It was fascinating to be able to read letters from both sides.’

The creative process was slightly unusual, with Green doing some improvisations at Adrian Utley’s studio in Bristol which he then waded back through before putting together about 25 tunes. These along with the interviews and some stories on the same subject matter, were then sent to a team of songwriters (Anaïs Mitchell, Karine Polwart, Aidan Moffat and Sandy Wright). No one song follows a single narrative however.

Flit doesn’t really tell the stories of those people, it muses around the subject. I think it was perhaps a harder thing for the songwriters than we realised. Then the songs got to the singers and we changed it all again. Nobody feels a protective ownership of it. That gives you a certain freedom.’

Rather than an album of individual songs therefore, Flit feels more like a single work exploring a theme. In this, Green says, Flit differs from the majority of albums he has made to date.

Green says that while sonically the finished article is similar to his original vision, there were always going to be surprises coming from the songwriting.

‘Sonically, when Adrian Utley and I first talked about doing something with Becky Unthank, we had something in mind that was more synth-based, and what it has ended up as is that it’s more sample-based with more playing than we expected,’ explains Green. ‘The sequence of analogue synthesisers maybe doesn’t fit the more felt timing of how folk musicians phrase songs.’

Working with animators was a new experience for Green, who comes from a pure music background. 

‘I spent a long time talking with Whiterobot and about how the feel of it all was going to come out,’ he says. ‘We set some rules together, like there is no direct reference to any time or geographical location. We went through the storyboard and talked about symbols of migration.’

The idea of boxes came up which then developed into brown packaging paper. The majority of the project used two large rolls of brown paper – everything from the video shoot to the puppet animation made use of the same paper, creating a very distinctive aesthetic.

‘It is still going,’ says Green of the seemingly endless supply of brown paper. ‘It is very comforting, when you are surrounded by it, there’s something remarkably homely about it.’

'One of the things that happened was after we finished making the film we recut it and re-jigged all its bits in a different order, to the music.’

Green reflects that this was probably an unusual approach from Whiterobot’s perspective.

‘They are such narrative filmmakers and it’s possibly quite strange to have somebody change your timeline. It certainly has fuelled my desire to make shows that are not pure music. I really enjoyed working with filmmakers. It feels like a huge learning curve that I would like to continue on. I also like working with a crew that’s not pure music.’

The subject matter of Flit could not be more current, but the intention was never to be overtly political.

‘All we set out to do was muse on this topic; I hope it’s not a preachy thing,’ reflects Green. ‘Like everybody else, I would prefer it if more people would agree with me, but that’s not the intention. It’s not all grim either, that’s one of the things. Migration is presented mostly as a problem right now. The fact that people move around the world does not need to be viewed as a problem. If there is any message, then it’s that. It seems important to present compassion wherever possible.’

Interview by Hannah Collisson

Flit comes to Brighton Dome Concert Hall on Sunday 30 October

This interview appears in the third issue of Brighton Dome feat.

feat. is a free music & culture magazine featuring exclusive content, interviews, and photos of some of the contemporary artists that we’re so proud to have gracing the stages of Brighton Dome’s iconic venues.