FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: POST WAR PLANS BY DEBRIS DISCS - TRACK BY TRACK
I was surprised to find that today marks the 200th edition of Fifty3 Fridays including preceding articles on this site. I will be celebrating at a marvellous show here in Kingston tonight with Nadia Sheikh, Alex Hall plus Maya Lane who has kindly stepped in to relieve a sore throat stricken Blánid. Meanwhile for today’s F3F, from time to time we deviate from the usual digest format to focus on a new album with a track-by-track guide direct from the artiste. I have featured the exemplary work of lo-fi cinematic musician James Eary aka Debris Discs several times before. The Derbyshire-based artiste takes his stage name from the spherical accumulation of dust and debris in orbit around a star; material which may ultimately help to form a new planet. His new album is equally something of a stellar effort.
Post War Plans takes its cue from his grandpa’s wartime letters which James uses as a musical conduit to reflect on the impact of the past on the present, stirring memories and personal experiences. It may not curry favour with those mainstream ‘album of the year’ lists that are starting to appear but Post War Plans will be high on my own list of 2023 commendations. James kindly shares his personal reflections on the individual songs below so here they are presented track-by-track, illustrated by four sample cuts.
Photo of Debris Discs live by Robin Maurice Barr
Holes in My Mind
Discovering my grandpa’s wartime letters triggered a period of reflection about my experiences and memories of my other grandparents. This track is about my paternal grandma and her battle with dementia at the end of her life. It’s written from my grandma’s perspective, where I’m trying to imagine how she clung onto her personality with the dwindling fragments of memories she had left. How a proud, stoic woman reconciles her past life with a new, vulnerable and confused reality.
I knew this would be the opening track as soon as I’d written it. I love albums that begin with slow burning, gradually unfolding songs. “Holes” from Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev was an inspiration. I managed to locate a slightly higher, yearning register for my vocals on this track. I think this adds to the sense of helplessness and longing for the past. Not sure I’ll ever quite manage to hit those notes again, but at least I managed to get it down on tape for posterity.
The Worst Sight That I’ve Seen So Far
This is the first track directly inspired by the letters my grandpa wrote. It’s also the only one that depicts actual warfare. I pieced the narrative together from a series of letters he wrote around the time of the battles of El-Alamein and the siege of Tobruk. What really struck me was how my grandpa compared the sight of night-time artillery fire with the spectacular fireworks displays he remembered from back home. He grew up in Salford and like many residents at the time, a trip to the fireworks shows at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester was a real event. Present day Belle Vue bears no relation to its grandiose history, so this gave the letters an extra dimension of loss and regret to me, as my grandpa would have seen the gradual decline of the area first-hand later in life.
For the music, I wanted a slightly darker tone to reflect the subject-matter, with multiple sections and dynamic shifts to represent the movements of a battle.
Post War Plans
This was inspired by a letter my grandpa wrote in reply to a question from his brother. ‘You ask what are my post war plans?’ His response is typical of the bone-dry humour and wistfulness found throughout his wartime letters: ‘First, to be alive post war; second, a good holiday (not camping out either); third, the best thing available; fourth, look around for something better; fifth, - a wife. Short and sweet, eh?’
For the song, I reimagined this passage as a kind of matter-of-fact survival guide. A set of instructions left behind by my grandpa for us all to follow. He’s questioning the futility of war and whether he’s going to make it through. This plan is his coping mechanism. Musically I was listening to a lot of sixties songs at the time of recording and wanted to try and get that ‘tic tac’ bass sound. I just about managed it by stuffing cotton wool from my children’s craft set under the bridge of my bass guitar. It had the dual benefit of muting the strings to make a tight, percussive sound - and helped tidy up the mess left behind by the kids. It’s the kind of creative yet practical solution I think my grandpa would have approved of.
This track actually started life around 18 years ago as a song called ‘Start a Fire’ in my old band, My Side of the Mountain. I wrote the original version soon after my grandpa passed away as an attempt to understand why he never spoke about his wartime experiences and achievements. We used to play the song live but never got it down on tape so the last time I heard it was during our final gig at the end of 2007. When I fixed on the concept and themes of this album, I realised it was a perfect song to revisit. I listened to a live recording of an old band practice session and still loved the track – but decided that some of the lyrics could be improved. I also wanted to change the arrangement, as the original had an extended wig-out which sounded great with a band but just wouldn’t work solo.
For the new version, re-named “Last Battlecry” I came up with a brand new synth bass line that sounded a bit like “Stand by Me” and built the arrangement into something much more epic, almost orchestral. I also drew on my Delgados influences for the end section, with big over-compressed drums and layers of distorted guitar underpinning the synths and strings.
Losing the Matriarch
This is another track where I expanded the concept to reflect on my own memories and relationships with my other grandparents. This one is inspired by visits I made to my maternal grandma during the final years of her life. My grandma was very much the head of the family – we all kind of centred around her, literally in terms of family gatherings at hers and my grandpa’s house, but also in the sense that she guided the decisions we made, everyone wanted to please her. As well as my grandma being this big family figure-head, I was also really close to her on a personal level. She always made a fuss of me and made me feel very loved – baking an apple pie every time I went round, even as a grown man.
Through the lyrics, I'm trying to understand and come to terms with the prospect of losing the family matriarch. Does everything just fall apart? How much of myself do I lose along the way and how do I make sure I don’t let her down? I don't think I found the answer but it's been a cathartic process. Musically, I was really interested in juxtaposing the heavy subject matter with a lightness of touch. In my head it's almost like a disco track. Not a dance floor filler per se, more one for the awkward feet shufflers hanging by the bar.
I decided the album could do with a couple of instrumental pieces, to provide a little respite from the somewhat heavy subject matter of the lyrics. The title is taken from my grandpa’s period of convalescence following a nasty bout of dysentery. I reference this in the lyrics of the next song, so the track also acts as a kind of precursor.
I was inspired by the instrumentals that Badly Drawn Boy used to do in his early days, kind of loose, grooved-based tracks that gradually build up. For the end section, I improvised some guitar over the top, and it inadvertently sounded a bit like the theme tune from Bergerac.
Sonically this is where the album first started. During the early days of the pandemic, whilst spending a lot more time working at my desk in the spare room, I started rummaging through the drawers. I found an old tape I’d made on my 8-track when in my very first band, Undertow. There was one particular instrumental piece on the tape that had a kind of lolloping, melancholic groove that really resonated with me. The recording was pretty shonky and the sounds had become quite warped over the years, but that added to the charm. So I decided to rescue and revive that old demo and over time, gradually reworked it into what is now the album centrepiece “Dear Fred”.
It was also the first set of lyrics I wrote based on my grandpa’s WW2 letters. I was fascinated by the relationship between him and his brother Fred. The letters skew the dynamic, as we only have the letters my grandpa wrote, but nothing he received. Fred had a few years on my grandpa, but it feels like he actually took on the elder brother role at times. A mix of gentle ribbing, sage advice and concern that their mother was looked after back home. Perhaps the war accelerated his maturity. It was clear how close they were and I just wanted to capture some of this, set against the depictions of both the mundanity and horror of the war.
Letter to Mildred
This is another track based on the letters, but this time to ones my grandpa wrote to his sister-in-law Mildred. I found the change in tone in the early letters to her really intriguing. There is more bravado and levity from my grandpa, almost like he’s showing off a bit. Then as the years go on, the tone changes and he becomes much more sceptical and pessimistic about the direction the war was going in. He questions the leadership and the morality and whether it’s all really worth it.
I tried to recreate this contrast through the music. With lighter, swaying verses and slightly syncopated vocal phrasing to suggest a bit of swagger, juxtaposed with darker, denser choruses. The beat is direct from my old Casio VL-Tone. This meant I couldn’t midi-sync any arpeggiators or sequencers, so it forced me to come up with a different approach to arranging. It also includes the only library sample on the entire record. A little clip of a marching band that really fitted the mood and lyrical content of the verses.
Beat Your Neighbour Out Of Doors
This one is actually about my paternal grandad. I had a different relationship with him, probably closer and more relaxed on a personal level, as opposed to the revered status I held my maternal grandpa in. My grandad was very easy going and personable, just a lot of fun. He and my grandma lived down in Bexley Heath, Kent, so visits there felt like a holiday. The song is unashamedly a bit of a nostalgia fest, just reminiscing on happy memories with him - Beat Your Neighbour Out Of Doors is a card game we used to play.
Two key references are his old Vauxhall Chevette, which he gave to me when I passed my driving test. An amazing car that sadly got stolen and written off while I was at uni. The other is his Farfisa organ. I used to play on it as a kid and then had it for a while after my grandad passed away. Even managed to record with it in My Side of the Mountain. Musically I wanted this one to be more out-and-out electronic, veering more info dance music almost. Caribou was an influence. There is still some guitar in there but the rest is layers of synths and sequencers. The modulating arpeggiator at the very end was a happy accident that just rounded off the song perfectly.
Weekend in Wisbech
This is the last track on the album based on my grandpa’s letters. It is from when he was back in England doing gunnery training in 1944. He was allowed 36 hours leave so spent the time in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire where he met a recently widowed mother of seven. By all accounts they had a brief, intense love affair that was over before it really started. I was struck by how the relationship seemed to provide some much needed normality and solace to my grandpa - home cooked meals, sitting by the fire, listening to the radio. I can only assume it also filled a companionship void for the woman in question. I don’t know her name – she is only referred to as ‘the widow’.
I wanted this track to be a bit sparser and laid-back compared to “Beat Your Neighbour”. I kept a really simple bossa-nova rhythm running throughout. Most of the other tracks have intricately programmed drums, but for this I just added some modulation here and there, with some sparse, deep drum fills at the end. The band Low was definitely an inspiration.
Hope and The Hospital
On this penultimate track, all the themes and threads of the album come together. The focus shifts from my grandparents to my immediate family, exploring birth, death, love and loss. It is also me trying to understand a really challenging period where every great thing that happened was followed by something horrible. I got really interested in the concept of lucid dreaming, and whether I could control what was happening in my dreams to try and bring about some solace and relief.
The song is an epic. I wasn’t sure what direction it was going to go to begin with - I just recorded ten minutes of that initial loop and took it from there. I like how it has three distinct parts, but with something consistent running all the way through. The bass and drums were really important on this track, I spent ages getting them right. There are a ton of instruments layered on top - probably pretty much everything used throughout the album. I also snuck in a sample of guitar from one of my old Coves & Caves songs. It’s definitely the most ambitious song I’ve ever attempted, both in terms of lyrical themes and arrangement. I’m pleased with how it turned out.
Blanco & Bootpolish
The second of the two instrumentals felt like the right way to finish off the album. It sounds like a big heavy, but happy sigh. The title comes from the cleaning routine for my grandpa’s military uniform. I like how it brings the big weighty themes of the album back down to something more prosaic. And of course, it has a nice long fade out. All albums should end on a fade out!
Post War Plans by Debris Discs is out now, available to stream, digitally download or physically own on white vinyl. Find it HERE on Bandcamp.