Liner Notes: Marram - Witches Are Our Mothers
“After our first album we were told: reveal yourselves. So we did.”
– Jamie Chambers, Marram
Drawing on influences as diverse as El-P, Swans, Shostakovich, Miles Davis, Neu!, Talk Talk, This Heat, Can and The Blue Nile, Marram’s second album, Witches Are Our Mothers, is a feast of music that ebbs and flows from rage to rapture before culminating in hopeful resolution.
Forged over a ten-year period by core members Jamie Chambers, Mike Brogan and Colin Delmonte, alongside a long list of collaborators including Luke Sutherland (Mogwai, Long Fin Killie, Music AM, Rev Magnetic), and mastered by Toby Hrycek-Robinson (Stockhausen, Can, Gong, Derek Bailey), the nine self-produced tracks constitute a work of kaleidoscopic artistry and dexterity that will generously reward the commitment of listeners the way few albums can.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to encapsulate the scope and scale of Witches Are Our Mothers in plain language. Adjectives such as “widescreen” and “epic” have been wrung like towels so often they have shed any impact. Better to reflect upon the album’s conception, gestation and completion – a story of inchoate fury, best-laid plans, artistic stamina and patience.
Galvanised by an unexpected personal loss, Chambers began writing Witches in 2012, while Marram were still putting the finishing touches to their sprawling, back-breaking debut album Sun Choir, which featured an expansive list of guest contributors including Jarvis Cocker, Irvine Welsh and Owen Pallett.
At the time, Chambers, Brogan and Delmonte were each to varying degrees dealing with faltering relationships, deteriorating physical and mental health, and financial hardship. “Our lives were crashing into the ground, breaking teeth on the tarmac,” recalls Chambers. As a result they were, he says, becoming increasingly unpleasant people to be around.
Where the primary fuel for Sun Choir was optimism, Witches was propelled overwhelmingly by darkness. Frustration, abandonment, anger. After overseeing an album on which most tracks consisted of literally thousands of overdubs, Chambers wanted its successor to be more direct and visceral – a punk album, in spirit if not in sound. “We wanted to make something raw and more immediate,” says Chambers, “something we had a hope of playing live. I needed to make the sort of music that felt like a scream.”
In October 2013 the trio decamped to a cottage in Kyle of Lochalsh in the north-west Highlands of Scotland to add flesh to the skeletons of the songs that would make up Witches.
“Certain things came together quite quickly, impulsively, with a degree of improvisation, roughness and emotional rawness. I remember asking Colin, barefoot on the cold grass, as the sun disappeared, to tell me truthfully if I was an asshole,” says Chambers.
During the infancy of Witches a number of fundamentals became obvious.
“It was clear to me very early on that the album had a definite shape - it told a story,” says Chambers, whose experience as a filmmaker inevitably influences his approach to music. “It started in one place, moved through different colours and emotions, and finished somewhere else. Strangely, the track order came before almost anything else.”
But the goal of catharsis, of distilling raw emotions without allowing the intellect to interfere, proved elusive. “The years started to pass, and the brass and drums began to stack up. We reverted to old habits and the music started to become orchestral again. At a certain point we gave in and let the album become what it was going to become.
“Slowly our dream of making a punk album went out the window as we found ourselves creating another monolith.”
For a group whose combined CVs prominently feature stints playing classical music and jazz, and who revere such obsessives as Mark Hollis, The Blue Nile and Kate Bush, this was perhaps inevitable. Throughout the constant to-ing and fro-ing between Chambers and Brogan over the ensuing years, the latter would serve as de facto musical director, taking orchestral parts Chambers had written and corralling musicians to contribute strings and brass, recording the results and sending the edited work to his bandmate for further tweaking. Brogan himself plays saxophones and reed instruments on Witches.
“We learned it was easier for us to start by adding almost too much to a song, then stripping things back to get clarity,” says Brogan. “We talked about this album being a block of stone, chipping away at it until we found the best form. It's not the most practical way of doing things maybe, but there we are.”
Similarly, Chambers and Delmonte – as well as another drummer, Colin McGregor – would go through a tortuous process to finesse the drum parts.
“I’m quite obsessive compulsive, particularly when it comes to drum form,” says Chambers. “So I worried over every hi-hat, every rim shot, particularly on tracks like ‘I Am A Liar’ and ‘Let It Break’, where I wanted the drums to feel like a sculpture - a sculpture of something that was falling apart.”
“I would be lying if I said the drumming sessions were always an easy process,” says Delmonte. “Jamie knew exactly what he was looking for and I tried my best to accommodate him. He certainly liked to push me and I was almost always out of my drumming comfort zone, but I learned so much from the experience.
Edging from despair through anger, recrimination and forgiveness before culminating in hope, Witches is an album best experienced in one sitting, with no distractions. Beyond appreciation of the emotional arc within, such are the details of the instrumentation, production and mixing – courtesy of long-time collaborator Rob Walker, who spent six weeks over a two-year period juggling a multitude of tracks – that listening on headphones is strongly recommended.
“There were terrifying moments in the mixes,” recalls Chambers. “With so many tracks, sometimes we couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I knew the songs were in there somewhere, because I’d heard them – and yet there were these terrifying moments where they got lost in the sheer density of instrumentation.
“Slowly, however, we found ourselves out the other side, and the image of the album started to cohere. The contours I knew were there emerged, the sign posts, the bumps in the road.”
After its protracted development, Witches in its completed form stands as testament to its creators’ ability to process the negativity from which it sprang and learn again to be kind – not merely to others, but also to themselves. Over ten years after the first notes of Witches were picked out of the ether, Chambers is married, Brogan too, and Delmonte has become a father to two boys.
Despite its emotionally brittle origins, Witches Are Our Mothers is a message of hope, expressed in some of the most exquisite, symphonic and omnivorous music you will hear.
(The Quietus, The Glasgow Herald, The Big Issue)