The Guillemots singer talks to Ed Hutchings…
Fyfe Dangerfield is a busy man. It took four years for us to meet. One day, out of the blue, I received a text from him with a Google Map screen grab. “I’ve just passed this place on the train. It’s an hour from London and looks perfect for our walk!”
And indeed, it was. Cattawade Marshes RSPB is a SSSI between East Bergholt in Suffolk and Manningtree in Essex. It is a Ramsar wetland of international importance, part of the Stour and Orwell SPA and Dedham Vale AONB. I regularly lead courses here for the nearby Field Studies Council at Flatford Mill. I have enjoyed many hours here near my home.
I lead by asking where his interest in birds stems from. “It’s hard to know what’s real and what you’ve been told. I suspect what might have got me into it all was a fun live birdwatch programme for a week from the Farne Islands in the mid-eighties. I’ve only patchy memories of it, but my mum was watching it, so I started watching it and it sparked an interest.”
I inquire if his parents have an interest in birds. “They did, but in a passing way. They were interested enough for Mum to be watching the programme. But then, when I became more captivated by it, we started going off at the weekends to bird reserves and taking walks.
"But the Puffins on the Farne Islands were memorable.”
I propose that the sight of Puffins is likely to spark an interest in birds with anyone. “And I guess there would have been a few Guillemots”, he adds, referencing the name of the band he is most associated with. Fyfe Dangerfield (real name Hutchins) is a musician and songwriter, best known as the founding member of the indie rock band Guillemots.
The BRIT Award-nominated band was formed in London in November 2004 and currently includes the members Aristazabal Hawkes and Greig Stewart. Their first album ‘Through the Windowpane’ was nominated for the 2006 Mercury Music Prize. The band have often been joined by other musicians known as the Bridled Guillemots, and Fyfe also leads an improvising group called Gannets.
I suggest that seabirds seem to be a passion of his, seeing as a few of the bands he is involved with are named after them. He smirks. “I do like seabirds, but it wasn’t that. Coming up for a name for a band is hard, so I remember thinking we should call it after a bird, as I like birds, and that’ll narrow it down a bit. And then I narrowed it down to seabirds.
“The first low-key gig we did we were called The Kittiwakes, until I found out there was another band named that. There was no significance. You do kind of get analytical about it. Maybe it reminded me of childhood, because those were the birds that got me into it, so maybe subconsciously it was harking back to when the interest was awoken.”
Birds are a source of inspiration for the Guillemots not just in name. Their 2006 EP ‘From the Cliffs’ continues the Guillemot theme, the bird’s natural habitat being steep sea cliffs. In their Myspace entry their influences are given as ‘BIRDSONG first and foremost’. Their first album features recordings of birds such as Red-throated Diver, the line “flitting like a flycatcher”, a reference to the mercurial movements of these birds, as well as the song, Redwings, named after our winter thrushes.
I ask whether this was his influence or whether the rest of the band are birders, too. “Oh no, it was definitely me,” he laughs. “They weren’t uninterested, but they got a bit sick sometimes about people asking them about birds.
“It’s nothing to do with us,” they’d reply, “it’s down to Fyfe.”
“Birdsong is an inspiration in that it’s a beautiful kind of music. It’s funny, as people often assume there’s more of a motive. It’s just instinct. Outside of music, it’s one of the real loves I’ve had in my life. Again, birdsong wasn’t a particularly conceptual thing. It was, ‘that’s a cool sound.’ There’s one bit on Through the Windowpane, at the end of Blue Would Still Be Blue, where a Robin is singing. It’s about certain memories like that and not just about the song. It reminds me of a time in my life or a certain scene. Woodpigeons cooing has always made me think of being 10 in Worcestershire in the summer holidays. They would sit on our chimney and you’d hear the call coming down.”
I inquire if being a musician is useful when it comes to learning birdsong.
“I think so, though I haven’t been fully showing it today with my Sedge/Reed Warbler separation,” he chuckles. “Generally, that’s often how I identify birds and then I know where to look. I’ve also really got into sampling the past few years. I’ve got quite a few sounds now that I use as musical instruments but made of bird sounds. There was a bunch of birds in Australia I recorded on holiday a few years ago. A lot of the bird sounds there are so exotic, such as the Pied Butcherbird and Bell Miner. I love that you can just record these sounds on your phone, put it into a computer and then use them as chords.
“It’s magical that I can play a keyboard sound of something that is alive or once was. They have much more of a pitch and dynamic range. I have a segue on one of the albums I’m working on, with a weird Welshman having a breakdown with Kookaburras in the background. It’s a strange combination.”
Fyfe’s favourite birdsong
As a songwriter I ask which birdsong he appreciates the most. “I love the Golden Oriole. That’s a magical one and I like the way it looks too. And the Sedge and Reed Warblers we’ve been hearing today. They’re beautiful songs and so detailed, all these shifts and changes. There’s something about certain sounds from birds that I always associate with somewhere wilder. It’s the same when you hear an Oystercatcher or a Curlew.
“They seem like a gateway. Then there’s the eeriness of the Nightjar call which I’ve only ever experienced once. Even the sound of the Redshank reminds me of being by estuaries or holidays when I was younger. There’s so many associations with birdsong.”
I ask if any birding experience in his life stands out more than any other. “I love seeing Bee-eaters when I get the chance or anything that’s multicoloured. I once went for a walk with my dad in France as a teenager. We summitted a hill, turned a corner and, as near as I am to you, there was a Short-toed Eagle just sitting there. I’ll always remember that.
“I’ve probably exaggerated it in my mind. I think we’d seen it fly round and so I was creeping round trying to see it. It looked at me and then flew off.
"It was weird, because you’re hardly ever face-to-face with a bird of prey. I remember as a teenager living in Worcestershire, someone told us about this secretive place that you could see Barn Owls."
Fyfe added: “We went down there one evening and, as it was starting to get dark, it came out of this barn. It was the first time I’d seen one. It’s not just the bird, it’s the whole experience. Divers, too. There’s something mystical about them. They seem to be from another age with their looks and calls.
"I remember a family holiday in Scotland when I was about 10. My parents let me go off walking for a bit and, being pre-mobile phones, we’d agreed a rendezvous time. I came back 20 minutes late, much to their distress, because I’d found a family of Red-throated Divers on a lochan.”
We pause as Fyfe attempts to hand feed a group of House Sparrows that have taken up positions near our table. “It’s amazing when you get to see them so close. There’s not really an ugly bird when you look at them closely. You could say the Cormorant is ugly, but it’s beautiful, too. They seem from another age.” I ask if there’s any bird he has a burning desire to see. “Long-eared Owl. There are certain British birds that aren’t especially rare, but which I’ve never seen. Black Grouse is another.”
I inquire where he would like to go birding more than anywhere else.
“I’d love to go back to the Camargue,” he says. “I went once with my parents on holiday. I remember as a kid it seemed so exotic – the Greater Flamingos, Red-crested Pochard and Black-winged Stilts – it seemed like paradise for me. Domestically, I just love the Scottish Highlands and would like to see all the specialities there.”
I mention that the band name Capercaillie has already been taken.
“Ah, but they’re not a seabird, are they?”, he grins. Divers it is then.
Hear Fyfe Dangerfield’s music...
In 2018, Fyfe has launched a new website offering visitors a new collection of music every week under the title ‘birdwatcher – a series of broadcasts from Fyfe Dangerfield’. Visit the website and listen to the tracks at: channelsmaychange.com
Follow Fyfe on Twitter at: twitter.com/fyfedangerfield