Interview: Goldheart Assembly

Rob GarrattIndie bright sparks Goldheart Assembly chose to record their debut album at a little-known Norfolk steam museum - complete with hissing and wheezing noises. ROB GARRATT asks drummer Nick Francis why.Rob Garratt

Indie bright sparks Goldheart Assembly chose to record their debut album at a little-known Norfolk steam museum - complete with hissing and wheezing noises. ROB GARRATT asked drummer Nick Francis why.

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The Norfolk parish of Forncett is not exactly what you would call a hotbed of rock'n'roll. About 12 miles down the A140 from Norwich, near Long Stratton, it is made up of less than 400 homes spread across three villages.

A cursory internet search suggests it boasts just one attraction, The Forncett Industrial Steam Museum, which takes up the entire second half of the parish's Wikipedia entry.

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The museum, I am told, holds one of the UK's largest collections of working stationary steam engines. Originally started as a hobby, it now opens on sporadic summer Sundays to share its collection with train buffs and holidaymakers.

Bizarrely, this anoraks' haven is where one of this year's hottest indie bands chose to lay down tracks for their debut album.

Listen closely to Goldheart Assembly's glowing album, Wolves and Thieves, and you can even hear the steam engines live in the background, driving the beat.

'It's quite metallic and industrial sounding in parts,' explains drummer Nick Francis. 'Recording in rooms with a lot of metal lying around definitely brought out the colder and darker side when needed. Also, you get to hear what a steam-powered drum machine sounds like.'

As with all stories this good, it was more than mere coincidence that brought the septet to sunny Norfolk. It is Nick's, dad Dr Rowan Francis, who has spent the last 30 years putting the museum together on the doorstep of their family home.

The drummer saw the acoustic potential of the large, cluttered space, and put it forward as a budget recording option. 'Yes, this was my suggestion,' he admits. 'It seemed quite convenient as the museum has huge as well as small unusual spaces. Also we could use the place for free and we liked the idea of getting out of London for some of the recording process. Norfolk is beautiful and peaceful, a great working environment for this kind of thing.'

Nick says the county's rural landscape filtered into the recording mindset in a 'romantic way'. 'When we were recording into the night it would get dark and the full moon came out. We would be doing take after take in the main upstairs part of the museum which we flooded with candles. Just after each take we'd leave a long gap of silence so all the sound had a chance to die, and when that happened we would hear this sound, creeping in from the silence…of about 400 randy frogs croaking at top of their mojo in a nearby lake. They do this every year from about May to November non-stop until they freeze - don't worry thought, the ones that croaked loud enough to be heard on the record got paid.'

Without all the usual recording studio luxuries, like central heating and soundproofing, the space presented the self-producing band with some interesting challenges.

This included filling the building's roof with steam to dampen the sound, and forcing band members to record up to 100 feet away from each other, and down a concrete basement pit, to get the necessary sound separation.

But it also presented the opportunity of using a vintage steam engine as a click track, driving the rhythm of one key song on the record, the dark, ambient drone of Jesus Wheel.

'This was something I had always wanted to do but never found the right scenario,' explains Nick. 'The track Jesus Wheel had the perfect mood to put the sound to so we just did.

'It was kind of a no brainer though - if you're in a huge warehouse full of working industrial machines from 100 years ago, fire em' up! They ran as smooth as sewing machines and had constant rhythm in unusual syncopations, loads of fun to play drums along to. The bass you can get out of them is remarkable.

'We had to get steam up and then run around experimenting with different mics to get the best sub bass out of the exhaust and cranky metal wheels, in a fog of thick steam, without ruining our recording equipment or killing ourselves.'

It is not the first time the band have featured unusual 'instruments' on their records - with doors, radiators, kettles and spoons used for percussion on some early low-budget demos.

This DIY ethic is reflected in the way the band formed, two years ago, as a group of six musicians from various different bands. The players met at club nights, at Covent Garden's Rock Garden, run by now-bandleaders James Dale and John Herbert.

Slowly, after a period of 'band hopping and stand ins,' a stable line-up became Goldheart Assembly, who bonded over a mutual love of The Beatles and named themselves after a Guided By Voices tune, Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.

The band's first tour kicked off at the beginning of last year, with an early peak a slot at Glastonbury.

Still in their infancy, Wolves and Thieves was planned at a seven track demo, but quickly mushroomed in to the LP which was released last month.

Singles So Long St Christopher and King of Rome have picked up considerable airplay - and comparisons to indie-Americana deities Fleet Foxes and Mumford and Sons - and the band have been picked out as one to watch for 2010.

The album itself is a gripping blend of contrasting moods and textures - combining Britpop sensibilities with American west coast harmonies; at times poppy and others introspective; sometimes warm and pastoral, others cold and industrial.

The important question, though, does Nick's dad like it? 'He loves the record,' says Nick, 'and was glad to give the museum another use to its portfolio. I would say the thing he is most chuffed with is the fact that we used one of the biggest engines as a click track on one of the songs.'

t Wolves and Thieves is out now.

t Further listening:

t The Forncett Industrial Steam Museum is in Low Road, Forncett St Mary, 01508 488277,