This month delivered the shock announcement (to some) that Liverpool was to be stripped of its UNESCO heritage status, with the committee citing what has been termed an “irreversible loss of attributes” as the reason behind the decision. Cutting through the jargon, it’s likely that some of the waterfront’s more recent architectural acquirements weren’t UNESCO’s cup of tea. Depending on your stance, this is either an embarrassing blow to the city’s reputation as a centre of cultural and historical importance or…”meh, we’ve still got footy and The Beatles.”

Those residing in the former camp, however, may be encouraged to learn that, whilst the arbiters of heritage at UNESCO may not be impressed with the creatives down the town planning office, other artistic elements of Merseyside are still attracting plaudits and new awards from cultural bodies.

Known for his work with Lonesaw, Ali Horn and Ex-Easter Island Head, Liverpool producer and a.P.A.t.T. helmsperson, STEPHEN COLE has recently been awarded 10K by Arts Council England to fund an exciting new project combining the talents of 12 local and international collaborators. The Indoor Toboggan Sessions will be a series of collaborations between the producer and an inspiring variety of musicians, composers and filmmakers, set to take place over the next 12 months. Artists such as Stealing Sheep’s EMILY MEGAN LANSLEY, Cardiacs’ SHARRON FORTNAM and Zombina and the Skeletones’ GENEVIEVE ROSA BAKER will work with Cole to produce a collection of mixed media works exploring a range of themes and innovative techniques. We Zoomed into the control room of Cole’s WHATSTUDIO to find out more.

Cole starts off by touching on the reasoning behind the project’s title. Aside from the small visual satisfaction he derives from the double ‘g’, he explains, it is simply a reference to the collaborative nature of the project. As keen followers of the Winter Olympics and/or authors of Cool Runnings fan fiction, I am sure Bido’s readers need not be reminded that the toboggan is usually crewed by more than one person. As such, Cole is keen to elaborate on how he sees the importance of collaboration in creativity: “I like to think of it as community” he says “I have always thought that. I have gigged in the DIY circuit since I was 20. Anyone working amongst that will understand what that means,” Cole continues, “and it doesn’t mean ‘Do It Yourself’, because there’s a lot of people doing things with you. I don’t know how to do the t-Shirts, so you find someone who does screen printing. I have been just really lucky to get a studio together over the last few years to give me just another tool to be able to help.”

“Before I had even applied for the funding, it made everyone really excited.”

Seeing himself and his studio as a means of aiding other musicians is something which has become a driving factor behind the upcoming Toboggan Sessions. Certainly, the pandemic has had a detrimental effect on the creative arts scene and projects such as this could prove to be incredibly important as a means of enabling artists to reboot.

“This is the beautiful aspect of this project,” he muses, reflecting on the impact Covid-19 has had on his own productivity. “I still haven’t been in a room with a band. I am itching to make music myself with people and, as I approached these 12 artists, before I had even applied for the funding, it made everyone really excited. So the knock-on effect of this project is, you know, beginning”.

Among the 12 collaborators are local composers with whom Cole has previously worked. The producer talks animatedly about the opportunity to work once more with BEN DUVALL, founder of experimental 3-piece Ex-Easter Island Head. “I always love working with Ben. I produced the first two [Ex-Easter Island Head] records and, similarly, have been on research and development for a while for this piece. I don’t want to give too much away, but,” Cole concedes, “[Ben has] been working on a particular installation piece and we’ve been doing field recordings which are going to inform a performance. It will involve a multimedia overlay of these location pieces. It’s super unique” he beams.

The project will also allow Cole the opportunity to work with one of his musical heroes: celebrated vocalist Sharron Fortnam. “I’m really looking forward to working with Sharon,” he tells us, “that goes without saying. Led Bib were jazz Mercury Award winners last year, her lead vocal [with North Sea Radio Orchestra] is so well crafted and Cardiacs are the stuff of legend. I’m in a really lucky position here.”

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As well as producing 12 unique pieces of work over the next year, Cole will, when restrictions allow, visit New York to work with seven-time Grammy nominated producer Joel Hamilton.

“To say I’m excited is an understatement.” Cole enthuses and rightly so, Hamilton has an impressive list of production credits under his belt including Elvis Costello, Unsane, Tom Waits and… Sleepy Time Gorilla Museum. “They’re the kind of thing you could imagine I’d like,” the self-aware Cole remarks in a wry tone, referring to his own band a.P.A.t.T.’s penchant for off-kilter rhythms and free-form hooks. Those familiar with the output of Cole’s avant-pop troupe may be surprised to learn, however, that it’s not just Hamilton’s notoriety as a collaborator with left field artists that appeals to the a.P.A.t.T. leader. Cole is equally as excited about the Brooklynite’s work with one of Liverpool’s most famous sons:

“In the most recent Paul McCartney documentary with Rick Rubin, [Hamilton] is the engineer,” enthuses Cole, “so it’s like six episodes of him being Macca’s mate. I love that shit. We all love Macca.”

Certainly the opportunity to watch Hamilton at work is something which thrills the Liverpool producer, but if someone were to be offered a similar opportunity to observe Cole at WHATSTUDIO, what elements of his own approach to production would he hope to impart? “Play,” he says, “is a real part of what I’m involved in musically. I think it’s something that people lose as they get older,” referring to what he sees as the importance of creating freer periods of expression and experimentation within the recording process. As a means of explaining what he is talking about, Cole recalls a story he heard of US producer Sylvia Massy’s studio antics. “[Massy] is quite famous for having some incident in every session,” he says of the erstwhile Tool and Green Jelly producer. “In the Tool session she gets them to shotgun a piano, and they listen to it back and it just goes [makes an underwhelming popping noise]. But, it’s an event, you have this lovely day and something happens.” Cole continues, “When people are wilting, maybe that’s the time when you say, ‘We go for a walk and we collect sounds.’ You make events. I believe play should be budgeted for.”

“It’s a small world and if you do the right type of things you just bump into people.”

We are curious as to how his freer approach may need to change during the more time-restrictive Toboggan Sessions. “I tend to collaborate on many, many levels” Cole responds. “In all my roles it’s often enticing a bit of work out of someone or making sure I get it whilst they’re there. It’s not (usually) a race against time, but this has given me the opportunity to actually pencil ‘play’ in and go ‘let’s do that much material in a year.’”

It’s fair to say Cole will be relatively busy over the next 12 months, but, once that is over, how does he see the future? Looking beyond the project, are there any artists, producers, writers or directors he dreams of working with? “If you were to say ‘pick people’, I’ve literally just made a list of 12 wonderful people, but I don’t think there is any end to it really. I know that this is leading to so many things. It’s a small world and if you do the right type of things you just bump into people; they’re roadies for another thing or the driver for someone else. ‘Oh I know them! I spent two weeks with them in Prague… worried’, or something. There’s definitely lots more people I’d like to do things with,” he chuckles ”and maybe this is a model, maybe this is how I operate now, you know, every year I do this type of Tobbogan run.”

The Tobbogan Sessions are available, along with other POSTMUSIC archives, at postmusic.info.

Stephen Cole and Stephen Kerrison’s (Tall Trees Audio Mastering) Sound Torque podcast, featuring guests such as Joel Hamilton, Sharon Fortnam and Fuck Buttons’ Andrew Hung, is also highly recommended and can found at soundtorque.com

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