What is The Memory Band? In theory, but also in practice, it is a group that plays traditional British music. But it’s really not as simple as it seems: behind the term ‘band’ lies an ever-changing entity, in terms of members and line-up, that revolves around a pivot: founder Stephen Cracknell. And if the term “memory” seems to be perfect for those who deal with traditional music, the discourse with Stephen Cracknell becomes a bit more complex… Of “memory” Cracknell, in fact, is interested in capturing above all, the most slippery and subjective aspect, that which through subjectivity transforms a fact, occurred at a given time, into a remembrance. The same thing happens to traditional songs, which are transformed, slipping into the head, heart and hands of the musicians, vibrating in the sounds of the instruments and encoded in the machines, and go from being an element of the past, destined to fade and be forgotten, to living recollection. The Memory Band is therefore an idea in the head of its creator, that of a new approach to folk music; an idea that is transformed through the urgency and creativity of the collaborators of the moment, into a mutant and mysterious matter even for Stephen himself. And so it is that what in theory corresponds to a precise project becomes an enigma in practice; a puzzle whose true fascination lies precisely in its insolubility. And what could be more boring than a solved puzzle? This is The Memory Band’s game: to give us records in the form of enigmas (or perhaps enigmas in the form of records) and then to move on to something else before they reveal themselves in their ordinariness. 

A process that translates into music that is complex, but never cerebral or involuted, capable of conveying the fascination of the past, locking it in a sort of timeless bubble, of making us think and move, of entertaining and stimulating us. Music that never renounces the human factor, even when filtered by the silicon of computers. 

Recommending one or more of the band’s albums seems risky at best, because all the works seem necessary to compose that still incomplete design that we hope will never be completed. But if we really have to give some indications, as it is right to do so, to someone who wants to start having a look, we recommend two records: “Apron Strings”, which sounds folk as if it were the Penguin Cafè Orchestra doing it, and “On The Chalk (Our Navigation Of The Line Of The Downs)”, which shows how it is possible to release a folk record capable of accepting the challenge of modernity, through a work of deconstruction and re-elaboration carried out through the interaction between man and machine.  

The Wearing of the Horns (Weyhill On My Mind)

To try and understand a bit more (but not too much…) about this musical entity and to talk about the most recent album “Colours” we had a chat with Stephen Cracknell, and here’s what came out.


“The Memory band is an imaginary band, built inside a computer laying music drawn from the collective databank and made flesh by the contributions of numerous musicians. Live an acoustic band of ever changing numbers and on record a new approach to traditional music”.
Stephen Cracknell

Hello Stephen, and thank you for your time. We can only start from your words and from the name you wanted to give to a project that revolves around the concept of memory, intended both in the human and computer meaning of data storage. How does the Memory band relate to the two concepts of memory just described and why did you want to set up a virtual band that revolves around these two concepts? Can you tell us about your background and the path that led you to the foundation of “The Memory Band”?
That quote is very old now, it’s strange to read it back and consider what I was trying to say at the time, it is hard to write press releases that don’t make you cringe in hindsight at their pomposity. The reality has always been more instinctive and reactive to the world around me rather than sticking to a manifesto. When I chose the name of the band I liked that it could have multiple meanings, say everything but also nothing and was more suggestive than specific. Those very same qualities are what intrigue me about memory and meaning as well,  particularly in relation to music. The fact that I still cannot pin those things down is probably a large element in why the work continues.

In recent years, the concept of memory has also been central to so-called hauntological music, which aims to bring out the ghosts of the past that haunt the present. How do you see yourself in relation to this movement that seems to us to be in any case akin to your music and whose path has had to intersect with yours, let’s think for example of the remarkable collaborations with Jim Jupp (Belbury Poly)?
Jim and Julian at Ghost Box have built an incredible body of work  I think the main intersection between us is that as listeners we are fundamentally crate diggers. Hauntology is one of those contemporary words which originated in academia but has ended up as marketing jargon.  I no longer question its meaning I just add it to the metadata. As a musician you routinely get asked and are judged upon whether or not you conform to any number of these notions, but where is the fun in conformity? Part of what led me to search out second hand music from a young age was the random variety of it all. That still appeals to me. If hauntology degrees are to be given out then I would have to rely upon my field work rather than produce a thesis.

The Memory Band with Belbury Poly & Grantby - The Ballad of Imber Down

Let’s come to the components that have contributed and contribute to The Memory Band. How do you choose the collaborators for each album/project? Is it the collaborators who influence the music we will hear on the record or is it the idea you have from the beginning of the record that determines the choice of collaborators?
Like so many of my answers today, the key thing is that I never have to pin these things down, I just focus on the end result and keep varying the process.  Most of the people on the current album I’ve been working with for a long while and every relationship is different but it’s usually centred on the fact that there is something about each individual and their sound which moves me in some way, which makes me want to hear more, makes me want to write with them in mind. On a number of tracks on the new album, Hannah Caughlin and Helene Bradley sing together, having heard the combination of their voices it drove me to write pieces with them in mind and build arrangements around them and that extends to everyone involved in different ways. The collaborators are easily the biggest influence on my work, because they are the people who create the sound as much as I do. Most of my job is just to record, to listen back and to edit.

Tell us about the two faces of the band, the acoustic and live one and the one immortalised in the studio rehearsals.
I think of myself as an accidental performer. It was never my great dream to play music onstage to an audience, I just wanted to make records which I started doing mostly using machines in home studios. Then, later on, I unexpectedly fell into a situation where live music opened up for me and it was not only fun but people came to listen. The obvious and easy way to perform the music I had made was to use computers and studio hardware onstage, but I thought it would be more enjoyable and inspiring not to do so and instead to put together acoustic line ups to try and interpret the music and see where that led to. I also chose mostly to avoid playing the music the same way twice on stage just to add to the jeopardy.

What do you mean by a new approach to traditional music? Do you agree that the best folk music is still modern today thanks to deep roots and a look, that is aware of the past and so that allows it to adapt to the present and to grasp the spirit of the times?
My meaning is more about the structure of the music than the philosophy. Most music described as folk music is centred upon taking traditional melodies and arranging them in terms of harmonic variation and chordal development to create emotional narratives. That is very common among many musical forms but it’s not something I gravitate towards in my own work. Rhythm and melody rule my World and I’m into loops, sounds and sonic spaces, Let the background be in the foreground, the centre cannot hold. However, at the same time, I invite a musician like Fred Thomas into the project who is a master of harmonic progression as his Bach trio album on ECM shows. Because everything I believe I question and every rule I have must be tested.

How do you think folk music should relate to the present and the future? Do you think that its future vitality will be linked to its ability to hybridize with other genres, maybe similar in terms of instances, objectives or sensitivity? Do you perceive in this process the risk of a possible loss of traditional folk identity? And finally, regardless of the form it takes, when in your opinion music can be called “folk”?
Rumours of folk music’s demise have been greatly exaggerated from the moment people started talking about it. If I once had opinions about folk music I discarded them a long time ago. Personally, I like the melodies a great deal, I keep coming back to them. I’m always inclined to think it is the promiscuity of a culture that ensures its survival rather than its purity, but that is just my politics.

Let’s come to the new album “Colours”. One of the things that struck us the most is the use of wind instruments, so much so that in some tracks – such as the final “A wooded world” – the name “Memory Brass Band” would have been appropriate… Can you tell us about this choice and tell us if there is a particular reason why wind instruments appear in the first and last tracks, but not in the central section?
Recorders have long been a feature of our sound. I’ve always used horns in the musical palette of The Memory Band but very sparingly, mostly because I could not hear a tangible way to make it sound the way I wanted it to. In recent years that has changed. All the horns on “Cursus” were recorded by Sam Ewens who I met through Sam Genders. When I decided I wanted to record a horn section on a number of pieces I was able to ask Olie Brice, our bass player, to assemble the trio and do all the arrangements because he has far more experience and contacts than I do and I had heard enough of the range of horn players he worked with to know it would sound great.

“A Wooded World” is an improvised reprise of “Albion’s Daughter” and it always had the feel of the last track on side two. Side one I think of as being very much focused on more primary colours and bold strokes whereas on side two things become more diffuse and psychedelic before returning to the horns for the last two pieces, unaccompanied and unfettered. But I also tried to make the album order feel circular to as if you could start at any point and it would still make some kind of sense.

The album seemed to us more melancholic and nocturnal than the previous ones and to play with the title the colour that seems to prevail is blue? What do you think about it?
If you want to reflect the full range of colours then there will inevitably be plenty of the somber tones. I think all my music moves between dark and light where a lot of music chooses to remain for the most part on one side of the fence or the other. The album begins with an ‘as I walked out one midsummer morning’ (Editor’s note: “The Sweet Primroses”)song so maybe I hear it differently. I always thought there was a lot of yellow across the album, it was certainly a dominant colour in my mind when mixing the album. There is a lot of blue in the artwork mind.

Colours, despite its brevity, points in different directions such as jazz, minimalist suggestions, electronic rehashes and the aforementioned reference to brass bands as well as the usual chamber and folk references. Was it a deliberate choice of sound patchwork or did the songs simply dictate the line?
I have yet to answer that conundrum it and if ever I do I imagine it will be time to change trains. Some of the timelines of those puzzles extend far beyond a single piece of work, they are the dialogues upon which a lot more can pivot. I’ve been trying to make my ‘jazz album’ for years, maybe this time I did it.  I’ve also been trying to make my ‘London album’ for a long time and maybe with ‘Colours’ I did that. Who knows?  Perhaps that depends as much upon what comes next rather than that which has already occurred. 

Let’s end with a classic one: what are your desert island records? We imagine you’re bound to find something by the Penguin Café Orchestra, or perhaps the soundtrack to the cult film The Wicker Man (from which your last album featured the beautiful cover of Gentle Johnny), but you might want to surprise us.
My favourite Penguin Cafe Orchestra album is the live album ‘When In Rome’ but If we’re going to a desert island then I would probably just grab some Brasilian records rather than some cold weather music. Here are a few personal favourites off the top of my head:

Moacir Sansantos – Coisas
Quarteto Em Cy – Quarteto Em Cy
Joyce – Feminina
Nara Leao – Nana
Edu Lobo – Missa Breve
Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 – Stillness
Marcos Valle – Braziliance! A Musica De Marcos Valle
Vinicius De Moraes and Baden Powell – Os Afro-Sambas