Chlöe Herington is a woman with a long history on the prog-adjacent fringes of this weird scene we inhabit. TPA’s Roger Trenwith had a chance to chat with her about her project V Ä L V Ē, their imminent new album Tiny Pilots, and other tangential stuff…
Your CV is quite extraordinary. A life less ordinary, some might say. Did you come from a musical family?
Yes, although neither of my parents worked as musicians, but they both used to play the bassoon. But they didn’t know that about each other until I took it up! My mum was at Canterbury Art College during the whole Canterbury scene, and she wanted to hang out with them, so she took up the pursuit, and my dad was at drama college and he fancied all the girls that used to hang out with that lot, so he took it up too.
[laughter] I never would have assumed that the bassoon is an instrument to get you on with the girls somehow!
Well, right! And both my brothers are musicians. My brother Alex will be the support act at a gig we’re doing in Nottingham, and my brother Nick made one of our videos.
A thoroughly musical family, then! Moving on, I loved reading about your part in the Lindsay Cooper Songbook. Is it still going?
I think so, it depends if anything comes up.
I mention this because the Lindsay Cooper Memorial gig back in 2014 at The Barbican ranks as one of my top gigs ever. You weren’t playing in that one, but I take it you were there?
Yes, I was there. It was great, really good.
Knifeworld was where I first became aware of you, and you were in that band from the start. One of the earlier gigs I saw was the band at The Musician in Leicester, sadly not very well attended. I noticed that you were playing with no shoes on. Was that so the bassoon didn’t scrape the very low ceiling?
No, I never play with shoes on, but I have done a gig where they did have to remove the ceiling tiles!
Will you be involved in the “Sing for Him” tribute to Tim Smith in May next year?
I couldn’t possibly comment. It’s all a secret… I’m too scared to say anything in case I get told off! [laughter]
The reason for this chat is of course the wonderfully odd and compelling music made by your project V Ä L V Ē, who have a new album out soon entitled Tiny Pilots (17th November, Slowfoot Records). Your co-pilot in this fascinating thing is Emma Sullivan, a fellow Chrome Hoofer. How did that come about, and is it pronounced as you might expect?
Well, for those that are in the know, it’s… well, it was originally going to be called ‘Vulva’ and then I lost my bottle at the last minute.
Ah… I see!
Yes, but my name is spelt weirdly because I have the two dots over the ‘O’. They’re supposed to be over the ‘E’ but my dad spelt it wrong and it’s stuck.
And there was me thinking it was an affectation!
Yes, it was an affectation of my dad’s. In the wrong place! [laughter] So I thought I’m going to have to be pretentious. Here’s how my name is spelt, but it’s wrong. But that’s it, always has been. There’s also a three-piece kind of cock rock band in America called Valve as well. So it’s a good way to differentiate. And then secretly it’s called Vulva! The BBC pronunciation unit phoned me up to ask about the pronunciation, and I told them [the story], and they pronounce it ‘Valve’.
I suppose otherwise, your radio opportunities might me limited!
Yeah, apart from feminist rock shows! [laughter]
V Ä L V Ē started off as a solo thing, and I was playing in art galleries for [British artist] Tai Shani. She’s amazing and yeah, it was just for my own stuff that I didn’t really know what to do with, experimental things, and then I was composing for different artists, as a sound artist. Then I got a big break at the Hayward Gallery, this thing called ‘Mirror Cities’. For that I enlisted Elen [Evans], who sort of stayed, it worked out well. Then Emma [Sullivan] jammed with us, and I had really missed Emma as we weren’t doing any Chrome Hoof work at the time. At the moment it’s just Emma and me, and sometimes just me, Emma works as a paramedic and saving lives is a bit more important than weird music, so if she can’t get out of a shift, it’s just me. For this tour we are expanding into a five-piece, which is exciting!
That will be good! Tell me something about the writing process for the songs on the album. How do you go about putting the pieces together?
For this one, some of the tracks we were already playing. For lots of it, I’ll find something in a hedge or I’ll read a book and it’ll make my brain go weird. And then I turn that into a piece of music. Or I look at something that looks strange, I get quite into it. Also, an author called Keith Ridgway, who wrote an amazing book called Animals which I got really into, it made my brain go fizzy! I emailed him to ask if I could nick some of his words, a passage from the book. This got me thinking about this whole tiny pilots thing, and daydreaming. I spent a lot of time looking in hedges and stuff and I thought, I quite like the idea of this tiny pilot going off on adventures.
The whole premise of the album is it’s about how everyone has their own little tiny pilot inside them, and when you’re daydreaming, you’re not procrastinating. Your tiny pilot is off exploring somewhere else.
I’ll remember that next time I put something off! [laughter]
It’s a really good excuse! “It wasn’t me. It was my tiny pilot!” [laughter]
Yeah, so I write the songs, and then I give Emma a part, or ship parts out to people and if it’s stuff I can’t play myself, and then tweak things.
All the found sounds and objects you use, the things that they do and how it all integrates together, is it all written down or is it improvised?
It depends on the track. Some of it is. I keep a lot of it loose with improvisatory sections, particularly the more sound art bits because we, me and Emma, will change what we’re doing depending on the venue. There will be certain sections where we’ll just look at each other. We’ve played together for nearly 25 years, we just know what the other one’s going to do.
And so with my shelf (of found objects), whenever I do a gig, I’ll find an object from the locality to go onto the shelf.
We saw you supporting The Holy Family at The Lexington. You see all those objects laid out, it seemed random, but it obviously wasn’t.
No, I mean there’s songs, there’s certain written things, and then there might be a little graphics score. There’s an intention behind everything, but then there’s movement within that intention.
Right. It’s very unusual!
That’s just my brain! [laughter]
Keep it going, I love it! It’s just something I’ve never really seen before, it’s not what you expect when you see a “band”. Not what you expect at all.
There’s a track on the album called B612. What’s that?
B612. The name comes from one of the planets from The Little Prince. He is his own tiny pilot and he explores it. I had loads of weird dreams when I was a child and I used to dream about space quite a lot. I re-read The Little Prince, and then it got me thinking about if your little tiny pilot went off as far as space and found a planet, you know, what would happen? So the beginning of the track is very much like the expedition that everyone’s tiny pilots are all going on together. Then some weird stuff happens in the middle. After that you have to make your mind up, sort of choose your own adventure.
That’s not a million miles removed from the Magma thing, isn’t it? Creating their own universe and all that? Completely different musically, but a similar concept.
Oh, yeah… [laughter]
What do you think is the most esoteric object to make an appearance on Tiny Pilots? Don’t say where it is, I will see if I can find it when I listen to the album.
Oh, let me think. There’s some really weird stuff on it. There’s a crab claw that I found on Anglesey. What else is on there? I didn’t use the garden fork for that. I don’t know… I have to think… Oh, a piece of slate.
[Goes off to look for something… returns]
I think this is on it somewhere too. I found it in the attic when I cleared out my parents’ house. It’s my Fisher Price ball [holds up toy to camera], I think that might be on it, it makes an appearance. Oh yeah, some old storyteller cassette tapes.
Your lyrics are highly observational and literary, and on Tiny Pilots swing from the filmic romanticism of Lights to the brutally real and very moving ancient-modern folk tale Perfumes of Arabia. When you did that live, it was literally ‘Wow!’, you know, reality bites! Arriving after everything else, that’s kind of coming from an almost Syd Barrett kind of universe, there’s suddenly that at the end. It’s a brutally real thing. It sort of slaps!
Yes, that’s the idea behind it. I didn’t write that song, it’s written by Maggie Holland. She’s an old friend of my mum’s. She’s an incredible folk singer, she’s just had a new album out as well, and I borrowed it from her, with her permission.
The way you do it (with very sparse, eventually disappearing accompaniment), if people hadn’t been paying attention before, they did to that, definitely, you could see the eyes in the audience all open wide, it’s just… it’s really good… really good.
Never hurts to give a shock at the end!
Yes, I think that’s right. It’s good to wake up now and again, isn’t it?
V Ä L V Ē are known for the intricate and sumptuous artwork of their boutique releases, can we expect more of this with the LP version of Tiny Pilots?
Yeah. Well, it’s all kind of within my limitations because I make everything by hand. There are… oh, hang on, I’ve got some.
[Goes offscreen to get some samples]
This is a little lyric book. It is hand stitched, they’re little A6 lyric books with a piece about the origins of Perfumes of Arabia from Maggie Holland. Then there’s going to be some very, very bespoke hardback, hand bound, completely hand stitched, leather map and paper. There will also be some lino prints coming with the album. The whole of our bathroom gets covered in ink! [laughter]
That must take forever to do?
Yes, things have been really busy, and I’ve also taken up blacksmithing!
Crikey! There’s loads of sound opportunities in a forge, aren’t there?
Exactly, it’s amazing! I made a bowl. [laughter] It’s my first day yesterday and I made a bowl, and I’m going to play it on the tour. The blacksmith used to be a drummer, so he completely gets it. We’re both walking around the forge pinging things to see what sounds they make. The actual forge itself and all the blowtorches all make incredible noises.
I see you played last year’s Unorthodox Paradox Festival on Anglesey. We went to this year’s event, in a field in a village near Hereford, and a fascinating thing it was too! Anglesey is an odd place for a festival, don’t you think? [laughter]
It was so! Me and Craig [Fortnam] got drenched and then freezing, and then it was boiling in the day! We went on an amazing walk and found this incredible old derelict house that we became obsessed with, and started trying to research as soon as we got back. Then we found an old power station, and we saw a seal, and collected loads of stuff for the shelf. It was amazing! It’s so beautiful there.
It is nice there, but because of where it is, it does get very wet very quickly!
As we discovered! We camp quite a lot and we walk a lot, and we’re going to Anglesey, and we both forgot to bring any waterproofs! Duh! [laughter]
Was it raining when you played your set there?
Yeah, absolutely pelting it down. [laughter] But it was good because everyone was forced to be in the tent. It was literally a captive audience.
It’s just so off the wall, isn’t it? The thing is that genres nowadays don’t mix. Like there’s a crowd that will follow that festival that would never, ever even think of – or probably haven’t even heard of – something like Summer’s End in Chepstow that happens this weekend. They won’t have heard of it, I mean I only stumbled across Unorthodox Paradox because The Holy Family were headlining the Saturday. That’s why I got tickets for it and I’d literally never heard of any of the other bands on there, so I thought, ‘let’s just go for it!’
It’s such a lovely festival, Neil and Libby are amazing. When we played there was this band called Yama Warashi playing, and oh my God, they’re amazing, I was transfixed. As soon as we got home, I bought their album. Later I played at Unfolded Sunfold, and I saw Neil and Libby again, and Yama Washari was playing as well and I made friends with Yoshino and she’s one of the people I’m trying to collaborate with.
Sounds fascinating – you’ll have to send me the link to that.
Well, it seems I’ve come to the end of my list of questions, I think that worked?
Yeah, well done! [laughter]
Thanks – no doubt we’ll meet at the album launch on November 30th, which I am looking forward to already!
[You can read roger’s review of Tiny Pilots HERE.]
V Ä L V Ē have the following dates lined up, either as support or headliner:
22/11/23: Bishop’s House, Sheffield
23/11/23: The Chameleon, Nottingham
30/11/23: Servant Jazz Quarters, London [Album Launch]
10/12/23: Con Club, Lewes (with Memorials)
16/12/23: TAM, London
18/02/23: The Victoria, Swindon
These gigs and many more can be found in the TPA UK Gig Guide