Artist Q & A: Heritage Orchestra

In just under a decade, the UK’s Heritage Orchestra have gone from having the first ever release on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings label to performing, collaborating and touring with artists as diverse as Tim Minchin, Aphex Twin and Jamie Cullum amongst others.

In just over a week’s time, the orchestra arrive at Symphony Hall with their latest project Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked, a bold and ground-breaking multi–sensory performance that pays homage to the sound and spirit of the popular British post-punk band.

We caught up with Heritage Orchestra co-founder and Creative Director Chris Wheeler [CW], to find out more about the group and this very special project…

THSH: How are you and the orchestra doing Chris, and where in the world are you right now?

CW: I am housed in a sound proofed studio in a music production complex on Hove Seafront, it allows me to scream really loudly without worrying what people think. I’m in the building with loads of music types like Bjork’s Musical Director Matt Robertson, Paul from Orbital, Noel Gallagher’s sidekick Mike Lowe, and loads of lo-fi superstars come and record upstairs in a secret studio run by ex UNKLE producer Pablo Clements. It’s a totally rad place, where I can scream, run the orchestra, and scream again.

THSH: How has 2013 been so far for the Heritage Orchestra?

CW: Ooh, let me just consult my ‘spreadsheet of success’! It’s been a good year so far, starting with a Light Surgeons tour of their multi-media show SuperEverything, and then we took the orchestra to the Sydney Opera House where we were resident, playing two shows at the unbelievable Vivid LIVE Festival. Here we played our Music From Blade Runner show, plus Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked; the latter was hailed by critics as the best of the fest – no mean feat when the line-up included the uber cool Kraftwerk! Other than that, a couple of recordings with Antony & the Johnsons and The XX.

THSH: You’re just about to embark on the Live Transmission UK tour, with Symphony Hall the venue for the Birmingham date. Talk us through how this project came about.

CW: Laura Ducceschi from the Brighton Dome conceived the idea of a Joy Division inspired show, she approached me, and then together we assembled the A-Team. This included appointing Robin Rimbaud as Musical Director, he effectively took the JD songs and did his own dismantled versions, then the Heritage Orchestra took those demos and deconstructed them further, mostly through the genius of Matt Calvert and Adam Betts (both from the band Three trapped Tigers) and John Calvert (Ghospoet), finally the whole shebang was put onto paper by the talented orchestrator Tom Trapp and whipped into shape by the legendary conductor Jules Buckley.

THSH: It looks and sounds like an incredible audio-visual experience. Electronic composer Scanner and visual artist Matt Watkins (aka Birmingham’s Beat13) are involved too – how have they helped to shape the project?

CW: Well Robin’s electronic take on JD was key before the orchestra twisted it further, but Matt really went to town with the visuals, with the sole aim of creating the mood and atmosphere of Joy Division without being pastiche or overly referential. Although we do have some classic Peter Saville imagery thrown in. There’s a lot going on. And it’s all on massive screens. You won’t see an orchestra playing like this with this kind of production level very often, actually never.

THSH: Scanner has described Live_Transmission as “A trip into a dismantled, electrified and orchestrated world inspired by the music of Ian Curtis”. Did you have reservations about reworking the music of such a revered artist/band?

CW: Well, we’ve been here before when we ‘covered’ the soundtrack to Blade Runner for the Meltdown Festival in 2008. Whilst really successful, it is a nostalgic and very true rendition of the original, but with the trademark Heritage Orchestra treatment. We had reservations about doing the same on Joy Division, but in actual fact the process was always going to make it a progressive new work rather than cover versions. And the dilemma about when to use vocals or not was a biggie, but those who come and see the event will be pleasantly surprised with the result.

THSH: What can audience members expect from the experience?

CW: They should not be expecting cover versions – this is not a covers gig! Judging by the success of the show in both Brighton and Sydney, I reckon audiences will be pretty blown away by the way it looks, and how an orchestra and electronic band can sound. There are no orchestras in the UK (possibly the universe!) that are creating new work in the way we have here. Punters should be up for something completely different and new, and leave their orchestral preconceptions at the door!

THSH: Along with conductor Jules Buckley and your fellow HO musicians, you’ve worked with plenty of incredible artists over the past eight or nine years. Have there been any particular highlights, and who is on your future collaborations hitlist?

CW: The future collaboration hit-list is completely secret otherwise those other punk-ass orchestras will copy us (again). Only kidding, every orchestra has it’s place, we don’t play classical, but we pride ourselves on our collaborative modern approach and technical delivery. Highlights…well, it was great to meet Richard D James, and talk with ‘the maestro’ Vangelis, and the Tim Minchin arena tour was just a hilarious rock’n’roll experience, we love recording and performing, so it’s hard to pick a definitive highlight. I think a memorable highlight for some of the original players was our trip to perform at the Montreaux Jazz Festival about ten years ago, just out of college and bussing it over to Switzerland after landing a record deal. We were pretty hyped and smashed it.

THSH: 2014 will see the tenth anniversary of the Heritage Orchestra. Do you have any special plans to mark the milestone?

CW: Probably a massive London show (yeh sorry) with some past collaborators as special guests? Or maybe just a ridiculous new project commissioned by a rich benefactor…anyone?

Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked is at Symphony Hall Birmingham on Saturday 28 September 2013.Tickets

Words: Lyle Bignon for THSH