Defiantly indefinable

The Big Eyes Family Players - must credit Sarah McAdam
The Big Eyes Family Players - must credit Sarah McAdam
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NOT classical, not folk, not rock, not pop. So what is the music of Sheffield’s The Big Eyes Family Players about?

It’s an aesthetic conundrum that underpins the philosophy of The Big Eyes Family Players (BEFP). The band, according to frontman James Green, is about working outside of any genre: “We’re not rooted in any particular category of music. But initially I wanted to create classical music without having training in it. We work in isolation from any contemporary music, we’re just beavering away at what we do, and that makes us very happy.”

The Big Eyes Family Players album, Family Favourites

The Big Eyes Family Players album, Family Favourites

The ‘us’ to which Green refers incorporates a changing line-up of players, often one-off collaborations, with musicians playing a variety of instruments including flute, violin, organ and guitar.

Next week, The Big Eyes Family Players (BHFP) releases its latest album, Family Favourites, which features re-worked versions of old Big Eyes songs, including three new tracks and a Dirty Three cover.

“The album’s full of tracks we’ve finally got round to recording again. They’ve probably taken about two years to record from start to finish and they were all recorded in an analogue studio that was previously used by ABC.”

The original songs were written in the early days of The Big Eyes Family Players. “We wanted to make recordings of our early material as a document of how we sounded live. But I was relatively new to songwriting and recording when the songs were first performed so with hindsight we’ve expanded the songs and made them more lush in sound, adding more strings - I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great violin players.”

Green’s preference for an instrumental, classical-based sound stems from his childhood, during which he was introduced to composers such as Elgar. He moved on to Polish modern classical composer Henryk Gorecki, to whom one of the tracks on the album is dedicated.

“His music is enormously powerful and there is a sadness to our music. Although the music on the album is instrumental I never think about that.”

The ‘voice’ on the album is provided by the violin or guitar: “Instruments are amazingly expressive - sometimes in a way that a voice could never be.”

But the range of instrumentation at Green’s disposal doesn’t necessarily liberate his songwriting: “It has the opposite effect - it’s like being a kid in a sweet shop and not knowing what to pick because there is so much choice. Sometimes I think having less instrumentation focuses you when you’re songwriting.”

BEFP’s layered, epic, category-defying music has turned heads throughout the industry. Last year the group played at the award-winning Green Man Festival, performing live film scores to the animations of Jan Svankmajer and also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends. The Sheffield group has also collaborated with folk artist James Yorkston, for whom they have just recorded a soundtrack for his forthcoming audio book.

With a list of impressive collaborations and string of prestigious live appearances (Green Man, BBC Radio 4) under his sleeve, Green is in a very different place to that where he started with his Big Eyes project eleven years ago.

“It was just me at first in Leeds and the guy I was living with had an Eight-Track and he showed me how to use it. It was shortly after that that I joined up with some violin players and called it Big Eyes.”

The band outgrew their modest slumber setting and embarked on a four-album career but split up in 2004.

After that Green formed The Big Eyes Family Players - a collaborative arrangement with the same idea of creating classical-style music without conventional classical training.

Since then the notion of instrumental music has been made popular by bands such as Explosions in the Sky. “People do understand instrumental music as a valid thing now but I’ve always thought that pop music would sound better if you couldn’t hear the lyrics.”

lFamily Favourites, The Big Eyes Family Players latest album, is out on Tuesday. The band will also be performing as part of the Sensoria festival, with a headline slot at the Forum on May 2.