The Uses of Trauma
In a brutally honest interview, Alex Neilson of Alex Rex and Trembling Bells talks about his experience with music, grief and trauma.
SLH recorded one of his songs, the hauntingly beautiful and deeply moving Uses of Trauma, in the other-worldly atmosphere of the stunning Old Govan Parish Church in Glasgow and spoke to him about his experiences with music, loss, grief and trauma.
On the 29th of April 2017, Alex's brother Alastair died peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep on his canal boat in Leeds. The youngest of three boys, Alastair embodied all his family's best qualities and was a charming and spontaneous friend to anyone lucky enough to cross his path.
Alex’s musical output is prodigious and his list of collaborations reads like a who’s who of the UK’s folk and psychedelic revival scene – Will Oldham, Jandek, Baby Dee, Shirley Collins, Richard Youngs, Alasdair Roberts amongst many others. When tragedy struck, Alex naturally turned to music to process what had happened.
Much of this music appears on Alex Rex’s new Album, Otterburn, which comes out on the 29th of March - just under two years after Alastair died.
Could you say a bit about your experience with music and grief?
My brother passed away suddenly in April 2017. It’s been a perpetual struggle to comprehend how this has impacted upon my life and that of my family. It has profoundly re-shaped my perception of the world.
In an unexpected disrobing of the moment, I began writing almost immediately on hearing the dreadful news - almost as a reflex - finding scattered fragments in an attempt to grab hold of my shaking brain.
These fragments became songs in the following weeks. I recorded them almost as soon as I’d written them and without rehearsals (they constitute about half the songs on “Otterburn”).
On doing my tax return last year, I noticed that I didn’t stop at all during the days, weeks and months after Alastair died. Shuttling up and down the country between London, Leeds and Glasgow. Trying to support my family, attempting to recognise how the shattered pieces of my life fit back together, writing and recording compulsively. I think it’s fair to say that I experienced emotional/ social/ psychological burn out as a result of this.
How has music helped you to cope with loss?
It’s hard to compute. I usually deal with things by burying myself in work, so I have had spells of hyper-creativity while rebounding from the impact of the loss. I’ve been in therapy since November 2017 and that has helped peel back the many layers of damage and develop a vocabulary for recognising my emotions at the point of crisis.
I try to be as truthful as possible to the realities of grief in my writing in all its contradiction, confusion, culpability, recrimination, bitterness, love, (self) loathing – all attitudes that simultaneously expose and obscure my true feelings. Writing music is not a purely pleasurable experience. Nor should it be.
In terms of listening to music, I noticed that I have been revisiting things that I cherished as a teenager- Dirty 3, Palace Brothers, Nick Cave etc. I’m not sure if that is a comfort blanket or an attempt to reconnect with the initial impulses that made me fall in love with music to help me fall in love with it again.
In relation to other people’s music, Eva Cassidy singing Fields of Gold was played at both my grandma and grandad’s funerals and I can’t hear that song without feeling a vertiginous pang of grief. Even the Sting version.
What do you think it is specifically about music that makes it such a powerful medium in times of loss?
Perhaps because it is a very accessible and emotive medium as well as being a participatory art form. Songs become talismen for the most private and incommunicable personal experiences as well as the most frivolous. Songs are also time capsules which can transport you back to the last time you heard them in an eidetic flash, complete with colours, smells, shades of light, tones of voice, temperature of air. In such a way, songs can be sanctuaries or treacheries- emotional safe-houses or haunted houses- Proust’s petites madeleines or Snow White’s poisoned apple.
Singers become surrogates for what we would like to say if we had the confidence or artistic temperament. This becomes very important in times of struggle when phrasing, intonation, sincerity of emotion, simplicity of line become crucial voices in our own internal choirs- the songs of ourselves.
Music can also describe, non-verbally, the architecture of specific feelings- the processes by which gods and monsters rise from the reservoir of our deepest passions, produce an arc of splash with their tail, nostril the air, let cry a new comprehension and submerge back into the murk.
Alex & Alastair as children
Have you had any strange/inexplicable experiences related to music and grief?
I guess things can affect you in unexpected ways. Shortly after my brother died I performed at Greenman festival. My experience there was marred by an overwhelming sense of loss for him because we’d been at that festival many times times together and he and his boyfriend Zak where due to be there that year. As I was leaving Puff Daddy’s song to Notorious B.I.G, I’ll Be Missing You, came on the radio and I broke down.
I was loading drums into my car to go and perform with Shirley Collins in Warwick when I received the phone call that Alastair had died and the circumstances of the event feel very bound up with my experience of playing in her band. She was a great comfort during that time.
I dream about Alastair regularly. In many of the dreams I’m having to explain to him that he’s died and I wake up crying which is an exhausting and bewildering way to start the day. In one of the dreams we sang the trad. folk Night Visiting Song together as a way of inducing his passage to death.
Could you say a little about The Uses of Trauma and what it means to you?
I wrote this song in the time it took to walk from one end of St Pancras station to the other. I received it fully formed. I lived in that area in 2017 in a house opposite the one Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed in and just up the road from St Pancras Old Church, which is a place I love. But that area, and London itself, holds many traumatic memories.
That the song came to me in one gush is unusual, but suitable for its tone and content. The imagery is that of hallucination- of apprehension avalanching towards vision. I’ve written many songs since my brother Alastair passed away as small memorials to him, but I feel like this one gets closest to the sheer bewilderment of trauma and its kissing cousin, grief. The complexity, the contradictions, the confusion, the guilt, the shame, the hopelessness, the isolation, the galactic vastness of it- something I had never experienced before and has infected and undermined almost every aspect of my life and self-identity.
The song feels successful because, in all its opacity and monotony and brain-curdling drama, it gets close to the actual sensation of grief as I have experienced it. The abiding sensations being bewilderment and incomprehension. Having been in therapy for the last couple of years in an attempt to explain it to myself and I can only really think of its reality in quite abstract terms.
It feels like trying to comprehend an object in deep space where the laws of human governance are irrelevant and it’s impossibly cold and impossibly vast and thunderously silent and black and endless and the most real reality there is and it doesn’t give a solitary fuck about you. Nor should it. I think the film A Ghost Story renders this feeling pretty well.
But for all the abstract chat, the most profound and moving thought is also the simplest; I really fucking miss you.
Why did you choose Old Govan Church?
I’ve lived in Govan since 2001 and, despite its reputation, I love living here. It’s very economically deprived and there’s not a lot of incentive to visit. It’s at the end of the tube line and often feels like a gangrenous limb that the city has tied a tourniquet around in order to save the rest of the body. But this has also given it a distinct identity. It has a lot of character and history, independent shops and idiosyncratic aspects. As much as anything, I cherish the anonymity of living here.
Govan Old Parish church is one of the undiscovered jewels in Glasgow’s cultural landscape. In many ways, a microcosm for Govan itself- unprepossessing from the outside but a treasure trove of subtle beauty and severity and historical intrigue on the inside.
Some final questions.
Is music therapy?
Yes, it allows you the opportunity to unpack and examine an emotion from various angles and give unspeakable things names.
In the past art, music and religion where inextricably linked and have been used together the world over in times of loss (perhaps for better or worse ends). What do you think the role of artists is today in this respect?
Tough question to answer succinctly but one answer could be… I think “artists” have a responsibility to accumulate as much knowledge as possible about the way the world works and to develop their own emotional literacy and then have the bravery and finesse to turn themselves inside out.
Are there any other artists you’ve turned to help you through?
I went to see Nick Cave perform shortly after my brother passed away and his solo rendition of Into My Arms felt like god singing directly into Alastair’s ear in heaven. I guess Nick Cave has spoken a lot about grief and music, particularly in the film One More Time With Feeling. Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis is a handbook to pain written by a master and has been massively instructive to me.
Buy/listen Otterburn here