Troyka are an experimental British trio who make rich and enthralling instrumental music.
Featuring Kit Downes (once Mercury nominated in his own right) on hammond/synths, Chris Montague on guitar/loops and Josh Blackmore on drums, Troyka is far more than the sum of its parts and is definitely not your usual Hammond organ trio.
Ornithophobia is the London three-piece’s third studio album – their first for Naim – and truly marks the fruition of five years’ worth of musical experimentation. Influenced by the likes of Tim Berne, Aphex Twin, Deerhoof, Albert King and Flying Lotus, their music is intense, ambitious and iconoclastic. Unpredictable, yet catchy, melodies woven into complex time signatures may be a trade mark of the trio at full swing, but it is the flavours of textural beds, polyrhythmic post-dance, haunting trip-hop and atmospheric post-rock that make this record a sensation of the heart as well as the mind.
Having self-produced all of their records to date, it was Troyka’s bold decision to invite Petter Eldh to produce and mix the album, that truly solidified the diverse, dynamic and discerning edge of Ornithophobia. Swedish producer Eldh (himself a seasoned musician, playing bass for Django Bates and Marius Neset) mixed the album at his home in Berlin.
The potency of the electronic and experimental music scene of the German capital positively seeps into Troyka’s creations as a result. This is most evident on Life Was Transient and Troyka Smash, in which Eldh takes acoustic recordings of the band and resamples the performances into entirely different compositions, whilst losing none of the essential Troyka sound.
The album’s title, Ornithophobia, was first inspired by guitarist Chris’ fear of birds. This became the aptly chaotic groove of the album’s title track, which, in turn escalated into an album set in a fictionalised London; a post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare in which people have contracted a form of avian flu that is slowly turning them into human-size birds and gradually making them lose their minds. If this sounds like the stuff of comics, then you’re not far off, as the album artwork encompasses a dark, comic book storyboard, featuring our heroes Troyka, created by artist Naiel Ibarrola.
Ornithophobia opens with Arcades, which after a deceptively mellow intro, descends into an unrivalled concoction of prog, thrash, jazz, blues and Bernard Hermann score. This sets the scene for what is to follow; Life Was Transient’s stylish and spacey broken hip hop gives way to the Zappa-esque uncertainty of spiraling Hammond and chirpy palm muted guitar; the Nils Frahm-like minimalist Hammond organ of Bamburgh is followed by The General, which builds from moody 70s Schifrin-esque soundtrack to cacophonous psychedelic rock that is in equal part Yes, Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple, whilst never losing its currency. In contrast, the album closer, Seahouses, is a delicate work of instrumental post-rock, a hybrid of Mogwai and Durutti Column-like melody and atmosphere with the last word going to a symphony of arpeggiating 8bit synths that leaves you wanting to start the album all over again. Chris Montague of the band recently answered Andy Howells questions.
Who are you and how did you start playing music?
I’m Chris Montague and I play guitar and write music for Troyka. I started playing music when I was 9 years old. I was in the car with my Dad and Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix came on the radio and my head nearly fell off. I told my Dad that I wanted a guitar for Christmas and that I was gong to be a guitar player. I soon realised school was a living nightmare so began to play the guitar endlessly along with my Mum and Dad’s record collection, they had loads of BB King, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Chic, Doobie Brothers, Police, Prince, all really good guitar stuff. I’d sit for hours trying to play the parts note for note and getting it completely wrong. I was lucky to meet a very inspirational teacher called Jimi Savage (he still teaches in Newcastle) who would get me to go along and sit in with bands he was playing with at the time. I was still a kid and it was a very big deal for me.
Where are you from?
I’m from Gateshead and grew up in that area. Josh Blackmore who plays drums is from Derby and Kit Downes is from Norwich. We all live in London now.
How would you describe your music style?
I call it jazz because we improvise a lot and I associate that with Jazz, although it’s harder to answer than that. We’re all into tons of different music and steal the bits we like the best. It could be rock, funk, blues, electronic, dance, avant-garde, it really doesn’t matter too much for us as long as we can use it.
What’s been your best live experience?
There have been so many with this band. Maybe the most memorable for me was performing with the Troyk-estra (our big band version of this music) at Cheltenham in 2013. We had only played the music once before and the gig was being broadcast on the BBC, it was incredibly terrifying as the music is very challenging. It felt like it could go horrendously wrong, but it didn’t and ended up being released as a live album. Big risks sometimes pay off and I’m so glad that one was documented like it was.
You have a new album coming soon can you tell us more about that?
The album is called Ornithophobia and it’s on Naim. We took our time recording this music and we collaborated with the producer Petter Eldh who brings a very new aesthetic to the production side of things. The album was partly inspired by my genuine phobia of birds, it embraces all of the macabre elements of this but at times has great beauty and tenderness in there too. It’s a new direction for us and we felt we didn’t have to document how we do things live, we’d done that on the previous albums. This album has a higher production value to it and embraces more of the electronic and ambient music we like, but it still has the Troyka wonky, wrong vibe to it.
Do you enjoy touring?
I always love touring with this music and the guys in the band, we’ve known each other a long time so it feels very familiar (a bit too familiar sometimes). Touring in any situation is very tiring and being away from home is often tough, but if the music is good it’s very rewarding. We also have an amazing sound engineer called Alex Fiennes with us and we will be recording all of the gigs, maybe for a potential live album in the future. We have some gigs in Europe too which is always fun and we’re going to some new places like Istanbul and Trondheim.
What can people expect from your forthcoming Cardiff gig?
It’s at the Royal Welsh College of Music, the space we play in there has a really great sound and the crowd in Cardiff is always up for it, they have been great with us in the past when we have played Dempsey’s (a great venue and a vital stop on the jazz circuit). We will have played 4 or 5 nights previous to this one and it’s after the album launch at Richmix in London on the 12th so we will be very well rehearsed and slick hopefully, we will also be very relaxed as it’s the last night before a short break.
Where can people hear your music?
You can hear a teaser of the album and then buy it direct from Naim for tour dates visit: troyka.co.uk
- Catch Trokya at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on February 13.
- A version of this Q&A by Andy Howells appeared in the South Wales Argus entertainment supplement The Guide on February 6, 2015.