I’m having coffee with Eric Loveland Heath who’s the face in the adverts for weaver Helen Foot’s scarfs [see right, photo by Ella Ruth Cowperthwaite]. Much more than that, however, Eric is a talented and highly original musician. This isn’t the first time we’ve met, but it’s the first time we’ve sat down and talked. Eric is shiny, sharp and button-bright. He enjoys the bizarre and has an original take on things. He’s intense about ideas and his mind works super-fast, jumping from one subject to another, grasping connections out of the air, a bit like a conjuror only his medium is words, not rabbits and hats.
Eric is fascinated by wordplay. ‘I’m not much good at conversation,’ he says, ‘but I’m good at words.’ Welsh in particular is a language he loves. We talk about the Mabinogion, which Eric plucks out of his bag. I have a yarn which I tell him about the journeying down the centuries of the Red Book of Hergest [which contains the manuscript of the Mabinogion]. I call it 'hengist', not 'hergist' and Eric starts on about the word ‘hen’, which means ‘old’ in Welsh. Before I have time to blink, he’s given me ‘hen’ in a dozen different contexts, then moved on seamlessly to his latest album, Tŷ, which is entirely written in Welsh.
Is Eric Welsh? His accent isn’t Welsh. Sure enough, his mum was born in Swansea, but Eric was born in the States. Athens, Georgia, he says [described by some - who don't know Shrewsbury - as the 'best town in the world']. An exotic-sounding birthplace, I think, for a man with such an exotic name. Eric says his full name, Eric Loveland Heath [for recording purposes he uses the shorter E.L. Heath], came to him from his grandfather, passed down through alternate generations in the family. ‘I was bullied for it at school. I didn’t much enjoy school. I never really made friends,’ Eric says.
Eric grew up in Snailbeach. The village school was Stiperstones, the secondary school where he was bullied was Mary Webb, though Eric hears a lot has changed since then and the school’s a different place.
Eric lived in Snailbeach until he was sixteen. The number six, he points out, has featured large in his life. He left Athens aged six weeks, moved to London where he lived until he was six, moved to Shropshire and lived in Snailbeach until he was sixteen, and returned to Snailbeach aged twenty-six to produce an album loosely based around Snailbeach life. It always rains in Snailbeach, Eric says. I contest this claim. Eric insists he’s right, and says he knows the place better than me – which he does. ‘You’ll get pockets of cloud,’ he says. ‘Even after the sun has broken through everywhere else, Snailbeach can be swathed in mist. There’s an atmosphere about the place - weird and slightly sinister.’
Eric has been writing and producing albums for years. His life in music started with messing around on the guitar, then he ‘did things’ on his laptop, joined a band, played bass and started writing words. Back in his schooldays it had been his sister who was seen as the musical one. Nowadays, however, Eric’s home is packed with instruments. Synthesizers, keyboards, guitars – ‘You wouldn’t believe the things you can pick up on Freecycle,’ Eric says.
I still haven’t got to the bottom of Eric’s writing in Welsh. He explains that he joined a Welsh-speaking band called Strap the Button who all spoke Welsh fluently. Thanks to them, Eric began to pick up the language. Then he developed what he knew on the Open University, and later he continued his studies in Welshpool and at Shrewsbury College of Art & Technology.
Plainly Eric is a man who pursues his interests in thorough-going fashion. His experimentation with sound is another good example. Years ago Eric heard on Gerry Anderson’s ‘Captain Scarlet’ a sound that fascinated him. When he heard it again on the Ondes Martenot [no, I hadn’t heard of it either; it’s an instrument devised by the cellist Maurice Martenot] he immediately wanted to make that sound himself. ‘I knew I’d found what I was looking for,’ Eric says. ‘Playing it became a bit of an obsession. It’s always been the technical side of music that’s fascinated me, the creation of sounds and the effect they have, the techniques that go into making things sound weird.’
With Strap the Button, Eric made it onto Radio One, a gig that led to the band having a chance to record. After that, Eric went off on his own, making his own music and ‘messing around with machines’, which is how he puts it. He also hooked up with another band, epic45. ‘It’s they who’ve been the biggest musical influence in my life,’ says Eric. ‘Ben Holton and Rob Glover. I met them years ago through friends, put on a gig for them at the Albert pub in Shrewsbury, and in return they asked me to play at their festival. After that, they went off to Japan and I didn’t see them for six months. Then Rob and I got together at the Hollybush Inn at Glasbury-on-Wye and Rob asked if I’d like to join the band. Since then I’ve been on three European tours with them, including Istanbul and Madrid. Poland took some beating though. We spent most of the time sleeping on camp beds, and often had issues getting paid. That was the worst. Usually it’s much better than that.’
Eric gives me a link to the official epic45 website. They’ve been making music now for more than a decade, inspired by their rural background, childhood summers in the countryside and their affinity with their surroundings. Amongst the radio shows they’ve played is the late John Peel’s. Back in July 2011 they were The Sunday Times’ album of the week. NME describes them as ‘beguiling and beautiful’.
I’m listening to them now as I write, half an eye on their official video, entitled ‘The Future is Blinding’. ‘What is there to life?’ they ask. ‘Is collecting, objects, memories, what life’s about?’
Eric starts talking about standing on stage and making moody music. His influences include the psychedelic music of Kevin Ayres and the classical electronics [‘spacey noises’, Eric calls them] of Joe Meek. He and the rest of the band are currently concentrating on releasing albums in their own names, but the hub of all their activities, as much as ever, is still the band.
Eric calls epic45 the ‘mothership’. He has his own label, Plenty Wenlock Records, a small outfit comprised of short runs of hand-made releases that are also made available to download. Wayside & Woodland though is his main focus and the label through which his latest album, ‘Tŷ’, will be released.
According to Eric, Wayside & Woodland is a label run by epic45 and friends. On 14th October, his single 'Yr Sioe Afanc' ['The Afanc Show'] will be released on their Bandcamp page [http://waysideandwoodlandrecordings.bandcamp.com/] along with a music video. I go onto the Wayside & Woodland website, and this is what comes up about Eric:
‘Eric’s songs often combine intertwining acoustic guitars, accordion, flute and voice to evoke anything from the playful pastoral melodies of Freddie Phillips to the rich psychedelic pop of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Many of these songs have their roots in Eric’s love for the area around his home on the English/Welsh border – a glorious melting pot of language, local history and myths, fanatical friends obsessed with motorik rhythms, and mysteriously-named Welsh language 7″ singles stumbled across in village car boot sales. Somehow, with a dash of Joe Meek and the Radiophonic Workshop’s 60s experimentalism, a hint of Ivor Cutler’s surreal whimsy and a nod towards the uncompromising artists releasing records on the fiercely Welsh label Ankst, from the depths of the Shropshire hill country E.L. Heath manages to make it all fit together.’
So there you have it. So far in his solo career, Eric has brought out four EPs, one online album, and four CDs, including the forthcoming ‘Tŷ’. ‘It’s knowing that I have a CD coming out that inspires me to write,’ Eric says. ‘And with this one it was that sense of reaching out beyond my own county and the places that I knew that inspired me.’ Eric loves diversity, other countries, looking over the hill and finding out what lies beyond. In his new CD he’s reaching out beyond Shropshire into Wales. ‘I really enjoy writing and putting things together,’ he says, ‘but I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy much of the actual recording process. It’s the ideas that excite me, drawing on my well of interests, watching ideas come together and turn into something.’
As well as collecting instruments, Eric also collects vinyl and books. He’s an avid reader who goes for the bizarre and downright weird. He cites the absurd tales of Ivor Cutler as a good example. And the Mabinogion. ‘Dragons, fairies, kings and queens - they’re all there,’ Eric says.
Algernon Blackwood is another author Eric mentions. An English writer of ghost stories and supernatural fiction, he was described by H.P. Lovecraft as ‘the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere.’ ‘The Willows’ is one of his best known stories. Eric also loves the bizarre writing of Scottish satirist, radio producer and television director/writer, Armando Iannucci. ‘All that stuff he wrote for radio before In The Thick Of It came along – it was brilliant,’ Eric says.
Eric and I are sitting in the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse. He lives several miles out of town but comes in frequently. A year or so ago, the photographer Richard Foot and his sister, the weaver Helen Foot, put together a series of network evenings, bringing together Shrewsbury artists, writers, film-makers and craftspeople. Eric already knew Richard from before, so he came along. Networking, he says, has made him less insular. Things are happening in Shrewsbury these days, and he’s glad to be a part of them.
Eric’s album is due out on October 28th. The Pre-order link is already up. My order's going in after I've finished writing this post. Here's the link in case you want to order it too: http://waysideandwoodland.limitedrun.com/products/519278-e-l-heath-ty-pre-order