Kenny Mathieson talks to Martyn Bennett about his work at the cutting edge of the fusion of Scottish traditional music and contemporary club culture, and his battle with cancer.
Martyn Bennett has seen his musical world turned upside down. His battle with cancer has transformed both his life and his art, forcing him to turn away from the kind of instrumental virtuosity on fiddle and pipes which made his name, and instead embrace the recording studio as his means of artistic expression.
His gradual alienation from the instruments he loved has not been a simple or purely physical affair. It reached a peak of frustration on a frenzied day when he found himself cold-bloodedly committing an act that most musicians would rate as their worst nightmare.
"I can still play the fiddle or pipes," he explained, "but I don't feel any real connection to it any more, which is very strange. For a while I was getting pretty frustrated, and I wasn't feeling well at that time, and I just lost the plot one day. I had been getting frustrated at not being able to play these instruments in the way that I had always played them, and it started to become a big deal in my mind."
"Once that happens it changes things, until one day a blind fit of rage came over me, and I smashed everything. I did it in a very cold fashion at the time, but afterwards I went into shock for days and days – I was so horrified at what I had done that I couldn't even speak to anybody."
"It wasn't that I couldn't physically play the instruments, it was more complex than that. It was as if something had been chopped out in the loop between me and my psyche and how I could function with this situation. I can't really describe it, but it was really disturbing."
His sense of disconnection was not from music as such, but specifically from playing his instruments. I suggested it was impossible to conceive how someone in his position might cope with that situation.
"Well, I didn't cope, I just lost it. It was like murdering my family, although at the moment that I was doing it, I felt a strange sense of power and a loss of power all mixed up at the same time. It's still something I am coming to terms with, and there isn't a day goes by without me thinking about those instruments, many of which had been in my family for years."
"Even on a practical level I would have loved to have given them to somebody rather than destroyed them. And they weren't insured. I can't afford an instrument now."
"I was drawing on these records I had, which represented my experience of what I would consider to be the real tradition. I think there are very few people of my age who had a real glimpse of that, and a lot of the people I heard singing in festivals like Auchtermuchty and Kirriemuir and so forth are now gone. I feel privileged to have had that experience, and even as a kid I was genuinely taken with that music."
Prior to contracting his disease [a form of cancer of the lymphomes], Bennett's performing career focused primarily around his work in mixing traditional music with contemporary club culture. The ground-breaking Bothy Culture  and its successor, Hardland , established him at the centre of an important movement within the music. Although he is now unable to continue that exploration with an instrument in his hands, he has not been deflected from doing so via an alternative route.
Glen Lyon  and his new album, Grit, both draw on his expertise in the recording studio, and reflect a shift of interest from instrumental music to song. Glen Lyon featured the voices of his family, in the person of his great, great grandfather, Peter Stewart, and his mother, singer Margaret Bennett. In Grit he took a more wide-ranging approach, drawing on fragments of songs from the two traditions he feels are closest to his heart, Gaelic songs and the songs of the travellers.
The disc, which is dedicated to the memory of the late Hamish Henderson, features a variety of sampled voices in both song and storytelling mode, including Sheila Stewart, Lizzie Higgins, Mairi Morrison, Flora MacNeil, Jeannie Robertson, and Jimmie McBeath, among others. It has some parallels in both concept and execution with Glen Lyon.
"A few people have said that," he conceded, "although to be honest I didn't realise it myself. The basic thing is that it is now songs I'm working with. I was tied up for many years in instrumental music, which I think is really important and love very much, but it's not really what turns me on anymore. Songs are the way forward for me."
"When I was working on Grit I didn't have any means of getting together with anyone over a period of two years or so, and I couldn't really go out into public places, because of the chemotherapy and the radiotherapy and a bone marrow transplant I was having. So it was really a matter of being surrounded by old records, and it was actually Kirsten [Martyn's wife, also a musician] who picked out a record one night and said 'who are the Stewarts of Blair?'."
"I started explaining to her who they were and how I knew them. I've known them since I was a wee boy, really, especially Sheila. I knew Belle as well, but was probably closest to Sheila. I wrote tunes for them and so on when I was growing up, and they were very inspiring to me. They seemed to be [he lowers his voice in mock-portentous fashion] the real McCoy, you know?"
"Did you see that programme on Margaret Fay Shaw on television last night?" he digressed, referring to the BBC documentary celebrating the 100th birthday of that famous Hebridean song collector. "I went to see her about five years ago, and I had my dreadlocks at the time. She said [imitates her transatlantic accent and intonation] 'why have you got your hair like that?', and I didn't know what to say, so I just said 'vanity', and she came back with 'Oh, you flatter yourself!'"
"She isn't a woman to pull her punches," he laughs, "but what struck me was that I think she got that music just at the right time when she arrived in Lewis – I'm not sure that anyone after that has really been able to see and hear what traditional music is all about, without academic or commercial considerations coming into play."
"Anyway, I was drawing on these records I had, which represented my experience of what I would consider to be the real tradition. I think there are very few people of my age who had a real glimpse of that, and a lot of the people I heard singing in festivals like Auchtermuchty and Kirriemuir and so forth are now gone. I feel privileged to have had that experience, and even as a kid I was genuinely taken with that music. I'd like to do another project in this style, actually, because there are still a lot of singers I would love to include, and I'd simply like to see it done, and hopefully done well." I asked how he had gone about actually putting together the fragments of songs with the sampled sounds and beats which provide their distinctive settings. "The first track I worked on used Sheila Stewart's version of Ewan McCall's 'Moving On Song', which I've called 'Move' in my version. I went to my mother's house in Edinburgh for Christmas 2000, and I took my studio with me and set up there. The studio isn't particularly big, and the gear is quite old now. It probably sounds impressive to people who don't know about studio equipment, but it really isn't very complicated."
"My mother left me in her house in Edinburgh to get on with it. I had some material I was already working on, but I think at that point I was pretty lost musically, to be honest. I had been slogging on Hardland, and as much as it was going somewhere, it wisnae going anywhere at the same time, and that makes it very difficult to do anything fresh."
"Anyway, I had a lot of sketches, and I started working from them as a way to focus my mind. That track 'Move' took months and months of work, and it came from the beats to start with. I really just stumbled on the recording of the song when Kristen asked about it that night."
"I was trying to find a way of working with traditional song in this context without turning it into something cringy, which is always a danger with this whole area of music. A lot of people think if you have a few samples you can throw it all together, but it can come out like a bad joke."
"I really only used one line from each verse of the song in my arrangement, from part of the tune which was high up in her voice, and is the most passionate part of the verse. She doesn't sing a big long note like that – I looped that part of her line."
"That one was really the way in for me, and once I had made it, I realised that was going to be the concept of the whole album that became Grit. I decided there and then that I would use the travellers' songs and the Gaelic songs, because they were the things I felt closest to."
"I went through the rest of the old records that I had looking for things that worked, and I have to say that not many of the songs really do work in this context. There were some wonderful songs that I would love to have used, but I just couldn't find a way of putting them into that musical setting without damaging them."
"I think my instincts on that are good – I can usually hear straightaway whether a song is likely to work or not. I was very lucky to find Lizzie Higgins singing 'What A Voice, What A Voice', for example, which I used on 'Blackbird' on the disc, but as soon as I heard it I thought, ah, that'll work."
"So the songs and stories came from those old vinyl records, which date from 1952 through to about 1980. The rest of it – I've spent so many years now collecting sounds and bits of drum loops and just noises, and I now have quite a big archive of samples."
"What I tend to do is spend a few weeks just looking for things at the start of a project, which is actually quite boring, and it's also thievery, to be frank. I'm nicking things from all over the place. That is a grey area in music now. I know if someone used a big chunk of my music like that I might not be very happy, but I've no objection to somebody using a tiny fragment, and I'm always salting things away to use later."
"I also have a whole set of records of sound effects from America, which I found in a skip! There are about 40 volumes of them, and they cover everything, from animal noises to weird sci-fi effects with theramins and so on! I have a lot of records of all kinds on vinyl, and I scour junk shops looking for old records that I can use. "I also did a recording session at Real World Studios down in Wiltshire with a string ensemble, which I used instead of my own playing. I had tried overdubbing myself on fiddle at first, but it didn't have the feel of lots of players. So it's a mix of samples drawn from many sources and musicians playing in the studio for me."
Martyn was brought up in Newfoundland, where his mother was researching Gaelic immigration, until he was six, when they returned to Scotland. He now lives with his wife on the Isle of Mull.
"Mull was the first place I came to with my mum when we came back from Canada, as it happens, although we weren't here long. We actually stayed a mile or so from where I am now. It feels as much like home as anyplace I can imagine. I don't think anywhere would really feel like home now."
Martyn is hardly a grizzled veteran [he is only in his early 30s], but he is greatly encouraged by the current growth of interest in traditional and folk music among youngsters, and especially by the number of genuinely talented young singers and players that are emerging.
"I have other things in front of me now that are not necessarily tied to my skill as an instrumentalist," he said. "Not long after the smashing instruments incident I went to Celtic Connections in Glasgow, and I found that to be great therapy. They gave me a pass to go and see whatever I wanted in the festival, and I went around a lot of things. I didn't stay more than half an hour at anything, and I picked out the events with the younger singers and players."
"I was bowled over by the amount of skill out there – honest to God, it's amazing what's going on out there with the younger folk now. I went and spoke to many of them afterwards, and they all said that they had my albums. I wasn't there for an ego massage, but that was the most wonderful thing I could have heard at that point, because interesting the younger generation in traditional music was always very central to my aims in music."
While the young musicians he met knew and loved his work, not all of them were ready to follow him down the crossover route, a fact which perversely gave him a great deal of pleasure.
"I spoke to people like Jenna Cummings, who is a wonderful Gaelic singer [and the Gold Medal winner at last month's centenary Mod] and Ross Ainsley, who is a fabulous piper, and a few others. I asked them if they wanted to work with me in a Grit-style project, and they all said no! You might think I would be upset by that, but I was actually tickled pink. They all wanted to find their way in traditional music at this point, which I thought was wonderful, and absolutely the right thing for them."
"When I look back on my first album, I feel that it's only now that I'm really getting to grips with it. What I'd like next is for someone to come along and do it better than me. I think there does need to be a separation between pure traditional music and the kind of crossover that me and a number of others are doing. For me, the danger is that lots of people jump in and try to emulate what the likes of myself or Shooglenifty are doing, and make a mess of it. I know traditional musicians who are dabbling with this, but haven't got the immersion in the club culture that would allow them to really understand what they are doing."
"That makes me determined to keep carrying it forward, and I think my next project will be based on Psalms. I was up in Lewis in October for a wonderful event with a congregation of 500 people and 24 different precentors, and we recorded all of them over two nights. It's an extraordinary thing. I don't agree with their doctrine as far as religion goes, but they are lovely warm people, very humble and very aware of what they are about. I felt completely humbled being around them and speaking Gaelic again and singing these psalms in the congregation."
"I think it would be a wonderful project to take these songs out and sing them around the world where religious conflicts are going on, because the religious divisions which exist between Christian and Muslim and Jewish cultures is all nonsense. I believe that music is a great way in. I know that is naïve in many ways, but I'd love to do it."
The Newfoundland community in which he grew up was Gaelic-speaking, but he feels that he needs to go back and "learn to speak Gaelic properly again". He has opted to discontinue conventional medical treatments for his cancer, and feels liberated by that decision, whatever the outcome.
"I've extricated myself from the system now," he confirmed, "and I'm not having any more treatments. I still have pain every day, but I don't believe cancer is a death sentence, I think you can live with it, and perhaps the hardest part of that is coming to terms with dying. For a long time I felt that death was knocking on the door every day, and the pain you suffer brings a coldness into your life, but you learn to live with it."
"I've been through a lot of chemotherapy and so forth, and I don't see much point in continuing with that. If I have a limited amount of time left, I'd rather use it and just get on with things. I've felt better since I made that decision, more liberated. I have had to make a realisation about death, but in the end it's no different for any of us, is it?"
"I can't tell my future, but I'm open to whatever comes now, and I want to make the most of it."
© Kenny Mathieson
Hi-Arts Interview 2003