March 27, 2023

The Blackheart Orchestra have been making great strides over the last few years. Far from a physical ‘orchestra’, they are in fact a duo, comprising multi-instrumentalists Rick Pilkington and Chrissy Mostyn, who never fail to impress with their ability to perform their intricately arranged music in a live environment without any backing tapes or the like. Their most recent album, Hotel Utopia, however, has seen the duo embracing the studio as never before, with the result being the most diverse, exciting and uninhibited album of their career. Not for the first time, the album is a conceptual affair, with all of the songs connected to the idea of death and the afterlife, in whatever form that may take, and the sheer quality of the record has paid off, with the response from critics and fans alike the most positive of their career to date. I met up with Rick and Chrissy to discuss the album, including their thoughts on each of the 13 tracks – and what might be next up for the Blackheart Orchestra…

Velvet Thunder: So, the Hotel Utopia album is, of course, another conceptual one, this time dealing with the afterlife. When did the idea for that arise?
Chrissy Mostyn: It was when it was all written. It was actually after the fact when we were listening back that the songs kind of revealed themselves to have this thread running through them, which is usually the case; we never set out with ‘it’s going to be about this’ or whatever.
Rick Pilkington: That’s exactly right. The ideas came by themselves. Really, it was as though we didn’t we didn’t start out with the idea of, ‘Let’s build a church’. It was more, ‘Let’s build something’. And then when we built it, it was ‘Oh, it looks like a church’. We tend to do that a lot actually. I think it would be quite difficult to write a concept album, tied to a to a subject. I think I’d find that quite restricting. Chrissy, you primarily are the lyric writer, I guess you write to what’s in your mind at that time, you just reflect what’s inside your head, I can understand that completely. And then once we start to get a few songs, and they start to start to come together and crystallise, there’s some kind of thread between them.
CM: And I kind of like that in a way; it feels really authentic because it’s a ‘this is what it’s going to be about whether we know it or not’ kind of feeling isn’t it? I think that we started to realise as we went along ‘Hmm, there’s an awful lot of dying and murder and reincarnation and spirituality in some of this!’
RP: It’s a kind of hope and contemplation, and sort of wondering as to what is the reality of what we’ve been taught through religion and faith, and all these concepts that are sort of distilled in us from Sunday school as kids right through to the end of our life – it’s always there, isn’t it? And we never really know how to understand it.

VT: Was the title inspired at all by Hotel California?
RP: Not in the slightest, no.
CM: Well, it wasn’t inspired by that but I guess it kind of aligns with it in a way doesn’t it? Because Hotel Utopia is like this place where we go and the songs are kind of the rooms in a way
RP: Sort of, yeah, in the sense that it’s a metaphor for heaven, or whatever you call the afterlife in your particular view of it.

VT: It’s interesting what you said about not being able to write to order, because it must depend on the particular person – if you were to take somebody like Roger Waters, that’s what he has to do; everything he does from Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, everything is a concept. Also more contemporary people like Arjen Lucassen – you know, the Ayreon stuff – everything he does is a big concept. Some people seem to need that structure, whereas other people find it difficult.
CM: That’s true I guess, I mean, I never really tried to write to order, but I think I like freedom. All the songs just kind of pour out. We never decide we’re gonna write a song, a song just happens, so I think I would be completely lost if it was like, ‘Write 10 tracks or 13 tracks about the afterlife’. But you’re right, some people probably find having a direction helpful.
RP: I think the way you write, you take whatever’s in your life at the moment. It’s like a diary. But you know, you paint a very abstract, kind of impressionistic view of what is actually in the reality of your emotional life at any given time. You sort of abstract it and make it into different shapes and colours through the songs, so it’s difficult to identify what the source material was sometimes, but I’m sure that it’s coming from something that’s real inside you.

VT: On a musical level, it’s a much more expansive and varied album, definitely than Mesmeranto, which was locked into a certain groove and stayed there. It seemed to me as if, with Mesmeranto, you were trying to get into a Steely Dan sort of vibe, where it’s all quite relaxed, and you’re in the groove of it. It’s just so finely crafted. But with this, it’s like you unlocked the cage and gave yourselves some more freedom to do whatever you wanted. Was that deliberate?
CM: It wasn’t deliberate. But I think it’s probably a natural progression.
RP: I find that producing is just as creative a process as the writing and I really thoroughly love the producing part of the process. I like to bring the most odd things and try to be as experimental as possible. Some things work sometimes, other times they don’t. But I think in the instrumentation, on Mesmeranto I hardly played any guitar. I’ve hardly played any guitar on in the band live or on recordings for quite a while. And, you know, I am a guitar player essentially, even though I was beginning to doubt myself.
CM: You weren’t even just doubting though, you were actively discarding. You said you were bored of guitar for a few years…
RP: I did get bored of guitar after playing it for so long. You know, that’s why I found excitement in learning new instruments. But I really wanted to return to the guitar on this album, to see whether I still had that mentality. And, you know, I really enjoyed the guitar element on this album.
CM: We really enjoyed creating this one, didn’t we? It was almost like you learned to play guitar for this kind of music. You’re a blues player by nature. So this was like, you were a blues rock guitarist, not a ‘whatever the hell we are’ guitarist, but now you are. It was almost like you needed that break to bring it back.

VT: So, if we look at the album and go track by track, the first thing you get on it is The Tide, which is one that I noted musically is one of the closest things to what I would call Mesmeranto’s ‘considered introspection’.
CM: Yeah, and I guess that, again, was a song about losing my mum, but not like on Mesmeranto. We were playing in the Isle of Wight weren’t we? We were parked by a place called Seaview. And I remember I was physically ill with grief. Like, I couldn’t eat, I was so sick, literally. I mean, I wasn’t dying or anything, but I could feel it in my whole body. I was so ill. And I remember like not being able to sleep. We were parked by the sea, and I just climbed out of the van and just sat on the wall; I’ve got the the video on my phone of the sunrise that morning, and we were just so close to the sea. When we got to the soundcheck, the song just poured out, and it felt like a sort of surrendering, where you can kind of fight with grief like a sort of war. And that’s what made me feel so ill, I guess. And then that was like, it’ll be what it’ll be and it’ll pass when it will pass. It was like a turning point in a way, that song, And then when we recorded it, you started playing this. Steve Reich-esque kind of guitar…
RP: Oh, yes, of course. Because that was never in the version that we wrote originally. We always write thinking how are we going to perform it, not how we’re going to record. It was written as a live song, because that’s the only way we can think really. And then in the studio we do something different or expand it rather than vice versa. Lots of people write things in the studio in a magnificent way and they have to unfortunately scale it down when they play it live. The opposite way around.

VT: From that it’s immediately straight onto that roller coaster with Under The Headlights, with its big chorus. I noted that it seemed like the musical accompaniment to a time lapse sequence of a lotus flower opening, which is the impression it left on me.
RP: I know what you mean with that. I’ve actually only just started enjoying playing that live recently, I find it quite difficult to play that song live. But now there is a kind of a point exactly where we hit the chorus and there’s a joy element which makes it more fun to play it now. And I finally kind of got my head and my hands into into understanding that moment and that song.
CM: That one was written in lockdown. What it is, is that I’m one of these people who’s had an existential crisis since I was four. Yeah, I know! You know when you can’t sleep and everything’s so much worse in the middle of the night – like, you wake up at three o’clock and you think, is this my life? Is this happening? What’s going to happen? All these worries, and the verses are like that, but then the chorus is sort of, come on, let’s get it together and live anyway, so the chorus is really quite positive. And then we added some of our favourite philosopher’s words. A guy called Alan Watts, who’s an amazing philosopher. Lots of his lectures are available, and I’ve listened to a lot of this stuff over the last few years, and it helped me through grieving and lots of things. It helped me through a lot. And it was just so nice to pop that in there. When we had the idea to add him we contacted his son to ask, are we allowed? And then I was really pleased that we put it in, I think that was the icing on the cake for me.

VT: The next track after that is Safe – which is kind of ironically titled, as it’s not safe at all! Something of a Kate Bush Hounds Of Love feel to this one, to my ears.
CM: Well, we will definitely take that comparison of course! Again, this was another lockdown song. And it was it is that dark, little fairy tale kind of feeling to it. I just envisioned Little Red Riding Hood when it was being written. Not that it was even about that, but you know where you kind of have this vision of the dark feeling of death, but in a fun way, because it’s kind of a little bit of a playful song. But it really has a bit of a sinister feel to it, doesn’t it? When we were writing it, it was written pretty much exactly how it is, wasn’t it? You know, you playing that guitar part and me playing piano? There’s not that much else on the actual track. But yeah, I always feel like it’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood for grownups’.

VT: After that we get Warning – which is, as it suggests, a warning. Kind of an environmental thing?
CM: Yeah – but again, it’s one of those things that we only knew what it was about when it was finished. It was actually written in my kitchen, just acoustically, not even through the PA. So I guess maybe that’s why it has a little bit more of a folky tilt to it than some of the others because we weren’t performing it with effects, you were just playing the piano and I was playing acoustic guitar in the kitchen. And it is that feeling of what we have now and, you know, can we turn it around, sort of feeling. There’s that line in it, where the king goes back to bed, and it’s almost like people are seeing it and just not even bothering. But we only have this one beautiful planet, don’t we? And we all think that, ‘oh, we’ll just get an electric car’. Well, no! I like performing that one live as well. You not so much…
RP: It’s hard work for me that one, I probably tried to do too much, and I’m trying to kind of replicate the album version of it a bit. Going from using the bow on the guitar to playing the little melody on the piano, and it’s just so difficult to go from one to the other so quickly without losing time. Anyway, that’s my problem!
CM: It is, but in the on the album of course we were able to layer up, so that you were just doing the bowed guitar.
RP: I really like the way that sounds with the bow. It has a different kind of quality to using real string section, or a real cello or something like that. It sounds kind of more human in an odd way, I think. It feels a little like a sort of underwater sound, a whale or something like that.

VT: Next up is Astronaut – which is really where it gets ‘metal’, you could almost imagine mosh pits at a Blackheart show! Where the riff in the chorus just hits you…
RP: Oh, I’d love that!! But yes, it is pretty heavy on the album, indeed. Again, it’s another Steve Reich-type thing on the guitar. A sort of mechanical or repetitive, but slightly varying, motif that he does so beautifully. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his compositions, but he’s phenomenal to me, he’s a totally separate thing from all other music. And I was trying to capture that by just doing that little repetitive thing, and then adding more slightly dissonant notes to it.
CM: We just really enjoyed creating that, but I know with the chorus I remember thinking, let’s just go for it. And it is a happy song! It’s about what we’re born with. We’re born with all of these things that we want to do in our lives. You know, when we’re a kid, they ask what do you want to be? Well, I want to be a singer. I want to be a vet. I want to be an astronaut. I want to be an actor. And as we go along it kind of gets worn away doesn’t it from us and we end up – okay, I’ll be an accountant or whatever.

VT: That one strikes me as an example of where you really got away from the pressure of recording it so that you can reproduce it live. And I think that’s important on record – there only being two of you is very much your USP [unique selling point] when you play live, but on record people are just listening without thinking about that, so it can be limiting, like a bit of a straitjacket if you let yourself be restricted in that way.
CM: Yeah, I agree with that – the way we treat live to studio is different animals, you know. It’s like the same song wearing its different outfits. With Astronaut, whereas we don’t use a full kit on many songs, we thought ‘this just needs it’. And you’re right, we weren’t even worried about how we were going to replicate it live.
RP: We do it differently when we’re playing it in the current tour, and I’m really liking it live even though it’s it’s a bit slower. So it’s certainly different, a different version, but I really love playing it.

VT: Up next on the album, we have Alive, which is quite different again…
CM: Yeah. So this one was actually written just after we shot the video for Under The Headlights, wasn’t it? We shot the video at Birling Gap. And when we were there, we noticed lots of Samaritans signs, and their number to call.
RP: Yeah, everywhere, we’ve climbed up that hill to the top of the cliff where we did the shoot, but not only there, even in the telephone box at the cafe at the bottom of the hill, it was all the same Samaritans signs.
CM: So then we Googled it, and it turned out it was one of the highest rates of suicide that happened there. I think it’s about number three in the world or something. And that kind of feeling that we were there on this edge of a cliff, feeling mega-alive, because it’s invigorating and scary. And we’re thinking about how this is a lot of people’s final destination.
RP: It’s incredibly sobering, you know? Because it did feel kind of, being so high, that you felt really close to the sky. You felt like you could almost shout to God, and he’d reply, you know, you’re so close up there. It was a kind of spiritual place. And I can imagine it being a spiritual place for people who don’t go any further. But it’s awful, it’s awful. And it happens so frequently, as well.
CM: And again, the song wasn’t intentionally about that. I think our bodies kind of keep secrets from us in a way, because you come back and you start writing the song and you realise that this is really dark. It’s probably the darkest lyrics that we’ve got. And it is it is about that kind of suicide, it genuinely is basically about suicide. I mean, the chorus is a little bit more hopeful, hoping that there are people there, over on the other side kind of willing us to carry on and live. But yeah, that was grim! We did say this wasn’t a happy album…

VT: Things don’t get any lighter in tone with A Dangerous Thing up next, which I noted you as sounding ‘so beguilingly yet unnervingly sinister, that you briefly feel you might need to walk into heavy traffic to avoid her’…
CM: Ha ha! Yes! My quest in life is complete! We enjoyed recording that – it was the first song that we wrote for the album wasn’t it? That was the first one that was written after losing my mum, I suppose. I remember it being written in the April or May, it was the first song. Yeah, it’s like the dark side of love really. We were influenced a bit by horror films there – which we love, especially older ones, things like John Carpenter where the music is so creepy. We took that sort of unsettling sound of the strings to conjure up the feeling that we wanted.
RP: And the sax as well – the first time we’ve used saxophone on a track. I remember going into the studio and trying for ages in vain to find a keyboard sample which sounded like a sax, but there was nothing – so in the end it was just, okay, let’s get a sax! We got Snake Davies to play it, and basically it’s the sound of a saxophone being killed.
CM: The sound of it is amazing really – I’ve actually been asked whether it is actually a sax or is it a scream, it sounds so much like it. Yes, a sax being murdered, that’s what it is!

VT: Casting Spells is up next, which has a little more of a major key sound to it by comparison.
Yes, it does. It’s probably as close as the album comes to a happy track, I suppose – there is a bit of a sinister undertone to it, but it isn’t too dark or anything like that. It’s about karma and that sort of thing, really.
RP: Yes, it’s about whether there is some kind of tab behind the bar in heaven, if you like – with the good things against the bad things, and whether you have to do time in hell to settle up.
CM: It’s quite a fun song really. We’ve only played that very occasionally, we should do it again perhaps, it would be a good one to play…

VT: Next up… ah, Dust! NOW we’re talking real soul-sucking desolation aren’t we…
: Oh, we might have to use that as a quote… ‘soul-sucking desolation’!

VT: It’s the one with the slowed down vocal which sounds for all the world like a male voice, but yet with an unearthly, other-worldly quality.
RP: Yes, it does, exactly. People often think I sang it, but it was actually just recorded then slowed down to half speed, which is what gives it that slightly disembodied feel to it. It’s impossible to actually play that at the same speed as it is on the record because of the way it slows everything down, the piano and the bowed guitar again. The piano part is impossible to replicate because of the way it slows down the space between the notes as well as the notes themselves – it’s hard to explain really, but it’s a strange thing to try to play it.
CM: It sounded sad and desolate even at full speed, because it really is a song with a lot of darkness and melancholy to it, but it worked really well when we had the idea to slow it. In fact, a lot of people have commented that it doesn’t even sound as if it was slowed down artificially like that, which is great, that’s exactly what we were aiming at.

VT: Really, the only way is up in terms of mood after that – and indeed we do get that relief with Atlantic.
CM: Yes, that was a fun little song in a way, it was like free association when we were writing it. We recorded it straight away into my phone I remember, very spontaneous. It’s kind of a dreamlike state in the song really – not in a literal sense, as I didn’t actually fall asleep in the Atlantic and get inside a fish’s mind of course!
RP: It’s basically like a hypothesis of what does it feel like the moment you’re dead. Where are you? Are you in existence at all? You go to this sort of surreal landscape which bears some resemblance to the earth you were in before, with everything mixed up and half-familiar. It’s wondering whether the afterlife is a sort of jumbled mixture of familiar thoughts and memories or is it something entirely different, which of course we don’t know.
CM: And amazingly no drugs were involved in the creation of it – except for coffee! Which probably says something about my mind of course. The mandolin makes an appearance on that as well, which is nice.

VT: We’re getting into the final leg of the album now, with Translucent, which is another quite big, rocky number.
CM: It is, but it’s also one of the darker songs. It is a pretty heavy track, but it had to be really. Basically, it’s a song about murder – not from personal experience I must add, I haven’t actually murdered anyone! I got inside of the song quite strongly, I could see the killer in his flat, and his lover was there, only she wasn’t alive any more, and he’s realising what he’s done, which is the chorus to the song. That heavy guitar riff in the chorus is like Black Sabbath, you know – it’s not really what you’d expect from us, but again it’s nice to blend the two sides of it, because the verses are quite ethereal by contrast. It was one of my favourites to do, but we haven’t translated that one to the stage yet, we couldn’t do it in the same way.
RP: No, we couldn’t, that’s true. But we haven’t really explored it too much anyway, it needs more work if we want to try to do it. That heavy guitar is really what I’m all about underneath it all though, when it comes down to it – though we actually did worry about some of the heavier stuff on the album, whether people who liked Mesmeranto would turn away from us because we’ve stopped doing what they liked and gone all ‘heavy’. We were imagining losing legions of fans, you know – but it hasn’t happened I’m glad to say.

VT: I don’t think you had any need to worry about that to be honest. There’s still plenty on there of what made Mesmeranto succeed, only the doors have been blown off so to speak. It’s ‘Mesmeranto 3D’ to my mind.
RP: Yes, that’s right – that’s a good way to think of it, and I’m glad you feel that way about it. I think personally it’s a better album than Mesmeranto was, because of all the extra colours and textures that it has. It’s a more complete representation of what we are between us, and all of our influences.

VT: Raise Your Heart, by contrast again, really is an uplifting track, very much so.
CM: It is, it really is. And in fact that was the last one we wrote. The album was complete, but we felt we should squeeze it on – and it fits the theme as well, about coming back from the dead, and having someone coming to rescue you. Like, whatever’s going on in your life, someone to capture you, in a good way; they’re going to catch you and you’re going to be okay. We’re glad we put it on in the end – and it’s opening the live set at the moment as well, a nice happy song about coming back from the dead…

Live photo: Chris Walkden

VT: We’re at the end of the album now, and the big closer The Flood. This is the sort of showstopping climactic track which Mesmeranto was arguably lacking, and shows a real move towards using the studio to really craft a ‘big production’ epic.
RP: Yes, in fact I like to think of it as the Mesmeranto closing track Another Lifetime, times 10. Another Lifetime was a great album closer I thought, but The Flood takes that and magnifies it.
CM: The big guitar solo is something which we didn’t do at all on Mesmeranto, which is one of the big differences with this album. The Flood sort of lives next door to Translucent in my mind – the lyric actually does make reference to the guy in Translucent, so that connection is there. When we first wrote it, it was just the basic song. We liked it, because it had that idea of the flood being the end of the world sort of thing, cleansing and getting rid of all the bad stuff that we’d caused and built up. I remember when we were rehearsing it in your living room prior to recording, and we said why don’t we just extend this a bit, put a sort of outro onto it. Of course, we didn’t realise it would be that long – that the outro would end up longer than the song! We thought, ‘oh, maybe we’re prog on this album then’…
RP: The solo was totally spontaneous as well, nothing was worked out in advance. I think we recorded three takes and that was it. I believe there’s one little edit in there, but the rest is all from one single take and exactly as it came out. I hadn’t worked out one single note in advance, but I think sometimes that’s what is needed – sometimes it’s good to work out a guitar part of course, but other times it’s good to just let it sing out from somewhere inside of you, from the heart. And that’s what this one did.
CM: And we just built it up and up from there, like ‘what can we add next? How about some vocals’. And finally the sound of the birds which it comes down to at the end.
RP: Those birds actually just came from my phone. It was some time earlier when I’d been working until about 5am one night – which is usual by the way – and I just went outside into the garden, and this bird was singing really loudly; and for some reason I just recorded it on my phone for about three minutes. Then when we wanted something for The Flood, I thought ‘I’ve still got those birds on my phone!’, and that’s how it came to be. It represents the new world starting to be born, and a new start after the cleansing.

VT: You mention the ‘prog’ thing there – since this album came out, have you found you’ve had more interest from the prog and rock community specifically?
RP: Definitely. In the States especially. In America the interest has been huge, it’s been quite amazing.
CM: Yeah – take for example – they really loved the album, they made it their album of the year or whatever, and it was a real surprise to us, because certainly I’ve never really seen us as being ‘prog’ as such.

VT: Well, in a way, if you have this blank canvas and you feel you can use just about anything you want to without limits to create the music you want, that could be said to be the very essence of ‘progressive rock’. It arose from that freedom and experimentation, and it doesn’t have to be all mellotrons and capes, as the cliche has it.
RP: Exactly! That’s just how we feel about it. We don’t want to be constrained to one particular lane on the motorway, we want to be all over the motorway…
CM: I’m so glad you see ‘prog’ like that, because that’s exactly how we approach our music, and how we want to be, and if that can be embraced by that community it’s brilliant.

VT: So, the big question at this point is, having had such a great reaction to this album, what’s next for The Blackheart Orchestra?
CM: We would really like to be able to go over and play in the States. They’ve been so good to us, and shown such enthusiasm that we’d really like to be able to go and play for them over there. The majority of our mailing list is people in America now, which is bizarre – but good! I’m not sure how it’s happened, because it’s not as if we’re over there promoting or anything, but they really seem to have taken us to their hearts – so that would be something we’d love to do.

VT: One final question – with the increasing complexity of arrangement and instrumentation on some tracks, would you ever consider playing live shows with extra musicians?
RP: Ah, we’ve talked about this a million times!
CM: I would love to do some shows with a string section and a percussionist, I think that would be great. And it would be so good to be able to play things like Translucent live the way Translucent is, if you know what I mean.

VT: It seems to me that you are at something of a crossroads now, whereby you are a little torn between keeping the ethos of everything being the two of you as against wanting to be free of limitations – as if you perhaps feel that bringing other people in would somehow dilute what the Blackheart Orchestra stands for.
RP: Yes, that’s very true. You’re so right, these are all things we’ve thought about.
CM: If we did do that for a few shows, I think it would have to be just a few shows, we wouldn’t make it permanent.
RP: Absolutely, some special shows. I think we should keep ourselves as the two of us, because even though it is restrictive, it’s also a great discipline to have in terms of creating the music.
CM: I’d like to do a few select shows as a sort of ‘expanded’ line-up, just to showcase something different, but it would obviously be alongside a regular two-piece tour. I wouldn’t ever want to go to being like a six-piece band or something now, because we both love what we have. It would be nice to have the two things as different options though, on occasion.. It would be nice for the fans as well, to offer them the chance to see something a bit different, to see the songs done in a way they might not otherwise be able to.
RP: Yes, it’s certainly something we’ve considered, and talked about trying to get funding for – because it would be costly of course. Anything is possible, and that’s one of the exciting things – we do have the freedom to think about these things, and if it was fun for us, and most importantly the audience, it would be good. Who knows?

Who knows indeed. And of course there is the precedent of the three-piece Genesis line-up playing with two additional touring members for decades without ever expanding from the trio or losing that three-piece identity. One thing is for sure though – with the quality and breadth of imagination shown by Hotel Utopia, the sky is the limit at the moment – or at least, the penthouse…