Pastoral, personal, political: Sieben before, during and beyond lockdown

Matt Howden is a Sheffield-based singer, songwriter, composer, violinist, looping/sequencing technology expert, and teacher/practitioner of sound design and production. An independent, unstoppable musical force who somehow finds enough room under the radar to soar, he is always unpredictable, always reliable. One might have thought the restrictions imposed by the pandemic would slow him down a little. Not so.

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First, some Howden history. While he has released instrumental music and composed soundtracks under his own name, he uses the alias Sieben for – broadly speaking – his albums as a songwriter. This dates back to 1999: when Sieben was briefly, at its outset, a band and Howden’s signature approach had yet to emerge. A couple of albums later, however, a ‘Sieben’ record came to mean what it still does now: Howden working as a solo artist, assembling songs from voice, violin and looping/electronic effects, so that (even as guest players come and go on the records) he can play them live entirely alone, building up the layers and fleshing out the track as it goes on.

Part of the joy of any Sieben gig is to watch him construct this edifice: bass notes ‘bounced down’ from their starting pitch on the fiddle; percussion from tapping or striking parts of the violin with the hand or bow, or scratching stubble on its edge (this looks quite Hendrix when it’s happening right in front of you) or – more commonly these days – indulging in some gentle beatboxing. Then, when the layers are in place, and he’s free to play a solo, the shackles fall from his ankles and he whirls around the stage. Returning to the mic, in the moment, he’s likely to start twirling his bow around his finger, a sure sign that the engine is running at full throttle. Because of the looped structure, most of the songs take on an incantatory feel, constantly shifting patterns mesmerising the listener, their willing trance soon broken by a killer chant or blistering fiddle outro.

Howden made a series of three albums that, to my mind, reach – or even define – an underground/alternative folk pinnacle. In fact, they are three of my favourite records across any genre. Applying the same construction-from-the-ground-up ethic to the words as well as the music, he developed a pastoral universe of sorts: ‘Sex and Wildflowers’ fashioned a sensual dialect based on floral names and references, ‘Ogham Inside the Night’ forged further connections between runic language and nature/ritual themes, then finally ‘High Broad Field’ flowed into a fully worked-through mystery play.

‘Sex and Wildflowers’

While the albums share that dew-laden, rural/pagan atmosphere, as they progress, you can hear Howden audibly straining at the leash, pushing each idea as far as it will go. Perhaps no wonder, then, that something had to give: the next album, ‘Desire Rites’, switched focus from pastoral to personal (you can hear the exact moment not long into the first track…) in a searing set showcasing appropriately stripped-back, direct lyrics. For a few records after this, he seemed determined to back away from the ‘trilogy’ feel of the pastoral albums and use the limitations of the Sieben formula to challenge himself with each new project.

As a result, new, intriguing threads started running through the work. The arresting ‘As They Should Sound’, where he revisited some past Sieben tracks and pared them down into more fleet-footed ‘7-inch’ versions, felt cathartic, like the shedding of a skin. Other ‘oldies’ would then occasionally reappear in subsequent Sieben releases, updated to reflect a new idea, mood, or technological advance in Howden’s sonic armoury. Some of the songs would be about making songs, the music driving the words driving the music. Every record seemed to be a response to the previous one, whether from full-on to laidback, modern to historical/mythical, effects-driven and atmospheric to intimate, near-live.

‘The Old Magic’

But cycles are there to be broken. This constant reinvention culminated in one of the great Sieben masterpieces, ‘The Old Magic’ (with its companion disc ‘The Other Side of the River’). Deciding to free himself from physical product for a while, Howden produced a series of three digital EPs where he didn’t need to worry about lengths of songs, track listings, extended concepts, and so on. The result, however, fell together into a double album that somehow reflected all his classic characteristics: swirling with ancient history and myth (darting between Roman Britain and the Baltic States!), the ‘Old Magic’ tracks brought back the mystical, wired-to-the-earth side of Sieben but pastoral this wasn’t: instead – epic, fierce, churning, cavernous, relentless, anthemic.

How appropriate, then, that Howden was about to plunge into the latest phase of his musical career: pastoral, personal, now political. The new world disorder and its surrounding fog of corruption, bureaucracy and xenophobia lit a new fire under Sieben that shows no sign yet of going out. Marrying increasing orchestral heaviness (some handsome new kit, including a new Kevlar violin, gives the bass and beats some extra body) with a furious punk/protest lyrical attack, Howden made some of the most arresting music of his career… just in time for lockdown to confine him to barracks.

‘Coldbloods’

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Everyone working within the arts has had to find a way to cope with COVID restrictions (and their assaults on their mental, physical and financial health). Some have understandably withdrawn a little, while others have thrown themselves into online performance and outreach. Some have found new jobs, losses – hopefully only temporary – to their field. Every approach is valid, worthwhile: it’s all coping.

One might perhaps have guessed that Howden would need to direct his typical restless energy somewhere, particularly given the momentum from his latest releases. Transforming what looked for all the world like ‘the spare room’ into a facility for recording and performing live, he began preparing a virtual launch concert for the new album, ‘2020 Vision’. Immediately, older tracks started taking their place among the new material, Howden re-working them for the new super-powered set-up. Instant success meant that a second gig was lined up for the following Friday, then a third… Howden was soon re-arranging his back catalogue at a sufficient pace to play different sets to a regular remote audience of between 100-150 fans every week.

‘Lockdown Sieben’ then became a fully-fledged project in itself – more, in fact, than ‘just’ a series of concerts (as if that were not enough). Howden revisited and revitalised one song after another, taking advantage of perhaps a unique opportunity to run his favourite material through the new hardware. He then started to issue ‘pay if/what you can’ Lockdown Sieben compilations gathering together the updated arrangements. Fans snapped these up – and handed over actual money – in sufficient quantities to fund a physical CD release of ‘2020 Vision’.

’20/20 Vision’

Watching Lockdown Sieben grow has been one unreservedly positive, life-affirming enterprise to emerge from the whole sorry mess we’re in. Howden can rest assured that he has made a real difference to many of his listeners’ wellbeing. While people inevitably come and go depending on various commitments, the core audience for the Friday night concerts has been incredibly consistent. Howden credits the gig fixture as helping to keep him sane, and I’m sure it has given many of us a sense of belonging and community as Sieben fans from all corners of the globe tune in and exchange greetings and in-jokes in the comments alongside the video stream. New friendships have been formed that will long outlast the pandemic. As the series has gone on – and Howden’s performance area has become more eccentrically and elaborately decorated – there’s even been a modest sitcom flavour to the weekly ‘episodes’. We’re treated to cameo appearances from Howden’s other half Amber, often accompanied by their cat George, an imperious ginger who seems totally oblivious to wild swirls of violin and percussion – and for that matter, almost everything else – around him. The new violin, ‘Kev’, has acquired a slightly belligerent personality of its own, perhaps as a result of upstart insecurity next to Matt’s traditional fiddle, still in active, if reduced, service and reverently christened ‘The Old One’. Household objects and domestic appliances are harnessed for unusual sound-effects, from the drone of the ‘upstairs hoover’ to the ‘clink’ of Howden’s lighter, which found its way into the loop one evening as he lit a cigarette mid-song.

If this sounds shambolic or chaotic, don’t be fooled. The gigs have the kind of relaxed spontaneity that is only possible if the foundation is rock solid. Howden cheerfully displays the index cards where he meticulously maps out the structure for each track, using some especially-appropriate runic Sieben code that only he could decipher. This diligence has allowed him to resurrect tracks going back as far as the debut and give them a new lease of Kev-powered life.

‘Second Witchwords’

As I write, Lockdown Sieben has reached its 10th album of re-recordings (with a CD box set imminent) and 50th concert. Although he originally had a year-long timespan in mind, Howden plans to continue for at least five more Fridays, possibly longer. To paraphrase one of his songs, “we’ll wait for him”.

AA

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This is an artist I have listened to and loved for over 15 years. For all that he has used that time to interrogate and reinvent his practice, I could not have dreamed that one of my favourite musicians would harness lockdown to produce – not an ‘ultimate statement’ (there’s plenty more to come, I’m sure of it), but a grand celebration of his work so far, sounding the way he is happiest with it.

Howden uses Bandcamp, so it is very easy (and cheap) for you to check out almost everything Sieben has released: https://sieben.bandcamp.com/music

Pick your journey – go through the original albums as I’ve described them, and you’ll hear the constant development and refinement of the Sieben sound as Howden moves through a range of musical guises. Or start with the Lockdown Sieben albums, which bring a unity to the entire catalogue in a surge of live-to-tape adrenalin. Then please indulge and support generously!

All the lockdown concerts are available on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/user/MHsieben/videos

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