Out now is the brand new In The Nursery album “Humberstone” which cruises cinematically through the Humberstone family line. That’s also when I realized that both musicians are actually the children of Arthur Humberstone, a giant in the UK animation world, and one of my all time favourite animators thanks to his work on classic UK animation films like “Animal Farm” (1954), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “The BFG” (1989) but especially my all time favorite cult animation film “Watership Down” (1978) on which he worked with Halas & Batchelor and as a senior animator with Martin Rosen.
Needless to say that this release – even more than their others – caught my attention immediately. So much that I ordered an old book with stills from “Watership Down” from a small Swedish shop to dive into their father’s world once more.
I spoke with both Klive and Nigel about the album, their lineage, their father and their childhood. For those planning to buy the album, it’s recommended to get the physical release as the booklet is a much needed companion to the music thanks to the photographs added in it.
SL: First of all it came as a big surprise that your father was THE Arthur Humberstone which I have known for years as the person who worked on “Watership Down” just to name just one of the animation films he worked on. The album is built up as a journey through the Humberstone family tree and as we can easily say the apple didn’t fall from the proverbial tree if you look at what his sons have accomplished. How much of an influence has he been on both of you?
KH: I think anyone who loses their father, looks back longingly and wishes they’d asked just ‘one’ more question, engaged in conversation a little bit more – probed for meaning in words that were said. We grew up knowing what our Dad did – but not fully appreciating the enormity of the great animation classics that he worked on between the 1950’s up to the 1990’s. Dad worked away in his home studio, lovingly creating cartoon magic and we accepted it as the norm, never fully understanding the real influence until much later on in life. He loved his work and threw himself passionately into each project that came along, from Animal Farm in the 1950’s, Yellow Submarine in the 60’s, Watership Down in the 70’s, The BFG in the 80’s. His type of animation was termed ‘old school’ and his friends and workmates called him a ‘gentleman’. As a family man, he showed us bushcraft, how to embrace nature, shared his love of cinema and films.
NH: I think our Dad’s influence was truly felt posthumously. By that I mean that before his death he was just our Dad – we didn’t know any different.
It was only following the death of our mother and the need to clear the family home that we appreciated the need to preserve and archive his large body of work.
SL: I see myself often buying old vinyls of music my dad loved, when I put an old Timo Rossi album on the record player, I instantly think of him. What triggers you the most when thinking of your dad?
KH: Nature, pet rabbits, pen knives, big garden coats, long hot summers …… Looking back – it’s a strange conundrum – both our mum and dad didn’t listen to music during our formative years. Our dad had one favourite operatic singer – voice of Richard Tauber, and in later life, Tammy Wynette. I think we ‘revolted’ against this musical wasteland and embraced punk music as our own personal reaction to our parents lack of musical taste. Ever since then, music has been a freedom of expression – a means to communicate.
NH: Musical memories included Dad’s limited record collection and the pieces that he reached for when looking for something to accompany the screening of home movies. His ‘go to’ record was A Swingin’ Safari by Bert Kaempfert and his Orchestra – a piece of music that we’ll forever associate with that time and place.
SL: The list of featured family line members is far from being just artists, although I see a recurring craftsmanship or art in the jeweler, the gunsmith, the painter, the storyteller, the dressmaker, the animator… does art have a special place throughout your family tree?
KH: I’ve always been in awe of the people undertaking craft skills. Growing up in the countryside, we would see farmers at work, walk past the nearby forge and watch horses being shod by the blacksmith. It seems art has long been prevalent in our ancestral past – or perhaps we chose to highlight those family traits – as they seemed the most inspiring details to focus on for this project. The Jeweller, was our Grandfather – he died when we were probably 6 or seven and my memories of him was of a frail old man. It was only later that we uncovered his life as a jeweller & silversmith based in Duke Street London, The track H57b is a poignant ode to a man and a memory of a life.
SL: I guess it was both a sad thing but also a joyful concept to go through your roots and revisit the past, I for instance refer to “Émigré (The Dressmaker)” which refers to a family tragedy. Can you explain what happened?
NH: On the night of November 17th 1874 in the southern Atlantic, 350km off the coast of South Africa, a fire broke out aboard the Cospatrick, a three-masted sailing ship made of teak that had set sail from Gravesend bound for Auckland, New Zealand. Within two hours the ship was a fiery hulk; except for 40 survivors in two lifeboats, everyone on board was burnt alive or drowned trying to escape.
Amongst those who lost their lives were 429 emigrants, including Humberstone relatives Charlotte Welch, a Dressmaker (also Matron for the Single women onboard), and her two youngest sons, and daughter in law.
Of the 40 survivors, only 3 survived, saved but haunted by their enforced descent into cannibalism and sea salt madness.
It’s impossible to imagine the horror of waking to a ship ablaze and the blind panic of trying to scramble aboard one of the ill-equipped lifeboats. The track is our attempt to sonically chronicle that tragedy.
SL: What are the moments that have struck you most which we find back on this album?
KH: I think we’ve kept it simple. Initially using guitar and bass/keyboards to come up with song ideas. The recording process has also involved a real natural feel – throughout the whole album we made use of a rare RCA 74-B Junior ribbon microphone that was used on multiple instruments on all tracks. The natural sound of the ribbon microphone (which we actually bought in a street market in Mexico City whilst touring) captures both the instrument and the room. When I listen back to the recordings – it’s like a time capsule.
NH: Another unifying aspect was the use of an old Estey Reed Organ. Made in the late 19th century it unknowingly provided a sonic link back to our ancestors – it is featured throughout HUMBERSTONE but most affectingly on “H57b A Room at the End of the Mind (The Jeweller)” where the physical mechanics of the pedal-powered organ and the creaking of the seat are exposed, but so integral to the track.
SL: What puzzles me is how much you actually do know of those older relatives that are featured on the album. Were these from anecdotes that were passed on in the family or from written documents? How did you assemble your image of those people that were long dead? Like, the gardener, what did you know about him besides that he was a gardener? I once had a family tree from my own family completed and we arrived in the early 17th century, but I rarely found anything truly detailed from what they did.
KH: Our elder brother was really into the family history and did a great job of putting everything he found onto an online Ancestry site. That’s where we found out about our Great Great Grandmother who died onboard the Cospatrick ship as they sailed for a new life in New Zealand. We’re lucky to have a wealth of family photo albums dating way back – the visualisation of our ancestors has been very inspiring in creating the music for this album. We also took on a large archive of our fathers animation. The work spans 7 decades, encompassing original sketches, drawings, painted cels and photographs – after years of storage and filing, we finally hope to have the collection digitised, archived and made available to everyone.
NH: The Gardener relates to many different levels within our family history. Our Great Grandfather was a keen gardener who carefully sculpted the flower beds, rockeries and roses that we still experienced decades later. But whilst his taste in gardening was more manicured and formal, our mother’s love of nature was more within the wild spectrum.
SL: On “Suvla Bay (The Cavalryman)” you evoke your great uncle who served with the City of London Yeomanry as part of the Gallipoli campaign in WW1. I live in Ypres where we commemorate the dead WW1 soliders each evening with the Last Post at the Menin Gate, so I see a lot of English people looking for their relatives that died here at the front. What happened to your great uncle? Did he survive, did you ever feel the need to visit Gallipoli?
KH: Thomas Squire, our great uncle, survived Suvla Bay/Gallipoli. The typed letter sent home to his parents is a sobering document that we inherited. Thomas originally joined the yeomanry because of his love for horses (his father bought two Hunter horses so that he could actually enlist with the London based regiment). It seemed a sad irony that the horses weren’t used for the Suvla Bay landing and instead the soldiers spent a harrowing time in shallow ditches fighting a futile war against the Turkish. Thomas served with the regiment in Egypt and Salonika, and was wounded by a Turkish sniper near Ramallah, Palestine a week or so before he died of his wounds in Cairo. We still have some wonderful artefacts of his time in the City of London Yeomanry, included his death medal, badges and officers cap. I’ve collected a lots of books regarding the campaign history Suvla Bay and its gross failures, but haven’t felt the need to visit. With all the research, we wanted to commemorate the story with piece of music that was fitting to the emotions. One day in the live room I was experimenting with patches on a vintage Korg MS20 synth and basically, the keyboard started to ‘de-tune’ itself – we pressed ‘record’ and let the machine do its own thing, finally spluttering to an end. That was the basis for the track and added live cello that mirrored the descending tonal increments of the Korg MS-20
SL: You both turned 60, being myself part of an identical twin, I always have felt that these milestones in a person’s live is actually double joy (or sadness) as you can share everything with a twin brother who basically lived the same life (more or less). How do you both look back on the past 60 years (from a twins perspective)?
KH: For me, it just seems perfectly natural. We both know no different. To be honest, I don’t think about it.
SL: I sense a lot of seventies elements in “Ektachrome (The Animator)”. Speaking of those years, “Watership down” was released in 1978. The film itself is a rather dark tale, both in story and in animation style, but it left a real stamp on me when I saw it as a kid in the early eighties on television. It needs a very versatile animator to bring up this kind of atmosphere in the drawings. Do you remember if your father was particularly influenced by the work for the film, or did he influence the film’s dark elements? In short, what kind of person was your father at that time and what impression did he leave on you both around that time?
KH: Our father loved nature and animals. At our house, in the countryside, we had a dog and many many pet rabbits. So, the opportunity to work on Watership Down was perfect. Our dad used to make super 8 movies of the dog and the rabbits – using the footage to ‘analyse’ the animals natural movements and characteristics. He also re-worked the character sheets of the main cast.
KH: I think we went to the Watership Down premiere in London, along with our parents. Quite recently i came across a simple paperback copy of the original book on looking inside found our father had got signatures/inscriptions of many of the voice artists (John Hurt, Joss Ackland, Ralph Richardson ) and even Richard Adams – it’s a wonderful memento along with the rest of our fathers archive.
NH: Watership Down was, and indeed still is, a memorable animated film – one that is enduringly remembered for it’s graphic scenes.
Another musical memory is the Art Garfunkel song Bright Eyes. It’s an instant link to the film and our Dad’s work – our Mum would always get emotional whenever it played on the radio. Interestingly we’ll be attending an academic conference later this year to talk about our Dad’s animation and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book.
SL: I’m kinda jealous you actually have a recording of your mother telling a bedtime story, it’s small things which a lot of people forget to do. I for instance do not remember the voice of my late dad. I guess that especially also the song “Mallards (The Storyteller)” featuring a tape recording of your mother is one of the most cherished tracks on this release?
NH: We’re lucky that our father was an enthusiastic amateur filmmaker and with that he also dabbled in some reel-to-reel recordings. We were digitising some of the old tapes and on hearing that section, quickly spun it in to the track “Mallards (The Storyteller)”. It gave the track a real sense of focus.
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