In the autumn of 1944, Wallace Stevens published the poem Esthétique Du Mal in the Kenyon Review featuring the line: “The death of Satan was a tragedy for the imagination”.
Fast forward decades later, these 10 words jump out of the page of then university student Tom Lenton, one half of London-based electronic duo Delmer Darion.
It sparked the concept for their adventurous and stunning debut album Morning Pageants – a record Tom and Oliver Jack spent five years meticulously crafting focused on the idea of the death of the devil.
“The wider context of that line and Wallace Stevens is that he was very concerned with this idea that the death of religion in general is a tragedy for the imagination”, Tom told Daily Star Online.
“The idea being that we need those overarching narratives to make sense of our lives and shape our worlds. Without those grand metaphors, like the ones religion have provided for so long, that something was seriously lost from the human experience and made life a lot harder to live.
“His argument as a poet was that poetry should replace religion and be this grand narrative. The broader idea I was interested in at the time, and still now, is what does it look like to lose these overarching narratives that shape our lives? To what extent do we need those narratives? What purposes do they serve? One interesting example of that is how do you live in a world that doesn’t have a devil figure?”
The result is a sonically mind-blowing descent and affirmation across a visceral landscape of experimental electronica and industrial ambient, dazzlingly pieced together using an array of intricate production techniques.
Collaborators Guest Singer, Private Agenda, and Genevieve Dawson help progress the narrative, an inclusion that Oliver admits was a “big turning point” in the album’s growth.
Since its release, acclaim from Resident and Record Store, who both named it album of the week, and Loud and Quiet naming it “one of the underground debuts of the year”, have more than justified Morning Pageants’ five year evolution.
“It probably wouldn’t totally be true to say at the album as it exists today is exactly what I heard in 2014 when we were first talking about it”, Tom added. “It’s definitely evolved along the way. There is some extent to which you end up being directed by what a song ends up becoming, even if you start with an incredibly strict brief.
“In terms of what did we want the album to do and be about, I think the album does absolutely do all of these things.
“We had such clear sense of what we wanted it to be in our minds that we wouldn’t have released it if it hadn’t felt like that.”
Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown caught up with Tom and Oliver to talk about Morning Pageants’ creation, its Wallace Stevens-inspired theme, performing it live again, and their next steps.
Hi guys, how have the past few months been for you? How’ve you navigated lockdown? Have you worked on anything in that time?
Tom Lenton: “With this being our debut album and new to all of this, the overriding impression for me in the past few months, everything has been incredibly novel, exciting and new. Releasing the album was amazing.
"We spent five years making it and a year leading up to it with a campaign of singles. The overriding feeling has been how new and exciting it’s been and how crazy and strange it’s been going from having pretty much nobody listening to our music, making it ourselves and listening to it ourselves, to getting a pretty good reception to it and having lots of people listen to it and comment on it, saying they like it that aren’t in our close circle of friends.
“It’s on LP and CD and people are buying it. I don’t know how it would have been different had we weren’t been in the situation we are now – neither of us are in the position of having done this before.
Oliver Jack: “It’s given us a bit of time to explore some of the ideas we had other than just the music on the album a little bit more. Things like the videos we made and the chapbook we made, which accompanies the album. The last few months with everything going on we actually could invest a little bit more time in these things that went beyond the music, which in a way was nice. Those things are super important to the narrative of the album and the world we wanted to create with it. That’s been a positive of it.
“We had a lot of time to be increasingly productive. The music was mastered towards the start of the year and we started the campaign of releasing singles, building up the album release. There were stuff like the video for Television that we released a month or two ago, and the book, that we might not have explored in as much depth, had we not had as much time to delve into it.”
Tom: “We had the ideas to do these things a long time before. It’s not like we were suddenly coming up with new ideas. We had massive, grand visions of everything we could do with the album. Perhaps if we didn’t have the time we did, then maybe it would have been too ambitious to do some of the things we wanted to do, like the chapbook for example.
“The one flip side is that we haven’t had the opportunity to play parts of it live. That’s one of the reasons we’ve had more time to do these things. At the start of the year we started rehearsing the live set and getting ready to play it, but we weren’t album to follow that through in any meaningful way. Any time we would have spent rehearsing it was reclaimed and repurposed on these other things.”
You’ve just released your debut album Morning Pageants, a record that’s been five years in the making. What was the process and journey like?
Tom: “The first music that went onto it was written at the end of 2014 and that was around when the concept was conceived. We pretty much finished the album at the end of last year, so it’s five years from around October 2014 to October 2019. Then we’ve spent pretty much the past year putting everything into place.
“We’ve been making music together since we were about 11, for a very long time. We knew each other from secondary school. The entire time we were there we would go over each other’s houses at weekends and spend the entire time on Ableton. That time we had really grand visions of some day writing a concept album, an album where every track had its place and function on the album and served a purpose. It was more like a 45 minute piece of music rather than 10 four minute pieces of music. We’d always had visions of doing that.
"It was around 2014 that we started working on this that we said OK, we’ve worked out who we are and what we want to do enough to start thinking about this period.
“The first parts were easy. Having the idea to do it is really exciting. Coming up with the concept was pretty quick. It was initially inspired by a line from a Wallace Stevens poem. At that point was in my second year of doing an English degree. I had this idea and we were pretty excited by that.
“The middle three years were the hardest and slowest. That was the point where we had a concept, we know the album wants to be this dark decent down in the first half and to slowly rise back up in the second half. We had a sense of what we wanted the narrative to be. The really hard part was ‘we’ve got to make those tracks now’. It took us a really long time to really pin down precisely what the album was going to sound like.
“There was a lot of writing things that didn’t really sound quite as good as we wanted them to or didn’t bring to life the vision we had. There was a lot of trial and improvement to try and iterate towards a point we were happy with how the visions were manifesting, and get to a point we felt confident in what the album was going to sound like ultimately.
“The final year we were close enough that we knew what the album sounded like and it was doing the jobs to finish it off, getting the vocalists on the tracks and tweaking little bits here and there.”
It’s a sonic wonder throughout, a sprawling piece of experimental industrial electronica. You’ve got the massive tracks like Darkening and Lacuna, but more tender, folk moments with Pearse and the absorbing Genoa, and the chilled out beats of Narrowing. It seems like you put a lot of nurture into our output. What was it like seeing the record blossom?
Oliver: “It was pretty amazing. For a large part of those middle years, we were at uni separately. A lot of that production time would be one of us working on something and sending it to the other, back and forth.
“That stage of it was really nice. One of us would send the other an idea. They would get the pure surprise of ‘that’s it! you’ve done it’ That would create a whole new chain of events. We would go through a process of rapid fire, knocking out new ideas from this one idea that stemmed it all.
“I think a lot of the ideas happen like that - have one of us creating something and sending it to the other. A realisation of ‘yes, this is the sound we needed’.”
Tom: “There was a lot of iteration over five years. With the majority of the tracks, there was one moment where we felt took it a step forward. It could be someone taking a slightly dodgy sketch that needed a lot of work. Through one hard, long slog we made a massive step forward with it. It wasn’t a case of pure iteration, it was marked by big steps.”
Oliver: “That’s the difference between having the idea before hand. If you were just writing songs, it’s easy to just finish them potentially too early, or not knowing when a song is finished. That’s a problem a lot of artists have. When do you finish a song? When do you stop tinkering?
“Having a very clear sense of what each song needed to do, we could bypass that a bit. Once we had that breakthrough, and it was doing what we intended it to do, we knew we could stop. That was a big positive.”
Do you think you’ve realised the vision of the grand idea you had at the beginning to what it is now?
Tom: “I think yes. It’s interesting. It probably wouldn’t totally be true to say at the album as it exists today is exactly what I heard in 2014 when we were first talking about it. It’s definitely evolved along the way. There is some extent to which you end up being directed by what a song ends up becoming, even if you start with an incredibly strict brief.
“Even within those limiting constraints, there is still a huge amount of room for a song to end up in totally different ways. You could write two totally different songs in those constraints. There’s a certain amount of seeing what the songs become as you’re trying to write them, which means the final product does slightly stray from what I was imagining in the first place. But on the other hand, in terms of what did we want the album to do and be about, I think the album does absolutely do all of these things. We had such clear sense of what we wanted it to be in our minds that we wouldn’t have released it if it hadn’t felt like that.”
It really does throw you into a different world. Do you look forward to hearing the listener’s perceptions of what you’ve come up with and where they go with it?
Oliver: “Definitely. I’ve loved hearing some of the thoughts people have had on it. It’s been so interesting listening to what people have picked out from it. Every song is this layering of ideas and things that relate back to the concept of each song and the whole album. References to literature and art. All these things create such a pool from what different people will pick up. That’s been awesome to see. People saying ’I really like that reference’ or they’ve enjoyed the way that’s happened. That’s so rewarding given the time we’ve put in to thinking about those things. They’ve done their job, essentially. They’ve not been forgotten.”
Tom: “There’s one aspect of people picking out things you’ve intuitionally buried in the album, which is really gratifying. But there’s another experience which is people’s making of the album that’s slightly different than what you’ve intended. Even that’s satisfying.
“My hope was us putting that much intention behind the whole thing and having such a clear sense of what the narrative would be, wasn’t necessarily just so everybody would experience that narrative in an identical way, it was done with the hope that putting that much intention behind it and making it deliberate would may be more conducive to people having their own kind of consistent experience with it.
"I had a sense that it doesn’t even matter whether their experience of the album is identical to ours, my hope is us putting that much intention into the album hopefully makes more likely that people can see it as a very intentionally deliberately conceived thing and make their own narrative out of it. It doesn’t just have to be people picking out exactly what we’ve put in it.
"I read one review where what they’ve made of something wasn't a million miles away from what I had in my mind, they had taken it in a different direction. Actually, it was really awesome and it was gratifying to see them take it in that direction. It felt like that bedrock we’d established allowed them to do that.”
It is an account of a line in the Wallace Stevens poem, which reads “The death of Satan was a tragedy for the imagination”. What drew you to that line in particular?
Tom: “The wider context of that line and Wallace Stevens is that he was very concerned with this idea that the death of religion in general is a tragedy for the imagination. The idea being that we need those overarching narratives to make sense of our lives and shape our worlds. Without those grand metaphors, like the ones religion have provided for so long, that something was seriously lost from the human experience and made life a lot harder to live.
"His argument as a poet was that poetry should replace religion and be this grand narrative. The broader idea I was interested in at the time, and still now, what does it look like to lose these overarching narratives that shape our lives. To what extent do we need those narratives? What purposes do they serve? One interesting example of that is how do you live in a world that doesn’t have a devil figure?
"Say something absolutely awful happens and no sense of why that would be able to happen in a fair and just world. You can literally point at the horned man prancing around and say it’s that guy who is intentionally intervening in our lives and making them miserable. It’s this nefarious agent making our lives miserable because that’s what he wants to do. What do you lose when you don’t have that any more? What can replace that narrative?
“I guess the deeper question is why I was interested in that? I don’t know. I think I’ve gone a bit too far trying to psychoanalysing myself. It seemed like a interesting idea when I was reading Wallace Stevens at the time, I really like Wallace Stevens poetry. Not just because of the ideas but his turns of phrase and language and what not. I seemed like a compelling idea.
"We had in our minds the idea of writing an album that wasn’t personal and something that was odd and novel. When I started talking like that it felt like a suitable challenge to write an electronic album about the cultural death of satan!
"It felt like fertile ground and a lot of cultural, literary and cultural history behind that we could draw on and start to play with. All of the pieces aligned that made us think we might be able to do that as an album.”
On the album you teamed up with Guest Singer (on Darkening), Private Agenda (on Narrowing), Genevieve Dawson (on Television) and Gus White (on Pearse). What was it like working with them and did they add a new dynamic to the output?
Oliver: “It was an interesting one. Having worked on it for probably like three to four years by the time we’d started bringing in collaborators, we were very in our heads about it. We’d only listened to it ourselves and not shared it to anyone.
“That was a big turning point when we started to need to share it to people and get people on board. It worked really well. It was a great experience. Most of the collaborators were friends or people we’d met going to their shows. They were people who we were comfortable explaining the concept to. Like on the song Narrowing with Private Agenda, it worked brilliantly because they started to bring in their own ideas and their own melodies and thoughts to how we could change it up slightly, which is something that’s easy to forget how important it is when you’re working in isolation. Something like that totally opens you up.
“That was a really good turning pointing in the album. With it being a narrative album, starting to get the lyrics in and finished and finalised really shaped the narrative and transformed the songs that we’d imagined they’d be, but once we’d heard the lyrics they became what they needed to be.”
The album so far has been heaped with praise, with one publication saying it’s “one of the underground debuts of the year”. What does that mean to you both after working on it for so long?
Oliver: “It means an absolutely huge amount. Seeing things like that was really quite surreal. The whole of this experience has been amazing. Things like that make us feel like all the intention we had behind it was in the right place. We weren’t just losing our minds just talking to each other.”
Tom: “Reassurance that an electronic album about the death of satan is a tenable idea!”
What’s next for you guys? I know the live visual aspect is a major part of the project. You must be itching to get back out there and doing shows with this album?
Oliver: “As Tom touched on earlier, before we got in this current situation we had built a whole live set and were in the process of launching it. We had a show booked in for the end of April. We were working towards that and building up a live show and visuals for it. That was going to be a really exciting part of the album experience. I don’t think it’s going to be any less now that it had to be postponed. We’ve still got it and really excited to play the album and show people that aspect of it whenever the chance may come. All the stuff is there and we’re itching to do it as soon as we can.”
Tom: “Getting back into a bit of songwriting has been really fun. We’ve only just started doing that reasonably recently. Any spare time we had had to be putting towards this album. It’s been nice to start working on new ideas again. Between those two, finding any avenues we can to show of the live set and writing tracks, that’s probably going to keep us busy for a little while.”
Delmer Darion’s Morning Pageants is out now via Practise Music