‘From atop a green hill, The Pilgrim did hear a call from the distance. Their people are near. Towards the tall mound The Pilgrim must set, carrying only this sack, into the Nether…’
And so begins Act I of Tapir!’s debut album, The Pilgrim, Their God and the King of My Decrepit Mountain, a multiform record that owes as much to folk art and folklore as it does to alt-folk experimentation.
The South London six-piece – Ike Gray (vocals/guitar), Will McCrossan (keys/drum machine), Tom Rogers-Coltman (guitar/saxophone), Ronnie Longfellow (bass), Emily Hubbard (cornet/synth) and Wilf Cartwright (drums) – describe Tapir! as a ‘boiling together’ of different mediums: at once musical, theatrical, mythological, artistic, collaborative, narrative-led and, above all, something to be enjoyed and shared. The Pilgrim, Their God and the King of My Decrepit Mountain follows a three-act structure – released by Heavenly Recordings as two four-track EPs in 2023, followed by the entire twelve-track LP early 2024 – telling the story of a solitary traveller, an ambiguous red creature known as The Pilgrim, on a journey across a mythical landscape of eerie forests, stormy seas and unholy mountains populated by beasts, injured birds and idealised eidolons. A fantastical offbeat fable carried along by Gray’s crisp, heartfelt vocals and the band’s instinctive, idiosyncratic melodies, the project at times feels like the musical equivalent of the paintings of Henry Darger, Henri Rousseau or Philip Guston. Onstage, Tapir! begin each set wearing red papier-mâché Pilgrim masks. A video will accompany each of the twelve tracks, creating a patchwork short film illuminating The Pilgrim’s quest. There are plans to produce a tie-in illustrated storybook. Tapir! have created a world and, with their vision set to include a full theatrical stage show with handmade sets and actors intermingling with the band members onstage, they are eager to ‘bring the world on the road.’
Prior to the pandemic, Ike Gray had been putting on ultra-inclusive, ultra-informal poetry nights, creating comical videos and promoting gigs as part of the Brixton art collective My Life is Big. ‘It was supposed to be a platform just to motivate people to do stuff that maybe they hadn’t done before,’ they explain. The platform had likewise motivated Gray to form Tapir! with McCrossan in 2019. After playing just one show at their beloved George Tavern, East London, the UK soon went into lockdown, forcing the pair to continue the project online, developing songs that combined off-kilter acoustic guitar and Randy Newman-esque storytelling with the reliable propulsion of their Elektron drum machine. What was to become the world and storyline of The Pilgrim, Their God and the King of My Decrepit Mountain would be pieced together gradually over the next year or so, and similarly the band would slowly recruit more members – and more and more friends to help build The Pilgrim’s world, its costumes and its sets – as the national lockdown lifted.
Having brought Rogers-Coltman and Longfellow on-board during the pandemic (Hubbard and Cartwright would join later, in the summer of 2022), Tapir! released their debut single ‘My God’ in February 2022, launching it with a show at the George that saw the band wear their red masks for the first time in the wild. McCrossan admits the headgear ‘takes the focus off us as band members’, and this lack of ego is most obvious in a recent press shot that features five red-masked figures capering on a dark London street, only two of whom are in the actual band – the rest being just friends.
The collective, collaborative ethos of Tapir! stems in no small part from the inclusive, non-judgemental, anything-goes spirit of the George Tavern. A Grade II-listed pub and grassroots venue run by artist Pauline Forster in a remote corner of Shadwell, the George has a long history of providing a home for theatrical and musical experimentation – and, in strict opposition to threats of closure over the past decade, the venue continues to thrive, with ‘different arts springing out of it,’ says Gray.
When Honeyglaze drummer Yuri Shibuichi saw Tapir! live at the venue, he encouraged them to record their songs, and the band stress it was his enthusiasm (soon coupled with the increased attention after they won Green Man Rising in 2022, enabling them to open the Mountain Stage at the festival) that led them to take the project more seriously. Without Yuri, The Pilgrim, Their God and the King of My Decrepit Mountain might never have come to fruition. Shibuichi’s playful, carefree production (always urging the band not to overthink) perfectly suits Tapir!’s unassuming, handmade, DIY nature. The band might cite Masayoshi Takanaka’s The Rainbow Goblins, Harry Nilsson and Spelling as influences but, while these artists made use of slick, high-end production replete with elaborate orchestration and countless overdubs, Tapir! take a much more spontaneous, low-key approach – and recorded much of the LP (save for ‘On a Grassy Knoll’ and ‘Gymnopédies’, produced by Joseph Futak) in the small bedroom studio Shibuichi shares with his co-producer flatmate Hywel Pryer. Longfellow admits the songs were ‘absolutely not’ fully formed before going into the studio: basslines and lyrics were occasionally figured out on the fly, and even Henry Parkin, the clarinettist on ‘On a Grassy Knoll’, was recruited at 3am at a party the night before recording.
Nonetheless, the LP hangs together like a strange but familiar fairytale. Each of the three acts opens with Little Wings’ Kyle Field – another influence turned collaborator – narrating a few lines of The Pilgrim’s story in his warm Californian burr over field recordings and atmospheric instrumental passages. Over the course of the LP’s forty-five minutes, melodic motifs reappear like a trail of twinkling breadcrumbs, while lyrically the simple tale – essentially ‘just a journey up to the top of a hill,’ albeit with a death, a storm and shipwreck along the way – centres on themes of ideology, idolatry, and what Gray calls ‘the fine line between belief and conspiracy.’ The songs propel The Pilgrim through their world while alluding ambiguously to moments and ephemera in our own weird world: Old Testament disasters (‘Broken Ark’), the JFK assassination (‘On a Grassy Knoll’), modern cosmetics (‘My God’). The elegant ‘Gymnopédies’ references both Erik Satie and Woody Guthrie as well as the ancient Greek Gymnopaedia festival of naked dancing by the sea, before The Pilgrim damns those waves altogether and slides into a soaring, surrealistic chorus of: ‘Because I’ve been told in Heaven/The rooms are filled with mice/There’s breadcrumbs in the bed sheets/And Jesus had head lice.’ Meanwhile, the rise-and-fall-and-rise-again of ‘Mountain Song’ mirrors The Pilgrim’s final ascent: a climax left open to interpretation, easily relatable to any upward struggle in our world. Notably ‘Mountain Song’ features a thirty-five-strong choir of friends of the band, recorded in the elements at Devil’s Dyke, Sussex, providing both an emotionally powerful swansong for The Pilgrim and a perfect symbol of Tapir!’s dedication to collaboration. ‘That was a good example of how we really want outside people to be a part of this,’ Longfellow says, ‘because it means so much that people have been here from the start, even if they’re not on the stage.’
The lead single ‘My God’ acts as a prologue to the tale – The Pilgrim learning the history of their land, in which the cracking of a gigantic mysterious egg led to the yolk-soaked desolation of the landscape – and yet the song also feels like an alternative conclusion: as if the narrator and listener are waking from a dream into an even stranger reality loaded with commercial branding and gadgetry (Hugo Boss, Maybelline, a £2000 laptop) after our travels in and out of the Nether. The stirring chorus – ‘But don’t let it break you/There’s no complication/It’s your imagination that you’ve found again’ – ultimately sums up Gray’s guiding principles from My Life is Big to Tapir! and beyond: this all-inclusive insistence that ‘just because you’re not technically amazing at something, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.’
With The Pilgrim, Their God and the King of My Decrepit Mountain, Tapir! have proven they are more than technically adept at transporting the listener to another realm. You could read the whole album as being an escape from the trappings of the modern material world, a sidestep into a pre-industrial, pre-internet wonderland where creativity and community reign supreme. The narrator of ‘My God’ might suggest to us ‘Maybe it was Maybelline that put you at a loss/That’s my God’, but for Tapir! it is imagination itself that is king.
Words: Richard Milward.