Artist and promoter Sebastian Reynolds tells Tim Hughes why, after years of rocking the Oxford scene, he is looking to Asia for his latest project
We know him as a stalwart of the Oxford music scene – playing in glam-rock, electronica, country, folk and psychedelic-rock bands. But for his latest project Sebastian Reynolds is looking beyond his native Oxford – all the way to the Far East.
The keyboard player for The Epstein and Flights of Helios has split his time between his home in Wolvercote and the temples of Thailand and Sri Lanka to learn more about Buddhist culture and its music and dance – all of which have fed into his latest work.
“I have a very keen interest in Buddhist philosophy,” smiles the musician, producer and composer, who started off with the band Sexy Breakfast, while a sixth former at Matthew Arnold School, Cumnor Hill, 16 years ago.
“What appeals to me about what the Buddha seems to have taught, is that he placed so much emphasis on personal understanding from experience, rather than following an ideology for the sake of it or because you feel like you should.”
A former member of Oxford’s influential Keyboard Choir and electronic outfit The Evenings, Seb has also had a successful stint as a promoter, staging scores of local shows and even bringing iconic New Yorker Patti Smith to the Holywell Music Room.
He has also been involved in the Food of Love Project, a bold reworking of songs from Shakespeare’s Times, to commemorate the 500th year of the Bard’s death.
The project involved Flights of Helios, Tom McDonnell and Brickwork Lizards, Stornoway, James Bell, Thomas Truax, Alasdair Roberts and Dead Rat Orchestra, and resulted in an album and a series of live shows, with gigs at SJE in Oxford and Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.
“I’ve actually been practising Thai Buddhist meditation and chanting for about 13 years, and the philosophy and art has had some interesting influences over my art,” he goes on.
“Damon Albarn’s Monkey: Journey To The West opera inspired me to want to explore Thai traditions with a work for the stage
“ I’ve also been developing the ideas for Mahajanaka dance drama for at least 10 years, so this has been bubbling under.
“It is just in the last year or so that I’ve been starting to explore these themes and traditions more in the public eye and ear.”
Interests include the traditional Jataka stories, of the lives of the Buddha, part of the theatrical tradition of South East Asia.
Research has been funded by the Artists’ International Development Fund, backed by the British Council and Arts Council England. It has resulted in a debut solo release called Mahajanaka – based on the adventures of Boddhisatta (Buddha to be) who is forced to flee when his father the king is killed by his brother.
“During a trip to Bangkok last year we had a day in a studio with a student ensemble performing traditional ‘Piphat’ Thai classical music,” he says.
“I used some of the recordings from the session to experiment with the sounds and textures of the instruments.
“The track is intended to depict some of Mahajanka’s adventures, particularly his epic swim in the ocean for seven days and seven nights.”
And while unlike anything he has done before, it makes for gorgeous listening.
“It is just so beautiful and entrancing,” he says. “Composers such as Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and others borrowed from Asian percussion musical forms and paved the way for techno and a lot of dance music, a modern form of music also based around intricately woven, simple, repeating melody line and rhythms.
“More recently Oxford’s Foals have certainly been citing Reich as a major influence, and people seem to like them!”
He is now preparing to return to playing live after a short break.
“In 2016, due to various personal and professional reasons I took a sabbatical from performing live and putting on gigs,” he says. “A Flights of Helios album, tentatively titled Endings, will hopefully see the light of day this year and the next single from the album, Embers, is out now.”
He is also working with Swedish singer Julia Meijer, whom he manages, and who is working on her debut album.
“During my quiet time in 2016 I completed my debut solo albums, a pair of mini albums entitled Remembrance/Epiphany, which I have every hope will be released later this year,” he goes on.
“The albums are a mixture of piano music and electronic ambient works, produced in a very random, chaotic manner over the past 15 years.
“There are two tracks that I produced with Ady Wardle, who was the main creative force with me for Keyboard Choir, a track that I made with Mark Wilden from The Evenings and others back in 2002, something that I recorded with Darren Hasson-Davis from Sexy Breakfast, and audio captured in venues across the UK and further afield. I am also thrilled to say that I’ll be making my debut live performances this year, in Berlin and Hanover next month, and I have a research trip to Japan in May, so plenty of trips to look forward to!”
The shows will see him performing the Mahajanaka track – with a longer dance drama project in development.
He smiles: “I want to hone the live show and have the albums ready to sell when I perform in Oxford, so I might need a few months to get it sorted yet! But I will hopefully be appearing in Oxford before the end of the year – so watch this space.”
Sebastian Reynolds’ Mahajanaka is available online now from sebastianreynolds.bandcamp.com