Google the word ‘Eirenic’, and you’ll find definitions like, “tending to promote peace or reconciliation.”
“The title and main theme for Eirenic Life came from my feelings about the recent state of things and a few unwelcomed premonitions: the ongoing wars between people, the right-wing shift, Trump and Brexit, the late-night scaremongering news, all the aggressive and unnecessary crap,” says Chris Hughes. “I wanted the feeling of something more meditative, and aiming at peace. It’s as simple, and pretentious, as that!”
There are two sides to Chris Hughes. There’s the notable producer of others’ records, most famously Adam & The Ants – with whom he also played drums – and Tears For Fears, and other famous names. And there’s the occasional composer of modern experimental music at odds with that line of work, such as the sublime piano ruminations of his new album Eirenic Life, six tracks of deep emotional engagement, from brooding to wistful and even a little agitating, Hughes reckons; from a richly expressive 13-minute piece to a 47-second miniature, united by a desire to locate a place of calm. Lovers of Eno and Erik Satie’s work will find much to love (Hughes also names Anton Webern, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, John Adams and György Ligeti among his ‘thanks’ in the sleevenotes: a succession of visionary pianists, minimalists and classicists).
“The album doesn’t carry much form of traditional western composition, like developed harmonic work, it’s quite basic,” Hughes feels. “They’re more like sketches, strange melodic ideas. Not complicated, not boring but hopefully rewarding.”
Hughes’ grounding in The Beatles and psychedelia was soon upended by a ‘Eureka!’ moment when his fine-art teacher/music-buff father took the 18-year old Chris to a concert by the minimalist composer Steve Reich. It was an album of, “strange experimental electronics,” that Hughes played to David Bates, a junior A&R man, that led to producing the Liverpool synth-pop band Dalek I Love You, which led on to Adam Ant.
Even when Hughes was part of one of the greatest pop phenomena of the last 40 years, he’d create snippets of music, “but I’d stick them on the shelf. I never felt the urge to put it all together and make a record.”
But finally, he did, releasing the acclaimed Shift on Fontana in 1994 (reissued by Helium Records in 2008), an exploration and reworking of several pieces by Steve Reich. Hughes recalls, “At that time, I was preoccupied with pulse, tempo, rhythm and sequence. I was busy successfully producing artists and groups for major labels, so in my precious spare time and as an antidote to schedule, demands, problem-solving and unnecessary pressure, I decided to make Shift.
“Fast forward and I’m still working away in the studio, but I decided three years ago that it was time for another solo project. Often late at night, away from phone calls, production work and schedules, and with the added freedom of knowing that my children were now old enough to burn their own toast.”
Eirenic Life is, at heart, a very straightforward piano album. “I wanted something small and simple, and everyone understands the nature of piano,” he explains. “I didn’t want a synth record. I didn’t want mystery.”
Looking out of his studio at the lush Bybrook Valley, outside Bath, and looking too at computer graphic images of a sunset/sky and water that became Eirenic Life’s beatific album cover, Hughes had a tranquil place to work from, as he brought different pieces off the shelf: “ambient electronics, drone, undefined tempo and rhythm, the lack of constant pulse, piano music and, once again, sequence.”
But he eschewed the easy option – especially for a producer used to big mixing desks and budgets – of changing the provenance of each piece. “It was important to do something that wasn’t cathedral-like, with a hundred overdubs and chord progressions, things I often do in my day job. My album has purpose but it’s meandering, it’s supposed to be primitive. I did write other ambitious tracks, but I couldn’t connect with them. I’m also a huge fan of minimalism, if you can get your point across with less.”
The only addition to Hughes’ piano is some very subtle ambience, often field recordings that bring their own energy and intrigue. Such as recording from London’s Victoria & Albert museum in ‘Girl With The Jesus Towel’. “I like the idea that the V and A is theoretically calm, but it’s actually quite noisy!” he says. “And then I bedded the piano on that ambience”. The track also features the sound of an old gate opening and closing, discovered on a countryside walk: “it made such a squeaky mechanical interruption, I recorded it and used it as a squeaky mechanical interruption!”
In case people interpret the reference to a ‘Jesus Towel’– which Hughes says could have been a rug or cloak, as a symbol of comfort – and the fact ‘Eirenic’ comes from Christian theology (of which Hughes was unaware at the time) as religious motifs, the ‘NSV’ part of the lengthy opening track, standing for ‘Non-Secular Violence’, makes his point clear.
“The aspect of violence, ironically, comes from within the wrong part of religion, having God on your side and righteousness, fucking over another country, race or religion, which I find repulsive. The album ends with ‘Safe Warm Sun,’ which is a the eirenic part, aiming for peace, and no bigotry.”
‘Tenemos Historia’ (Spanish for ‘we have history’) makes the same point: “it’s reminder that human beings should be doing better than killing each other by now.”
The Dily of ‘Dily’s Dream’ is Hughes’ cat, a nervy rescue animal who nevertheless sleeps so peacefully, “and I often wonder what she’s dreaming about. It’s a dippy, noodly tune and it’s supposed to be whimsical.”
Likewise, ‘Exmoor Pony Gavotte’, 47 seconds of, “a strange, repetitive descending line, which wasn’t particularly good, but when I re-discovered it, it made me laugh! And it made a nice dropdown into the last piece.”
Having waited 23 years between solo albums, Hughes is already making progress with a third, “a more obtuse record, with wobbly synthesiser, super-fast modulation and drums.” A book of Hughes’ graphic designs in also in the works. But right now, he’s on a mission for peace, with one of the most exquisite and melodic balms of this or any other year. Send it to Donald Trump, now!