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Snakefarm - Snakes Still Alive Shock!

In 1999 Snakefarm were officially the future of folk music. Then they vanished – not for the first time, it turns out. Ian Anderson grabs Anna Domino and Michel Delory as they re-emerge blinking into the 21st century.

The year was 1999: the old century drawing to a close. One day the postman delivered a revelation, an album called Songs From My Funeral, credited to an American duo called Snakefarm. Bewhiskered old American folk songs that had largely fallen off the general performing radar because of their ubiquity – the likes of House Of The Rising Sun, The Streets Of Laredo, St James Infirmary – had been given remarkable new life through alluringly cool, non-folkie vocals and a well-crafted use of multi-layered instruments, electronica, beats, skills from different areas of popular music. It became one of the UK roots music scene’s cult favourites of the day, much fêted by opinion formers like the late Charlie Gillett, coming in at No. 4 in that year’s prestigious fRoots Critics’ Poll for Albums Of The Year.

Snakefarm, 1999
Photo: Madoka
Snakefarm, 1999

The duo – Anna Domino and Michel Delory – came over for a promotional gig at an obscure London ballroom just off the Tottenham Court Road. The UK label, BMG, were parsimonious with support. Although the album had featured other musicians and clearly Michel couldn’t exercise his multi-instrumental skills all at once, there was only a budget for the two of them. So in the months preceding the gig, they’d borrowed video cameras on approval from stores. They filmed and edited remarkable back projections of the rest of the band and atmospheric scenes which, on the night, were intermixed by a VJ with live-on-stage camera shots. Michel bobbed around between his many stringed instruments, the rhythm tracks were synced in over the PA, and Anna sang and half-spoke her sultry, understated vocals. The experience was entrancing, engulfing you in the music, a 3D gig. The few dozen people who were there are still talking about it 12 years later. Quite clearly, beyond doubt, we had seen the future of folk music…

So then they vanished without trace.

Until December last year when an email arrived. “Dear Ian. Anna Domino here, eternally (though obscurely) of Snakefarm. I wondered if you were still there, and there you are! We are still here too, and have another volume of Snakefarm material and no place to put it…” Bloody hell, Anna, where have you been? I can't remember how many times the question ‘Whatever happened to Snakefarm?’ has turned up on web message boards. So correspondence ensued. Wonderful sound files popped out of the ether. Introductions were made. And finally, this month, Snakefarm’s second album My Halo At Half Light is available for your pleasure on Fledg’ling Records.

In June 2011, Anna (professionally Domino, maritally Delory, née Taylor: American, elfin, sparky conversationalist) and Michel (Delory: Belgian, chiseled and grizzled, charismatically silent: conversational characteristics shared with a clam) zipped through London for a couple of days to meet their new label, have their pictures taken by Ms Burrows and hang out at fRoots Towers for a yack.

I had been dimly aware that Snakefarm’s 1999 status as hotly-tipped cult favourites prior to vanishing was, in a way, a repeat of Anna’s own story as a solo artist in the 1980s. So near yet so far. Inexplicable. So to get to the bottom of this, clutching a copy of the LTM Records artist biography of Anna (they’re the UK label which has re-issued her earlier solo albums) I try starting at the beginning. It says she was born in Tokyo…

“My father, to spite his father, joined the army. My father’s father was a banker who lost everything in the Crash and then started a private boys’ school, that of course my father and his brother had to go to. And it was awful because the boys beat them up because they were the headmaster’s sons. The first graduate from this school was William Burroughs. At the end of the Korean War he was stationed in Tokyo, translating from Chinese into English for Voice Of America. I was born there, and took a freighter home to California with my Mama…”

“They moved around a lot. They were divorced when I was seven, and then my mother was pursuing her PhD in Art History and so we went to Florence in Italy. And before that we had been in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my parents had been very active in the Civil Rights scene. They had gone to the sit-ins, and the this-ins and the that-outs and whatever protests and so forth. I remember it as being a thrilling time. They spent a lot of time in prison… They would get arrested every few days, civil disobedience stuff. So my brother and I would get passed around and it was very exciting.”

“My father took me to see Bob Dylan in a high school when he was first beginning to tour. He took me to see The Beatles in 1965 in Detroit, and I had never seen anything like it. I had to shut my ears to hear the music because the screaming was so loud. People were throwing their shoes and clothes on the stage. The whole scene was bedlam, when you’re nine it just seemed like the end of the world, but also just incredibly exciting.”

“Ann Arbor was my earliest memory and it was packed full of adventure, and then from there we went to Florence, Italy, and it was ’66, the year of the great flood. And then from there we went to Ottawa, Canada, with my Mama who’d been hired by the National Gallery. The last year of high school I got kicked out. I had made all of my teachers angry for one reason or another, so they caught me on the last day with a bottle of wine and they had me expelled so I never graduated. Rather than repeat the year, I left and travelled hitchhiking in the US and Mexico for several years, went to art school in Toronto for a year and a half, and on a vacation to New York to visit my uncle’s best friend for two weeks. I stayed for 20 years…”

“My parents had a lot of musician friends who would come by and play. There was a lot of music in the house. And when my parents were sick or hungover I would play music for them. I would either put on one of their favourite records or my father had a guitar and I would hammer away on it, or he would put on an Aretha Franklin record and I would draw pictures to it.”

So you had all this music, real musicians in your house; you had politics and you had art and you had travel…

“And a lot of drunkenness and cruelty and great explosive fighting of my father who would come home after a binge or bender and take out the shotgun and shoot up the house and threaten to kill us all. Or he would decide to drink at home, which would mean putting on the song Downtown over and over and over, until the first chords of it would strike fear into your heart. It was never dull.”

From fRoots 340, October 2011


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