Indie Rock as Pagan Folk Art: ‘Act I’ grants us access to the extended universe of Tapir!

On their debut EP, Tapir! take us on a rare journey through a mysterious fictional land, where melody and ritual abound.

Words: Lloyd Bolton

Tapir! are the connection between our world and another that is a little greener, a little stranger. When they take the stage, each member is adorned with a big red papier-mâché mask, the shape of an abstracted tapir head. With the gravity of astronauts, they remove their headwear with a momentous ceremony thast speaks of a long and unusual journey behind them. This transition into our world is necessary, for Tapir come as messengers from another land, here to relate one of its stories. Act I is the first of a series of three EPs that loosely tell of the adventures of a ‘Pilgrim’ in this land as the band carve out a niche between folk art and indie rock.

This EP is a matter of world building, achieved not only by a narrative backdrop but also musically. Heraldic guitar stabs on ‘Opening’ reset the listener’s mind, before giving way to a spacious folk jam, arpeggiated guitar and shallow water piano. You can almost see and smell this backdrop for a narrated intro delivered by Kyle Field (aka Little Wings), which raises more questions than it answers. Ushered into this alternate reality, we are prepared for the songs that follow, which run like a freaked-out school play about the Pilgrim’s journey towards ‘the nether’, where it must battle a strange beast. Ike Gray’s harshly crooning vocals transmit its struggles over the scene-setting instrumentals, rounded out by rattling drum machines and clipped cornet. The aesthetic roughness to the sound completes the effect, and amid the crackle, artless singalongs create the impression of a fictional pagan ceremony, celebrating the folklore of this imaginary region.

The four songs feel very human, not just for their idiosyncratic delivery but also for their approach to the subject matter. ‘The Nether (Face to Face)’ is the most striking in this respect, its gently bizarre tale of facing some beast related with a certain placidity. The Pilgrim is not terrified in a straightforward manner, finding space for detached reflection on the strangeness of its momentous and vital situation. The music accordingly takes on a gentle kind of lounge shuffle on this tune, extending this impression of serene resignation in the face of destiny. It is easy for concept albums to cheapen their music with excessively simple narrations and arrangements that try to move a story along at the expense of depth. Tapir! do the opposite, creating uncanny and almost contradictory moods. I’m still not entirely sure what happened in Act I, but it was interesting.

Beyond its content, the heavy narrative frame turns the music into an interesting reflection on what it is to be an indie band in the first place. The practice of making up stories and music is treated by Tapir! as a form of folk art. In working in a mass medium for a small audience, any band makes its own big world and live in it, and often naturally progresses to reflecting on it. A punning line that always stands out from the Fog-like cult hit ‘On a Grassy Knoll (We’ll Bow Together)’ seems to sum up this life as the leader of your own bedroom-produced religion: “If out here lies irrelevance/I will lay here in remembrance”. Indie music in its obscurity can become a semi-private monument to oneself, a record of existence through the creation of something personal and idiosyncratic. Tapir!’s ersatz paganism builds upon the poignance of shouting into the void with the hope of picking up a few more monthly listeners. Yet they develop their work not with self-pitying cynicism but rather with playful dedication, making use of freedom from commercial and creative expectation to make something wonderfully unique. This is what independent music is all about.

From their detached perspective, deep in an impressively extended universe (which also manifests itself in paintings and short films), Tapir! reflect on our own world with an elusive wisdom gained from another. They explore deeply human questions without being so foolish as to answer them in a form that approaches comment on this process as played out in creative practice. Act I is Tapir! sounding entirely itself, and in its beguiling brevity, it has me reaching to start it again as soon as it finishes.