Dead Rat Orchestra: touring the UK by canal

The avant-folk band will travel 273 miles by narrow boat. We try and find out why



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© Jana Atherton-Chiellino

This week, brilliant experimental folk trio Dead Rat Orchestra embark on a 273-mile UK tour travelling exclusively by canal boat. Before they’re overtaken by their first jogger, we ask the band’s Daniel Merrill why the waters came calling.
What’s wrong with a good old tour bus?
‘We’ve always had this adventurous side. For us touring isn’t just about the concerts, it’s about the people and living heritage you encounter on the way. When we toured Europe with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, they were in a big tour bus and had everything meticulously worked out for the entire year. We did it on public transport. Canals are a link to our industrial past and to a more eco-minded present. There’s something beautiful about being able to up sticks and move on just by unmooring.’

Is your setlist site-specific?
‘We’ll be picking up songs from different boating communities as we travel through them. So what we start off playing in London won’t be the same as what we end up with in Bristol. We’ve been researching the traditional music associated with the canals, like songs sung by the Irish labourers who dug them. We’ve also been inspired by sounds – the ratcheting of the cranks in the locks, the blast of white noise as the water rushes in. In training, we went through the tunnel from King’s Cross to Angel, 12 minutes in the pitch black with just a dot of light to guide you. Were we tempted to stop and record? Absolutely. We’re working on a couple of tunnel songs to play on our way back through.’
Is canal culture under threat?
‘There are actually more people living on the canals now than there were at their industrial peak. We had a notice pinned to our boat from the Canal & River Trust – they’re holding consultations about the increasing numbers of people living on the canals in London. It turns out it’s really boomed over the last five years to the point it’s becoming a problem. You can get a narrow boat for £30,000, with the same amount of room as a one-bed apartment. It’s one of the few affordable ways left to live in London.’
Aren’t you making life rather hard for yourselves?
‘We’ve really set ourselves up for a challenge with this tour. It’s 273 miles at 2.5mph, so our average travel time each day is eight hours. Locks are heavy work, and on one particular day we’ll go through 29 of them, just to travel six miles. But I absolutely recommend touring in new ways, and using old infrastructures. From the water, I’m seeing London in an inspirational new light.’

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