The artwork of the school project is perhaps the most neglected and forsaken of all our childhood treasures. With our felt-tip depictions of Armstrong’s giant leap, with our wax crayon Pharoahs and the pastel-shaded pencil lines of our wonky Roman invasions, we toiled in pursuit of appreciative red ticks or stick-on golden stars. And then? The fruits of our labours lay neglected in plastic trays or staff room cupboards; often even thrown away at the end of term, forgotten completely in the giddy rush of summer holiday excitement. This was artwork never afforded the same doe-eyed romance as the pictures we drew for our own entertainment: the skew-whiff Daleks and lopsided Darth Vaders that we treasured into adulthood, preserving them through the decades in lofts and spare room cupboards.
Except in the case of Whitby-based singer-songwriter Blue-John Benjamin, who – in characteristically contrary fashion – owns none of his “off duty” childhood artwork, but instead stands guard over an evocative treasure trove of his 1980s school projects. It’s a body of work that forms a beautiful, and genuinely touching, time capsule. The perfect evocation of childhood spent in rural Lincolnshire; and a period where his obsession with the minutiae (and, indeed, the macabre side) of the natural world was occasionally overshadowed by the darker concerns of the decade.
Over to you, Blue-John…
“I no longer have any childhood artwork created purely for pleasure. ‘Trailing palm leaves behind me’ (as Vashti Bunyan sings), I removed all traces. What remains are school projects foxed with age, kept by my parents. I did very little work on them in the classroom: they were completed in a secretive way at home.
As part of the police project of the mid-80s, I remember officers visiting us at the village junior school. One had a briefcase – a salmagundi of narcotics. I also remember looking at a truncheon, dented and pockmarked. Out on the playing field, a display was abandoned: writhing on its leash, the Alsatian concerned went, for whatever reason, berserk. A poem in my project begins with ‘A is for the Anti-Bomb-Squad that acts on demand’, which is perhaps redolent of the times. At that age, ‘Police and Pickets’ was a game that I enjoyed. Being a picket was best: you got to hurl abuse, lob muck, and frenetically resist arrest.
I was already living with what is now termed OCD, and wondering how to tell Mum that I was mad. I spent the Easter holiday of 1986 on my nature project; there was going to be a prize for the best one. ‘Pellets coughed up by a kestrel’ (still at the back, perfectly preserved by Dad) swung the decision in my favour. I knew it was illegal to take a young kestrel from the nest, but, I regret to report, had a magpie named Fagin. He was what we called a ‘wreckling’ – the weakest of the brood.
Radio Lincolnshire gave me a prize for my picture of Prince Andrew and Fergie (imagined at the altar, prior to their wedding), which was essentially a selection of unwanted vinyl, and included The Pretty Things. Quite what a boy of eleven is supposed to do with lyrics such as ‘blind sparrows carry me’, I don’t know, but my brother Rich rediscovered that disc beneath the bunk beds years later, and we would play it on Sunday mornings.
When I arrived at big school – where the older girls looked like Rita and Sue and, if you were lucky, would mother you, and give you a snog at Christmas – I met up with Miss Frost, who lived up to her name and had survived the Brighton hotel bombing, although she was alright when she got to know you. I did a falconry project for her in those pre-Ofsted days, when, in one history lesson, we ended up sitting in the library and watching an episode of Miss Marple, with Joan Hickson. In the Easter holiday of 1987, my parents found me literally working on that project in my sleep. Even at a young age, I was aching for a time that I had never lived through.
The last piece of artwork from my childhood is a poster that I designed for the Horncastle Town & Country Fayre in 1988 – an annual event that is now a thing of the past.”
Thanks so much to Blue-John Benjamin… please investigate his rather wonderful music here:
Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.
A dash of electronica, a soupçon of folk, a delicate hint of the avant-garde… the piquant flavours of the Second Language label are a finely-balanced combination. Formed by Piano Magic frontman Glen Johnson, State River Widening/Ellis Island Sound mainstay David Sheppard and future Home Current electronica wizard Martin Jensen, the label was launched in 2009 with the release of Johnson’s own album Tombola. Recorded under the nom-de-plume of Textile Ranch, this eclectic collection provided an opportunity to depart from Piano Magic’s trademark brand of melancholy pop, and to explore more experimental, electronic avenues.
Since then, Second Language has gained plaudits for albums by the likes of Mark Fry, Sharron Kraus and Oliver Cherer, and a reputation for creating a unique label aesthetic, combining music and design to immaculately tasteful effect. The latest release is the new Textile Ranch album, Ombilical, another incredibly atmospheric collection of ethereal electronica, and a work of which Johnson himself, in his own press release, boldly states: “I don’t consider anything here to be finished.” He goes on to cite the playfully unorthodox ethos of the 1960s Fluxus art movement as an influence on his approach to the album.
(Photo: Josh Hight)
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in May 2020, I enjoyed a long and langourous conversation with Glen about both the new album, and the history of a label whose ethos he sums up as “a rainy, wet night in Brussels, in 1982.”
Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: Can we start by talking a bit about Ombilicial? You’ve been very open about it having a difficult gestation, and you having recorded a couple of different versions of it before settling on the one that you’ve released…
Glen: Yeah, that’s correct.
I started the label with the Textile Ranch album Tombola, and at the time I was just going to put out Textile Ranch records. And I basically e-mailed the Piano Magic fanbase, and said “Look – I’m going to make this electronic record. What do you think about donating money, whatever you can afford, and I’ll make a track for you and put it on the album?” So, you know, we’d have a track called ‘Sketch for Bob Fischer…’
And people started sending me money! I’d get £100 for one CD. And then, over the years, Piano Magic went out touring, and electronic music – which I’ve always loved – got pushed to the side a bit. But when Piano Magic finished in 2016, I went back to Textile Ranch, and started working on the new record. But it took me a while to get my mojo, and the stuff I was making was all just a bit dark, and I just wasn’t very pleased with the whole thing.
I think it was collaborating with people that got my creative juices flowing. Working with Oliver Cherer and Amanda Butterworth and Ola Szmidt… and just saying to people, “Do you fancy doing a little turn?” It started blossoming really quickly, and I realised then that I’m a collaborative person. I need other people to bounce off.
And I ended up with this version, which I’m really pleased with. And other people seem to be too, so it worked out.
And yet, even in the press release, you describe it as a “unfinished” album, which I rather like. For years, I’ve had a quote by George Lucas rattling around my head, which is essentially – “films are never finished, they’re just abandoned”. Is that the case with all creative endeavours?
Exactly. Is anything really finished? It’s something I’ve thought deep and hard about recently, and I don’t know whether anything is. But if you are to survive as an artist, you have to put something out there – or just fade into obscurity. Although arguably true artists are the ones that don’t release anything, they just stay in and make music or do paintings for themselves, and never make them commercially available.
And I’m kind of on a line between the two, to tell you the truth. Because I don’t particularly make money from music, and I really enjoy the creative process a lot. I’m very hands-on with my label, and my music, and working with other people. That’s what I enjoy. The bullshit – you know, the promo and the marketing, all that stuff – is very unfulfilling, ultimately.
But yeah, the whole Fluxus thing that I mentioned in the press release… it’s the process of making the art that’s the fulfilling thing. Finishing something is probably the most boring cap that you can put on anything.
Knowing when something is “finished” is a very difficult decision to make. It can creep up on you, without it being a sudden triumphant moment. It can just be a dawning realisation that what you’ve created is probably “ready”…
I think there’s also the thing, when you’re a musician, that in the back of your mind you’ve got another project lined up. You’re thinking “If I can just put this to bed, I can get on with this potentially much more exciting project that’s backed up behind it.” And of course when that one comes to the fore, you end up with the same problem.
And, if you’re like me, you have six projects all backed up in a line.
Exactly. But in a way, that’s what I want to be. I want to be an octopus. And particularly now, in lockdown, it excites me to have my hand in six recipes at the same time!
Have you made six recipes at the same time?
(Laughs!) No, I should try that. When I’ve done my blog, I’ll try cooking.
I liked your referencing of the Fluxus movement, which championed the idea of art having an “unfinished” quality. That movement had a real element of playfulness, which I can also detect in your work as Textile Ranch. Did you specifically intend to have some fun with this album?
Textile Ranch was always lots of fun, and when I started twenty years ago my biggest influence was a band called Disco Inferno, who were a late 80s/early 90s band that were really into samplers. Not the Paul Hardcastle end of things, but trying to push music into the future by – instead of having a kick drum and a bass to start a track – scratching on a cheese grater. That would be the basis of their groove, and then they’d put some guitar on it, and then some birdsong in the middle. It was kind of a cacophony, but melodic at the same time. And Textile Ranch came out of that playfulness with samples.
But there’s also my love of Kraftwerk, which I hope you can hear on the record. I’m a huge Kraftwerk fan, even the pre-Autobahn stuff.
And a thread of melancholy runs through some of Ombilical, which probably harks back to Piano Magic. It’s all those things – playfulness, Kraftwerk and melancholy. And sampling, which is a lot of fun.
I think playfulness and melancholy can sometimes unexpectedly go hand-in-hand, with delightful results. Before we started recording, we were talking about the affecting TV that we enjoyed as kids, and I always come back to Bagpuss – which absolutely encapsulates a sense of playful melancholy.
Yeah, and do you remember the Moomins TV series? That’s a completely melancholy programme. And the books… you’d have a squirrel that died after three pages. This isn’t a kid’s book, this is a Finnish kid’s book! Creatures are going to die at some point. And I loved all that as a kid, I’d read it thinking: “This squirrel’s dead. What the fuck?”
But with all that stuff, including Bagpuss, I think there was a very late 1960s and early 1970s melancholia. And to things like Crown Court and Armchair Theatre, that I used to watch during my lunch breaks from school. Even the Tyne Tees or Anglia TV idents were kind of creepy. That’s my youth, right there.
I’m flattered you brought up Tyne Tees without prompting! Are you pandering to my North-Eastern origins here?
Ha, no! But when I got older, and into electronic music, I found myself thinking “Actually, this stuff sounds pretty melancholy.”
Yes, but in a way that I now find oddly reassuring, and I’m still trying to untangle why I now find the melancholy disquiet of my childhood very comforting. I guess, in the end, because it came to naught. Ultimately, despite the unsettling nature of the era, I had a nice childhood with no great trauma to speak of.
Were you a sociable child?
I was quite shy, but I had friends. It was just a pretty ordinary, perfectly pleasant childhood.
I actually can’t remember much of the first ten years of my life. I was a complete loner, and it’s put me in good stead for the rest of my life. I prefer being on my own, basically.
Are you an only child, like me?
No, I’ve got a brother. He’s the one who got me into decent music – he’s four years older than me, and he had a record player. He used to work in a factory, and he’d send me to record shops with £50… he’d say “Go to Revolver in Mansfield, and buy me these records”. And it would be an Echo and the Bunnymen 7″, or Kilimanjaro by Teardrop Explodes… it was that sort of period. And I’d bring this stuff home, and before I got back from work I’d play it all on his stereo. Before he could. And I’d read his NME and his Sounds and his Melody Maker.
How old were you at this point?
Around 12. And I was making electronic music pretty soon after all that.
Really? Did you have a little keyboard?
Do you remember Tandy, the shop? That was my heaven. I’d go there, and say to the bloke “What’s this?” And he’s say “It’s a contact mine… you stick it on a surface, and plug it into your amp, and you can bang on the surface and make a percussion sound.”
And I’d day: “Oh, I’ll have one of those!” It was 99p or something… I’d take it back, stick it on a kitchen chair, and I’d be banging it with a wooden spoon, all put through an amp. And my mother would say “What are you doing?”
I’d say: “Well, I’ve been listening to Cabaret Voltaire…”
There’s a vintage Texas Instruments Speak & Spell machine on Ombilical… was that yours from being a kid as well, then?
It’s not, I’ve got three of them. One is French, which is great! I picked them up from car boot sales, probably ten or fifteen years ago. But I started off on a Casio VL-Tone… the keyboard you hear on the Human League’s Dare, on ‘Get Carter’.
And on Trio’s ‘Da Da Da’! It’s got a calculator attached too, hasn’t it?
Yes, they’re great. There’s a sound called “Fantasy” on it, which is the one on ‘Get Carter’, and that’s the best sound. It’s amazing, and you can’t find that on any other synthesizer.
Can I ask about a couple more tracks on Ombilicial? ‘Death and the Seahorse’ is a track I love. It’s you narrating a dream about a seahorse that has a brush with mortality, and again it has that sense of playful melancholy to it. Was that based on a genuine dream?
It was, yeah – I’m a big dreamer. I always have been, and I don’t know why. Sometimes when I wake up I write them down, and when I’m making a track I’ll dig them out. Before I was in a band, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write short stories. I was particularly obsessed by that almost surreal type of fantasy – there’s a writer called Barry Yourgrau, an American guy who looks a bit like John Waters. He did this book called A Man Jumps Out Of An Aeroplane Wearing Dad’s Head. The first story in it is about a bunch of guys standing around a cow, and one of them is bet that he daren’t climb inside it. But he takes the money and climbs in through the cow’s arse. He’s inside the cow, and the cow is saying: “What the fuck is going on? Why is this guy climbing inside me?”
His mates outside say “OK, you won the bet. Come on out.” And he basically says, “No, I’m staying here”. So that’s about the level of my dreams!
Do you keep a notepad by the pad?
I do, actually.
I used to do that. I’ve got a few write-ups of utterly bizarre dreams I’ve had over the years, and I wish they were all as coherent as ‘Death and the Seahorse’! I love those “epic” dreams, those sagas that go on for hours.
But do they go on for hours? Or do they just seem to? Apparently it’s that period after you get up for a piss at five o’clock in the morning… you get back into bed and that’s when you get the R.E.M. sleep. That’s the point when you have those crazy, massive Big Fish type dreams.
And can you tell me the story behind ‘How I Sit At The Piano?” It samples what sounds like a fascinating conversation.
It’s from a famous… well, a very well-viewed Youtube video of a catatonic shizophrenic patient in the 1960s. I saw it two years ago, and it’s amazing. The guys is being interviewed, he’s in a psychiatric institution and he’s asked why he thinks he’s in there. And he says: “Well, it’s how I sit at the piano.”
Phenomenal. What an answer. I think there’s more to it than that, and when you watch the video you’ll get more of an idea. I think it’s more to do with him being perceived as overly camp when he was sitting at the piano.
Oh gosh, so it was deemed that he needed psychiatric treatment for that?
I think it was probably the way people perceived homosexuality at the time. He’s a fascinating character to watch and listen to, and I just cut up little sections of his interview.
Which I’ll be doing with this one too, and turning it into a track… [laughs]
Feel free! Can I ask about some of your collaborators on this album?Amanda Butterworth, who records as Mücha, contributes vocals to a couple of tracks. How do you know Amanda?
I liked her music. I chanced upon an album she made [The Colour of Longing, 2016], a very beautiful album, and I loved her voice. I just contacted her and said “I love what you’re doing”… I’m one of those people that will just say “Do you want to work with me?”. I’ve worked with Vashti Bunyan, Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance, John Grant, Alan Sparhawk from Low… and I’ve basically just reached out and said “Want to do something?” And they’ve all said yes, which is great.
We actually did five tracks that day, there are three that haven’t been released yet. I think we worked together really well. I think I used this word in my review for Electronic Sound, and I meant it as a compliment… she’s got an aloof quality to her voice. ‘Skeletons’, in particular, she sings beautifully, and her performance has a distant quality, which works perfectly.
If you liked ‘Skeletons’, you’ll love her album.
And do you go back a long way with Oliver Cherer?
We go back to Myspace. We’re good friends, me and Ollie. At the peak of Myspace, I’d be on there until four o’clock in the morning, talking to people… I’d be talking to some Polish guy who runs a little electronic collective or something, and I’d say “Send me some files, and I’ll add something to what you’re doing.” And it was like that with Ollie, I think. He was making electronic music when I first talked to him, so we ended up swapping music, and twenty years later we’re still really good friends and I’m still releasing his music. And he plays on my stuff… always trumpet! I’ll ask “Can I have some trumpet?” and he’ll say “I can’t play the trumpet…” (laughs). “Well, just blow into it!” He’s a musical polymath, he can play anything. He’d play the kettle if you gave him a kettle.
There’s a picture of his music room on the blog somewhere…
Yeah, it’s amazing. He’s in Hastings, and when I go down there he’s always got something new. I went there once and he had a massive Hammond organ. I said “Where did you get that?”, and he said “Charity shop, just down the street.”
“Well how the fuck did you get it home?”
He’s got rid of that now, but he’s got tons of stuff. Xylophones and musical saws.
Yeah, I’ve known Franck for a long time. A long-term guitar and piano-player, and he lives in Crystal Palace, like me. He’s not particularly into electronic music, so I was just teasing him, really; “I dare you to play on some of this mad shit!” And he’ll just plug in and do it, and I cut and edit what he plays.
Ola Szmidt is on there, too. What can you tell me about Ola?
Ola is a really interesting singer, and flautist and electronic artist. She won the Steve Reid Innovation Award few years ago and I found out about her through that, really – I liked what she was doing, some really interesting stuff with electronics. I actually asked her to make mermaid sounds on the album. Which reminds me of… do you know what Morrissey once asked Mary Margaret O’Hara?
On ‘November Spawned A Monster’?
Yes, that story where he said “Go into the vocal booth and give birth”. And that’s exactly what it sounds like. And that’s what I had in mind when I asked Ola if she could be a mermaid. And she did it perfectly. She sounds like a mermaid.
You mentioned that you’d once worked with Vashti Bunyan, and I love her work to bits. I interviewed her for the radio a few years ago…
Isn’t she lovely? She was fabulous. It was when her album Heartleapcame out, and – having got the impression she was quite shy – I wasn’t sure how it would go, but she was so sweet and modest and lovely.
All of those things.
How did you make contact with her?
She was obviously away from the music scene for thirty years, and when I was in Piano Magic I signed a publishing deal with a guy called Paul Ramsden, who ran Spinney Records. And he told me that he’d just reissued Just Another Diamond Day, by Vashti Bunyan. He gave me a copy and said “Go away and listen to this, because she wants to work with people. She wants to come back.”
So I listened to that album, and it blew my mind. I don’t know if you know Mark Fry’s Dreaming With Alice album? It’s that same thing: “How did this get made? What was going on?” I phoned Paul and said “Can I write something for her?” And he said “Yeah, have a go.”
So I wrote a song for her. I just got really pissed, wrote this song, demoed it, burned it onto CD – this was back in 2000 – posted it to Vashti in Edinburgh, and then two days later the phone rang. “Hello Glen, this is Vashti Bunyan… I love your song and I want to sing it.”
She came down to London, and we recorded it in Joe Boyd‘s studio. He had this little demo studio in Notting Hall Gate. And there was pool table in there, so me and Vashti had a couple of rounds of pool. She was really good, actually.
I think she did. And then it came to recording, and she said “Can you close the curtain around the vocal booth?” She hadn’t recorded a song in thirty years. And I was sitting there with the engineer, and he turned to me and said; “Is she singing?”
I said “I don’t know…” but we turned up the fader as far as it would go, and we could just hear her. And she sounded exactly as she had thirty years earlier. She hadn’t changed at all. Super quiet. We kept pushing up the faders. And we did a couple of tracks, she’s on two Piano Magic Songs. She’s probably the nicest person I’ve worked with, hands down. She’s lovely.
So that was literally the first time she’d been in a studio since 1970?
I went to see her live in 2014, she was playing in The Band Room, which essentially is a converted barn in a tiny hamlet on the remote North York Moors. Me and my friend David drove out there, got there early, parked up outside the venue, and she was soundchecking inside. We just sat in the car listening to this extraordinary voice, thinking… “God… it’s Vashti Bunyan. She’s in there!”
It was a really emotional experience. Imagine sitting in the dark on the moors, hearing Vashti Bunyan’s voice coming from inside a barn…
That’s how you should hear her, I think! Nothing will ever better that experience. And she works with a great guitarist called Gareth Dickson, who has done a track for the next Second Language release. I love his stuff, he’s got a bit of Nick Drake about him. His solo stuff is very beautiful and very melancholy.
Can I ask about the origins of Second Language as a label? I found an old interview with you, where you talked about – as a teenager – your attempt to launch a cassette-based label from your parents’ house. So running a label has clearly been an ambition for a long time, I guess?
That’s in the Ian Preece book that’s just come out,Listening to the Wind – you should definitely read that! There’s a section on Clay Pipe, and one on Second Language. And yeah, I reminisce about this… I’m from a very working class family, we lived on a council estate in a pit village on the Notthinghamshire/Derbyshire border. Near Alfreton. There’s nothing there, and nothing happens, but I was into weird electronic music. And I thought – “I want to start a record label? How do I do that?”
And I put an ad in the back of Record Mirror, saying “EXPERIMENTAL AVANT-GARDE MUSIC WANTED FOR NEW LABEL”. I was about 13, and was heavily influenced by Some Bizarre records. Their first compilation album on that had a very eclectic bunch of freaks on it, and I wanted to do something like that!I thought “Oh, hardly anyone will respond…”
But the postman just kept coming and coming. Bags and bags, it went on for weeks.
Were these cassettes?
Yeah. And I’d play them all, all the way through, then I’d write back to these bands and say “Wow!” They were all amazing to me. I thought everything was amazing. And then I got to the difficult point of… well, how do you start a record label? What do you do? I had no idea. So it sort of petered off… until I was 35. [Laughs]
I interviewed Martin Jensen for Electronic Sound a couple of months ago, and he seemed to suggest that the birth of Second Language was at least partly influenced by his love of birdwatching.
Yeah, it was partially that! He was into his birds, and me and David Sheppard… well, our big thing was Les Disques du Crépuscule, that early 80s Belgian label, and Durutti Column. Me and David were really big Durutti Column fans, and we wanted to start something that was in that style: very romantic, very pro-European. That romance has been lost, or steamrollered by the whole fucking Brexit farce, but lots of British people love the idea of Europe. The romanticism of the continent. That would sum up the label for me: A rainy, wet night in Brussels, in 1982. That’s Second Language for me.
So Martin’s interest in ornithological things, obscure Belgian labels and Durutti Column… roll that all together, and you’ve got Second Language.
We did three, Music and Migration. They were really good, very eclectic, and very much like Les Disques du Crépuscule’s compilations.
I hate doing this, but if could pick out a Second Language release that you were especially proud of, and that really summed up the ethos of the label, would what it be?
I can pick two if you like? There’s Oliver Cherer’s most recent record, I Feel Nothing Most Days. Which really sounds to me almost like the first Ben Watt solo album on Cherry Red, and that’s so much what we wanted for the label. And then the first Mark Fry album on Second Language, I Lived In Trees. It’s just beautiful, and I still play it very regularly. That also encapsulates the whole sonic ethos of the label.
But there are too many, honestly. I love everything we’ve put out.
I wanted to ask about Topic Records as well, which is a legendary label – the oldest independent label in the world, in fact! And, as well as running Second Language, you’re also in charge of Topic. How did that happen?
I work for a music distribution company called Proper Distribution, and within that there are a few in-house labels. One of which is Proper Records, and then there’s Navigator, which is a folk label. And then a few years ago, David and Tony from Topic approached us and said “We need someone else to take over the day-to-day running of it… we’re sort of exhausted”. So we volunteered, and I was the person to do it. And I’m not a folkie, but I think there’s good music in all genres, and I knew the historical legacy of Topic. And I’ve gone on to forge relationships with the main players: Martin Simpson, Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy… and you get to know them. Even Anne Briggs, I met Anne Briggs last year.
So I found myself at the centre of this folk empire really, and that’s the day job!
The Carthys are lovely. A couple of years ago, I drove Martin back home to Robin Hood’s Bay from a gig in Middlesbrough, and when we got there, he invited me in for a cuppa. So, as a bit of a folkie myself, I found myself in the surreal position of watching the late film on BBC2 with Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson.
Brilliant. He’s got some amazing stories, Martin. He’s told me some crazy stuff about being on tour with Danny Thompson! They’re all great.
So what’s next for Second Language?
I’ve got this amazing compilation coming out. It should be July or August – I’ve been working on it for a long time. Various people have been contributing tracks, and collaborating for it, too. So Ollie is on it quite a bit, I’m on it, Mark Fry, Pete Astor, David Sheppard who founded the label with me and Martin. I wanted to do a compilation that really encompassed what I thought the label was really, really about. And get to the core of that. And there are some really interesting curveballs, too.
We have subscribers to Second Language too, and the subscribers get an album and a bonus EP, and there’s always lots of interesting stuff on the bonus EP.
So that’s the next thing. It’s an album called Avenue With Trees, and it’s very much about pro-continental, European romanticism. That’s what it sounds like to me.
Thanks to Glen for his time and conversation. Ombilical is available here:
For several decades of the 20th century, the lowest shelf of every pokey, street-corner newsagent would groan wearily beneath the weight of a lurid assembly of gloriously overripe comics. From The Beano and Whizzer and Chips to June, Bunty and Misty; from the old-school derring-do of The Eagle and Commando to the bone-crunching futurism of 2000AD, these crinkled, 5p delights were precious school night treats, spread out on living room floors and candlewick bedspreads alike.
No surprise, then, that many of us attempted to create our own versions. We drew brilliantly inventive spoofs or imitations of our favourite titles: thick wodges of DIY felt-tip strips awkwardly stapled together and passed around obliging family members and friends, eagerly awaiting tacit approval. Among this teeny legion of aspiring comic book moguls was writer Ben Graham, now a writer and music journalist for the likes of The Quietus, but – during his childhood – the genius behind titles like this:
Over to you, Ben…
“I grew up in Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire in the 1970s and ‘80s. I was writing and drawing my own comics constantly from the age of about five to around 14, when I moved seamlessly into RPGs and then alternative music fanzines. My main influences were the UK reprints of Marvel comics, but I was also into books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Dark Is Risingand The Wizard of Earthsea; Ray Harryhausen films like Jason And The Argonauts and Clash Of The Titans; and anything about King Arthur and his knights, which led to a love of what I generally referred to as “mythology”.
My dad was going through a phase of rediscovering his Scottish roots, and we always had summer holidays in Galloway in Scotland, near where much of The Wicker Man was filmed. He encouraged my interest in Celtic, Scottish and Irish myth cycles, as well as the Viking stuff that I knew from the Puffin edition of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen ,and from Marvel’s The Mighty Thorand Tales of Asgardfeatures.
The Silver Flame starring The Man Called Mystic dates from 1979 or 1980, when I was eight or nine years old. “The Mystic” was obviously a Dr Strange rip-off, though the actual story was based more upon the original Captain Britain, with stone circles, Merlin, and references to “Otherworld”.
The free gift was probably a home-made badge – cardboard with a safety pin sellotaped to the back – though I can’t be certain if I ever actually got that far!
The Saga of Lugh I’d say came from around the same time but – despite my regressing from felt tips to crayons for the colouring-in – it looks a little better drawn. It was virtually a graphic novel, filling the whole of a 20-page A4 sketch pad, probably drawn over one long summer holiday. 1980? I’d decided that the Irish sun god Lugh was the likeliest candidate for a Celtic superhero in the vein of Marvel’s Thor, and went ahead and did my version of his battle with the Fomorian giant Balor, who I made into a kind of Irish cyclops with one deadly eye.
The Viking warrior on the cover of Cult Comic #2 and the Gamma 6 comic came a couple of years later: it’s 1982 and I’m 11. The science fiction imagery and cynical humour of the Gamma 6 cover suggests the influence of 2000 AD, but the material inside was still a mix of swords & sorcery and superheroes.
I’ve included pages from ‘Knights of Silver Tower’ and ‘The Mysterious Isle’ to give some of the flavour:
I’m not sure that I ever grew out of this stuff, as I now earn a precarious living as a writer, including as a music journalist for The Quietus and Shindig. A couple of years ago I self-published a science fiction novel called Amorphous Albionand I’m still into “mythology.” Under the influence of Alan Moore, I declared myself a magician on the top of Glastonbury Tor on my 40th birthday, and I’ve had the most enjoyable and rewarding decade of my life since then as a result. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Thanks, Ben!Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.
Clocks tick. Floorboards creak, water pipes grumble. Tinnitus throbs like a whistling kettle, and thoughts intensity: niggles become crises. Orange streetlamps, eventually, are dimmed by silver dusk. The relentless, clanging alertness of insomnia is a sensory assault, an agonising void in which the miniscule becomes mighty.
The exaggerated emotions and heightened sensibilities of the sleepless night are encapsulated evocatively in After Lights Out, a collaboration between Northampton poet Tom Harding – who reads verse from his own nocturnally-themed collection Night Work – and musical collective Capac, who provide a sensitive selection of ambient musical accompaniment. It was an alliance mooted after Capac‘s Stuart Cook heard Tom’s poetry recitals on the Nocturne podcast, and was struck by the inherent musicality of his verse.
I asked Tom about the background to both Night Work, and After Lights Out:
Bob: The obvious question to ask – do you suffer from insomnia yourself?
Tom: I’ve suffered from insomnia periodically over the years. I thought I’d got it licked but the recent lockdown seems to have summoned it back, and I understand there are a few people in the same boat.
So are you able to use the night-time creatively? Did you actually write lots of the poetry on this album during the small hours themselves?
The poems in this collection cover a ten year period. The early ones I wrote in my twenties, when I would think nothing of staying up until 4am writing, even when I had work the next day. The thought of that now makes me shudder. In recent years, sleepless nights have been caused by my three-year-old. I’ve written a lot of poems on my phone while my son slept on my shoulder, and it reminded me of how intimate the hours are between midnight and 4am.
I always think there’s a mental mindset during a sleepless night that exists at no other times of our lives: and I’ve tried hard to describe it – that combination of exhaustion while being deluged with uncontrollable thoughts. Do you have similar feelings?
In recent years I’ve been conditioning myself to ignore my thoughts… something that’s easier said than done. When you’re young, you treat your inner voice as being somehow holy, as if it’s the essence of who you are, and you ignore its message at your peril. But this can lead to an over-reliance on the thinking mind. Thoughts are little dictators of the mind, and if you’re not careful you can spend your conscious life falling victim to fictitious narratives of your own creation.
It’s very freeing when you realise that your internal monologue doesn’t need to be trusted, that it’s less like your immortal soul and more like a panicky flatmate or a broken radio. The noise of daytime often drowns it out, but at night-time it leaks in.
There are mentions of spiders on this album – are you an arachnaphobiac, by any chance?
Yes, that must have crept in somehow. It wasn’t a conscious addition. Some of my most panic-stricken memories are of lying awake, conscious there was a spider in the room.
And a related stab in the dark… there’s the recurring phrase “Spider and I” on the album too, which is the name of a track on one of my favourite albums, Brian Eno’s Before and After Science. Was that a deliberate reference?
No… strangely, I know the song but I hadn’t made that connection. I like that album a lot. Nice to tie a spider’s web between the two.
And on the off-chance… have you ever suffered from hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations? I do sometimes, and again… it’s always spiders. I wake up screaming in the bathroom sometimes.
I have something, but I’m uncertain of its name. I know that I’m awake, so I’m not being fooled as you might be by a hallucination. Instead it’s a type of vivid and spontaneous imagery that emerges when I shut my eyes in the hour before sleep. I brought this up recently with my family, thinking everybody must have this – but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I take it to be the dreaming mind warming up. Kind of like the trailers, before the main show.
There’s a recurring sound motif of controlled breathing on the album: did that come from Capac, or from you? Just interested, as I remember as a kid trying to get to sleep by breathing very slowly and deliberately, and I still do that sometime…
That’s all Capac and it’s a great motif, I agree. I practice mindfulness, and following the breath is central to this. It’s the first place I go to, and the anchor I base it around. It allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. The challenge is to allow your body to relax enough, so that your conscious mind doesn’t try to control the breath.
I also love your encapsulation of the heightened sensory experience of sleeplessness: ‘Night Noises’. What do you tend to hear when you can’t sleep? And do you convince yourself that it’s something far more sinister than the reality?
We live in a quiet neighbourhood, so it’s mostly owls or cats and the odd distant siren. We lived for a long time above a four-way street in North London, so what we often heard in actuality was as bad as our imaginations.
The album is based on your poetry collection, Night Work – so how did the collaboration with Capac come about? I read that Capac’s Stuart Cook heard you on a podcast – did you know him prior to that?
No, Stu had listened to the Nocturne podcast and heard me on there. One good thing leading to another.
[NB Nocturne is a really rather delightful “audio essay” podcast exploring different aspects and notions of the night-time… the episode featuring Tom dates from January 2019, and can be found here:
So did you have to adapt any of the poems to suit the musical approach, or are they pretty much as you originally wrote them?
Only in the sense that Capac focused on, and drew out, certain lines. I love what they did.
And how did the collaboration work on a practical level? Did you record your readings first, and the music was built around them – or vice versa?
I gave Stu a selection of my readings and a year later he produced a finished album. It was a very light touch from me, which works from my point of view, as close collaborations can often be quite challenging.
Did the musical setting bring out meanings to your work that even you hadn’t thought about? Have you thought about any of your poetry differently after hearing it in a musical context?
The biggest kick is when someone picks up on a line that resonates with them. It resurrects poetry that’s long dead to me, either through over-analysis, self criticism or forgetfulness. Such as The ‘Spider And I’ line. And, among other things, it’s made me want to try some more musical collaborations.
And fabulously, physical copies of the album came in a matchbox, with a candle. Have you listened to your own album by candlelight yet, as suggested?
Yes I have… it was beautiful!
Thanks to Tom for his time. After Lights Out, released on the This Is It Forever label, can be bought here:
Thanks also to Tom for allowing the reproduction of a full poem from his Night Work collection:
All night not sleeping but tossing and turning over some unfavourable thought, I lie listening to the bones of the house creak like the inside of a piano
Who’s awake at this hour? Just the mice rolling their life’s luggage across the attic floor, running the gauntlet between the suitcases and heavy coats, little refugees sailing their slim luck in the dark.
How heavy the world must sound creaking and heaving about them, the house caught in turbulent night winds like a ship settling in the dark waters of a flood.
And, as an addendum, this is the review of After Lights Out that I wrote for issue 64 of Electronic Soundmagazine. Which is well worth subscribing to, you can do it here.
CAPAC After Lights Out with Tom Harding (This Is It Forever)
Insomniacs and arachnophobes alike may find this a little raw. International collective Capac collaborate with poet Tom Harding on a beautifully unsettling evocation of the troubled thoughts and sounds that accompany chronic sleeplessness. ‘Night Work’ pulses like an anxious heartbeat in the darkness; ‘The Spider’ suggests the patter of spindly legs across skirting boards. Horror soundtrack pianos tinkle, and Harding’s narration is wearily deadpan. “A book upturned on a page I’ve read, and re-read, a thousand times…” An album where the dawn feels perpetually out of reach.
Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence, the writers of the rather wonderful Scarred For Lifebook, have a pet theory. Essentially: if our 1970s childhood fears were instigated by the ghosts, folklore and all-round strangeness of the era’s typically otherworldly TV serials, then the 1980s was the decade when – to put it bluntly – shit got real. Set aside those creepy stone circles and haunted vicarages, kids… it’s time to worry about AIDS, nuclear armageddon and the spectre of long-term unemployment.
In the early part of the decade, this latter concern in particular seemed to create almost a new sub-genre of realist entertainment for older children and teenagers. It’s “Fatcher’s Britain” as seen through the eyes of a very specific strata of working class, post-punk youth; the Adidas-sporting school-leavers of the Job Centre generation. A Britain of snaking dole queues and Space Invader machines, of urban wasteland, simmering racial tension, glue-sniffing and football terrace kickings. Already politically-charged screenwriters clambered to depict this new disaffection in a cavalcade of powerfully affecting TV series: the nascent Channel 4 screened One Summer, written by Willy Russell and broadcast almost concurrently with the big-screen release of his Educating Ritafilm adaptation. And then there was Scully, whose writer Alan Bleasdale had already pretty much defined the “adult” end of the genre with the extraordinary Boys From The Blackstuff.
Meanwhile, over on the BBC, there was Nigel Williams’s bleakly existential Johnny Jarvis and – perhaps the most overlooked and underrated of them all – Tucker’s Luck.
It was certainly no surprise that Grange Hill‘s Tucker Jenkins was afforded his own dedicated spin-off show. Since debuting in February 1978, Phil Redmond’s teatime depiction of inner city comprehensive school strife had become a TV institution, groundbreaking and controversial in equal measure, and Todd Carty’s portrayal of the impudent but lovable leather-jacketed Jenkins had become the show’s cheeky calling card. Everyone knew Tucker. Tucker’s Luck was first broadcast on BBC2 in March 1983… exactly five weeks after the British unemployment statistic had reached an all-time record high of 3,224,715. Its depiction of a downtrodden, 16-year-old Jenkins being reluctantly shunted between dole queue, Job Centre and prospect-free, cash-in-hand labour couldn’t have been more apposite.
Robert Leeson‘s book is, perhaps surprisingly, not an adaption of the TV series. That book exists, was written by Jan Needle, and published in 1984. Forty Days of Tucker J. acts as a precursor to the events of Tucker’s Luck, kicking off on 6th September (presumably 1982 – overly-diligent research reveals that date was, appropriate to the book’s events, a Monday), a day that officially marks the end of the school summer holidays, and the beginning of Jenkins’ new life as an unemployed school-leaver. Living with his parents in a bedroom filled with spare motorbike parts, and drifting into a torpor of late-morning sleeping and creeping depression, he is given an ultimatum by his father. Tucker must prove, within the next six weeks, that he is capable of earning an independent living… or his parents will insist he return to Grange Hill after the October half-term to study for further qualifications.
Determined to avoid the horrors of the latter option, Tucker – accompanied, as in the TV series, by lovelorn pessimist Alan Humphries and sex-obsessed lounge lizard Tommy Watson – embarks on a frequently dispiriting quest to amass, in the titular forty days, the depressingly modest £25 capital that will keep his father satisfied. The book ticks off the days one-by-one in diary form, detailing the trio’s frustrations in compulsively low-octane fashion, and summing up with beautiful concision the mire of tangled bureaucracy faced by the teenage jobless. “I’ve been up the Labour three times, the Social Security twice, the Job Centre three times and the Careers Office twice,” grumbles Tucker, already a beaten figure by Day Seven. “I’m sick of the sight of the bleeding places.”
He takes a succession of unenviable, short-term jobs; “shovelling pig shit” among the “grey, oblong blocks” of an dismally industrial farm complex, and whitewashing, for £1.50 an hour, the racist and obscene graffiti (“Dogger has a ten-inch…”) daubed along a dank underpass with an “all-over aroma of damp and cat piss.” Tellingly, the trio’s sole encounter with upwardly-mobile Thatcherite entrepreneurship, the offer of a door-to-door job selling soft drinks on behalf of the sharp-suited, cut-glass accented Charles Barraclough, transpires to be an elaborate con trick. It is Day Thirteen, appropriately, when their paltry savings from a fortnight’s worth of casual labour and signing-on are all but wiped out by the smoke-and-mirrors illusion of a commission-only fortune.
Tucker finds temporary respite in the company of his old Grange Hill nemesis Trisha Yates, now working part-time in a pub while attempting to study: a combination that, ultimately, leads to her own entanglement in “screaming at the walls” red tape. But ultimately salvation comes in the unlikely form of those scattered motorbike parts: Tucker is offered £25 for the painstaking, two-week job of clearing “two inches of shit” from a Yamaha XJ650 belonging to a friend of his older brother. And also – on a test ride of his own spluttering bike around an abandoned, padlocked yard – stumbles upon a respray business operated by a gang of local black kids, facing both idle harassment from the local police and brutal racist violence from unreformed Grange Hill boot boy Booga Benson. Among their number is another former schoolmate, Hughes, who persuades gang leader Roller to offer Tucker a loose alliance as their resident motorbike mechanic.
I actually first read this book in 1983, as a ten-year-old, and felt like I’d taken a bold step into a very adult world. It was probably the first novel I’d read that seemed to inhabited the same Britain as my own struggling family, battling to stay afloat in the unemployment wastelands of the North-East, and as such it perfectly epitomised that early 1980s rites-of-passage graduation from “ghost and goblins” fantasy to brutal, “shit got real” reality. I’m still unsure whether that transition was a genuine cultural shift, or merely the perception of one from a generation of children reaching adolescence at the same time, but either way both Tucker’s Luck and Forty Days of Tucker J. evoke it perfectly, and Leeson – whose 1975 novel The Third Class Genie was a previous Musty Book – deserves far more credit as a writer of brilliantly downbeat and socially realistic fiction for young people.
Mustiness Report: An an entirely appropriate 8/10. After kicking aimelessly around countless bookshelves since I paid £1 for it from the Middlesbrough branch of WH Smiths in late 1983, it now has pages the exact colour of an early 1980s Job Centre frontage.
When I was five years old, I had three homes. The first was my actual home, in the small North-Eastern town of Yarm, where I lived and went to school. The second was my grandmother’s bungalow in the Middlesbrough suburb of Acklam, which provided a cosy weekend haven. The third was the desert planet Tatooine, on the outer rim of the galaxy, whose rolling landscape of sand dunes, moisture farms and seedy spaceports I knew just as intimately as any of its real-life counterparts. In my head, I was Luke Skywalker: and a journey to the Stockton Autoparts shop in my dad’s battered Triumph Toledo was, essentially, a ride in a runaway landspeeder, bullseyeing Womp Rats on the dusty track to Beggar’s Canyon. 1970s motorcyclists were blank-faced Imperial Stormtroopers, and the family dogs on the back seat were Wookies manning the laser cannons.
Such was the seismic impact of Star Wars on the psyche of 1970s children. It was an impact also clearly felt by artist and writer Richard Littler, the twisted genius in charge of communications from the dystopian realm of Scarfolk, and I’m very grateful to Richard for contributing our latest Felt Trips feature: the contents of this carefully-preserved childhood journal…
Over to you, Richard…
“I wrote my first book when I was six years old. Kind of. I’d seen Star Wars for the first time in early 1978 and like many children at the time I was soon an avid disciple. In the days before home video we had to sate our hunger for everything Star Wars by amassing toy figures, comics, bed linen, wallpaper, abridged ‘Story Of’ records, party accessories, and school stationery.
I had a school satchel full of the latter, including C-3PO’s Exercise Book, which I completely filled with Star Wars related drawings and texts. It started out as a catalogue of the Topps Star Wars bubble gum cards I had collected, but I didn’t actually own that many. I completed that task by the end of the first page and was left wondering what to do with the rest of the book.
So the remainder of this slender volume contains my versions of excerpts from The Star Wars Storybook, published by Collins/Armada – and newly acquired by me – in the April of that year. Additionally, there are mini-stories and character biographies that I had written myself, based on my sometimes erroneous memories of having seen the film only once. For example, I recalled incorrectly that Princess Leia had inserted the Death Star plans into R2D2 on the Millennium Falcon…
The difference between the writing styles is glaringly obvious. Suffice it to say that sentences such as ‘Stormtrooper a kind of robot what can fight in war’ and ‘Chewbacca […] was brawt into war if a stormtrooper tryed to kill him he cuold bash them very hard’ do not feature in the Collins/Armada publication.
When I rediscovered and opened my Star Wars exercise book decades later, I found tiny white and coloured fragments of the rubber I had used, caught in the book’s central gutter. I’m almost sure it was a Luke Skywalker eraser, and I know I will have been conflicted over whether to use it or not: every Star Wars item to a six-year-old fan was a treasure – a holy relic – and to deface it would have been an act of heresy.”
Thanks Richard. The force will be with you… always.
Except on Tuesdays, when it only works a half day.
Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.
Amid the trauma of the global pandemic, collectively hemmed into an ongoing international lockdown, it’s become increasingly important to find distraction, relief and respite. So kudos to Ghost Box Records, who – seemingly out of nowhere – have conjured the appropriately-titled Intermission, a timely and soothing compilation of original material. Comprising brand new tracks from pretty much the entirety of the label’s current roster, and the unexpected but sensational return of one old favourite, it appeared without fanfare on Friday 8th May; not referencing the current crisis as such, but – to paraphrase label co-founder Jim Jupp – “responding” to it.
From Jim’s own Belbury Poly to co-founder Julian House’s Focus Group; from new recruits Plone to steely trouper Jon Brooks and his trusty Advisory Circle, the mood evoked by all is one of calm reassurance. The gentle beats of Pye Corner Audio are present and correct, as are exotic transmissions from the continent: Germany’s ToiToiToi and Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. Clay Pipe founder Frances Castle offers analogue solidarity in her guise as The Hardy Tree, chanteuse Sharron Kraus brings a wistful folk sensibility, and her regular collaborator Justin Hopper unifies this blissful musical panacea with thoughtful and touching narration.
And then, yes… there’s the return of that old favourite. We’ll come back to him.
Digital copies of the album ordered through the Ghost Box website have temptingly different artwork to the regular edition, and also benefit Médecins Sans Frontières, the international humanitarian and medical organisation. The ever-genial Jim Jupp joined me to discuss Intermission, and other recent Ghost Box releases – as well as offering a few tantalising glimpses into the label’s future.
Bob: The last time we spoke properly was back in January when Paul Weller’s EP,In Another Room, was just about to be released on Ghost Box. Was that rather a frantic time?
Jim: It was, and we had a few technical hitches – I think even you had tweets about it, from people asking where they could get it! But I think we got there. We covered the audience as best as we could, and we did an extra batch that went to Japan only, because we’ve got a sub-distributor in Japan, and they were desperate. Fans of anything in Japan are Super Fans, they really wanted it! So we did an extra batch for them, approved by Paul’s people. But it’s still there on digital, rolling away, and we’re very happy with it.
And Paul’s forthcoming album features a song called ‘Earth Beat’… which is reworking of your song ‘The Willows’. That’s quite an honour…
It is! While we were talking about the EP, and while he was putting down the first ideas for that in the studio, he was listening to more of our back catalogue. And he texted me and said “I’ve been listening to a tune of yours and singing along to it, and I think I can work it up into a song – would that be alright?”
And I said (Laughs – and in a squeaky, schoolboy voice) “Yes! Course it would!”
So he did a rough demo, pretty much over the original recording, and it worked. It fitted straight away. Luckily, I still had the separate elements of the recording, the stems. With a lot of projects from that long ago, I wasn’t so organised and I didn’t keep them… I didn’t know what I was doing so much. But for some reason – thank God – I had all the parts for that tune, so I was able to get them to his studio, and they were able to rework them into a new tune.
So is that a Weller/Jupp composition, then?
It is, I get an album credit! It’s split between me, Paul and the guy who sings backing vocals, Col3trane – he wrote a middle eight for it.
And then a couple of weeks ago you released Plone’s album, Puzzlewood, which seems to be an album that everybody really loves. And it’s their first official album since 1999! Had you been aware that they were making new stuff? When I spoke to them, I think they said that it was them that approached Ghost Box, rather than the other way around…
They did. I was aware that they were up to stuff, but I think they’d got to a stage with Plone material where they thought: “Oh, nobody’s interested any more.” Then about two years ago, Billy had some side projects that he was working on – with somebody else, not Mike – and he said “Would Ghost Box be interested in these?” And I said “Yeah… it might be something we could look at for a single or something.” He said “OK, leave it with me and we’ll bat it about…”
But then, a few mails later, I mentioned that – years ago, early 2000s – somebody had sent me a CD bootleg of the “missing” Plone album. And I said: “Are you still doing Plone material? What happened to that album?” And he said “Yeah, we’ve got absolutely loads of stuff.” And he sent me links to, actually, about three albums’ worth. Some of which you can hear on Puzzlewood, and some of which dated from just after the missing album.
I said “There’s loads of great stuff here, Billy… can I cherry pick, work them into an album and sequence it, and you can polish those tracks up?” He said “Yeah, absolutely.” They’re very humble fellows. I think… I didn’t appreciate, and they didn’t appreciate, the amount of love in the room for Plone. They generate this sort of warm, fuzzy feeling, and there were a lot of fans that were really pleased and excited.
It’s nice… Boards of Canada were my first inroad into “this” stuff, in around 1999, but I was aware of Plone around that time as well – I probably heard them on John Peel’s show. This kind of music really seems to make a profound impact on people, but the artists themselves can be completely unaware that they’re held in much regard at all.
Yes, Boards of Canada, and Plone as well, were almost the first wave of that hauntological thing: “Oh yeah, the kind of music that I heard on the telly when I was ill! Other people know about this!”. They were the first people to connect with that, really. And Broadcast, of course.
Was the beginning of lockdown a worrying time for Ghost Box? It looked for a little while as though you might not be able to give Puzzlewood a physical release.
Yeah, the first few weeks of lockdown were scary. For everyone, of course, but in terms of the business and the label it was a worrying time. The Plone record was due; it was being manufactured and it was all paid for, and it was one of the biggest projects that we’d done in terms of outlay and capital. We did a lot of units, we did the special coloured vinyl… we knew it would be popular. And a lot of our money was tied up in it! We didn’t even know if it would arrive… and then our distributor, The State 51 Conspiracy, closed their doors. But luckily we were able to co-ordinate with them, and they’re kind of up and running again with a skeleton crew. Just part-time, so they’re struggling with the backlog of orders for retail, and for our shop and for the other labels they handle. So it’s not ideal, but they’re heroically forging ahead.
It’s been difficult, because they’re in a fairly central London location, and people have to get into work. That’s one of their biggest problems, aside from social distancing in the warehouse.
That’s their office and venue space, but the warehouse is just down the road from there. And yes, it was trapped there! It was a hairy few weeks, because we didn’t know what would happen. But we decided to stick to the release date, and if there’d been no physical product, we’d have taken pre-orders and done what we could when we could.
Mainly because, when I talked to the guys, we decided it was a timely record. It’s a cheerful, feelgood record, simple as that. And, as it’s turned out, I think that’s been quite timely, and people have loved it because of that. And things just came together at the last minute, so we could get physical product out there to the shops.
Which is important, as I think the physical object is a huge part of the Ghost Box aesthetic. I remember you saying to me at the time that you were having to be a digital-only label for a while, and you didn’t sound hugely enthusiastic…
Absolutely. But yeah, that was the prognosis at the time!
Let’s talk about Intermission… was the idea of a compilation of new material from your roster of artists something you’d been thinking about anyway? Or did it suddenly strike you that said artists might suddenly have a bit more time on their hands?
It was partly that… and no, I hadn’t previously considered it. It wasn’t on our release schedule, or in our plans at all, until lockdown began. And it was during the period that I’ve just been talking about when I thought: “We could be out of pocket, we could have serious problems, we have to do whatever we can on the digital side to keep the label rolling, and to keep a trickle of income coming for the artists.” It was something. So I got in touch with everybody, and said “How quickly can you give me a track, or a couple of tracks?” And everybody was up for it.
So the first impulse was survival, and a bit of income. But… as State 51 came back online, and we got a bit of physical product back online, and the Plone release went ahead successfully – against all odds! – I thought “We’ll keep doing this, but we probably ought to give something back as well.” So we did the charity version, too. You can choose just to buy it the normal way, and it’s a few quid for the artists and musicians, or you can give all the money to charity by buying it from our own shop.
And did you walk a fine line with your approach to it? Ghost Box kind of operates in its own unique, parallel world, and I wondered if you made a conscious decision as to how much of the “real” world you wanted to intrude? Justin Hopper’s narration on the album, while not specifically mentioning the Coronavirus, certainly alludes to recent events.
The brief that I gave to everyone was that it was a response to the situation, perhaps, but in no way was it about the situation. So, you know… what are you feeling, creatively? Where’s your head at? Just do that. And I spoke to Justin about how we might frame it, because we had the idea straight away that he would almost be the presenter or narrator of this thing, tying it together. And it was his idea to do a kind of Twilight Zone Intro and Outro…
Yes! That’s exactly what it is!
He’s a big fan of old Twilight Zone, as am I, and Rod Serling lived in Justin’s home town, Binghamton. And there are a couple of old Twilight Zone episodes where Justin knows the exact location… there’s one [the episode ‘Walking Distance’] that he talks about, where a guy goes back to his old picket-fence home town, and his mother and father are still alive, and he sees himself playing with the kids in the street. And Justin grew up round there, and knows those roads and streets really well.
So it was something that had been knocking around in his head. And the impulse at the moment… well, everybody seems to be scurrying to nostalgia, and their safe place, and perhaps their childhood memories. The impulse is to watch lots of old TV and listen to old music, and do the hobbies that made you happy when you were younger.
So I had the title “Intermission” – which is a very broadcast-y, TV, cinematic take on things, very much the Ghost Box world. It’s a break in normal services. Normal services will resume shortly! “Intermission” sounds aloof and high-handed, but kind of reassuring. So Justin took that word and thought of the idea of memory being a safe place; the little pauses and quiet times of the past that you remember. So his Intro and Outro allude to that, in this Rod Serling kind of way. And his longer piece in the middle, ‘Recreation Park’, about a park near his house that he remembered from being a kid, is a similar thing. Harking back to a particular childhood memory, simple as that.
And generally, the message I put out to everyone was sort of… tread a middle ground. Which I think they did anyway, I didn’t need to ask. I said we didn’t want any dark, dystopian drones here, and neither did we want relentlessly upbeat happy stuff. As it happens, we’ve got both on there, a bit! (Laughs) But generally, I think it all hangs together. There’s a theme of calm, of waiting, of “What’s going to happen next? It’ll be nice when this is over…”
It’s a very soothing album. And I like how Justin, who is a fairly recent recruit to the Ghost Box world, has quickly become such an integral part of it. Is it nice to have a “voice” that you can use on recordings – literally, a spokesperson?
It is! It’s entirely accidental, but he’s perfect for us. For a few reasons. He’s kind of become the “anchorman” of Ghost Box. Conceptually, it’s a bit like an old TV channel, and he’s the voice of the broadcasts. And it was good for us the way it played out… the obvious route would be to have a plummy English voice, but the fact that Justin – because he’s American – is a slight outsider to this world kind of makes a weird sense. He’s got a great performing and reading voice and a way with words, and he gets what we’re trying to do with Ghost Box. He understood straight away what this compilation was, and what the mood should be. And when he suggested the Rod Serling thing, he said “I won’t make it too much like that…”
I said “No, no! That’s brilliant, do Rod Serling! Make it sound like you’re standing in front of a weird backdrop smoking a cigarette!” And that’s what he did, and it was perfect.
Just looking through the album here… after Justin’s introduction, you’re straight into a new Advisory Circle track. Jon Brooks is on a rich run of form at the moment, isn’t he?
He really is at the moment, he’s doing really well.
And blimey – Roj is on it as well! The first new recordings for eleven years, since his Transactional Dharma of Roj album? That was a lovely surprise!
That is the surprise! And it was a surprise to us all. I included him in the request, as I always do when we’re saying “What’s next? What’s everybody doing?” and Roj said “Ah yeah, I’ll get on that…”
And bless him, he’s absolutely brilliant, his work is always good, but he’s so particular about his sound. Strangely, this track has a sort of Joe Meek vibe to it, it’s slightly in that world, and I think he has the slight mania about his work that Joe Meek had. He’s never quite there, and he’s never happy! He’s almost delivered two completed albums to me in the last six to eight years, but it’s never quite been right. He says “Give me a few more months…” and then he starts again. [Laughs]. But for this, I said “Come on Roj, just do it…” and he put this together. I don’t know if it was something he was already working on, but I know he’s got loads and loads of great material, so we’re hoping this kind of inspires him to get cracking on the album.
Anything other tracks that you’d like to pick out yourself?
Oh, it’s very difficult for me to do that! I mean, mine is obviously the best track… [laughs]. No, it’s very interesting – some of the tracks came together during lockdown, but mine was already in the can, because that’s a track taken from my album – which will hopefully be out in a couple of months. We’re working on the artwork now. The Beautify Junkyards track was what they’d managed to do in the studio, because they’re working on their album… but, sadly, because that’s very much a studio album with lots of people involved, that’s had to stop. They don’t record at home.
Sharron Kraus’ track… that was interesting. I mixed that one, because she’s got a good recording set-up, but her stuff is very often finished in a studio environment. So I said “Record as best you can, get contributions from other musicians as best you can, and I’ll produce it at home.” So we managed to turn that around quite quickly, and do it remotely like that. But yeah, everybody did really well. As you can imagine, getting musicians to do something for a deadline is… [laughs] never easy! But everybody did wonderfully, and turned in tracks on time. I moved the deadline a couple of times, because I wasn’t ready…
But everybody delivered really good work. The other part of the brief was: even though we’re in lockdown, and we’re doing this quickly, keep up to your usual standards. They’re all very talented people. And they all did, they all did something that they’d be pleased to put on one of their own albums. It was great.
Good to see Frances Castle on there, recording as The Hardy Tree. I always think there’s a nice symbiotic relationship between Ghost Box and Clay Pipe.
Absolutely, and yes – that’s a lovely piece of music. I’d been talking to Frances just generally, about logistics and how she was coping during lockdown, and it’s just nice to exchange ideas with other labels and like-minded people. So yeah, it was lovely to have her on board for this.
And you’re literally dropping the album from nowhere, on Friday 8th May?
We are. We’re not having the usual pre-orders and promotions period. I’ve told people like yourself, and other radio people and journalists, but I’m not making any official announcements. We’ll do it live on the day. It’s just a different way of doing things, and we thought – “Why not?” Let’s get it together, get it ready, and get it out there with no fanfare. And see how it goes. Making it easy for ourselves, really.
Can you see it transferring to a physical format at some point, when all this madness is over?
Definitely. And if the madness drags on, we’ll try and do it anyway. We’ve got the Belbury Poly album next, but because the Beautify Junkyards album might take a little longer than anticipated, we might get onto a physical version of Intermission after that. Late summer, autumn sort of time.
And how’s the Belbury Poly album sounding?
I’m very happy with it. Jon Brooks has just mastered it, so it’s good to go. All finished. The hardest thing for me was… I’d finished the recordings, and gone back to the mixes a thousand times and got them ready, but I always have problems titling everything. Because there’s this conceptual baggage that Ghost Box records tend to have, and I wanted to get that right! The mood, and the feel of it. But I think I have, and I’m just starting to talk to Julian about artwork, and get the first rough ideas of what it might look like.
And I always do this to you… give me a track title.
Erm… let me think of one that captures the mood… [long pause, with the occasional sound of tormented anguish]. Well the album title is The Gone Away.
That’s a bit John Wyndham!
There’s a track called ‘The Gone Away’ as well. Given the circumstances, I had a bit of a wobble about that, but then I thought; “No, it’s nothing to do with it…”
It would never have struck me as having a connection to the current situation.
No… and some of the material is slightly dark for Belbury Poly, but I thought “No… I’m going to stick to my ideas and concepts.” There’s another track called ‘Magpie Lane’, which is very much inspired by the Advisory Circle track ‘Escape Lane’, and it steals a bit of Jon’s melody and builds it into a sort of… semi-acoustic folk thing.
Long before the lockdown, didn’t the album have a working title of The Parson’s Illness, or something similar?
The Parson’s Malady! That was the working title. And I don’t mean to be flippant about things, but you’ve got to laugh sometimes – that’s the only way to survive. So when the lockdown started and the situation was ongoing, that was generally how I was coping – by referring to it all as “The Parson’s Malady”…
Thanks so much to Jim for his time, and splendid company, as ever. Intermission is available now, and can be bought here: