Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper & Sharron Kraus, and A Midsummer Nights Happening

I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but soon there were tell-tale signs: a woman with a Trunk Records tote bag slung nonchalently over one shoulder, striding purposefully along Shoreditch High Street; a brace of bearded blokes buying Wispa bars from Sainsburys, both of whom I vaguely recognised from long-ago Doctor Who conventions; and – ultimately – the mysterious gates of the state51 Conspiracy factory on Rhoda Street, sporadically and tantalisingly swinging open to allow access to the enticing “Midsummer Nights’ Happening” beyond. It was 6.30pm, Friday 21st June, and the air lay heavy with the scent of sunscreen and free-flowing beer, combined with the first opening salvo of vintage electronica from the turntables concealed within. Once inside, I was greeted cheerily in the courtyard by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, resplendent in canvas cap, and he wasted no time in introducing me to the genial Martin Jenkins – Pye Corner Audio, to Ghost Box devotees – and his friend Darren, instructing us to help ourselves to the free bar.

Yes, that’s right, the free bar. Oh dear… this could get messy.

The hidden HQ of the delightfully clandestine state51 Conspiracy had been decorated with impeccable attention to period detail. In the “utopian glade” of Pan’s Garden, pot-bellied effigies peered knowingly from clusters of rustling foliage, the floor crackling with the crunch of unseasonal dead leaves. A rustic wooden signpost (with a font to warm the cockles of Patrick McGoohan’s incarcerated heart) directed me to the TV Chamber, where fleeting glimpses of Jack Hargreaves and Arthur C. Clarke flickered across the screens of ancient, wooden-bodied televisions. In the opposite direction, the extravagantly bearded Dan was pressing bespoke event t-shirts with what appeared to be an elaborate mangle.

In a space of a few fleeting, giddy minutes, I exchanged greetings with cheery figures who – previously – had only been known to me from e-mails, tweets, phone conversations… or even, simply, the credits on albums that I’d bought, played, loved, and treasured. Julian House, Frances Castle, Jonny Trunk, Robin The Fog and Vic Mars. João Branco Kyron from Beautify Junkyards. Colin from Castles in Space, Gavin from Spun Out of Control, Stewart from the brilliant Concrete Islands website. There was Haunted Generation reader Eamonn and his wife, who’d travelled all the way from Northern Ireland, and Rolf from Southport, who’d bought a copy of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ from me online a week earlier, and was keen to say hello. And the always ebullient Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records, who I’d last chatted to in 2017 at the concealed entrance to Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, after the climax of his most recent, most extraordinary Delaware Road event. He was delighted to discover that the Delia Derbyshire badge that he’d given me that evening had been pinned to the lapel of my jacket ever since.

It was a delirious, surreal, gathering of the haunted clans: a cavalcade of eclectic live performance, inventive DJ sets, and magnificently fevered conversation that continued long into Saturday morning. And it conicided conveniently with the release of the latest Ghost Box Records LP, Chanctonbury Rings, a collaboration between US writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus, and Jim Jupp himself, in his customary guise as synth-prog overlord Belbury Poly. The album combines Justin’s thoughtful, beguiling spoken accounts of mystical experiences on this ancient Sussex landmark with a swirling malestrom of musical textures: gently-strummed autoharp, wistful recorders, Sharron’s floating, graceful vocals, and Ghost Box’s trademark woozy, analogue synths.

As the first live act to the take to the stage at A Midsummer Nights’ Happening, they performed Chanctonbury Rings immaculately, in its entirety, to a hugely appreciative audience. Two days earlier, I’d spoken to them both on my BBC Tees Evening show about the albums’ inspiration, and the creative process involved. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: How did the collaboration between the two of you come about? I saw you performing separately at the Folk Horror Revival event in Wakefield in 2017. That wasn’t the genesis of this, was it?

Justin: No, we’d met before that, and I think we’d even discussed this…

Sharron: Yes, we were already plotting by that point. I don’t think we’d started work, but Justin had asked me if I was interested in doing some music for some of his texts.

Justin: Yeah, the project comes from one chapter of my book, The Old Weird Albion… and your listeners will tell from the way I talk that I’m not from Middlesbrough, but in fact from Pittsburgh – the Middlesbrough of America! But I’ve written a book about my encounters on the South Downs.

So were you contemplating doing some readings from the book, and thought that a bit of accompanying music would be handy?

Justin: Yeah, me reading for fifteen or twenty minutes is not a very exciting proposition. So Sharron threw herself onto that funeral pyre, and was willing to write some music.

Sharron: It was quite the opposite, because Justin sent the text over to me, and it immediately conjured up all sorts of images. So I sat down and spent an afternoon just creating lots of musical sketches, and I was loving the things I was coming up with in response to his work. So to me, it was exciting.

I did wonder how the collaboration had worked on a practical level, whether Justin had sent you readings of his work for you to compose the accompanying music, or whether you’d sent Justin music for him to fit his readings around… or a little of both?

Sharron: Yeah, a bit of both. He just sent me a Word document, and I created segments of music that I thought would fit with different bits of the text. And then, when we had the first couple of shows, I came down to Essex and we spent the day fitting the bits together. At that point we didn’t know if they were going to fit very well together… but they seemed to.

Justin: And obviously there’s a little bit of goat sacrifice, and such. We read the entrails and figure out the chord changes.

A bit of goat sacrifice is surely an important element of any creative process…

Sharron: Related to that, but on a more serious note… we did, last Mayday, before we performed the first gig that we’d ever done, go up to Chanctonbury and perform a very stripped-down, acoustic, ritualised version of it, with some other friends reading poetry, some Morris Dancers dancing… so that was really magical, and kind of cemented the project as something that was more than jut a one-off gig.

I was going to ask a little about Chanctonbury itself, a place I’ve never visited… can you tell us a little bit about the site itself, is it a Bronze Age settlement?

Justin: It’s genuinely every age. It’s certainly been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and it is a genuinely strange place. It’s just above the village where my grandparents lived, in Sussex, so I used to go there during my childhood. And I know some fairly serious occultist-type people, who’ve essentially been unable to spend the night on Chanctonbury. Because of the strange things that they hear, and indeed see. Levitation is quite a common occurrence up there… allegedly. I’ve barely seen that. Not with the living.

But it’s an interesting and strange place. Like I said it’s been inhabited throughout the ages, and it’s been a worship site… it was a Druidic site, and a Roman site, and Pagan site and a Saxon site… it’s been everything.

I read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, in which he attempts to spend the night there, and has a very strange and scary experience.

Justin: He’s quite terrified up there, and he’s done a lot of things. It’s a fairly well-known spot for that kind of action, and indeed for artistic response as well. It’s been written about for hundreds of years, so I like to think we’re part of a continuum.

Sharron, was it a place that you’d visited before starting work on this project?

Sharron: No it wasn’t, and the thing that was really interesting for me was that I was deliberately not Googling it, and not looking at photographs… I was trying to just work from Justin’s text, and to just respond to his version of the place and create this fictional musical world. And I was really interested to see, when I went there, whether it would feel like it was the same place, or if I was way off the mark. But it just… I drove through Sussex to meet Justin there, and as I was getting closer, along the Downs, I was getting this sense of familiarity, and when we actually went up Chanctonbury in the morning, it was wonderfully close to what I had imagined. That was really special for me.

Justin, there is a fascinating part of the narrative where you suggest you saw a vision of your late grandmother up on Chanctonbury Ring… was this based on a real experience?

Justin: Yeah… its quite funny to say in front of a bunch of people I’ve never met – your listeners – that I see my dead grandmother most times that I go up to Chanctonbury, and yet I genuinely don’t think I’m crazy or anything. But you know… there’s this experience that I think everyone has where you see these things, you encounter these things out of the corner of your eyes. You’re trying to look at them, and they’re not quite there, or not quite in focus, or not quite what you thought. And the fact that you can’t touch these things, can’t take a photograph of them or even maintain them within your field of view for more than a fraction of a second… I don’t think that makes them any less real. Memory is a haunting thing, and I think that’s what all this is about in many ways. Both haunting and belonging.

Was Chanctonbury a place that held a deep connection for your grandmother as well, then?

Justin: Yeah, she would have gone there every week for at least 25 or 30 years. And she took the rest of us whenever we were there.

I wanted to ask about Ghost Box Records, a label I’ve fallen in love with, and they deal with feelings that transport many of us back to our childhoods years in the 1970s, and evoke strange, disquieting memories of that era. But I don’t think they’ve really done anything like Chanctonbury Rings before, a spoken word album… how did the link to Ghost Box come about?

Justin: I met Jim Jupp when I first moved to this country – and I literally can’t remember how – but I met him and we became friends quite quickly. He worked on a project that I did called Ley Line, which was a piece I recorded with the folk singer Shirley Collins, and some artists from Pittsburgh, where I’m from. And that piece needed something extra, some production, and he worked on that.

And in a way this is like a big, grown-up, professional version of what we started with that. We’ve got a real musician actually composing music! Instead of me saying “I think it sould go “Woooooooooo”

Sharron: You get me going “Wooooooooo” instead!

Justin: I didn’t grow up in this country, so Sharron… was that haunted 1970s and 80s lifestyle that Ghost Box is about part of your childhood?

Sharron: Yeah, it really was. Once of the things I’m interested in is how there are so many haunted elements of life in this country. Something happened in the 1970s that was more extreme, I guess we would all say… and Ghost Box tap into that, and give us the nostalgia, but also something richer than just harking back. They’ve created a world that certain projects seem to fit into.

Ghost Box are like a parallel universe version of our 1970s childhoods, filling in the bits that we’ve forgotten, or that are missing…

Justin: It’s as though they’re fitting in the bits that you think you’ve forgotten, but actually… they never happened! One of the things that I would say we’ve very subtly done with this record, including with the artwork… we talked a lot with Jim and Julian House, the designer, about having the feel of these BBC Poetry For Schools albums from the 1960s and 70s, they’re really interested in those, and the Topic Records compilations that came out in the early 1970s. But my Spoken Word origins are in those Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen albums, or Ken Nordine albums… I think of them as very Mid Western American albums… a sort of Psychedelic Midwest. And they’ve done a really cool job of putting those things together, so the back cover really has this beatnik jazz poetry album feel to it, while also maintaining that psychedelic folk aspect.

I love Ken Nordine’s work. I once actually played Ken Nordine’s Colors album in its entirety on the radio, all 36 tracks over 36 consecutive shows. When I first heard Chanctonbury Rings, I thought there was a little whiff of Ken about it…

Justin: It’s all part of that surrealist Midrwestern thing… that William Burroughs and Ken Nordine upbringing of mine. That’s lovely, thankyou.

The other comparison that struck me was that of Ronald Duncan and David Cain’s notorious 1969 BBC album, The Seasons. Was that an album that you had in mind?

Sharron: For me, it wasn’t something that I’d heard when I was making the music. But it was a touchstone for Jim… he referenced that album when thinking about what we could do with the project, in terms of artwork and ideas. Had you heard it before?

Justin: I’d only barely heard it, and only through Jim. I knew it was essentially why Ghost Box thought it might be OK to put out a spoken word album. So it’s been a touchstone in terms of the production parts that Jim did… the Introduction for example, which is a Belbury Poly composition, that’s definitely of the David Cain school of music. So yeah, it was an important part of the music’s upbringing.

There are some lovely analogue synths on there, Sharron…

Sharron: Yes, my little Korg! It does all sorts…

Justin: We’re proud of the sounds, and it’s also a beautiful slab of vinyl packaging. So even if you don’t like what you’ve hard, buy one and just put it on your wall! 

Justin and Sharron’s performance at A Midsummer Night’s Happening was barely the beginning of an extraordinary evening. At 9.34pm, I texted my radio cohort Uncle Harry with the astute observation: “I’m drunk in Shoreditch, and I’m watching Jonny Trunk and Wisbey perform slow jazz versions of the themes from Bergerac and Match of the Day“. Which is pretty much what’s happening in the photograph above. Then, silhoutted before a bespoke, head-swimming film collage created by Julian House, The Soundcarriers performed an immersive set of semi-improvised psychedelia, with tantalising excerpts of their album Entropicalia – a long-standing Ghost Box favourite of mine – bleeding through. Jonny Trunk and Robin the Fog joined forces to play previously unheard recordings made by sound pioneer Basil Kirchin, with live piano accompaniment from Steve Beresford. Martin Jenkins pounded Pye Corner beats from within an all-pervading fug of dry ice and Julian and Frances and João all took to the decks, although I’m embarrassed to report that I missed Jim Jupps’ airing of The Rah Band’s 1977 classic synth-pop single The Crunch because I was outside in the balmy night air, possibly rambling a little too long (and a little too incoherently) to the admirably patient Edd Gibson from Friendly Fires about my love of his collaboration with the enigmatic Jon Brooks’ on the Pattern Forms album, Peel Away The Ivy.

As Friday became Saturday, and as indoors performance became outdoors mingling, the night air was filled with the promise of newly-forged alliances (“Let’s do something together! What’s your number?”) and enthused reminsicing. My last recollection is getting a little too noisily excited about the work of the 1960s Barrow Poets with Jim, and – as he pulled out his phone to find a Youtube clip – noticing it was 2.47am. Rolf and I left together and wandered into the night, looking for taxis in opposite directions. Shoreditch High Street was still awash with light and noise, but nowhere in any of the surrounding bars did I see flickering footage of Pan’s People or hear the lilting refrain of the theme from Bergerac. A unique and captivating happening indeed.

Thanks to the state51 Conspiracy, Ghost Box Records, Trunk Records and everyone involved for a truly special event… and to Justin and Sharron for the radio chat. ‘Happening’ photos of Pan, Justin and Sharron, Jonny Trunk and Wisbey, and Julian House are all by Lois Gray. The Haunted Generation blog would like to clarify that it does not, in reality, endorse goat sacrifice as part of the creative process.

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4 thoughts on “Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper & Sharron Kraus, and A Midsummer Nights Happening

  1. Eamonn June 29, 2019 / 4:05 pm

    So good to see you there Bob, and what a magical evening it was, this is a great review. It’s over a week since it happened, and I’m still on a high – the location, the fantastic performances which were a real pleasure to witness, the DJ sets, the free food and drink(great Friday night, not so good Saturday morning…), and the lovely people we met. Like I read from someone else on line, it was like the meeting of some secret society, everyone who was there knew the score. Hopefully state51/Ghost Box/Trunk make this a regular thing. See you at the next one!!

    Like

    • bobfischer June 29, 2019 / 4:13 pm

      Cheers Eamonn, lovely to see you there – and thanks for the kind words. I’d love it to be an annual event as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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