As a child, I was oddly fascinated by the idea of portals. I half-believed that they might be real, and that my wanderings through the grimy outskirts and overgrown fields of my rural home town would inevitably lead to the discovery of some incongruous gateway to another realm. It seemed entirely plausible that the moss-covered ruins of wartime pillboxes would, one day, echo to the ghostly sound of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, bleeding through from a shimmering timeslip. Or that a battered wooden door, abandoned in a skip or half-hidden by weeds on some frozen, tangled waste ground, would open to reveal the teeming strangeness of some magical netherworld beyond.
I thought of all this when I first heard In Another Room, Paul Weller’s new collaboration with Ghost Box Records; and a glimpse of the EP artwork delightfully reinforced these fuzzy, forty-year-old memories. The music is distant, fractured, melancholy; seeming indeed to be drifting fleetingly into our world from another plane of existence, one that might just be accessed through an out-of-place doorway in a remote, windswept field on the fringes of town…
The EP is officially released on 31st January, but a limited run of 1,000 vinyl copies sold out as soon as pre-orders were announced. Nevertheless, digital downloads are to follow, and Ghost Box’s Jim Jupp – interviewed on my BBC Tees show about the release – offered hope for those still seeking a physical version:
Bob: Congratulations on the EP! I’m guessing it’s been a busy time at Ghost Box over the last few weeks?
Jim: Yes, there was a lot of frantic activity, and it sold out in 45 minutes, which took us by surprise. We’re not used to that, being quite a small indie label. It was a pleasant surprise!
Are there any spare copies out there anywhere?
We’re going to keep about 100-200 copies back, depending on the stores that have ordered them. And we’ll put those up for the sale on the actual release day, 31st January. But it’ll be first come first served again, I’m afraid.
So the best advice is to head to the Ghost Box website on the day itself?
That’s right, they’ll go online at midnight on the Thursday night/Friday morning.
This is like phoning the doctors’ surgery at one minute past eight!
Yes, and like getting a festival ticket…
It’s such an interesting collaboration. Did this essentially come from Paul Weller, in a magazine interview, saying that he liked Ghost Box?
That’s exactly right, he did an interview for Shindig magazine, and mentioned that he was into Ghost Box, and Broadcast, and related acts. The editor said to him “I can put you in touch,” but nothing came of it. And then, about 18 months ago, I got a call and had a long chat about what we might do together.
A call from Paul Weller himself?
Wow! So had you seen the interview when it was originally published, and wondered if something might happen?
I’d heard about it, and put out the feelers and said that we’d be open to something, but again nothing came of it. And then I actually got an e-mail saying “Here’s Paul’s number…” and thought wow, that’s a hell of a call to make. So I texted him! (Laughs)… and he actually called me back.
Ha! That’s always my tactic, too…
It’s the brave way out!
Phone conversations are scary, Jim…
Ah, but he’s a lovely feller. So it was no problem at all, he was good to talk to.
Was it a surreal moment for you? Were you a fan of The Jam and The Style Council when you were growing up?
Yeah, certainly when I was growing up. It’s probably fair to say that in recent years I’d maybe fallen out of touch with what he was up to, but then a few years ago Saturn’s Pattern came out, and somebody said to me that I should listen to it, because there was a lot of electronica on there. And then the last few albums I have followed, because I think he’s woven his love of folk music and electronica together with his soulful side and his songwriting. Which you’ve got to admire. So I kind of reconnected with it… it was a good time. And I think Julian [House, of Ghost Box] has always been a colossal fan, because Julian was something of a mod when we were schoolkids.
I can see Julian in a fishtail parka! So where did it go from there? Did Paul have ideas already, or did you make to suggestions to him?
I think he had some ideas. When I spoke to him, he’d not long since done a soundtrack for the movie Jawbone, and some of that was a bit more “out-there”… a bit ambient, and he had ideas that he’d worked on, but that didn’t make it into the film. And I think that was his starting point. He also talked to Julian on the phone a few times as well, just about what he was into at the time, and he’d been listening to things like the Third Ear Band and Trevor Wishart. A lot of avant-garde British stuff from the 1960s. Quite out-there tape music, and experimental stuff.
So we thought we would take that direction, and I suggested maybe an EP would be a good format. I knew this wouldn’t be an album, but with a bit of room to manoeuver and to explore something, an EP felt like the right length. And that’s what he went for.
It could have just been an EP of experimental sound collage, but there are hints of his other musical side on there as well. Tracks like ‘Rejoice’ obviously have experimental elements, but are also very much about Paul Weller on the piano…
Yeah, definitely. I don’t think the EP as a whole is as challenging as you might think, and I wouldn’t want to put people off. It’s certainly out-there and avant-garde, but there are a lot of melodic passages, a lot of instrumentation, and a few session musicians involved. It does create an atmosphere, and I think anyone can appreciate and enjoy it.
You can see the lineage as well… Ghost Box is about taking inspiration from the past, and being playful with nostalgia, and making something new from that. And you can make a case for Paul Weller having done that a lot throughout his career – even when you look at The Jam when he was a teenager, taking elements of 1960s mod culture. And then the Style Council took inspiration from 1960s film soundtracks and even the Swingle Singers… he’s got previous form!
Yeah, I think that’s why it makes such sense for us. It’s a surprise to some, but we were honoured. He’s always had that relationship with music from the past, and where you can take it in the present moment. Which is kind of what our artists do on Ghost Box.
Have you had Ghost Box fans surprised that you were working with Paul Weller, and vice versa – Paul Weller fans surprised that he was working with Ghost Box?
I couldn’t answer the second… but probably! There were probably Paul Weller fans surprised, and probably mystified as to who we were! But the reactions have been positive, and I think people have understood that it makes sense. People know that Paul Weller’s tastes are eclectic, and he’s done all sorts of things over the years. And he’s interested in current bands and labels… he’s always got his ear to the ground. And we were lucky that we were on his radar at the time.
Where did the title, In Another Room, come from – was that Paul’s?
It was Paul’s title. I think he had a few ideas, and we were certainly happy with that. I guess it partly refers to it being another compartment to his career, off on one side to what he does. But it also struck us as a very Ghost Box title. And the sound of the record… to me, it’s like things happening just out of view in other rooms, and sounds drifting in from other spaces. It fits with our Ghost Box world, I think.
As always, it comes swathed in Julian’s beautiful artwork, and he’s very much taken the title as his starting point…
Yes, that was obviously the thing: to capture that idea of rooms, and doorways, and moving through into other spaces. But what he’s also done… he had a few conversations with Paul, and he looked at some graphic scores, which used to be part of the avant-garde, where the musical score was a piece of artwork itself. So you’d often start with a conventional musical stave, but there’d be dynamic paint splatters or shapes on the sheet of music. So on the gatefold of the single, he’s taken that idea and overlayed a collage onto a musical stave.
(NB I had no idea about graphic scores, but the above illustration is a section from Cathy Berberian‘s score for her experimental 1966 piece, Stripsody. Cathy’s name inspired the title of Peter Strickland’s wonderful 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, the titles of which were also provided by Julian House. We’re travelling through portals again…)
Will you work with Paul again, do you think?
There are no firm plans. We spoke just the other day when I told him that sales were going briskly, and he mentioned maybe a Volume 2 at some point… so the door is always open as far as we’re concerned.
I do like the ways in which you’re keen to expand the boundaries of where Ghost Box can go, and I guess working with Paul is part of that. Have you other ideas of where you’d like to take the label, and indeed other collaborators that you’d like to work with?
Oooh! I don’t know… we’re always approaching people and asking people, it’s something we do want to develop. What we want to get away from, I think, is a slightly parochial, English white male thing. Which is how we started, and what we were, but we’re keen to expand it outwards. And in the last few years we’ve worked with people from different countries, from Germany and Portugal. And there are other voices on there: the Chanctonbury Rings album we released last year had the voice of Justin Hopper, who’s American. So it’s nice to get these other voices in, and open out the world a bit. But it’s still based on these ideas of a misremembered past, and a slightly off-kilter version of the 1960s and 70s that we grew up with.
I had fallen into the trap of thinking that the “Haunted 1970s” feeling was a very British thing, limited to that era, but a lot of the stuff you’ve done recently has proved that I’m wrong. Like you say, Beautify Junkyards are Portuguese, and ToiToToi is German, and they quite clearly share those feelings, too. Has that been a nice surprise for you?
It has, and it’s slowly developed for us, too. I think we were in the same place, thinking that this is a uniquely British experience, those odd children’s TV things from the 1970s and the library music we were into… that general strangeness from the late 1960s and 70s. But I think every country had its own version of that. I think it was more something of the era than a uniquely British thing.
I was once chatting with an American writer called Michael Grasso, on Twitter. He’s into all this, and I asked him if there was an American equivalent. And he mentioned Sesame Street…
Sesame Street definitely, case in point! And if you think back to what Boards of Canada were doing – even in the name – that was a North American take on the stuff that’s generally called hauntology. It’s not just a British thing.
I was going to ask about Chanctonbury Rings, the album you did with Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus… you must have been delighted with the reaction it received, were you?
Yes, we really were. It’s an unusual one, and Justin and I spent a long time talking about what it might be, and what shape it would take. But I knew, when I’d seen their live show, that it would make an album. And it was going to be a poetry album, which is always a difficult sell. But it made sense to us to approach it in a way similar to the old BBC records, like The Seasons. Or BBC Schools Records… they did the Study Series, which a lot of people would remember from the schoolroom. The music teacher would put it on and have you doing strange activities: interpretations of poems, and that sort of thing. So we approached it in that way, and presented it in that kind of format. So yeah – I was very pleased with the reaction, and it’s done very well.
What’s next for Ghost Box in 2020?
Right now, we’re lining up the new album by Plone, called Puzzlewood, and that’s out in March, all being well.
And beyond that?
Beyond that there’s a new Belbury Poly album – my own work – out in the summer.
Oh, how’s that sounding? Your last album, New Ways Out, sounded very glam-rock in places…
Yeah, that was where my head was at that time. I was listening to a lot of Chicory Tip! So it was quite upbeat, that sort of vibe. I think the newer material is probably a bit darker, more electronic… back to where the Belbury project started.
Thanks to Jim for his time, as ever. In Another Room, by Paul Weller, is released by Ghost Box Records on 31st January.