Alex Cargill, Treedom and the Central Office of Information

There seems to be a burgeoning love affair between contemporary electronica and the soothing – if sometimes otherworldly – qualities of the British countryside. Recent albums by Pulselovers, The Relations, Polypores and Jon Brooks have all celebrated a distinct emotional connection to nature, with moods that range from the wistfully nostalgic to the powerfully invigorating.

Treedom, the new album from The Central Office of Information, takes the passion for flora deeper underground. Quite literally. It celebrates, with a very organic form of electronic experimentation, the secret connections between plant and tree that lay beneath the soil… the so-called “Wood Wide Web“.

The Central Office of Information is the project of Kent-based Alex Cargill, and a self-titled debut album was released by Castles In Space in 2019, very much exploring the light and shade of childhood nostalgia. This follow-up, released on the Woodford Halse cassette label established by Pulselovers’ Mat Handley, is both melodic and atmospheric; a combination of sounds and textures as intricately tangled as the underground network of roots and radicals that it celebrates.

I asked Alex about both albums…

Bob: Congratulations on Treedom! It’s great – you must be very proud of it?

Alex: Thank you Bob, that’s very kind! I owe a great deal to Mat Handley of Woodford Halse for how nicely the finished product has turned out.

So can you tell us a bit about the “Wood Wide Web”? What’s your understanding of how it works?

I’ll try my best. The Wood Wide Web is a subterranean social network which is almost 500 million years old. It exists beneath forests and woods and is essentially a complex network of roots, fungi and bacteria which connect trees to one another. The fungi form connections with the roots, and consume some of the sugar that trees produce through photosynthesis. In return the fungi provide the trees with nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients from the soil. Through this vast network, trees are able to share water and nutrients and to communicate using chemical, hormonal and electrical signals: for example, warning each other of attack from insects, disease and drought. Larger, older trees have been shown to support young saplings which may be struggling for sunlight by pumping sugar into their roots through the network. Dying trees have been shown to release their nutrients to their neighbouring kin.

Recent evidence suggests that some plants can even emit sounds, in particular a crackly noise in the roots at a 220 hertz frequency, inaudible to humans.

Are you an enthusiastic woodland walker yourself, then?

I’ve always enjoyed the visual beauty of trees and woodland, but I was never especially interested in trees per se until fairly recently. In the summer of 2017 I attended my first yoga and meditation retreat just outside of Totnes in Devon. For a few days I was sharing a Grade-1 listed Palladian villa and the vast surrounding estate on the banks of the river Dart with about a dozen other like-minded souls. It was pure bliss – I’ve been back since and will be returning again as often as I can. A lot of the time was spent in silence, so during “personal time” I would relax in the library, browsing through books and playing an acoustic guitar which resides in the corner… I actually wrote ‘The Fleeting Freedom Of A Seedling’, from Treedom, on that very guitar.

I stumbled upon a book called The Secret Life Of Trees by Colin Tudge, which shocked me with its revelations about trees communicating with each other beneath the soil. My mind was blown and my interest well and truly piqued. When I returned from the retreat I started reading articles and watching YouTube videos and Ted Talks about the Wood Wide Web and generally becoming fascinated by it all. I was inspired to start a musical project where I could explore the subject in my own unique way. The title Treedom came directly from Colin’s book.

Any local woods that you particularly enjoy walking around?

I’ll be honest – I’m a fairweather walker. I love to explore fields, meadows and woodland but you’ll probably only catch me out there in the spring and summer, possibly the early autumn too if the weather is dry. I’m not a winter person at all. If I could, I would love to just hunker down and hibernate for those three months of the year.

But my current favourite place to walk is Scadbury Park which is on the outskirts of Sidcup, the town in Kent where I’ve lived for the last nine years. It’s a vast expanse of woodland and wild meadow, absolutely beautiful, and the perfect antidote to the hectic pace of modern life. My parents live just outside the town of Devizes in Wiltshire – where I originally hail from. When I visit them, I love to walk along the footpaths which cross the perfectly flat farmland of their village, or to explore the nearby Roundway Hills which provide a stunning backdrop. And the Sharpham Estate in Devon is another favourite place of mine to explore when I’m down that way. The peaceful isolation and the scenery is heavenly.

How does it make your feel when you walk in these places?

I love the innate feeling of connection to the land and the wildlife that I get when I spend time alone in nature. I think that if you look hard enough, you can see a spark of divinity in everything. Even wasps.

I like to meditate every day and one of my favourite things is to meditate outdoors. Usually this will just be in my garden, but occasionally I go further afield. Last summer I spent a morning exploring the woods and meadows of Scadbury Park. I sat in the middle of a wild meadow to meditate (meadowtate?) and it was such a beautiful and life-affirming experience – surrounded by long grass, with the sound of birds, bees and insects all around. During deep meditation, I really do get a sense of the Earth as one large living organism with all of us connected, interdependent and playing our own very small part in the big picture.

When I eventually opened my eyes there was a caterpillar lazily crawling across my leg. It’s funny how when you sit perfectly still, the local wildlife will actually come and investigate you, rather than reacting with the usual flight response. I notice this in my own garden too – if I keep very still and quiet then the birds, squirrels and even random cats will come very close. I wholeheartedly recommend meditation to absolutely everyone. It really does work wonders for your mind, body and soul in this crazy, fast-paced Western world that we live in. Also, a lot of my musical and creative ideas tend to come to me when I’m meditating, so I’d recommend it even more so for creative types. I’ve even heard the absolute legend that is Mr C of The Shamen confirming this too, so that’s quite an endorsement!

Are these places where some of the field recordings came from, then?

I do like to make my own field recordings occasionally but – at the risk of being shunned by the entire hauntological fraternity – the natural ambiences used on the Treedom album were all ‘pre-rolled’. They were taken from my enormous, bloated sample library. I’ve been collecting sounds for about 20 years now and they tend to come from any number of sources – old sound effects albums, online resources, TV and film, as well as my own personal recordings. It’s become almost de-rigueur these days to gather your own field recordings for a musical project and I actually quite like that trend. So I took some field recordings at Scadbury Park last summer specifically with this album in mind, but they didn’t come out quite as well as I’d hoped and therefore didn’t make the final cut. Most of the ambiences on this particular album came from old sound effects CDs. I often tinker with them in order to make them a bit more ‘haunty’ (copyright Bob Fischer 2018) though. For example you might notice a bit of reverse-reverb on the crows, which gives them that slightly otherworldly, psychedelic quality.

This is a much more “organic” sounding album than your debut, too. There are guitars! And other acoustic instruments! Was that deliberate, given the subject matter?

Yes, the use of guitars and other acoustic instruments on Treedom was deliberate. I wanted to go for a more organic and pastoral vibe which would reflect the subject matter, while still keeping the core COI vibe intact. I think I just about managed it – certainly the initial reaction to Treedom has been very kind.

On my Castles In Space debut album, a lot of those tracks had been kicking around for many years – ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’, for example dates, back to early 2010. So I think there was a certain feel to the album as a whole and the tracks that Colin Morrison and I agreed on for the final cut all seemed to fit together rather nicely. Colin has a natural flair for that sort of thing. A couple of guitar-based tracks had been submitted for consideration, but we didn’t include them and I think that this was the right decision. Colin had a very strong vision for the album and I think that he delivered it perfectly.

With Treedom I felt a bit more relaxed. I had received such positive feedback from people who’d bought the first album and it had received a lot of airplay from yourself and many other DJs. So I felt confident enough to take a risk and broaden the sonic palette, throwing in acoustic guitar, electric guitar, theremin and even melodica on the title track. The melodica is a really fun instrument and is dirt cheap too. Melodica lessons should be compulsory for primary school kids. Whack a bit of delay or reverb on it and you’re basically King Tubby. There could be classrooms up and down the country full of budding young Lee ‘Scratch’ Perrys, imagine that!

Can I ask about your background as a musician? And, indeed as a music fan? Who did you listen to as a kid?

I’ve been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. My early idols included Adam And The Ants and Shakin’ Stevens. As a kid I was into all the great pop music of the time, but I became especially fascinated with electro and hip-hop. I used to make rap tapes with friends… no doubt these recordings would’ve been laughable. We used to beatbox, scratch on our Dads’ record players – sorry Dad! – and breakdance in our living rooms.

Leading on from this, I got a Casio PT-80 keyboard for my 10th birthday in 1985. I never had any formal training, but I picked up a few choice melodies of the time from friends – ‘Axel F’, ‘Fourth Rendez-Vous’, ‘Chariots Of Fire’, ‘Inspector Gadget’ and so on.

When I was 14, I got into hard rock, heavy metal, thrash and punk. Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, The Sex Pistols and Metallica, I took up electric guitar in 1990. I had lessons for about eight months and this enabled me to become a competent player and also to understand a bit about how music works in general. I don’t think I’d be making electronic music today had I not had those guitar lessons. Whilst I was never really in what you could call a proper band, I used to jam a lot with another guitarist, a drummer and a vocalist… of sorts. We often talked about forming a proper band and doing gigs, but we were we young, we lacked discipline and just wanted to party every weekend.

I was also really into the house music and acid house that was crossing over into the charts in the later part of the 1980s. I was only 13 years old when I first heard ‘Stakker Humanoid’ in 1988, but it completely blew my mind. I remember it vividly. It was the first proper acid track I’d heard, and back then it sounded like music from another planet. I’ll never tire of that squelchy, slippery acid sound and it often finds its way into my COI stuff. From 1991 to 1993, when the hardcore rave scene exploded in the UK, I was completely hooked. That short period was the most exciting time that I can personally remember in UK music. It was such a creative peak and it felt like new sounds were coming out almost every week. I loved the DIY attitude…young bedroom producers were fusing hip-hop, house, techno, dub and ragga to create this very British sound which seemed to suddenly appear from out of nowhere. It had everything – funky breakbeats, heavy basslines, euphoric piano and soaring vocals – but it also had that dark, hypnotic techno groove. I couldn’t get enough of it.

At the same time there was also home-grown techno from the likes of 808 State, Orbital and The Shamen, amazing techno coming in from America and Europe, as well as the beginnings of ambient house. So it was just a really vibrant period that I will always be really fond of. I happened to hear some current house music very recently and they are still churning out the same old samples nearly 30 years later. So whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, the legacy of that era is still being felt by the kids of today.

When I went to university in 1993 my flatmates had turntables, and I soon learned to DJ. At this point, I was becoming immersed in hard trance, acid, electronica (I refuse to call it IDM or worse still, EDM), jungle and ambient music. A few years later when I was sharing a flat with friends we had a drumkit set up in the kitchen – as you do – and a flatmate, the drummer from my school days, taught me the basics, which has helped me to this day. I then started making electronic music in 1999, initially on a Playstation. This early material was produced under the oh-so-1990s pseudonyms of Sonik Science and Phatcamp and was very much dancefloor-orientated, covering genres such as techno, house, breakbeat, acid, drum n’ bass, electronica, glitch, trip hop and eventually dubstep, as well as some forays into ambient and dub. In 2005 and 2006 I received some airplay on BBC Radio One. Between 2005 and 2007 I also made DJ appearances at DiscoWhip events in Wiltshire, warming up the turntables for legendary house DJ Brandon Block on several occasions.

So when did you discover the whole “haunted” aesthetic – was it Ghost Box Records? I’m always intrigued to know when and how people drifted into this strange world…

Around 2005 or 2006 I started to become fascinated with the woozy, nostalgic sounds of Boards Of Canada and it soon began to influence my own music. I discovered Ghost Box Records and Moon Wiring Club in early 2010, purely because Amazon started recommending their albums to me based on my previous purchases.

How did you feel when you discovered all this? It was almost a sense of relief for me, that I’d found people who clearly remembered their childhoods in the same weird way…

When I first heard Boards Of Canada it resonated with me on a really deep level. It was like someone flicked a switch inside my mind. It brought up feelings of warm, fuzzy nostalgia. It felt as if long-forgotten, half-remembered childhood memories were being unearthed, and it was powerful stuff. The music was ‘warm’ and woozy, but it also had melancholic or eerie undertones which really reflected my own memories of childhood in the late 1970s and early 80s – the fear and paranoia as well as the happy times. Musically, it was a breath of fresh air – despite the obvious retro feel – and it really inspired me creatively.

When did you start making music as The Central Office Of Information?

I made a few Boards of Canada-inspired tracks under my Phatcamp pseudonym in the late noughties. Then, in 2010 after discovering Ghost Box and specifically the Other Channels album by The Advisory Circle, I decided to begin The Central Office Of Information as a separate project devoted solely to this kind of sound.

‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ was the first ever COI track and was inspired directly by The Advisory Circle’s ‘Civil Defence Is Common Sense’. I remember sitting on my bed listening to the CD for the first time and I’m pretty sure I smiled or possibly even chuckled when I heard that track. Like Boards of Canada, it resonated on a really deep level and I was instantly transported in my mind back to primary schools days, being sat in a classroom of kids huddled around a massive old telly watching Programmes For Schools And Colleges. I hadn’t heard music like that for years and I was amazed that somebody was even making that type of music in the 21st century. Whereas Boards of Canada induced woozy, hazy memories using production techniques to deliberately muddy the sound, this was a much more direct link to the TV music of my early childhood. It was uncannily accurate, I thought.

Given the name that you record under, I’m guessing Public Information Films were a big influence on you… can you remember which ones particularly got to you as a kid? 

Again, I had completely forgotten about Public Information Films until listening to Other Channels, which contains the Frozen Ponds PIF. Of course the memories came flooding back instantly. That was a particularly nasty one, and the sound of the ice cracking is truly chilling. As a child, the other PIFs that really disturbed me were Play Safe – Frisbee and Apaches. The latter was utterly horrific, and to this day I cannot believe that the government deemed it suitable for kids. It was basically a short horror movie. However, it certainly had the desired effect and I never did decide to go and mess about with farm machinery. I would feel uneasy even watching it now in my forties – that scene with the kid drowning in silage is beyond disturbing!

I genuinely found your music by chance, when I was presenting the BBC Introducing show on BBC Tees, and I used to put random words into the BBC staff portal, and see which artists came up. And in May 2018 I tried the word “office” and found you! And a track called ‘Pools Of Witchlight’. Was it a surprise? I got the impression you hadn’t made any music for a little while…

It was certainly a lovely surprise. I’ve never actually stopped making electronic music since I started in 1999 – I’m constantly churning it out – but I had definitely reached a stage where I was resigned to music being just a hobby for my own benefit as opposed to something that would be of interest to others. I think the tracks that I’d submitted to BBC Introducing had been sat there for quite some time, maybe even as long as two years. I’d honestly forgotten all about it. So, yes it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.

How did that lead to Castles in Space putting out your debut album?

After the first two airplays on your BBC Introducing show, I felt so reinvigorated! At the time, I hadn’t sent out any demos to labels for about a year. You recommended the music of Concretism – who had also featured on your show – and I subsequently bought For Concrete And Country directly from Castles In Space, a label with which I was unfamiliar at that point. Of course, I loved the album and it occurred to me that CiS might even be interested in my own music. So I e-mailed Colin [Morrison, label boss], who was really supportive. He basically walked me through the whole process, bringing in Jez Butler of The Twelve Hour Foundation on mastering duties, and Nick Taylor of Spectral Studio for the artwork and the logo.

That debut is a lovely mix of rather homely sounding tracks, and others that are much more sinister! It’s ‘Home-Made Jams and Chutneys’ vs ‘Chemtrails!’ Were you keen explore both sides of nostalgia, both light and dark?

Absolutely, I was keen to explore both sides of the haunted coin. I love really euphoric and uplifting music – disco, house, rave etc – but there is a part of me that has always been drawn towards the dark side too, and I seem to have an unusual knack of coming up with dark, eerie tracks. I guess it stems from the thrash metal influence, the short-lived ‘darkcore’ rave era of 1993, drum n’ bass, and listening to artists such as Aphex Twin, The Future Sound Of London and Moon Wiring Club. I personally enjoy albums which have a nice mix of darkness and light – The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld would be a good example of this.

The track ‘Chemtrails’ came about after watching an interview that Prince gave on American TV in which he spoke emphatically about his own belief in the chemtrails conspiracy theory. This was all new to me, but I was intrigued and immediately started reading articles and watching YouTube videos on the subject. The title ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ came from a hand-written sign that I spotted on the bar in a village pub in Wiltshire. I actually bought one of those chutneys and it was superb, but I can’t remember exactly what was in it.

What about jams? What’s the best jam you’ve ever tasted?  

My all-time favourite jam would have to be the plum jam that my Granny used to make when I was a kid, bless her.

The packaging on that album was sumptuous – what was your favourite bit of it? I was particularly intrigued by the postcards of Ilston Church and the Norman Staircase in Canterbury. And the Welsh Publishing Company that one of them is addressed to…

Yes, the packaging on the CiS album was next-level! We may well have set a new world record for the greatest number of inserts within an album. The A4 sheets with Nick’s artwork and the COI badge were my personal favourite bits of ephemera, but the Telephone Exchange and Telegraph Linesmen postcards were also nice. I wish I could explain all of the mysterious inserts, but you would really need to ask Colin as he was the mastermind behind it all. I had some degree of input, but really Colin and Nick have to take the credit for the overall aesthetic – both are excellent at what they do and were really nice to work with. Jez was also lovely to work with and my fairly limited understanding of the mastering process has improved as a result. Let’s just say that he had fewer “woolly frequencies” to contend with when he mastered my second album!

So what’s next for you?

My next release will actually be the first official Phatcamp album, titled Transport For London. I’ve been working on it since 2017 and am just applying the final touches now. I’m aiming for a 1st June release. It will be a digital download only, sold through Bandcamp. I describe it as follows: “an electronic soundtrack for London’s hectic and often overloaded transport network. The familiar soundscape of the London Underground forms an ambient backdrop which occasionally adds its own mechanical rhythms to the techno, acid and breakbeats that roll across it”.

The release details will be confirmed nearer the time by me on Twitter and by Kat (Mrs COI) on Instagram.

I’ve produced an exclusive COI track for the next Scarred For Life compilation album, due out later this year. I’ve also done a track for a compilation called Electrophon – A Journey Through Radiophonica which is being released on a label called Wormhole World in around May. This compilation celebrates the work of Delia Derbyshire and other early pioneers of electronic music.

I have some ideas and at least a couple of tracks ready for the next COI album, but I don’t expect to release anything now until 2021. I’m super busy right now working on a COI podcast, a COI live show and I’m also attempting to write a book on electronic music production. It’s for people who have always wanted to have a go at making electronic music but have never quite taken the plunge, and also for those with some previous experience who might want to take it a little bit further or simply to brush up on their existing skills.

Thanks to Alex for his time, and for a lovely natter. The self-titled Central Office of Information debut album is available here…

https://coi-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-central-office-of-information

And Treedom is here…

https://woodfordhalse.bandcamp.com/album/treedom

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