The paranormal was taken far more seriously in the 1970s. Mainstream news programmes like Nationwide would frequently include UFO sightings and poltergeist infestations alongside analysis of the latest economic forecasts and industrial action; and their 1976 report on the Hexham Heads – the buried stone carvings that unleashed both a werewolf and a rather curious half man/half sheep creature on this sleepy Northumberland town – has become the stuff of legend. In newsagents, the books of Erich Von Daniken nestled happily alongside the latest Jilly Coopers, and – by the turn of the 1980s – Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World was a fixture on primetime ITV. It was, as one dedicated Loch Ness Monster-hunter* once said to me, “a very credulous era.”
*Yes, I’ve met a few.
Into this mix was thrown the fascination with a paranormal phenomenon that perhaps came closest to arousing genuine scientific interest: that of Extra Sensory Perception. The idea of a “sixth sense”, an innate psychic ability ready to be unleashed in all of us, was a mainstay of 1970s weirdness: it was an era when Uri Geller became an enigmatic international celebrity, and when there was even talk of the CIA employing military-grade psychic readers to gain an advantage in a still-simmering Cold War.
This delicious combination of nebulous strangeness and academic respectability is evoked perfectly on Parapsychedelia, a new collaborative album by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse. The transatlantic duo (essentially Jonathan Sharp, from Cumbria, and Wayne P. Ulmer, from California… god knows, if they ever visit each other, they’re in for a hell of culture shock, climate-wise) have created a melodic, dreamy collection; where the authoritarian voices of beardy-weirdy 1970s researchers emerge chillingly from beautiful, eerie soundscapes, redolent of both the authentic vintage library music of the era, and the first giddy wave of Ghost Box-led Noughties hauntology.
The album is released on the Castles In Space label this week, and I asked Jonathan and Wayne about the background to it all:
Bob: The album is great fun! Between the pair of you, whose idea was it to make an album about ESP research?
Jonathan: Thanks! When we initially started planning this, Wayne suggested the ESP theme, and he passed me a mood board of images and text. It sort of grew out of that. It was a bit of a lucky chance, as I’d just been reading a book on remote viewing, so it all kind of clicked. A lot of Wayne’s initial images were so evocative, and dovetailed with what I’d just been reading.
Wayne: That’s right, I had been wandering the stacks in a local library a few years ago and came across a book on parapsychology. Flipping to the index, I was greeted with a list of peculiarly resonant words, and wrote them down for future use. Later, in communication with Jonathan, these resonances would prove to be a fertile aesthetic from which to draw inspiration.
What are your memories of the paranormal from being a kid? Did you watch Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and similar programmes?
Jonathan: Oh absolutely, I think I was at exactly the right age for that to be a big influence and spark my interest in the broader subject. There seemed to be quite a widespread interest at the time in UFOs, parapsychology and ESP… all that stuff. As well as those Usborne books, there was just so much available: everything from Chariots Of The Gods to The Highgate Vampire. And lots of it was targeted at children as well as adults.
Wayne, was there a US equivalent of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World? I know Leonard Nimoy presented a similar show… was there other stuff as well?
Wayne: Ah, you’re thinking In Search Of…, but that was a bit before my time. As a child in the late 1980s, it was Unsolved Mysteries after dinner, and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown books in the school library. There was definitely something in the air, and anything paranormal got my attention. Beyond the cultural reference points, I’ve always felt a natural predisposition to magical thinking, and wonder.
Did this stuff scare you both as children? The ‘Monsters of the Deep’ episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World gave me nightmares for months…
Jonathan: Honestly, it was a bit like watching a real life version of Doctor Who… there were things that were certainly scary! But I watched it religiously. The one that has stuck in my mind after all these years is the Tunguska episode.
Wayne: I’ve always been terrified of lots of things! Close Encounters was my favorite movie growing up and – though not scary in the traditional sense – it sure scared the living hell out of me. I’d watch our VHS copy over and over. So when my family moved to the Mojave Desert in 1986, I would camp out and search for UFOs in the night. Often paralyzed with fear, but it felt wonderful. That tipping point of otherness, just beyond perception.
Oh, I have to ask… did you ever see one?
Wayne: There was one lone instance. Spherical lights, maybe four or five on the horizon to the east, fading in and out of visibility in a sequence, from right to left. Pulsing like an inchworm across the night sky, slowly. As one light dimmed on the right, another would fade in on the left. It lasted only long enough to baffle me, and leave me transfixed.
Do you think it was an age when ESP and other paranormal fields of interest were taken more seriously – both by the mainstream media and by academia?
Jonathan: Oh totally, I mean this was the time of Uri Geller being a huge TV star. It did seem like certainly the mainstream media took it all more seriously, or certainly gave it screentime without attempting to debunk it with a knowing wink. Likewise, academia was a bit more open, too. I have some great T C Lethbridge books from the period, plus things like The Occult, by Colin Wilson. I think it really was the tail end of the “Age of Aquarius”.
Wayne: For sure, Jonathan. But I understand why that openness has gone away. With the advent of smartphones and related tech, there should be more documentations of unexplained phenomena, but instead we have fewer. The hard sciences are universally lauded – and rightfully so – but the ability to not-know can be equally important in a moment. I think we worked on Parapsychedelia from a space which embraced our classically shared touchstones of the unexplained, but I can’t help but feel it all points to something much closer.
Are you a believer in any of this stuff yourselves, then? Have you ever tried experimenting with Zenner Cards, for example?
Jonathan: I have a set of Zenner cards that came with a copy of The Unexplained magazine. I’ve never had much luck with them though! Let’s say I’ve an open and enquiring mind on this and a lot of similar esoteric subjects.
Wayne: Traditional parapsychology? Not particularly. But I believe the reality of our situation to be several magnitudes weirder than any of that!
The idea of a collaboration between a Cumbrian artist and a Californian artist is an intriguing one! How did it come about?
Jonathan: I’d been familiar with Wayne’s Panamint Manse releases, and we started chatting back and forth. I really liked his last album a lot and he said “Well… how about we do some kind of collaboration and see what happens?”
I don’t think either of us had any initial expectations of it turning into a full album, but he sent me some initial ideas to play with, and it quickly became apparent that we clicked musically and had something pretty cool. The whole thing took shape over a few months as ideas bounced back and forwards, and suddenly we had an album’s worth of stuff.
Wayne: Yeah, I had admired Jonathan’s work from afar before we began corresponding. After devouring all I could of the more popular stuff, I’d search Bandcamp for music tagged with “Hauntology” – I know it’s uncool, thanks – and The Heartwood Institute stood out for me. I remember hearing Calder Hall in 2016, around the same time I put my first music on the platform. I think Bandcamp can be a great tool for fostering communities and building connections. But it was Jonathan’s willingness to work with a bit of an outsider that allowed Parapsychedelia to develop.
Have you ever met each other in person, or even spoken in real time?
Jonathan: No, we’ve not met in person at this point, but yes – we’ve talked at length in actual, real time. And probably sent several thousand words of e-mails and messages!
Wayne, how have you found it working “remotely” in this way?
Wayne: We have similar setups so it wasn’t insurmountable, but I love being forced to commit and bounce down audio, because I can be so indecisive in my own work. Sending audio and MIDI, and text and pictures to friends are great frequencies for me.
What do you think each other brings to the collaboration? How do you complement each other’s work?
Jonathan: Well, I’ve been jokingly saying that Wayne brings the tunes and melodies, and I bring the noises. Which is probably a bit flippant, but I think we each have different strengths, and when they come together it makes for something that neither of us would do by ourselves.
Wayne: Haha, yes. It’s not all so black and white obviously, but there is a mixture of dark and light going on. I tend toward sentimentalism in my own work, and so it’s pleasant to explore murkier zones with Jonathan and just let go a bit. Not every song needs a chorus, Wayne!
Can I ask where some of the track titles come from? I’m intrigued by ‘Black Ant, White Magic’…
Jonathan: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’ and most of the other titles are Wayne’s – he’s great at mashing existing words to make new ones that sound like they ought to actually be a thing. I loved what he came up with, it’s kind of a woozy melange of psychedelia and parapsychology.
Wayne: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’… mostly, I just liked the sound of it. I wanted to retain some of the desert connections, and huge black ants are everywhere here in summer. ‘White Magic’ is just an attempt to be gentle, and not overly morose about the project. But I guess it’s been awarded some context after the fact… Jonathan is the black ant, and I bring the white magic.
Ooof, that’s lame.
And the rest? ‘Mesmercuria’? And ‘Amaranthracine’? Neither of these appear to be actual words… did you have fun inventing new words for this album?
Wayne: OK, nerding out here, but for the titles you mentioned I’d start with a word thematically related to our aesthetic, like “mesmerism”, and then bring up the default dictionary on OSX. You type three letters into the dictionary, it begins to auto-populate on the left, and you can scroll for something you like. Then you can just keep twisting away by repeating the process. So for the above example I used “mercurial”, but just dropped the “l” from the end, for added mystique. But perhaps “mesmeridian” could have worked, or “mesmercyanemiasma”? It’s like a directed cut-up or something. ‘Clairvoyeurism’ works in that way, as does Parapsychedelia. Overall, we tried to find a good mix of simple and graphic.
Can you tell us where some of the samples on the album came from? They’re very evocative.
Jonathan: I went down a massive Youtube rabbit hole of 1970s American science-fiction, and weird documentaries. A big resource was that Leonard Nimoy In Search Of…. programme. Which is very similar to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, so there was much to be had from that. Also, there are some bits pieces lifted from Phase IV. I think if this whole project referenced one movie: stylistically, visually and content-wise, it would be Phase IV.
Wayne, are they any samples on the album that you’re particularly fond of, or find especially evocative?
Wayne: Definitely what Jonathan said about Phase IV… I love the dialogue at the end of ‘Amaranthracine’. ‘Onyx Oracle’ uses non-repeating. one second snippets from various VHS tapes. And the percussion sounds from Within The Woods on ‘Precognition’ were an absolute pain!
Will you both work together again, do you think?
Jonathan: Oh yes! We have plans for another joint album, and we’ll be digging further into the shadowy world of the Mobius Group.
Wayne: We will go much, much deeper during future investigations… it’s inevitable.
I meant to ask about the Mobius Group. The vinyl album comes with a couple of curious documents that allude to the existence of this mysterious organisation. What more can you tell us about them?
Jonathan: The Mobius Group… is standing by. Who they are, and what they do, is the subject for the next album. They are a shadowy group of people with extraordinary powers…
Thanks to Jonathan and Wayne for forging a psychic connection and transmitting the results remotely to the Haunted Generation… Parapsychedelia, by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse, can be ordered here: