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.
Franck Alba from Piano Magic is on the album, too…
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 Heartleap came 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?
She’d been in touch with Devendra Banhart, and with Animal Collective, but the first recording she did was with Piano Magic, yeah.
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.
Some of your first releases were fundraising releases for the Birdlife International charity, weren’t they?
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:
And the Second Language website is here: