Polypores, Azure and Stephen James Buckley

Descending… deeper… deeper… deeper…

Listening to a Polypores album is an incredibly immersive experience. More so than ever in the case of new album Azure, which employs a gentle tide of modular synths to create the feel of a fantastical ocean paradise; a tropical realm of ancient, submerged cities awash with Polynesian chants and rhythms. “I imagined this to be the music that the sunken stone heads from Easter Island would have on their record players,” claims Preston-based Stephen James Buckley – aka Polypores – in the album’s press release. “A relaxation tape for dolphins…”

The album is a companion piece to 2019’s Flora, also released by Castles in Space, and now gaining a welcome vinyl reissue. Flora was a similarly fantastical exploration of an otherworldly woodland, where trees and vegetation grow to outlandish sizes, and Stephen and I talked about it last summer – you can read our conversation here.

This week, I spoke to Stephen again to ask about the inspirations behind Azure. Here’s how it all went:

Bob: When we talked about Flora last year, you mentioned it had been partially inspired by the blistering hot summer of 2018. And now Azure has an aquatic theme, and the album’s PR mentions that very rainy weather at the end of 2019 as a partial influence! Is it fair to say you find the elements rather inspiring?

Stephen: I think it was a combination of things. I now tend to do stuff that’s a lot more led by the music, so I’ll just mess around and experiment and then say “Hmm… this seems to be following that kind of theme.” Rather than sitting down and saying “Right, I’m going to make an album that’s inspired by this.” But looking back, I think a number of things fed into it. I distinctly remember listening back to one of the tracks that I’d recorded – which actually didn’t end up on the album – and we’d had torrential rain for about two weeks, and I was just imagining what it would be like if Preston was submerged. The imagery of it. And from there, I thought… “Oh, that’s a thing…”

And then I searched for a lot of imagery of sunken cities. I was looking very much at images of sunken stone heads, Easter Island statues, things like that. And all the different theories about Atlantis, and the various places where it could be located. And a lot of the sounds I was making were quite Pacific-sounding; tuned percussion and Polynesian-sounding choirs were coming out. So once I decided things were heading in a water-based direction, I started immersing myself more in literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and documentaries: anything to do with the sea. Just trying to get my head in that place.

I found a fantastic book, actually – I’ve got it out, just so I could remember the title! It’s called The Ocean Almanac, and it’s by Robert Hendrickson. It describes itself as “A Copious Compendium on Sea Creatures, Nautical Lore & Legend, Master Mariners, Naval Disasters, and Myriad Mysteries of the Deep”. It’s a massive book that I found in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in… somewhere in Yorkshire. I think it might have been Harrogate. It’s just full of both real life and fantasy: mermaids and sea serpents and krackens, but then all these weird facts about the ocean, and about fish and the water. That was really a great book to be reading around that time, and it fed into the whole thing.

So when the album was finished, it seemed – not necessarily intentionally – to have a cohesive feel to it, and to fit together in that way. So I suppose there was some intent involved, but also a fair bit of chance and just letting things happen. Letting my head absorb things. It’s almost like a computer: you feed input into me, and then the music comes out. But that input doesn’t necessarily have to be musical input… I feel like everything I absorb and experience is processed in some way, and I just have to decide how it comes out.

I remember when we talked about Flora, you mentioned the animated French film La Planète Sauvageaka The Fantastic Planet – as an influence on the album’s aesthetic. I’d never seen it in full before, so I watched it and thought it was extraordinary! Were there any similarly specific influences on Azure?

There weren’t necessarily whole films, but there were certainly images or certain scenes from films that fed into it. Weirdly enough, there was actually a computer game that I used to play on the Amiga in the 1990s called The Secret of Monkey Island. I don’t know if you remember it, it was a point-and-click adventure…

Oh, did you sample a bit of music from it?

I did, yeah! It’s set in the Caribbean, and you’re a young lad called Guybrush Threepwood, trying to train up to be a pirate. It’s all quite tropical-sounding, and there are parts of it where you go underwater. So when I sent Nick [Taylor, sleeve designer] images for the artwork, almost like a mood board of imagery, it was on there. Even though you only spend a couple of minutes underwater, it really stuck with me.

I’m trying to think if there was anything else… I’m looking at my DVD collection now! One of my favourite underwater films is The Water Babies, from 1978. I loved that when I was a kid. All the background parts are hand-drawn animation… a bit like The Fantastic Planet, actually. These strange, beautiful worlds where you’ve got weird squids! Again, it’s a very vague influence, and it’s not like I sat down and watched it all, but these things seep in and become part of your palette.

Is it important for you to have that fantastical element? Flora wasn’t just about walking through woodland, it was about walking through huge, oversized alien woodland.

I think so. Not with every album, but that’s what I wanted to do with Azure. Not so much to make a sequel to Flora, but certainly to do something that had a fantastical interpretation of an environment. Making it into something that’s almost larger than life. And I suppose with Azure I was making music that sounded very water-like to me, and my imagination just goes off on one because I’ve watched way too many science fiction and fantasy films… [Laughs]

The last time I saw you, you were actually wearing a Krull t-shirt…

There you go! It does probably influence the way I think as an adult. I was reading a study the other day that said how science fiction and fantasy actually change the way you think: they make you think more critically and more imaginatively about certain things. And I think that’s benefitted my life in the long run. I suppose it just allows you to think about things in a certain way, and to consider certain things: a lot of sci-fi is “What if”, you know… “What if people could travel back in time? What if we swapped bodies?”

And I think with Azure… I didn’t want to do another Flora – that would be way too easy, and I’d be bored – but I liked the idea of doing something for the same label, Castles In Space, that tied into Flora a little bit. And maybe there’ll be a third one with a different element! Fire, water, wood…

Are you a bit of a prog rock fan? The combination of your music and Nick’s artwork gives off a very prog aesthetic, I think. It all sometimes makes me think of Roger Dean‘s floating islands on those Yes album sleeves…

Yeah, there’s some prog stuff that I absolutely love. It’s not classic prog, but I really like a prog-metal band called Mastodon. They did an amazing album called Crack The Skye, it’s one of my favourite albums of all time. It’s a concept album about a young quadriplegic boy who uses astral projection to travel outside of his body, but he flies too close to the sun and it burns the golden umbilical cord that connects him to his physical form. So he’s sort of lost in the ether, then a bunch of 17th century Russian mystics contact him and guide him back down to his body.

Blimey.

[Laughs] I love the aesthetic of that stuff. It’s not a million miles away from fantasy is it, really? If you like fantasy books and films then listening to prog feels like the next progression. It’s something I dabble in rather than being massively into, and I don’t claim to have a massive knowledge of it, but I certainly love certain aspects of it, and there are certain albums I really dig.

Did I read that you were listening to Iron Maiden quite a lot while you were working on Azure?

I was! It’s a weird one, that. I used to love them when I was about fourteen. And again, it’s not far from being fantasy…

The one for me is Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which – again – is pretty much a prog album in all but name.

Seventh Son is an incredible album! I love that, it’s my favourite Maiden album. If ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was on that, it’d be the perfect album! Seventh Son is the one I listen to the most, it’s fantastic – just the whole concept behind it. I think that’s why I like Mastodon actually, because they remind me of that period of Iron Maiden. I love that record: right down to the repeated motifs connected to ‘The Clairvoyant’, stuff like that. It’s great conceptually, but also there are some proper singalong bangers on that album, too – ‘Can I Play With Madness’! It’s great to listen to when you’re cooking. Cooking and listening to Iron Maiden puts me in a good place.

Are you quite a good cook, then?   

I enjoy cooking, I’m not sure how good I am! I’m not as good as my partner, but I’m better than I was two years ago.

What’s your culinary speciality?

Curries. I do a lot of different curries. And I’m very much a one-pot man. I do one pot in large portions so I’ve got a lot for the freezer, for later. I like to experiment with different spices, and I’m learning a lot. One of the guys I work with, Mark – actually, he records under the name Field Lines Cartographer and has an album coming out on Castles In Space – he’s a good friend of mine, and he often gives me tips. He’s the curry master. I’ll say to him “Mark, what’s this spice for?” And he’ll stroke his beard and give me some sage advice.

Sage advice would be about herbs, not spices. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. That’s a terrible pun.

It was quick, and I think the important thing about puns is not how good they are, but how quick they are.

You normally have to wait a few days for me! I was actually trying to work out how to bring your love of cooking back to your love of music, and I think I can do this: if you’ve learned to cook over the last couple of years, then you’re clearly open to developing new skills. And one other new skill you’ve developed is learning to play the modular synth – which you’ve used for the first time on Azure.

Yes! I think making music in general is a similar process. Especially with synthesizers, and especially with modular synthesizers. You’ve got a number of different ingredients, and you’ve got to choose how much of a certain sound to put in. And each tweak you make is like putting in a spice.

Oh, this is good…

There are a lot of musical cooking analogies I could make! The list is endless… you put too much lemon in, and it’s fucked! But I suppose the difference with music is that you can go back. If you mess up when you’re cooking something, you’re stuck with it, really. But yeah – it is quite similar. And the modular stuff has really blown my mind in terms of experimentation. That’s one of the things I enjoy most in life, again that idea of “What it?”…

“What if we walk down this path, and see where this takes us? Let’s find out where this goes…”

I really enjoy that when I’m out walking, and when I make music it’s the same principle. “What happens if I plug this into here…” And with a modular synth, that’s what you have to do. That’s how you work, rather than everything being set up and prescribed. Modular is a blank canvas… it’s like Lego. It’s like musical Lego. I was a massive Lego fan when I was a kid, and this is exactly the same. A normal synth is a toy that’s pre-built, but a modular synth is like a Lego kit. You can build it in a way that’s the same as on the box, but you can also take it apart and make a whole new thing. That’s why I enjoy it so much – it brings up a whole new set of co-ordinates. You’re working on a completely different axis, with whole new dimensions of composition and texture. It’s been an amazing experience for me, and it’s one of those things that’s never complete, I’m constantly buying and selling new things. It’s ever-evolving.

Can you send me a picture of your modular synth to put on the website?

Absolutely, yeah.

Does it look like a telephone exchange?  

Pretty much! I’ll send you one once we’re done.

Is there a timeline to Azure? The opening track is called ‘Bathysphere’, which I know is the large spherical container that early 20th century divers used a lot. So is that track a depiction of us descending underwater? And then we head on a voyage of discovery as the album progresses?

That’s what I think. It wasn’t necessarily my intention, but that’s what happened! To be honest, with Bathysphere… it’s a word that I’ve always loved, and I’ve always wanted to do a track called ‘Bathysphere’, I’ve just never really had the opportunity. But this album gave me that opportunity. But yeah, I imagine that track taking place in some kind of cove, or bay. It’s evening, and it’s dark, but there are lights all around the bay and on the cliffs. And the Bathysphere descending underwater is where the journey begins, taking you through all these places. And then ‘Source’, the final track… I imagine that’s you coming out onto an island where there’s a stream that runs down to feed the ocean. Again, just very vague and pretentious ideas!

They’re not pretentious! ‘Among Sunken Stone Heads’ is such a beautiful and evocative title. You mentioned Easter Island, did you particularly have those statues in mind when you wrote track?

I was going to call that track Rapa Nui, but I thought no – that’s a bit too on the nose! I thought I’d make it a little bit more vague it could apply to any heads, not just the ones on Easter Island.

You mentioned Nick Taylor as well, who designed the artwork for both Flora and Azure. Your music and his imagery fit so well together… how does the collaborative process with Nick work?

Well it works brilliantly, for a start! Usually, I send him the complete album, and then I put together a few images and give him a vague idea of what I’m looking for. He’ll then listen, and have a look around, and send me back a few images. And I’ll say “I like this one, and this one, and this one…” And from there he goes off and does his thing, and nine times out of ten what he comes back with is almost there. I might ask for a minor change to the colour, but he generally gets it 99% there the first time. I sometimes feel like I’m making soundtracks to Nick Taylor artwork.

Oh, that’s lovely!

It’s almost like it works backwards. It’s great working with Nick. He’s a nice guy as well, as you know… you met him – well, both of us – at the Delaware Road event last year.

We threw ourselves around the dancefloor at 3am to a Steve Davis DJ set. What a night that was. Did you have a good weekend?

Yeah! It was mad. I had a very tender head the next day, but it was great. The highlight of my year.

I’m just gutted there obviously hasn’t been an event where we can all meet up again this year.

Castles In Space are doing an event, aren’t they? In October… they asked me to play it, but it was on a weeknight, which is difficult. It means taking two days off work. But Field Lines Cartographer is playing it, which is great… it means he’s got an opportunity, after I did Delaware Road last year. I’m not bitter.

What else are you working on? You seem to be popping up everywhere at the moment, on lots of compilations in particular.

I’ve been extremely busy. Until a couple of weeks ago my partner wasn’t here, so I was just on my own for nine weeks! So I made a lot of music. It’s hard to keep track of… I’ve got stuff coming out over the next couple of months on various labels. I think I’ve got an album coming out every month for the next three months. So there’s a lot more to come, and I’m currently working on a release for Woodford Halse, Mat Handley‘s label. I promised ages ago I’d do an album for him, so I’ve got a few ideas together and things are taking shape. I’m still trying to find the focal point for the album, but eventually I’ll stumble on a track and say “This is the one… this is what the album is going to sound like”. And then everything else will work around that.

So that’s what I’m doing at the moment. Just experimenting and trying out new things and new ideas. I’m very much into “granular sampling” at the moment. It’s like sampling on a micro level. You take tiny snippets of sounds and play around with them. You end up finding sounds within sounds. You can take a second of, say, a Beatles song, and you hone in on that, and move around within that second. And there are whole other melodies and textures that you would otherwise have missed. It’s like working with sound on a molecular level. It’s like you’ve got a magnifying glass, and it’s bringing all kinds of things to the table that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to play with.

That’s really interesting, and I always like your keenness to take on new influences. Which reminds me: I meant to say Azure actually has a curious New Age feel to it places…

Yeah, definitely. A lot of the music I was listening to around that time was New Age kind of music… there are some great compilations on Light in the Attic records, which got me started. I listened to a couple of those, and from there I explored other artists. There’s so much of it on Youtube from the 1980s and 1990s. Some of it’s kind of cheesy, but I suppose what I wanted to was… rather than be influenced by something, and do something in that style, I’m more into taking elements of it and making my own version. So it’s the Polypores version of New Age music, not New Age music as such.

And I think that’s what I’ve done with a number of different genres. A case of dabbling here and there. This is going to sound massively big-headed, and I’m in no way comparing myself to him, but it’s similar to what David Bowie did. He’d take elements of funk or pop or drum and bass and he’d do his own version of it. Which I suppose is kind of what I do, except I’m nowhere near as good as David Bowie. I’m not claiming in any way to be on his level.

No, that’s going to be my headline. “I AM THE NEW DAVID BOWIE – STEPHEN JAMES BUCKLEY”

[Laughs] I think people assume that I have a massive ego because I release a lot of music and talk a lot, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! I say these things taking the piss: “Look at me, I am the David Bowie of electronic music”, and people think I’m being serious. But I’m actually mocking myself. But then before you know it, you’ve got a reputation…

I’ll put it on the record that you’re a modest and unassuming kind of chap.  

Please do! But no, you know where I’m coming from… it’s back to the cooking, and the ingredients. You can make food that’s Indian style, but it’s got halloumi in it. It’s like that.

Thanks to Stephen for giving up his Tuesday afternoon for our chat. He is a modest and unassuming chap, and Azure is available here:

https://polypores-cis.bandcamp.com/album/azure

And Flora, now reissued on vinyl, is available here:

https://polypores-cis.bandcamp.com/album/flora

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