From an early age, I have been affected by art with a profound connection to landscape. This passion undoubtedly derives from my childhood obsession with Alan Garner’s novels The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, books I re-read on a perpetual loop while simultaneously developing a deep appreciation of the dark, strange beauty of my native North York Moors. In the maelstrom of my young imagination, the black slate pits and windswept heather of our bracing family walks became an entirely inaccurate substitute for the genuine backdrop of the books’ uncanny adventures: Cheshire’s leafy Alderley Edge. But the link was made, and the formula became an integral element of my mental make-up: story + landscape + strangeness = joy.
In 2013, I read Robert Macfarlane‘s book The Old Ways, and found this “third book in a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart” (his own words) equally touching. While exploring the prehistoric trackways of the British Isles and beyond, Macfarlane seemed to draw ancient story and affecting oddness from the ground with his every footstep. I’ve been an avid reader of his books ever since, and his latest work – Ness – reverses the process, bringing his own story, an environment prose poem, to the unique psychogeographical melting pot of Orford Ness. A malleable sliver of shingle loosely attached to the Suffolk coastline, this windswept outpost spent most of the 20th century under the command of the Ministry of Defence, acting as wartime (and Cold War) weapons testing site, and as the host of ‘The Black Beacon”, an experimental radio tower.
Macfarlane’s prose was part of a wider, collaborative artistic project inspired by the topography and history of Orford Ness. The book also included evocative illustrations by Stanley Donwood, and came accompanied by a short film adaptation by Adam Scovell: the three artists reuniting six years after completing Holloway, a similarly inspiring pilgrimage around the ancient trackways of Dorset. And providing a soundtrack to Scovell’s film was Drew Mulholland, the acclaimed sound experimentalist whose 2001 album The Seance At Hob’s Lane had been a pivotal influence on the formation of my beloved Ghost Box Records.
The soundtrack itself, A Haunting Strip of Marshland, was released this week for the delayed Record Store Day, and is now available as a beautiful vinyl package (and a digital download) from the Castles In Space Label. It’s an aptly-titled and evocative collection of manipulated field recordings and vintage 1960s mellotron sounds, and comes recommended without hesitation. To celebrate the album’s release, I spoke to both Adam Scovell and Drew Mulholland, in quick succession on an appropriately windswept September afternoon. The conversations went as follows :
Bob: I’d assumed that the film Ness was a straight adaptation of the finished book, so was intrigued to discover that you actually started filming before Robert had started writing. Did book and film possibly even begin their lives as unconnected projects?
Adam: I can’t remember what exactly came first. I’d wanted to film on Orford Ness for a while, and around the time that I was making Holloway, with Robert, Stanley and Dan Richards – I think they’d mentioned that they were also planning something. And it maybe made sense, if there was going to be a similar project, for a similar Super 8 film to be made.
But that was around 2015, and a lot of projects came in-between. So I filmed on Orford Ness in 2015 and 2016, with a bare bones text that Robert had put together for what he thought the book was going to be at the time. That was three or four years before it was finally published, and the book changed quite dramatically. So I had about six or seven reels of Super 8, for a film that was working from a text with quite a different angle.
It came to a point where a couple of years had passed, and I still had this footage, and I was going to use it for another project of my own. But then Ness got back on track. I think Robert had mainly been focusing on writing his Underland book, which took a lot of time and work. But we chatted again, and planned the film’s screening for – hopefully – the launch of the book in 2019. And I want back to Orford with an extra reel or two of Super 8, and filmed the bits that were missing due to the text having changed.
So it was a very fluctuating, porous process. It wasn’t a straight adaptation like Holloway had been. It was very haphazard, very back and forth.
Can there be a certain merit in that as well, though? Can introducing unpredictable elements into the creative process be quite rewarding?
Well, one of the things that I think came from that – apart from the fact that the gap allowed a change to be perceived in the location, because it’s a location that’s very much famous for its disintegration and degradation as time passes – is that the landscape itself, whether you’re writing or making films about it, is actually ripe for work with a sort of fragmented quality. I think it’s there in Stanley’s artwork: the way the crosshatching works; the little fragments that build up. It’s there in Robert’s prose too, and I think it works in the same way in the film. There’s a real fragmented quality, and that partly comes from the fact that the filming itself was so loose and haphazard compared to how film adaptations normally work.
How difficult was it to gain access to Orford Ness?
It’s actually run by the National Trust now… so in one sense it’s not difficult at all, providing you go to Orford on the right day and pay! A boat takes you over to the location.
Ah, I thought all kinds of permissions might be required.
Well the main landscape is fine, but the laboratories that feature in the book and film are mainly out of bounds now. When the National Trust took over from the Ministry of Defence in the 1990s, it was one of the first sites on which they decided not to maintain the buildings. They let them fall and crumble. And what this has meant, over the last few years, is that accessing in particular the famous Pagoda site – which W.G. Sebald made famous in his book, The Rings of Saturn – has become more of a safety concern. To the point where the insides of the laboratories weren’t accessible to me for the second filming period. In the time between my two filming periods, the building had become too unsafe. They were even calculating how far the roof would travel if it slid off!
It’s quite ominous, in a sense: because of the weapons that were being tested within them, these buildings were designed to collapse inwards. So that automatically means that any degradation to the architecture makes them very unsafe. So the Ness itself can be visited, and the laboratories can be seen from a distance, but I don’t think you can go inside them any more. We were lucky in that sense: that early filming helped, because we weren’t able to visit them later.
I was going to ask you to describe the atmosphere of Orford Ness, then I saw an interview with both yourself and Robert, where you both compared it to the landscape of an Andrei Tarkovsky film. Which struck a chord, because I’d already seen the film at that point, and been struck by how much the Ness resembled the landscapes of Stalker!
It does! And I remember the very first filming trip was very much like Stalker. I went with my father to Suffolk, and the ranger for the National Trust had a little electric buggy that he’d been given to get around the site. My dad and I got on the back, and it zoomed off… and it was very much like the moment in Stalker when they enter The Zone in that little vehicle! And you can see that some of the shots in Ness are taken from that buggy. I remember getting my camera out, saying “I’ve got to film this,” and my father saying “Don’t, you’re going to fall off!” He was literally hanging onto my arm while I got those shots.
It is very much like The Zone, it’s not an exaggeration. It’s as close as you can get to that feeling without going to where Tarkovsky actually filmed.
And it’s possibly a safer option – hasn’t it been suggested that some of the cast and crew of Stalker became ill, and even died, after spending so much time filming in such a toxic location?
Yeah, and there’s actually a suggestion that Tarkovsky’s illness came from that. It probably didn’t help that, famously, he had to reshoot virtually the whole film because he’d used an experimental film stock before realising that none of it was working. So he had to reshoot in a place which may or may not have been somewhere that could have made you ill. He sacrificed a lot – quite literally – for that film, if rumours are to be believed.
There’s no danger of that on Orford Ness is there, given its military history? What was actually being tested there?
The military history of the Ness is actually quite complex. It had been a site for testing the lethality and vulnerability of certain forms of weaponry, but in the 1980s it was actually the MOD’s weapons disposal area. So when the National Trust took it over, the military had to sweep the area to remove any potentially dangerous debris that had been missed. And they still stop walkers from entering from the furthest point, near Aldeburgh, because you can never be 100% sure whether all the devices and weapons have been cleared. You don’t know what might be hidden under the shingles that have moved over the years! Stick to the path, and you’ll be safe. [Laughs]
Your use of Super 8 film stock for the film is incredibly effective, and I had a long chat with Matthew Holness for the website a couple of months ago, where he spoke passionately about the use of actual film providing almost a portal to a dreamlike world. Ness absolutely has that quality – was achieving that feel part of the reason for using Super 8?
Yeah, I think so. I have made films on digital before, but usually it’s been to highlight a difference between that and the analogue film featured within them. I definitely have a similar feeling to Matthew. There’s something about analogue images that you can’t quite put into words. Especially now, in the digital age, they feel even more cursed and bizarre. And for somewhere like Orford, which is – I think – very much from an analogue era, shooting on digital wouldn’t capture the same sort of feel. The stock I used for some of the reels, especially the colour reels, was actually older than me. It was from the late 1980s, and was degraded itself. Which was very fitting for somewhere with nuclear implications, in addition to the actual degradation of the buildings. It wouldn’t have worked on digital, it would have been quite a boring visual project.
Does the Super 8 format hold any personal nostalgia for you? Did your family have a Super 8 camera in the 1960s or 70s?
Not that I know of, no… my own parents were from beyond that era. I was only born in 1989. I first came across Super 8 myself, and realised that it was something very specific, when I first started looking into the films of Derek Jarman. It has always been, since then, an artistic medium rather than a home film medium. It was only after looking into Jarman’s work in my early twenties that I realised this had actually been the home film medium that people had once used. Finding older footage, and realising that they were using that kind of camera, came after my seeing artists using Super 8. The other way round, I think, to how most people would have come to this. Probably because I’m a millennial, I come to things backwards! [Laughs]
We’ve talked about the way in which the collaboration with Robert worked, but obviously the book has a visual element too, in the form of Stanley’s illustrations. Did you swap notes with Stanley during the creative process ? I actually had the book in front of me while I was watching the film, to see if any of the shots were directly inspired by the illustrations. Or vice versa!
There were two things that we did in the end: the first was to include the hagstone images, the little chapter markers that Stanley had drawn. And then once we had the finished illustrations, the last reels of the film – shot last year – were almost all designed to reflect the exact images that Stanley had drawn. They hadn’t previously been in the film because the artwork had very much been in its early stages when I’d first filmed there. I didn’t know which images were going to be in the final book. Aside from one, which we couldn’t have got access to anyway, because it was in one of the laboratories that’s now closed. They’d nicknamed it the Green Chapel, because it had these strange, cross-like designs on the wall.
But I don’t think either Stanley or I thought that meshing that illustration with the image would have worked anyway. It’s crosshatched, so it would have been too busy. There was one idea, which was eventually vetoed, which was a hagstone machine gun effect! I’d done a fast animation, with some of Stanley’s hagstones put to the sound of an Uzi going off – as if one of the characters had invented a machine gun that fired hagstones rather than bullets. But it was considered a bit too “pulp” I think, for this little film! That was the only one, I think, were they thought I’d gone a bit too far… [Laughs]
Was it all getting a bit too Guy Ritchie?
I’d been reading a few too many novels by Derek Raymond, and thought “You know what? I need some villains in this…” [Laughs] No, losing it was the right thing to do, but it was fun to make.
Drew Mulholland’s soundtrack compliments the film perfectly. How did he come on board – was he someone you’d known for a while?
I met Drew a long time ago… probably at one of the early Folk Horror or Weird Landscape conferences, in the early 2010s. I’d been aware of his work for a while, because I think we have pretty much the same taste in virtually everything. And he very kindly, a few years ago, sent me one of his fragments from the original Wicker Man prop…
He sent me one of those as well!
He’s like the Wicker Man dealer now! If you need a chunk of the original Wicker Man for something, Drew’s your man. Nudge nudge, wink wink! No, he kindly sent me that, and I liked the album that Ghost Box re-released a long time ago, The Séance at Hobs Lane. We were struggling initially to think of music for this project… because I don’t think I knew of Drew’s own Orford Ness project until well after we’d already asked other people to do the music. But people said yes, and then no, and we were coming to the conclusion that it was probably going to be just… sounds.
But then Drew mentioned his Ness project, and it just clicked: “Of course, that’s the right thing to do.” He’d made these really hauntological soundscapes from the same things that we’d filmed, and he very kindly allowed us to use them. And we’re incredibly grateful. They’re fantastic pieces of sound work, and I can’t think of anything that would have complemented our project more.
If we’re talking about art with a distinct connection to landscape – as is the case with both the book and the film – then it’s hard to think of many artists working in the musical sphere that feel that connection as profoundly as Drew. Obviously he takes field recordings from the locations that inspire him, but he also takes actual objects from those places, and uses them in the physical creation of his music. Didn’t he coat the magnetic tapes used for A Haunting Strip of Marshland with lichen from Orford Ness?
Yes, he’s certainly very ritualistic! I think, because he’s been doing it for a while, that sort of practice is becoming more common. Probably because he’s starting to popularise it a little bit… people have seen that there are ways to use the physical aspect of a landscape in their work. When we made Holloway, we approached Richard Skelton, whose practice is very similar on some level to enmeshing yourself in a landscape and really getting to the raw earthiness of it before starting to compose music. It depends on the kind of landscape – and music – that you’re after, I guess. But Drew is at the forefront of that, for sure.
Can I ask about your own relationship with the landscapes that have surrounded you? I read a lovely interview with you today, in which you described spending your school years on Merseyside exploring the edgelands beneath the M53 motorway. My interest is very much in the ways in which our childhoods have influenced our adult lives – often quite a profound way. And if you’ll pardon the expression, exploring that mish-mash of imprints on the same piece of landscape is very “on message” for you!
[Laughs] Yeah, it is!
So do you feel as though your childhood experiences have really helped to shape the way that you work as an adult?
Certainly. And my next novel, which isn’t out until 2022, is actually all about that landscape, and is set underneath that motorway, and in that school. Being around that landscape removes the bias that people have towards what David Southwell calls “bastard landscapes”. Those in-between places. Being around them, and actually enjoying them, makes you appreciate them. And makes you appreciate work set in those sorts of landscapes as well. So you find that old TV shows set in abandoned research facilities chime with you in a way that they wouldn’t for other people!
There was actually an exhibition last year by the artist Mark Leckey, who re-created part of that motorway in Tate Britain. So I’m not the only one who finds interest and pleasure in those landscapes, and in that specific landscape of the M53.
And the abandoned research facilities of old TV shows brings me perfectly to Doctor Who – you’re a huge fan, aren’t you?
Oh yeah, definitely. As soon as I mentioned abandoned research facilities, I had an image of ‘The Green Death‘! [Laughs]
Me too – whenever I visit any new place, I tend to construct an idea of the kind of Doctor Who story that would be filmed there. And I’ve never been to Orford Ness, but I know full well it would perfect for a Jon Pertwee story.
It would definitely be a UNIT story! There would be a grumpy scientist… it would be like ‘Inferno‘, I think, but with weapons. I like that era more than most because it does focus on those landscapes… and quite unconsciously, I hasten to add: it does that because lots of those places were around in the 1970s. But in hindsight they’re glorious to look at, because lots of them don’t exist in quite the same way any more.
I’m always intrigued to speak with Doctor Who fans who grew up in the “wilderness years” of the 1990s: how did you discover the show at a time when it wasn’t being made?
It was my father. He was a bit of a fan: he had a couple of videos, and a TARDIS tin, but then it transferred to me and went to a whole different level. It was a thing I fixated on for the whole of my childhood, and a large chunk of my teenage years, and it hasn’t really left. I find it bizarre on one level that they’re actually called the “wilderness years”, because I had the first 27 years to catch up with on VHS, I had the Target novelisations, the Virgin New and Missing books, Big Finish, the TV Movie… the list goes on! It was glorious to me, because I had so much to discover. But I can imagine, if you were used to watching it on a Saturday night, then post-‘Survival‘ was probably a horrific period. [Laughs]
I was 17 when ‘Survival’ aired, and I’d started to drift away. I always think Doctor Who fans claim that the programme mysteriously went downhill just after the period when they personally were about fifteen! But I came back in the late 1990s when I got online, and have never looked back.
It’s a gateway into cult stuff generally, I think. I’m watching Timeslip at the moment, for the first time. There’s an endless amount of stuff to discover, and it’s all arguably coming from that bedrock of having religiously watched Doctor Who as a child. Probably over-watching it… not going on holiday anywhere without a VHS player, and taking episodes with me because I needed that comfort blanket!
How are you finding Timeslip?
It’s great. I’d been saving it for a while, because I feel like I’ve drained a lot of classic cult stuff now, and I’m very aware that I haven’t got all that much left to watch – so I’m very precious about it. It’s just so funny to see Spencer Banks acting so young, because obviously I knew him from Penda’s Fen! He’s like a mini version of Stephen from Penda’s Fen, before he turned into a precocious, Tory military teenager! [Laughs]. It’s incredible fun, and I’m looking forward to exploring it more.
The first story, with the portal to the wartime village, is a wonderful piece of TV.
Yes, and again – it doesn’t look that dissimilar to parts of Orford Ness. Orford has those military huts, and the old concrete pillars and bits of meshed fencing. It connects again to that aesthetic, and it’s an aesthetic that makes me very happy.
So what are you working on at the moment – you mentioned the novel, is that the current project?
Well, it’s already drafted and we’ll be doing the edit next year. It was pushed back by the publisher for a year because we’d already done a book a year for the last two years. So I’m actually working on a weird non-fiction book about Polaroid photography at the moment.
What’s your angle on that?
It’s complicated, really… I’m more using it as a lens to look at its role in wider aspects of culture. So it deals with a whole range of bizarre things: from Blade Runner to Walker Evans to Andy Warhol’s celebrity photography; to murder and crime scene photography, to Antonioni‘s Blowup… I hope it’ll be an interesting book. If it gets published!
This is possibly reflective of the seedy 1970s in which I that I grew up, but mention of Polaroid photography always just makes me think of Eric Idle’s “Nudge Nudge” character. When someone bought a Polaroid camera in the 1970s, there was always the temptation to knowingly ask: “Oh, aye? And what will you be using that for?”
[Laughs] I’ve literally just finished writing a section about that darker, seedier aspect, and what Polaroid photography was used for in the 1970s. And why it featured in so many crime novels. I’ve just finished that, and I’ve had to talk things as diverse as P.D. James novels, moving onto – unfortunately – Fred and Rose West. Polaroids cover all of those things, so it should be a weird, interesting project.
Immediately after saying goodbye to Adam, I called Drew Mullholland. I’d spoken to Drew a couple of times in the past: once in connection with Three Antennas In a Quarry, the album he recorded in 2019 from plans originally drawn up by Delia Derbyshire; and then later that year we discussed his album The Wicker Tapes, which utilised field recordings made around the original locations of The Wicker Man.
This time when I called, he was walking his dogs across the overgrown remains of a demolished Glasgow tenement, which felt like an appropriate place to find an artist whose work is often rooted in the melancholy of disappearing landscape:
Bob: How did you end up working with Adam? He said you met at a conference in the early 2010s…
Drew: Yeah, we met at Cambridge. We were both at a conference called The Alchemical Landscape at Girton, Delia Derbyshire’s old college. It’s where I made quite a lot of the field recordings for the Delia album. It was the second Alchemical conference… I’d spoken at the first one, at Corpus Christi.
That whole thing was just quite brilliant for me, because Robert MacFarlane and I ended up following each other on Twitter. And I can’t remember the exact course of events, but it was either Rob or Adam that contacted me… I think Adam had actually said to Rob: “Look – I know someone that would be ideal to make the sounds on this.” And then Rob got in touch, and asked if I could send him something. I sent him some rough ideas, and got a text back from him saying “Drew, these sound… fucking hell!”
Ha! Was that good or bad?
[Laughs] No, it was really good! He said “You’ve got it immediately!”
So were you already working on material inspired by Orford Ness?
It was one of those things… about 20 years ago, I went all over Scotland looking at abandoned pillboxes and radar stations. These First and Second World War buildings in the middle of nowhere, just quietly rotting. I took photographs of them, and made field recordings, and I always had it on the back burner to do something about abandoned military places. So when the Orford Ness project appeared, it all just came together.
So when did you first visit Orford Ness?
Oh, I’ve never been! Rob sent me some sounds that he’d recorded, and I basically doctored and manipulated them. And I think the guy that took them over on the boat had keys to the buildings, and he sent some stuff, too. So in all I had about forty minutes’ worth, and I just got in amongst it.
Lichen was involved in the recording process as well, wasn’t it?
Oh, yes. That’s how Rob and I connected. I was doing a talk on micro-geography, and had examples of lichen. I ground it down with a mortar and pestle, and glued it to magnetic tape and let it go round. So that’s what that crunchy sound is… it just seemed the most normal thing in the world to do! People say: “What? You’ll destroy your machine?” But ah, you know… [Laughs]
So that was the starting point, when Rob came in. We connected over lichen.
Was it genuine Orford Ness lichen? Did he send some up to you?
Yes, but I had quite a lot myself as well. So it’s all mixed in. It’s quite strange, I think I told you about one of the tracks on my first record [E For Experimental, from 1979], where an 80-year-old woman was listening to it, and said “I don’t know what it is about that track, but it reminded me of being trapped in a cave. It was quite unpleasant.” And she didn’t know this, but the track was called ‘Feldspar’, which is a mineral that’s actually found in caves.
So the idea that you can put something into a record, and it will affect the listener’s perception of it… that’s really my whole focus at the moment, when it comes to sound. It really is fascinating. We’re getting into neurology, into psychology, into perception. That’s why, although I play my guitar every day, I don’t really think I can go back to writing verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-guitar break. I just don’t think I can do that now, I’m so taken up with this other business. This alchemy, or whatever it is!
That’s fascinating. I can understand you as an artist needing a physical connection to the landscape to inspire and create your work; but for somebody who doesn’t know about that connection to still get a sense of it from listening to the finished piece… that’s quite extraordinary.
It is. The reason for doing things like that is to help me focus, but when someone else picks up something you might not even have realised… some people say that’s spooky, but to me it’s based in that perception, that psychology. To me that’s what’s interesting about it: how on earth can you get those feelings from something where you don’t know what it’s about, where it came from, or even the person that wrote it? It’s like you’re communicating on a totally different level.
And is that something that can happen to you as an artist as well? Because, as you said, you’ve never been to Orford Ness, but both Robert and Adam have spoken about you really capturing something of the place. And you’ve done that through having physical objects and recordings from the Ness itself.
Yes… and also, having done the tour of the sites in Scotland. You get the feel of the concrete with the reinforced, rusted rods; of the weather, of the fact that these places are isolated. All of that comes into it… it’s like sunlight coming through a magnifying glass, it just hits and you’re off.
It does feel like Orford Ness in particular has a combination of elements that almost sum up the stuff that we love! It’s got wild, rural landscapes, Cold War connections, analogue radio technology… it’s almost a blueprint for our hauntological interests. Was that part of the appeal as well?
I think so, and also the fact that in a hundred years it won’t be there! So, in a historical sense, it’s there and then it’s gone.
I think that’s part of the appeal as well: and with hauntology, it’s one if the basic premises. The idea that people can have memories of Orford Ness, but they’ve never been there. Like myself. You know, it’s like how people can swear that something happened like this, but they’re a little bit off… and then, as time goes on, they may start to believe something that never actually happened.
Someone said to me a couple of weeks ago that what I was really exploring was the human condition. And I said: “Woah, hang on!” [Laughs]
The idea of playfully manipulating our memories is something that really appeals to me about this whole scene. Our memories do become confused, and within that confusion you can create really interesting art. You know, it’s Ghost Box artists creating theme tunes to TV shows that didn’t exist, but we can almost begin to believe that they did.
Yes… it’s Mark Fisher, and the future that didn’t exist. But now, we’re post that! My wife was actually telling me about an office, where somebody said: “Remember that story you were telling me about you and your dad going up in a hot air balloon?”
And the other guy said: “No, I’ve never been in a hot air balloon.”
“No, you definitely told me about it… you were about eight years old, and it was over the South Downs, and this happened and that happened…”
And he next day, he actually mocked up a photograph. And do you know what the other guy said? “Oh yeah, I remember that…” And then he started to provide a narrative for it.
But it was a completely false memory?
Yes. It had never happened.
[You can read more about this 2002 experiment here]
So where does that come from, psychologically? Is that essentially just people-pleasing, and not wanting to contradict someone else’s memories of you?
I think it’s more than that… the guy saw the photograph, and was absolutely convinced that that had happened. He remembered bits and pieces of his childhood: the photograph was a catalyst that brought together things that never actually were together.
In that case, there’s something pretty scary about the ease with which our memories can be manipulated…
Yeah. I mean, with music, we can get a feeling about something without knowing where it’s come from. Things like the Shepard Tone… do you know about this?
No, tell me!
The Shepard Tone… say you have a run from C to C on a piano, and also record it an octave up and an octave down, and play them all at the same time. At some point, the middle octave goes down in volume and the third one goes up in volume, so it sounds as though it’s continuous. And it never, ever ends. But it’s just the brain trying to make sense of it.
It’s like if you listen to a piece of music with no rhythm track, you’ll put one in. You’ll take all these disparate elements, and create a bigger picture. As humans, we don’t like things that aren’t tied up.
So maybe it’s all part of that? I don’t know.
Do you use elements like that when you’re creating sound, then?
I haven’t yet, but I’m definitely going to try a version of the Shepard Tone.
That’s a fascinating concept: people appreciating elements of your music that aren’t actually there.
Yeah, they’re bringing something to it that I never intended to be there. It’s such a journey, it really is.
Talking about landscape, and you journeying around Scotland looking at abandoned military facilities: what was the landscape of your own childhood? We’ve never talked about it that much. I assume you grew up in Glasgow?
Yeah. I grew up in the east end of Glasgow. I’m actually doing a book at the moment, so it’s all in there! The house that we had in Mount Vernon actually backed onto wheat fields, believe it or not. There was a lane called Old Manse Lane behind our house, and on the other side of that were the fields. And on the other side of the lane were heavy industrial scrap metal merchants! I’ll send you some pictures… they demolished old locomotives, that’s how hardcore it was. There was a gantry with a huge electromagnet that would go over the scrapyard and pick up bits of old, rusty trains.
It was incredible: on one side you had this really bucolic area, with air raid shelters, and bomb craters from the war and abandoned tunnels. And on the other side you had this really heavy noise going on. It’s funny, after all these years: I can see where it’s all come from now. Because we used to go out recording, in the air raid shelters, and the tunnels, and MacWilliams, the scrap metal place. So when I was writing I thought “Oh, god… that’s how I ended up where I am!” We used to make tape loops… [Laughs]
You’ve mentioned this before! When you were about twelve?
Yeah! We were obsessed.
What was the appeal at that age, then? Was it about preserving that moment in time?
I honestly don’t know. The starting point for it was my friend Paul, who was slightly older than me… and he had friends at school that were older than him, and had started a band. And the idea of being in a band, you know… that was The Who! People didn’t go into bands. And Paul came in one day and said “I’ve got this…” And it was the band, Lodestone. And he put it on, and it was a tape loop. I’ll never forget this… it was the sound of a big ball bearing rolling down a plastic drainpipe, over and over. And we were just: “What is this?!”
So we got the screwdrivers out and opened the cassette up. “Right, we’re off! We’re a group!” We were twelve years old. So there were all the usual arguments about what the group was called. I wanted to call it “Hyperion Illusion”! [Laughs]
Have you still got any of the recordings?
Oh God, I wish I had. This came up when I was writing the book: Why didn’t I take any photographs of MacWilliams? It would have been great to have some. But then I just typed it into Google, and these fantastic colour photographs came up, from 1969 or something. So we’re going to use one or two of them in the book, if we can.
But it was just boundless enthusiasm that got us going, really. This would have been about 1973 or ’74.
But none of that came out of you having heard experimental music as a kid? It was just your own curiosity?
Yeah, and I think that’s something that has thankfully stayed with me. I did a kind of Desert Island Discs show on Radio Scotland, and the producer said “Oh, I know what you’ll be bringing, I bet you’re going to play a track off this…” and it was a record by Beaver and Krause. And I’d never heard of them! He said “What was your first record?” I said “Bing Crosby…” [Laughs] These were the songs that we used to sing as kids.
And I’ve deliberately kept all that at arm’s length as an adult. I was talking to Jim Jupp from Ghost Box, and he said “Have you seen The Wire? Julian and I have done one of those Invisible Jukebox tests, and we didn’t know anything!”
I said “Damn – I wanted to do that, because I wouldn’t have known anything either!”
So yeah, you can’t get fetishistic about it. Getting into music, it was always things like a photograph, an album cover, or a quote. Not: “Oh, you should be listening to this“. And I think that’s what Jim and Julian picked up on with The Séance at Hobs Lane. It wasn’t contrived, but there was a certain isolation. “Give me space, let me do something, and then I’ll send it and see if you like it.” That’s my attitude, I suppose.
I was actually going to ask about the journey that brought you to using the mellotron, which features quite heavily on A Haunting Strip of Marshland. It’s all over the 11-minute track, ‘The Black Beacon’! It’s a sound that transports me to the psychedelia and prog-rock of the late 60s and early 70s. I was assuming you had the same feelings about it, but from what you’ve just said – maybe not?
I used to really like The Beatles. Not so much now, but I remember hearing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. And then I actually had a go on a mellotron, and saw the tapes go round… they’re tape loops, as well!
But the reason I decided to do something with it on this record… you’re probably too young to remember, but it was marketed in Britain by the TV magician, David Nixon. And I found an advert on Youtube of him and his father-in-law, where they say “I bet you’re think you’re listening to a whole band – but you’re not!”
So that was the push. I thought I’ve got to finally do something with it. And originally it was only 15 seconds, but then I got in amongst it… and it turned into 11 minutes! [Laughs]
Has it been slightly frustrating trying to get this record released? It was originally due out for Record Store Day in April, but obviously that didn’t happen…
Yeah, any musician will tell you – once you’ve finished a record, you don’t really remember what’s on it, or even what the tracks are. So, for me now, it just seems like “an old album”. But it’s been out for four days or something! My daughter was laughing, because I had to send one over to Ireland, and she said “What’s this?” I said “It’s the new album, and it’s all done… next!”
So it’s that kind of thing, it’s always about what’s next. Which is actually The Warminster UFO Club. It was an actual UFO club in the 1960s, and I’m designing a couple of T-shirts for when the LP comes out…
Can you tell us a bit more about the album?
What happened was… The Wicker Tape recordings came out on The Dark Outside, the cassette label. And the feller that runs that contacted me, and said he’d had a message from Colin at Castles in Space, asking if I’d be interested in re-releasing Warminster, the  recording I did with Adrian Utley. And I said “Yeah…” It had never been re-released, it sold its 2,000 copies in two weeks or something.
So I got in contact with Colin and said “By concidence, I’m actually reading about ‘The Warminster Noise’ that happened in the 1960s… all those UFOs were seen, but there were also a lot of noises connected to them. So I said: “If you want to re-release what I did with Adrian, that’s great… but give me a week and I’ll see where this takes me!”
So of course, by that time I had three new tracks written. So I said: “Why don’t why we make this slightly different to just a record being re-released? I’ll bring all this new stuff to it…” And he said “Brilliant, let’s go for it”.
So it was based around these reports of weird things happening around Warminster. I think it started in 1964, but it really took off – no pun intended – in about 1967. So in my mind, it’s the height of psychedelia… all that stuff comes into it. It’s like Keith Richards said, when someone asked him how he wrote the riff for ‘Tumbling Dice’: “When you’ve been doing this for such a long time, you sit there with a guitar and your antenna is up!” You just go: “Incoming, receive, transmit”. And that’s it! That’s absolutely it! You become attuned, and you know if an idea’s worth embracing. That’s one of the good things about working at something for twenty years.
But I can’t tell you any of the tracks on it! [Laughs]
So the album will be the original Warminster release, with the addition of the new stuff?
Yeah, Adrian and I did the original 23-minute track with all different sections, and that’s on one side. And all the new stuff is on the other side, and I did all the artwork for it. But it won’t be out until February.
And you mentioned writing a book – what’s that about?
It’s basically about how I got into music, and making sounds. And then it goes on to the history of how magnetic tape was discovered, and who invented it. There are two schools of thought about who should be credited for that! It’s taking a lot longer than I thought, because every time I start writing, I just keep remembering more and more stuff. Things like… there was a book that I got from the library, called Music Concrete For Beginners. And I thought “That’s really not the sort of thing that they would normally have had…” And then I remembered, it didn’t come from the library building itself, it was from a mobile library! The truck that used to come round…
It seems even less likely that a mobile library would have it!
Yeah! Well they didn’t have it for long, because I just kept taking it out every month! “Don’t you realise there’s a queue for this, young man…?” [Laughs]
So yeah, it’s all that. And seeing the photographs of MacWilliams, and old maps of where the fields where… you start remembering more and more. It’s about 40,000 words so far, but I’m going to have to tidy it up. But it’s all cranking along.
Enormous thanks to both Adam and Drew for their time and conversation. Adam’s website is here:
A Haunting Strip of Marshland is available to buy here:
And Drew has recently set up a Patreon profile, to support his work: