“Situated in the Atlantic, approximately 200 miles off the west coast of Ireland, the island of Hy-Brasil featured on maps from around 1325 until the mid-1800s.
Legend has it that it was shrouded in mist, appearing only once every seven years, and it was long thought to be the home of an advanced, mysterious ancient civilation.
Often spotted by sailors, landings on Hy-Brasil proved elusive, though the Scottish sea captain John Nisbet reported to have made land there in 1674. His expedition describes an island of large black rabbits and a stone castle, inhabited only by a strange magician.
In a final, strange twist, the phantom island is linked to the infamous Rendlesham Forest UFO event of 1980. After touching the craft that reportedly landed in Suffolk, USAF Sergeant Jim Penniston described telepathically receiving a 16-page binary code. Many years later, this code was translated: it was a list of co-ordinates of ancient sites around the world – including the pyramids at Giza and the Nazca lines in Peru – and the location mapped over centuries as being that of Hy-Brasil.”
– Sleeve notes from the album The Spectral Isle by Field Lines Cartographer.
When I heard that the new album by Field Lines Cartographer was intending to explore the myths attached to the intriguingly elusive island of Hy-Brasil, I was fascinated. Not least because, despite a healthy lifelong interest in all things strange and uncanny, I’d never actually heard of Hy-Brasil. I knew about the Rendlesham Forest incident, of course, when an alien spacecraft was reputed to have landed on the doorstep of RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk, but had no idea about its apparent telepathic connection to this erstwhile Irish Atlantis.
The album – freshly available on the consistently excellent Castles in Space label – is an utterly immersive conjoining of five atmospheric suites, all composed and performed on the modular synths of Lancaster resident Mark Burford, who has been recording in the guise of Field Lines Cartographer since 2016. I was delighted to discover that Mark and I shared a connection to Lancaster University, having both studied there in the early 1990s… although our paths, as far as we know, never crossed.
Thirty years later though, on a decidedly autumnal Friday afternoon, we settled down at either end of a crackly Skype connection to discuss all things Spectral… and, indeed, Lancastrian.
Bob: The story of Hy-Brasil is such an interesting tale. How did you first encounter it?
Mark: I was thinking about this the other day, and how I actually stumbled upon it in the first place. And I think it might have been arse-about-face! I came across the idea of Hy-Brasil from the whole Rendlesham Forest UFO angle. That’s something I’m quite interested in. I’m not a ufologist, because broadly speaking I don’t really believe in aliens… well I do, but I think our chances of ever crossing paths with them are so small.
But the Rendlesham Forest incident is a really interesting thing. I’ve read a lot of the books about it, and I have a mate – from Lancaster University, actually – who lived in Woodbridge, just down the road from Rendlesham Forest. I went to stay with him once, and we looked at Orford Ness lighthouse and the gates of RAF Woodbridge, and he told me lots of fascinating stuff. I’m not sure it was aliens, but I think something definitely happened at RAF Woodbridge. And in reading more about that, this little story came up… that Jim Penniston had touched a UFO and downloaded these codes, and found out later that they were co-ordinates… and one of them was for Hy-Brasil. And I was like: “What the bloody hell’s Hy-Brasil?” [Laughs] So… Google, Google, Google, and I just fell down a massive rabbit hole to this mythical island.
I think what fascinated me was the fact that this thing had been on maps for 500 years. Hundreds of maps! And people claim to have seen it, they say they were passing on their schooners in 1604 and saw it through the mist. I’m really fascinated by that… because we’ve closed all the little corners in the modern world, haven’t we? So that idea of “gaps” on the map… I think there’s something really interesting about that. “Here Be Dragons”, all of that… the hidden bits of the map. It was just inspiring to think: “What would it be like to be sailing, with this thing just appearing out of the fog? And you’re able to land on it?”
And I thought: “I’ve got to write an album about that!” Thinking that it would be weird, and mystical-sounding, and a bit dark in places. It just totally hooked me.
I chuckled at you using the phrase the “massive rabbit-hole”… wasn’t it reported that were actually massive rabbits on Hy-Brasil? Your album sleeve mentions the story of John Nisbet, who claimed he’d landed there in 1674…
Black rabbits, yeah! That’s right… he was apparently a Scottish seafarer who probably just thought: “This is a great tale to tell – I’m going to say I’ve landed on Hy Brasil.” He described a big stone castle, black rabbits and a magician! But in other legends, it’s more of a highly-advanced civilisation. Like Wakanda, but off the west coast of Ireland rather than Africa. A sort of mystical, technological paradise.
There’s a hint of Atlantis about all of this, too…
Yeah, all those sorts of places. I guess these myths are a constant, throughout all kinds of cultures and times. I think it’s just a myth that we’re interested in, really. But I’d genuinely never heard of Hy-Brasil, and I thought “This is great – why don’t more people know about this? Why have I never seen a TV programme about it?” Usually, if you sit and watch Channel 5 for long enough, once the Nazis and sharks have finished, you get programmes like this! But no…
You’ve said that you’re quite sceptical about alien visitations, but you clearly have an interest in the strange and the mystical. Do you believe that Hy-Brasil was ever a real place?
No. Because I think, sadly, if it was there then we’d know. And I know sunken islands are found in the South Seas, but my huge grasp of plate tectonics and marine geology [laughs] means that I don’t think that kind of thing have could happened here. I think people have misidentified something. And that’s part of the charm, isn’t it? A legend that perpetuates itself when ultimately it’s just a phantom. But you know… who cares, really? It’s a bit like UFOs… who cares if they don’t exist? It’s a more fascinating world if we imagine that they might. Whether they do or not is sort of irrelevant to me… I’m still interested.
Where did that interest come from? Having discovered that we’re about the same age, I’m guessing you grew up watching things like Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World…
Yeah, absolutely. And reading the Usborne Book of Ghosts – which is a staple, isn’t it? I had books on the Loch Ness Monster, all that stuff. I love science fiction, and I don’t mind a bit of fantasy so long as it’s not too beardy and weirdy. Although I do have a beard! I love all that stuff, from Tolkien to Erich Von Däniken. Always been fascinated by it.
It was more part of mainstream culture when we were kids, I think. You’d find Erich Von Däniken books in your local newsagent, next to the latest Jilly Cooper.
Absolutely… there was a time when it was almost accepted. It wasn’t like people were saying “Oh, you nutter! Why are you reading Erich Von Däniken?” You know… those lines in Nazca, they were a thing. And I think that was fascinating, really: we now live in a world where we’ve just debunked everything to death. All the good stuff! And the stuff that’s left is the stuff that should be debunked, because it’s harmful rather than helpful. 5G masts giving you Coronavirus… blatant crap like that.
I know, what’s more likely? That 5G gives you Coronavirus as part of a global conspiracy, or that there’s a large animal living in Loch Ness? The latter seems much more plausible to me…
100%. Totally with you. If it’s between Bigfoot living in millions of unexplored hectares of forest, or Coronavirus being caused by 5G masts, I know which one I’m going to plump for, every time. Just on the balance of probability – that’s quite a rational perspective, I think! So yeah, I’ve always been into that stuff… I love it. People are often quick to laugh, and I don’t necessarily believe in it all… but you keep an open, rational, sceptical mind. We know too much about the horrible things that we see every day on the news, so keeping a bit of the esoteric in your life is good for the soul.
How do you go about translating those feelings into music? When you have a story about a mystical island that makes you feel intrigued, or inspired in a certain way, how do you physically transform that into sound? Particularly instrumental sound, with no lyrics to convey what you’re feeling…
It’s a good question. There are almost an infinite number of sounds that you can create, and an infinite number of compositional routes you can go down, so it’s actually really helpful to have… well, the much-maligned idea of the concept album. That’s great for this kind of music. So I think, on the album, you get a sense of waves, and of wind… that’s quite obvious, and people have been doing that kind of thing musically for hundreds of years. That was one jumping-off point. And then I was thinking about how the music should be quite… smudged, and not defined. So you get melodies that come in and then disappear, not to be heard again. All quite foggy, and not nailed down… I think I got that onto the record. You try to grab onto a melody, and it disappears between your fingers.
So Side A is the journey to Hy-Brasil, with winds and water and the calls of unusual birds, and Side B goes a bit weird… because we’re there, going into the castle, and it’s quite dark and intimidating. Everything becomes a bit more solid and a bit less nebulous at that point.
I do this with all of my music. There’s always an image. It’s a cliche, and we all do it: but it’s the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist. That genuinely does help, otherwise you just go off in any direction and end up with something that’s not a coherent piece of work. But I never really know how I write, really! I listen back to things at length and think: “How did I actually do that?” It’s like you’re an antenna and you pick things up, rather than consciously mapping them out. It just sort of… happens.
That’s almost like your desire not to have the otherworldly debunked and explained. Does it spoil the magic if the process of making music becomes too rational and forensic, too? Maybe we should also keep the creative process a bit nebulous.
That’s interesting. I really admire people that are able to do that when they work on computers. There’s nothing wrong with working with computers, but I find – particularly with this sort of music – the fact that I can just set up a palette of sounds on my synths and go with them puts me into a weird sort of zone. These strange instruments with knobs and wires require a different part of my brain, rather than me actually thinking consciously. You just go off somewhere, and it happens…
Do you essentially compose live, then?
Yeah, I set a few things up, and think “that’s sounding good…” and then tweak it… and then think “Right, hit play and record and let’s see what happens.” Most of the album, apart from being cut for time a little bit, was exactly as I recorded it on the day. It’s essentially a live recording. It’s just a certain mindset… rather than pre-planning, the best music happens spontaneously and you’ve got just to grab it when you’re in that mood. I can never dissect the process too much, because I never really know how I’ve done it!
Are we talking the full modular synth set-up here as well? A lump of plywood with cables like a telephone exchange?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s not too huge! A modest little set-up. I’ve got that, and a few keyboards as well… a Moog and an ARP, more conventional synths. And a load of reverb pedals. So I just lash it together in different configurations for different-sounding tunes. I do bits and bobs on the computer for other projects, but I think I’m quite tactile, really. I came from quite a musical family and I learnt to play the piano properly. My Dad was a very good musician, and my sister is still an excellent pianist and organist. Miles better than me!
Like anything, if you don’t practise then you start to lose your touch. I know where all the notes are, but my hands don’t go to them like they used to! But it’s still a tactile thing. It’s still playing an actual instrumental, and getting that feedback from it.
So what were your musical experiences like as a child – are we talking classical piano lessons, things like that?
Not classical, but I did do piano lessons. My Dad – rest his soul, I lost him last year – was a big jazz man. He was good enough to have been a professional jazz pianist… but he was a working class man, brought up in the 1950s, and you just didn’t do that. But even when I was growing up in the late 1970s, I can remember him being out in Coventry on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, playing with a band. He was a brilliant, brilliant jazz pianist and organist. So I grew up with all of that kind of stuff: slightly crazy jazz, and bits of prog, and classical music. Very little pop, actually… because my Dad was such a jazz head, pop just didn’t really do it for him. So while a lot of people grew up listening to the Stones and the Beatles, my education was Charlie Parker and Weather Report.
So I had piano lessons… but out of the house, because we used to fall out! It’s like they say: “Don’t teach your kids to drive”, it was a bit like that! We’d be slamming the lid down on each other. And often, as kids do, I rebelled from it a little bit. My Mum had been a dancer and a dance teacher, and that was how they’d met. So it was a very musical upbringing, and for a while – as you do when you’re 13 – I just concentrated on playing football and stuff like that. But I could never really escape it… my Dad bought an electronic keyboard when I was about 15, and that really hooked me again. It was: “Wow… what the hell is that sound?”
Oh, is that where your interest in electronic music came from?
I think so, yeah…
I’d just assumed, like everyone of our generation, you’d seen Gary Numan and the Human League on Top of the Pops – but maybe not, if pop wasn’t a big part of your childhood!
No, I got into all that retrospectively. I remember my sister actually bought me ‘Blue Monday‘, so I’ve still got one of the original 12″ singles that looks like a floppy disc – the one they lost all their money on!
Yes! Didn’t Factory end up losing a few pennies on every copy sold… and, tragically for them, it became the biggest-selling 12″ single of all time?
That’s right! And she said “You’ll really like this…” She’s a bit older than me, and was a Goth at this point, so she’d play me things like The Cure. And I immediately went into New Order, than backwards into Joy Division. And I had actually listened to bits of electronica, actually… because although he was into jazz, one of the other artists my Dad actually liked was Jean-Michel Jarre, and I remember hearing Oxygène at quite a young age, and my Dad saying “This is great…”. And Kraftwerk as well, actually. When Kraftwerk were on Top of the Pops, my Dad said “Let’s watch this, these guys are doing some really amazing stuff…” As a piano player himself, he liked keyboard-based things as opposed to guitars. So we’d listen to Rick Wakeman too, and bits of Yes.
So I got really into electronic pop music then… the Human League, and Yazoo, and Thomas Dolby. And as you get older you just find more and more stuff really, don’t you? And I sort of went back in time with it… by the time I was 18, I’d done Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream and revisited all of Kraftwerk.
So when did you start making your own music? Were you in teenage bands, all that kind of thing?
Yeah, probably around that time. I had a mate who was similarly-minded, and we saved up and bought a keyboard each and would meet on a Saturday at each other’s houses. And then there was a guy who played guitar, and various singers… and we did the classic, slightly embarrassing appearance on the school stage in front of our peers! Doing Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys covers…
People are always far too vague about these things, and I want names. What was your mate called?
He’s called Ian Mahoney, and he’s a wonderfully talented musician. It actually pains me that he doesn’t carry on… he had a few releases in the 1990s, on the GPR label, and he’s got a brilliant home studio. He’s a really natural musician, but he just never seems to get round to releasing anything. It’s a shame, and I always nag him and tell him to get on with it.
What was your band called?
Genuinely, honestly… I can’t remember. I don’t think we ever actually had a proper name.
That’s what they all say…
I think it was The Toy Factory at one point – which is very 1980s. But it would be a different name every week. Electronic Counter Measures, that was one! That’s terrible, isn’t it? It was that for while, and we’d scribble it on the back of English books at school. Naming things is terrible, and I’m still not any good at it now.
I don’t know, Field Lines Cartographer is a great name.
Yeah, that’s the only one I’ve ever got right! [Laughs]
Where did it come from? Is there such a thing as an actual Field Lines Cartographer?
It was a hybridisation of a couple of things, really. I’m into the idea of the Earth being a big magnet. So you’ve got two poles, with all these invisible electro-magnetic waves running through everything. And we’re electro-magnetic entities as well: you can measure and map the electro-magnetism coming from a human being. So “Field Lines” are the classic magnetic lines, you know… the ones you see when you get the iron filings out. And I thought my persona could be the guy who’s mapping those lines. I guess it leans into the mystical and the weird, with ley lines… it was just a mash-up of all those ideas. Someone who, instead of mapping the physical world that you can see, is mapping the magnetic world.
And what was the journey from The Toy Factor and Electronic Counter Measures to Field Lines Cartographer?
I’ve pretty much produced any sort of electronic music you can think of, really. I went from synth pop to… well, I guess like a lot of people, the whole 1988 thing happened to me. Everything was Acid House and techno music, and I became utterly obsessed with that and released records doing that sort of stuff… quite badly!
Under what name?
As Dfuse, with Ian Mahoney again. We played a few gigs, actually… in fact, I’ve played at Lancaster University in that guise, at one of the Extravs! Supporting… actually, who did we support? I can’t remember now. A Guy Called Gerald… was that at Bowland College, or Cartmel? Things are genuinely a bit hazy from around that time…
Do you know what, I might have seen you live…
[Laughs] You may well have done! We did a few around the country and they were great, actually. We did The Sugarhouse in Lancaster, and we did Northampton University – Nene College. They had a 1,000 capacity place. We’d get booked to support the pop-rave acts of the day, who’d turn up with a DAT machine and a few singers. And we’d fill the whole of the previous 55 minutes with actual live stuff! So I got obsessed with all that, and I love techno music to this day.
And then that whole ambient-techno crossover thing… I remember seeing The Orb at Manchester Academy, and it was one of the best gigs I’d ever seen. We all sat down, it was mad. So I’ve done all that kind of stuff, and I produced drum and bass in the late 1990s and early 2000s… and to cut a long story short, Field Lines Cartographer started about five years ago. When did I put that first album out on Concrete Tapes?
2016. I’ve got your Discogs entry open in front of me…
Yeah! And it was always just meant to be a one-off. I’d got this little Moog synthesizer, which was something I’d always wanted but never been able to afford. But I finally got one, and… that was it. I started playing this stuff, and just because of the tonality of the instrument, I thought: “I really want to record this”. And I remember knocking this album together really quickly, and going into work and saying to Stephen: “What do you think of this, mate?” And he said: “That’s great… talk to Joe at Concrete Tapes, he’ll put it out.” And it’s just got a life of its own now. 99% of what I do now is Field Lines Cartographer, I’m just in that mode.
I’m a bit older now, and what you want to do as you get older changes, doesn’t it? I don’t really go out and do anything exciting… I like things that finish at nine o’clock at night, and that you can listen to quietly at home! And I guess I’d been listening to a lot of that classic electronic music that we talked about: all those Klaus Schulze records again. And I hadn’t really noticed that “ambient” music – although I have issues with that term, because it’s not ambient in the Brian Eno sense – had got a bit of traction. I hadn’t noticed artists like Abul Mogard and Oneohtrix Point Never becoming really popular, and it becoming a “thing” again… like it was in the early 1990s, with The Orb and KLF. Suddenly a lot of people were wanting to listen to beatless, atmospheric electronic music. So I perked my ears up and thought “Yeah, I’m sort of playing that kind of thing now… let’s carry on with it!” [Laughs]
It’s nice that you gave Stephen James Buckley a mention, as I love the music he makes as Polypores… and I only discovered recently that you physically work together, in your day jobs! Is that how you got to know him?
Yeah! Basically, I run a commercial recording studio and PA hire business. And one day there was a knock at the studio door, and a very callow, gangly youth said: “Hi! This is me, and I can do these things…” And we thought: “Wow… this guy’s pretty impressive.” It started off with a few hours, then a few days, then basically we gave Stephen a job. Obviously since March this year, I’ve been at home and he’s been at home… but he’s usually sat ten feet away from me, Monday to Friday. And we get to ramble on about all of this stuff to our heart’s content!
We’re in an old church that we’ve converted into a recording studio, although I don’t record any music of my own there any more. I record my stuff at home on the dining room table, because it’s too much like work otherwise! You know, on a Saturday afternoon, the last thing I want to do is go back there and do that… [Laughs]
But yeah, Stephen and I spend hours chatting about music, and ESP and UFOs and stuff. And although he’s a bit younger than me, we have very similar interests in film and books… all that stuff.
I can hear the common ground in your music, as well. I think you both use your music to create very strongly-defined worlds, and then invite the listener to visit. It’s a really immersive approach, from both of you.
That’s true. I mean, he comes from a very different background to me. He was very gothic and indie, and was going around playing his guitar and singing – which is something I would never have the guts to do. And wearing eyeliner… he was very young and sculpted and good looking! But he came in one day and said “You’ve done it – I’ve been converted.” Because I was always banging on about electronic music. More from a dance music perspective, Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance, which he wasn’t really into – but we found common ground in Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin. I could see him slowly falling into the void, until one day he said “I’ve bought this Korg Volca…”
I said “Yes, got you! You’re hooked now…” And that was it. Slowly the guitars disappeared, and he was fully down the rabbit hole.
And you’ve both now recorded for Castles In Space, which I just think is a wonderful label. Are you proud to have joined the roster?
Really, really proud. I think Colin [Morrison, label founder] is brilliant, he’s just so passionate about such a range of music. A great label. And with The Spectral Isle, I knew I’d got quite a well-formed, focused album. It was just before Christmas last year when I said to Stephen: “I think I’ll send this to Colin,” and he said “Yeah, you should do, he’ll really like it.” So I sent Colin an e-mail with MP3 versions of it. And I suppose he must have listened to the first track, because literally 14 minutes later, an e-mail pinged back, saying: “This is amazing, and I want to put it out as a record.” And I was… “Wow, OK!” And we’ve just taken it from there. He’s just so driven, he has a feel for music of all types, and he’s so lovely to work with.
I’ve got something else coming out on Castles In Space as well, because I recorded something in lockdown that he’s putting out as part of their new subscription service. And a few other things on other labels, too… Mat Handley at Woodford Halse is putting one out that’s a bit weird. It’s about giant ants.
Have you been watching Phase IV, by any chance?
Basically, I’m obsessed with Phase IV and have been for about 30 years. I had to write an album about it!
And as a former resident of Lancaster speaking to a current resident of Lancaster, I’m intrigued to know: what’s the music scene like there at the moment?
It’s funny really, I’ve always had a professional angle on that – I’ve dealt with most of the bands because they’ve either turned up to our studio, or I’ve manned the mixing desk for them at a gig on a Friday night. So it’s a very tight scene, and there are some genuinely very interesting bands. For such a small city, it’s correctly renowned for having an interesting scene. There’s something geographically weird about Lancaster, it’s sat in this funny little corner of Englnd on its own, and that’s one of the many things I love about it.
It’s interesting: I’ve lived here for three decades, and played very little live music in what’s effectively now my own home town, but recently this whole Hymns For Robots thing started up. Run by a guy, Dave, that I’ve known for years as a great bass player and teacher… but then it transpires he’s massively into electronic music and he put on this really great electronic music night in Lancaster! It was just in the Golden Lion! Although it’s had to move, it’s at Kanteena now…
We’ve known each other for years, and stood around on the touchline at our kids’ football on a Sunday morning, but we’d just never discussed electronic music at all. It was so weird. And the Hymns For Robots nights are genuinely great nights that I’m proud to be involved with in a little way… I think I’ve been to every single one so far, and played at five or six of them. We bolted one of them onto the Lancaster Music Festival, which had never had any electronic music at all until last year… but Dave cracked a few heads together and it went down brilliantly.
It’s a funny little scene, Lancaster… I guess because there’s not much of an ethnic breakdown. I grew up in West Midlands, and… actually the thing I didn’t talk about was ska music, which was a massive part of my childhood. Coventry was literally down the road, and my sister went to all those gigs, she saw The Specials fighting skinheads in the Leamington Spa Pump Rooms. And you don’t have that in Lancaster, it doesn’t have that big city diversity… you know, there’s not much hip-hop going on. But there are a few things, and it’s interesting. And there are lovely people involved, and everyone is very genuine and friendly. When I first came here, I had a mate who said “Oh, you’re going to the student-kicking capital of the North?”… but I’ve never found it to be like that. I’ve just found everybody to be really, really nice and warm.
Apart from the weather, that is! Although as my wife always says: “If it was like Hampshire, then every bugger would be here.” Because it rains so much, we can keep it as our little secret…
Do you know The Lovely Eggs, then? They’re the Lancaster band that I know really well. I think they’re great.
I do! Dave Blackwell, as well as being in The Lovely Eggs, is one of the great movers and shakers of the Musicians Co-op in Lancaster. I’ve known Dave for 30 years. And it’s brilliant – and great for Lancaster – how big they are. At that level, they’ve become massively successful. I know all the guys from 3D Tanx very well too, have you come across their stuff? It’s mad psychedelic rock, check them out – they’re great, and they’ve got an offshoot called Pill Fangs, who are brilliant too. They are a lot of great bands hidden away in Lancaster… the problem is, a lot of them stay hidden! But that’s the nature of the beast…
And with that, Mark is brought a cup of tea by his daughter Ellyn (who he promised a mention – she also, he proudly tells me, recently stole the show as Nancy in her school’s production of Oliver!) and we drift into a nostalgic reverie of our mutual adventures in the pubs of early 1990s Lancaster. I’m particularly tickled to discover that The Golden Lion has since played host to one of the country’s most cutting-edge electronic music nights, because in my day it was the perfect spot for a bout of daytime dominoes and a couple of halves of Thwaite’s Dark Mild.
Anyway, thanks so much to Mark for his time and conversation. The Spectral Isle is available to download here:
And the vinyl edition is still (just about) available here: