(Originally published in Issue 68 of Electronic Sound magazine, August 2020)
KING OF THE CASTLE
In five short years, Castles In Space has established itself as one of the most innovative labels for contemporary electronica, a home for the eclectic likes of Polypores, Concretism and Keith Seatman. For label founder Colin Morrison, it’s the culmination of a determined DIY ethos forged in the unlikely setting of Barrow Football Club bar…
“When I was playing in bands, we got a reel-to-reel tape recorder,” remembers Colin Morrison, the tireless powerhouse behind the prolific Castles in Space label. “And my dad dug out an old tape from when I was about three years old. It was him saying ‘Testing, testing, 1-2-3… what do you want for Christmas?’ And I said ‘I want a record player!'”
“And I’ve got vivid memories of the girl next door, Pam, giving me her old Beatles singles. I guess it was that period, in the late 1960s, when the Beatles went a bit too weird for the teenyboppers. I remember holding these singles with her name written on the label and really loving them, playing them over and over again. I must have been four or five.”
And so began a journey of musical discovery that has become a lifelong obsession for Morrison, and – since 2015 – the ethos behind Castles in Space, whose sumptuously-packaged releases have set the benchmark for immersive, innovative electronica. From the ambient fantasies of Polypores to the whirling psychedelia of Keith Seatman, the label has become a natural outlet for the restless tastes of this avuncular, softly-spoken Cumbrian.
“When you love music, you’re always looking for the next thing,” he says. “And when punk and post-punk happened, I loved the obscure stuff. The limited singles. The weirder the better. And it wasn’t always about how it sounded, it was the whole packaging and presentation. Even the journey to find it sometimes… that’s what made it special for me.”
“Kids don’t realise this, I don’t think. But you bought records without knowing what they sounded like, based on reviews in the NME. We only had one or two record shops in town and they often didn’t stock the sort of stuff I was looking for, so I had day-trips to Manchester and Preston, filling the shopping bag with all the stuff I’d read about.”
The North-Western town of Barrow-in-Furness, where the declining fortunes of the local shipyard contributed to spiralling unemployment in the latter half of the 20th century, was perhaps not the most obvious base for the teenage Morrison’s first ventures into the musical underground, but – as with many smaller, industrial towns – adversity contributed to a thriving artistic community.
“There was definitely a scene in the early 1980s,” he nods. “I was part of that. One of those scenes where everybody was in everybody else’s band.”
Morrison’s band was called Perfect Circle.
“We were kind of 1980s pop…” he laughs. “Heavily influenced by Aztec Camera! I went to a technical college where we got no musical education whatsoever, but it was always something that I really wanted to do. One of the first things I bought when I started working was an electronic keyboard, and I learned on that. Then I started to buy a load of Roland kit… I had a Juno-60 and a TR-909 drum machine. All that gear I had…” he sighs. “It’s worth a fortune now.”
A delve into the gentler corners of Youtube reveals ‘Only When It Rains’, a synth and sax-drenched Perfect Circle single from 1984. It boasts an anthemic chorus and a lyric appropriately reflective of the Cumbrian climate, sung with gusto by a fellow Barrow scenester.
“It was me and a lad called Jimi Tunn,” smiles Morrison. “He was brilliant – he had bags of charisma. Him on bass and vocals, and me on keyboards. The objective for the band was to get our own 7″ single pressed up, and I was the one in charge of making that happen. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t a very good musician, but the organisational side of it was something I very much enjoyed. It’s interesting in retrospect.”
An unhealthy interest in paperwork combined with a “can-do” punk attitude are arguably essential attributes for anyone attempting to launch their own label, and the latter quality was one that Morrison acquired in the unlikely setting of Holker Street, home of non-league Barrow FC.
“We had friends, Mike and Michelle. Mike was the singer in a band called The Tier Garden, who I reckon were the best in town. He used to run a Thursday indie night in the bar of Barrow Football Club. And he got bands like The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and James… pretty much anybody from that C86 scene, Mike and Michelle used to get up to Barrow to play in the bar. And I think a little bit of that rubbed off, you know: ‘Why not us? What’s stopping us from making it happen?’ I carry a bit of that with me now. It’s a very punk thing, isn’t it? Get involved, do it yourself.”
And what were the Stone Roses like, playing in a non-league football club bar in Barrow-in-Furness in 1986?
“They were god awful,” he laughs. “Absolutely terrible. Full of vim and vigour, saying ‘You should love us!’ but Barrow was a bit more resistant than their local Manchester crowd, I guess…”
Leaving Barrow in 1987 (“I couldn’t wait”), he moved to an Acid House-obsessed London, where his teenage love of Kraftwerk and Brian Eno solidified into a broader appreciation of contemporary electronica.
“London was blowing up with the whole rave scene,” he explains. “And those bare bones Acid House records… they’re alright, but I was never in love with them. What I really loved was the second generation stuff: when The Orb and ambient house started happening. They’re the records that I really got on board with. Warp‘s Artificial Intelligence albums, and Aphex Twin…”
And presumably The Orb’s 1991 album Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld? Given the title of the drifting, amniotic opus on Side 2: ‘Spanish Castles In Space…’
Morrison nods. “It was a revelation for me. Obviously in debt to those classic electronic albums, but also infused with that Acid House spirit, and the whole ambient thing. It was a melting pot of all the stuff I really loved. To me, it sounded like they’d taken Acid House and made it better.”
With the onset of the new millenium, Morrison’s relentless musical curiosity led to his Castles In Space blog, which he now cites as a major influence on the label itself.
“I was always buying mags and fanzines because I loved to read about music,” he says. “So I enjoyed doing the blog and it had a little following for a while. This was when the internet was just opening up. I used to write about records that I owned, mainly the electronic ones, but there was a load of punk and post-punk on there too. It only ran for a short time before I killed it, but the label definitely grew out of the blog, even though it was years between one ending and the other starting.”
The launch of the Castles In Space imprint in 2015 was in many ways fuelled by Morrison’s teenage love of the full vinyl record experience. On those half-hour bus journeys home from the exotic record shops of Lancashire, he would devour every detail: sleeve notes, album credits, picture discs and posters.
“Absolutely,” he smiles. “And then there was a bit of a lightbulb moment. When vinyl started to happen again properly, I thought ‘I could do something quite cool here…’ Limited releases, but with attention to detail and a lot of love put into them. I know the thrill of getting a record when it’s beautifully presented and… actually, when not many people know about it! So there’s a bit of exclusivity, a bit of one-upmanship, a bit of ‘I know about this but you don’t…'”
One thing is clear: this is a man not just in love with music, but with the physical presence of music. As he speaks animatedly from a fizzing Skype window, shelves overloaded with vinyl creak behind him; a mere fraction of a vast collection. “I’ve had to take out storage,” he blushes.
The debut Castles In Space release – CiS001, if you’re taking notes – was Tauchsieder’s Herd The Shadows EP, where ambient ripples lapped around the vocals of Wire‘s Colin Newman; the perfect marrying of Morrison’s love of gentle experimentalism and spiky post-punk. Subsequent releases defined the label’s admirably broad ethos, from the breezy psych-pop of Correlations to the melodic soundscapes of Australian duo Kl(aüs). But it was the 2018 release of the Concretism album, For Concrete and Country, that Morrison now sees as a landmark.
“I’d been chasing Chris for a while,” he admits. “He was releasing CDs on his own, and I got in touch with him and said ‘How about vinyl?’ That was a big deal for me. I thought ‘Yeah, this feels like a moment now. This feels like it’s serious…'”
The album is a glacial distillation of 1980s Cold War paranoia, with Essex-based Chris Sharp pouring his childhood fear of the four-minute warning into a collection of bleakly beautiful electronica. Other releases on the label have mined feelings of a similarly hauntological bent. The Soulless Party, The Twelve Hour Foundation and Jonathan Sharp have all used differing sound palettes to explore aspects of the unsettling 1970s childhood experience, and Keith Seatman’s extraordinary 2020 album Time To Dream But Never Seen coalesced his memories of sun-baked Southsea into a psychedelic fairground ride of hallucinogenic oddness, offering almost a portal into an older, stranger England.
Morrison, characteristically, is reluctant to be pigeon-holed.
“I’m a little bit cautious about it,” he says. “I don’t want the label to be a hauntology label, although I do love loads of that stuff. And retro is great, but you have to be careful that you’re not a copyist. There are labels that have gone before me that are so much better at that, so I don’t want to be a pale copy of them. Ghost Box obviously… I love a lot of their stuff, but I’m not going to try and compete with them. Why would I?”
He is, however, effusive with praise for his roster of artists. “When Keith sent me his LP, it was already fully formed and I just knew it had to be on the label,” he glows. “It’s so good and unique that it exists in its own genre, and therefore makes the label better by expanding what we’re capable of.”
Further expansions are planned: The forthcoming “Castles In Space Subscription Library” offers exclusive releases to Patreon backers, including unreleased gems from the Concretism bunker and entirely new albums by Polypores and The Heartwood Institute. “I need about 200 people to make it work,” says a cautious Morrison, modestly. On general release, there’s Soleil Gris Éclatant, an album of woozy melancholia from French avant-gardist Bernard Grancher, and Clocolan‘s It’s Not Too Early For Each Other, which invokes the spirit of Boards of Canada. A new Twelve Hour Foundation album is imminent too, and then there’s Black Water by Everyday Dust: a darkly atmospheric album about The Loch Ness Monster.
While the ceaseless search continues for Nessie, an equally bamboozling mystery is where Morrison finds the time and energy, given that he still maintains a full-time job in IT. At the time of our conversation, at 8pm on a Thursday night, he is working US office hours for an American client, and goes immediately back to virtual meetings afterwards, claiming he’s unlikely to be in bed before 5am. Throughout our conversation, his phone chirrups impatiently.
“I couldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,” he says. “It’s my pastime and it’s my joy. I don’t know how I do it, but I make it work.”
He claims the label’s relentless 2020 schedule may slow down in 2021, but is still planning one further expansion of the remit: the reissuing of classic albums, previously unavailable on vinyl. Mordant Music‘s haunting 2006 opus Dead Air, in which the fruity tones of former TV continuity announcer Philip Elsmore guide listeners through an overwhelming welter of musique concrète, will soon be given the deluxe treatment.
“A continuity announcer lost in the abandoned television studio,” muses Morrison. “There’s just something brilliant and evocative about the whole record.”
And is anybody else on the hit list?
He pauses. “I’ve been trying to get hold of Virgina Astley to do a re-press of From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. Which was another landmark album for me, with her piano and those field recordings. So far I’ve not been able to get hold of her, but I’d love to do the full deluxe Castles In Space number on that. How interested she’d be in doing that, I don’t know…”
Is that top secret, or can we put that in the feature?
“Yeah, definitely!”, he laughs. Virginia, if you’re reading – get in touch. And with that, the perennially sleepless Morrison goes back to the day job. At nine o’clock in the evening.
The Castles In Space website is here:
Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here: