Jon Brooks, Shapwick and How to Get to Spring

Over the course of three solo albums on the superlative Clay Pipe label, Jon Brooks has created music with a very distinct and affecting sense of place. The first, 2012’s Shapwick, took inspiration from the eerie calmness of a night-time detour through this sleepy Somerset village; while follow-up 52, from 2014, was a touching evocation of a childhood spent at his grandmother’s house (as Clay Pipe boss Frances Castle once said to me, with no little admiration: “He was trying to create the sound of lichen in his grandmother’s garden pond.”)

2017’s Autre Directions, meanwhile, was a beautifully sparse reflection on the almost-somnambulant pace of life in rural France. “As the village church clock tolls, it strikes home a simplicity,” explained Brooks himself, in the album’s press release. “A purity of existence that couldn’t really exist elsewhere.”

His new Clay Pipe album, How to Get to Spring, also captures a sense of purity: this time, the simple pleasures afforded by the fading of the winter months, and the empty skies and gentle warmth of the oncoming springtime. In early 2020, with so many of now us temporarily deprived of the physical space and restorative powers of the countryside, the album feels both poignant and reassuring; and its eight perfectly-weighted tracks chart, with Brooks’ characteristic poise and elegance, the journey from grey, snow-flecked hillsides to bone-thawing April sunshine.

In early March, I spoke to Jon about the album, and the forthcoming re-pressing of Shapwick, for my BBC Radio Tees show. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Congratulations on the album… is the springtime a particularly evocative time of year for you? 

Jon: I think it’s always a time of hope, and new growth. So this album is about that: it’s offering a kind of quiet hope, really.

I always feel slightly unusual in that February is one of my favourite months, which sometimes raises eyebrows. January can be harsh, but in February you get buds appearing on the trees, and those lovely days of hard ground and clear skies.

I’ve always loved that time of year as well. From February to April is a really, really good time. And that’s where the album goes, really… it’s “how to get there”.

I was going to ask if there was a chronology to the album?

I think so – it was definitely written in that way. It goes through a hard winter into early spring, and then into mid-spring, yeah.

I get the impression that you spend a lot of time outdoors… has this album been inspired by your ramblings around your local hills and forests?

That certainly has an influence, yeah. I’m out every day, because I need that headspace, and I need time to come up with the ideas. When my brain switches off, out in the woodland, I tend to get ideas. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, so that’s when things happen.

Whereabouts do you go walking?  

I’m in Derbyshire, so I walk around nature trails and meadows. There are loads of fairly lost places around here, where you just don’t see anyone.

On the verge of the Peak District, then…

Yes, basically. It’s lovely, actually – it’s very cool.

My version of your Peak District is the North York Moors… and I find, in walking there, that it’s not just the fact that you’re out and about in beautiful countryside, but that you don’t have anything else to concentrate on. All you have to think about is putting one foot in front of the other, and walking. Do you deliberately go and try to find that mental state in which to be creative?

Yes, definitely. Because although I’m quite a connected person with technology and so forth, I leave my phone at home when I go out. And I really just switch myself off, and open myself to what’s going on around me. And I think that puts you into a different mental state. I think that’s where I get a lot of inspiration from, and I think certain things can bubble to the surface. And you make mental notes, and come back and perhaps write something. Or you make some notes on a new concept. That’s how it works.

How do you go about translating those feelings into music, then? Given that you don’t take a phone with you, can you compose in your head as you’re walking, and then work on it when you get back?   

I seem to be able to. And something I’ve also done a lot more of recently, especially with this album, is writing down key words. So I would have a certain word that I felt had come to the surface, and I’d write that down, and then write around that. I’d say – “How does that word feel? How does it sound in the mouth?” And then just go from there. From fairly abstract things really, to trying to describe a word in sound. I really love doing that.

That’s fascinating, there’s almost an element of synaesthesia to that.

Well, I do actually have that as well.

Do you?!

Yeah, I’ve had that since I was a kid. It’s quite distracting in a way, because I’m also a sound engineer and a mastering engineer. And I “see” sound. So, in order to use my ears, I have to try and switch that off… because I can actually see things like waveforms, and colours, and various things. It’s quite an odd one!

I had it in a very minor form as a teenager. The Velvet Underground’s third album, the one with ‘Candy Says’ on it, has a really distinctive guitar sound, which I assume is Lou Reed’s arpeggio. And, as a 17-year- old, I saw that guitar sound as little blue metallic tubes that I was travelling down. It happened with a couple of other albums too, but it was a very fleeting thing, and I’ve often I’ve wanted it back! So you see physical things like that: colours and shapes?

Yeah, I do. Actual colours and shapes, and with various sounds and frequencies they can take on different forms. I’ve always had it, it’s never gone away.

Did you just assume as a kid that everyone had it? 

I think I probably did when I was really small. You don’t really think about it – you just think “this is normal”.

I guess it can be a blessing and a curse! Obviously you want to switch it off sometimes… but I guess the essence of creativity is sometimes finding those strange connections. If you’re a comedian, it’s the punchline that nobody sees coming; if you’re a musician, it’s finding a new sound, or the direction of a melody. Is there an element of needing your brain to work in different ways sometimes?

I think so, yeah. I wear a lot of different hats in the studio, and I go from mode to mode. So in certain modes, you need more of that, and less so in others. Thankfully, I’m kind of trying to train myself into… not being able to switch it off and on, but going more in the direction of trying to control it a bit. Because I’m a bit of a control freak! (Laughs)

Do you find your state of mind not only affected by the landscape, but also by the way in which the weather changes that landscape? I think I’m definitely a different person in the autumn to how I am in the spring.

Yeah, I often feel very different at different times of year. I’m very in tune with the weather, and it really affects me and the way that I write. And obviously it affects the way that I conduct myself outdoors: in winter, you’re wrapping up, and that has its own feeling. I’m very in tune with all that, which I’m very pleased about – because I love different seasons. It’s seeing the change from one season to another, and thinking – ah, I don’t need to be quite as wrapped up today!

My favourite times of year are the times when the weather is changing from one season to another. I love all seasons equally, but after a while they get slightly wearing: and I love the change from spring to summer just as much as I love the change from autumn into winter.  

Yeah… I used to not really like summer. I used to think I was just a winter person, but honestly – I’m not. I really do enjoy it, and I enjoy those changes, like you say.

There are some intriguing Gaelic song titles on this album… there’s ‘Fonn’ – that’s a Gaelic word, isn’t it?  

It is, it’s a word for melody.

I wanted to ask about a couple of others… there’s a track on there called ‘Siorraidh’ – what does that mean?

It’s a specific kind of melancholy. I liked the sound of the word. A lot of this album was conceived on the Isle of Skye. I was travelling around, seeing different words everywhere, and I was noting them down… I took a notebook around. And it was a word that I just really liked the sound of, and I thought – I’m going to write something around that.

Where did you see it, can you remember?

I can’t, actually. It might have been in a cafe, or on a sheet of paper somewhere. Because I’m often going round different places, and if I go into a cafe and they’ve got handouts or little leaflets, I’ll take those and put them in my notebook. You find inspiration in these things.

Do you keep the notebooks wih you at all times? Do you have one at the side of the bed in case you dream something interesting?

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got several of them. Loads of notebooks. I’m a notebook fiend!  

Definitely a physical notebook, and not a phone?

Definitely physical. I like the act of writing, and… I’ve got different pens… (laughs) I’m terrible like that. Absolutely terrible.

Do you doodle as well?

Yeah. Drawings, and little diagrams. There’s all kinds of stuff in there. No-one gets to see it either, it’s kind of secret.

I know a few people that do the same. I’ve got a friend called Scott Turnbull, he’s a lovely and rather eccentric actor and writer, and he thinks that if he doesn’t make a page of notes and drawings in his notebook every day, he’s let himself down creatively. And within that page there might be one idea that he can use. He’ll pick something out of it. 

Yeah, you’ve got to do an awful lot of that really, to get one idea. But it feels worth it for that one thing that stands out, and you think, actually… I can do something with that.

I assumed that you’d been to the Isle of Skye actually, because I googled the album track ‘Neist Point’ and discovered that’s where it was! Do you want to describe Niest Point to us?

Yeah, there’s a lighthouse there, and there’s quite a long walk all the way around it. And to get to it, you’ve got a load of steps. It’s a long way, a good walk. I was there for most of the day, and I just thought the atmosphere around it was amazing. You look out to sea, and… that’s pretty much all you can see. Just water. You feel really small in that place.

I was just really taken by how I felt there, and also… on the inside sleeve, there are various Polaroids of trees, and all of those trees exist on Skye. It’s all about making these temporary connections with nature, and somehow giving them a life after you’ve left them alone and got back in the car and driven off. So there’s a lot of that going on… and one of those trees was at Neist Point.

Talking about your connection with nature – and with place and landscape – I was delighted to see that your album Shapwick, from 2012, is being reissued on vinyl. It’s genuinely one of my favourite albums, and it’s meant so much to me over the years. Can you tell us a bit about the story behind it… this was another journey you were making, wasn’t it?

It was… I was coming back from a holiday in Devon, and there was an incident on the motorway – I think it was a rugby club that had caught fire – and we were in backed-up traffic, standing still for hours. And we decided that, as soon as we could get off the motorway, we’d take a detour. This was at night time, and it was completely dark. And there was a little village called Shapwick… we were driving through it, and I was just completely taken with how the car headlights looked as we went though the village. And I noted it down – at the time I was using my phone to take notes – and I just made a quick note: “Shapwick… sounds like a good album title”. And I kind of imagined how the village would feel, and the various things that would happen in it.

So as soon as I got back, I pretty much started writing stuff around that, and it became an album. And now I feel very old, because it’s been reissued for the third time! I’m really glad that it’s coming out again, because people still ask about that record.

I find that it’s a record that makes a genuinely emotional connection with people. It has a very personal resonance for me, but there’s clearly something in it that really speaks to a lot of people. Do you ever know what these things are, or do you just put the music “out there”, and see where it goes?

I don’t think you ever can know, really. Because everyone’s got their own take on it. But what I ty to do, with every record I make, is put a lot of human emotion into it. And that can take various forms, but I always want to create something that someone is going to connect with. Rather than just being… well, you know, I’d hopefully never make a bland record that doesn’t appeal to anyone. They’re going to appeal to different people, but the ideas is to try and create something that someone, somewhere is going to really connect with. And if I can do that, I’m doing my job properly.

Did you actually stop in Shapwick, or did you just drive straight through it?

No! We literally drove through. I’ve never been there.

I do love the idea of the village now having this kind of second identity, and a second history. It’s like when towns and villages are used as locations for films and TV shows… you’ve created a kind of fictional Shapwick, which I really like.

Exactly, yeah. I think, years ago, I read something about Brian Eno being quite into taking places on maps, and imaging what those places were like. That always fascinated me, that idea. And as I started to explore the place, I was thinking: “What does this place feel like? And what could go on there? Who are the characters?”

And I go off into my own world, and people become characters, and incidents become fictional things that can turn into music.

Can I ask about something on the album that has tormented me since it came out?  

Go on, then. If I can answer…

Who is the man talking about bats? I can virtually quote him word for word…

Ah! Yeah, he was fabulous! I went on a bat walk, a guided walk around a nature reserve one evening, and he was the bat expert. He had all the equipment to listen to bat calls… it was fabulous, I still remember that night. He was such a character, and I just happened to have my audio recorder on me – because I carry one of those everywhere – and I recorded him speaking and I thought: “You are absolutely brilliant, you’re going to feature on a record one day…”

Does he know he’s on it?

(Laughs) I don’t think he does…

It might be a lovely surprise for him one day! If ever I end up using the word “but” in the middle of a sentence, I usually do it twice… and that’s come directly from him.

(Laughs) Yeah, he was really, really good.

You’ve recorded under lots of different guises, and done lots of collaborations… I guess lots of people will know about your work with Ghost Box as The Advisory Circle. Does it feel like you have very distinct musical personas?

Yeah, definitely. I’m just interested in lots of different things, and I can never just stick to doing one thing. I would get so bored. I probably collaborate a lot less now, but I’ve done a fair amount of that in the past – I’ve done collaborations with Friendly Fires as The Pattern Forms, and we did an album together, that was good fun to do. But even on my own, I do different projects all the time, and from one day to the next I never know what I’m going to be doing.

Do you start composing with a particular persona in mind, or do you just make music generally? And if it sounds like an Advisory Circle track, then that’s what it becomes, and if it sounds like a Jon Brooks track, then it becomes that instead…

Sometimes, yeah. I try and let things take the lead, and then I’ll just go with it, rather than trying to control it too much. You kind of get a feel after a while, of – “is this going to be an Advisory Circle track, is this going to be a Clesse track” or whatever it is, and you can then develop it in that direction, and just go with it. But I love doing different things, I always do.

It stuck me that you work with two labels with a very striking visual identity. Clay Pipe has Frances Castle’s wonderful artwork, and Ghost Box has Julian House, whose work I love, too. Is that visual element important to you?

Incredibly. I’m very into visual graphic design. And I’m just incredibly lucky, working with Frances or Ju, that I always get a sleeve that I’m really happy with. Their work, I always think, is half the record. It’s not just about the music, it’s about everything else around it. And when I give something to Ghost Box, or to Frances, and when I see the artwork, it becomes a record. And it starts to sound like a record, because I’ve got the artwork. That’s the only way I can describe it.

It must be a lovely feeling when you first unpack the finished product…

Oh god, yeah. It’s always exciting. It was like that with the last Ghost Box thing I did,  Ways Of Seeing … that was in a gold foil sleeve, and I was like… “Ah, right OK… this is really good, what he’s done.”  

The number I’ve times I’ve tried to wipe my thumbprints off that sleeve, though…  

(Laughs) Oh, I know. Just get one of those polythene covers on it…

I used to do that with my schoolbooks! So what have you got planned next?

Just experiments at the moment. Obviously I’ve been getting this album finished, but now I want to do wildly different things. I’ve been doing loads of experiments, and seeing where it all goes, and the exciting part is not knowing. You just don’t know where you’re going…

Thanks so much to Jon for his time and conversation. The above interview was conducted in mid-March, before the Coronavirus lockdown was implemented, so the the vinyl editions of both How to Get to Spring and Shapwick have been temporarily delayed. However, digital copies of the former are available to buy here:

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/how-to-get-to-spring/

And Jon’s digital back catalogue is available here:

https://cafekaput.bandcamp.com/

One Man’s Trash… The Ephemeral Obsessions of John Townsend

(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 390, dated March 2020)

For almost 70 years, John Townsend amassed an extraordinary collection of 20th century ephemera that has now inspired a new book, Wrappers Delight. Bob Fischer carefully unwraps the story, then puts the packaging to one side for safe-keeping

“He was collecting on a different level,” says Jonny Trunk. “Relentless. Absolutely relentless. It’s so hardcore.”

This is quite something coming from Jonny, a irrepressible gatherer of vintage curiosities himself. His label, Trunk Records, has become the stuff of legend; breathing new life into musical obscurities of the mid-20th century. But his new book, Wrappers Delight, shines a spotlight on one of the most prolific collectors of British ephemera ever to have lived. The late John Townsend lived in the suburbs of Stockport, dedicating his entire life to a house-filling (and, indeed, shed, caravan and summerhouse-filling) collection of cards, stickers, wrappers, packaging, tins, junk mail… pretty much anything that ordinary households would routinely throw away.

The story of the book began with promotional flexi-discs. A friend of John Townsend’s son Robin borrowed a boxful from the house, and uploaded an audio mix of them onto Youtube; before alerting Jonny Trunk, who has a profound interest in such matters. “There was the Barbara Moore Singers doing a Tango advert; there was a Bryant & May ‘Message from the Chairman’, that sort of thing,” remembers Jonny. “Just my sort of advertising rubbish! I went up and offered Robin a good sum of money for the box, and I said ‘Let’s have a look around the house’. And from there… “

He pauses.

“It was an Aladdin’s Cave. Hanging in the hall was a Weetabix T-shirt, and I thought ‘What?! Why is there a Weetabix t-shirt there?’ It was the one where they turned the Weetabix into little skinheads, remember that? And on every shelf there was a thing, a tin can that was a promotional item that had been turned into a radio… wherever you looked there was something. He had loads of mugs, and I love mugs. And they were everywhere… mugs from Robertson’s Jam or the Swizzels factory.


“There were bags, and in the bags were boxes, and in the boxes were more bags, and in the bags was more stuff. I’m a collector, and I know how much time, energy and effort it’s taken to collect the roomful of records I’ve got. And he did it with postcards, cigarette cards, tobacco silks, first day covers… everything. What most people spend their life doing for one thing, he did across several. I got really excited by the possibilities.

The book is a sumptuous affair, with 500 of John Townsend’s most vividly evocative items scanned and photographed in loving detail. From Pink Panther candy to Yellow Submarine sweet cigarettes, from Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs to Kung Fuey crisps, they provide a direct portal to an era when luridly-packaged treats would be eagerly snaffled by grubby-faced kids all over the country, queuing in pokey sweetshops and street corner newsagents alike.

Three days after speaking with Jonny Trunk, I travel to Stockport to visit the Townsend household itself, finding myself at the door of an impressive, five-bedroomed house in a leafy cul-de-sac: the very epitome of unassuming suburbia. I’m greeted by Robin, a whiskery blues musician now known universally as Robin Sunflower (“It was chosen for me by the people of Ashton-Under-Lyne”, he smiles, enigmatically). His wife Paula is also there, as are two incredibly excited dogs, one of whom is called Elvis.

Immediately, I get a sense of what Jonny has described as a “strange energy”; John Townsend’s collection, although depleted since his death in 2014, still dominates every available space. The house is a riot of ephemera, a museum of 20th century pop culture and packaging that is still piled halfway to the ceiling in some rooms. As we settle down by the fireside, Robin begins to tell me his father’s life story.

“He was born in Surrey in 1937,” he says. “His dad died quite young, and his mum got another man, so he ended up going into a children’s home. And he spotted that the milk that was delivered there every day had different patterns on the cardboard bottle tops. And he started collecting them. It was something that he could have, something that made him different to everybody else. And from there he went onto collecting cigarette cards, tea cards… and then anything.”

“He had an eye for design, and logos…” adds Paula. “They would have appealed to him…”

“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Logos fascinated him. So he went from cigarette cards, to bubble gum cards, and then the actual packaging. Everything that came into the house was planned. It wasn’t just a case of ‘We need some beans, we need some Cornflakes.’ He’d be in the shop, and he’d say ‘We’re going to get these beans, because they’re advertising this film…'”

John moved from Surrey to Stockport in the late 1950s, and into the current house in the early 1970s. He spent his entire working life as a rep for Bird’s Eye (“We were never short of frozen peas,” deadpans Paula), weaving his love of collecting into his regular family life, with wife Brenda and three young sons – Martin, Robin, and Christopher.

“Me and my older brother Martin were very much employed, at not fantastic rates!” laughs Robin. “My dad would regularly come back with boxes of bubble gum… 144 packets in each box. And in each packet there’d be one piece of bubble gum and four or five cards of whatever series it was; footballers or pop stars. We would flatten all the wrappers, then get all the cards and put them into order, onto boards. There’s No 7 from that series, and there’s No 22…”

What comes over strongly is that John’s hobby wasn’t merely collecting for collecting’s sake: he felt a overpowering duty to preserve the minutiae of 20th century life for future generations to enjoy, and had a visionary sense that eventually these throwaway items would amass great cultural importance, simply because most households were throwing them away.

“There was definitely a social history angle,” nods Robin.

Paula agrees. “Everything to do with disposable life fascinated him,” she says. “He was always going on about the throwaway society, and how it was wrong and he should keep everything. And how one day it was all going to be in this glorious museum. He never got round to that… he never gave himself time, because he was always just collecting more and more.”

“People would bring him things as well,” adds Robin. “He’d say ‘Please collect all your empty cereal boxes and bring them to me… all your junk mail, all your phone cards, all your bus and train tickets…'”

And some of John’s collection has accrued remarkable value.   

“There were two boxes full of flattened cereal packets, mostly from the 1970s,” says Robin. “I looked through, and said ‘This one’s got Star Wars on it…’. So we put two Star Wars Shreddies boxes onto eBay with a starting bid of a fiver. Someone got in touch, and asked ‘Would you take £300 for the two?’ It was like… right, OK… let’s tread a bit more carefully now. We’ve also got Battlestar Galactica, Superman, The Black Hole

“And the Doctor Who Weetabix boxes, we just couldn’t believe. One bloke bought three of the four, on the same day. He spent over £1,000 on three empty Weetabix boxes.”

So objects that were designed to be collectible are now worth less than the packaging that housed them, simply because people kept the former, but not the latter?

“Yeah,” nods Robin. “People might have kept the little plastic figures or the cards, but not the box. That’s the nature of ephemera.”

“Your dad knew that all along,” says Paula. “He understood that immediately.”

The presence of John’s wife Brenda seems to have tempered the scale of the collection, but the intensity of his hobby escalated following her death in 1989. “It was different when Mum was alive,” agrees Robin. “There were certain areas where his collection was, and certain areas where it wasn’t. But once there was only him, there was no need for any demarcation lines.”

This change in circumstances led John’s fascination with printed matter into some unexpected new territories, too: notably, a notorious Manchester nightclub whose name become synonymous with 1990s rave culture.

Haçienda club flyers,” says Paula. “He loved those.” 

Robin nods. “He used to go into Manchester with a rucksack, a shopping trolley and a couple of shoulder bags, and he would go round Affleck’s Palace and Eastern Bloc Records, picking up huge stacks of them. His bag would weigh a ton!”

This new direction prompted John to put his collecting on a more formal footing, with the foundation of an official society. “He was running a club called the M.I.C.E. club,” explains Robin. “All about club flyers, tourist information cards, free postcards… things that were given away as promotional items.”

At this point, he retrieves from the shelf a book that gives an indication of the level of attention that John’s collection began to attract. The Ultimate Guide To Unusual Leisure, by Stephen Jarvis, was published by Robson Books in 1997. It includes an entry on M.I.C.E, the “Modern Information Collectors Exchange”, founded by John to swap promotional flyers with similar enthusiasts dotted around the country.

“What would life be like if you saved every piece of junk mail?” the book speculates. “Probably like John Townsend’s life, who has boxfuls of the stuff all over the house. It’s even on the staircase. He says: ‘There’s a gap down the middle of the hall, where I walk…'”  

Robin closes the book, proudly. “It’s also got entries on Zen Archery, the Friends of the Museum of Bad Art, The Flying Nun Fan Club, and barbed wire collecting.”

“I’m surprised your dad didn’t get into that,” smiles Paula.  

So did the collection take over the house as spectacularly the book suggests?

“It was quite extreme at one point,” says Paula. “You could sort of shuffle around, but you had to do it really slowly. Sometimes you would actually have to climb over boxes. If you laid flat, you could sort of slide over them. And I don’t remember going upstairs for the first few years. I don’t think it was accessible upstairs.” 

“Sometimes you’d hear a sort of rumble upstairs, as something collapsed…” remembers Robin, wistfully.

“But there was never any shame over it,” adds Paula. “He was always ‘Take me as you find me, this his how I want to live’. And everybody accepted that, because it was just… John.”

Both Robin and Paula recall John’s sense of humour and gregarious nature, describing a funny and sociable man who was entirely aware of his own idiosyncrasies. “He liked the thought of being the eccentric English gent,” nods Paula. “He loved being the centre of attention, and if he got the opportunity to be on the radio or the telly, then he loved that, too.”

And the dawn of the 21st century provided the opportunity for John to expand his collecting habits even further. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was an enthusiastic early adopter of eBay.

“He had his own van that the Post Office would send out specifically to come here,” recalls Paula. “Nowhere else. A massive box of condiments, free sachets of brown sauce, turned up one day. We said ‘Why have you bought this?’ He said ‘Because I’m collecting free giveaway condiments, obviously.’ He never used them, they just sat there for years in the box, then got totally moused…”

Robin laughs. “He ran a M.I.C.E club, and them some real mice joined…”

“The kitchen was really scary,” laughs Paula. “Remember that big tin of Mango Purée that exploded?”

Both agree that the collection reached its peak in 2007, by which stage the house was so dominated by bags and boxes that John moved into the garden summerhouse. And shortly before his death in 2014, he was still ordering eBay items from his nursing home: they would arrive unexpectedly at the house, much to Robin and Paula’s surprise.  

The couple moved into the house when John died, and began the bittersweet task of gently dismantling the collection. As the family sift through what John once conservatively estimated to be 34,000 items (“Possibly 34,000 squared!”, jokes Robin), older brother Martin has been tasked with listing the more interesting items on eBay.

“It feels strange, it all going out of the house,” admits Paula. “Because the house and the collection have kind of become one. And it is Robin’s dad. Having had years of arguing with him, I now feel that I understand where he was coming from, and why he couldn’t let it go. I thought it would be easy just to get rid of it, but it’s really not. When stuff goes out of the house, it does tug on your heartstrings a bit, because we’re never going to see it again. But realistically, we can’t keep hold of it.”

Robin agrees. “It’s a shame that he spent a lot of time gathering these things together, and now they’ve been fragmented. Maybe out there now, there’s someone desperately trying to gather them together again…”

Wrappers Delight, of course, immortalises a corner of the collection, and cements John Townsend’s visionary status: Jonny Trunk’s 2019 crowdfunding campaign to finance the book reached its £20,000 goal in 36 hours, proving that the world has finally come round to John’s way of thinking. We now positively delight in the disposable ephemera of decades past. And Jonny Trunk himself is rightly proud of the finished product. “On every page I’ll see something I like,” he says. “There’s a lot of illustration which I think is really quite charming. Some of it’s brilliant, and some of it’s not very good at all… that slightly ‘outsider’ art of badly drawn pop stars, you know. But there’s something on every page I’d buy.”

Meanwhile, Robin and Paula are a delightful couple, and inexhaustibly welcoming. As we potter around the house, I get an overwhelming impression of their love for John, and their willingness to share and celebrate his story. Touchingly, on top of a drinks cabinet in the front room, are the modest pile of 1940s cardboard milk bottle tops that sparked the whole collection. They graciously offer them for me to inspect; the faded remnants of a traumatic, wartime childhood. I’m subsumed by a feeling of incredible sadness.

“He lost everything when he was a kid,” says Paula. “But these were something that he could take, that he could just have. It was like everything he’d lost, he put into his collecting. I think a lot of it was about him taking control of his life.”

“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Existing on his own terms.”

And as we pass the foot of the staircase, John’s story has one final, heart-rending twist. Posing for photographs beside a promotional cardboard cut-out of a beaming 1970s schoolboy sporting a Superman t-shirt and a chequered flat cap, Robin smiles. “If we stand here, my parents are in the picture, too”, he says. And he points out two charcoal-grey cardboard boxes, nestling almost unnoticed beneath a fluffy, sleeping toy cat.

John Townsend has become part of his own collection. It’s impossible not to conclude that it’s what he would have wanted. 

Wrappers Delight, by Jonny Trunk, is available from FUEL Publishing, RRP £24.95. It’s here…

http://fuel-design.com/publishing/wrappers-delight/

And if you’d like a slice of John Townsend’s collection… look for the eBay ID “oldtom85”.

Thanks to Robin and Paula, Jonny Trunk, and to ace photographer Andrew T. Smith; gratitude to FUEL Publishing too, for providing images from the book.

The new Fortean Times (Issue 391) is now available, and has the latest printed Haunted Generation column, featuring reviews of new albums by Keith Seatman, Plone, The Heartwood Institute & Panamint Manse and Capac with Tom Harding. It looks like this
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The Heartwood Institute, Panamint Manse and Parapsychedelia

The paranormal was taken far more seriously in the 1970s. Mainstream news programmes like Nationwide would frequently include UFO sightings and poltergeist infestations alongside analysis of the latest economic forecasts and industrial action; and their 1976 report on the Hexham Heads – the buried stone carvings that unleashed both a werewolf and a rather curious half man/half sheep creature on this sleepy Northumberland town – has become the stuff of legend. In newsagents, the books of Erich Von Daniken nestled happily alongside the latest Jilly Coopers, and – by the turn of the 1980s – Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World was a fixture on primetime ITV. It was, as one dedicated Loch Ness Monster-hunter* once said to me, “a very credulous era.”

*Yes, I’ve met a few.

Into this mix was thrown the fascination with a paranormal phenomenon that perhaps came closest to arousing genuine scientific interest: that of Extra Sensory Perception. The idea of a “sixth sense”, an innate psychic ability ready to be unleashed in all of us, was a mainstay of 1970s weirdness: it was an era when Uri Geller became an enigmatic international celebrity, and when there was even talk of the CIA employing military-grade psychic readers to gain an advantage in a still-simmering Cold War.

This delicious combination of nebulous strangeness and academic respectability is evoked perfectly on Parapsychedelia, a new collaborative album by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse. The transatlantic duo (essentially Jonathan Sharp, from Cumbria, and Wayne P. Ulmer, from California… god knows, if they ever visit each other, they’re in for a hell of culture shock, climate-wise) have created a melodic, dreamy collection; where the authoritarian voices of beardy-weirdy 1970s researchers emerge chillingly from beautiful, eerie soundscapes, redolent of both the authentic vintage library music of the era, and the first giddy wave of Ghost Box-led Noughties hauntology.

The album is released on the Castles In Space label this week, and I asked Jonathan and Wayne about the background to it all:

Bob: The album is great fun! Between the pair of you, whose idea was it to make an album about ESP research?

Jonathan: Thanks! When we initially started planning this, Wayne suggested the ESP theme, and he passed me a mood board of images and text. It sort of grew out of that. It was a bit of a lucky chance, as I’d just been reading a book on remote viewing, so it all kind of clicked. A lot of Wayne’s initial images were so evocative, and dovetailed with what I’d just been reading.

Wayne: That’s right, I had been wandering the stacks in a local library a few years ago and came across a book on parapsychology.  Flipping to the index, I was greeted with a list of peculiarly resonant words, and wrote them down for future use.  Later, in communication with Jonathan, these resonances would prove to be a fertile aesthetic from which to draw inspiration.

What are your memories of the paranormal from being a kid? Did you watch Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and similar programmes?

Jonathan: Oh absolutely, I think I was at exactly the right age for that to be a big influence and spark my interest in the broader subject. There seemed to be quite a widespread interest at the time in UFOs, parapsychology and ESP… all that stuff. As well as those Usborne books, there was just so much available: everything from Chariots Of The Gods to The Highgate Vampire. And lots of it was targeted at children as well as adults.

Wayne, was there a US equivalent of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World? I know Leonard Nimoy presented a similar show… was there other stuff as well?

Wayne:  Ah, you’re thinking In Search Of, but that was a bit before my time.  As a child in the late 1980s, it was Unsolved Mysteries after dinner, and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown books in the school library. There was definitely something in the air, and anything paranormal got my attention. Beyond the cultural reference points, I’ve always felt a natural predisposition to magical thinking, and wonder.

Did this stuff scare you both as children? The ‘Monsters of the Deep’ episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World gave me nightmares for months… 

Jonathan: Honestly, it was a bit like watching a real life version of Doctor Who… there were things that were certainly scary! But I watched it religiously. The one that has stuck in my mind after all these years is the Tunguska episode.

Wayne:  I’ve always been terrified of lots of things!  Close Encounters was my favorite movie growing up and – though not scary in the traditional sense – it sure scared the living hell out of me. I’d watch our VHS copy over and over. So when my family moved to the Mojave Desert in 1986, I would camp out and search for UFOs in the night. Often paralyzed with fear, but it felt wonderful. That tipping point of otherness, just beyond perception.

Oh, I have to ask… did you ever see one?

Wayne: There was one lone instance. Spherical lights, maybe four or five on the horizon to the east, fading in and out of visibility in a sequence, from right to left. Pulsing like an inchworm across the night sky, slowly. As one light dimmed on the right, another would fade in on the left. It lasted only long enough to baffle me, and leave me transfixed.

Do you think it was an age when ESP and other paranormal fields of interest were taken more seriously – both by the mainstream media and by academia?

Jonathan: Oh totally, I mean this was the time of Uri Geller being a huge TV star. It did seem like certainly the mainstream media took it all more seriously, or certainly gave it screentime without attempting to debunk it with a knowing wink. Likewise, academia was a bit more open, too. I have some great T C Lethbridge books from the period, plus things like The Occult, by Colin Wilson. I think it really was the tail end of the “Age of Aquarius”.

Wayne:  For sure, Jonathan. But I understand why that openness has gone away. With the advent of smartphones and related tech, there should be more documentations of unexplained phenomena, but instead we have fewer. The hard sciences are universally lauded – and rightfully so – but the ability to not-know can be equally important in a moment. I think we worked on Parapsychedelia from a space which embraced our classically shared touchstones of the unexplained, but I can’t help but feel it all points to something much closer.

Are you a believer in any of this stuff yourselves, then? Have you ever tried experimenting with Zenner Cards, for example?

Jonathan: I have a set of Zenner cards that came with a copy of The Unexplained magazine. I’ve never had much luck with them though! Let’s say I’ve an open and enquiring mind on this and a lot of similar esoteric subjects.

Wayne:  Traditional parapsychology? Not particularly. But I believe the reality of our situation to be several magnitudes weirder than any of that!

The idea of a collaboration between a Cumbrian artist and a Californian artist is an intriguing one! How did it come about?

Jonathan: I’d been familiar with Wayne’s Panamint Manse releases, and we started chatting back and forth. I really liked his last album a lot and he said “Well… how about we do some kind of collaboration and see what happens?”

I don’t think either of us had any initial expectations of it turning into a full album, but he sent me some initial ideas to play with, and it quickly became apparent that we clicked musically and had something pretty cool. The whole thing took shape over a few months as ideas bounced back and forwards, and suddenly we had an album’s worth of stuff.

Wayne: Yeah, I had admired Jonathan’s work from afar before we began corresponding.  After devouring all I could of the more popular stuff, I’d search Bandcamp for music tagged with “Hauntology” – I know it’s uncool, thanks – and The Heartwood Institute stood out for me.  I remember hearing Calder Hall in 2016, around the same time I put my first music on the platform.  I think Bandcamp can be a great tool for fostering communities and building connections. But it was Jonathan’s willingness to work with a bit of an outsider that allowed Parapsychedelia to develop.

Have you ever met each other in person, or even spoken in real time?

Jonathan: No, we’ve not met in person at this point, but yes – we’ve talked at length in actual, real time. And probably sent several thousand words of e-mails and messages!

Wayne, how have you found it working “remotely” in this way?

Wayne:  We have similar setups so it wasn’t insurmountable, but I love being forced to commit and bounce down audio, because I can be so indecisive in my own work. Sending audio and MIDI, and text and pictures to friends are great frequencies for me.

What do you think each other brings to the collaboration? How do you complement each other’s work?

Jonathan: Well, I’ve been jokingly saying that Wayne brings the tunes and melodies, and I bring the noises. Which is probably a bit flippant, but I think we each have different strengths, and when they come together it makes for something that neither of us would do by ourselves.

Wayne:  Haha, yes. It’s not all so black and white obviously, but there is a mixture of dark and light going on.  I tend toward sentimentalism in my own work, and so it’s pleasant to explore murkier zones with Jonathan and just let go a bit. Not every song needs a chorus, Wayne!

Can I ask where some of the track titles come from? I’m intrigued by ‘Black Ant, White Magic’…

Jonathan: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’ and most of the other titles are Wayne’s – he’s great at mashing existing words to make new ones that sound like they ought to actually be a thing. I loved what he came up with, it’s kind of a woozy melange of psychedelia and parapsychology.

Wayne: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’… mostly, I just liked the sound of it. I wanted to retain some of the desert connections, and huge black ants are everywhere here in summer. ‘White Magic’ is just an attempt to be gentle, and not overly morose about the project. But I guess it’s been awarded some context after the fact… Jonathan is the black ant, and I bring the white magic.

Ooof, that’s lame.

And the rest? ‘Mesmercuria’? And ‘Amaranthracine’? Neither of these appear to be actual words… did you have fun inventing new words for this album?

Wayne:  OK, nerding out here, but for the titles you mentioned I’d start with a word thematically related to our aesthetic, like “mesmerism”, and then bring up the default dictionary on OSX.  You type three letters into the dictionary, it begins to auto-populate on the left, and you can scroll for something you like.  Then you can just keep twisting away by repeating the process. So for the above example I used “mercurial”, but just dropped the “l” from the end, for added mystique. But perhaps “mesmeridian” could have worked, or “mesmercyanemiasma”? It’s like a directed cut-up or something. ‘Clairvoyeurism’ works in that way, as does Parapsychedelia.  Overall, we tried to find a good mix of simple and graphic.

Can you tell us where some of the samples on the album came from? They’re very evocative.

Jonathan: I went down a massive Youtube rabbit hole of 1970s American science-fiction, and weird documentaries. A big resource was that Leonard Nimoy In Search Of…. programme. Which is very similar to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, so there was much to be had from that. Also, there are some bits pieces lifted from Phase IV. I think if this whole project referenced one movie: stylistically, visually and content-wise, it would be Phase IV.

Wayne, are they any samples on the album that you’re particularly fond of, or find especially evocative?

Wayne:  Definitely what Jonathan said about Phase IV… I love the dialogue at the end of ‘Amaranthracine’. ‘Onyx Oracle’ uses non-repeating. one second snippets from various VHS tapes. And the percussion sounds from Within The Woods on ‘Precognition’ were an absolute pain!

Will you both work together again, do you think?

Jonathan: Oh yes! We have plans for another joint album, and we’ll be digging further into the shadowy world of the Mobius Group.

Wayne: We will go much, much deeper during future investigations… it’s inevitable.

I meant to ask about the Mobius Group. The vinyl album comes with a couple of curious documents that allude to the existence of this mysterious organisation. What more can you tell us about them?

Jonathan: The Mobius Group… is standing by. Who they are, and what they do, is the subject for the next album. They are a shadowy group of people with extraordinary powers…

Thanks to Jonathan and Wayne for forging a psychic connection and transmitting the results remotely to the Haunted Generation… Parapsychedelia, by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse, can be ordered here:

https://theheartwoodinstituteandpanamintmanse.bandcamp.com/

Alex Cargill, Treedom and the Central Office of Information

There seems to be a burgeoning love affair between contemporary electronica and the soothing – if sometimes otherworldly – qualities of the British countryside. Recent albums by Pulselovers, The Relations, Polypores and Jon Brooks have all celebrated a distinct emotional connection to nature, with moods that range from the wistfully nostalgic to the powerfully invigorating.

Treedom, the new album from The Central Office of Information, takes the passion for flora deeper underground. Quite literally. It celebrates, with a very organic form of electronic experimentation, the secret connections between plant and tree that lay beneath the soil… the so-called “Wood Wide Web“.

The Central Office of Information is the project of Kent-based Alex Cargill, and a self-titled debut album was released by Castles In Space in 2019, very much exploring the light and shade of childhood nostalgia. This follow-up, released on the Woodford Halse cassette label established by Pulselovers’ Mat Handley, is both melodic and atmospheric; a combination of sounds and textures as intricately tangled as the underground network of roots and radicals that it celebrates.

I asked Alex about both albums…

Bob: Congratulations on Treedom! It’s great – you must be very proud of it?

Alex: Thank you Bob, that’s very kind! I owe a great deal to Mat Handley of Woodford Halse for how nicely the finished product has turned out.

So can you tell us a bit about the “Wood Wide Web”? What’s your understanding of how it works?

I’ll try my best. The Wood Wide Web is a subterranean social network which is almost 500 million years old. It exists beneath forests and woods and is essentially a complex network of roots, fungi and bacteria which connect trees to one another. The fungi form connections with the roots, and consume some of the sugar that trees produce through photosynthesis. In return the fungi provide the trees with nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients from the soil. Through this vast network, trees are able to share water and nutrients and to communicate using chemical, hormonal and electrical signals: for example, warning each other of attack from insects, disease and drought. Larger, older trees have been shown to support young saplings which may be struggling for sunlight by pumping sugar into their roots through the network. Dying trees have been shown to release their nutrients to their neighbouring kin.

Recent evidence suggests that some plants can even emit sounds, in particular a crackly noise in the roots at a 220 hertz frequency, inaudible to humans.

Are you an enthusiastic woodland walker yourself, then?

I’ve always enjoyed the visual beauty of trees and woodland, but I was never especially interested in trees per se until fairly recently. In the summer of 2017 I attended my first yoga and meditation retreat just outside of Totnes in Devon. For a few days I was sharing a Grade-1 listed Palladian villa and the vast surrounding estate on the banks of the river Dart with about a dozen other like-minded souls. It was pure bliss – I’ve been back since and will be returning again as often as I can. A lot of the time was spent in silence, so during “personal time” I would relax in the library, browsing through books and playing an acoustic guitar which resides in the corner… I actually wrote ‘The Fleeting Freedom Of A Seedling’, from Treedom, on that very guitar.

I stumbled upon a book called The Secret Life Of Trees by Colin Tudge, which shocked me with its revelations about trees communicating with each other beneath the soil. My mind was blown and my interest well and truly piqued. When I returned from the retreat I started reading articles and watching YouTube videos and Ted Talks about the Wood Wide Web and generally becoming fascinated by it all. I was inspired to start a musical project where I could explore the subject in my own unique way. The title Treedom came directly from Colin’s book.

Any local woods that you particularly enjoy walking around?

I’ll be honest – I’m a fairweather walker. I love to explore fields, meadows and woodland but you’ll probably only catch me out there in the spring and summer, possibly the early autumn too if the weather is dry. I’m not a winter person at all. If I could, I would love to just hunker down and hibernate for those three months of the year.

But my current favourite place to walk is Scadbury Park which is on the outskirts of Sidcup, the town in Kent where I’ve lived for the last nine years. It’s a vast expanse of woodland and wild meadow, absolutely beautiful, and the perfect antidote to the hectic pace of modern life. My parents live just outside the town of Devizes in Wiltshire – where I originally hail from. When I visit them, I love to walk along the footpaths which cross the perfectly flat farmland of their village, or to explore the nearby Roundway Hills which provide a stunning backdrop. And the Sharpham Estate in Devon is another favourite place of mine to explore when I’m down that way. The peaceful isolation and the scenery is heavenly.

How does it make your feel when you walk in these places?

I love the innate feeling of connection to the land and the wildlife that I get when I spend time alone in nature. I think that if you look hard enough, you can see a spark of divinity in everything. Even wasps.

I like to meditate every day and one of my favourite things is to meditate outdoors. Usually this will just be in my garden, but occasionally I go further afield. Last summer I spent a morning exploring the woods and meadows of Scadbury Park. I sat in the middle of a wild meadow to meditate (meadowtate?) and it was such a beautiful and life-affirming experience – surrounded by long grass, with the sound of birds, bees and insects all around. During deep meditation, I really do get a sense of the Earth as one large living organism with all of us connected, interdependent and playing our own very small part in the big picture.

When I eventually opened my eyes there was a caterpillar lazily crawling across my leg. It’s funny how when you sit perfectly still, the local wildlife will actually come and investigate you, rather than reacting with the usual flight response. I notice this in my own garden too – if I keep very still and quiet then the birds, squirrels and even random cats will come very close. I wholeheartedly recommend meditation to absolutely everyone. It really does work wonders for your mind, body and soul in this crazy, fast-paced Western world that we live in. Also, a lot of my musical and creative ideas tend to come to me when I’m meditating, so I’d recommend it even more so for creative types. I’ve even heard the absolute legend that is Mr C of The Shamen confirming this too, so that’s quite an endorsement!

Are these places where some of the field recordings came from, then?

I do like to make my own field recordings occasionally but – at the risk of being shunned by the entire hauntological fraternity – the natural ambiences used on the Treedom album were all ‘pre-rolled’. They were taken from my enormous, bloated sample library. I’ve been collecting sounds for about 20 years now and they tend to come from any number of sources – old sound effects albums, online resources, TV and film, as well as my own personal recordings. It’s become almost de-rigueur these days to gather your own field recordings for a musical project and I actually quite like that trend. So I took some field recordings at Scadbury Park last summer specifically with this album in mind, but they didn’t come out quite as well as I’d hoped and therefore didn’t make the final cut. Most of the ambiences on this particular album came from old sound effects CDs. I often tinker with them in order to make them a bit more ‘haunty’ (copyright Bob Fischer 2018) though. For example you might notice a bit of reverse-reverb on the crows, which gives them that slightly otherworldly, psychedelic quality.

This is a much more “organic” sounding album than your debut, too. There are guitars! And other acoustic instruments! Was that deliberate, given the subject matter?

Yes, the use of guitars and other acoustic instruments on Treedom was deliberate. I wanted to go for a more organic and pastoral vibe which would reflect the subject matter, while still keeping the core COI vibe intact. I think I just about managed it – certainly the initial reaction to Treedom has been very kind.

On my Castles In Space debut album, a lot of those tracks had been kicking around for many years – ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’, for example dates, back to early 2010. So I think there was a certain feel to the album as a whole and the tracks that Colin Morrison and I agreed on for the final cut all seemed to fit together rather nicely. Colin has a natural flair for that sort of thing. A couple of guitar-based tracks had been submitted for consideration, but we didn’t include them and I think that this was the right decision. Colin had a very strong vision for the album and I think that he delivered it perfectly.

With Treedom I felt a bit more relaxed. I had received such positive feedback from people who’d bought the first album and it had received a lot of airplay from yourself and many other DJs. So I felt confident enough to take a risk and broaden the sonic palette, throwing in acoustic guitar, electric guitar, theremin and even melodica on the title track. The melodica is a really fun instrument and is dirt cheap too. Melodica lessons should be compulsory for primary school kids. Whack a bit of delay or reverb on it and you’re basically King Tubby. There could be classrooms up and down the country full of budding young Lee ‘Scratch’ Perrys, imagine that!

Can I ask about your background as a musician? And, indeed as a music fan? Who did you listen to as a kid?

I’ve been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. My early idols included Adam And The Ants and Shakin’ Stevens. As a kid I was into all the great pop music of the time, but I became especially fascinated with electro and hip-hop. I used to make rap tapes with friends… no doubt these recordings would’ve been laughable. We used to beatbox, scratch on our Dads’ record players – sorry Dad! – and breakdance in our living rooms.

Leading on from this, I got a Casio PT-80 keyboard for my 10th birthday in 1985. I never had any formal training, but I picked up a few choice melodies of the time from friends – ‘Axel F’, ‘Fourth Rendez-Vous’, ‘Chariots Of Fire’, ‘Inspector Gadget’ and so on.

When I was 14, I got into hard rock, heavy metal, thrash and punk. Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, The Sex Pistols and Metallica, I took up electric guitar in 1990. I had lessons for about eight months and this enabled me to become a competent player and also to understand a bit about how music works in general. I don’t think I’d be making electronic music today had I not had those guitar lessons. Whilst I was never really in what you could call a proper band, I used to jam a lot with another guitarist, a drummer and a vocalist… of sorts. We often talked about forming a proper band and doing gigs, but we were we young, we lacked discipline and just wanted to party every weekend.

I was also really into the house music and acid house that was crossing over into the charts in the later part of the 1980s. I was only 13 years old when I first heard ‘Stakker Humanoid’ in 1988, but it completely blew my mind. I remember it vividly. It was the first proper acid track I’d heard, and back then it sounded like music from another planet. I’ll never tire of that squelchy, slippery acid sound and it often finds its way into my COI stuff. From 1991 to 1993, when the hardcore rave scene exploded in the UK, I was completely hooked. That short period was the most exciting time that I can personally remember in UK music. It was such a creative peak and it felt like new sounds were coming out almost every week. I loved the DIY attitude…young bedroom producers were fusing hip-hop, house, techno, dub and ragga to create this very British sound which seemed to suddenly appear from out of nowhere. It had everything – funky breakbeats, heavy basslines, euphoric piano and soaring vocals – but it also had that dark, hypnotic techno groove. I couldn’t get enough of it.

At the same time there was also home-grown techno from the likes of 808 State, Orbital and The Shamen, amazing techno coming in from America and Europe, as well as the beginnings of ambient house. So it was just a really vibrant period that I will always be really fond of. I happened to hear some current house music very recently and they are still churning out the same old samples nearly 30 years later. So whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, the legacy of that era is still being felt by the kids of today.

When I went to university in 1993 my flatmates had turntables, and I soon learned to DJ. At this point, I was becoming immersed in hard trance, acid, electronica (I refuse to call it IDM or worse still, EDM), jungle and ambient music. A few years later when I was sharing a flat with friends we had a drumkit set up in the kitchen – as you do – and a flatmate, the drummer from my school days, taught me the basics, which has helped me to this day. I then started making electronic music in 1999, initially on a Playstation. This early material was produced under the oh-so-1990s pseudonyms of Sonik Science and Phatcamp and was very much dancefloor-orientated, covering genres such as techno, house, breakbeat, acid, drum n’ bass, electronica, glitch, trip hop and eventually dubstep, as well as some forays into ambient and dub. In 2005 and 2006 I received some airplay on BBC Radio One. Between 2005 and 2007 I also made DJ appearances at DiscoWhip events in Wiltshire, warming up the turntables for legendary house DJ Brandon Block on several occasions.

So when did you discover the whole “haunted” aesthetic – was it Ghost Box Records? I’m always intrigued to know when and how people drifted into this strange world…

Around 2005 or 2006 I started to become fascinated with the woozy, nostalgic sounds of Boards Of Canada and it soon began to influence my own music. I discovered Ghost Box Records and Moon Wiring Club in early 2010, purely because Amazon started recommending their albums to me based on my previous purchases.

How did you feel when you discovered all this? It was almost a sense of relief for me, that I’d found people who clearly remembered their childhoods in the same weird way…

When I first heard Boards Of Canada it resonated with me on a really deep level. It was like someone flicked a switch inside my mind. It brought up feelings of warm, fuzzy nostalgia. It felt as if long-forgotten, half-remembered childhood memories were being unearthed, and it was powerful stuff. The music was ‘warm’ and woozy, but it also had melancholic or eerie undertones which really reflected my own memories of childhood in the late 1970s and early 80s – the fear and paranoia as well as the happy times. Musically, it was a breath of fresh air – despite the obvious retro feel – and it really inspired me creatively.

When did you start making music as The Central Office Of Information?

I made a few Boards of Canada-inspired tracks under my Phatcamp pseudonym in the late noughties. Then, in 2010 after discovering Ghost Box and specifically the Other Channels album by The Advisory Circle, I decided to begin The Central Office Of Information as a separate project devoted solely to this kind of sound.

‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ was the first ever COI track and was inspired directly by The Advisory Circle’s ‘Civil Defence Is Common Sense’. I remember sitting on my bed listening to the CD for the first time and I’m pretty sure I smiled or possibly even chuckled when I heard that track. Like Boards of Canada, it resonated on a really deep level and I was instantly transported in my mind back to primary schools days, being sat in a classroom of kids huddled around a massive old telly watching Programmes For Schools And Colleges. I hadn’t heard music like that for years and I was amazed that somebody was even making that type of music in the 21st century. Whereas Boards of Canada induced woozy, hazy memories using production techniques to deliberately muddy the sound, this was a much more direct link to the TV music of my early childhood. It was uncannily accurate, I thought.

Given the name that you record under, I’m guessing Public Information Films were a big influence on you… can you remember which ones particularly got to you as a kid? 

Again, I had completely forgotten about Public Information Films until listening to Other Channels, which contains the Frozen Ponds PIF. Of course the memories came flooding back instantly. That was a particularly nasty one, and the sound of the ice cracking is truly chilling. As a child, the other PIFs that really disturbed me were Play Safe – Frisbee and Apaches. The latter was utterly horrific, and to this day I cannot believe that the government deemed it suitable for kids. It was basically a short horror movie. However, it certainly had the desired effect and I never did decide to go and mess about with farm machinery. I would feel uneasy even watching it now in my forties – that scene with the kid drowning in silage is beyond disturbing!

I genuinely found your music by chance, when I was presenting the BBC Introducing show on BBC Tees, and I used to put random words into the BBC staff portal, and see which artists came up. And in May 2018 I tried the word “office” and found you! And a track called ‘Pools Of Witchlight’. Was it a surprise? I got the impression you hadn’t made any music for a little while…

It was certainly a lovely surprise. I’ve never actually stopped making electronic music since I started in 1999 – I’m constantly churning it out – but I had definitely reached a stage where I was resigned to music being just a hobby for my own benefit as opposed to something that would be of interest to others. I think the tracks that I’d submitted to BBC Introducing had been sat there for quite some time, maybe even as long as two years. I’d honestly forgotten all about it. So, yes it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.

How did that lead to Castles in Space putting out your debut album?

After the first two airplays on your BBC Introducing show, I felt so reinvigorated! At the time, I hadn’t sent out any demos to labels for about a year. You recommended the music of Concretism – who had also featured on your show – and I subsequently bought For Concrete And Country directly from Castles In Space, a label with which I was unfamiliar at that point. Of course, I loved the album and it occurred to me that CiS might even be interested in my own music. So I e-mailed Colin [Morrison, label boss], who was really supportive. He basically walked me through the whole process, bringing in Jez Butler of The Twelve Hour Foundation on mastering duties, and Nick Taylor of Spectral Studio for the artwork and the logo.

That debut is a lovely mix of rather homely sounding tracks, and others that are much more sinister! It’s ‘Home-Made Jams and Chutneys’ vs ‘Chemtrails!’ Were you keen explore both sides of nostalgia, both light and dark?

Absolutely, I was keen to explore both sides of the haunted coin. I love really euphoric and uplifting music – disco, house, rave etc – but there is a part of me that has always been drawn towards the dark side too, and I seem to have an unusual knack of coming up with dark, eerie tracks. I guess it stems from the thrash metal influence, the short-lived ‘darkcore’ rave era of 1993, drum n’ bass, and listening to artists such as Aphex Twin, The Future Sound Of London and Moon Wiring Club. I personally enjoy albums which have a nice mix of darkness and light – The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld would be a good example of this.

The track ‘Chemtrails’ came about after watching an interview that Prince gave on American TV in which he spoke emphatically about his own belief in the chemtrails conspiracy theory. This was all new to me, but I was intrigued and immediately started reading articles and watching YouTube videos on the subject. The title ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ came from a hand-written sign that I spotted on the bar in a village pub in Wiltshire. I actually bought one of those chutneys and it was superb, but I can’t remember exactly what was in it.

What about jams? What’s the best jam you’ve ever tasted?  

My all-time favourite jam would have to be the plum jam that my Granny used to make when I was a kid, bless her.

The packaging on that album was sumptuous – what was your favourite bit of it? I was particularly intrigued by the postcards of Ilston Church and the Norman Staircase in Canterbury. And the Welsh Publishing Company that one of them is addressed to…

Yes, the packaging on the CiS album was next-level! We may well have set a new world record for the greatest number of inserts within an album. The A4 sheets with Nick’s artwork and the COI badge were my personal favourite bits of ephemera, but the Telephone Exchange and Telegraph Linesmen postcards were also nice. I wish I could explain all of the mysterious inserts, but you would really need to ask Colin as he was the mastermind behind it all. I had some degree of input, but really Colin and Nick have to take the credit for the overall aesthetic – both are excellent at what they do and were really nice to work with. Jez was also lovely to work with and my fairly limited understanding of the mastering process has improved as a result. Let’s just say that he had fewer “woolly frequencies” to contend with when he mastered my second album!

So what’s next for you?

My next release will actually be the first official Phatcamp album, titled Transport For London. I’ve been working on it since 2017 and am just applying the final touches now. I’m aiming for a 1st June release. It will be a digital download only, sold through Bandcamp. I describe it as follows: “an electronic soundtrack for London’s hectic and often overloaded transport network. The familiar soundscape of the London Underground forms an ambient backdrop which occasionally adds its own mechanical rhythms to the techno, acid and breakbeats that roll across it”.

The release details will be confirmed nearer the time by me on Twitter and by Kat (Mrs COI) on Instagram.

I’ve produced an exclusive COI track for the next Scarred For Life compilation album, due out later this year. I’ve also done a track for a compilation called Electrophon – A Journey Through Radiophonica which is being released on a label called Wormhole World in around May. This compilation celebrates the work of Delia Derbyshire and other early pioneers of electronic music.

I have some ideas and at least a couple of tracks ready for the next COI album, but I don’t expect to release anything now until 2021. I’m super busy right now working on a COI podcast, a COI live show and I’m also attempting to write a book on electronic music production. It’s for people who have always wanted to have a go at making electronic music but have never quite taken the plunge, and also for those with some previous experience who might want to take it a little bit further or simply to brush up on their existing skills.

Thanks to Alex for his time, and for a lovely natter. The self-titled Central Office of Information debut album is available here…

https://coi-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-central-office-of-information

And Treedom is here…

https://woodfordhalse.bandcamp.com/album/treedom

Keith Seatman, Doctor Who and Time To Dream But Never Seen

British seaside towns exist in their own, weird pocket universe. The gaudy fairgrounds, the extravagant ice creams, the Kiss-Me-Quick hats and flashing arcades. The chips dusted with sand, the dogs on the beach. The works outings fuelled by beer and rock dummies; the windswept piers, the cockles and mussels, the inscrutable soothsayers and fearsome landladies. They are towns that teeter on a weird tipping-point between real-life hell and Carry On heaven, a direct portal from the everyday to the world of the 70s sitcom.

Time To Dream But Never Seen, the new album by Keith Seatman on the Castles In Space label, captures these feelings perfectly. It is strange, beautiful, utterly transportative: the very essence of modern psychedelia. And it seamlessly continues a lineage of British wonkiness that includes The Alberts, The Bonzo-Dog Doo-Dah Band, Syd Barrett, and every bizarre, half-baked novelty act that ever clattered onto a wooden stage in some draughty, tumbledown, end-of-the-pier palace of varieties.

I love it. Almost beyond words, although God knows it’s inspired me to write a few. It has weird fairground organs, bamboozling radiophonic noises, sleeve notes by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, and regular Seatman collaborator Douglas E Powell reciting a bizarre list of unlikely rustic aphorisms that never cease to make me laugh out loud: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.”

On the weekend of the album’s release, I called Keith at his home in Southsea, the Hampshire seaside resort whose culture, landscape and social history has clearly seeped into the album’s very DNA. We talked for almost an hour and a half, and it was wonderful. Here’s how the conversation went:

Tell us about your background as a musician… I know you were in a 1980s indie band called The Psylons, but had you done other things before that?   

No, that was the first thing. It was 1986, we were a load of twentysomethings kicking around, and we released a single that got Single Of the Week in the NME. Then it got into the Indie Charts, and then I think John Walters phoned up one day… I can’t quite remember, one of the other band members dealt with it! But it was basically: “John Peel wants you to come in for a session.” And we said “Right OK…” and we did that!

Then, about four or five weeks after that, we got another one. We got two sessions! We did a John Peel session and an Andy Kershaw session, and thought “Wahey, here we go!”

But we were just really unlucky. It went kind of pear-shaped.

This is an example of our bad luck, it’s absolutely true. The second single got played by Janice Long, and those were they days when – if you got a play on early evening Radio 1 – you were quite lucky. I got in one evening, and my Dad said “You’ve had a phone call from someone called O’Connor…” So I dialled the number up, and it was Hazel O’Connor’s brother, who worked for Martin Rushent, the producer. And he said “Martin wants to record you, can you come to Genetic Studios?”

So we piled in the car, went down to Genetic Studios in Berkshire, and we’re thinking “Christ, Martin Rushent… he’s done The Human League, he’s done Buzzcocks… wahey!” But after that we didn’t hear anything from him for weeks, and then the weeks turned into months. And we suddenly saw, in the NME, that they’d gone bankrupt. It kind of always happened like that, we were always just really unlucky. We sustained it until the 1990s, we finally got an album out that got good reviews in the Melody Maker and NME, but by then we were just fed up. We were all drifting in different directions, musically. And that was pretty much it.

So even in The Psylons, did you have that psychedelic influence in your music?

It was real post-punk. Noisy, with bits of psych and backwards guitar, and other bits and bobs. We had a list of hardcore things that we were all into, and that was… Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, very early Pink Floyd, a lot of psych. Then it kind of drifted. I was really into a lot of post-punk synth stuff, and Tangerine Dream. And they could never understand my love of Hawkwind, so there you go.  

Actually Jim [Jupp] and I were discussing Hawkwind recently, and trying to convince Douglas Powell how great they were. But he wasn’t having it at all!

Didn’t you first meet Jim when you were in The Psylons? Did he come to see you live?  

It’s one of those weird connections. I didn’t know Jim, but he came to our gigs. And Jez Stevens, who did the Avoid Large Places video on Youtube, was in a band with him. I got to know Jez through some other projects, and then became aware of Jim… it’s all mutual friends, really. Friends of friends in the pub, that kind of thing. And time crept on, and it became quite close-knit. Jez and Doug knew Jim, and I knew Jez and Doug, and it came together like that. And now we go for long walks together!

So was this pre-Ghost Box?

Yeah, because Jim then disappeared for a few years… was he an architect? It was a high-level, posh job! But then we all came together again. Jez was always in touch with him, and we all got together again in the late 1990s or early 2000s. And that’s continued to this day. We’re all going out on a Last of the Summer Wine day! Me, Doug, Jez, Jim and our friend Russ… we’re going for a walk to Lewes on the South Downs. It’s a lovely walk. We’ll end up in Lewes, in the Lewes Arms – which is a fantastic pub – and then at Jim’s. We all kip on Jim’s floor, and muck around into the night… it’ll end up with me and Jim trying to convince them all that Hawkwind are brilliant.

So after The Psylons, did you quickly want to make music as a solo artist?  

Yeah, I tinkered around with Jack and Simon who were in The Psylons. I still do stuff with Jack, he does a lot of my mastering and co-producing, because basically his studio is a damn sight better than mine! So I did stuff with Jack and Simon, and recorded bits and bobs, but it was the late 1990s and early 2000s again before I started really tinkering around with stuff. And to be honest I wasn’t that confident.

But by about 2008 or 2009, I had all these tapes and CDs of stuff, and Jez gave me a good talking-to in the pub one night. He said “You’re going to have to release it, otherwise you’re not going to do anything.” And I wasn’t that confident about releasing it… I thought “No-one’s going to buy this old crap!” (laughs) You think you’re working in isolation and that no-one’s going to like it.

But I released a couple of things on Bandcamp, and a few people did like it. In fact, one of the early people – this would have been about 2011 – was probably Kev Oyston, of The Soulless Party. We contacted each other through e-mails because I bought a copy of Exploring Radio Space, which I really liked. It looked like a Ladybird book! And I bought his Close Encounters album, too.

I was really lucky. I released the second album, Boxes, Windows & Secret Hidey Holes, and Shindig reviewed it. And I thought “Good Lord, somebody really does like it!” And it just progressed from there. Somewhere along the line, Stuart Maconie played a track… and it just genuinely seems to have snowballed, with a lot of support from a lot of people. Jim’s been fantastic, and yourself… if I had to write out a list of people to thank, it would be a massive list. One day I’m just going put it on the blog page. Without them, I probably would have been sitting in a room, recording stuff but not doing anything with it.  

Time To Dream But Never Seen really spoke to me, and reminded me so much of my childhood visits to the seaside. We’d get the train to Redcar or Saltburn, or the coach to Scarborough, and I was just transfixed by the otherworldiness of these places, and how different they were to the towns that I knew. The whole culture was so exciting and exotic – the fairgrounds, the arcades, the dummies in glass cabinets that laughed when you put a coin in… 

We’ve still got them! There’s one in the city museum, it’s fantastic – you put in 20p and he laughs away. You can hear the motors whirring and clicking away inside. It’s brilliant.  

Well, all of that came back when I was listening to the album. Did you intentionally set out to capture the atmosphere of the seaside, and the fairground in particular?

Oh, I’ll sound really pretentious here, but it really was a subconscious thing. It all just came together. In 2017, I did the All Hold Hands And Off We Go album, but then I got really bored. My attention span went completely, and I thought I’d just release EPs and singles for a while. So I did one of those, and then the Ghost Box 10″ with Jim and Doug… but I carried on recording. And I got quite obsessed in 2019, building up to finishing work for the summer [Keith works at a local college]. I was talking with my sister about the build-up to my nine weeks off, and I was saying that it was exactly the same feeling as when we were little. For two weeks before the holidays, there’s just a buzz in the air at work. The students are fed up with us, we’re fed up with them, and we’re all just looking forward to hitting the summer.

Living in Southsea, we always had access to the beach. And I was saying – the summer holidays would kick in, so we’d have six weeks off. And you could guarantee that, for the first few weeks, we’d be down the beach, at the fair, on the pier… arsing about doing stuff. And I suddenly realised that some of the tracks that I’d done sounded like that and I thought: “Oooh, there’s something going on here!” And then I started thinking about it more, and I realised that the summer holiday basically broke down into three periods.

So the first two weeks would be that build-up, and excitement, and you’re with your mates and getting up to stuff, drifting home, having your tea and going back out again.  

And then you’d hit the middle, where it was almost like… “OK, where’s it going now?”

And then, in the last two weeks of August, there’d be this weird feeling of impending doom. The whole seaside thing disappeared, and we’d go out with Mum and Dad to country fêtes. You know, where you’d stick your head through a piece of cardboard, and people would throw sponges at you. We’ve got the New Forest close to us, so we’d have all those weird fêtes with their home-made jams. And you’d realise that, in this strange, six-week period, you’d drifted from “all the fun of the fair” to these rural tents.

I remember getting told off by my Dad for jumping over the ropes on the tents! He used to say “If you fall over the rope, you’ll get harpooned by the tent peg, and it’ll go through your heart…”  

And then, inevitably, it would piss down with rain. You’d be at a fête and everything would be soggy, and then… well, the summer would be over. So it went from that initial excitement at the beginning, to a weird limbo in the middle, and then stuff with the family towards the end. And before you knew it, it was the autumn. For that last week… you always knew the autumn was on its way, creeping in.

Have you seen the TV series, This Country?  

Only a couple of episodes. I need to see more.

In the very first episode, there’s a scarecrow festival. And that’s what it reminds me of. There’s a bit of a breeze… it’s not cold, and it’s not hot, and there’s just this weird feeling of knowing autumn is on the way. Like Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes… that first chapter, where they’re getting ready for the autumn, and talking about the “autumn people” turning up. It’s a fantastic book, and it’s that feeling. There are clouds on the horizon.

And then it’s here, it’s the autumn. And the summer, all that stuff – mucking around with your mates, falling in the sea, trying to chat girls up, not succeeding at all – it’s all gone. It could almost be a lifetime away.

You go back to school, and everyone seems older. Before the holidays, they looked 13 or 14, and then suddenly they look 30! They’ve all got beards! How they hell did that happen? I was still standing there under my Buzzcocks and Undertones posters looking really pasty, and other students were coming in looking like Lemmy…

So it wasn’t a conscious thing to begin with. But once it was, everything seemed to match, and that’s how it all came together.

So the album was structured to reflect the changing feel of the summer holidays?  

Yeah, once I’d got the idea. The actual title track, ‘Time To Dream But Never Seen’, was probably about the fourth track I had, and then it started to come together. I thought I’d make that the final track, but I still had so many ideas, folders with samples, bits and bobs, and stuff laying around. There was a lot of stuff that I ditched that didn’t work at all.

In my head, I’d thought we were doing a CD, but then Colin [Morrison, from Castles in Space] said “No, we’re doing vinyl!”

“Oh crap, I’ve got to rethink it…” (laughs) I knew then that Side 1 had to end with ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’.

And ‘Waiting By the Window’… I got the title for that because I was once sitting in our house, on an afternoon towards the end of summer. It was absolutely piddling down with rain, and I was waiting for my Dad to come back… we were supposed to be going out, doing all that summery stuff. And I remember staring out of the bay window at the rain, just thinking “If I go away, and come back in five minutes it’ll be better. The sun will be out.”

But it wasn’t. It rained and rained, and I remember my Dad coming in with a look on his face that said “Yeah, we ain’t going anywhere…” And that was it, the end of the summer. It was Mousetrap and Ker-Plunk for the afternoon.

Your relationship with the seaside is an interesting one. Has it always been about Southsea for you?

Yeah, I grew up down this way. I’ve lived away a few times, but always come back. I went for a walk down the beach when it was windy the other day, and I thought – I’ve got a real affinity with it. I’d have a real problem moving inland, away from the sea. Even when I go to see Doug in the West Country, he’s not far from Barnstaple in North Devon, and it’s smashing – there’s sea up there, too! I’ve got to have some sort of water. It’s nice to come out of the house, go for a walk on the beach, and I can look at the sea forts from Doctor Who, The Sea Devils….

Is the strangeness and otherworldliness that I got from seaside towns something that you can appreciate when you actually live, and grew up, in one?   

Yeah. Definitely. There’s also a weird thing… I was chatting with my daughter about this: you go to the beach in the summer, and it’s pretty horrendous. Nowadays it’s barbecues, and there’s literally a dark cloud of apocalyptic smoke hanging over the beach – it’s appalling. You see families with binbags of 500 sausages from Iceland! But again, it’s that “end of summer” thing. When you go back to the beach in the autumn, when it’s still slightly warm… that’s what I really like. All the holidaymakers have gone, you can see the grassy bits on the beach again, and it can be eerie and wonderful. We actually went to see the sun come up on the beach on Christmas Day, two years ago. All sitting there at 7 o’clock in the morning… it was lovely.

Down this way there’s a lot of old history, a lot of forts and derelict sites. The eerie one is Fraser Range, where The Sea Devils was filmed. I had a wander down there the other week, because they’re slowly knocking it down and turning it into flats, which is a real shame. But growing up, it was so exciting going down there. It was an active range, and you’d hear the guns on a Saturday and a Sunday morning. They’d fire out into the Solent and put marker buoys out, to stop ships from coming in. And that’s basically what you see in The Sea Devils, when the hovercraft comes up, and they’re all running around. That’s Fraser Range.  

But you go down there now, and it’s all covered in graffiti. Online… they’re called urban explorers, aren’t they? They go into old buildings? There’s one for Fraser Range and it looks fantastic.

So yeah, it’s that sort of mystery. It’s quite nice. Even walking through the fair in the autumn, when everything is under canvas – you know, they cover everything up for the winter. As soon as dusk falls, anything at the funfair looks weird. With a full moon and eerie shadows.

So that Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils from 1972… obviously the fact that it was filmed in your town had a huge impression on you, but it’s also got one of the harshest radiophonic soundtracks ever! Malcolm Clarke’s music for that story is so experimental. Did that get to you as a kid as well?

It’s those screechy bits – I’m going to do one now! Weeeoooweeeeeeeooo! I was obsessed with that when I was a kid. Absolutely. My two favourites, and the only Doctor Who stories I’ve got on DVD, are The Sea Devils and The Daemons. I’ve always been a “take it or leave it” Doctor Who fan, but they’re my absolute favourites. One was filmed down here, and the other…well, it’s The Daemons! Set in the village church, there’s the little guy called Bok, the huge Daemons… and that’s got some good sounds on it as well.

But yeah, The Sea Devils is really extreme, isn’t it?  

I love the fact that we were exposed to avant-garde, experimental electronic music on BBC1 at a Saturday teatime. And not just that… I think it was actually considered really healthy at that time for children to experience leftfield art and music.

Jim said something once, when we were discussing stuff like that. That we were all into the same odd and strange stuff, but you never knew who else was into it… so when you met someone that was, it was quite exciting! A friend and I showed the intro from Children of the Stones to his son, who was about 18, and his daughter, and they just stared at it and said “What the hell is this all about?” (Laughs) And does anything actually happen? But they thought the opening was quite freaky.

And the intro to The Owl Service… that totally shook them up! They said “What’s it all about?” And I said “Well I’ve read the book, watched the TV show again recently… and I’m still not absolutely sure.” I’ve got two lovely editions of the book, one of them a lovely hardback that I picked up in an old junkshop, and I’ve got the DVD of the bloody series… but I still wouldn’t like to explain it to someone.

It’s one of my favourite books. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but I like that. 

Yes, you’ve got to keep reading it, and you’ll keep seeing different things in it all the time. We were all subjected to stuff like that, and I suppose – going back to The Sea Devils – it all fits in. The strange avant-garde electronica, the kids’ programmes with weird beginnings… I don’t know why it worked like that back then, and why it doesn’t work now. I’m going to sound really old, but everything has to be explosions now.

Although saying that, I did watch Doctor Who the other week, and there were a lot of Cybermen in it. And I thought “OK – I’ll go with this!” I like a good Cyberman.

The track you contributed to the Scarred For Life album was an homage to another unsettling TV series, Escape Into Night.  [NB the album is discussed in detail here]

Yes! I watched that with my sister. We had the book at our primary school, Marianne Dreams. I remember it being in our little, basic school library, next to Bedknobs and Broomsticks. And again – I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on, apart from these rocks getting closer to the house, and scaring the crap out of me! I re-watched what I could some years ago, when it started appearing on Youtube, and I tracked down the paperback and re-read it, and it’s an absolutely fantastic story. And the crackling voice on the radio: “We can see you…”. Again, coming back to that Doctor Who approach… I don’t know if they just shoved a microphone through an old fuzz pedal, but it’s really, amazingly distorted. So that’s why I did that one!

I love ‘Avoid Large Places’ on the album, and I was trying to work out where I knew the sampled speech from…  

It’s not actually one sentence, it’s cut together from a larger bit of speech on a junior poetry album. I had to chop the whole middle bit out, so she doesn’t actually say “Avoid large places, keep to small…” It’s “Avoid large places… blah blah blah… keep to small!” I’ll try to dig it out. I pick up cranky old poetry albums, and record these samples, and I forget where they came from.

There’s a second-hand record shop in town, and somebody brought in an amazing collection. I was chatting with the guy in the shop, and he went downstairs and said “Oh, someone’s just brought in a load of BBC stuff… ” I ran down, and it was the usual sound effects albums, and I already had a few of them, but it also had these BBC albums of poetry and nursery rhymes, and an original copy of the orange-covered Play School album. So I just bought the whole lot… I think he wanted seven quid! It’s not what he would normally deal with…

So I think it’s from one of those. I do tend to scour eBay for odd poetry albums, I’ve got a couple from a series called Voices, they’re 1960s albums done as educational things. Shirley Collins is on them doing a couple of pieces, they’re on the Argo label. There was a whole series of them, but I’ve only got a couple. And then there’s one called The Searching Years… there seemed to be all these albums around then, with strange kids reading poetry! And glockenspiels being hit, and kids belching into microphones.

That’s another thing from that strange era… it was very acceptable for kids to have these odd albums. “Here’s a microphone and here’s an elastic band!” Nowadays, it’s all bloody laptops (laughs).

The Seasons, by David Cain and Ronald Duncan, is my textbook example of that. The music is so harsh, and the poetry is often quite disturbing and inappropriate… and yet it was absolutely intended to be played to primary school-age children. I wasn’t actually sure if ‘Speak Your Piece’, Douglas Powell’s spoken word piece on Time To Dream But Never Seen, was a little nod to The Seasons.  

Well, do you know what? I gave him a call on the Dougphone – I always imagine it’s like the Batphone, he lifts the receiver up and says “Yes, Keith!” – Diddleiddleiddleiddledum! [this is Keith doing the Batman music]

I said, “It’s that time again, I’ve recorded something, it’s really quiet… and I don’t want singing!” I said I wouldn’t mind some sort of poem. And he said “OK, leave it with me,” and then sent it to me…  and I can imagine some old sage sitting in the corner by the fire, recounting these tales to the young lad who lives up the road.

They actually reminded me a bit of Kev Oyston and Chris Lambert‘s Black Meadow stuff, especially Chris’ folk stories.

Oh, that’s fantastic stuff. I’ve got all the books now, and I bought a few as Christmas presents! I’ve met Chris a few times now, and I went to Reading to see one of the Black Meadow stage productions, with all the kids…

I saw the same show in Whitby! It was great! [Chris is a secondary school drama teacher, and enlisted his students to perform a Black Meadow play… you can read more about it here]  

It was really, really good. I just sat there and thought – “Brilliant!” It must have been a great adventure for the kids. I’ve only really met Kev once, and I felt very humbled. I’m always like that when I meet people. “Argh! It’s Kev! Kev from The Soulless Party! Can you sign me book please?” (laughs) That was in Reading Library, they put another Black Meadow thing on there, and it was fantastic. I tend to get a bit overexcited.  

Kev’s funny. When The Utopia Strong played in Newcastle, he somehow arranged for me and him to interview Kavus Torabi and Steve Davis  

I met Steve at the Delaware Road event. I was leaving at about 11pm… I’d watched Chris Concretism then made a move for home, but grabbed a coffee before I went. And I bumped into my mate Jez again, and he was chatting to some bloke. He said “This is Steve,” and I said “Alright, Steve, how you doing…”

“No, this is STEVE”!

And then I did a Scooby Doo head turn and went “You’re Steve Davis!” And then I didn’t know what to say. I think I just said “Smart… and really sorry, I’ve got to go!”

Jez said something about me and Castles In Space to him, and I just said “Yes, it’s coming out in the New Year…”

I bet Steve Davis has heard your album. He’s into everything.

I picked up the Utopia Strong album, and it’s frighteningly bloody good. I was chatting with someone a while back, and saying they really had to hear it. I said it’s Kavus from The Cardiacs, and it’s Steve Davis [and, indeed, Michael J York from Coil]. He said “What – Snooker Loopy Steve Davis?” But everyone’s known for a long time, he really is Mr Prog. He knows stuff about Turkish prog-garage bands from 1967.

And he still went “Steve Davis? Snooker? World Champion?”

He sits there with his big synth… it is amazing.

He told Kev and me that it felt like a new lease of life, starting a completely new career at the age of 60-odd. He was really excited.  

I was reading a really lovely interview with him, about how he just drifted into it. And I thought – yeah, imagine being in that position where you’re 60-odd years old, you’ve done all your snooker stuff, and you’ve got this whole second life. He’s a massive Magma fan, isn’t he?

That’s where him and Kavus met, they were at a Magma gig in Paris.

It’s absolutely amazing.  

One more thing about your album… I wrote a review of it for Electronic Sound magazine, and it got a bit florid. But the album really, really spoke to me… and I ended up talking about the “glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness”, and how you tapped into a lineage of strangeness that incorporated The Alberts and The Bonzo Dog-Doo Band, all that kind of thing. Did that strike a chord with you, or was I just rambling?

I showed that to my friend Greg that night, we were having a few drinks. And I said “I’ve got something to show you…” He said “Is it Mr Fischer’s review?”

And he read it, and looked up, and said “That’s pretty much nailed it!” (laughs). You mentioned Tommy Cooper…

It’s just that whole lost scene of strange British variety acts. Your album reminded me of that tradition. And, for some reason, him in particular.   

I enjoy a bit of Tommy Cooper. Greg and I always end up discussing old episodes of Dad’s Army, or Steptoe and Son. And the sadness of Steptoe and Son. We’ve sat there and analysed it, half sloshed, about how absolutely tragic it is… this grown man lives with his Dad, who’s so needy and won’t let him escape. He’s an absolute bastard.

And I very much like Ivor Cutler too, things like that. There’s a few Bonzo tracks that I like, but also – I have a massive love of The Cardiacs. Again, it fits in with that strange quirkiness. So yeah, I read it again, and Greg read it again, and said it had hit the mark.

And bearing in mind he’s from Stalybridge in Lancashire, he didn’t even say anything derogatory about North Yorkshire!

At this point we ended up rambling about my beloved North York Moors, but lost our train of thought when Keith knocked an empty beer bottle onto the kitchen floor (from the previous evening’s recycling – he was keen to point out that he hadn’t been drinking that lunchtime). So I’ll just say thankyou to Keith for a delightfully entertaining conversation, and point out that Time To Dream But Never Seen can be ordered here…

https://keithseatman-cis.bandcamp.com/

And sod it… here’s the full review I wrote for Issue 62 of Electronic Sound magazine. Which is well worth subscribing to, you can do it here.

KEITH SEATMAN
Time to Dream But Never Seen
(Castles In Space)

“Owner of some synths, and always a tad lost.” So goes Keith Seatman’s self-effacing description of himself, and both are apparent in this utterly magical concoction, an album steeped in the sweetshop mysticism of a stranger, gentler England. Certainly the wistful tootling of ancient keyboards are present and correct, conjuring delicious images of topsy-turvy fairground rides, of wonky, body-bending mirrors and clanging Ghost Trains. With Seatman himself marooned in the throng, bemused and out-of-time, a static observer in a stop-motion crowd scene.

Write his name in the centre of a crumpled notepad, and – as this extraordinary musical adventure unfurls – let the comparisons explode around it. You’ll end up with Syd Barrett, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, even Tommy Cooper and the remnants of Music Hall. But they’re not influences, nor inspirations. It’s more than that. It’s genetic. This is the sound a man of whose DNA is infused with the spirit of what the Alberts once described as “British Rubbish”. It’s the glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness, and it’s painfully touching to acknowledge that such a thing even exists any more. It’s like finding a beloved, elderly relative, long assumed dead, living in a disused lighthouse on the South Coast, surrounded by wheezing harmoniums and stuffed puffins.

You need actual proof? Try the zig-zagging, end-of-the-pier Wurlitzer of ‘Tippy Toe Tippy Toe’. The spectral, skeletal waltz of ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’. Or ‘Speak Your Piece’, in which poet, songwriter and regular collaborator Douglas E. Powell invokes the spirit of Ronald Duncan in his Seasons pomp: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.” We’re now six albums into the career of this Puckish troubador, this mercurial genius on the fringes of popular hauntology. But, like those old Nationwide weirdies who would row to abandoned sea forts in the Solent and declare them an independent state, Seatman has become the king of his own beautifully bespoke realm.

And a tad lost? Yes, but wonderfully so. Stay lost Keith, and keep sending us postcards like this. Assuming he’s on the same calendar as the rest of us dreary mortals, it’s barely February. But he might already have made the album of the year.

Gilroy Mere, Oliver Cherer and Over The Tracks

“The past in fading layers, visible from the present…” A phrase that Oliver Cherer used early in our conversation, perhaps perfectly summing up my own relationship with nostalgia, too. It’s the erosion of the past that truly moves and affects me. The forgotten people, places and objects that are in danger of being permanently lost from the 21st century collective consciousness: moving farther away in time; slipping inexorably backwards towards the boundaries of living memory.

And what also interests and delights me are the often-hidden areas where those elements of the past still protrude, sometimes unnoticed, into the present day. There is something both sad and reassuring about the remnants and traces of abandoned places and practices that still somehow intrude into the modern everyday. Feelings perfectly evoked by Oliver – recording as Gilroy Mere – on his new collection of recordings for Clay Pipe Music.

Both the current flexi-disc EP – Over The Tracks – and the forthcoming album – Adlestrop – take their inspiration from the overgrown remains of rural railway stations, all closed in the wake of the 1963 Beeching Report. Under these sweeping cost-cutting reforms, 2,363 stations were recommended for closure; but the remnants of many – all rotting sleepers and overgrown platforms – linger on. Many have been subsumed and reclaimed by the natural world, others replaced almost completely by the march of modernity; but their presence is – just about – tangible to the more diligent of modern-day visitors.

I asked Oliver about the background to both EP and album:

Bob: First of all, congratulations on Over The Tracks… the EP is lovely, and has been specifically inspired by St Leonard’s West Marina railway station, in Sussex. Can you tell us a little bit about the station? What was its history, and when did it close?

Oliver: Thankyou. St Leonard’s West Marina Station was the first station in the Hastings area, and it marked the arrival of the railway. But there was a certain amount of rivalry between competing rail companies, and it lost out to a different line. And, after a slow decline, it fell to the Beeching axe in 1967.

And I’m guessing it’s a station that has particular significance for you?

Well I live in St Leonards, and I pass through the place where the station stood on my way to my record shop at the De La Warr Pavilion, in Bexhill.

So what’s left of it now… does anything remain?

All that’s left is a buddleia-covered platform, opposite TK Maxx and a carpet warehouse. “Swallows” from the EP is an attempt to evoke the stillness of that platform between trains in the summer, when the buddleia is a-buzz with birds, butterflies and bees. I always have to look out for the platform as I pass, knowing that it goes almost completely unnoticed by everyone else.

Is there a sadness to passing through the remains of such a historic spot, then?

It’s not particularly sad, but it is perhaps a little poignant. The gradual erosion of the past by the present-day probably always is.

The other tracks on the EP are more obviously train-related, as I’ve tried to use the clickety-clack rhythms you got from the old railway tracks, before they made them smooth and continuous. All of the tracks have field recordings in them somewhere.

The forthcoming album, Adlestrop, is also beautiful… and is inspired by other stations closed by the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Is there something about vintage rail travel that appeals to you… or is it more the “lost” nature of the stations themselves?

Thank you. Actually, I don’t much like the idea that I may be something of a nostalgist. I’m not in a very strong position to deny it with my track record, but really I’m interested in the history of these places and any signs of a previous existence or incarnation. I got into a discussion recently where I might have used the phrase “palimpsest of ghostly resonances” to describe what steers me towards the hauntological.

That’s really what’s at the base of this album. It’s the past in fading layers, visible from the present.

That’s a beautiful phrase, and I think describes perfectly my relationship with nostalgia. And Adlestrop station itself, in Gloucestershire, was previously immortalised in poetry form by Edward Thomas. Is it a poem you’re particularly fond of? It’s very evocative…

It started with Adlestrop. The album, I mean. I’ve always loved that poem. It seems to mark, on a summers day in Gloucestershire, a moment of stillness, shortly before the Great War changed everything. Thomas couldn’t have known that, of course. But the war re-contextualises his poem and, like many of these stations, it becomes a scar on the present. I visited Adlestrop village, and all that’s left is a station sign in a bus shelter, nowhere near the original location.

‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas (published 1917)

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I wondered how many of the stations referenced on the album you’d actually visited… any other stories you can share?

Visiting Adlestrop spurred me to get hold of a copy of the Beeching Report. Which, in Appendix 2, lists all the services and stations recommended for closure in the 1960s. There are 2,000 wonderful names, like Black Dog Halt and Star Crossing – irresistible to the seasoned hauntologist! I kept it with me wherever I went, and made field recordings in as many locations as I could, using them as the starting point for each track. This worked in different ways for different pieces, but they all have something of the real place within them.

Some places have no evidence of their previous life as a station and some are still there, though maybe now converted into a house or cafe. It didn’t matter to me. My “brief” was simply to record what was there, and use that. “Just a River” is simply that – just a river and a road, and the fields in which the station once stood.

How did you try to capture the spirit of these stations in musical form? For example, “Bethesda“, a musical evocation of a station named after a religious chapel, has a very hymnal quality to it… I’m assuming that was deliberate?

Sometimes I’m reacting to the place as it is in the present, and sometimes to what was there once upon a time, especially if this is in some way obvious. Bethesda is a good example. The line from Bangor is now pretty much a footpath all the way. I joined it at Tregarth, and it cuts though rock and woods and over roads and raging white water rivers, all before winding up at Bethesda, where the chapel still stands in a wet and green valley.

It seemed weathered by a mossy , churchy stillness, and the melody came instantly, the moment I sat down at the piano with the recordings. This is probably true of a few of the tracks on the record, and I think two or three more have a “churchy” feel to them. They mostly started with these kind of improvised sessions, and some really didn’t have much more done to them.

These places are often in quiet, remote locations which is what, ultimately, closed most of them. So the feel tends to veer towards the still or sombre. Though I was probably going for “elegiac”!

I can’t resist asking about “Ravenscar” too, which is a location that’s pretty close to me, on the North Yorkshire coastline! A place with a fascinating history: in the late Victorian era, work was begun to turn the village into a huge resort town, intended to rival Scarborough. It was really ambitious! Plans were finalised, work was begun, roads were even laid down… but ultimately the finance ran out, and the actual houses were never built. What made you choose Ravenscar as a source of inspiration?

Ah, Ravenscar. I’ve known Ravenscar for years, and the moment I’d decided to make this record I knew I’d need to include it. My partner’s father spent a chunk of his youth there, as his rich uncle owned the Ravenscar Hotel and he went to live with him there for a spell. So I’d been there, and I knew its history. It’s the strangest kind of ghost town because it’s the ghost of a town that never was. All they built were the roads and the station, before the development went belly-up.

The station is still there, and the roads are still visible, though nature is gradually reclaiming them. It truly is a fading scar on the bald cliff top. Very atmospheric. A strange thing happened after I’d finished the record. Jenny’s dad Jo died, and we were sorting through his house and possessions, and I found a video and an old railway magazine covering the history of Ravenscar station, together in a pouch. I ran the video and played the newly-finished album with it, and it was just a perfect match.

Your previous album for Clay Pipe, The Green Line, was based on the bus journeys that it was once possible to take from London to the surrounding countryside. Is there something about the public transport of decades gone by that you find particularly evocative?

Well, I was talking to Frances, who runs Clay Pipe, and I said “I’m going to have to do something different next time, as I don’t want to be the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ guy!”

I do love old things, though. Trains, synths, guitars, houses, cheese. I’ve always thought I was a modernist, so maybe it’s my age that’s causing the nostalgia. I am increasingly interested in the past, and there’s nothing more fascinating than local history. All history is local somewhere, right? I’m not one of those people that thinks everything was better in the old days, though. After all, I was only able to make this record because of the luxury afforded to me by digital devices. And I love all the old gear, but I really don’t want to make records that sound like they were recorded forty years ago. Although again, occasionally guilty!

I’ve seen you talk about your home studio a few times, and your addiction to filling it with vintage gear from junk shops! Can you describe it a bit? What’s the stand-out piece of kit in your collection?

Anything that makes an interesting noise is a useful tool, I think. I’ve got some lovely bits and pieces, mostly bought cheaply in junk shops and boot sales. Some choice guitars and vintage synths, of course. I found two classical guitars in different charity shops that I love. One was made by a world renowned luthier in Japan in 1967, and the other was made by a man called Robert Kaye Kneller, in Worthing, in 1974. They’re both stunning, and I paid £27 for the pair. Those things don’t happen that often, but they make me joyous when they do!

Both guitars feature on the album and flexi-disc. I’ve also just acquired some amazing Spendor speakers that are going to transform my home studio, physically as much as sonically. Weirdly though, the thing that’s been on more records than anything else, at least in the last five years, is a car boot zither that I customised with a bit of wood cut from the back of a chest of drawers. I made a curved bridge so I could play it with a bow, and it has a unique sound. I christened it the “Partch Harp” as I tend to use it in a kind of Harry Partch microtonal way. It’s on everything.

The other thing that’s also always intrigued me about you… I think you might have worked under the most pseudonyms of anyone I’ve interviewed to date! Do they all have individual personas or musical styles that you feel suit different projects?

I guess the pseudonyms are used to demarcate musical territory, yes. Dollboy was a nickname coined by an old friend, and got used for a long time. I couldn’t have even considered using my real name back then – my ego wasn’t fully developed! I used a few different names on various releases on Deep Distance and Polytechnic Youth and it seemed like a game, really. It was fun.

I’ve never made any realistic effort to obscure my identity, though. I know there are people who only like the output of certain pseudonyms. My Oliver Cherer stuff doesn’t necessarily chime with fans of Australian Testing Labs, and that’s OK. It has been pointed out to me that I’d be better off if I made an effort to look less like a dilettante, but I honestly don’t care.


So where does “Gilroy Mere” come from?

“Gilroy Mere” was Frances’ idea, I think. Partly, anyway. Something English and pastoral, I think it was. It backfired on me when I was playing guitar with Pete Astor on a Marc Riley session. Pete thought it’d be a good wheeze to introduce me as Gilroy Mere, assuming Marc would know the Green Line record and make the connection, but he just scoffed at the posh berk on guitar and said “Oh aye, where d’yo get him from?”.

And what’s your next project?

The next project is a weird one. It’s the remixed soundtrack to Andrew Kötting’s next film, The Whalebone Box. If you’re into the hauntological, you’ll love it. It’s a strange tale of a sealed whalebone box, apparently washed up on a Scottish island and passed from one person to another, then finally returned to where it was found. It is about ghostly resonances and the spirits that occupy things and places, and it’s very beautiful and very strange.

Andrew asked me and Riz Maslen – aka Neotropic – for music that he could cut up and repurpose for his movie, and we duly obliged. He then gave us the finished soundtrack, half each and asked us to remix it. I did the first half of the movie and Riz did the second half. It’s going out on a double vinyl set, but it’s not official yet so I can’t tell you the label! Beyond that I’m beginning work on an album of songs with an actual band for the first time in years. I just fancied recording things with more of a live feel for a change. I think Adlestrop will be out in midsummer, and hopefully there will be some shows.

Thanks to Oliver for his time, and thoughtful responses. Find our more about Over The Tracks here…

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/over-the-tracks/

The Black Meadow, Chris Lambert and The Soulless Party

A disclaimer: I am in love with the North York Moors. This vast sweep of bleakly beautiful countryside, occupying a remote corner of North-Eastern England, was virtually my childhood playground. Sunday afternoons were made for family yomps around the heather-coated hillsides of Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping, while school trips and Outward Bound courses began to introduce tantalising hints of sometimes-invented folklore. Did I ever get to the bottom of the ‘Black Heart of Whorlton Castle’, a terrifying, medieval ghost story set amidst the crumbling remains of this overgrown, 12th Century ruin? Yes, 25 years later, when I tracked down my former teacher, Mr Hirst, and he all but admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.

But that was part of the appeal: landscape attracts stories. Both ancient and modern. And now, when I tramp around the same desolate hillsides and ancient ruins as a middle-aged, weekend dog-walker, I take as much pleasure and inspiration from the folklore attached to the landscape as I do from those spectacular surroundings themselves.

Clearly Chris Lambert and Kev Oyston feel the same. Around five years ago, I became aware of their musical collaboration as The Soulless Party, and the folk-influenced electronica that claimed to take its inspiration from the sinister stories attached to The Black Meadow, an area of the North York Moors centred around the famous RAF Fylingdales. I knew, of course, the story of this mysterious military base; its legendary “golf ball” radomes had comprised arguably the most recognisable Cold War missile warning system in the world. Though these infamous spheres were demolished in the mid-1990s, and replaced by a sleek, concrete pyramid, the base remains an iconic local landmark.

I was, however, utterly unaware of the wealth of local folklore that Lambert and Oyston seemed to have unearthed. The Black Meadow was a name unfamiliar to me, as were its accompanying tales of a village that appears only “when the mist is high”: a darkly mystical community existing in a supernatural netherworld of pre-industrialised folk ritual and superstition. Just who was the “Rag and Bone Man”? Did the mysterious “Brightwater Archive” really attempt to document these stories in the 1930s, before being inexplicably shut down? And did Roger Mullins, a visiting professor at York University, genuinely vanish in the area while attempting further investigations in 1972?

Lambert and Oyston presented books, music, photographs, websites, blogs, lectures and even a “lost” 1977 Radio 4 documentary to reinforce the veracity of these stories, expertly blurring the lines between genuine folklore and invented fiction. I’ve since come to know them both well. I’ve interviewed them many times for BBC Radio Tees, and I’ve even collaborated with them on certain projects. Sometimes they admit to wild invention, other times they’re tantalisingly vague. It’s all part of the fun. And the project has been expanded further with the release of two new instalments: a wonderfully atmospheric album – largely by Oyston – and Lambert’s accompanying book, where tales of the “Ticking Policeman”, the “March of the Meadow Hags” and the “Village Under The Lake” further explore the legend.

Both book and album are entitled The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, and both are available now.

I spoke to Chris Lambert about the whole Black Meadow phenomenon…

Bob: For those unaware, tell us a little bit about the Black Meadow in your own words… as far as you’re concerned, where exactly is it?

Chris: The Black Meadow is an area of land on the Whiteway Heads Road, between Sleights and Pickering on the North York Moors. RAF Fylingdales, once of the iconic “golf balls” missile warning system, is located on the Black Meadow. For centuries, the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings. The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high. I first found out about it when a colleague of mine, Kev Oyston, was investigating a lost Radio 4 documentary, Curse of the Black Meadow, and asked me to assist him in his research. After that I was hooked.

Do you find that area of the North York Moors especially fascinating? It provides a direct link between ancient landscape – with its associated folk stories – and Cold War paranoia, in the shape of the aforementioned RAF Fylingdales. Is that a combination that you find particularly irresistable? 

It’s completely fascinating. It’s the incongruity of that vast landscape and the stark, strange pyramid that now sits atop it. The golf balls too were an eerie sight… even more eerie in the memory, and in faded photographs, now that they are gone. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War… though excitingly it is threatening a comeback, which will be a real boon for us Threads fans. But I remember living with a slight sense of dread constantly in the back of my mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to these places, and to these types of stories.

Just down the road from where I live, in Berkshire, is RAF Greenham Common, the now-decommissioned American missile base. That also holds a real fascination for me. And the silos were used as a location for Star Wars – The Force Awakens! I also love the pillboxes that are dotted along our local canal, to defend us against attacks on our waterways. Any site where there is a strange, seemingly anachronistic incongruity attracts me. That juxtaposition of the natural against the artificial, particularly in places where nature has actually won. That shows that these terrors are fleeting, and that the life of our planet is beautiful.

I think this might also be because I read a lot of John Christopher as a child, and loved the images of the decayed modern cities in The White Mountains, from the Tripods trilogy, and Beyond the Burning Lands, from the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Or the desolation in Empty World. More recently I read his adult novels The Death of Grass and Wrinkle in the Skin. They also scratched this itch, with their exploration of a vastly altered landscape.

What’s your own connection to the North-East? Were your parents from Teesside?  

My mum grew up in York, and her parents were from that area. My Dad was the vicar of the parish church in Saltburn in the 1960s and early 1970s, before I was born. He then moved the family down to Shaftesbury in Dorset, which is where I appeared! Interestingly, Shaftesbury is the home of Gold Hill, where the famous Yorkshire-set Hovis advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was filmed. So, quite aptly, I lived in an imagined Yorkshire, in the south of England. Interestingly my Mum told me just at the weekend that she never wanted to move south. She absolutely loves the north of England, and I suppose that enthusiasm has rubbed off. 

I know you had a strict religious upbringing, and I’m guessing traditional folklore wasn’t a big part of that. Is there an element of researching and writing about supernatural folk stories makes them almost “forbidden fruit” for you? 

Oh, my goodness. All of it! I think I appear to be very overexcited about things when I discover them. I don’t have the same cultural references as Kev Oyston or your good self, because I wasn’t allowed to watch, listen to or read quite a lot of things when I was little. My Dad would put the TV in the loft or in the cupboard during the week, and I would sneak an extension lead up there if they were out, and watch Alas Smith and Jones. It was a real pain when Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I did a talk about burning my Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when I was a young fundamentalist – I was led to believe that they would do me spiritual harm. So any folklore was off limits. Anything occult-tinged was a no-no. I remember my mum warning me about the dangers of Dennis Wheatley… who I had never heard of, but she made him sound very exotic and interesting. I still haven’t got around to him, as I don’t believe he could live up to the hype! I was brought up on the aggressive anti-gay/catholic/muslim/occult tracts by Jack Chick, and the only comics I read were Archie and the (now that I have revisited them) utterly appalling and deeply offensive Crusaders comics. With the exception of Archie, these comics introduced me to imagery of hell, torture, possession and demons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lucio Fulci or Armando de Ossario film. So oddly, it was these terribly written but evocatively illustrated works, intended to lure me away from Satan and all his works, that stuck in my head. I wouldn’t have known about these things if I hadn’t read them. Such a strange bubble to live in! 

So sometimes there is a little wicked part of myself that thinks – would this get burned? Is this a bit naughty? If it is, I’m more likely to research it or write it. This sounds a bit like rebellion but it doesn’t feel like it, I just write what comes into my head. But I can’t deny the influences of my childhood.

You’ve lived in Berkshire for many years – was there ever a temptation to write about Berkshire folklore, or is there something specifically about the North-East, and the North York Moors, that you find lends itself to strangeness?

I am very interested in Berkshire, and have written a kid’s play called Deadman’s Lane which, like The Black Meadow, is about a world hidden inside another. A re-imagined geography. Deadman’s Lane bisects the school grounds where I work. I’m also working on something based in my own immediate locality, which I plan to start if the Black Meadow ever frees me from its misty embrace. That said, the North York Moors do attract me hugely… partly because they’re physically distant, and so they give me the opportunity to imagine myself there. It’s the desolation of the moors that I love, that vast sweep of heather, interrupted by that strange pyramid and the floating mist. They’re a favourite place to holiday, too.

How did you first start writing about the Black Meadow? And what were your ambitions for it at the start of all this? It’s become quite a sprawling, multi-media project… 

The project began when Kev and I worked on the radio documentary, The Curse of the Black Meadow. Kev had created/discovered the theme tune for Tales from the Black Meadow and it was already growing into a larger project in his head, so he invited me to help write the documentary for which this would be the theme. As I was creating that, I decided that one of the key players, “Philip Hull”, would mention, off the cuff, several folk tales… such as “The Shining Apples” and “The Devil and the Yoked Man”. I then realised that these tales needed to actually exist to add weight to the documentary. So I began to create/discover them. Firstly for the documentary, but then as we went on, more were unearthed/written.

And I had no real ambition at first! We just sort of went in the direction the meandering paths took us, having fun. After that it evolved into the book and album, but I certainly didn’t envisage at the time that that little documentary would end up leading us here…

Can we talk about Kev Oyston himself? How did you meet, and what’s the division of labour like between you and Kev? 

It’s really interesting for me to pull this apart! We met online, of course. It started because a friend of mine, Dave Yates – aka Dolly Dolly – had done a track for Kev on his Electronic Encounters album, and sent me the link. I loved the album, and was fiddling about one day and decided to make my own Close Encounters-influenced track, Follow the Toys… which I then took a punt on, and sent to Kev. He was kind enough to pop it on his Electronic Encounters Special Edition. We then bandied tracks back and forth, and he sent me a couple of instrumentals that I added lyrics to… like a latter-day Vince Clark and Andy Bell. And then Black Meadow happened. He made an evocative video to accompany his track, and invited me to do the documentary.

The division of labour for the first album was, with the exception of one track, that he wrote the tunes and I wrote the stories. As the project progressed, the process became more knotty. Kev would write a track and send it – and the title – to me. From the title and the mood of the track, I would then write a story. However at the same time I would be writing another story which he would read, and then use the title for another track. I’m now not entirely sure who started which stories! I think he definitely wrote The Black Dog, from which I wrote the story… and I wrote The Shining Apples first, because Philip Hull mentioned that in his interview.

For this second album we used a similar method. I would immerse myself in the music and extrapolate a story from that and the title, or Kev would come up with a tune, from the story and title I’d provided. I have fond memories of listing to The Maiden of the Mist on repeat, while I worked on that story. I have the album on repeat when I’m writing, editing and typesetting, just to stay in that world. The second album has been a much longer process because Kev kept writing more music, and I kept coming up with more stories. It got so thorny that I had to make a spreadsheet just to keep track. Which Kev ignored on several occasions! Hence the thickness of the book.

What kind of reaction does the Black Meadow evoke in people? Do people generally believe it all?

We tread a fine line. When I do a talk I introduce myself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. I often have the word “LIES” on a screen behind me. But even though I say that, people still ask me if it’s all real. I had one person ask me if they should contact their MP about the disappearances on the moors… I actually didn’t give a her a definite “no”, as I was quite tempted to see what would happen.

I had a very strange conversation with one chap. I remember starting a sentence with “I made all this up…” and he asked me in the next sentence if what I was saying was true. I then told him “No, I made it up…” and carried on to another bit of folklore which I also preceded with a disclaimer. He then asked me about again about the truth of it all. This went on for the entire conversation… which I enjoyed immensely.

I think the issue is that people want to believe. There are also so many weird blimming things going on that they think it is all inspired by real occurrences. It’s a very interesting time to be doing a project like this, with all the talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. I never set out for this to be some sort of critique of that. But when you use real places, add dates, and use phrases such as “everybody knows” or “it has often been said” before telling a story, people seem to accept it as the truth. Even if you explicitly tell them it’s a lie.

Have you met sceptical souls?

I have met sceptical souls, but they tend to enjoy the wink and the nudge of it all. I often say that if you do even the tiniest bit of research this will all unravel, but most people can’t be bothered and would rather enjoy the fun.

Is blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction part of the appeal for you? How far will you go to achieve that?

I am very much into the idea of mythogeography, projecting a story onto a landscape and exploring that landscape through a different lens. We all do it to a certain extent… for example, we get a little frisson of excitement when we visit a film location. Gloucester Cathedral cloisters are the location of the Hogwarts corridors in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So if you visit, you can picture the martyrdom of Bishop Bonner alongside the petrification of Colin Creevey. And when I visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset the guide on the bus tour talked of how the two tall columns of stone influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. I don’t know if that was true at all, but even if it wasn’t, I could still picture Orcs peeking out from behind the stones.

It’s the urban myths told around camp fires: “It was just half a mile from here that his body was found, and it is said that….” So yes, it’s a huge part of the appeal. I think some of that comes from playing as a child in my garden. I was lucky enough to have a big, vicarage garden and would spend hours on my own imagining myself in epic fantasy adventures. I would make tunnels in bracken and bramble, and fashion maps where corridors and cave-like openings would have grandiose names.

The strange thing is, I visited the Black Meadow over a year after I had written the first tale and I was struck by how very real the stories seemed to be, and how they fitted with the landscape. It was very strange. I’m delighted that every time I’ve been there, it’s been shrouded in mist.

How far would you take the illusion? There is actually a little plaque on the moors, isn’t there… where – ahem – did that come from?

How far would I go? I think there’s a mischievous side to me, but I would be utterly appalled if we hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. So Kev and I both err on the side of caution. We aren’t planning to do an Area 51 style storming of RAF Fylingdales, for example. That said, the plaque commemorating the disappearance of Roger Mullins, which you can indeed find on the North York Moors, was put there by the Brightwater Archive and Roger’s family. It has nothing to with me or Kev, so I don’t know what you’re talking about there.

Back in 2017, you brought a party of drama students up from your Berkshire school, and performed a Black Meadow stage play at Caedmon College in Whitby, a stones throw from the meadow itself! I was there, and it was amazing. How on Earth did you persuade your head teacher to give the green light to all this?  

My school is great. I’ve worked there for over fifteen years, and have always been given the space to innovate. Before I was a teacher, I worked as a playwright, but I moved into teaching when I began to starve to death. From the start, I was getting the students to perform at local venues and trying out strange and wacky ideas. From medieval mystery plays around the whole school site, to a Deadman’s Lane radio play and a Zombie Walk!

Before we got to Tales from the Black Meadow – The Play, I had been working on a series of productions to try and get more boys into Drama. We went down the horror route and that did seem to work. I worked on a three-year “Trilogy of Terror” (without Karen Black or crazed African wood carvings) which started with an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos – right up your misty alley – followed by the aforementioned Deadman’s Lane, and then topped off with Night of the Living Dead for Kids. To promote the final play of the trilogy we did that Zombie Walk for charity and then, erm… I somehow persuaded the Parish Council to let the cast shamble after the runners when the Olympic Torch was passed through our village, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.

So taking the cast of Tales From the Black Meadow to Whitby? It wasn’t really a surprise. The head teacher just rolled her eyes and gave us her blessing. I think the parents thought we were mad, though… and they were probably right, the students still talk about it. My only regret is that they didn’t get to see Whitby, because we had to leave at 5am, get off the bus at 12pm, get into the school and set up, perform at 2pm, then get back on the bus… we did however drive through the Black Meadow to get there, and the mist was up.

How do you think the performance went down? Do modern kids understand that 1970s “haunted” feeling that we still seem to feel so profoundly?

It’s always interesting performing a play to complete strangers. Caedmon College were so kind to accommodate us, and gave us lovely feedback. We could have done without our smoke machine setting off their fire alarm in the first ten minutes, though! The students really got the play, but it’s hard to say whether they get our haunted feeling. I’m just an old man to them, and they aren’t bothered by our past experiences. In the same way that weren’t bothered by our own parents’ stories when we were kids. They live in strange times though, so maybe they’ll look back on this era in a similar way, with that nostalgia for dread. We had the Three Day Week, the Cold War and Public Information Films. They have Brexit, Trump and internet memes… something weird is going to be born from that, I’m sure.

Any future plans for the Black Meadow project?  

We plan to produce the next volume of the Black Meadow Archive soon, but there are rumblings from Whitehall that we won’t be given access to their files, so there could be something of a delay whilst we sort that out. The amount of back and forth we had, trying to get the latest publication past those censorious civil servants, beggars belief. We’d love to make a film or a radio documentary, too. I guess whatever the government allows, will happen.

The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, by Chris Lambert, is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Meadow-Archive-1/dp/1688953167

And the accompanying album, by The Soulless Party, is releases on Castles In Space, and is available here…

https://thesoullessparty-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-black-meadow-archive-volume-1