Chris Sharp, Concretism and Dick & Stewart

“You remember Stewart, don’t you? He was Dick’s best friend before the tragedy…”

In 2019, Richard Littler – genial overlord of the oppressive dystopia of Scarfolk – launched Dick & Stewart, an animated short film that used the aesthetics of classic 1970s teatime cartoons to highlight his very 21st century concerns about state control and surveillance. Produced by Rook Films, and with narration from The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barratt, it’s available to view here:

And Richard spoke at length about the whole project here.

An authentic period soundtrack to Dick & Stewart was provided by Essex musician Chris Sharp, who – in his guise as Concretism – has spent the last decade exploring his childhood fear of nuclear war and the minutiae of Britain’s Cold War preparations. Chris discussed his 2018 album For Concrete and Country here.

The soundtrack to Dick & Stewart has been given a sumptuous vinyl release by the ever-reliable Castles In Space label, and I was delighted when Chris spent an hour with me on a drizzly Friday morning discussing the whole project… along with his forthcoming album Tellifusion, the art of using a sewing machine box as a musical instrument, his landmark first exposure to Mary, Mungo and Midge, and his Dad’s thwarted attempt to imbue him with fake memories of having watched Catweazle as a child.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: How did the collaboration with Richard come about? I know he did the cover for your previous album, For Concrete and Country – was that where the working relationship started?

Chris: Yes, that’s exactly how it happened. I approached Richard to ask if he would do the cover design of For Concrete and Country. And he replied saying “Actually… I’ve been commissioned to do this animation. Could you do the music for it?” So we basically did swapsies!

I’m guessing you were already a fan of Scarfolk?

Absolutely, yeah. I’d been a fan since the early days. I remember when Scarfolk first appeared on Twitter, and had very few followers. Richard and I always joke about me tweeting it to my followers, saying: “This is amazing!” And now I like to claim that I’m part of his success… [Laughs]

I can’t remember exactly how I came across it, but it did touch something deep inside me. And I’m still a big fan, I think it’s absolutely phenomenal.
 
I obviously knew that people were making music inspired by feelings of 1970s childhood unsettlement, but Richard was one of the first people that I was really aware of making visual art in that context. And he absolutely nailed that faded, grim aesthetic.

The great thing about Scarfolk is that everything he creates looks like a genuine artefact from the 1970s. You can’t tell. And a lot of people who see his stuff get caught out, and think: “Oh my God – is this real?” And, of course, none of it is. But the way that Richard researches fonts and typefaces and design just means that the artefacts he creates look amazing. And the humour is very funny, very clever, very observant. If you look at the Scarfolk blog, he does paperback covers and record sleeves that look totally genuine… they’re brilliant. I’m a massive fan.  

Wasn’t one of his designs accidentally included in a book about genuine public information campaigns, issued by the government itself?

I think a few of the things he’s made have ended up with people thinking they’re real! Yes, one of them was in a Civil Service magazine looking back at old Central Office of Information posters and publications. They included one of his rabies posters: “If you think your child has rabies… shoot”! They put that in thinking it was real. And I think the Evening Standard used his paperback cover Eating Children as though that was real, too.  

[NB – You can read about the Civil Service magazine here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-44911209

And the Evening Standard’s gaffe here:

https://www.imperica.com/en/saatchi-scarfolked-evening-standard]

The thing I love about Richard: a lot of people working in this kind of arena have a degree of fondness for the things that scared them as a child. We were unsettled by the creepy TV and all-round oddness of the era, but we look back with warmth and affection now. But Richard doesn’t! He was just genuinely traumatised as a kid.

I think it’s the same for me, with the music I do. A lot of the Cold War stuff, in particular… I mean, as a kid, I was terrified of all that. So for me at least, it’s a kind of therapy. It’s working out those childhood fears. And yes, I think it’s the same for Richard.

Given that, how therapeutic was it for you to perform at Kelvedon Hatch nuclear bunker in 2017? I had a genuine phobia of nuclear war as an adolescent in the 1980s, and actually visiting what was effectively the Thatcher administration’s fall-out shelter felt almost like closure.

It was interesting… a lot of Concretism stuff is about the Cold War: the bunkers and infrastructure. And Kelvedon Hatch was the first time I’d ever been in a nuclear bunker, even though it’s only about 20 minutes from where I live. I didn’t really get to see much of it, because I was so busy setting up all my gear. It took me an hour and a half! Then I basically did my set, and left after a few hours – because the mate who drove me there had an early flight to catch the next day. But it just felt really creepy. There was a very weird atmosphere. And I was surprised by that.

The thing that struck me was how matter-of-fact everything was. There were posters and notices about radiation levels and the likelihood of death, and it was all just presented in a very plain-speaking way. I found that pretty chilling.

Especially when you think… well, certainly me and my family wouldn’t have been in that bunker. It was for councillors and governers. The elite; the great and the good. It wouldn’t have been that pleasant down there, but at least you’d have been alive.

Not long after that event, Kev Oyston – of The Soulless Party – and I went to a restored nuclear bunker on the North York Moors, on the outskirts of Castleton. They were having an open day, and we were able to climb down the ladder to where three Royal Observer Corps volunteers would have been stationed in the event of a nuclear war. And we were told that, basically, they would have had orders and rations enough to last them three weeks. After that, they would have been free to do whatever they liked: either take their chances in what was left of the outside world, or stay in the bunker and starve to death.

Yes, it would have been pretty grim for everyone. Even if you’d survived in your bunker, the world you came out to would have been pretty shit! Was it Nikita Khrushchev who said “The survivors will envy the dead”? I think that would have been true.

Let’s talk specifically about Dick & Stewart. How did the scoring process work – were you presented with the finished animation as a fait accompli, and then composed the music to fit?

Oh, that’s an interesting question – I’m searching through my memory banks now, it was a while ago! I think Richard sent me separate scenes, because he was still animating. And when I score, I write a load of music then send it to the director, and they tell me what’s working and what isn’t. So, for example, with the theme tune, I sent Richard six or seven different pieces of music, and eventually we narrowed it down to what was actually used. And we’d do the same for every scene: so we had a piece of music for the bad guy, which ended up being a kind of weird arpeggio, but he had all sorts of other pieces written for him first. That’s generally how I work. So we gradually narrowed it down to what Richard wanted.

Was Julian Barratt’s narration present when you composed the score?

No, but there was a script. Julian’s narration wasn’t done until pretty much the whole thing was animated. They got Julian because he has a relationship with Rook Films, which was cool. They recorded him in a studio outside London, and I wanted to go – but I wasn’t free that day! Which was really annoying.

But I did the actual sound for Dick & Stewart as well, so when his voiceover takes were assembled I then put those into the film and did the mix.

His narration is so redolent of that classic 1970s style – it’s very Ray Brooks! And it works perfectly with your music. It must have been a nice feeling to hear the two combined…

Yeah, when it was finished. It was really nice. We had the full animation, and the music, and the sound effects, and when we put in the narration as the final piece of the jigsaw it really came to life. It’s a bit like working on a song – when you put the vocal into a song, suddenly the whole thing makes sense. And as soon as I put Julian’s narration in – suddenly, it got twice as good! [Laughs]

He’s great, his delivery is so friendly, and so… children’s television. Which is obviously what Richard wanted.

Was the soundtrack a nice opportunity to step outside your usual musical comfort zone as well? Tracks like ‘Everyone Likes To Watch’ and ‘Watching Is Normal and Healthy’ are like nothing I’ve heard you do before.

Yeah, it’s music by Concretism… but it isn’t! It was using a different part of my musicality, because the stuff I do as Concretism can be quite set in its ways. But it was great fun to make children’s cartoon music!

Did you hark back to the programmes you’d seen as a kid? When I was talking to Richard about Dick & Stewart, he referenced shows like Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge. I think you’re a bit younger than Richard and me, so I wondered what your favourite pre-teatime cartoons had been…

It was really funny, because when I sent the original bunch of theme tunes for him to sift through, he got back to me and said “I’m thinking more like Mary, Mungo and Midge…” and I had to Google it! I had no idea what the hell that was. “Yeah Richard, yeah… sure…” [Laughs] I’d never heard of it.

What did you make of it?

Yeah, it was OK! Pretty weird. I remember Mr Benn, and Trumpton and Camberwick Green, but Mary, Mungo and Midge I had never heard of.

The other one he mentioned to me was The Magic Ball. Which I then snapped up in a Network sale… and it’s very early 1970s. Such faded colours, and basic animation, with that gentle post-psychedelic feel. It’s really charming.

What’s that thing from the very early 1970s? It’s a bit like Worzel Gummidge

Catweazle?

Catweazle, thankyou. I was at my Dad’s house about a month ago, and – bizarrely – it was on television. He was in the kitchen when it came on, but I was watching it and I said “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before…”

He said “No, you used to watch it when you were a kid…”

I said “Dad, this is from the early 1970s… it’s before my time!” He seemed to think I would know it, but I’d never seen it. I remember Worzel Gummidge, but not Catweazle. Maybe there are just massive gaps in my cultural knowledge.

Just wait for the next Network sale! Did you take any musical inspiration from those 1970s cartoons, then? Because most of them would have been using quite traditional instrumentation… I remember there being a lot of bassoons around.

That’s the thing – if you look at kid’s telly from the 1970s, it’s not analogue synthesizers. It’s not electronic. It’s all recorders and banjos and percussion and acoustic guitars. Real instruments. So I had fun with synthesizers during the actual episode, but the opening theme… I think it’s a bit like Trumpton. I wanted it to sound real, which is difficult when you don’t have a lot of real instruments in your studio. So there’s a lot of fakery in that opening theme! But I think it sounds sort of genuine. I put an acoustic guitar in there, and there’s a mellotron flute and a wood block sound.

Where did the wood block come from? Have you got a school music box in a cupboard?

I was actually knocking the wooden box of a sewing machine! It sounds like a wood block, but it’s not. You know those old Singer machines from about 1900? We’ve got one downstairs.

I could be misjudging you, but I don’t see you as an experienced seamstress.

[Laughs] No, it’s my wife’s!

Dick & Stewart very much falls into Richard’s tradition of using the aesthetic of his 1970s childhood to represent very 21st century fears. Although it looks like a vintage cartoon, it’s about his concerns regarding surveillance and totalitarianism in the present day. Does your work as Concretism have a similar ethos?

Not really. The Concretism project really has nothing to do with the modern world in any way. It’s a neutral look at the past. A lot of Scarfolk these days is definitely political satire, and Dick & Stewart is absolutely about the power of the state, but Concretism is neither critical nor celebratory.

So for example… I’ve often wondered what people think of For Concrete and Country. It’s obviously quite a patriotic title, a reference to the World War I slogan “For King and Country”, and the album looks at the Cold War infrastructure of bunkers and temporary governments. But I’ve always wanted people to realise that it’s neither jingoistic nor critical. It’s really just a neutral look at that infrastructure. There aren’t really any politics in Concretism, nor any references to the modern world. It’s purely a look back. That’s all it is.

So I think Richard’s stuff is probably more cerebral than mine… mine’s just a bit of fun!

I guess that ties into something I was intrigued to ask – as I’ve seen you on Twitter seeming slightly frustrated at the way in which the term “hauntology” seems to have been appropriated to essentially mean talking about the 1970s in any way whatsoever. Are you a hauntology purist?

[Laughs] It’s a bit weird, because no-one really knows what hauntology means.

That’s one of the things I like about it. It’s open to interpretation.

It is, and I have my interpretation of it – but that doesn’t mean my interpretation is right! A few years ago, the hauntology scene was basically Ghost Box and Scarfolk and a few other things… but in recent years, it’s sort of become anything to do with horror and the 1970s. It feels like it’s just got too broad.

I wouldn’t say I’m a purist… and I sound like I’m a bit of a killjoy, saying you can’t enjoy those things! Which I’m not, at all. But the problem is that hauntology hasn’t really been properly defined, and probably never will be.

So what’s your interpretation?

Well I’ve been influenced by Scarfolk and Ghost Box a lot, and I think hauntology is basically about creating an imagined past. So Scarfolk is hauntology because it creates a horrible, imagined 1970s; and Concretism is hauntology because I also reference and re-create the past. The same for artists like The Twelve Hour Foundation… if you’re making art or literature or music that feels like it comes from this kind of post-war, Cold War Britain, then I think that’s hauntology.

But what winds me up a bit is when people say things like Public Information Films are hauntology. Or The Stone Tape, or The Wicker Man. They’re not, they’re just old things! I love all that stuff, but they’re not hauntology – they’re just things from the past. And a lot of people seem to think that anything to do with horror – or ghosts in particular – is hauntology… obviously because of the word. I see a lot of that on Twitter, and I look and say “That’s not hauntology at all, that’s just a horror story.”

So for me, hauntology is about making and referencing elements of the past, and it’s entirely contemporary. It’s being done now.

How did you discover it all? You were already making music before you got into all this, weren’t you?

Yes, Concretism started in about 2009, when I discovered Boards of Canada. I’m always late to the party – everyone had been listening to Boards of Canada for ten years before me! Do you know an animation called Salad Fingers?

I don’t…

There’s an animator called David Firth, and one of the things he does is a 2-D animation called Salad Fingers. And the music throughout is the track ‘Beware The Friendly Stranger’ from the Boards of Canada album Geogaddi – that weird organ music [Chris does a sterling impersonation of it at this point]. In every episode of Salad Fingers, the entire soundtrack is that music on a loop in the background. And the credits at the end of every episode say “Music: Boards of Canada”. So after I’d watched a lot of Salad Fingers, I Googled them – I thought they must be weird guys who just did music for cartoons! But I found them, listened to their music on Youtube, and ended up buying Music Has The Right to Children and Geogaddi.

And they just blew me away. It was one of those moments. I’d become quite bored… I had synthesizers at home, but there was no Twitter or Soundcloud, and I’d become quite despondent about making music. But what Boards of Canada did was totally re-energise me. And I think a lot of musicians, when they get inspired by something, want to create music like it. Whether they’re rocking out with their guitar, or whatever. And that’s exactly what happened with Boards of Canada – I just wanted to do something with analogue synthesizers. That’s where it all started. Summer 2010, I just started experimenting.

And in the very early days of Concretism it was more of a drone project – very different to what it is now. But within a year or so, without having heard of Ghost Box or hauntology, I started to look at Public Information Films and other 1970s ephemera, and I’d sample things. And then I think it was 2012 when I first heard about Ghost Box. And thought “Oh my God… there are other people doing this sort of stuff…”

And through Twitter, I realised there was a whole community of people. So that’s how Concretism really started – hearing Boards of Canada and wanting to make music along those lines. Even though I don’t think the music I make now sounds anything like them.

What kind of music were you making before your Boards of Canada epiphany? Had you been in bands?

All sorts, over the years. I’m classically trained, so my background is as a trained piano player. I did that at A-Level, and then got a Music degree.

That’s cheating!

I know, you can’t tell I’m a proper musician from my music, can you? [Laughs] But yeah, I learned the piano as a kid. My parents got me a keyboard when I was quite young, then I really wanted a piano… and eventually – and this is how weird I was – I actually asked my parents for piano lessons! I really wanted to learn. Luckily they said yes, and got me a second-hand piano, and that’s really how I got into it all. I learnt my grades!

And then, in the early 1990s, I got an Amiga computer with a sampling cartridge, and I started making sample-based electronic music. I did that throughout most of the ‘90s. And around 2000, I got my first proper PC and synthesizer set-up. And my studio has grown since then.

Were you in bands as well?

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s I was in a band, yeah…

What were you called? I love formative band names…

We had different names! We were called Trust… and later on, we were called Exit. [Laughs] I played keyboards and piano, and we did a lot of gigs. I used to sing a bit, and wrote a lot of the songs.

What kind of stuff was it? I’m thinking maybe a bit like Radiohead

Sort of… kind of… guitar, bass, drums… pop songs, really! It was OK. We definitely weren’t Radiohead! In the end I got bored and quit the band. We’d go to gigs and the crowd at the venue just really wouldn’t be into our stuff. It was sort of… happy pop, I would say! Quite upbeat. But we’d be playing to metal heads or goths and they’d just hate us.

So I’d had enough of bands, and just started doing stuff at home. From the early 2000s to the start of Concretism in 2010, I did a lot of electronic music inspired by… do you remember Enigma?

Yes! Return to Innocence?

Yeah, I did a lot of stuff with World Music samples, that kind of thing. And the odd bit of music for other people, the occasional short film and TV advert. But by the late 2000s, I’d got pretty bored with it. Nobody was listening to my music, and I thought “What’s the point?” But then I was totally re-energised by Boards of Canada, and that rebooted my whole love of making music. And I started buying synthesizers on eBay…

Which TV adverts did you do?

I did an advert for a company called Noma… it was for Christmas tree lights! I wrote a piece of music that I’m still quite proud of. Imagine, in the advert, the Christmas tree lights floating around the room, and then they wrap themselves around the tree. So I wrote a piece of music that sounded like a Christmas carol that you might vaguely remember… but had never heard before.

That’s Christmas hauntology!

[Laughs] I can hum the tune for you… [Chris does exactly this, and it’s very sweet] It was really jolly Christmas stuff, it had sleigh bells and everything. Probably one of the best things I’d ever written. I nailed Christmas!

[A day later, Chris unearths the jingle from his hard drive and kindly uploads it here: Seasons greetings, everyone!]

So what’s next for you? There’s a new album out in January, isn’t there?

Yes, it’s called Teliffusion – it’s a made-up word, you won’t be able to spell it!

T-e-l-e-f-u-s-i-o-n?

Sorry?

T-E-L-E-F-U-S-I-O-N?

No. It’s T-e-l-i-f-f-u-s-i-o-n. It’s sort of a reference to Rediffusion, and the album is a love letter to my early days working in audio post-production, when I used to deal with lots of now obsolete TV and tape formats. So there’s one track out there called ‘Orthicon Halo’, which is basically… if you watch black and white TV from the 1960s, when you get a bright light there’ll be a black halo around it. And that’s an Orthicon Halo, it was just caused by the technology used in the cameras at the time.

And there’s a track called ‘Black and Burst’, which is the black signal used by television… basically, it’s really nerdy! It’s not about the Cold War this time, as obviously I’ve already done that. I’ve tried to move on a little bit from For Concrete and Country, as I didn’t want to do the same thing again. There are two tracks on the album that I would say are traditional Concretism tracks, with speech samples on then… the other eight are a perhaps a little bit more experimental.

Where are the speech samples from?

The second track on the album is called ‘Red Green Blue’, and the sample on that comes from an old BBC training tape. And then there’s another track, ‘Omega Wrap’ – which sounds like a Pret lunch, but it’s actually the way the tape goes around the head of the tape machine – and that uses samples from a technical film about loading tapes.

And the question I really can’t resist asking – what’s on your T-shirt? [From glimpses in my Skype window, it appears to be the face of a smiling woman with the legend ‘TWO WEEKS’ emblazoned beneath]

Have you seen the film Total Recall, the original? I’m a massive fan of Arnie’s sci-fi films. And cheesy 80s sci-fi films in general! So basically, in the bit when they go to Mars, and they’re in the immigration security section, Arnie has a robotic head that looks like an old woman, and it malfunctions.

So the security guy asks “How long are you staying on Mars?” And the woman says [in butch Arnold Schwarzenegger voice], “Two weeks”… [Laughs]

At this point the conversation drifts into a lengthy debate about the relative merits of Dark Star and Event Horizon, so it’s probably best just to say thanks to Chris for his time… and to point out that his soundtrack to Dick & Stewart is available here:

https://concretism-cis.bandcamp.com/album/dick-and-stewart-original-soundtrack-2