Glen Johnson, Second Language and Textile Ranch

A dash of electronica, a soupçon of folk, a delicate hint of the avant-garde… the piquant flavours of the Second Language label are a finely-balanced combination. Formed by Piano Magic frontman Glen Johnson, State River Widening/Ellis Island Sound mainstay David Sheppard and future Home Current electronica wizard Martin Jensen, the label was launched in 2009 with the release of Johnson’s own album Tombola. Recorded under the nom-de-plume of Textile Ranch, this eclectic collection provided an opportunity to depart from Piano Magic’s trademark brand of melancholy pop, and to explore more experimental, electronic avenues.

Since then, Second Language has gained plaudits for albums by the likes of Mark Fry, Sharron Kraus and Oliver Cherer, and a reputation for creating a unique label aesthetic, combining music and design to immaculately tasteful effect. The latest release is the new Textile Ranch album, Ombilical, another incredibly atmospheric collection of ethereal electronica, and a work of which Johnson himself, in his own press release, boldly states: “I don’t consider anything here to be finished.” He goes on to cite the playfully unorthodox ethos of the 1960s Fluxus art movement as an influence on his approach to the album.

(Photo: Josh Hight)

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in May 2020, I enjoyed a long and langourous conversation with Glen about both the new album, and the history of a label whose ethos he sums up as “a rainy, wet night in Brussels, in 1982.”

Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Can we start by talking a bit about Ombilicial? You’ve been very open about it having a difficult gestation, and you having recorded a couple of different versions of it before settling on the one that you’ve released…

Glen: Yeah, that’s correct.

I started the label with the Textile Ranch album Tombola, and at the time I was just going to put out Textile Ranch records. And I basically e-mailed the Piano Magic fanbase, and said “Look – I’m going to make this electronic record. What do you think about donating money, whatever you can afford, and I’ll make a track for you and put it on the album?” So, you know, we’d have a track called ‘Sketch for Bob Fischer…’

And people started sending me money! I’d get £100 for one CD. And then, over the years, Piano Magic went out touring, and electronic music – which I’ve always loved – got pushed to the side a bit. But when Piano Magic finished in 2016, I went back to Textile Ranch, and started working on the new record. But it took me a while to get my mojo, and the stuff I was making was all just a bit dark, and I just wasn’t very pleased with the whole thing.

I think it was collaborating with people that got my creative juices flowing. Working with Oliver Cherer and Amanda Butterworth and Ola Szmidt… and just saying to people, “Do you fancy doing a little turn?” It started blossoming really quickly, and I realised then that I’m a collaborative person. I need other people to bounce off.

And I ended up with this version, which I’m really pleased with. And other people seem to be too, so it worked out.

And yet, even in the press release, you describe it as a “unfinished” album, which I rather like. For years, I’ve had a quote by George Lucas rattling around my head, which is essentially – “films are never finished, they’re just abandoned”. Is that the case with all creative endeavours?

Exactly. Is anything really finished?  It’s something I’ve thought deep and hard about recently, and I don’t know whether anything is. But if you are to survive as an artist, you have to put something out there – or just fade into obscurity. Although arguably true artists are the ones that don’t release anything, they just stay in and make music or do paintings for themselves, and never make them commercially available.

And I’m kind of on a line between the two, to tell you the truth. Because I don’t particularly make money from music, and I really enjoy the creative process a lot. I’m very hands-on with my label, and my music, and working with other people. That’s what I enjoy. The bullshit – you know, the promo and the marketing, all that stuff – is very unfulfilling, ultimately.

But yeah, the whole Fluxus thing that I mentioned in the press release… it’s the process of making the art that’s the fulfilling thing. Finishing something is probably the most boring cap that you can put on anything.

Knowing when something is “finished” is a very difficult decision to make. It can creep up on you, without it being a sudden triumphant moment. It can just be a dawning realisation that what you’ve created is probably “ready”…

I think there’s also the thing, when you’re a musician, that in the back of your mind you’ve got another project lined up. You’re thinking “If I can just put this to bed, I can get on with this potentially much more exciting project that’s backed up behind it.” And of course when that one comes to the fore, you end up with the same problem.

And, if you’re like me, you have six projects all backed up in a line.

Exactly. But in a way, that’s what I want to be. I want to be an octopus. And particularly now, in lockdown, it excites me to have my hand in six recipes at the same time!

Have you made six recipes at the same time?

(Laughs!) No, I should try that. When I’ve done my blog, I’ll try cooking.  

I liked your referencing of the Fluxus movement, which championed the idea of art having an “unfinished” quality. That movement had a real element of playfulness, which I can also detect in your work as Textile Ranch. Did you specifically intend to have some fun with this album?

Textile Ranch was always lots of fun, and when I started twenty years ago my biggest influence was a band called Disco Inferno, who were a late 80s/early 90s band that were really into samplers. Not the Paul Hardcastle end of things, but trying to push music into the future by – instead of having a kick drum and a bass to start a track – scratching on a cheese grater. That would be the basis of their groove, and then they’d put some guitar on it, and then some birdsong in the middle. It was kind of a cacophony, but melodic at the same time. And Textile Ranch came out of that playfulness with samples.

But there’s also my love of Kraftwerk, which I hope you can hear on the record. I’m a huge Kraftwerk fan, even the pre-Autobahn stuff.

And a thread of melancholy runs through some of Ombilical, which probably harks back to Piano Magic. It’s all those things – playfulness, Kraftwerk and melancholy. And sampling, which is a lot of fun.

I think playfulness and melancholy can sometimes unexpectedly go hand-in-hand, with delightful results. Before we started recording, we were talking about the affecting TV that we enjoyed as kids, and I always come back to Bagpuss – which absolutely encapsulates a sense of playful melancholy.

Yeah, and do you remember the Moomins TV series? That’s a completely melancholy programme. And the books…  you’d have a squirrel that died after three pages. This isn’t a kid’s book, this is a Finnish kid’s book! Creatures are going to die at some point. And I loved all that as a kid, I’d read it thinking: “This squirrel’s dead. What the fuck?”

But with all that stuff, including Bagpuss, I think there was a very late 1960s and early 1970s melancholia. And to things like Crown Court and Armchair Theatre, that I used to watch during my lunch breaks from school. Even the Tyne Tees or Anglia TV idents were kind of creepy. That’s my youth, right there.

I’m flattered you brought up Tyne Tees without prompting! Are you pandering to my North-Eastern origins here?

Ha, no! But when I got older, and into electronic music, I found myself thinking “Actually, this stuff sounds pretty melancholy.”

Isolationist, actually.

Yes, but in a way that I now find oddly reassuring, and I’m still trying to untangle why I now find the melancholy disquiet of my childhood very comforting. I guess, in the end, because it came to naught. Ultimately, despite the unsettling nature of the era, I had a nice childhood with no great trauma to speak of.

Were you a sociable child?

I was quite shy, but I had friends. It was just a pretty ordinary, perfectly pleasant childhood.

I actually can’t remember much of the first ten years of my life. I was a complete loner, and it’s put me in good stead for the rest of my life. I prefer being on my own, basically.

Are you an only child, like me?

No, I’ve got a brother. He’s the one who got me into decent music – he’s four years older than me, and he had a record player. He used to work in a factory, and he’d send me to record shops with £50… he’d say “Go to Revolver in Mansfield, and buy me these records”. And it would be an Echo and the Bunnymen 7″, or Kilimanjaro by Teardrop Explodes… it was that sort of period. And I’d bring this stuff home, and before I got back from work I’d play it all on his stereo. Before he could. And I’d read his NME and his Sounds and his Melody Maker.

How old were you at this point?

Around 12. And I was making electronic music pretty soon after all that.

Really? Did you have a little keyboard?

Do you remember Tandy, the shop? That was my heaven. I’d go there, and say to the bloke “What’s this?” And he’s say “It’s a contact mine… you stick it on a surface, and plug it into your amp, and you can bang on the surface and make a percussion sound.”

And I’d day: “Oh, I’ll have one of those!” It was 99p or something… I’d take it back, stick it on a kitchen chair, and I’d be banging it with a wooden spoon, all put through an amp. And my mother would say “What are you doing?”

I’d say: “Well, I’ve been listening to Cabaret Voltaire…”

There’s a vintage Texas Instruments Speak & Spell machine on Ombilical… was that yours from being a kid as well, then?

It’s not, I’ve got three of them. One is French, which is great! I picked them up from car boot sales, probably ten or fifteen years ago. But I started off on a Casio VL-Tone… the keyboard you hear on the Human League’s Dare, on ‘Get Carter’.

And on Trio’s ‘Da Da Da’! It’s got a calculator attached too, hasn’t it?

Yes, they’re great. There’s a sound called “Fantasy” on it, which is the one on ‘Get Carter’, and that’s the best sound. It’s amazing, and you can’t find that on any other synthesizer.

Can I ask about a couple more tracks on Ombilicial? ‘Death and the Seahorse’ is a track I love. It’s you narrating a dream about a seahorse that has a brush with mortality, and again it has that sense of playful melancholy to it. Was that based on a genuine dream?

It was, yeah – I’m a big dreamer. I always have been, and I don’t know why. Sometimes when I wake up I write them down, and when I’m making a track I’ll dig them out. Before I was in a band, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write short stories. I was particularly obsessed by that almost surreal type of fantasy – there’s a writer called Barry Yourgrau, an American guy who looks a bit like John Waters. He did this book called A Man Jumps Out Of An Aeroplane Wearing Dad’s Head. The first story in it is about a bunch of guys standing around a cow, and one of them is bet that he daren’t climb inside it. But he takes the money and climbs in through the cow’s arse. He’s inside the cow, and the cow is saying: “What the fuck is going on? Why is this guy climbing inside me?”

His mates outside say “OK, you won the bet. Come on out.” And he basically says, “No, I’m staying here”. So that’s about the level of my dreams!

Do you keep a notepad by the pad?

I do, actually.

I used to do that. I’ve got a few write-ups of utterly bizarre dreams I’ve had over the years, and I wish they were all as coherent as ‘Death and the Seahorse’! I love those “epic” dreams, those sagas that go on for hours.

But do they go on for hours? Or do they just seem to? Apparently it’s that period after you get up for a piss at five o’clock in the morning… you get back into bed and that’s when you get the R.E.M. sleep. That’s the point when you have those crazy, massive Big Fish type dreams.

And can you tell me the story behind ‘How I Sit At The Piano?” It samples what sounds like a fascinating conversation.

It’s from a famous… well, a very well-viewed Youtube video of a catatonic shizophrenic patient in the 1960s. I saw it two years ago, and it’s amazing. The guys is being interviewed, he’s in a psychiatric institution and he’s asked why he thinks he’s in there. And he says: “Well, it’s how I sit at the piano.”

Phenomenal. What an answer. I think there’s more to it than that, and when you watch the video you’ll get more of an idea. I think it’s more to do with him being perceived as overly camp when he was sitting at the piano.

Oh gosh, so it was deemed that he needed psychiatric treatment for that?

I think it was probably the way people perceived homosexuality at the time. He’s a fascinating character to watch and listen to, and I just cut up little sections of his interview.

Which I’ll be doing with this one too, and turning it into a track… [laughs]

Feel free! Can I ask about some of your collaborators on this album? Amanda Butterworth, who records as Mücha, contributes vocals to a couple of tracks. How do you know Amanda?

I liked her music. I chanced upon an album she made [The Colour of Longing, 2016], a very beautiful album, and I loved her voice. I just contacted her and said “I love what you’re doing”… I’m one of those people that will just say “Do you want to work with me?”. I’ve worked with Vashti Bunyan, Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance, John Grant, Alan Sparhawk from Low… and I’ve basically just reached out and said “Want to do something?” And they’ve all said yes, which is great.

We actually did five tracks that day, there are three that haven’t been released yet. I think we worked together really well.

I think I used this word in my review for Electronic Sound, and I meant it as a compliment… she’s got an aloof quality to her voice. ‘Skeletons’, in particular, she sings beautifully, and her performance has a distant quality, which works perfectly.

If you liked ‘Skeletons’, you’ll love her album.

And do you go back a long way with Oliver Cherer?

We go back to Myspace. We’re good friends, me and Ollie. At the peak of Myspace, I’d be on there until four o’clock in the morning, talking to people… I’d be talking to some Polish guy who runs a little electronic collective or something, and I’d say “Send me some files, and I’ll add something to what you’re doing.” And it was like that with Ollie, I think. He was making electronic music when I first talked to him, so we ended up swapping music, and twenty years later we’re still really good friends and I’m still releasing his music. And he plays on my stuff… always trumpet! I’ll ask “Can I have some trumpet?” and he’ll say “I can’t play the trumpet…” (laughs). “Well, just blow into it!” He’s a musical polymath, he can play anything. He’d play the kettle if you gave him a kettle.

There’s a picture of his music room on the blog somewhere…

Yeah, it’s amazing. He’s in Hastings, and when I go down there he’s always got something new. I went there once and he had a massive Hammond organ. I said “Where did you get that?”, and he said “Charity shop, just down the street.”

“Well how the fuck did you get it home?”

He’s got rid of that now, but he’s got tons of stuff. Xylophones and musical saws.

Franck Alba from Piano Magic is on the album, too…

Yeah, I’ve known Franck for a long time. A long-term guitar and piano-player, and he lives in Crystal Palace, like me. He’s not particularly into electronic music, so I was just teasing him, really; “I dare you to play on some of this mad shit!” And he’ll just plug in and do it, and I cut and edit what he plays.

Ola Szmidt is on there, too. What can you tell me about Ola?

Ola is a really interesting singer, and flautist and electronic artist. She won the Steve Reid Innovation Award few years ago and I found out about her through that, really – I liked what she was doing, some really interesting stuff with electronics. I actually asked her to make mermaid sounds on the album. Which reminds me of… do you know what Morrissey once asked Mary Margaret O’Hara? 

On ‘November Spawned A Monster’?

Yes, that story where he said “Go into the vocal booth and give birth”. And that’s exactly what it sounds like. And that’s what I had in mind when I asked Ola if she could be a mermaid. And she did it perfectly.  She sounds like a mermaid.

You mentioned that you’d once worked with Vashti Bunyan, and I love her work to bits. I interviewed her for the radio a few years ago…  

Isn’t she lovely?

She was fabulous. It was when her album Heartleap came out, and – having got the impression she was quite shy – I wasn’t sure how it would go, but she was so sweet and modest and lovely.

All of those things.

How did you make contact with her?

She was obviously away from the music scene for thirty years, and when I was in Piano Magic I signed a publishing deal with a guy called Paul Ramsden, who ran Spinney Records. And he told me that he’d just reissued Just Another Diamond Day, by Vashti Bunyan. He gave me a copy and said “Go away and listen to this, because she wants to work with people. She wants to come back.”

So I listened to that album, and it blew my mind. I don’t know if you know Mark Fry’s Dreaming With Alice album? It’s that same thing: “How did this get made? What was going on?” I phoned Paul and said “Can I write something for her?” And he said “Yeah, have a go.”

So I wrote a song for her. I just got really pissed, wrote this song, demoed it, burned it onto CD – this was back in 2000 – posted it to Vashti in Edinburgh, and then two days later the phone rang. “Hello Glen, this is Vashti Bunyan… I love your song and I want to sing it.”

She came down to London, and we recorded it in Joe Boyd‘s studio. He had this little demo studio in Notting Hall Gate. And there was pool table in there, so me and Vashti had a couple of rounds of pool. She was really good, actually.  

Who won?

I think she did. And then it came to recording, and she said “Can you close the curtain around the vocal booth?” She hadn’t recorded a song in thirty years. And I was sitting there with the engineer, and he turned to me and said; “Is she singing?”

I said “I don’t know…” but we turned up the fader as far as it would go, and we could just hear her. And she sounded exactly as she had thirty years earlier. She hadn’t changed at all. Super quiet. We kept pushing up the faders. And we did a couple of tracks, she’s on two Piano Magic Songs. She’s probably the nicest person I’ve worked with, hands down. She’s lovely.

So that was literally the first time she’d been in a studio since 1970?

She’d been in touch with Devendra Banhart, and with Animal Collective, but the first recording she did was with Piano Magic, yeah.

I went to see her live in 2014, she was playing in The Band Room, which essentially is a converted barn in a tiny hamlet on the remote North York Moors. Me and my friend David drove out there, got there early, parked up outside the venue, and she was soundchecking inside. We just sat in the car listening to this extraordinary voice, thinking… “God… it’s Vashti Bunyan. She’s in there!”

It was a really emotional experience. Imagine sitting in the dark on the moors, hearing Vashti Bunyan’s voice coming from inside a barn…

That’s how you should hear her, I think! Nothing will ever better that experience. And she works with a great guitarist called Gareth Dickson, who has done a track for the next Second Language release. I love his stuff, he’s got a bit of Nick Drake about him. His solo stuff is very beautiful and very melancholy.

Can I ask about the origins of Second Language as a label? I found an old interview with you, where you talked about – as a teenager – your attempt to launch a cassette-based label from your parents’ house. So running a label has clearly been an ambition for a long time, I guess?

That’s in the Ian Preece book that’s just come out, Listening to the Wind – you should definitely read that! There’s a section on Clay Pipe, and one on Second Language. And yeah, I reminisce about this… I’m from a very working class family, we lived on a council estate in a pit village on the Notthinghamshire/Derbyshire border. Near Alfreton. There’s nothing there, and nothing happens, but I was into weird electronic music. And I thought – “I want to start a record label? How do I do that?”

And I put an ad in the back of Record Mirror, saying “EXPERIMENTAL AVANT-GARDE MUSIC WANTED FOR NEW LABEL”. I was about 13, and was heavily influenced by Some Bizarre records. Their first compilation album on that had a very eclectic bunch of freaks on it, and I wanted to do something like that!I thought “Oh, hardly anyone will respond…”

But the postman just kept coming and coming. Bags and bags, it went on for weeks.

Were these cassettes?

Yeah. And I’d play them all, all the way through, then I’d write back to these bands and say “Wow!” They were all amazing to me. I thought everything was amazing. And then I got to the difficult point of… well, how do you start a record label? What do you do? I had no idea. So it sort of petered off… until I was 35. [Laughs]

I interviewed Martin Jensen for Electronic Sound a couple of months ago, and he seemed to suggest that the birth of Second Language was at least partly influenced by his love of birdwatching.

Yeah, it was partially that! He was into his birds, and me and David Sheppard… well, our big thing was Les Disques du Crépuscule, that early 80s Belgian label, and Durutti Column. Me and David were really big Durutti Column fans, and we wanted to start something that was in that style: very romantic, very pro-European. That romance has been lost, or steamrollered by the whole fucking Brexit farce, but lots of British people love the idea of Europe. The romanticism of the continent. That would sum up the label for me: A rainy, wet night in Brussels, in 1982. That’s Second Language for me.

So Martin’s interest in ornithological things, obscure Belgian labels and Durutti Column… roll that all together, and you’ve got Second Language.

Some of your first releases were fundraising releases for the Birdlife International charity, weren’t they?

We did three, Music and Migration. They were really good, very eclectic, and very much like Les Disques du Crépuscule’s compilations.

I hate doing this, but if could pick out a Second Language release that you were especially proud of, and that really summed up the ethos of the label, would what it be?

I can pick two if you like? There’s Oliver Cherer’s most recent record, I Feel Nothing Most Days. Which really sounds to me almost like the first Ben Watt solo album on Cherry Red, and that’s so much what we wanted for the label. And then the first Mark Fry album on Second Language, I Lived In Trees. It’s just beautiful, and I still play it very regularly. That also encapsulates the whole sonic ethos of the label.

But there are too many, honestly. I love everything we’ve put out.

I wanted to ask about Topic Records as well, which is a legendary label – the oldest independent label in the world, in fact! And, as well as running Second Language, you’re also in charge of Topic. How did that happen?

I work for a music distribution company called Proper Distribution, and within that there are a few in-house labels. One of which is Proper Records, and then there’s Navigator, which is a folk label. And then a few years ago, David and Tony from Topic approached us and said “We need someone else to take over the day-to-day running of it… we’re sort of exhausted”. So we volunteered, and I was the person to do it. And I’m not a folkie, but I think there’s good music in all genres, and I knew the historical legacy of Topic. And I’ve gone on to forge relationships with the main players: Martin Simpson, Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy… and you get to know them. Even Anne Briggs, I met Anne Briggs last year.

So I found myself at the centre of this folk empire really, and that’s the day job!

The Carthys are lovely. A couple of years ago, I drove Martin back home to Robin Hood’s Bay from a gig in Middlesbrough, and when we got there, he invited me in for a cuppa. So, as a bit of a folkie myself, I found myself in the surreal position of watching the late film on BBC2 with Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson.

Brilliant. He’s got some amazing stories, Martin. He’s told me some crazy stuff about being on tour with Danny Thompson! They’re all great.

So what’s next for Second Language?

I’ve got this amazing compilation coming out. It should be July or August – I’ve been working on it for a long time. Various people have been contributing tracks, and collaborating for it, too. So Ollie is on it quite a bit, I’m on it, Mark Fry, Pete Astor, David Sheppard who founded the label with me and Martin. I wanted to do a compilation that really encompassed what I thought the label was really, really about. And get to the core of that. And there are some really interesting curveballs, too.

We have subscribers to Second Language too, and the subscribers get an album and a bonus EP, and there’s always lots of interesting stuff on the bonus EP.

So that’s the next thing. It’s an album called Avenue With Trees, and it’s very much about pro-continental, European romanticism. That’s what it sounds like to me. 

Thanks to Glen for his time and conversation. Ombilical is available here:

And the Second Language website is here:

Tom Harding, Capac and After Lights Out

Clocks tick. Floorboards creak, water pipes grumble. Tinnitus throbs like a whistling kettle, and thoughts intensity: niggles become crises. Orange streetlamps, eventually, are dimmed by silver dusk. The relentless, clanging alertness of insomnia is a sensory assault, an agonising void in which the miniscule becomes mighty.

The exaggerated emotions and heightened sensibilities of the sleepless night are encapsulated evocatively in After Lights Out, a collaboration between Northampton poet Tom Harding – who reads verse from his own nocturnally-themed collection Night Work – and musical collective Capac, who provide a sensitive selection of ambient musical accompaniment. It was an alliance mooted after Capac‘s Stuart Cook heard Tom’s poetry recitals on the Nocturne podcast, and was struck by the inherent musicality of his verse.

I asked Tom about the background to both Night Work, and After Lights Out:

Bob: The obvious question to ask – do you suffer from insomnia yourself?

Tom: I’ve suffered from insomnia periodically over the years. I thought I’d got it licked but the recent lockdown seems to have summoned it back, and I understand there are a few people in the same boat.

So are you able to use the night-time creatively? Did you actually write lots of the poetry on this album during the small hours themselves?

The poems in this collection cover a ten year period. The early ones I wrote in my twenties, when I would think nothing of staying up until 4am writing, even when I had work the next day. The thought of that now makes me shudder. In recent years, sleepless nights have been caused by my three-year-old. I’ve written a lot of poems on my phone while my son slept on my shoulder, and it reminded me of how intimate the hours are between midnight and 4am.

I always think there’s a mental mindset during a sleepless night that exists at no other times of our lives: and I’ve tried hard to describe it – that combination of exhaustion while being deluged with uncontrollable thoughts. Do you have similar feelings?

In recent years I’ve been conditioning myself to ignore my thoughts… something that’s easier said than done. When you’re young, you treat your inner voice as being somehow holy, as if it’s the essence of who you are, and you ignore its message at your peril. But this can lead to an over-reliance on the thinking mind. Thoughts are little dictators of the mind, and if you’re not careful you can spend your conscious life falling victim to fictitious narratives of your own creation.

It’s very freeing when you realise that your internal monologue doesn’t need to be trusted, that it’s less like your immortal soul and more like a panicky flatmate or a broken radio. The noise of daytime often drowns it out, but at night-time it leaks in.

There are mentions of spiders on this album – are you an arachnaphobiac, by any chance?

Yes, that must have crept in somehow. It wasn’t a conscious addition. Some of my most panic-stricken memories are of lying awake, conscious there was a spider in the room.

And a related stab in the dark… there’s the recurring phrase “Spider and I” on the album too, which is the name of a track on one of my favourite albums, Brian Eno’s Before and After Science. Was that a deliberate reference?

No… strangely, I know the song but I hadn’t made that connection. I like that album a lot. Nice to tie a spider’s web between the two.

And on the off-chance… have you ever suffered from hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations? I do sometimes, and again… it’s always spiders. I wake up screaming in the bathroom sometimes.

I have something, but I’m uncertain of its name. I know that I’m awake, so I’m not being fooled as you might be by a hallucination. Instead it’s a type of vivid and spontaneous imagery that emerges when I shut my eyes in the hour before sleep. I brought this up recently with my family, thinking everybody must have this – but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I take it to be the dreaming mind warming up. Kind of like the trailers, before the main show.

There’s a recurring sound motif of controlled breathing on the album: did that come from Capac, or from you? Just interested, as I remember as a kid trying to get to sleep by breathing very slowly and deliberately, and I still do that sometime…

That’s all Capac and it’s a great motif, I agree. I practice mindfulness, and following the breath is central to this. It’s the first place I go to, and the anchor I base it around. It allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. The challenge is to allow your body to relax enough, so that your conscious mind doesn’t try to control the breath.

I also love your encapsulation of the heightened sensory experience of sleeplessness: ‘Night Noises’. What do you tend to hear when you can’t sleep? And do you convince yourself that it’s something far more sinister than the reality?

We live in a quiet neighbourhood, so it’s mostly owls or cats and the odd distant siren. We lived for a long time above a four-way street in North London, so what we often heard in actuality was as bad as our imaginations.

The album is based on your poetry collection, Night Work – so how did the collaboration with Capac come about? I read that Capac’s Stuart Cook heard you on a podcast – did you know him prior to that?

No, Stu had listened to the Nocturne podcast and heard me on there. One good thing leading to another.

[NB Nocturne is a really rather delightful “audio essay” podcast exploring different aspects and notions of the night-time… the episode featuring Tom dates from January 2019, and can be found here:

So did you have to adapt any of the poems to suit the musical approach, or are they pretty much as you originally wrote them?

Only in the sense that Capac focused on, and drew out, certain lines. I love what they did.

And how did the collaboration work on a practical level? Did you record your readings first, and the music was built around them – or vice versa?

I gave Stu a selection of my readings and a year later he produced a finished album. It was a very light touch from me, which works from my point of view, as close collaborations can often be quite challenging.

Did the musical setting bring out meanings to your work that even you hadn’t thought about? Have you thought about any of your poetry differently after hearing it in a musical context?

The biggest kick is when someone picks up on a line that resonates with them. It resurrects poetry that’s long dead to me, either through over-analysis, self criticism or forgetfulness. Such as The ‘Spider And I’ line. And, among other things, it’s made me want to try some more musical collaborations.

And fabulously, physical copies of the album came in a matchbox, with a candle. Have you listened to your own album by candlelight yet, as suggested?

Yes I have… it was beautiful!

Thanks to Tom for his time. After Lights Out, released on the This Is It Forever label, can be bought here:

And Tom’s own website is here:

Thanks also to Tom for allowing the reproduction of a full poem from his Night Work collection:

Night Music

All night not sleeping
but tossing and turning over
some unfavourable thought,
I lie listening to the bones of the house
creak like the inside of a piano

Who’s awake at this hour?
Just the mice rolling their life’s luggage
across the attic floor,
running the gauntlet
between the suitcases and heavy coats,
little refugees sailing
their slim luck in the dark.

How heavy the world must sound
creaking and heaving about them,
the house caught in turbulent night winds
like a ship settling in
the dark waters of a flood.

And, as an addendum, this is the review of After Lights Out that I wrote for issue 64 of Electronic Sound magazine. Which is well worth subscribing to, you can do it here.

After Lights Out with Tom Harding
(This Is It Forever)

Insomniacs and arachnophobes alike may find this a little raw. International collective Capac collaborate with poet Tom Harding on a beautifully unsettling evocation of the troubled thoughts and sounds that accompany chronic sleeplessness. ‘Night Work’ pulses like an anxious heartbeat in the darkness; ‘The Spider’ suggests the patter of spindly legs across skirting boards. Horror soundtrack pianos tinkle, and Harding’s narration is wearily deadpan. “A book upturned on a page I’ve read, and re-read, a thousand times…” An album where the dawn feels perpetually out of reach.

Jim Jupp, Intermission and Ghost Box Records

Sometimes, we all just need a break.

Amid the trauma of the global pandemic, collectively hemmed into an ongoing international lockdown, it’s become increasingly important to find distraction, relief and respite. So kudos to Ghost Box Records, who – seemingly out of nowhere – have conjured the appropriately-titled Intermission, a timely and soothing compilation of original material. Comprising brand new tracks from pretty much the entirety of the label’s current roster, and the unexpected but sensational return of one old favourite, it appeared without fanfare on Friday 8th May; not referencing the current crisis as such, but – to paraphrase label co-founder Jim Jupp – “responding” to it.

From Jim’s own Belbury Poly to co-founder Julian House’s Focus Group; from new recruits Plone to steely trouper Jon Brooks and his trusty Advisory Circle, the mood evoked by all is one of calm reassurance. The gentle beats of Pye Corner Audio are present and correct, as are exotic transmissions from the continent: Germany’s ToiToiToi and Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. Clay Pipe founder Frances Castle offers analogue solidarity in her guise as The Hardy Tree, chanteuse Sharron Kraus brings a wistful folk sensibility, and her regular collaborator Justin Hopper unifies this blissful musical panacea with thoughtful and touching narration.

And then, yes… there’s the return of that old favourite. We’ll come back to him.

Digital copies of the album ordered through the Ghost Box website have temptingly different artwork to the regular edition, and also benefit Médecins Sans Frontières, the international humanitarian and medical organisation. The ever-genial Jim Jupp joined me to discuss Intermission, and other recent Ghost Box releases – as well as offering a few tantalising glimpses into the label’s future.

Bob: The last time we spoke properly was back in January when Paul Weller’s EP, In Another Room, was just about to be released on Ghost Box. Was that rather a frantic time?

Jim: It was, and we had a few technical hitches – I think even you had tweets about it, from people asking where they could get it! But I think we got there. We covered the audience as best as we could, and we did an extra batch that went to Japan only, because we’ve got a sub-distributor in Japan, and they were desperate. Fans of anything in Japan are Super Fans, they really wanted it! So we did an extra batch for them, approved by Paul’s people. But it’s still there on digital, rolling away, and we’re very happy with it.

And Paul’s forthcoming album features a song called ‘Earth Beat’… which is reworking of your song ‘The Willows’. That’s quite an honour…

It is! While we were talking about the EP, and while he was putting down the first ideas for that in the studio, he was listening to more of our back catalogue. And he texted me and said “I’ve been listening to a tune of yours and singing along to it, and I think I can work it up into a song – would that be alright?”

And I said (Laughs – and in a squeaky, schoolboy voice) “Yes! Course it would!”

So he did a rough demo, pretty much over the original recording, and it worked. It fitted straight away. Luckily, I still had the separate elements of the recording, the stems. With a lot of projects from that long ago, I wasn’t so organised and I didn’t keep them… I didn’t know what I was doing so much. But for some reason – thank God – I had all the parts for that tune, so I was able to get them to his studio, and they were able to rework them into a new tune.

So is that a Weller/Jupp composition, then?

It is, I get an album credit! It’s split between me, Paul and the guy who sings backing vocals, Col3trane – he wrote a middle eight for it.

And then a couple of weeks ago you released Plone’s album, Puzzlewood, which seems to be an album that everybody really loves. And it’s their first official album since 1999! Had you been aware that they were making new stuff? When I spoke to them, I think they said that it was them that approached Ghost Box, rather than the other way around…

They did. I was aware that they were up to stuff, but I think they’d got to a stage with Plone material where they thought: “Oh, nobody’s interested any more.” Then about two years ago, Billy had some side projects that he was working on – with somebody else, not Mike – and he said “Would Ghost Box be interested in these?” And I said “Yeah… it might be something we could look at for a single or something.” He said “OK, leave it with me and we’ll bat it about…”

But then, a few mails later, I mentioned that – years ago, early 2000s – somebody had sent me a CD bootleg of the “missing” Plone album. And I said: “Are you still doing Plone material? What happened to that album?” And he said “Yeah, we’ve got absolutely loads of stuff.” And he sent me links to, actually, about three albums’ worth. Some of which you can hear on Puzzlewood, and some of which dated from just after the missing album.

I said “There’s loads of great stuff here, Billy… can I cherry pick, work them into an album and sequence it, and you can polish those tracks up?” He said “Yeah, absolutely.” They’re very humble fellows. I think… I didn’t appreciate, and they didn’t appreciate, the amount of love in the room for Plone. They generate this sort of warm, fuzzy feeling, and there were a lot of fans that were really pleased and excited.

It’s nice… Boards of Canada were my first inroad into “this” stuff, in around 1999, but I was aware of Plone around that time as well – I probably heard them on John Peel’s show. This kind of music really seems to make a profound impact on people, but the artists themselves can be completely unaware that they’re held in much regard at all.

Yes, Boards of Canada, and Plone as well, were almost the first wave of that hauntological thing: “Oh yeah, the kind of music that I heard on the telly when I was ill! Other people know about this!”. They were the first people to connect with that, really. And Broadcast, of course.

Was the beginning of lockdown a worrying time for Ghost Box? It looked for a little while as though you might not be able to give Puzzlewood a physical release.

Yeah, the first few weeks of lockdown were scary. For everyone, of course, but in terms of the business and the label it was a worrying time. The Plone record was due; it was being manufactured and it was all paid for, and it was one of the biggest projects that we’d done in terms of outlay and capital. We did a lot of units, we did the special coloured vinyl… we knew it would be popular. And a lot of our money was tied up in it! We didn’t even know if it would arrive… and then our distributor, The State 51 Conspiracy, closed their doors. But luckily we were able to co-ordinate with them, and they’re kind of up and running again with a skeleton crew. Just part-time, so they’re struggling with the backlog of orders for retail, and for our shop and for the other labels they handle. So it’s not ideal, but they’re heroically forging ahead.

It’s been difficult, because they’re in a fairly central London location, and people have to get into work. That’s one of their biggest problems, aside from social distancing in the warehouse.

So was your vinyl essentially trapped in the warehouse where that amazing Midsummer Night’s Happening was held last June?

That’s their office and venue space, but the warehouse is just down the road from there. And yes, it was trapped there! It was a hairy few weeks, because we didn’t know what would happen. But we decided to stick to the release date, and if there’d been no physical product, we’d have taken pre-orders and done what we could when we could.

Mainly because, when I talked to the guys, we decided it was a timely record. It’s a cheerful, feelgood record, simple as that. And, as it’s turned out, I think that’s been quite timely, and people have loved it because of that. And things just came together at the last minute, so we could get physical product out there to the shops.

Which is important, as I think the physical object is a huge part of the Ghost Box aesthetic. I remember you saying to me at the time that you were having to be a digital-only label for a while, and you didn’t sound hugely enthusiastic…

Absolutely. But yeah, that was the prognosis at the time!

Let’s talk about Intermission… was the idea of a compilation of new material from your roster of artists something you’d been thinking about anyway? Or did it suddenly strike you that said artists might suddenly have a bit more time on their hands?

It was partly that… and no, I hadn’t previously considered it. It wasn’t on our release schedule, or in our plans at all, until lockdown began. And it was during the period that I’ve just been talking about when I thought: “We could be out of pocket, we could have serious problems, we have to do whatever we can on the digital side to keep the label rolling, and to keep a trickle of income coming for the artists.” It was something. So I got in touch with everybody, and said “How quickly can you give me a track, or a couple of tracks?” And everybody was up for it.

So the first impulse was survival, and a bit of income. But… as State 51 came back online, and we got a bit of physical product back online, and the Plone release went ahead successfully – against all odds! – I thought “We’ll keep doing this, but we probably ought to give something back as well.” So we did the charity version, too. You can choose just to buy it the normal way, and it’s a few quid for the artists and musicians, or you can give all the money to charity by buying it from our own shop.

And did you walk a fine line with your approach to it? Ghost Box kind of operates in its own unique, parallel world, and I wondered if you made a conscious decision as to how much of the “real” world you wanted to intrude? Justin Hopper’s narration on the album, while not specifically mentioning the Coronavirus, certainly alludes to recent events.

The brief that I gave to everyone was that it was a response to the situation, perhaps, but in no way was it about the situation. So, you know… what are you feeling, creatively? Where’s your head at? Just do that. And I spoke to Justin about how we might frame it, because we had the idea straight away that he would almost be the presenter or narrator of this thing, tying it together. And it was his idea to do a kind of Twilight Zone Intro and Outro…

Yes! That’s exactly what it is!

He’s a big fan of old Twilight Zone, as am I, and Rod Serling lived in Justin’s home town, Binghamton. And there are a couple of old Twilight Zone episodes where Justin knows the exact location… there’s one [the episode ‘Walking Distance’] that he talks about, where a guy goes back to his old picket-fence home town, and his mother and father are still alive, and he sees himself playing with the kids in the street. And Justin grew up round there, and knows those roads and streets really well.

So it was something that had been knocking around in his head. And the impulse at the moment… well, everybody seems to be scurrying to nostalgia, and their safe place, and perhaps their childhood memories. The impulse is to watch lots of old TV and listen to old music, and do the hobbies that made you happy when you were younger.

So I had the title “Intermission” – which is a very broadcast-y, TV, cinematic take on things, very much the Ghost Box world. It’s a break in normal services. Normal services will resume shortly! “Intermission” sounds aloof and high-handed, but kind of reassuring. So Justin took that word and thought of the idea of memory being a safe place; the little pauses and quiet times of the past that you remember. So his Intro and Outro allude to that, in this Rod Serling kind of way. And his longer piece in the middle, ‘Recreation Park’, about a park near his house that he remembered from being a kid, is a similar thing. Harking back to a particular childhood memory, simple as that.

And generally, the message I put out to everyone was sort of… tread a middle ground. Which I think they did anyway, I didn’t need to ask. I said we didn’t want any dark, dystopian drones here, and neither did we want relentlessly upbeat happy stuff. As it happens, we’ve got both on there, a bit! (Laughs) But generally, I think it all hangs together. There’s a theme of calm, of waiting, of “What’s going to happen next? It’ll be nice when this is over…”

It’s a very soothing album. And I like how Justin, who is a fairly recent recruit to the Ghost Box world, has quickly become such an integral part of it. Is it nice to have a “voice” that you can use on recordings – literally, a spokesperson?

It is! It’s entirely accidental, but he’s perfect for us. For a few reasons. He’s kind of become the “anchorman” of Ghost Box. Conceptually, it’s a bit like an old TV channel, and he’s the voice of the broadcasts. And it was good for us the way it played out… the obvious route would be to have a plummy English voice, but the fact that Justin – because he’s American – is a slight outsider to this world kind of makes a weird sense. He’s got a great performing and reading voice and a way with words, and he gets what we’re trying to do with Ghost Box. He understood straight away what this compilation was, and what the mood should be. And when he suggested the Rod Serling thing, he said “I won’t make it too much like that…”

I said “No, no! That’s brilliant, do Rod Serling! Make it sound like you’re standing in front of a weird backdrop smoking a cigarette!” And that’s what he did, and it was perfect.  

Just looking through the album here… after Justin’s introduction, you’re straight into a new Advisory Circle track. Jon Brooks is on a rich run of form at the moment, isn’t he?

He really is at the moment, he’s doing really well.

And blimey – Roj is on it as well! The first new recordings for eleven years, since his Transactional Dharma of Roj album? That was a lovely surprise!

That is the surprise! And it was a surprise to us all. I included him in the request, as I always do when we’re saying “What’s next? What’s everybody doing?” and Roj said “Ah yeah, I’ll get on that…”

And bless him, he’s absolutely brilliant, his work is always good, but he’s so particular about his sound. Strangely, this track has a sort of Joe Meek vibe to it, it’s slightly in that world, and I think he has the slight mania about his work that Joe Meek had. He’s never quite there, and he’s never happy! He’s almost delivered two completed albums to me in the last six to eight years, but it’s never quite been right. He says “Give me a few more months…” and then he starts again. [Laughs]. But for this, I said “Come on Roj, just do it…” and he put this together. I don’t know if it was something he was already working on, but I know he’s got loads and loads of great material, so we’re hoping this kind of inspires him to get cracking on the album.

Anything other tracks that you’d like to pick out yourself?

Oh, it’s very difficult for me to do that! I mean, mine is obviously the best track… [laughs]. No, it’s very interesting – some of the tracks came together during lockdown, but mine was already in the can, because that’s a track taken from my album – which will hopefully be out in a couple of months. We’re working on the artwork now. The Beautify Junkyards track was what they’d managed to do in the studio, because they’re working on their album… but, sadly, because that’s very much a studio album with lots of people involved, that’s had to stop. They don’t record at home.

Sharron Kraus’ track… that was interesting. I mixed that one, because she’s got a good recording set-up, but her stuff is very often finished in a studio environment. So I said “Record as best you can, get contributions from other musicians as best you can, and I’ll produce it at home.” So we managed to turn that around quite quickly, and do it remotely like that. But yeah, everybody did really well. As you can imagine, getting musicians to do something for a deadline is… [laughs] never easy! But everybody did wonderfully, and turned in tracks on time. I moved the deadline a couple of times, because I wasn’t ready…

But everybody delivered really good work. The other part of the brief was: even though we’re in lockdown, and we’re doing this quickly, keep up to your usual standards. They’re all very talented people. And they all did, they all did something that they’d be pleased to put on one of their own albums. It was great.

Good to see Frances Castle on there, recording as The Hardy Tree. I always think there’s a nice symbiotic relationship between Ghost Box and Clay Pipe.

Absolutely, and yes – that’s a lovely piece of music. I’d been talking to Frances just generally, about logistics and how she was coping during lockdown, and it’s just nice to exchange ideas with other labels and like-minded people. So yeah, it was lovely to have her on board for this.

And you’re literally dropping the album from nowhere, on Friday 8th May?

We are. We’re not having the usual pre-orders and promotions period. I’ve told people like yourself, and other radio people and journalists, but I’m not making any official announcements. We’ll do it live on the day. It’s just a different way of doing things, and we thought – “Why not?” Let’s get it together, get it ready, and get it out there with no fanfare. And see how it goes. Making it easy for ourselves, really.

Can you see it transferring to a physical format at some point, when all this madness is over?

Definitely. And if the madness drags on, we’ll try and do it anyway. We’ve got the Belbury Poly album next, but because the Beautify Junkyards album might take a little longer than anticipated, we might get onto a physical version of Intermission after that. Late summer, autumn sort of time.

And how’s the Belbury Poly album sounding?

I’m very happy with it. Jon Brooks has just mastered it, so it’s good to go. All finished. The hardest thing for me was… I’d finished the recordings, and gone back to the mixes a thousand times and got them ready, but I always have problems titling everything. Because there’s this conceptual baggage that Ghost Box records tend to have, and I wanted to get that right! The mood, and the feel of it. But I think I have, and I’m just starting to talk to Julian about artwork, and get the first rough ideas of what it might look like.

And I always do this to you… give me a track title.

Erm… let me think of one that captures the mood… [long pause, with the occasional sound of tormented anguish]. Well the album title is The Gone Away.

That’s a bit John Wyndham!

There’s a track called ‘The Gone Away’ as well. Given the circumstances, I had a bit of a wobble about that, but then I thought; “No, it’s nothing to do with it…”

It would never have struck me as having a connection to the current situation.

No… and some of the material is slightly dark for Belbury Poly, but I thought “No… I’m going to stick to my ideas and concepts.” There’s another track called ‘Magpie Lane’, which is very much inspired by the Advisory Circle track ‘Escape Lane’, and it steals a bit of Jon’s melody and builds it into a sort of… semi-acoustic folk thing.

Long before the lockdown, didn’t the album have a working title of The Parson’s Illness, or something similar?

The Parson’s Malady! That was the working title. And I don’t mean to be flippant about things, but you’ve got to laugh sometimes – that’s the only way to survive. So when the lockdown started and the situation was ongoing, that was generally how I was coping – by referring to it all as “The Parson’s Malady”…  

Thanks so much to Jim for his time, and splendid company, as ever. Intermission is available now, and can be bought here:

Plone, Puzzlewood and Ghost Box Records

In trying times, a little optimism can go a long way. And a fun, upbeat and nostalgic slice of music can be delightfully transportative: especially when it comes from a band who, for long periods of the last two decades, seemed like they might never work together again.

Plone‘s 1999’s debut album For Beginner Piano was among the first wave of deliriously retro-futurist electronica to herald the dawning of a new and fascinating movement, and their friendship with fellow Birmingham-based pioneers Broadcast and Pram placed them at the centre of what felt like a very West Midlands-centric scene. But a mooted (and at least partially-recorded) 2001 follow-up never saw the light of day, and then everything went disappointingly quiet. Mike Johnston worked with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra; Billy Bainbridge was a co-founder of the rather wonderful Seeland. And, according to Wikipedia, third member Mark Cancellara is now working as a “DJ and magician’s assistant”.

However, in 2020, Ghost Box Records casually announced that Johnston and Bainbridge were returning with a surprise, but utterly welcome, third instalment of the Plone saga. Or is it, officially, the second? It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the new album, Puzzlewood, is glorious. An utterly life-affirming collection of grin-inducing instrumentals that evoke delicious memories of vintage library music, of Test Card F on rainy Tuesday afternoons, of long-forgotten Childrens’ Film Foundation flicks and grainy teatime dramas about bird sanctuaries. I defy anyone to listen to the whole giddy confection without imagining exploding chemistry sets and pokey, street-corner sweetshops alike. It’s wonderful, and it comes – appropriately enough – in the kind of luridly colourful packaging only previously associated with Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs or Bazooka Joe’s Bubble Gum.

In late March 2020, I spoke with Mike and Billy live on my BBC Radio Tees show. It was a Wednesday night, and the plan had been to link up with them both live from their regular midweek meeting, but – two days into Coronavirus lockdown – that clearly wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, they were charming company and great fun. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: I thought it was really sweet that you said normally get together on a Wednesday night. But obviously you can’t right now! Is it a while since you’ve seen each other?

Mike: A couple of weeks now, I think?

Billy: Yeah, Mike was due to come round this evening, but we thought it was best if he stayed away…

The album is lovely. And I know you couldn’t have planned it this way, but it’s a very heartwarming, fun and upbeat album – just what we need at the moment. Was it always your plan to make such a positive-sounding album?

Mike: Yeah, it was. I think that’s at the heart of the Plone sound really, that optimism. And you know, circumstances have come around to a point where optimism can be quite useful!

It’s been twenty years since the last official Plone album. Had you always intended to reconvene at some point, or has this come slightly out of the blue?

Mike:  I think the release feels like it’s come out of the blue, but we’ve been working on the album for quite a while. There was a patch after the second album when we didn’t work together for a while – for quite a while – and then we started working on this one in about 2011, something like that. Maybe even a bit earlier. And then we kind of slowed down… but then, a few years ago, we started up again, and started meeting up regularly on our Wednesday nights.

Billy: I think the Wednesday nights were a success really, weren’t they?

Mike: Yeah, we found the right day of the week, that’s what it was! The midweek hump is what we needed.

It breaks the week up, I guess! So some of these tracks do actually go back to 2011, then?

Mike: I think so, yeah. Actually, there are a couple from earlier that were left over at the end of the second album, from around 2001. A couple of tracks hanging around from then that we picked up again, and started working on.

You mentioned that second album, which has become something of a great “lost” album. So it was 1999 that your debut album For Beginner Piano came out..?


Mike: Yeah…

Billy: Yeah, 1999. I remember… (laughs)

It’s nice that you had to think about that for a while!

Billy: It’s a long time ago! In the last century…

Then there were rumours of that second album, but it’s never actually had an official release. Do you want to tell us the story in your own words of what happened?

Mike: (Laughs) Do we have to? Go on, Billy…

Billy: It was around 2001 that we delivered the album, and it kind of got rejected by Warp Records. And that was kind of when the band split up. So we didn’t really want to look at it, or listen to it, for some time, I think. It is a bit of a tragic story in that respect. But I think enough time has elapsed for us to feel that we could maybe put it out there.

I think the odd bootleg has emerged here and there, but really? There is now a possibility that it might get an official release?

Billy: We’ve remixed it and remastered it. There’s still a bit of work to do to pick the right mixes, that sort of stuff, but there is a general intention to do something with it.

You weren’t tempted to carry any of it over onto Puzzlewood at all?

Billy: Mmmm… no.

Mike: No! (Laughs). No, it was good working on something relatively new, I think. And not being in the shadow of an album that had been unreleased for so long. Which we kind of think of as an artifact rather than an album, because – when we handed it in – it wasn’t really finished. We just had to hand something in at the time. So what was actually going to go on the album hadn’t really been finalised. There were more tracks than were going to be released. So, as Billy says, we’ve spent a bit of time remastering it, bringing it all up to speed. And obviously technology has moved on a bit, and it’s possible to rework it into something that’s more like what we wanted at the time.

Honestly, I’d be intrigued and thrilled to hear it. As for Puzzlewood itself… I was going to ask about the the title, which is a famous area of woodland in Gloucestershire. Was it a location that particularly spoke to the pair of you?  

Mike: I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to it! Not that I can remember. 

Billy: As the name of a wood, it’s brilliant…

Mike: Yeah, but I’ve never been there. So it’s got an air of mystery…

I’ve never been there either, but I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I know it’s been used as a location!

Billy: Yeah, we didn’t find out about all this until after we’d come up with the title… (laughs)

So was it just a place name that you knew and thought was particularly appropriate for the album?

Mike: Yeah, it was more like that, really. I mean, we’d gone through a list of interesting place names that either one of us had been to. Also, we were just looking at… kind of rambling names. Interesting woods, or obscure bits of the countryside.

Can tell us what else was on the shortlist?

Mike: (Laughs) No!

Billy: Go on, Mike…

Mike: I can’t remember off the top of my head, but I’ve still got the list somewhere!

A list with a load of names crossed out, apart from – presumably – Puzzlewood at the bottom?

Mike: You can probably find out the list of names that I came up with by looking at a map of the West Midlands, and trying to find the most ridiculous or most interesting names. They’ll be on the list!

I’m always intrigued by track titles on instrumental albums, and I usually think there’s a story behind them. So there’s ‘Watson’s Telescope’ on Puzzlewood, and I’ve spent my afternoon googling around this! Watson & Sons were indeed British telescope manufacturers from the mid-19th century until the 1940s. Is that track a tip of the hat to them?

Mike: It’d be good to say yes at this point, wouldn’t it?

Billy: (Laughs) Yes! Just say yes!

Aw… I had this glorious mental image of one you both owning old Watson & Sons telescopes when you were kids. So is that just a random title again?

Mike: Yeah. But I’ll go with your story, Bob.

Billy: Yeah, we’ll start using that… (laughs)

Can I ask a little bit about the early days of Plone? You came out of Birmingham in the 1990s, and it was a time when other Midlands artists like Broadcast and Pram were experimenting with similarly retro-sounding electronica. Did it feel like you were part of a scene at the time?

Mike: I think we felt like we were amongst friends, which was kind of great. There were lots of gigs happening, and some good venues where local bands could play. So yeah, it did feel like a bit of a scene, and you know…  Birmingham isn’t a huge place, so it’s kind of easy enough to bump into other bands.

Did you all know each other from the start, or did you start making this kind of music independently before realising that other artists at least had similar inspirations?  

Mike: I would say that we started making music straight after moving to Birmingham, and then – through the music – met other people, at gigs and also at DJ nights. And gradually we met the other bands. I think, very quickly, we met Pram, and then Broadcast a bit later.

It felt like a really exciting time. I keep talking about this, but I remember the first time that I heard Boards of Canada – a track on called ‘Roygbiv’ on a free CD sellotaped to the front of the NME. About 1999. And it was a real watershed moment for me: “My God, other people have these feelings about my childhood! Those feelings of watching Programmes for Schools and Colleges on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with a slight temperature. It was revelatory moment to realise that other people were not just remembering these feelings, but actually taking inspiration from them…

Mike: Yeah, I’ve always had that rosy nostalgia for that kind of Schools Programming. I remember at school when the teacher would wheel out the television, or maybe even the VHS, and show us some programme or other, and I’d think: “Oh, thank God! We don’t have to listen to the teacher any more. We can watch telly, we’re good at that!

For bonus points, a television in a wooden cabinet…

Mike: Yes, exactly – probably locked.

Did all of that come with a love of library music as well, then? That really comes over in your work. I could never understand as a kid why the music that we heard on TV, with the test card for example, didn’t seem to be thought of as “proper” music…

Mike: Yeah, it was really good! It was kind of there without us thinking about it, or finding out about it… it was being put into our brains. But there was some pretty good stuff, and I suppose the Radiophonic Workshop kind of epitomises that sort of sound. But, as you say, there were also all those library records as well.

The Radiophonic Workshop weren’t even credited as individual musicians for a while! It must have made them all the more intriguing.

Mike: Yeah, it made it sound like the music was being made in a laboratory. Very mysterious.

Was it easy to get hold of the gear when you started out, then? All those analogue synths are worth a fortune now, but were people actually chucking them away in the mid-1990s?

Mike: Well, we used to go down to the music shops in Birmingham, and they would have all the latest 1990s gear set out. But in the corner of the room  – or in a separate smaller room, shoved in the corner – were the analogue synths. Probably not the classic ones, but analogue nevertheless. And they were reasonably priced at the time. They hadn’t become cult items or anything like that. But of course… a lot of these synths didn’t have MIDI, which was the big watershed, really. It made them seem like they were useless, but they were far from that. They were very beautiful-sounding instruments.

Is there something really inspiring about working from a limited musical palette like that? You’ve been part of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra, both making music using very simple computer chips and bits of old toys. Is there something about those limitations that can inspire a bit of creativity?

Mike: Yeah, definitely. I was more heavily involved with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… with the Modified Toy Orchestra I was just playing live, really. But the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… that was a kind of deliberate attempt to eke as much as possible out of a very limited palette, yeah. I agreed to work on that project because I’d always really wanted to learn Machine Code programming! I have strange ambitions, and that was one of them…

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Z80 Assembly Code. Let’s not be embarrassed about these things.

Mike: It’s on my CV… and has no real world application at all!

And how did the link with Ghost Box Records come about? It feels like a natural fit for you. Were Jim Jupp and Julian House people that you’d known for a long time?

Billy: I didn’t really know Jim until I sent the tracks off, really. But I was aware of the label, and a fan of the label, so I always thought they would be ideal if we were to release anything again. So we sent quite a few tracks off to them, and it was fairly straightforward, really. They loved the stuff.

The album has beautiful artwork by Julian House, too. 

Billy: That’s right, he’s done a fantastic job with that.

I believe it’s based on the Jonny Trunk’s book Wrappers Delight, I think he took that as a bit of inspiration!

Mike: I love the colours on it…

And with that, we drifted into a conversation about the potential unavailability of the Puzzlewood vinyl during an ongoing lockdown situation, but – a month on – it’s a relief to report that the album is now available in physical and digital formats from:

And thanks to both Mike and Billy for a fun conversation, and – indeed – indulging my crackpot theories about the origins of their track titles. And I felt a little guilty about not getting around to discussing Seeland with Billy, so let me offer up this wonderful 2009 single as belated recompense:

Cindy Kent, The Settlers, Follyfoot and The Lightning Tree

“Down in the meadow where the wind blows free, in the middle of a field stands a lightning tree…”

For my money, there are few more evocative 1970s TV themes than the title music from Follyfoot. Combining an unsettlingly rustic folk lyric with joyously choral harmonies and just a soupcon of freewheeling pop magic, it’s the perfect introduction to Yorkshire TV’s popular family drama of the early 1970s. A warm-hearted but frequently wistful tale of a secluded farm that provided a rest home for retired horses, and – indeed – a communal retreat for the gang of teenage misfits that lived and worked there.

The theme was performed by Birmingham-based folk band The Settlers, who – by 1971, when they recorded the song – had already been together for the best part of a decade. Comprising Cindy Kent on vocals, Mike Jones on guitar, John Fyffe on banjo and Mansel Davies on bass (replaced in 1965 by Geoff Srdzinski), they had become familiar figures on both radio and TV, lacing traditional folk music with a beguiling pop sensibility.

Since leaving the band in 1973, Cindy Kent has enjoyed an extraordinarily eclectic career. She became a radio presenter and producer, working for the BBC, LBC, Capitol and Premier Christian Radio, and – since 2008 – has been an ordained priest: the Rev Cindy Kent MBE, no less! After driving listeners to distraction by playing The Lightning Tree repeatedly on my BBC Tees Evening Show, I couldn’t resist attempting to track her down for an on-air interview, and was delighted when she agreed to come on the show. She’s great fun… here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Tell us about The Lightning Tree… it was a song written by TV producer Francis Essex, who I always assumed must have worked on Follyfoot. But he didn’t… however his brother Tony did!

Cindy: That’s right, it was Tony who was the producer, but he’d obviously shared the idea of the programme with Francis. Francis happened to come along to the Royal Festival Hall in London, where we did our annual concert, and the song that we used to end the show with was an amazing version of Rhythm Of Life, from Sweet Charity. Very much like The Swingle Singers, with that “dobedoo” idea going on in the background! He went home and wrote The Lightning Tree based on our version of Rhythm of Life. And then they got in touch and asked if we’d do it… and well, why not? So we went to London, recorded it… and then thought no more about it, to be honest.

We thought “That’s fine… it’ll happen or it won’t.” And we then went off on a cruise… when I was with The Settlers we’d do a couple of cruises a year, as a kind of paid holiday. And we got a telegram – remember telegrams? – from our manager saying “It’s just entered the charts, you’d better learn it!”

And we thought “Oh, for goodness sake – who’s got the lyrics?”. We were scrabbling around! But people still remember it today. I’m amazed. It’s a long time ago, isn’t it? 

I just think how fabulous it is that it was written specifically for you by somebody who’d seen you playing live! What a flattering thing to happen.  

We were really flattered, I must admit. This guy was there in the audience, he went home and wrote it, and the rest – as they say – is history.

So did you have much contact with the cast and crew of Follyfoot? You mentioned to me that you came up and did a photoshoot at the farm itself. Was it near Harrogate somewhere? 

It was somewhere in Yorkshire! Yes, They took over a farm and had us all sitting in a tree. How they got me up into the branches of a tree I’ll never know, because I’m not very good with heights! But there’s a picture that exists, I think on the Follyfoot website, of the four of us. And then there are pictures with Desmond Llewellyn – Q from the James Bond films – and Steve Hodson, the lead guy; and Gillian Blake, who played Dora. That was our only interaction with them, although I did meet Steve Hodson a few years later, because my late husband was a record producer, and he produced a single with Steve! So we had that connection.

Did you ever see much of the series, or were you always on tour?

I watched a few of them… we were often in transit, though. I think it went out at an odd time, and we were usually travelling to a gig. And, of course, these were they days before we had video recorders. But it went out all over the world… in fact, I did a cruise last year at Easter, as a chaplain, and I met a lady on board who ran a dancing school. And she said – “I’m so pleased to meet you – we worked out a whole routine for The Lightning Tree with our dance group!” It’s the song that keeps on giving, really.

Did you get to see the dance routine?

I’d like to see it! It wasn’t me dancing, that’s for sure… [laughs]

What do you think it is about the song that has made it so enduring?  

Do you think it’s maybe the fact that people liked the series? I mean, I love M*A*S*H, and whenever I hear the theme to that, I’m there watching. So it’s that combination… the early 1970s were a fun time to be around, and the song transports a lot of people back to their younger days, of sitting around on an evening watching a nice programme on the telly. It didn’t have anything that your Gran wouldn’t want to watch, and it was well-produced and acted. Just one of those fun things to be part of. I think it’s great that people still remember it, to be honest.

Can I ask about The Settlers as a band… when did you first start, around 1963 or 64?

1963 we started, yeah. Mike and John met at a teacher training college in Birmingham, they were going to be teachers. One of them from Burton-on-Trent, and one from Fleetwood in Lancashire. They met up, started singing in the bar, and then went along to a folk club in Birmingham, near to where I used to live, and got up and did their three or four songs. And at the end of the evening they both came over, and chatted me up! Which was quite fun, really. So we all went off to the local coffee bar, which was what you did in the early 1960s, and they got the guitar out, and I joined in.

I went to a few gigs, and on one occasion they’d done their three or four songs – which was all they had – but the audience was shouting for more, and they called me up onstage and said “Come on – do that song we were messing about with the other night”. What a way to get onstage! So I took my cardigan off and got up… and then they couldn’t get rid of me, really. It was good fun, and we entered a talent competition where we had to have four people, so we got a bass player in, and it went from there.

Were we very fortunate… we won the talent competition, and part of the prize was… you know, getting everything in one place. It was like the kids today with The X Factor: we got a recording contract, a TV audition and a radio audition, all as part of that prize. It was a really good start.

So were you from that folk background as well, then? It sounds like you were going to the folk clubs, too…

I was just there in the audience. I just love live music. I came from a musical family, Dad had a fabulous bass voice and sang in a choir; Mum was a soprano and sang in a local choir, too. My sister was absolutely amazing… not only could she sing and play piano, but she was the youngest member to be admitted into the City of Birmingham Symphony Choir. She was only 16. And so we used to sit around the piano, and singing was second nature. And at the local church, I was always up there singing.

The folk clubs were a natural progression, and were great. You heard some really good stuff. You heard some awful stuff as well to be honest, some people who should never have been let near a stage! But there were people who got up and went on to be really quite famous, and it was a good time to be around. It was when the Beatles and all the Liverpool sound was starting… it was a really creative time, and great to have been part of it.  

I was going to ask about that combination of folk and pop music. Obviously the folk scene was hugely healthy at the time, and people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were coming over to play at Martin Carthy’s folk clubs in London…

That’s right, it was an emerging sound. People were getting to know it. We, in fact, got hold of Blowin’ in the Wind… somebody had done it in America, but nobody had done it here. We were with Decca Records, and we took it to a guy who was quite famous, Dick James… who turned down lots of people and made lots of mistakes in his musical career! We said “We want to do this as a single,” and he said “Nah, it’s not commercial enough…”

But we were never really a folk group as such. We took folk songs, and made them a bit more poppy… rather than standing there with our fingers in our ears and a glass of beer in the other hand.  

You brought a folk approach to pop songs as well. You did a lovely version of The Beatles’ Nowhere Man.  

That was a single, yes. That was quite good for us, I remember we did it live on The Morecambe and Wise Show… and I mean live, to millions of viewers. Looking back, it must have been quite terrifying! Yeah, it was a nice song to do, and it suited our three-part harmonies.  

How were Eric and Ernie to work with?

Oh, they were just amazing! They used to do lots of rehearsal throughout the day, and almost every time they did a sketch it was slightly different each time. They were honing it, and we just sat there watching.

I’ll always remember… I think we did the Lightning Tree with them as well, and I was wearing a bright red outfit, a see-through skirt with hotpants and a boob tube, and I had long, bright red fingernails, and make-up and all the rest of it, just waiting in the wings to go on. They came off at the end of a sketch, and Eric walked past me and said… “Shouldn’t you go and get changed? You’re on in a minute!” They were just great fun to work with. A brilliantly talented pair.

I love your 1966 single, Till Winter Follows Spring. And I’ve just discovered it was the first lyric you ever wrote!  

It was, yeah! Mike, who is sadly no longer with us, wrote a lot of tunes and often wrote the lyrics as well, but on this particular occasion I took the tune away, and… well, listening to it again, I think it stands the test of time a little bit. It’s an eternal theme, isn’t it? Another way of saying “I’ll love you forever.” But yeah, it was a nice one. You’ve brought back lots of memories!

Good! Honestly, it’s a lovely wistful song. Can I ask about some of your other TV work? In 1969, you worked up here in the North-East on a show called Life With Johnny, for Tyne Tees… 

Oh my goodness, that really is going back! Yes, Cliff Richard and I went to the same church. And we did a lot of work with him: we did concerts on the continent, and at the Albert Hall, and tours all around the UK… both supporting, and doing our own thing. And he was asked to do a TV series by Tyne Tees, in the religious slot. It took a different parable each week – say, the Good Samaritan. And Cliff played a guy called Johnny, who had three girlfriends – I was one of them, Una Stubbs played another, and there was a lady called Linda Marchal, who you will never have heard of… but you’ll know her by her pen name, which is Lynda La Plante! She played the other girlfriend. We had two weeks each… I was the one that was very serious and wanted to get married and settle down, Una was the one who wanted to spend all his money, and Linda was the nice girl who got him in the end.

Una Stubbs actually sang a song in that show where she mimed to my voice! And I tell you what… it’s the weirdest thing to see someone moving their mouth, and your voice is coming out. It’s almost like you’re dead! I can’t tell you what a very strange feeling that was.

But yes, we did that for Tyne Tees, and we wrote about 30 songs, I think. A guy called David Winter, a clergyman who went on to be head of religious broadcasting for the BBC, wrote all the lyrics and dished them out to the five of us, and each week we’d meet and compare notes. Sometimes we’d put John’s verse to Cliff’s chorus or whatever, and I wrote my very first tune! A song called Love Is More Than Words, which is on Youtube. I was quite pleased with that, it was a love duet that Cliff and I did. That was great, writing all those songs. We had a great fondness for Tyne Tees: lovely people, and a lovely company to work with. They were fabulous to us over the years.

The other curious thing about Life With Johnny: playing Cliff’s dad was William Hartnell, the first Doctor! He didn’t do that much work after leaving Doctor Who in 1966, he wasn’t a well man…

No, I don’t think he was. It wasn’t a very taxing part, but it was nice to have him on there. There was a guy from Coronation Street as well, Mike Baldwin… Jonny Briggs! Several people cropped up in it over the course of the series, and there were dancers opening and closing the show… in fact, if you type Life With Johnny into Youtube, it’s there. How people get hold of these things I don’t know, but new clips seem to appear from time to time. Those were the days!

How’s Cliff to be around?  

Yeah, he’s great. We became really good friends over the years: I toured with him, and we did some solo things together. What you see is what you get with Cliff. He’s lovely, and all the problems he’s had just lately… I actually went into court and sat with him. That’s all over, and thank God he’s come out of the other end. That must have taken its toll on him.

But yes, he’s great fun, and wherever we went he was mobbed. He’d land at an airport and there’d be thousands of people there. There’s one lovely little story which I was quite chuffed about: we met up at Manchester airport, the four of us and Cliff and a couple of other people, all going to somewhere in Europe for a concert. And this one guy approached ther group with his autograph book and pen, and Cliff was stood there… and the guy walked straight past him, came up to me, and said “Could I have your autograph, please?”

Cliff didn’t mind at all, but it was very funny!

You were telling me about another TV show called Sing Out, from 1973…

Yes, Sing Out With The Settlers. That was another six-part series, half an hour, and it was us with lots of different people. They’re probably awful, perhaps I’d be better off not seeing them, but it would be so nice if they did exist somewhere! They’ve never turned up on Youtube, and it was in the days before VCR so nobody had a recording of them, but it would be so good to get hold of some, just to have a look. In fact, I don’t know if all of Life With Johnny exists. There’s probably some library somewhere, festering away in a basement…

I have a curious feeling a lot of the Tyne Tees archive is at Teesside University…  

I would be indebted to you forever if you could find those!

You’ve had a very accomplished career in radio, as a presenter and a producer, did all of that start essentially because you were doing lots of TV and radio work with The Settlers? Did you get a feel for it?

I did… when the Settlers ended in 1973, we all went our separate ways. Mike formed The New Settlers, and that went for about a year with three new people. John decided to move into the pub trade, and he had several pubs, mostly up in the North East. Ending up at the Dunstanburgh Castle Hotel, which is absolutely stunning – half an hour south of Holy Island. Geoff married a Dutch girl and moved to Holland, he became a piano tuner… he had to go back to college, and he loves doing that. He was the most talented musician out of all of us.

And I decided I’d quite like to go into radio. David Winter, who I mentioned earlier, said “Come and do a few things on the Sunday programme” [on BBC Radio 4], so I used to review pop-gospel albums and things. It was a great way of dipping a toe into the water. And then I moved onto my own series, Gospel Road on Radio 2. One of the series was presented with Cliff, and we went around the country discovering new talent. I did a couple of series on Radio 1 too; so I went from Radio 4, to Radio 2, to Radio 1. I’ve never done Radio 3, I must come up with an idea for Radio 3!

And then I was in at the birth of commercial radio, which was absolutely fantastic. I was with LBC, I was with Capital. I was with Radio Hallam in Sheffield doing my own late night show, that was great fun up there. And then Premier Christian Radio, when that first started, they asked me if I wanted to do it – 25 years ago this year! I was the first presenter they ever signed up. It was great fun to be in at the birth of all of that in this country. To try and do something that was different, they way the Americans have done it. And 25 years on, I think we succeeded.

What’s your proudest moment in radio?  

Oh my goodness, you should have given me a bit more warning! 9/11… I’m not sure I was proud of it, but I was doing the Afternoon Show. Half an hour before I went on air was when the first plane hit, so we abandoned all the normal music we were going to play and I was there talking to all sorts of people on the screen in front of me, saying, “On Line 4 is somebody from such-and-such a charity, they’ve been working out in New York, and their principal guy is on the phone…” And sometimes, at the end of the interview, I’d just say to the person: “Would you say a little prayer?” Not with all of them, just with some. And I was able to tell our listeners what was going on, because I was getting the feed from IRN and BBC and everything else that was coming in. I was on air for about five hours straight. I’ll never forget that… adjusting what you’ve got in your head, reacting and thinking on your feet.

But the nicest thing was, the next day I got an e-mail from a lady in America who – this is weird, isn’t it – had been listening to a British radio station, to something that was going on in her country, and she just wanted to thank me for getting people to pray. She said it was so lovely to hear other people pray, and all she had to do was say “Amen”. And I treasure that e-mail, it was one of those moments when you just feel that you’re in somebody’s life, and you’re making a difference.

There’s a real responsibility to those moments. I’ve been on air when other big news stories have broken, and there is a feeling of… people are getting this from me, and I’ve got to get it right, and be sensitive and respectful.

You do. I had it with Princess Diana, that was the other one. First thing in the morning… I heard the news at 4am getting out of bed, got into the car to go in, and rang around everyone that I could think of – in some cases breaking the news to them – to record comments. I was in the studio for ages, I was on air for about five hours, drove home about eight hours later, and on the way home I was listening to the radio and suddenly found myself crying. Because it was sinking in that Diana had died. I’d been running on pure adrenaline, and it hit me really hard as I was driving home, thinking “Oh my goodness…”

They actually used to get worried at Premier, when I went, in that something was about to happen. “Check the obits…!” [laughs]

You’re clearly a devoted Christian, and – in fact – are now the Rev Cindy Kent! How did it all happen?

Who’d have thought it, eh? That the girl in a mini-skirt bashing a tambourine would end up being a vicar? There are a few of us… there’s Richard Coles from The Communards, and a couple of others that have gone from being a pop star to being a priest.

Was your faith a big part of your upbringing, then?

I think so, yeah. We always went to chapel from me being a toddler, and it just became part of my life. And at about 15 or 16 it became very personal. I took it on board for myself and just said to God: “OK, here I am… use me, do whatever it is”. And the story unfolded, and went on from there, to me doing what I do now, I guess.

When did you start to feel the pull to actually become a priest yourself?

I don’t know… I woke up one morning and thought “I think I want to be a deacon”, which was the first stage in those days. And then I rang up my local bishop, who I knew really well because I’d used him on Capital Radio, and said “I think I’m being called to be a deacon… but I’m not really sure what that is!”

And he said “Ah, I’ve been expecting this!” I said: “Oh, really? I haven’t!”

So you go forward to a selection conference, and you have to pass exams, and I mean… I was dreadful as a child at school, so the thought of doing anything academic filled me with the screaming ab-dabs. But by the grace of God I got through it, and ended up being ordained, and yeah… it was really good. It’s been a great journey: I had my own church in North London for six years, and then I retired and moved to the Isle of Sheppey, nearly four years ago.

And have you stayed in retirement?

No, don’t be daft! It’s nice to be able to do things, and when I came down here I got what they call “permission to officiate”… which means that you do the job, but you don’t get paid! So I help out at the local church, doing services and things, which is lovely. If I’m going to be at the service anyway, I might as well lead it. I’ve met a load of people, made some great friends, and I’ve got the sea at the bottom of my garden. I sit watching it from my living room. Well… it isn’t really the sea, it’s the end of the Thames, but we don’t mention that!

But there are boats and ships going up and down all day, the tide goes in and out… it’s just the most idyllic place, and I absolutely love it. But if you’d told me, back in 1900-and-frozen-to-death, that this is what I’d be doing in 2020, I would have gone “What?!!!”

And are you still singing live?

I do the odd gig locally, yeah. We’ve done a couple at the beautiful little theatre here on the island, the Criterion, and that’s great. And of course I teach people the chorus of The Lightning Tree – not that you have to really teach it, they seem to know it – and they all join in. The worst thing about that song, though, is that all five verses begin with the same words: “Down in the meadow where…” something happens. And it’s a case of trying to remember which one you’re on! [laughs] I’m constantly singing “Down in the meadow where… mumble mumble mumble…” What happens next? I don’t know!

I’m going to play some more Settlers to finish… can I play Major to Minor, from 1967?

Oh my goodness, Tony Hatch produced that! It was Kenny Everett’s favourite record of the year when it came out. Great lyrics, it was a very clever song that Tony Hatch wrote, he was our producer at the time. It’s a shame it wasn’t a proper hit, it was what they call a “turntable hit”… everybody played it and loved it, it just didn’t sell! But it is a good song, and a nice one to close with…

Thanks so much to Cindy for her time, and for being such a good sport. You can say hello to her on Twitter, she’s here…

Alice Lowe, Sightseers, Timestalker and Delia Derbyshire

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, I began to stumble upon subtle suggestions that actual other people may have experienced the same hazy feelings of vague, oddly reassuring disquiet that had helped to define my own childhood and teenage years. The discovery of Boards of Canada – via a free CD, sellotaped to the front of the NME – was certainly a revelatory moment. And on TV, Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper’s immaculate spoof of 1970s schools and science programmes, Look Around You, gave me a frisson of hilarious, head-swimming nostalgia; as did Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade’s brilliant pastiche of low-budget, late-night 1980s horror. Both shows not only captured perfectly the style and tone of their respective targets, but also their production aesthetic: the crackly 16mm film, the clunky edits and deliciously wonky analogue synths.

Starring alongside Holness, Ayoade and Matt Berry in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was Alice Lowe, brilliantly assuming one of the dual roles that defined the series’ “show within a show” conceit. Alice played actress Madeline Wool, who in turn portrayed Dr Liz Asher, a medic in the Darkplace hospital with hilariously destructive psychokinetic powers. Since then, she has become one of the most in-demand performers on TV (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd, Little Britain, Horrible Histories, Sherlock, Black Mirror… it’s a very long list), and her BBC Radio 4 show, Alice’s Wunderland, unfurled a gentle tapestry of woozy, almost psychedelic comedy onto the airwaves; a hallucinogenic trip though “the Poundland of magical realms”.

In recent years, she has launched a successful cinema career: co-scripting and starring as a homicidal caravan enthusiast in the brilliant horror-comedy Sightseers, and then writing, directing and taking the lead role in the ingenious Prevenge, the darkly comic tale of a heavily-pregnant serial killer who believes her crimes are being directed by the voice of her unborn child.

Alice was genuinely seven months pregnant with her first daughter, Della, when Prevenge was filmed in 2015, and – when I spoke to her in early 2020 – was enjoying some quiet time at home following the birth of her second daughter, Sadie. I’d noticed (on Twitter, inevitably) that she’d been reading the blog, and was impudent enough to drop her a message asking about the possibility of an interview. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the incredibly entertaining 90-minute Skype that that followed, so good grief… thanks Alice for indulging me so generously. And apologies if I’ve held up production of the next film, Timestalker.

Here’s the full conversation:

Bob: Are you writing at the moment?

Alice: Yes, working on a few TV and film projects. My next film as a director has been postponed because of my second pregnancy – and coronavirus.  It’s going to be more of a challenge obviously, as I’ve never actually made a film with a baby. I’ve made a film when I was pregnant, but never with an existing child!

Is this the new film, Timestalker?  

Yeah. That’s next on my slate for shooting. I’m also writing a Delia Derbyshire biopic…

Wow! Really? You should speak to Drew Mulholland, he knew her late in her life, and has some good stories. He was telling me she once got special Delia Derbyshire snuff commissioned from one of the country’s last remaining snuff factories!

I read your interview online! But yeah, I met some of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop people, like Dick Mills. And they said she was a different person to different people, and she had lots of different sides to her. And you think… how the hell do you encapsulate that? With some of the stuff that you find out about her, you think… was she on the spectrum? Which wouldn’t be that surprising when someone’s got that level of genius. But at the same time, she was really sociable, and she had this personality that people were really drawn to. She’s an interesting figure to try to sketch out.

The reason I got interested in her was that she was born in Coventry, like I was. And I only really started getting interested in her when I was doing my radio show because I wanted to make a show that was like the creepy children’s series from the past. And when I write, I like to listen to stuff that I think complements what I’m writing. So I started listening to lots of Delia Derbyshire and BBC Radiophonic Workshop stuff.

And once I found out her story, I started overly identifying with her! Because I saw parallels with the work that I’ve tried to do over the last twenty years, and how I’ve felt quite often that I would be overlooked in terms of what I was contributing. And that sort of happened to her, so it resonated with me. And I felt… “Oh, I understand her!” But I don’t know if I do… the more I find out about her, the more of it I don’t understand.

But I do think that if you’re writing a biopic about someone, you can only come at it from your own personal perspective: that’s what’s going to bring the emotion to it. I think all biopics are coloured by the opinions of the people who make them.

The fact that she actually stopped making music has always intrigued me. She lived up here in the North-East for a while, didn’t she? 

Yeah. But it’s funny, because you talk to Dick Mills about that… she got married to a miner’s son that she met in Cumbria, and that lasted for two years. But I mentioned that to Dick, and he had no idea. For someone supposedly so close to her, he was like: “Did she? Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing she’d do…”

And I thought “Gosh, how weird…” She obviously cut off a lot of people from her life. But that’s kind of what the film is about, about her withdrawing from music and why she withdrew from it. So it’s kind of a psychological piece. If I was trying to be truthful to every single detail, it would probably make a really boring film. So it’s trying to get to the bottom of what’s actually compelling about her as a person, I think.

Have you been working on this for a while? 

I was touting it around for years, trying to get it made. It’s something that I’ve been working on for maybe six years, But I never took it to the level of researching it too much, because I just didn’t have the money to be chasing people around the country. But finally, I’ve got the backing for it now. It hasn’t been greenlit yet, but it is something I’m working on.

People just kept saying “Why has no-one made a film about this woman?” And I was a bit like “I am! I am making a film about her!”

I would take it to BBC Film, and they would say “We don’t think there’s enough of a story”. And I’d say “Well, there’s that film about a man who drives a bus…”

Who’s the guy again? Adam Driver…

Paterson! That’s a great film!

If you can make about a man driving a bus, you can make a film about a female composer.

Plot is overrated anyway. Some of my favourite films are films where nothing really happens. It’s all about character…

…and atmosphere. Mine too. But also, I do think you can make a plot out of anything, and you can make as story out of anyone. They don’t have to be saving the world for it to be an interesting story.

This all ties in neatly with us chatting for the blog, because obviously it’s called “The Haunted Generation” and I think the music and sound made by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop played a big part in the slightly unsettled feeling that many of us remember from our childhoods. Is that “haunted” childhood feeling one that you can identify with?

Hauntology is something that I only really, really, really recently found out about. A friend mentioned it to me and said “Do you know about hauntology?” My friend’s really into it. And I said “I have no idea what you’re talking about…” I found it really difficult to grasp what she meant. But when I did actually start thinking about it, I thought “This is something that’s had a huge influence on me…” I’d just never put it together. But yeah – I do like stuff that has a flavour of the past, without really consciously knowing why.

I was definitely into a lot of weird children’s TV shows. I watched Century Falls. I’m slightly too young to have seen things like Children of the Stones the first time around, but I watch those now. But definitely I was obsessed with the weird and the spooky… anything that was slightly folkloric. That’s the other thing that people are obsessed with now, isn’t it? The Folk Horror stuff. That was definitely one of the things that I was really into.

I also remember, when I was about 17, I was really into Portishead. And it was the time that The X Files was on, and it was huge. And I remember my friend had just passed her driving test, and we went for a drive around the countryside, in the dark. Vaguely looking for lights in the sky, in an X-Files sort of way, listening to Portishead in the car! And I remember saying “I think something’s coming that is going to really change everything. I feel like there’s something new coming…”

And really, what I think I was talking about was my own future (laughs). I was 17, and of course everything was about to change, because I was about to go off to university. But there was just something about that particular era, a sort of spooky feeling that that music gave me, and a sense that there was something exciting on the horizon that was spooky and dark and weird.

That’s wonderful, and I’m thrilled that you talk about the 1990s in that way, because there’s a temptation to assume these childhood feelings are restricted to the 1970s. And I’ve been trying to work out whether kids of the 1980s and 1990s – and beyond – had them, too. And I’m discovering more and more that they did.

Well, I mean… Portishead were all about film references and the Radiophonic Workshop, so for me the 1990s was when people started getting really interested in this stuff from the past. I dunno… you look at David Lynch, and he was obsessed with the 1950s, so you could say that what he does is hauntology as well, just from an earlier period. That sense of drawing on the past is always uncanny and spooky, and can go into a fairytale realm.

Yes, particularly when you’re inventing bits of the past that could have happened then, but they didn’t. But when you experience them, it kind of feels like they did. Sorry, that started out as a coherent sentence then kind of drifted away…

No, I know what you mean. And that’s what I read that hauntology was… when I looked at the Wikipedia page, I was like, “What? I have no understanding of what this means!” But the friend who drove me around in her dad’s old Audi was the friend who, 20 years later, pointed out what hauntology was. And it just made me think about my influences, and this patchwork of memories that we have. I think most creative people draw on their childhood all the time. Because that was when you were most powerfully affected by stuff, when everything seemed so much more vivid.

It’s funny discovering that you weren’t aware of this stuff until recently, because there were two TV shows that I saw in the early 2000s that made me think – “That’s it! That’s that feeling of watching TV as a kid, and feeling slightly creeped out by it all!” One was Look Around You, and the other one was Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

Oh, right!

So none of this was on anybody’s mind when you were making Darkplace? It’s pure serendipity that it has that feeling?  

I dunno, maybe hauntology gives a respectability to these things! I remember at the time, Channel 4 saying “We don’t want anything set in the past…” and I think they can still be a bit like that. I might be putting words into other peoples mouths here, but I think with something like Raised By Wolves, they said “It can’t be set in the 1980s…”

And when you look at Sex Education, which isn’t set in the 1980s, but it is very 80s in its feel, you sort of ask – why would you make that decision? People love stuff that’s set in the past. They always have. Sometimes it’s budgetary, but quite often that’s the thing that makes something stand out, and makes people love it… that it’s got that strange, eerie nostalgic quality to it. And I think now, if you said to Channel 4, “Oh, it’s nostalgic, there are all of these things that have been set in the past and been proven to be successful…” Maybe there’d be more force to that now. I don’t know.

Was it a battle getting Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace on air, then?

I don’t know… I didn’t write it, so I wasn’t party to those kinds of meetings, but I would hear about them. There was a pilot that was very, very different. It was very serious, like a Lars Von Trier pastiche. And then they decided that was the wrong way to go with it, and that people wouldn’t get it, so made it into a much more 1980s thing.

But I mean… it didn’t get recommissioned! And I think it cost a lot as well. It was shot on film for a start, and I don’t know how they managed to persuade Channel 4 that that was the way to go. I think it was probably more expensive to do it on film then that it would be now… it’s coming back into fashion now, so there are more places where you can get it processed. Back then, it was like – “What?” It was probably the last TV show to be shot on film.

I think that adds so much to it, though. As soon as you see the opening titles to Darkplace, with the juddery film look, and the wobbly synth soundtrack… it’s just so transportative. And I know you’ve made short films [Sticks & Balls and Stiffy] on Super 8 as well. Is format important in conjuring these feelings?

It’s funny isn’t it? I love the results that you get from shooting on film, but I would never let it make or break a project. Richard Ayoade or someone would be a bit more “I’m not doing this unless it’s on film!”. I would never be like that, I’m more “I’ll do what I can to get it made…” (laughs). Which is just the way that it’s had to be.

But my next film, we are shooting on film. Which is scary as well, because if things go wrong it’s so much more expensive, and if you make a mistake it’s an expensive mistake. Hairs in the gate, and stuff like that! But I do think, with something like Darkplace, the reason it has aged well is down to some of those aesthetic decisions. They elevate it above something where, in the grade, they stuck on a grainy finish to make it look like film. You can always tell when it’s not quite right.

And also, I think it lends a different aesthetic. I just did a film called Eternal Beauty, with Craig Roberts directing, and he said something really interesting: that it lends a different atmosphere to the shoot. You’re working in a more old-fashioned way. It’s a bit more hallowed. Every time you do a take, it’s a bit more… “Hold your breath! Is it going to work?” It adds a bit more magic to the performances, because you know you’ve got a limited number of takes, and it can be – “Guys… this one’s got to work, we don’t get to do it again”.

And that can add a really interesting quality. The Super 8 stuff that I’ve done, we only had one take for each thing, and it was edited in camera. So you only get one go, and everybody nailed it. It’s really interesting, the adrenaline you get… it’s almost a bit more like theatre, in a way. And I really enjoy that, that aspect of it. But it can be terrifying! Super 8 is cheap, that’s fine, there’s nothing to lose, really. But doing it with a big budget film, with big costumes, and horses and carriages… that’s more terrifying.

Ha! So have you got horses and carriages on Timestalker?

Yes! (Laughs). Well, at this point there are some in the script… but there might not be in the finished film! It might be – “What were we thinking?”

I remember talking to Frances Castle from Clay Pipe, and her saying that her memories of watching TV as a kid were of the picture being slightly fuzzy, and the signal drifting in and out… it’s the analogue aesthetic, I guess. Which I now find really evocative. And I know people now try to contrive that, using old film stock, or old tape stock if it’s music…

Toydrum, who did the soundtrack for Prevenge, use old machines, and have a studio where they’ve got some of the stuff that Delia Derbyshire was using. The EMS VCS3, or whatever it is! I have to know all this stuff, and it’s the sort of stuff I hate… I’m the least technological person in the world, and I’m having to learn about these machines. I’m like “Oh god, I hate this…”. But that is the world that she inhabited!

But they’ve got these machines, and I love it all. They can make really unique sounds that you can’t get elsewhere. And I do love all that, because I’m very analogue as a person. I’m technologically rubbish. I’ll be that person that will build something by hand rather than using the technology at my disposal.

I directed an advert recently, and they said “Oh, you could do a storyboard for us…”. And most people would use an app, or get a storyboard artist, but I just do drawings! I’d rather do drawings and scan them into the computer, in that old-fashioned way. It’s not that they’re brilliant drawings, it’s just… that’s the only way that I understand how to do stuff. By hand. That’s why I like Delia Derbyshire, because to an extent that’s what she did. These laborious tasks, where she’s sellotaping things together. That’s how she understood how to make something… as a very physical act.

I went to see a talk with Brian Hodgson and David Vorhaus, who did White Noise with Delia Derbyshire. They got some young composers to talk too, and it was just so interesting… they’d talk to David Vorhaus and he’d say “I got a length of drainpipe and found this material that was like rubber, but not rubber, and then I built this machine by hand, and soldered some circuitry together…”

And then they’d go to the young composers and say “How did you make your song?” And they’d say “Erm… with my laptop. I’ve got Garageband…” and they’d look quite embarrassed, because they’d realise “My God… I have it on a platter, making this music”. It was interesting.

I don’t how we’ve got onto this, we’ve just drifted!

No, it is interesting! I interviewed David Cain from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop back in 2012, and he said that he basically lost interest in making music when everybody started playing keyboards. For him, it was about invention, and the technical challenge of cutting bits of tape into half-inch strips and sellotaping them back together down the corridor…

That was exactly Delia, and that’s what’s in the film. That was what I became really interested in: people who became disenfranchised by technology, really. Even though they were once technological before their time. There’s an irony. I’m toying with putting this line in, where Delia says “People have been telling me I’m the future for years, and then suddenly I’m the past…”

I think any creative can understand that. Especially in comedy, which is a young person’s game, similar to music. Someone can be really fashionable, then suddenly they’re the most old-fashioned thing that you can think of. They were part of a period of time that was deemed fashionable, like with The Young Ones or something, then there was a point where everyone just went “Oh, they’re old hat”, even though they were the coolest thing, cutting edge, doing everything that was interesting at that time. By default, there’s suddenly a point where it’s like “Right, everything that was so cutting edge and interesting about you is now old-fashioned”. And it’s just the tragedy of that… it’s horrible. It feels so cruel.

And it’s often through no fault of their own. Their art hasn’t deteriorated in any way, it’s just that their audience – or the media – have become less interested.  

Yeah, people have moved on. And then the irony is that people do return to it… but that person might have died by that time. It’s all those sorts of things that I think are really interesting.

It’s why I’ve moved into film, I think… I wanted to do something that had a bit more longevity. That I felt was a bit more timeless. I think TV and comedy can push you into a remit of writing something that’s of its time… you’re under pressure to write something that’s fashionable at that point. And I’ve never been interested in that. I’ve always been – “How do we make this more timeless? How do we make people want to watch this in ten years time?”

That was my whole thing with Sightseers. I wanted it to be something that people still get in ten years time, and not a comedy that feels of its era. You can’t say you want something to be a classic, but… I wanted it to be a classic! And I think that’s why film appeals to me, really. Telling stories that feel bigger, and more universal.

I was going to ask about Sightseers. I guess you’d dabbled with things that had horror elements before, but Sightseers felt like a bigger move in that direction. You’ve mentioned the creepy TV that you’d watched as a kid, were you an out-and-out horror fan as well?

Yeah, massively. When I started doing Darkplace, I’d been doing theatre stuff that was sometimes a bit scary, and sometimes a bit funny, and sometimes a mixture. And when I started working with Matt and Richard, they’d be talking about Children of the Corn or whatever, and I’d go “Oh is it that one? I’ve seen that…”

And they’d say “You’ve seen that?” And I’d be like… “Yeah, it was on BBC2 at 11pm, years ago!” I’d watch anything. Any horror that was on. I’d look at the paper and circle the Dracula films that were on, and whatever Godzilla film was on afterwards. That’s what I would watch until three o’clock in the morning. I was always obsessed with horror. But that’s not why Matt and Richard wanted to work with me. They were like: “How have you seen all this horror? You weird woman…”

I think we might have watched the same screenings! I remember watching Children of the Corn on late-night telly, sometime in the 1980s.

That was the weird hunting ground, wasn’t it? BBC2, and Channel 4. Channel 4 on a Friday night used to be amazing. I used to watch Four-Mations, then a double bill of weird old horror films or monster movies.

I remember them showing Godzilla films on a Friday, after Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out! In about 1990…

Yes, and that’s all I was doing – I wasn’t going out! That was a good night for me, watching a Godzilla film. And then maybe some weird comedy on BBC2 on a Thursday night. And they might have a weird film on after that, as well.

The nice thing is, you can see all of this in your scripts. Obviously there are horrific elements to what you do, but they’re combined with these beautifully-written observations of everyday life. Sightseers has been compared to Nuts In May, and I can totally see that. And in Prevenge, there’s the contrast between the horror and your character’s day-to-day life, going for job interviews and looking for a flat. Does that fascinate you? That veneer of everyday existence, with the darkness beneath it?

Yeah, I love that. I love British comedy, and to me comedy comes from characterisation and class tension, and all of this observational stuff that I’ve grown with up. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters and Alison Steadman. But also, I really love visual stuff that’s cinematic. So it’s getting a mixture of those things… if it was just observational stuff, I would be bored. I like there to be splashy events: you mix in the observational stuff with splashy events! And then people are surprised… “Oh, I thought this was going to be a chat between two people, but then someone’s head has been chopped off…”

And I think I’ve always done that. My mum and dad recently… (laughs) Well, they live in a total hoarder’s palace of stuff, but for some reason they were clearing out, and they found this book. And they said “It’s you telling these stories, all about these mice…” And I vaguely remembered it. I had these little toy mice who had clothes, and they lived in a shoebox, and I’d built a little house inside the shoebox for them. Very Bagpuss-esque!

And they said: “Yeah, it’s all these stories about the adventures of these mice, and it’s lovely… and then at the end, they all get slaughtered in a bloodbath!”  

Ha! Ha! How old were you when you wrote this? 

(Laughs) I don’t know! I had no recollection of that bit! It sort of rang a bell, but yep… that would be the only way to end it.

All the clues were there! This is your next project. An Oliver Postgate-style animation of this…

My mum and dad thought it was funny, but at the same time they were quite disturbed, I think! Every time I make a film, my mum goes: “Is there murder in it…?”

“Erm… yeah. There is… sorry…”

I just imagine her at Book Club, wondering “How am I going to break it to them? How am I going to break it to Barbara that she’s not going to enjoy this film either?”

So, speaking of Sightseers, did your parents take you on caravanning holidays as a kid, by any chance?  

We did go on camping holidays. We couldn’t afford a caravan, but we did have a tent! But yes, I think my mum was horrified. She was really worried that the mum in Sightseers was based on her…

You did go on caravan holiday recces for Sightseers though, didn’t you? You and [co-writer and co-star] Steve Oram?

Yeah, Film 4 paid for us to go away in a caravan together. And it was actually really useful, because we really annoyed each other, then put that into the script!

I’ve never been on a caravanning holiday, and I’ve no intention of ever going on one…

Going on one with someone that you’re not in a relationship with is really weird.

It’s quite intimate, I imagine!

Yeah, you’ve got a little, thin partition between your room and theirs. It was fun, actually… and it was really useful, because we used exactly the trip that we went on in the film. Steve’s dad is a very keen walker, and he devised that route for us. We said “This is the sort of thing we want to do, and this is the sort of landscape we want…” and he put a route together that I would recommend to anyone as a holiday! Ending with these spectacular views in the Lake District that were so filmic, but nobody ever actually uses them for films. Well, they might use them for a Beatrix Potter film…

I love Ben Wheatley as a director. How was he to work with on Sightseers?  

So much fun. It was one of those filming experiences that spoils you a little bit. When you have a good film experience, and you’ve been doing it for 20 years – I’m showing my age here – you see young people working on the production having so much fun, and you just want to say to them that it’s not always like this! (Laughs) “This is a good one. The next one that you do, will be ‘Oh… it’s not always that brilliant…'”  

He’s funny, and his crew are just really nice, like a family. You laugh a lot, and have a lot of fun, it’s just so relaxed. When you’ve worked with lots of different directors, you start to think: this is how I prefer to work. And that is how I prefer to work. He doesn’t really tell you what to do, he doesn’t really give you any direction, he just sort of says… “Do it again!” Which means you have to trust your own instincts really, and that’s the way that I direct as well.

I’m not going to tell people what to do, I want them to use their instincts and get in the zone. As an actor, when someone gives you notes – and I try to say this to young directors that I mentor – you can get overloaded. All that you get as an actor is “I’m not doing it well enough”. And you start to cerebralise your thinking. But you shouldn’t be thinking as an actor… you should just be being the character. And the more someone talks to you about policing that character, the less you’re going to be in character.

Have you veered towards the Mike Leigh approach, of not scripting too closely, just creating the characters and seeing where they go?

Well, that’s how I write… improvising the characters. And then I encourage the cast to do that, too. But it really depends… with something like Prevenge, you’ve got to work with people who’ve improvised before, and have that as part of their skill set. Because people can take it the wrong way, they think “improvisational” means actually writing a completely new scene. Quite often, you really just want them to do the script, but loosened up a bit. Armando Ianucci has that approach as well – “We’ll do one on the script, and then one off the script.”

Basically you’re doing the script, but putting it in their words… “Relax, don’t worry about remembering each exact word, just make sure that it has the same meaning.” So you’re sort of paraphrasing. It makes them relaxed, and they’re remembering the meaning of the scene a bit more, and starting to own it a bit more. So yeah, I’m all for that.

To me, it’s like – why wouldn’t you do that? You get funny people, and you’re going to say to them “I don’t want any of your special, funny magic?” You’re going to veto it? Some people do. You work on stuff where people are like: “Exactly the script please!” And sometimes the results can be fantastic. If it’s a good script, it doesn’t really matter.

But I can’t help but think; “I could have done a bit more with that. I could have brought a bit extra that would have made some moments.” And that’s what I consider my job to be, as an actress. I’m not Judi Dench, I’m not a Shakespearian actress, but what I do is come in and bring a bit more to it, because I’m a writer. And I add something that maybe they hadn’t thought of before… a little extra moment, you know. So why wouldn’t I employ that from other people, as well?

I guess making any film is a hugely collaborative process. You want everyone, including the actors, to bring their own skill sets to it. 

If you think about it, you get a costume person to design the costume; you don’t draw the costume yourself and say “This is exactly what I want, and I want it this colour.” You go “Oh, I want it kind of green…” and they show it to you. It’s collaborative, it’s back and forth. So why shouldn’t acting be like that as well? You’ve got to hand it over to people and say “This is yours…” and you get better results from that. You’re just a manager, really, as a director.

And the great joy must be when you get something fantastic back that you weren’t expecting at all?

Often those are some of my favourite bits: “Oh my God, this person has made it even better than I could have imagined”. That’s when you get really excited and realise that it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s like “Thank God all these people have come and made this thing much better!” (laughs) And you’re grateful for it.

Sometimes, it’s a time thing. A lot of people have asked me if Prevenge was really improvised… and actually, weirdly, it was probably less improvised than Sightseers, because we just didn’t have the time, and we had such a tiny budget. But I don’t think it particularly shows. Maybe it’s just a psychological feeling that it gives people, the feeling that they’ve got the freedom to improvise and play around.

You mentioned your Mum’s horrified reaction to some of the films you’ve made… will you show Prevenge to your daughter when she’s old enough?

It was so weird… last night, someone had given her this book called Little Leaders, which was all about women who’d changed the world. And one of them was Maya Deren, who was a film-maker. And basically my daughter is like – “I really like Ada Lovelace, can I meet her?” And I said “She’s dead, she died 200 years ago…”. And she said “I don’t want her to be dead!” This led to her flicking through the book and saying “Is she dead? Is she dead? And me going “Yes.. yes… yes…” (laughs) “They’re all dead!” She’s only four…

Anyway, we got to Maya Deren and I said “Oh, a film-maker… that’s what Mummy does.” And she said “Are you? Are you a filmaker? Have you made a film with me in?

“Yes… I have, actually…”

“Can I see it?”

And I said “One day…”

She asked what she looked like in the film, and I said “Well, it was before you were born, and you were a baby in it. You were in my tummy.”

And she said “Was Sadie in there as well?”


Literally, this was the first conversation we’ve had about the film!

It’ll pop on BBC2 at 11pm one night…

And she’ll be like: “What the hell is this…” She doesn’t really know what I do. I mean, she was there for the edit of Prevenge, she was a tiny newborn baby, but I don’t think she really knows that I’m an actress. And these days, you see people onscreen all the time. She sees my face on Facebook, or a photo of me on a screen, so to see my face on television… I just don’t think her mind would be that blown by it.

Yes, I guess kids see people they know on screens every day now… I’d never really thought of it that way.

Everybody probably thinks their parents are famous! Not that I’m even famous… but I am on TV. Horrible Histories, that would probably freak her out!

Can I ask about your radio show, Alice’s Wunderland? There’s one episode in particular that I love, and it ties in with lots of things that we’ve talked about. It’s the episode with the ghost of a child who has died in 1977. And everything is in there: there are Public Information Films, creepy school assembly songs, pantomime dames… was that episode a nice way of chucking all of your favourite scary 1970s things in there?

Yeah, basically! I did three series, and I’d done that character as a sketch in the second series. And I thought – “My God, I love this character, and I want to do more with it.” Because it just seemed like it existed of its own accord. I thought “I know exactly how this child talks.”

You know when they used to dub children with adults voices? They thought children couldn’t act, so they’d get some woman to be the voice of a little boy and she’d just be [tiny, squeaky voice] “Ooh, I want to do this!” And you’d think… that’s not a child, that’s just a woman pretending to be one. It just seemed like a funny world to tap into.  

I was a bit worried that the BBC would say we couldn’t have a child that was a ghost, because maybe he’s been murdered or something… but they didn’t at all! [laughs] But that was the thing about my radio show… I used it as a sketchpad really, for loads of ideas. Even arguably Timestalker came from an idea in the radio show. It’s so easy on the radio, it’s not going to cost you anything to be really ambitious. You can set anything anywhere, and do whatever you want. So it was just this sort of blank slate, doing whatever ideas I wanted to do. There was loads of stuff that came up where I thought: I’ve got to do something else with that. That’s what was so fantastic about it, it was just a free hand.

When I first got the commission they asked who I’d like to write the show with, and I said “Can I… write it by myself?” And that’s really unprecedented! I said I don’t see why shouldn’t… if I can write a sitcom by myself, it’s only the same amount of content. So to me, that was a real joy. And I knew then that it was going to be about all the weird sketches in my head. What we were talking about earlier, really… weird stuff from my childhood, and hauntology. I was trawling my mind for stuff that I wanted to write about but had never really had the opportunity to. Usually because there was some commissioner saying: “Will people be interested if it’s set in the 1970s? Will young people like it if you mention David Bowie? They might not know who he is…”

But with this I just had completely free reign to do what I wanted. It’s a very unusual situation to be in.  

The use of language in it always reminds me a little bit of Professor Stanley Unwin. Was he somebody that you had in mind?

Yeah, he was definitely one of the influences! Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley script-edited it, and Stanley Unwin was one of their suggestions. But yeah, that was fun to write. And also this thing of… writing something that had a sort of poetry to it. I wanted the whole show to be about sound, basically. Which was another thing that Radio 4 were unused to! I said “It has to be about sound if it’s a radio show, doesn’t it?” And they were: “No… why would it be?” It was a radical idea!

I asked if I could have a composer, as I had a friend who wanted to compose some original music for it, and they were like: “What? No, we don’t have the budget for that!”

So there were lots of things that I’d gone against the grain to ask for, but luckily they allowed me to have them. I had a brilliant couple of producers who fought for those decisions. I wanted there to be a sense of craft about the show. The poor producers, who were also really the directors – they just don’t get that title in radio for whatever reason – would sometimes have 100 sound cues for a 28 minute show. They had to layer them on, and make it sound spooky and brilliant and exciting. Normally they might have four! On a sketch show where someone’s just talking into a microphone, basically…

I think all of my favourite things in any media create their own world, and invite you into this strange realm, and that’s what Wunderland did. It was lovely.

Well, It was great fun to do.

Can we talk about your upcoming film, Timestalker? I’ve read that it’s about a woman who keeps being reincarnated…? 

Yeah! People keep asking me about my time-travel film, and I say – it’s not really about time-travel! It’s about reincarnation. I don’t want to talk about the plot too much, but it’s a sort of rom-com, really. It’s set over seven different periods in time, with an ensemble cast. I’m in it, I’m playing the lead, but I really wanted it to have the feel of a fun gang show. Like a modern Carry On! That’s what I’d like to do, make modern Carry On films, where all the same people come together and have fun.  

But yeah, it’s quite crazy, and it’s one of those things where I think people are going to struggle to describe it as any genre. It’s almost like a 1980s high-concept film… I started thinking that people don’t make Ghostbusters or Desperately Seeking Susan any more. All these films that are just fun. I wanted to make something slightly lighter… although it’ll probably end up being so dark! [laughs]

I’ll say “I just want to make something light and funny”, and people will say “This is the least light and funny thing I’ve ever seen in my life”

“Really? Oh dear…” And then all the mice got slaughtered. [laughs]

So that’s my problem! So I literally was… “God, there’s so much stuff going on in the world, do I really want to make another dark film? Because I think Prevenge was really dark. Darker than Sightseers, and quite nihilistic in a way. I don’t want to make anything as dark as that, so hopefully it’s just going to be a fun ride.  

Who’s in it? Tell me one name!

I can’t, really! We haven’t made any formal announcements yet. I’m in it!

Changing tack, what’s your relationship with nostalgia like? I was thinking recently that I really can’t get to grips with 1990 being 30 years ago.  

Do you think that everyone feels like this at the beginning of a century? That the end of the previous century was recent? Because the century’s still quite young, it fools you into thinking we’re still living in 2002.

It does! It didn’t occur to me until about the 29th December 2019 that it was the end of a decade! It doesn’t feel like we’ve had “proper” decades for a while.

No! I know, it crept up on people – suddenly was asking “What are the ten best films of the decade?” I think we’re so distracted by so many other things that people didn’t make a big fuss about it. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve just had a baby, but I felt like this New Year, there was the least celebration ever…

I think people were just dreading what 2020 was going to bring.

Yeah, the election happened, and I was just… screw it, let’s just stay at home. I’m not even going to say Happy New Year to someone, because what’s the point?

I can’t work out if it’s just because I’m getting old that the decades don’t seem to have any real defining character any more, or if they genuinely don’t. I’m now the age that my dad was in the late 1980s. So did my dad feel that the 1980s were a really bland, dull decade? I’ve got a feeling that he might have done. Whereas to me, it was like – “Wow! The 1980s have been amazing!”

Oh, bless him. It’s like that with the 1960s, isn’t it? Because my mum and dad always way “Well, we were never offered any drugs…”  

Yes, mine too! Not in 1960s Middlesbrough. 

And you think, for people living in the suburbs or whatever… did the 1960s really happen to them? Or were other people having more fun at that point? I don’t know… I’m sure they do have character, each of the decades. Because I always thought that the 1990s had no really distinctive features, but now I do. It’s just taken me this long to get to that point.

I realised this when I saw some clips of Sex and the City, which I used to watch. And the biggest shock was that now, everybody dresses like Miranda. They put her in the worst clothes… she dressed like a man in these horrible, asymmetrical, architectural clothes, and everybody dresses like that now. It’s really weird, she could be now. Whereas back then I thought – “Everyone is else is so pretty, but they put her in these horrible clothes!” And that’s when I realised that that‘s going to be a defining thing of this era, women dressing exactly like men.

For ages I wondered how you would parody the 1990s. You know, if you want to set something in the 1970s, you give people flares and long hair and tank tops. But how would you do that for the 1990s?

I think it’s stuff that’s sort of… horribly normal! [laughs]. Like strappy things… oh, I don’t know. It does exist. 

Because I have such a busy social diary, I watch old game shows on Challenge TV. And if there’s a 1990s edition of Bullseye – and I’m really giving away my lifestyle here – I can immediately spot that it’s 1990s, as opposed to 1980s. But I can’t put my finger on what I’m actually identifying.

I think it was an era when being normal was really prized. If you think of Oasis or something… it’s kind of anti-student, that Paul Calf thing. Anything frilly or bourgeois was looked down upon; being artistic was frowned upon in a way. It was the era when I used to go to Glastonbury, and it was still filled with people with dreadlocks and tie-dye, still a counter culture thing. But there was an anti-counter culture thing at that point, too. It was like “normcore”…

Yeah, even though Blur’s music was often experimental, they still went through a phase of wearing tracksuits to greyhound meetings.  

Yeah, you could be a goth, or into grunge or something, but it would be making a statement to do that. Whereas now, you can be at work with piercings and pink hair, and no-one blinks an eye. But back them, if you made those choices, it was deviant.

I remember a female friend getting a tattoo of a tiny bluebird on her shoulder in about 1995, and it being greeted with absolute shock by the rest of us. “What? A tattoo? Why?” It’s extraordinary, in hindsight.

“You’ve ruined yourself!” (laughs)

You’ve clearly been immersing yourself in “haunted” culture recently. Who has caught your eye, or ear? I think I’ve seen you waxing lyrical about Sean Reynard‘s films, particularly his Quentin Smirhes stuff.

He’s an old friend of mine actually, I’ve known him for years. There’s an actor called Tom Meeten, a comedian and writer, he’s in a film called The Ghoul. He was at art college with Sean, and introduced me to him years ago. Sean lived in Berlin for years, but he’d come over to London for a bit, and we’d see him, then he’d go back. And when he started doing his videos, it was like – “Oh my God!” I’d always known he was talented, and he’s a really good actor, but I didn’t ever feel like he’d made a palatable version of what he does. And that’s what he’s cracked with Quentin… people are latching onto it. Regardless of whether they’re interested in hauntology or not, it’s still crazy and funny and interesting. And so it’s gone a bit crazy for him, because he’s been making stuff for years… but it would be 28-minute short films! It’s quite difficult to get people to commit to that. Although he did an amazing one about Kate Bush…

I haven’t seen that!

Oh, we’re both obsessive Kate Bush fans. It’s worth watching, it’s very funny. So he’s been making stuff for years, but he hadn’t really found a format for it that took off. But I’m really pleased that he has now, and the interview that you did with him – that was the most serious that I’d ever heard Sean! Normally I’ll post something on Facebook, and he’ll put some sort of weird comment underneath. But he was actually intellectualising his process – it was really interesting.

I’d never spoken to him before, and I did wonder how much I was going to get out of him…

He’s fully trained as an artist, which I forget about… but yeah, he actually knows what he’s doing! [laughs]

Any music that you’ve been particularly drawn to?

I’ve been listening to Aldous Harding. Visually, as an artist, I think she’s brilliant. I love the videos, and my daughter loves them as well, which is really weird. She keeps saying “Mummy, I want to watch Zoo Eyes again!”

It’s a kind of overlapping community, isn’t it? There’s sort of a Venn Diagram of people who know each other, and who work with each other in different ways. Which is interesting, because those collaborations bring about new stuff, I think. And that’s why I say I’m interested in hauntology, but it’s not something I’ve exclusively pursued. Because I didn’t really know about it! It is an interesting world, and you want to know who’s involved in it, but without feeling there’s a set of rigid rules that you have to commit to.

You have to be sparing with nostalgia too, I think. If a piece of music transports you to 1979, but you listen to it constantly in 2020, then it’ll quickly start to remind you of the events of 2020 just as much it does 1979…  

It’s really comparable to a smell. When you smell something that you haven’t smelled for years, it triggers a memory. But if you wore it every day, it wouldn’t have any power any more. And I think that is the hauntology thing… it’s like a sixth sense, like a tingle. If you do it too much, it doesn’t work any more.

Completely, that’s why I’m a little cautious sometimes. My favourite stuff from this genre has one foot in the past, and uses the past as an inspiration, but is trying to do stuff that’s new, too. Like Sean’s films… even if you’d never seen any 1970s TV, they still work as pieces of art.

Yea, definitely. And it’s also making stuff unconsciously without trying to obey a rigid set of rules: it’s just come to you and you don’t really know where it’s come from. You don’t analyse it too much. I think that’s why Aldous Harding is so interesting – you know that she’s probably influenced by folk music and films, and there are a lot of film references in her music, but you don’t get the sense that she’s obeying any rules. That’s what makes it so surprising; the films she makes are often quite at odds with the music. They can be violent or scary, and the music’s so not.

Have you seen her live? 

I haven’t. Sean is a big fan, and went to see her live, but I was just a bit too pregnant on the last tour! I was like… “I don’t want to leave the house.”

I’m like that most of the time and I’m not pregnant.

I’m like that most of the time too, I just had a better excuse this time…

Thanks so much to Alice for being amazingly generous with her time, and for a fascinating natter on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Why are Tuesday afternoons always rainy? She’s here on Twitter, if you’d like to say hello.

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:

And Jon’s digital back catalogue is available here: