In which everyone’s favourite fictional Italian disco producer provides a high-tempo soundtrack to… discounted British rail journeys for EU residents? The alter ego of Bristol-born, Berlin-based Anton Maiof, Maiovvi is a Dario Argento-obsessed playboy with a penchant for spooky film scores, but this is a joyously upbeat collection: the eminently danceable ‘Stable Mirror’, in particular, is a New Order-style banger that may yet have grizzled Haçienda veterans reaching for their dusty glow sticks.
Those of us marooned in the provinces during the late 1980s club explosion might find retro, beat-laden workouts like ‘Post Modern Morals’ evoking hazy memories of Sol lager and The Hit Man and Her rather than the Manchester superclubs, but – regardless of where your dancefloor mojo was honed – this is a giddy concoction, liable to make anyone whose teenage years involved the occasional smiley-faced T-shirt feel decidedly misty-eyed.
This Brighton singer-songwriter has peppered her delightfully downbeat vignettes of everyday melancholy with the occasional vintage synth, but here throws herself into full John Carpenter soundtrack mode, with an instrumental concept album whose premise – that of a worldwide sleeping sickness, and a dangerous cult seeking out the victims – sets the tone for an enjoyably dark and suitably woozy musical journey. ‘Run’ even hints at Mark Snow’s X-Files theme; perfect for a case that Mulder and Scully would surely relish.
Stephen Prince’s multi-media project A Year In The Country explores the links between folk, electronica and a rather otherworldly pastoralism, this new compilation tasking its contributors with creating musical explorations of abandoned roads and railway lines. The likes of Field Lines Cartographer and Grey Frequency evoke heartbreaking radiophonic dreams of overgrown sidings and crumbling platforms, and Pulselovers‘ ‘Woodford Halse To Fenny Compton in Five Minutes’ somehow contrives to make a hypnotic, Krautrock synth anthem the perfect celebration of pre-Beeching steam travel. Joyous.
The irrepressible Mulholland – whose 1999 Mount Vernon Arts Lab album The Séance at Hobs Lane helped define 21st century hauntology – is in prolific form, and his third album of 2019 soundtracks Anthony Burgess’ novel in suitably sinister style. Trademark sound manipulations expertly create ominous slabs of music concrète, the eight-minute ’84F’ perfectly evoking the draughty menace of chief Droog Alex’s teenage prison cell. A limited cassette release on this perfectly-formed micro-label, laudably dedicated to electronica with a literary inspiration.
Listening to a Polypores album is an incredibly immersive experience. More so than ever in the case of new album Azure, which employs a gentle tide of modular synths to create the feel of a fantastical ocean paradise; a tropical realm of ancient, submerged cities awash with Polynesian chants and rhythms. “I imagined this to be the music that the sunken stone heads from Easter Island would have on their record players,” claims Preston-based Stephen James Buckley – aka Polypores – in the album’s press release. “A relaxation tape for dolphins…”
The album is a companion piece to 2019’s Flora, also released by Castles in Space, and now gaining a welcome vinyl reissue. Flora was a similarly fantastical exploration of an otherworldly woodland, where trees and vegetation grow to outlandish sizes, and Stephen and I talked about it last summer – you can read our conversation here.
This week, I spoke to Stephen again to ask about the inspirations behind Azure. Here’s how it all went:
Bob: When we talked about Flora last year, you mentioned it had been partially inspired by the blistering hot summer of 2018. And now Azure has an aquatic theme, and the album’s PR mentions that very rainy weather at the end of 2019 as a partial influence! Is it fair to say you find the elements rather inspiring?
Stephen: I think it was a combination of things. I now tend to do stuff that’s a lot more led by the music, so I’ll just mess around and experiment and then say “Hmm… this seems to be following that kind of theme.” Rather than sitting down and saying “Right, I’m going to make an album that’s inspired by this.” But looking back, I think a number of things fed into it. I distinctly remember listening back to one of the tracks that I’d recorded – which actually didn’t end up on the album – and we’d had torrential rain for about two weeks, and I was just imagining what it would be like if Preston was submerged. The imagery of it. And from there, I thought… “Oh, that’s a thing…”
And then I searched for a lot of imagery of sunken cities. I was looking very much at images of sunken stone heads, Easter Island statues, things like that. And all the different theories about Atlantis, and the various places where it could be located. And a lot of the sounds I was making were quite Pacific-sounding; tuned percussion and Polynesian-sounding choirs were coming out. So once I decided things were heading in a water-based direction, I started immersing myself more in literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and documentaries: anything to do with the sea. Just trying to get my head in that place.
I found a fantastic book, actually – I’ve got it out, just so I could remember the title! It’s called The Ocean Almanac, and it’s by Robert Hendrickson. It describes itself as “A Copious Compendium on Sea Creatures, Nautical Lore & Legend, Master Mariners, Naval Disasters, and Myriad Mysteries of the Deep”. It’s a massive book that I found in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in… somewhere in Yorkshire. I think it might have been Harrogate. It’s just full of both real life and fantasy: mermaids and sea serpents and krackens, but then all these weird facts about the ocean, and about fish and the water. That was really a great book to be reading around that time, and it fed into the whole thing.
So when the album was finished, it seemed – not necessarily intentionally – to have a cohesive feel to it, and to fit together in that way. So I suppose there was some intent involved, but also a fair bit of chance and just letting things happen. Letting my head absorb things. It’s almost like a computer: you feed input into me, and then the music comes out. But that input doesn’t necessarily have to be musical input… I feel like everything I absorb and experience is processed in some way, and I just have to decide how it comes out.
I remember when we talked about Flora, you mentioned the animated French film La Planète Sauvage – aka The Fantastic Planet – as an influence on the album’s aesthetic. I’d never seen it in full before, so I watched it and thought it was extraordinary! Were there any similarly specific influences on Azure?
There weren’t necessarily whole films, but there were certainly images or certain scenes from films that fed into it. Weirdly enough, there was actually a computer game that I used to play on the Amiga in the 1990s called The Secret of Monkey Island. I don’t know if you remember it, it was a point-and-click adventure…
Oh, did you sample a bit of music from it?
I did, yeah! It’s set in the Caribbean, and you’re a young lad called Guybrush Threepwood, trying to train up to be a pirate. It’s all quite tropical-sounding, and there are parts of it where you go underwater. So when I sent Nick [Taylor, sleeve designer] images for the artwork, almost like a mood board of imagery, it was on there. Even though you only spend a couple of minutes underwater, it really stuck with me.
I’m trying to think if there was anything else… I’m looking at my DVD collection now! One of my favourite underwater films is The Water Babies, from 1978. I loved that when I was a kid. All the background parts are hand-drawn animation… a bit like The Fantastic Planet, actually. These strange, beautiful worlds where you’ve got weird squids! Again, it’s a very vague influence, and it’s not like I sat down and watched it all, but these things seep in and become part of your palette.
Is it important for you to have that fantastical element? Flora wasn’t just about walking through woodland, it was about walking through huge, oversized alien woodland.
I think so. Not with every album, but that’s what I wanted to do with Azure. Not so much to make a sequel to Flora, but certainly to do something that had a fantastical interpretation of an environment. Making it into something that’s almost larger than life. And I suppose with Azure I was making music that sounded very water-like to me, and my imagination just goes off on one because I’ve watched way too many science fiction and fantasy films… [Laughs]
The last time I saw you, you were actually wearing a Krull t-shirt…
There you go! It does probably influence the way I think as an adult. I was reading a study the other day that said how science fiction and fantasy actually change the way you think: they make you think more critically and more imaginatively about certain things. And I think that’s benefitted my life in the long run. I suppose it just allows you to think about things in a certain way, and to consider certain things: a lot of sci-fi is “What if”, you know… “What if people could travel back in time? What if we swapped bodies?”
And I think with Azure… I didn’t want to do another Flora – that would be way too easy, and I’d be bored – but I liked the idea of doing something for the same label, Castles In Space, that tied into Flora a little bit. And maybe there’ll be a third one with a different element! Fire, water, wood…
Are you a bit of a prog rock fan? The combination of your music and Nick’s artwork gives off a very prog aesthetic, I think. It all sometimes makes me think of Roger Dean‘s floating islands on those Yes album sleeves…
Yeah, there’s some prog stuff that I absolutely love. It’s not classic prog, but I really like a prog-metal band called Mastodon. They did an amazing album calledCrack The Skye, it’s one of my favourite albums of all time. It’s a concept album about a young quadriplegic boy who uses astral projection to travel outside of his body, but he flies too close to the sun and it burns the golden umbilical cord that connects him to his physical form. So he’s sort of lost in the ether, then a bunch of 17th century Russian mystics contact him and guide him back down to his body.
[Laughs] I love the aesthetic of that stuff. It’s not a million miles away from fantasy is it, really? If you like fantasy books and films then listening to prog feels like the next progression. It’s something I dabble in rather than being massively into, and I don’t claim to have a massive knowledge of it, but I certainly love certain aspects of it, and there are certain albums I really dig.
Did I read that you were listening to Iron Maiden quite a lot while you were working on Azure?
I was! It’s a weird one, that. I used to love them when I was about fourteen. And again, it’s not far from being fantasy…
Seventh Son is an incredible album! I love that, it’s my favourite Maiden album. If ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was on that, it’d be the perfect album! Seventh Son is the one I listen to the most, it’s fantastic – just the whole concept behind it. I think that’s why I like Mastodon actually, because they remind me of that period of Iron Maiden. I love that record: right down to the repeated motifs connected to ‘The Clairvoyant’, stuff like that. It’s great conceptually, but also there are some proper singalong bangers on that album, too – ‘Can I Play With Madness’! It’s great to listen to when you’re cooking. Cooking and listening to Iron Maiden puts me in a good place.
Are you quite a good cook, then?
I enjoy cooking, I’m not sure how good I am! I’m not as good as my partner, but I’m better than I was two years ago.
What’s your culinary speciality?
Curries. I do a lot of different curries. And I’m very much a one-pot man. I do one pot in large portions so I’ve got a lot for the freezer, for later. I like to experiment with different spices, and I’m learning a lot. One of the guys I work with, Mark – actually, he records under the name Field Lines Cartographer and has an album coming out on Castles In Space – he’s a good friend of mine, and he often gives me tips. He’s the curry master. I’ll say to him “Mark, what’s this spice for?” And he’ll stroke his beard and give me some sage advice.
Sage advice would be about herbs, not spices. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. That’s a terrible pun.
It was quick, and I think the important thing about puns is not how good they are, but how quick they are.
You normally have to wait a few days for me! I was actually trying to work out how to bring your love of cooking back to your love of music, and I think I can do this: if you’ve learned to cook over the last couple of years, then you’re clearly open to developing new skills. And one other new skill you’ve developed is learning to play the modular synth – which you’ve used for the first time on Azure.
Yes! I think making music in general is a similar process. Especially with synthesizers, and especially with modular synthesizers. You’ve got a number of different ingredients, and you’ve got to choose how much of a certain sound to put in. And each tweak you make is like putting in a spice.
Oh, this is good…
There are a lot of musical cooking analogies I could make! The list is endless… you put too much lemon in, and it’s fucked! But I suppose the difference with music is that you can go back. If you mess up when you’re cooking something, you’re stuck with it, really. But yeah – it is quite similar. And the modular stuff has really blown my mind in terms of experimentation. That’s one of the things I enjoy most in life, again that idea of “What it?”…
“What if we walk down this path, and see where this takes us? Let’s find out where this goes…”
I really enjoy that when I’m out walking, and when I make music it’s the same principle. “What happens if I plug this into here…” And with a modular synth, that’s what you have to do. That’s how you work, rather than everything being set up and prescribed. Modular is a blank canvas… it’s like Lego. It’s like musical Lego. I was a massive Lego fan when I was a kid, and this is exactly the same. A normal synth is a toy that’s pre-built, but a modular synth is like a Lego kit. You can build it in a way that’s the same as on the box, but you can also take it apart and make a whole new thing. That’s why I enjoy it so much – it brings up a whole new set of co-ordinates. You’re working on a completely different axis, with whole new dimensions of composition and texture. It’s been an amazing experience for me, and it’s one of those things that’s never complete, I’m constantly buying and selling new things. It’s ever-evolving.
Can you send me a picture of your modular synth to put on the website?
Does it look like a telephone exchange?
Pretty much! I’ll send you one once we’re done.
Is there a timeline to Azure? The opening track is called ‘Bathysphere’, which I know is the large spherical container that early 20th century divers used a lot. So is that track a depiction of us descending underwater? And then we head on a voyage of discovery as the album progresses?
That’s what I think. It wasn’t necessarily my intention, but that’s what happened! To be honest, with Bathysphere… it’s a word that I’ve always loved, and I’ve always wanted to do a track called ‘Bathysphere’, I’ve just never really had the opportunity. But this album gave me that opportunity. But yeah, I imagine that track taking place in some kind of cove, or bay. It’s evening, and it’s dark, but there are lights all around the bay and on the cliffs. And the Bathysphere descending underwater is where the journey begins, taking you through all these places. And then ‘Source’, the final track… I imagine that’s you coming out onto an island where there’s a stream that runs down to feed the ocean. Again, just very vague and pretentious ideas!
They’re not pretentious! ‘Among Sunken Stone Heads’ is such a beautiful and evocative title. You mentioned Easter Island, did you particularly have those statues in mind when you wrote track?
I was going to call that track Rapa Nui, but I thought no – that’s a bit too on the nose! I thought I’d make it a little bit more vague it could apply to any heads, not just the ones on Easter Island.
You mentioned Nick Taylor as well, who designed the artwork for both Flora and Azure. Your music and his imagery fit so well together… how does the collaborative process with Nick work?
Well it works brilliantly, for a start! Usually, I send him the complete album, and then I put together a few images and give him a vague idea of what I’m looking for. He’ll then listen, and have a look around, and send me back a few images. And I’ll say “I like this one, and this one, and this one…” And from there he goes off and does his thing, and nine times out of ten what he comes back with is almost there. I might ask for a minor change to the colour, but he generally gets it 99% there the first time. I sometimes feel like I’m making soundtracks to Nick Taylor artwork.
Oh, that’s lovely!
It’s almost like it works backwards. It’s great working with Nick. He’s a nice guy as well, as you know… you met him – well, both of us – at the Delaware Road event last year.
We threw ourselves around the dancefloor at 3am to a Steve Davis DJ set. What a night that was. Did you have a good weekend?
Yeah! It was mad. I had a very tender head the next day, but it was great. The highlight of my year.
I’m just gutted there obviously hasn’t been an event where we can all meet up again this year.
Castles In Space are doing an event, aren’t they? In October… they asked me to play it, but it was on a weeknight, which is difficult. It means taking two days off work. But Field Lines Cartographer is playing it, which is great… it means he’s got an opportunity, after I did Delaware Road last year. I’m not bitter.
What else are you working on? You seem to be popping up everywhere at the moment, on lots of compilations in particular.
I’ve been extremely busy. Until a couple of weeks ago my partner wasn’t here, so I was just on my own for nine weeks! So I made a lot of music. It’s hard to keep track of… I’ve got stuff coming out over the next couple of months on various labels. I think I’ve got an album coming out every month for the next three months. So there’s a lot more to come, and I’m currently working on a release for Woodford Halse, Mat Handley‘s label. I promised ages ago I’d do an album for him, so I’ve got a few ideas together and things are taking shape. I’m still trying to find the focal point for the album, but eventually I’ll stumble on a track and say “This is the one… this is what the album is going to sound like”. And then everything else will work around that.
So that’s what I’m doing at the moment. Just experimenting and trying out new things and new ideas. I’m very much into “granular sampling” at the moment. It’s like sampling on a micro level. You take tiny snippets of sounds and play around with them. You end up finding sounds within sounds. You can take a second of, say, a Beatles song, and you hone in on that, and move around within that second. And there are whole other melodies and textures that you would otherwise have missed. It’s like working with sound on a molecular level. It’s like you’ve got a magnifying glass, and it’s bringing all kinds of things to the table that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to play with.
That’s really interesting, and I always like your keenness to take on new influences. Which reminds me: I meant to say Azure actually has a curious New Age feel to it places…
Yeah, definitely. A lot of the music I was listening to around that time was New Age kind of music… there are some great compilations on Light in the Attic records, which got me started. I listened to a couple of those, and from there I explored other artists. There’s so much of it on Youtube from the 1980s and 1990s. Some of it’s kind of cheesy, but I suppose what I wanted to was… rather than be influenced by something, and do something in that style, I’m more into taking elements of it and making my own version. So it’s the Polypores version of New Age music, not New Age music as such.
And I think that’s what I’ve done with a number of different genres. A case of dabbling here and there. This is going to sound massively big-headed, and I’m in no way comparing myself to him, but it’s similar to what David Bowie did. He’d take elements of funk or pop or drum and bass and he’d do his own version of it. Which I suppose is kind of what I do, except I’m nowhere near as good as David Bowie. I’m not claiming in any way to be on his level.
No, that’s going to be my headline. “I AM THE NEW DAVID BOWIE – STEPHEN JAMES BUCKLEY”
[Laughs] I think people assume that I have a massive ego because I release a lot of music and talk a lot, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! I say these things taking the piss: “Look at me, I am the David Bowie of electronic music”, and people think I’m being serious. But I’m actually mocking myself. But then before you know it, you’ve got a reputation…
I’ll put it on the record that you’re a modest and unassuming kind of chap.
Please do! But no, you know where I’m coming from… it’s back to the cooking, and the ingredients. You can make food that’s Indian style, but it’s got halloumi in it. It’s like that.
Thanks to Stephen for giving up his Tuesday afternoon for our chat. He is a modest and unassuming chap, and Azure is available here:
As well as this regular blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 391, dated April 2020.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology
“It’s that ‘end of summer’ thing,” says Keith Seatman. “All the holiday-makers have gone, and you can see the grassy bits on the beach again. It can be eerie, and it can be wonderful. As soon as dusk falls, anything at the funfair looks weird…”
There is something deliciously otherworldly about the nature of the British seaside resort: the clanging fairground rides, the gaudy lights of the amusement arcades, the legacy of “Kiss Me Quick” sauciness and mystical, end-of-the-pier soothsaying. These memories are distilled almost overwhelmingly on Keith’s new album Time To Dream But Never Seen, an extraordinary, hallucinatory evocation of a childhood spent in Southsea, Hampshire.
“The summer holidays would kick in, and for the first few weeks you’d be on the beach, down the fair, and on the pier,” he remembers. “Then you’d hit the middle… and the last few weeks had this weird feeling of impending doom.”
The album is structured to reflect this progression of the school holidays: from fizzy, sun-fuelled excitement, to mid-August ennui, to the chilling, autumnal melancholy that the adult Keith now finds so affecting. It’s swathed in tootling fairground organs, psychedelic sound collage and the feel of vintage BBC Radiophonic Workshop experimentation: perhaps appropriately, given that one of Keith’s childhood playgrounds was the now-derelict Fraser Gunnery Range, the imposing naval establishment used as a location for the 1972 Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils.
Elsewhere, regular collaborator Douglas E Powell (whose own splendid folk album, Overnight Low, is out in April) provides a hypnotic spoken word interlude entitled ‘Speak Your Piece’, seemingly a list of arcane, rural aphorisms: “Never toil on Sunday, the Good Lord tells us so / Save your back ’til Monday, and I’ll give you seeds to sow.” It all coalesces to form an utterly intoxicating concoction, and it’s available now from the Castles in Space label.
Keith’s album comes complete with glowing sleeve notes from Jim Jupp, co-founder of the legendary Ghost Box Records, and there are exciting developments on the Ghost Box front, too. April sees the release of Puzzlewood, the long-awaited new album from Plone. This Birmingham-based outfit were exploring retro-futurist sounds as early as the 1990s, and even their own history has a delightfully appropriate fuzziness: although Puzzlewood is described as their third album, the second has never officially materialised, despite countless nebulous rumours and bootlegs.
Regardless, Puzzlewood is a terrific comeback. A gloriously melodic homage to a golden age of library music (I defy anyone to hear ‘Years and Elements’ without imagining the BBC’s iconic Test Card F, bridging the gap between Open University modules), it’s refreshingly joyous and upbeat. Vintage synth sounds leap around playfully, and there are nods to the earliest days of computer gaming too: ‘Sunvale Run’ sounds for all the world like the theme music to some jolly 1980s arcade game; perhaps not surprisingly given that core member Mike Johnston was also a founder of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra. As ever with Ghost Box releases, Julian House’s accompanying artwork is perfect; and its lurid sweetshop qualities were apparently inspired by the vast collection of vintage ephemera amassed by Stockport man John Townsend, as immortalised in the new book Wrappers Delight (see FT389:66 and FT390:36-39).
Also attracting my attention recently: Parapsychedelia, a trans-Atlantic collaboration between Cumbria’s Heartwood Institute and California’s Panamint Manse. Taking the spirit of 1970s psychic research as its inspiration (track titles include ‘Zenner Cards’ and ‘Precognition’) this new album effortlessly weaves woozy analogue electronica and skittering beats around evocative soundbite samples. “Only now are we beginning to understand the strange and mysterious powers that exist in all of us…” crackles opening track ‘Clairvoyeurism’, instantly transporting me back to unsettling Tuesday evenings in front of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.
And I can also recommend After Lights Out by Capac, a collaboration with Northampton poet Tom Harding, and a wonderfully atmospheric ambient/spoken word exploration of the strangeness and disquiet of the night-time. “The room, the moonlight, the chair by the window, waiting as if for a ghost…” deadpans Harding, on ‘Night Noises’. Magnificently, the physical release comes in the form of an MP3 player embedded within a matchbox, complete with accompanying candle… which we are invited to light in a darkened room for the ultimate nocturnal listening experience. The perfect album for anyone who has lain awake at 3.30am, desperately attempting not to over-think the mysterious creaking coming from the airing cupboard.
The new edition of the Fortean Times, Issue 392 (dated May 2020) is out now, and looks like this:
The paranormal was taken far more seriously in the 1970s. Mainstream news programmes like Nationwide would frequently include UFO sightings and poltergeist infestations alongside analysis of the latest economic forecasts and industrial action; and their 1976 report on the Hexham Heads – the buried stone carvings that unleashed both a werewolf and a rather curious half man/half sheep creature on this sleepy Northumberland town – has become the stuff of legend. In newsagents, the books of Erich Von Daniken nestled happily alongside the latest Jilly Coopers, and – by the turn of the 1980s – Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World was a fixture on primetime ITV. It was, as one dedicated Loch Ness Monster-hunter* once said to me, “a very credulous era.”
*Yes, I’ve met a few.
Into this mix was thrown the fascination with a paranormal phenomenon that perhaps came closest to arousing genuine scientific interest: that of Extra Sensory Perception. The idea of a “sixth sense”, an innate psychic ability ready to be unleashed in all of us, was a mainstay of 1970s weirdness: it was an era when Uri Geller became an enigmatic international celebrity, and when there was even talk of the CIA employing military-grade psychic readersto gain an advantage in a still-simmering Cold War.
This delicious combination of nebulous strangeness and academic respectability is evoked perfectly on Parapsychedelia, a new collaborative album by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse. The transatlantic duo (essentially Jonathan Sharp, from Cumbria, and Wayne P. Ulmer, from California… god knows, if they ever visit each other, they’re in for a hell of culture shock, climate-wise) have created a melodic, dreamy collection; where the authoritarian voices of beardy-weirdy 1970s researchers emerge chillingly from beautiful, eerie soundscapes, redolent of both the authentic vintage library music of the era, and the first giddy wave of Ghost Box-led Noughties hauntology.
The album is released on the Castles In Space label this week, and I asked Jonathan and Wayne about the background to it all:
Bob: The album is great fun! Between the pair of you, whose idea was it to make an album about ESP research?
Jonathan: Thanks! When we initially started planning this, Wayne suggested the ESP theme, and he passed me a mood board of images and text. It sort of grew out of that. It was a bit of a lucky chance, as I’d just been reading a book on remote viewing, so it all kind of clicked. A lot of Wayne’s initial images were so evocative, and dovetailed with what I’d just been reading.
Wayne: That’s right, I had been wandering the stacks in a local library a few years ago and came across a book on parapsychology. Flipping to the index, I was greeted with a list of peculiarly resonant words, and wrote them down for future use. Later, in communication with Jonathan, these resonances would prove to be a fertile aesthetic from which to draw inspiration.
What are your memories of the paranormal from being a kid? Did you watch Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and similar programmes?
Jonathan: Oh absolutely, I think I was at exactly the right age for that to be a big influence and spark my interest in the broader subject. There seemed to be quite a widespread interest at the time in UFOs, parapsychology and ESP… all that stuff. As well as those Usborne books, there was just so much available: everything from Chariots Of The Godsto The Highgate Vampire. And lots of it was targeted at children as well as adults.
Wayne, was there a US equivalent of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World? I know Leonard Nimoy presented a similar show… was there other stuff as well?
Wayne: Ah, you’re thinking In Search Of…, but that was a bit before my time. As a child in the late 1980s, it was Unsolved Mysteries after dinner, and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown books in the school library. There was definitely something in the air, and anything paranormal got my attention. Beyond the cultural reference points, I’ve always felt a natural predisposition to magical thinking, and wonder.
Did this stuff scare you both as children? The ‘Monsters of the Deep’ episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World gave me nightmares for months…
Jonathan: Honestly, it was a bit like watching a real life version of Doctor Who… there were things that were certainly scary! But I watched it religiously. The one that has stuck in my mind after all these years is the Tunguska episode.
Wayne: I’ve always been terrified of lots of things! Close Encounters was my favorite movie growing up and – though not scary in the traditional sense – it sure scared the living hell out of me. I’d watch our VHS copy over and over. So when my family moved to the Mojave Desert in 1986, I would camp out and search for UFOs in the night. Often paralyzed with fear, but it felt wonderful. That tipping point of otherness, just beyond perception.
Oh, I have to ask… did you ever see one?
Wayne: There was one lone instance. Spherical lights, maybe four or five on the horizon to the east, fading in and out of visibility in a sequence, from right to left. Pulsing like an inchworm across the night sky, slowly. As one light dimmed on the right, another would fade in on the left. It lasted only long enough to baffle me, and leave me transfixed.
Do you think it was an age when ESP and other paranormal fields of interest were taken more seriously – both by the mainstream media and by academia?
Jonathan: Oh totally, I mean this was the time of Uri Geller being a huge TV star. It did seem like certainly the mainstream media took it all more seriously, or certainly gave it screentime without attempting to debunk it with a knowing wink. Likewise, academia was a bit more open, too. I have some great T C Lethbridge books from the period, plus things like The Occult, by Colin Wilson. I think it really was the tail end of the “Age of Aquarius”.
Wayne: For sure, Jonathan. But I understand why that openness has gone away. With the advent of smartphones and related tech, there should be more documentations of unexplained phenomena, but instead we have fewer. The hard sciences are universally lauded – and rightfully so – but the ability to not-know can be equally important in a moment. I think we worked on Parapsychedelia from a space which embraced our classically shared touchstones of the unexplained, but I can’t help but feel it all points to something much closer.
Are you a believer in any of this stuff yourselves, then? Have you ever tried experimenting with Zenner Cards, for example?
Jonathan: I have a set of Zenner cards that came with a copy of The Unexplained magazine. I’ve never had much luck with them though! Let’s say I’ve an open and enquiring mind on this and a lot of similar esoteric subjects.
Wayne: Traditional parapsychology? Not particularly. But I believe the reality of our situation to be several magnitudes weirder than any of that!
The idea of a collaboration between a Cumbrian artist and a Californian artist is an intriguing one! How did it come about?
Jonathan: I’d been familiar with Wayne’s Panamint Manse releases, and we started chatting back and forth. I really liked his last album a lot and he said “Well… how about we do some kind of collaboration and see what happens?”
I don’t think either of us had any initial expectations of it turning into a full album, but he sent me some initial ideas to play with, and it quickly became apparent that we clicked musically and had something pretty cool. The whole thing took shape over a few months as ideas bounced back and forwards, and suddenly we had an album’s worth of stuff.
Wayne: Yeah, I had admired Jonathan’s work from afar before we began corresponding. After devouring all I could of the more popular stuff, I’d search Bandcamp for music tagged with “Hauntology” – I know it’s uncool, thanks – and The Heartwood Institute stood out for me. I remember hearing Calder Hallin 2016, around the same time I put my first music on the platform. I think Bandcamp can be a great tool for fostering communities and building connections. But it was Jonathan’s willingness to work with a bit of an outsider that allowed Parapsychedelia to develop.
Have you ever met each other in person, or even spoken in real time?
Jonathan: No, we’ve not met in person at this point, but yes – we’ve talked at length in actual, real time. And probably sent several thousand words of e-mails and messages!
Wayne, how have you found it working “remotely” in this way?
Wayne: We have similar setups so it wasn’t insurmountable, but I love being forced to commit and bounce down audio, because I can be so indecisive in my own work. Sending audio and MIDI, and text and pictures to friends are great frequencies for me.
What do you think each other brings to the collaboration? How do you complement each other’s work?
Jonathan: Well, I’ve been jokingly saying that Wayne brings the tunes and melodies, and I bring the noises. Which is probably a bit flippant, but I think we each have different strengths, and when they come together it makes for something that neither of us would do by ourselves.
Wayne: Haha, yes. It’s not all so black and white obviously, but there is a mixture of dark and light going on. I tend toward sentimentalism in my own work, and so it’s pleasant to explore murkier zones with Jonathan and just let go a bit. Not every song needs a chorus, Wayne!
Can I ask where some of the track titles come from? I’m intrigued by ‘Black Ant, White Magic’…
Jonathan: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’ and most of the other titles are Wayne’s – he’s great at mashing existing words to make new ones that sound like they ought to actually be a thing. I loved what he came up with, it’s kind of a woozy melange of psychedelia and parapsychology.
Wayne: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’… mostly, I just liked the sound of it. I wanted to retain some of the desert connections, and huge black ants are everywhere here in summer. ‘White Magic’ is just an attempt to be gentle, and not overly morose about the project. But I guess it’s been awarded some context after the fact… Jonathan is the black ant, and I bring the white magic.
Ooof, that’s lame.
And the rest? ‘Mesmercuria’? And ‘Amaranthracine’? Neither of these appear to be actual words… did you have fun inventing new words for this album?
Wayne: OK, nerding out here, but for the titles you mentioned I’d start with a word thematically related to our aesthetic, like “mesmerism”, and then bring up the default dictionary on OSX. You type three letters into the dictionary, it begins to auto-populate on the left, and you can scroll for something you like. Then you can just keep twisting away by repeating the process. So for the above example I used “mercurial”, but just dropped the “l” from the end, for added mystique. But perhaps “mesmeridian” could have worked, or “mesmercyanemiasma”? It’s like a directed cut-up or something. ‘Clairvoyeurism’ works in that way, as does Parapsychedelia. Overall, we tried to find a good mix of simple and graphic.
Can you tell us where some of the samples on the album came from? They’re very evocative.
Jonathan: I went down a massive Youtube rabbit hole of 1970s American science-fiction, and weird documentaries. A big resource was that Leonard Nimoy In Search Of…. programme. Which is very similar to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, so there was much to be had from that. Also, there are some bits pieces lifted fromPhase IV. I think if this whole project referenced one movie: stylistically, visually and content-wise, it would be Phase IV.
Wayne, are they any samples on the album that you’re particularly fond of, or find especially evocative?
Wayne: Definitely what Jonathan said about Phase IV… I love the dialogue at the end of ‘Amaranthracine’. ‘Onyx Oracle’ uses non-repeating. one second snippets from various VHS tapes. And the percussion sounds from Within The Woods on ‘Precognition’ were an absolute pain!
Will you both work together again, do you think?
Jonathan: Oh yes! We have plans for another joint album, and we’ll be digging further into the shadowy world of the Mobius Group.
Wayne: We will go much, much deeper during future investigations… it’s inevitable.
I meant to ask about the Mobius Group. The vinyl album comes with a couple of curious documents that allude to the existence of this mysterious organisation. What more can you tell us about them?
Jonathan: The Mobius Group… is standing by. Who they are, and what they do, is the subject for the next album. They are a shadowy group of people with extraordinary powers…
Thanks to Jonathan and Wayne for forging a psychic connection and transmitting the results remotely to the Haunted Generation… Parapsychedelia, by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse, can be ordered here:
British seaside towns exist in their own, weird pocket universe. The gaudy fairgrounds, the extravagant ice creams, the Kiss-Me-Quick hats and flashing arcades. The chips dusted with sand, the dogs on the beach. The works outings fuelled by beer and rock dummies; the windswept piers, the cockles and mussels, the inscrutable soothsayers and fearsome landladies. They are towns that teeter on a weird tipping-point between real-life hell and Carry On heaven, a direct portal from the everyday to the world of the 70s sitcom.
Time To Dream But Never Seen, the new album by Keith Seatman on the Castles In Space label, captures these feelings perfectly. It is strange, beautiful, utterly transportative: the very essence of modern psychedelia. And it seamlessly continues a lineage of British wonkiness that includes The Alberts, The Bonzo-Dog Doo-Dah Band, Syd Barrett, and every bizarre, half-baked novelty act that ever clattered onto a wooden stage in some draughty, tumbledown, end-of-the-pier palace of varieties.
I love it. Almost beyond words, although God knows it’s inspired me to write a few. It has weird fairground organs, bamboozling radiophonic noises, sleeve notes by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, and regular Seatman collaborator Douglas E Powell reciting a bizarre list of unlikely rustic aphorisms that never cease to make me laugh out loud: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.”
On the weekend of the album’s release, I called Keith at his home in Southsea, the Hampshire seaside resort whose culture, landscape and social history has clearly seeped into the album’s very DNA. We talked for almost an hour and a half, and it was wonderful. Here’s how the conversation went:
Tell us about your background as a musician… I know you were in a 1980s indie band called The Psylons, but had you done other things before that?
No, that was the first thing. It was 1986, we were a load of twentysomethings kicking around, and we released a single that got Single Of the Week in the NME. Then it got into the Indie Charts, and then I think John Walters phoned up one day… I can’t quite remember, one of the other band members dealt with it! But it was basically: “John Peel wants you to come in for a session.” And we said “Right OK…” and we did that!
Then, about four or five weeks after that, we got another one. We got two sessions! We did a John Peel session and an Andy Kershaw session, and thought “Wahey, here we go!”
But we were just really unlucky. It went kind of pear-shaped.
This is an example of our bad luck, it’s absolutely true. The second single got played by Janice Long, and those were they days when – if you got a play on early evening Radio 1 – you were quite lucky. I got in one evening, and my Dad said “You’ve had a phone call from someone called O’Connor…” So I dialled the number up, and it was Hazel O’Connor’s brother, who worked for Martin Rushent, the producer. And he said “Martin wants to record you, can you come to Genetic Studios?”
So we piled in the car, went down to Genetic Studios in Berkshire, and we’re thinking “Christ, Martin Rushent… he’s done The Human League, he’s done Buzzcocks… wahey!” But after that we didn’t hear anything from him for weeks, and then the weeks turned into months. And we suddenly saw, in the NME, that they’d gone bankrupt. It kind of always happened like that, we were always just really unlucky. We sustained it until the 1990s, we finally got an album out that got good reviews in the Melody Maker and NME, but by then we were just fed up. We were all drifting in different directions, musically. And that was pretty much it.
So even in The Psylons, did you have that psychedelic influence in your music?
It was real post-punk. Noisy, with bits of psych and backwards guitar, and other bits and bobs. We had a list of hardcore things that we were all into, and that was… Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, very early Pink Floyd, a lot of psych. Then it kind of drifted. I was really into a lot of post-punk synth stuff, and Tangerine Dream. And they could never understand my love of Hawkwind, so there you go.
Actually Jim [Jupp] and I were discussing Hawkwind recently, and trying to convince Douglas Powell how great they were. But he wasn’t having it at all!
Didn’t you first meet Jim when you were in The Psylons? Did he come to see you live?
It’s one of those weird connections. I didn’t know Jim, but he came to our gigs. And Jez Stevens, who did theAvoid Large Placesvideo on Youtube, was in a band with him. I got to know Jez through some other projects, and then became aware of Jim… it’s all mutual friends, really. Friends of friends in the pub, that kind of thing. And time crept on, and it became quite close-knit. Jez and Doug knew Jim, and I knew Jez and Doug, and it came together like that. And now we go for long walks together!
So was this pre-Ghost Box?
Yeah, because Jim then disappeared for a few years… was he an architect? It was a high-level, posh job! But then we all came together again. Jez was always in touch with him, and we all got together again in the late 1990s or early 2000s. And that’s continued to this day. We’re all going out on a Last of the Summer Wine day! Me, Doug, Jez, Jim and our friend Russ… we’re going for a walk to Lewes on the South Downs. It’s a lovely walk. We’ll end up in Lewes, in the Lewes Arms – which is a fantastic pub – and then at Jim’s. We all kip on Jim’s floor, and muck around into the night… it’ll end up with me and Jim trying to convince them all that Hawkwind are brilliant.
So after The Psylons, did you quickly want to make music as a solo artist?
Yeah, I tinkered around with Jack and Simon who were in The Psylons. I still do stuff with Jack, he does a lot of my mastering and co-producing, because basically his studio is a damn sight better than mine! So I did stuff with Jack and Simon, and recorded bits and bobs, but it was the late 1990s and early 2000s again before I started really tinkering around with stuff. And to be honest I wasn’t that confident.
But by about 2008 or 2009, I had all these tapes and CDs of stuff, and Jez gave me a good talking-to in the pub one night. He said “You’re going to have to release it, otherwise you’re not going to do anything.” And I wasn’t that confident about releasing it… I thought “No-one’s going to buy this old crap!” (laughs) You think you’re working in isolation and that no-one’s going to like it.
But I released a couple of things on Bandcamp, and a few people did like it. In fact, one of the early people – this would have been about 2011 – was probably Kev Oyston, of The Soulless Party. We contacted each other through e-mails because I bought a copy of Exploring Radio Space, which I really liked. It looked like a Ladybird book! And I bought his Close Encountersalbum, too.
I was really lucky. I released the second album, Boxes, Windows & Secret Hidey Holes, and Shindig reviewed it. And I thought “Good Lord, somebody really does like it!” And it just progressed from there. Somewhere along the line, Stuart Maconie played a track… and it just genuinely seems to have snowballed, with a lot of support from a lot of people. Jim’s been fantastic, and yourself… if I had to write out a list of people to thank, it would be a massive list. One day I’m just going put it on the blog page. Without them, I probably would have been sitting in a room, recording stuff but not doing anything with it.
Time To Dream But Never Seen really spoke to me, and reminded me so much of my childhood visits to the seaside. We’d get the train to Redcar or Saltburn, or the coach to Scarborough, and I was just transfixed by the otherworldiness of these places, and how different they were to the towns that I knew. The whole culture was so exciting and exotic – the fairgrounds, the arcades, the dummies in glass cabinets that laughed when you put a coin in…
We’ve still got them! There’s one in the city museum, it’s fantastic – you put in 20p and he laughs away. You can hear the motors whirring and clicking away inside. It’s brilliant.
Well, all of that came back when I was listening to the album. Did you intentionally set out to capture the atmosphere of the seaside, and the fairground in particular?
Oh, I’ll sound really pretentious here, but it really was a subconscious thing. It all just came together. In 2017, I did the All Hold Hands And Off We Goalbum, but then I got really bored. My attention span went completely, and I thought I’d just release EPs and singles for a while. So I did one of those, and then the Ghost Box 10″ with Jim and Doug… but I carried on recording. And I got quite obsessed in 2019, building up to finishing work for the summer [Keith works at a local college]. I was talking with my sister about the build-up to my nine weeks off, and I was saying that it was exactly the same feeling as when we were little. For two weeks before the holidays, there’s just a buzz in the air at work. The students are fed up with us, we’re fed up with them, and we’re all just looking forward to hitting the summer.
Living in Southsea, we always had access to the beach. And I was saying – the summer holidays would kick in, so we’d have six weeks off. And you could guarantee that, for the first few weeks, we’d be down the beach, at the fair, on the pier… arsing about doing stuff. And I suddenly realised that some of the tracks that I’d done sounded like that and I thought: “Oooh, there’s something going on here!” And then I started thinking about it more, and I realised that the summer holiday basically broke down into three periods.
So the first two weeks would be that build-up, and excitement, and you’re with your mates and getting up to stuff, drifting home, having your tea and going back out again.
And then you’d hit the middle, where it was almost like… “OK, where’s it going now?”
And then, in the last two weeks of August, there’d be this weird feeling of impending doom. The whole seaside thing disappeared, and we’d go out with Mum and Dad to country fêtes. You know, where you’d stick your head through a piece of cardboard, and people would throw sponges at you. We’ve got the New Forest close to us, so we’d have all those weird fêtes with their home-made jams. And you’d realise that, in this strange, six-week period, you’d drifted from “all the fun of the fair” to these rural tents.
I remember getting told off by my Dad for jumping over the ropes on the tents! He used to say “If you fall over the rope, you’ll get harpooned by the tent peg, and it’ll go through your heart…”
And then, inevitably, it would piss down with rain. You’d be at a fête and everything would be soggy, and then… well, the summer would be over. So it went from that initial excitement at the beginning, to a weird limbo in the middle, and then stuff with the family towards the end. And before you knew it, it was the autumn. For that last week… you always knew the autumn was on its way, creeping in.
In the very first episode, there’s a scarecrow festival. And that’s what it reminds me of. There’s a bit of a breeze… it’s not cold, and it’s not hot, and there’s just this weird feeling of knowing autumn is on the way. Like Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes… that first chapter, where they’re getting ready for the autumn, and talking about the “autumn people” turning up. It’s a fantastic book, and it’s that feeling. There are clouds on the horizon.
And then it’s here, it’s the autumn. And the summer, all that stuff – mucking around with your mates, falling in the sea, trying to chat girls up, not succeeding at all – it’s all gone. It could almost be a lifetime away.
You go back to school, and everyone seems older. Before the holidays, they looked 13 or 14, and then suddenly they look 30! They’ve all got beards! How they hell did that happen? I was still standing there under my Buzzcocks and Undertones posters looking really pasty, and other students were coming in looking like Lemmy…
So it wasn’t a conscious thing to begin with. But once it was, everything seemed to match, and that’s how it all came together.
So the album was structured to reflect the changing feel of the summer holidays?
Yeah, once I’d got the idea. The actual title track, ‘Time To Dream But Never Seen’, was probably about the fourth track I had, and then it started to come together. I thought I’d make that the final track, but I still had so many ideas, folders with samples, bits and bobs, and stuff laying around. There was a lot of stuff that I ditched that didn’t work at all.
In my head, I’d thought we were doing a CD, but then Colin [Morrison, from Castles in Space] said “No, we’re doing vinyl!”
“Oh crap, I’ve got to rethink it…” (laughs) I knew then that Side 1 had to end with ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’.
And ‘Waiting By the Window’… I got the title for that because I was once sitting in our house, on an afternoon towards the end of summer. It was absolutely piddling down with rain, and I was waiting for my Dad to come back… we were supposed to be going out, doing all that summery stuff. And I remember staring out of the bay window at the rain, just thinking “If I go away, and come back in five minutes it’ll be better. The sun will be out.”
But it wasn’t. It rained and rained, and I remember my Dad coming in with a look on his face that said “Yeah, we ain’t going anywhere…” And that was it, the end of the summer. It was Mousetrap and Ker-Plunk for the afternoon.
Your relationship with the seaside is an interesting one. Has it always been about Southsea for you?
Yeah, I grew up down this way. I’ve lived away a few times, but always come back. I went for a walk down the beach when it was windy the other day, and I thought – I’ve got a real affinity with it. I’d have a real problem moving inland, away from the sea. Even when I go to see Doug in the West Country, he’s not far from Barnstaple in North Devon, and it’s smashing – there’s sea up there, too! I’ve got to have some sort of water. It’s nice to come out of the house, go for a walk on the beach, and I can look at the sea forts from Doctor Who,The Sea Devils….
Is the strangeness and otherworldliness that I got from seaside towns something that you can appreciate when you actually live, and grew up, in one?
Yeah. Definitely. There’s also a weird thing… I was chatting with my daughter about this: you go to the beach in the summer, and it’s pretty horrendous. Nowadays it’s barbecues, and there’s literally a dark cloud of apocalyptic smoke hanging over the beach – it’s appalling. You see families with binbags of 500 sausages from Iceland! But again, it’s that “end of summer” thing. When you go back to the beach in the autumn, when it’s still slightly warm… that’s what I really like. All the holidaymakers have gone, you can see the grassy bits on the beach again, and it can be eerie and wonderful. We actually went to see the sun come up on the beach on Christmas Day, two years ago. All sitting there at 7 o’clock in the morning… it was lovely.
Down this way there’s a lot of old history, a lot of forts and derelict sites. The eerie one is Fraser Range, where The Sea Devils was filmed. I had a wander down there the other week, because they’re slowly knocking it down and turning it into flats, which is a real shame. But growing up, it was so exciting going down there. It was an active range, and you’d hear the guns on a Saturday and a Sunday morning. They’d fire out into the Solent and put marker buoys out, to stop ships from coming in. And that’s basically what you see in The Sea Devils, when the hovercraft comes up, and they’re all running around. That’s Fraser Range.
But you go down there now, and it’s all covered in graffiti. Online… they’re called urban explorers, aren’t they? They go into old buildings? There’s one for Fraser Range and it looks fantastic.
So yeah, it’s that sort of mystery. It’s quite nice. Even walking through the fair in the autumn, when everything is under canvas – you know, they cover everything up for the winter. As soon as dusk falls, anything at the funfair looks weird. With a full moon and eerie shadows.
So that Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils from 1972… obviously the fact that it was filmed in your town had a huge impression on you, but it’s also got one of the harshest radiophonic soundtracks ever! Malcolm Clarke’s music for that story is so experimental. Did that get to you as a kid as well?
It’s those screechy bits – I’m going to do one now! Weeeoooweeeeeeeooo! I was obsessed with that when I was a kid. Absolutely. My two favourites, and the only Doctor Who stories I’ve got on DVD, are The Sea Devils and The Daemons. I’ve always been a “take it or leave it” Doctor Who fan, but they’re my absolute favourites. One was filmed down here, and the other…well, it’s The Daemons! Set in the village church, there’s the little guy called Bok, the huge Daemons… and that’s got some good sounds on it as well.
But yeah, The Sea Devils is really extreme, isn’t it?
I love the fact that we were exposed to avant-garde, experimental electronic music on BBC1 at a Saturday teatime. And not just that… I think it was actually considered really healthy at that time for children to experience leftfield art and music.
Jim said something once, when we were discussing stuff like that. That we were all into the same odd and strange stuff, but you never knew who else was into it… so when you met someone that was, it was quite exciting! A friend and I showed the intro from Children of the Stones to his son, who was about 18, and his daughter, and they just stared at it and said “What the hell is this all about?” (Laughs) And does anything actually happen? But they thought the opening was quite freaky.
And the intro to The Owl Service… that totally shook them up! They said “What’s it all about?” And I said “Well I’ve read the book, watched the TV show again recently… and I’m still not absolutely sure.” I’ve got two lovely editions of the book, one of them a lovely hardback that I picked up in an old junkshop, and I’ve got the DVD of the bloody series… but I still wouldn’t like to explain it to someone.
It’s one of my favourite books. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but I like that.
Yes, you’ve got to keep reading it, and you’ll keep seeing different things in it all the time. We were all subjected to stuff like that, and I suppose – going back to The Sea Devils – it all fits in. The strange avant-garde electronica, the kids’ programmes with weird beginnings… I don’t know why it worked like that back then, and why it doesn’t work now. I’m going to sound really old, but everything has to be explosions now.
Although saying that, I did watch Doctor Who the other week, and there were a lot of Cybermen in it. And I thought “OK – I’ll go with this!” I like a good Cyberman.
Yes! I watched that with my sister. We had the book at our primary school, Marianne Dreams. I remember it being in our little, basic school library, next to Bedknobs and Broomsticks. And again – I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on, apart from these rocks getting closer to the house, and scaring the crap out of me! I re-watched what I could some years ago, when it started appearing on Youtube, and I tracked down the paperback and re-read it, and it’s an absolutely fantastic story. And the crackling voice on the radio: “We can see you…”. Again, coming back to that Doctor Who approach… I don’t know if they just shoved a microphone through an old fuzz pedal, but it’s really, amazingly distorted. So that’s why I did that one!
I love ‘Avoid Large Places’ on the album, and I was trying to work out where I knew the sampled speech from…
It’s not actually one sentence, it’s cut together from a larger bit of speech on a junior poetry album. I had to chop the whole middle bit out, so she doesn’t actually say “Avoid large places, keep to small…” It’s “Avoid large places… blah blah blah… keep to small!” I’ll try to dig it out. I pick up cranky old poetry albums, and record these samples, and I forget where they came from.
There’s a second-hand record shop in town, and somebody brought in an amazing collection. I was chatting with the guy in the shop, and he went downstairs and said “Oh, someone’s just brought in a load of BBC stuff… ” I ran down, and it was the usual sound effects albums, and I already had a few of them, but it also had these BBC albums of poetry and nursery rhymes, and an original copy of the orange-covered Play School album. So I just bought the whole lot… I think he wanted seven quid! It’s not what he would normally deal with…
So I think it’s from one of those. I do tend to scour eBay for odd poetry albums, I’ve got a couple from a series called Voices, they’re 1960s albums done as educational things. Shirley Collins is on them doing a couple of pieces, they’re on the Argo label. There was a whole series of them, but I’ve only got a couple. And then there’s one called The Searching Years… there seemed to be all these albums around then, with strange kids reading poetry! And glockenspiels being hit, and kids belching into microphones.
That’s another thing from that strange era… it was very acceptable for kids to have these odd albums. “Here’s a microphone and here’s an elastic band!” Nowadays, it’s all bloody laptops (laughs).
The Seasons, by David Cain and Ronald Duncan, is my textbook example of that. The music is so harsh, and the poetry is often quite disturbing and inappropriate… and yet it was absolutely intended to be played to primary school-age children. I wasn’t actually sure if ‘Speak Your Piece’, Douglas Powell’s spoken word piece on Time To Dream But Never Seen, was a little nod to The Seasons.
Well, do you know what? I gave him a call on the Dougphone – I always imagine it’s like the Batphone, he lifts the receiver up and says “Yes, Keith!” – Diddleiddleiddleiddledum! [this is Keith doing the Batman music]
I said, “It’s that time again, I’ve recorded something, it’s really quiet… and I don’t want singing!” I said I wouldn’t mind some sort of poem. And he said “OK, leave it with me,” and then sent it to me… and I can imagine some old sage sitting in the corner by the fire, recounting these tales to the young lad who lives up the road.
Oh, that’s fantastic stuff. I’ve got all the books now, and I bought a few as Christmas presents! I’ve met Chris a few times now, and I went to Reading to see one of the Black Meadow stage productions, with all the kids…
I saw the same show in Whitby! It was great! [Chris is a secondary school drama teacher, and enlisted his students to perform a Black Meadow play… you can read more about it here]
It was really, really good. I just sat there and thought – “Brilliant!” It must have been a great adventure for the kids. I’ve only really met Kev once, and I felt very humbled. I’m always like that when I meet people. “Argh! It’s Kev! Kev from The Soulless Party! Can you sign me book please?” (laughs) That was in Reading Library, they put another Black Meadow thing on there, and it was fantastic. I tend to get a bit overexcited.
I met Steve at the Delaware Road event. I was leaving at about 11pm… I’d watched Chris Concretism then made a move for home, but grabbed a coffee before I went. And I bumped into my mate Jez again, and he was chatting to some bloke. He said “This is Steve,” and I said “Alright, Steve, how you doing…”
“No, this is STEVE”!
And then I did a Scooby Doo head turn and went “You’re Steve Davis!” And then I didn’t know what to say. I think I just said “Smart… and really sorry, I’ve got to go!”
Jez said something about me and Castles In Space to him, and I just said “Yes, it’s coming out in the New Year…”
I bet Steve Davis has heard your album. He’s into everything.
I picked up the Utopia Strong album, and it’s frighteningly bloody good. I was chatting with someone a while back, and saying they really had to hear it. I said it’s Kavus from The Cardiacs, and it’s Steve Davis [and, indeed, Michael J York from Coil]. He said “What – Snooker Loopy Steve Davis?” But everyone’s known for a long time, he really is Mr Prog. He knows stuff about Turkish prog-garage bands from 1967.
And he still went “Steve Davis? Snooker? World Champion?”
He sits there with his big synth… it is amazing.
He told Kev and me that it felt like a new lease of life, starting a completely new career at the age of 60-odd. He was really excited.
I was reading a really lovely interview with him, about how he just drifted into it. And I thought – yeah, imagine being in that position where you’re 60-odd years old, you’ve done all your snooker stuff, and you’ve got this whole second life. He’s a massive Magma fan, isn’t he?
That’s where him and Kavus met, they were at a Magma gig in Paris.
It’s absolutely amazing.
One more thing about your album… I wrote a review of it for Electronic Sound magazine, and it got a bit florid. But the album really, really spoke to me… and I ended up talking about the “glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness”, and how you tapped into a lineage of strangeness that incorporated The Alberts and The Bonzo Dog-Doo Band, all that kind of thing. Did that strike a chord with you, or was I just rambling?
I showed that to my friend Greg that night, we were having a few drinks. And I said “I’ve got something to show you…” He said “Is it Mr Fischer’s review?”
And he read it, and looked up, and said “That’s pretty much nailed it!” (laughs). You mentioned Tommy Cooper…
It’s just that whole lost scene of strange British variety acts. Your album reminded me of that tradition. And, for some reason, him in particular.
I enjoy a bit of Tommy Cooper. Greg and I always end up discussing old episodes of Dad’s Army, or Steptoe and Son. And the sadness of Steptoe and Son. We’ve sat there and analysed it, half sloshed, about how absolutely tragic it is… this grown man lives with his Dad, who’s so needy and won’t let him escape. He’s an absolute bastard.
And I very much like Ivor Cutler too, things like that. There’s a few Bonzo tracks that I like, but also – I have a massive love of The Cardiacs. Again, it fits in with that strange quirkiness. So yeah, I read it again, and Greg read it again, and said it had hit the mark.
And bearing in mind he’s from Stalybridge in Lancashire, he didn’t even say anything derogatory about North Yorkshire!
At this point we ended up rambling about my beloved North York Moors, but lost our train of thought when Keith knocked an empty beer bottle onto the kitchen floor (from the previous evening’s recycling – he was keen to point out that he hadn’t been drinking that lunchtime). So I’ll just say thankyou to Keith for a delightfully entertaining conversation, and point out that Time To Dream But Never Seen can be ordered here…
And sod it… here’s the full review I wrote for Issue 62 of Electronic Sound magazine. Which is well worth subscribing to, you can do it here.
KEITH SEATMAN Time to Dream But Never Seen (Castles In Space)
“Owner of some synths, and always a tad lost.” So goes Keith Seatman’s self-effacing description of himself, and both are apparent in this utterly magical concoction, an album steeped in the sweetshop mysticism of a stranger, gentler England. Certainly the wistful tootling of ancient keyboards are present and correct, conjuring delicious images of topsy-turvy fairground rides, of wonky, body-bending mirrors and clanging Ghost Trains. With Seatman himself marooned in the throng, bemused and out-of-time, a static observer in a stop-motion crowd scene.
Write his name in the centre of a crumpled notepad, and – as this extraordinary musical adventure unfurls – let the comparisons explode around it. You’ll end up with Syd Barrett, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, even Tommy Cooper and the remnants of Music Hall. But they’re not influences, nor inspirations. It’s more than that. It’s genetic. This is the sound a man of whose DNA is infused with the spirit of what the Alberts once described as “British Rubbish”. It’s the glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness, and it’s painfully touching to acknowledge that such a thing even exists any more. It’s like finding a beloved, elderly relative, long assumed dead, living in a disused lighthouse on the South Coast, surrounded by wheezing harmoniums and stuffed puffins.
You need actual proof? Try the zig-zagging, end-of-the-pier Wurlitzer of ‘Tippy Toe Tippy Toe’. The spectral, skeletal waltz of ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’. Or ‘Speak Your Piece’, in which poet, songwriter and regular collaborator Douglas E. Powell invokes the spirit of Ronald Duncan in his Seasons pomp: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.” We’re now six albums into the career of this Puckish troubador, this mercurial genius on the fringes of popular hauntology. But, like those old Nationwide weirdies who would row to abandoned sea forts in the Solent and declare them an independent state, Seatman has become the king of his own beautifully bespoke realm.
And a tad lost? Yes, but wonderfully so. Stay lost Keith, and keep sending us postcards like this. Assuming he’s on the same calendar as the rest of us dreary mortals, it’s barely February. But he might already have made the album of the year.
All hail Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence… the square-eyed Liverpudlian duo who, staggered that nobody had yet written a book about the welter of disturbing TV shows, films and – ahem – ice lollies that traumatised our collective 1970s childhoods, set out to fill the gap. The resulting doorstep-sized tome, Scarred For Life, has become a sales sensation, and a follow-up volume, detailing the Cold War-infused minutiae of their 1980s adolescence, is due in 2020.
And the book has now inspired a compilation album of original music, all influenced by those lingering memories of childhood disquiet. It includes new tracks by the likes of Vic Mars, The Home Current, Pulselovers, The Heartwood Institute and Polypores, and has been compiled by musician Kev Oyston, who – in his guise as The Soulless Party – also contributes the title track. It’s the start of a busy period for Kev, whose multi-media Black Meadow collaboration with writer Chris Lambert, detailing the dark folk stories of the North York Moors, also sparks back into life in early 2020.
But the Scarred For Life album, released this week by Castles In Space, comes first, with all proceeds heading to Cancer Research UK. It’s a beautiful collection of evocative music, and I asked Kev about the inspiration behind it…
Bob: Where did the idea for the Scarred For Life album come from? I assume you bought the book, and enjoyed it?
Kev: Yeah, I bought the book. It appealed massively to me straight away. Although I was born in 1975, a lot of the early to mid 1970s Public Information Films, schools programmes and children’s programmes were still being re-shown throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, so a lot of the content of the book rang a big bell with me. I’ve always been fascinated with the dark, weird and ambiguous output of 1970s TV.
Which TV programmes or films from the era really scared you?
My earliest memories are basically from Doctor Who and those Public Information films. Being rather mesmerised by Tom Baker, who himself was pretty scary. I actually remember the reveal of Scaroth at the end of the first episode of City of Death – that absolutely terrified me. I was four! The other Doctor Who cliffhanger that traumatised me was the end of the first episode of Logopolis, where the Master shrunk Aunt Vanessa and the policeman, and left them like lifeless dolls in the car.
The Public information Films that got to me were the ones with the drivers’ faces being smashed through the car windscreen in very weird slow motion. There was also one with a mother and her little boy, where he runs out into the road and she drops her eggs as he gets run over. I used the think the eggs were the contents of the boy’s head!
And the infamous Apaches, which warned of the dangers of playing on a farm, absolutely gave me nightmares… especially the shot of the boy sinking and drowning in the slurry pit. It was just so lifelike! But that was the idea wasn’t it? To scare you away from doing daft and silly things on roads, or swanning around near farming equipment.
Did other things get to you as well? I found it hilarious that the book’s writers, Stephen and Dave, were scared by “Dracula” ice lollies and “Horror Bags” crisps…
I can remember this quite vividly, and it still gives me chills now… my parents used to threaten me with the rag and bone man, saying he was going to take me away if I didn’t behave. Honestly, that worked a treat because every time I heard him at the bottom of our street shouting, “RAGBONE!!” I’d be off like a shot! In fact I’d hide under my bed!
I think it was his voice, the way he shouted. It was quite snarly and bellowing. I really do still shudder thinking about it.
When, and how, did it strike you to make an accompanying album?
I hit it off with Stephen a long time ago, over our love of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we talked on and off for a while about different things. It wasn’t until we actually met, at their first Scarred For Life show in Eaglescliffe about a year ago, that we talked quite excitedly about the idea of doing a compilation album. I found the subject of the book to be really evocative, and thought it would carry the weight of a concept album quite well.
At first we toyed with the idea of doing covers of old 1970s and 80s TV themes, fitting in with the Scarred For Life ethos. But after much pondering and research, I discovered that it would end up being a huge copyright headache, so we parked the idea for a bit.
It wasn’t until I heard that the lads were working on a sequel to the original Scarred for Life book, this time covering the 1980s, that my interest in doing something was piqued again. So I spoke with Stephen and asked what he thought about a compilation album of music “inspired” by the TV and film output of the Scarred for Life era. He loved the idea, so I went away and rallied some artists.
Did you draw up a hit list of you wanted to approach? Are a lot of these artists people that you’ve known for a long time?
It all seems a bit of a blur now, but I think it was quite organic. The first person I approached, more for advice, was Colin Morrison from the Castles in Space label. I already had something on the boil with him, and thought it would be good to run this idea past him too. Before we knew it, he’d signed up to the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, and wanted to promote and push it all! I was absolutely bowled over.
A lot of the artists I approached, I’d known forever… Vic Mars, Monroeville Music Center, Pete Hackett – aka Cult of Wedge – Keith Seatman and Swimming Lesson. They all jumped at the chance to be on the album. I’d always admired the other acts too… The Twelve Hour Foundation, the achingly lovely Jonathan Sharp from The Heartwood Institute, Listening Centre, Rob from Handspan… in fact I admire everyone we have on there!
It was nice, because I proposed the idea to each of these artists, and immediately there was a mutual understanding of the premise, and the important cause that the album was for. Not only that, each individual who took part was just massively likeable, and easy to get along with. I had everyone in a Scarred for Life private group and we all just clicked. Honestly, it was really lovely. Most of the artists were already aware of Stephen and Dave’s wonderful book and were really keen to take part.
What was the remit you gave them all as a starting point for their tracks?
Because the Scarred For Life books are about to hit the 1980s, I gave them the remit of creating music that reminded them of that kind of “off kilter”, not quite right, TV shows or movies that they’d watched as kids in the 1970s and 80s. But not just the TV shows… other things besides.
Can you give us a little rundown the tracks themelves, and the inspirations behind them?
Well, I thought I’d let the artists speak for themselves! I managed to coax this out of them all the other day… here’s what some of them have to say on each of their pieces:
Jez Butler: Our track is named after the TV transmitter near my old home town in Linconshire. Rather than being based on a specific theme tune, it’s a more generic radiophonic-inspired thing, with the focus on the sudden start – in the style of a scary 70s kids’ drama intro – and the the cliff-hanger at the end. If that makes sense!
Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless was inspired by the 1972 series Escape Into Night, and the book that inspired it, Marianne Dreams. “Not the light!”
Swimming Lesson: Superhighways
Darryl Wakelin: Mine was inspired by the excitement and dread – in equal measure – of what computing in the future would be like. A mix of Tomorrow’s World, and the machines that would destroy us, control us or be used for war. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Demon Seed, UFO, Space 1999, etc…
Martin Jensen: Summer in Marstrand is inspired by growing up with the Moomins on Danish TV. I was part fascinated, and part scared senseless, every time an episode aired. Some of my childhood summer holidays were spent on the Swedish island of Marstrand, and apart from it being where I saw my very fist White-Tailed Eagle, I also remember thinking the Moomins could easily have come from there.
Rob Colling: Mine came mainly from the fact that I’d been listening to Clannad’s Legend, the soundtrack album from Robin of Sherwood, quite a lot in the weeks running up to this project. That’s why so many of the modular synth noises sound a bit like Celtic harps. It actually ended up in more of a Look And Read kind of place, somewhere between Dark Towers and The Boy From Space, hence the track title, but my initial idea was much more about forests and mist and standing stones. And terrifying early digital video effects.
Pete Hackett: Originally I’d written an actual song, words and all, but I couldn’t sing it due to the stupid key, and time was running out, and everyone else’s tracks were instrumental… so I recorded a theme tune! It’s pretty much on a theme of The Tomorrow People, but has time travel / indigo / psychic children ideas going on. Hence the kid at the start seeing dead people…
Mat Handley: Nice View From Up Here is my take on the theme tune for a sitcom starring Joe and Petunia from the Public Information Film series made between 1968 and 1973. I imagined a particularly un-PC studio comedy in the style of George and Mildred, but with a theme more inspired by the brilliant Ronnie Corbett vehicle, Sorry!
Craig Storm: I sat down trying to make an homage to Knightmare, and instead ended up with what seems like the end credit music to an educational programme’s Halloween episode, if it had spliced in eight-bit voice actor samples from a third-rate medieval adventure game. It’s no Knightmare, but it’s a show I’d like to watch.
Alex Cargill: Puzzled is loosely based on the 1970s and 1980s BBC kids TV show Jigsaw, which featured the infamous character of Noseybonk. Genuinely disturbing for a young child. I tried to imitate the generally upbeat feel of the original, along with the childish sound effects. The laughter snippet is actually a sample of my late Grandad – it seemed to fit nicely and I thought it’d be nice to have him immortalised on a CD. It’s what he would’ve wanted. However, as is often the case, I couldn’t help myself from adding a little bit of acid squelch to the proceedings.
Johnny Vertigan: I think I was gleefully ripping off the slightly sinister library themes that would sometimes find their way onto Pages from CEEFAX. Or the kind of thing that would be used for either a forgotten, warped 1970s BBC drama, or perhaps a schools’ programme about maths. Same difference back then, I suppose.
David Mason: My offering is inspired by the multiple layers of uncanny-ness and the fractured parallel realities reflected in Sapphire and Steel. The title is borrowed from the final episode of the series, where (Spoiler Alert!) Sapphire and Steel find themselves trapped in a cafe, in the void, for eternity.
Benjamin Green: Programmes for Sick Days takes inspiration from “Programmes for Schools”, generally the only television available to watch for children who were too poorly to go to school that day. Quite dry programmes that perhaps seemed dead boring in a classroom would become extraordinarily fascinating and eerie in the cosy setting of the living room. My track tries to evoke the images and sounds of a morning of school programming, through the woozy haze of feeling unwell. Dosed up on children’s medicine, and safely bundled up within blankets and quilts to make a bed on the settee.
To temper the cosiness, I will add that while experiencing a proper bout of influenza for the first time as a child, I had a morbid thought during an episode of Zig Zag that I might end my days on the sofa, and these would be the last visuals and sounds I’d ever experience. And I’ve since often wondered if, for some poor souls, that may have been the case….
Stephen J Buckley: My track, as with most of my music, wasn’t really planned or thought out as such. It’s not really up to me what I write on any given day. I simply made myself available, open to suggestion, and coaxed it from the strange ether from which music comes. Basically, I was led down a Scarred for Life ether vortex, and the track just came out!
And Kev, your own theme music, the opening track to the album?
Yes, it was the main Scarred for Life theme that I tasked myself with, and I just wanted to encompass sounds and layers that echoed the likes of Denton and Cooke, and Peter Howell… with a cheeky nod to John Carpenter, too.
What’s your own background as a musician? Can you give us a little potted history, please?
I was massively into music from a very young age. I used to spend a lot of time round at my cousins’ house, and they were quite big into electronica, post-punk and ska. I was basically a sponge, and I loved everything they listened to. They had a loft conversion with lots of old synths in it, and wrote their own material as well as doing cover versions for a college band they were in. Again, I was hooked. By the age of 12 I had my first synthesizer, a Korg Poly 800. I also had a four-track tape recorder to lay down any ideas I had. I got a few more synths in my twenties, and chucked out a few demos of instrumental tracks to various people. One of whom told me that I’d be good for TV adverts or soundtrack work… however, being very young, idealistic and quite naive, I was quite put out by this! I went off to form a synth-pop band with my cousin, Rob.
I wrote all the tracks and did some of the vocals and we set out round London gigging on the – then – underground electronic music circuit for a few years. We had a nice little following, and released an album… which maybe ten people might have in their collection.
As the years progressed, I started getting into Ghost Box Records. Their output totally blew my mind and took me back to my childhood in very strange ways… to the classroom, or to a cornfield or a forest on a warm, hazy day. I just loved what I was hearing. That inspired me to go down a similar instrumental route, trying to come up with something that reminded people of the past. New music that sounded like vintage music. I think I achieved that with theBlack Meadow project.
I was going to ask about the Black Meadow project. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
While I was trying to find that sound of the past, I wrote a track which I just randomly called Beyond the Moor. It ended up on the Tales from the Black Meadow album, but at the time I wrote it, I had no idea what it could be for… why did I call it Beyond the Moor? But the more tracks I wrote with a similar vibe, the more it organically fell into place. The concept came to me.
As a child, we used to drive regularly over the North York Moors to Pickering, to see relatives. We’d always pass the three huge, golf ball-like radomes that belonged to RAF Fylingdales, and – being a kid with his head in the clouds – I always imagined strange alien craft being housed there. Or something akin to Quatermass, that kind of thing. My imagination ran wild. I recalled all that as I wrote the music for the first Black Meadow album and it just gave me the impetus to keep going. I had an idea of a story, or of strange folklore, attached to this place called The Black Meadow, which was slap bang right next to RAF Fylingdales. It was to be a place of mysterious fog, creatures and a Brigadoon-type village that appeared only under certain atmospheric conditions. The village is full of weird monsters and people, and is just downright creepy.
My old partner in crime Chris Lambert took an interest in this project and my ideas, and basically wanted to put them all into proper folklore-style stories, and have them published along with the album. I got carried away with the idea, and pushed for something else to go alongside the music and the book, and that was… why don’t we “dig up” an old BBC Radio 4 documentary from 1978, all about the Black Meadow, and add it to the album? So we did.
The original Tales from the Black Meadow CD – with the music and the documentary – was released in 2013, along with the book. The book still sells well today, and sometimes I re-release the album and it always seems to do OK.
And there’s some new material coming in January 2020?
It’s taken a long time, but we’ve just completed the second Black Meadow project, The Black Meadow Archive: Vol 1. Again, it’s an album of music, this time on vinyl, again on the lovely Castles in Space label. And there’s also a new, jam-packed book too. We’re quite excited to release it to the world. We just hope everyone likes it!
In the meantime, Scarred For Life is out this week, and all proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK… is it a cause that’s dear to your heart?
Absolutely. Sadly, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer in May and it’s been a very tough few months. Happily things are looking positive, as the treatment has done the job, and we’re hoping everything will be clear come the New Year.
Its funny how you can appreciate, yet still take for granted, some of the work these charities do. It’s not really until something affects you close to home that you start to really appreciate their work. Cancer Research UK are a hugely proactive concern… they’re a positive power for good in the search for a cure to cancer, and they provide fantastic support to those who may be suffering. They were the first charity I thought of when we were putting this album together, and it’s been brilliant to see people buying the album also getting behind the charity too.
Thanks to Kev for his time, and thoughtful replies… and to everyone else on the album for contributing, too. The Scarred For Life album is available here…
…and it concludes on a poignant note; the closing track, Be Like A Child by Carl Matthews, is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose own life was cut tragically short by cancer. It’s a fitting conclusion to a wonderful collection of music.
I asked Jonathan Sharp, of The Heartwood Institute, about his memories of Carl. He replied…
“Carl is one of the great lost voices of UK synth. He started releasing cassettes from 1980 via the Mirage label – all very DIY – and continued up to 1991. You can find a big list of his output on Discogs. He was incredibly well-respected, but largely unknown. I got to know Carl around 2001 when he started making music again, and we became good friends. I encouraged him into making library, music at which he became very successful. More recently, there’d been a real interest in his old music, and he’d had Call For World Saviours released on CD and vinyl, and had appeared on several high-profile compilations too. He’d also started releasing new music via bandcamp. Sadly he died a few months ago, just as the Scarred For Life compilation was coming together. As soon as I knew it was raising money for Cancer Research UK, it seemed natural to have a track of his on the album. His family agreed, and it’s so lovely to have that track on there.”
I’m aware that my childhood memories are fading. Once razor-sharp recollections of sun-drenched (and, indeed, rain-soaked) escapades – the grubby friends, the mud-spattered tanktops, the lolly sticks on bicycle spokes – have become thin and hazy; drifting together into a cloud of indistinct vagueness… so that day, that day when that thing happened? Was that 1978 or 1979? Or was I even older than that? I can’t remember any more. The relentless march of middle-age erodes detail, yet magnifies longing… not just for the specific places and people of our youth, but for our distinct memories of them. Memories that we know we once had, but have now left… oh, over there somewhere. I think. Didn’t we? I don’t know, when did you last see them?
Doncaster musician Mat Handley – recording as Pulselovers – has poured these feelings into his second album,Cotswold Stone. It’s a beautiful musical evocation of his early 1970s school summer holidays; of times spent visiting his maternal grandparents (and the obligatory hordes of cousins that seemed to form a vital part of every 1970s childhood) in the picturesque Oxfordshire town of Burford… and, indeed of the deliciously fuzzy and elusive qualities that his memories of the period have now assumed. An album where woozy electronica meets the sounds of the school music room; flutes, xylophones and recorders. I asked Mat about his family background, the idyllic summers that inspired the album, and the musical adventures and inspirations that have informed his output over the last four decades…
Bob: Congratulations on Cotswold Stone… it’s a lovely album. Can you tell us a bit about Burford? Where is it, and what kind of place was it?
Mat: Burford is a small town in Oxfordshire. commonly referred to as the “Gateway to the Cotswolds”. According to legend, it’s the place where the King of the Mercians, Æthelbald, was beaten in battle by the Saxon King Cuthred in the year 752. Burford church was also used as a temporary prison in 1649, when 340 Levellers were incarcerated before being either pardoned or executed. The church still bears evidence of this incident, there’s ancient graffiti carved into the very font where I was baptised. For me though, Burford is the place where my maternal grandparents lived, where my mum and her sister grew up and married, and where my siblings and my cousins spent a lot of time during the 1970s, particularly during those long hot summer holidays.
It was a place with big family connections for you, then?
My grandparents made their marital home in Burford, although they both originated from other parts of the country; Grandad was born in Grimsby and Grandma in Leicestershire, though both families eventually ended up in or around Daventry in Northamptonshire, which is where they met. I’ve no idea what made them choose Burford as a place to bring up their children, but they must have moved there in the mid-1940s. I only know this thanks to my sister’s tireless family research on one of those family tree websites! I’m fascinated as to what you can discover when you start digging into these records, but it really raises a lot more questions than answers. There are many occasions where I’ve just logged on in the early evening to see what my sister has unearthed, only to look at the clock to find it’s 3am and I have to be up for work at six!
The album feels very upbeat and “summery”… was it particularly the feel of those childhood summers that you were keen to evoke?
Absolutely. I guess the timeframe for this album is the early 1970s. I lived in Daventry then with Mum, Dad, my brother Simon, my sister Naomi and Sam the dog, but school holidays were mainly spent in Burford. Memories are hazy, but… long walks down country roads, feeding the ducks at Bourton-on-the-Water, helping Grandma in the kitchen – or Grandad in the garden – and having death-defying fun on the “Witches Hat” down in “The Rec”. Those memories are like sun-scorched Polaroids that linger in my head. It’s these inconsequential but happy snapshots that I tried to evoke when I was making the album. Certain smells can transport you back to a certain time or place… and that’s what I attempted to do with sound.
I’ve seen you mention “Auntie C’s ramshackle Bradwell Grove cottage”, too. Can you tell us a bit more about this? Who was she, and was the cottage a particularly special place for you?
This memory is pretty hazy. Mum’s sister Auntie Carol, Uncle Tony and my cousins Estelle and Claire lived in a small cottage within the grounds of the Cotswold Wildlife Park… my Uncle worked there in the kitchens. The only tangible memory of the place that I have is the crumbling pig-sty in the back garden, which was a fantastic place to play… although there were no pigs! I say the memory is hazy… it may actually be entirely false or misremembered. I could actually speak to Auntie Carol or my cousins to confirm one way or another, but to be honest I’d rather keep what I have. The truth could potentially spoil something which is comforting.
In fact, the same could be said for much of the inspiration behind the album. When I told my sister recently about it, she told me that she doesn’t remember spending that much time in Burford at all. Now… during the timeframe I’m referring to, she would only have been between four and five years old, so of course she won’t remember as much as me, but even so I guess it’s possible that some of these snapshots have been filed away in my head incorrectly.
It’s this potential loss of recollection that made me want to make this album in the first place. My Mum now suffers from dementia, and no longer has a memory at all. Much of the music I make is steeped in nostalgia, real or imagined, and I’ve tried to understand why that is, but with no success. I know the catch-all description of music with the hauntology tag is that it yearns for lost futures, but the music I make hasn’t been designed that way, that’s just how it materialises. When I’m playing in other projects like Floodlights, or particularly with the band Vert:X, I come at the material from a completely different angle. I think Pulselovers is just too personal for me, and I can’t escape the melancholy!
So there’s a nice ‘”fuzziness” about your memories of the era? I’m the same. Lots of my early childhood memories aren’t specific events, more just a “feel”… a kind of vague, cosy melancholy. But a nice melancholy, if that makes sense!
I couldn’t describe it any better myself. There’s nothing specific about my memories… and I wouldn’t want there to be. They’re simply images that can be viewed, like an internal photo album.
I’ve seen you say that your memories of names on road signs played a big part in the album… Cleeve Hill, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold. They’re all wonderfully evocative names. When you hear them, what images do they evoke?
They just remind me of the excitement and anticipation I felt on car journeys during that period. I don’t think I’ve even visited some of these places, but seeing the names in black on white as you pass them, on the winding B-roads of the Cotswolds, triggers mini fireworks of memory in my head. This isn’t exclusive to Burford and the Cotswolds, though. I find the same thing happens when I drive close to places where I used to live, or have some other connection. In fact, last year I happened to drive close to my childhood home of Daventry, and as the names of Towcester, Braunston, Staverton and Everdon flashed by me on the A45 – names I’d not even realised were stored up there in my head somewhere – similar pangs of nostalgic giddiness flooded through me, like it used to as a child.
This might just be me, but I thought the album had a curiously Transatlantic feel in places! There are saxophones, and synth-funk rhythms that evoked memories of some of the glossy US TV shows that we watched at the time. Was that a deliberate move? Did you have any memories of TV or film music in mind when you were making the album?
Nothing deliberate there at all from me… though subconsciously, there may be some influence. I think you’re referring to the track In the Grove, and that combination of funky guitar and tooting saxes came entirely from my pals John Alexander and Harriet Lisa, who played them. There’s a host of talented people who have contributed to this record. John appears all over the album, mainly playing guitar. His project is called Floodlights and you should have a listen to it. His stuff is much more sophisticated than mine and really deserves to be heard.
Harriet only plays on that one track on the album, though she also plays clarinet on the accompanying single On the Green. Then there’s Mark Taylor on bass, Sarah Parton on flute, recorder and clarinet, my son Raven on acoustic guitar and Graham Sutherland who plays the beautiful lead on the album’s closer On the Wold. Colin Bradley of Dual/Spleen also played guitar on the single and my pal Wayne Ulmer of Panamint Manse totally reworked the album track In the Marsh, for the B-side of the single. I’m humbled to have had all these talented and – apart from Wayne – local musicians helping me realise this project.
Did you leave Daventry – and indeed Burford – at quite a young age? I think you’ve been in Doncaster since the 1980s. Was it a big wrench to leave? Leaving town and moving school during that period was a big thing… it was much less easy to keep in touch with school friends after you’d gone.
My grandparents left Burford in – I think – the mid 1980s. After my great grandmother passed away in 1987, they inherited and moved into her bungalow in Woodford Halse, near Daventry. As you can probably tell, nostalgia, melancholy and family history informs much of what I do with Pulselovers, and with the tiny tape label – Woodford Halse – that I run. My Dad was born and bred in Doncaster and we moved up here as a family in around 1978. The move was a terrible wrench for me, as I think it is for most kids who leave friends behind for a new life. It also meant that visits to my grandparents became much less frequent, too.
I actually visited Burford for the first time since the mid-1980s quite recently… on the trip back north after attending the wonderful Delaware Road event on Salisbury Plain. My partner and I spent an afternoon wandering up and down the High Street – which doesn’t seem to have changed in the slightest – and sitting in silent contemplation in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, where I was baptised in 1966. Although in Lou’s case, it could well have been simply boredom!
Had you already started to experiment with making music in the 1980s? I’ve seen you talk about sitting “in the cupboard under the stairs with my Jen SX1000 and Roland SH101”! When did you get them? And why did you sit in the cupboard?
Haha! The cupboard under the stairs was no Harry Potter-esque exile… we were a family of five, living in a small three-bedroomed council house. In 1982 or 1983, soon after staring my first job in a cable factory, I bought a couple of synths and a drum machine to try and emulate synth-pop heroes like the Human League, John Foxx and Fad Gadget. I failed miserably, but had a lot of fun making a racket. The cupboard was the only space available for these toys and I had to share the space with the ironing board, the vacuum cleaner and all the other household crap that doesn’t have a real home!
Does any of the music you made during that period survive in any form?
There are a couple of Bandcamp compilations (Virgin Territory and Bedroom Cassette Masters 1980-1989) where I submitted a single track for each, but I really wouldn’t recommend them! Both of those submissions were recorded in the cupboard under the stairs, directly into the boombox’s built-in mic. Then there’s Soundtrack V from the first album… that was written in that same dusty cupboard, but re-recorded with better equipment and a little more experience, thirty-odd years later.
Doncaster is not a million miles away from Sheffield, which was a hugely exciting place to be for electronic music in the 1980s! Did that make a big impact on you?
A massive impact! The Human League – Mark 1, of course – and Cabaret Voltaire were, and continue to be, a big influence. The long version of Toyota City (the B-side of Only After Dark), The Dignity of Labour, Music for Stowaways and The Voice of America are pieces of music that I never get bored of hearing.
Sheffield has a great musical heritage, and even now there’s a lot of great music to discover. Bishop’s House is a tiny Tudor building that I regularly visit to see intimate folk or experimental gigs by the likes of Sharron Kraus, Pefkin or Bell Lungs. On the electronic side, there’s Saif Mode, Isis Moray and loads more… record label-wise, I’m an avid collector of Sonido Polifonico and Do It Thissen. There’s so much to be inspired and entertained by.
Tell us about the history of recording as Pulselovers… when did you start?
As I mentioned before, I bought a couple of synths, a drum machine and a delay pedal in around 1983, and made a lot of unproductive noise for a couple of years. They were joined later by a Tascam 244 four-track. Then the familiar story of real life happened… with relationships, weddings, kids, divorces and bankruptcy taking priority over any artistic endeavours. There was always a desire to create, but often not the time or the opportunity. Then, in about 2015, I started to present a radio show on the local community station Sine FM, initially with the idea of playing the music of my youth… post-punk, industrial, synth-pop and the like. Through doing this show I started discovering new music that I’d never been aware of… labels like Ghost Box, Polytechnic Youth, Cardinal Fuzz, Folklore Tapes, Reverb Worship, Rocket Recordings and Castles in Space were all putting out music by new artists which reignited both my love of vinyl, and my desire to make music of my own again.
A copy of Propellerheads’ Reasonsoftware, a laptop and a midi controller keyboard were purchased, and I soon started working out how to use this stuff… initially by recording some dodgy cover versions (you can find them online too, but I’m not telling you where to look!) and then on the original material that eventually became the first Pulselovers album. The name Pulselovers comes from a piece of music by The Future – Ian Craig Marsh, Martin Ware and Adi Newton in their pre-Human League days – which appears on the fab collection The Golden Hour of the Future. Originally it was Pulse Lovers, I just joined the words together.
Has the music you make changed since then? You’ve mentioned elswhere acquiring a load of analogue synths in 2016… was this a deliberate move to create something a little more “vintage” sounding?
I still use the computer to make most of my music, but more just as a multi-track recorder now. The addition of standalone instruments has allowed me to write in a more improvisational manner. Also, I’ve found that restricting myself to three or four synth parts works better than the unlimited nature of working with everything that the laptop offers… when you’ve been working on a track for a week, adding layer upon layer, sometimes you listen back and find that you’ve lost what you were trying to come up with in the first place, or that the original five-minute demo with its simple baseline, crappy drum machine and naive melody sounds so much better.
I think the music I make has developed and matured a lot since that first album. I’ve contributed several tracks to Steve Prince’s A Year In The Country themed compilations over the past three years, and I’ve found the specific themes and guidance you receive as a contributor has changed the way that I approach writing and recording. No longer do I follow the bassline, melody, beat formula of my earlier stuff. I’ll now write a piece around a tape loop or a field recording made at a specific location… whatever it takes to find the feeling I want the piece to invoke. Two of the tracks on the album – Badby 80 and The Green Leaves of Shildam Hall – originally appeared in different forms on two of these compilations.
I meant to ask about Badby 80… where does the title come from?
On an excursion from my adopted hometown of Doncaster to Daventry in 1983, I took photographs of old school pals, my primary and secondary schools, and the various haunts where – as a child in the mid-1970s – I played football, rode my bike and collected newts, frogs and other pond life. One such location was a subway which went under the main road. I had to travel through it to get from my council house to the then-swanky and modern comprehensive school. On the wall was a piece of graffiti which intrigued me enough to want to capture it for posterity. In black spray paint, with letters a foot high was the inscription, “Badby 80 – 8 arrest, 8 innocents”.
Badby is a tiny village around five miles from Daventry, located within the boundaries of the nearby Fawsley Estate. It was a magical place where my parents and siblings would spend many a Sunday afternoon exploring the woods… they were famous for the deep carpet of bluebells that covered the entire forest floor every Spring. I could never comprehend how this little hamlet, with its idyllic and mysterious woodland, accessible only via a broken down stone archway, could be the setting for anything where eight innocent people could be arrested. I tried to find out the details behind this incident from friends and family, but without any success. Who were the eight? What was their crime? Nobody knew…. or if they did, they weren’t talking.
The photo lay in my box of memories untouched and ignored for decades, only springing back into my consciousness when working on a track for the Year In The Country collection, The Restless Field. The result is my interpretation of an incident that I know virtually nothing about, but it’s one that still intrigues me nearly forty years later.
A little word about Castles in Space, a label I love… how did you end up releasing Cotswold Stone with them, and how have they been to work with?
It came completely out of the blue! I’d linked up with the label boss, Colin Morrison, on social media because of the radio show and because I’m a fan of the label. I think Colin was one of the few people who actually bought the first album when it came out, and I’d always assumed this was more down to Nick Taylor having done the artwork… I got to know Nick outside of music through our mutual membership of a small and now defunct cinema club here in Doncaster. I found Colin a friendly chap who had impeccable taste in music…. those early singles are fab, but when Akiha Den Den and the Concretism albums came out.. just wow!
Anyway, around a year or so ago, without warning, he just messaged me and asked if I was working on anything interesting. I told him I was working on a follow-up to the first album and my jaw dropped through the floor when he asked whether I’d be interested in working with him to release it. It’s clear that Colin is really passionate about what he puts out, and luckily that includes how the finished work is presented. He’s not happy to just wrap the record in a pretty picture and put it out there; a lot of thought goes into the relationship between the music and the visuals. The inserts, extra totemic additions, the colour of the vinyl…. right down to the way the record is mailed out. It’s all done with a sense of care, and attention to the inspiration of the music.
I don’t know whether you’ve seen it, but the video he commissioned for the album track Autumn Arrives Again was something I had not expected… but it absolutely adds to the overall vision. I was always a big fan of 4AD and the close relationship the label had with Vaughan Oliver, and one of the reasons that I love Castles in Space is their idea that the creative process doesn’t stop once the music has been recorded. Having Nick on board for the artwork was a no-brainer of course, and I think he’s excelled himself with this project. The look, the feel and the colours he used are better than I could have hoped for. Obviously, without this connection to Castles in Space, I may not have come across the wonderful Twelve Hour Foundation either, and Jez Butler’s mastering of the album is perfection.
And a really obvious question… Cotswold Stone itself. The title… why that? Is there a particularly evocative kind of stone that’s unique to the Cotswolds?
Essentially, it’s the golden-coloured limestone that you see in the miles and miles of dry stone walls that cover the South West… and in many of the historic buildings too, like Burford Priory. There’s a quote from J.B. Priestly: “The truth is that it has no colour that can be described. Even when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them” That perfectly describes the attributes of the physical stone itself and maybe – hopefully – similar words could be used to describe the individual tracks on album.
Thanks so much to Mat for his time… and his family photos! Cotswold Stone is available here…
As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 383, dated September 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“Being half asleep on the couch with German Measles, refusing to eat my Heinz Lentil Soup, with Crown Court on. Covered in calamine lotion. My mum had this old lady who came round to look after us, Mrs Wolf. She taught us how to make birdboxes in the cellar. Maybe Quentin’s obsession with birdboxes came from her?”
Listening to film-maker Sean Reynard‘s memories of his 1970s childhood is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness experience. It’s almost as woozily evocative as descending down the Youtube wormhole he has created; a channel devoted to Sean’s alter-ego “Quentin Smirhes”, a terrifyingly austere spoof 1970s television presenter with a predilection for elaborate birdboxes and antique crumhorns. I first became aware of Quentin in 2016, when I discovered Sean’s magnificent pastiche of the Picture Box titles, a “found footage” extension of the opening sequence to this disquieting 1970s daytime TV fixture. As the “picture box” itself gently rotates, the camera pans to reveal a hidden handle being cranked by the unsettlingly hirsute Quentin, sporting a disconcerting leer and a truly alarming pair of black underpants.
“It was all very reminiscent of Victorian austerity and secret rooms, and shadowy corners,” muses Sean, recalling the original Picture Box titles. “A sense of warm claustrophobia, slightly anesthetised, and then [presenter] Alan Rothwell, with his relentless, hooded eye contact. I’d always wanted to film a wider pan of those titles, and see the whole set-up…”
Since then, Sean has cultivated a cottage industry of gloriously strange viral films, all spoofing the dustiest corners of the 1970s regional TV archive; where puppet choirboys are taught the rudiments of medieval instrumentation, and where disembodied fingers poke from wooden Heath Robinson contraptions, accompanied by the wistful, wobbly strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1. Search for the ‘Quentin Smirhes’ channel on Youtube, or follow Sean on Twitter, where he’s @raghard.
Meanwhile, committed heliophobes may find respite from the unrelenting summer stickiness by immersing themselves in The Dark Is Rising, an imagined TV soundtrack to Susan Cooper’s classic childrens’ novel. This much-loved tale of ancient magic loosed upon a festive, snow-bound Buckinghamshire has cast its spell over Finland-based Teessider Rob Colling, aka Handspan. “I asked myself… what would the music sound like if the BBC had commissioned a mini-series when the book was published, in 1973?” he explains. “My answer was that they would have given it to Peter Howell or Roger Limb or Paddy Kingsland from the Radiophonic Workshop… and it would have absolutely scared the pants off everyone who heard it.”
The album is marvellously redolent of Kingsland’s work in particular, and the perfect musical realisation of a story steeped in traditional myth. “It brings together all kinds of English folklore, from Herne the Hunter to King Arthur,” muses Rob. “And it just caused melodies to start pouring into my brain. They felt like they were thousand-year-old folk melodies…” Combining swimmy, retro synths with “early” instrumentation (you have to admire the dedication of a man who can teach himself to play the Finnish kantele), the album is as crisply keen as the sweeping snowdrifts and slate-grey sky that lend the book such an air of forbidding, suffocating stillness. Following a limited – and quickly sold-out – release on cassette, The Dark Is Rising is now available as a digital download from handspanmusic.com.
Other musical gems that have caught my attention this month: the album Flora, by Polypores, is an ambient but melodic exploration of a tangled, fantastical woodland, released on the Castles In Space label with a cover that Roger Dean would be proud of; and Sizewell, composed by Robin Saville and Oliver Cherer, builds beautiful organic soundscapes from field recordings made in the natural environs surrounding Suffolk’s famous nuclear power stations. It’s available from the Modern Aviation label.
Those seeking oddness in more built-up areas, however, should investigate the latest publications from the Folk Horror Revival stable. Urban Wyrd, edited by FT contributor Andy Paciorek, comes in two volumes (Spirits of Time and Spirits of Place) and collects essays, reviews and interviews that celebrate – as Adam Scovell puts it in his introduction – “dark skulduggery and strangeness beyond the reasonable confines of what we consider part of city life.” Further contributors include such luminaries as Will Self and Iain Sinclair, with Paciorek himself providing his own share of quirkiness… his exploration of “wyrd Trumpton” tickled me, as did his ruminations on the haunted qualities of motorway service stations. Both books are available from folkhorrorrevival.com/tag/urban-wyrd, with all proceeds going to the Wildlife Trusts conservation charity.
The next Haunted Generation feature in the Fortean Times will be in Issue 385, on the shelves on 10th October.
As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 381, dated July 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“I think that ‘fuzziness’ contributes to the nostalgia factor,” says musician Jonathan Sharp, founder and guiding light of The Heartwood Institute. “Honestly, it’s like looking through a slightly oblique window onto a different world. And really, it was a completely different world in so many ways…”
We’re talking about the faded quality of the 1970s family photographs recently discovered by Jonathan amongst his mother’s belongings. The photos are touching snapshots of a childhood spent primarily amongst the woods, hills and languid seaside towns of his native Cumbria, and have yielded the inspiration for the new Heartwood Institute album, Divided Time. It’s a wistful evocation of blissfully indolent days passed amongst occasionally mystical landmarks… “The opening track is inspired by a really early photo from 1970 of me looking at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a place I just keep going back to,” muses Jonathan. “I actually have no memory of that photo, so I was surprised to find I’d been there as such a small child. Maybe that’s where my obsession with the place started…
The album is a beautiful collection of elegiac piano and synth-led pieces, with hints of glockenspiel that occasionally conjure up daydreams of long-ago school music lessons. It harks back to an “analogue” childhood still shaped by family traditions: “Cherry Woods…” ponders Jonathan, referring to the album’s mid-point track, and its accompanying picture of his childhood self, framed in silhouette amidst twilit trees. “It’s a wood close to where I grew up. It’s not on any map under that name, that’s just what we called it… and how it had always been known to my parents’ generation. But obviously in the world of Google Maps, it doesn’t exist under that name. Which says a lot about how digitalisation has reshaped our lives…
Divided Time will be available on limited edition vinyl, and via download, from the Castles In Space label. The label’s other recent releases have included the Visage Pale album Holistic Love, a moving collection of gentle, electro-pop songs, performed in both French and English by Lausanne-based Lars-Martin Isler; and Civilian Leatherby The Home Current, which evokes memories of Factory Records’ earliest dabblings with post-punk electronica. Visit castlesinspace.bandcamp.com.
Pondering Jonathan’s beloved Cherry Woods led me neatly onto enjoying a new collection of music from Stephen Prince’s ongoing project A Year In The Country, a multi-media exploration of “otherly pastoralism; the flipside of bucolic dreams.” The Watchers is a compendium of tracks by eleven different artists, all reflecting on the nature of our native trees as, effectively, time travellers. Britain boasts over 3,000 trees that date back at least 400 years, and over 100 that can claim to be have rooted in our soil for 1,000 years or thereabouts. All the while, quietly observing the passage of time… of (as Stephen puts it) “invasions by wooden ships, sword and arrow, the passing of the old ways and the times of witchcraft and magic, the coming of the industrial revolution and the dawning of the digital age.”
Individual trees provide very personal inspiration for some of the artists participating… Vic Mars takes Hertfordshire’s 900-year-old Eardisley Oak as the muse for his gentle, pastoral instrumental The Test of Time, and The Winter Dream of Novel’s Oak, by Howlround, is created from field recordings of an 800-year-old tree in Tilford, Surrey. It’s a warm, touching tribute to the receding wild woodlands of the British countryside, and – for maximum listening pleasure – perfect for an early summers’ evening constitutional through the copse or thicket of your choice. It’s available from ayearinthecountry.co.uk.
And any of the above recordings might provide the ideal soundtrack to reading a new novel by journalist and occasional Ghost Box Records collaborator Mark Brend.Undercliff tells the story of divorced writer Martyn Hope, who – in the summer of 1972 – finds himself alone in London, and drawn into the increasingly sinister cult of The Olive Grove, a religious community steeped in that distinctly 1970s combination of born-again Christianity and post-hippy New Ageism. When his girlfriend Amelia vanishes, he suspects answers are to be found at the cult’s ramshackle retreat Undercliff, a rambling country home on the very edge of Devon’s crumbling coastline. It’s a languid, leisurely tale, rich in character and period detail, and the darkness creeps in almost imperceptibly. I enjoyed it enormously, and – in my mind – have already cast Robert Powell and Anouska Hempel in the lead roles, with Pentangle providing the music for the Olive Grove’s in-house folk-rock group, The Flock. Mark is at minutebook.co.uk.
Issue 382 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 383, available from 15th August.
The alluring power of the “wild wood” seemed a constant throughout the typical 1970s childhood, even for youngsters with the most urban of upbringings. The great writers of the era, the Alan Garners and Susan Coopers, used tangled, mystical woodland as the playground for the re-emergent elements of British folklore that dominated their books; a place where dark, ancient forces bled through into the present day. Doctor Who‘s jungles were alien and impenetrable, places where marooned scientific expeditions battled spiky, otherworldly beasties; and Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are updated the surreal wilderness of the nursery rhyme and brought it, tangible and touchable, into every terrified child’s bedroom.
For those of us lucky enough to have local woodland within walking distance of our homes, these tales settled like mist onto every innocuous copse, every “deadman’s creek” on the fringes of a new, suburban housing estate. Even when we stayed within sight of reassuring modernity – railway lines, twine-bound haystacks, Ford Cortinas in lay-bys of dubious repute – the surrounding trees played host to ghosts, goblins, and stranded Daleks alike. And, in the 1980s, a new wave of “swords and sorcery” fiction, spearheaded by Robin of Sherwood and the Fighting Fantasy books, claimed Britain’s woodlands as their own, and another generation of youngsters were entranced; venturing both literally and figuratively into the trees, searching for Herne the Hunter with a twenty-sided dice to hand.
All of these feelings bubble tantalisingly through the textures of Lancashire-based composer Stephen James Buckley’s new album, Flora. Stephen is so infused with the spirit of his local woodland that he even named his recording project – Polypores – after the genus of common fungi that grow around unsuspecting tree roots and trunks, and the album itself is a densely ambient evocation of a fantastical journey through a freakishly overgrown forest, where trees and flowers grow to outlandish, almost alien proportions. The music weaves organic, pulsating synth lines into field recordings of trickling water, rustling foliage and birdsong, and captures perfectly the still, almost claustrophobic power of the woods. I asked Stephen about the album’s origins, in the stiflingly hot summer of 2018…
Bob:That summer was incredible… almost surreally hot and claustrophobic. Did the feel of that hot weather seep into the ambience of the music? I sometimes think really hot days have a kind of hallucinogenic quality to them…
Stephen: Yes, I think the heat definitely did have some kind of impact. The way I write nowadays, it’s very much a subconscious thing, as opposed to something planned or carefully thought out… which was how I used to work for older Polypores releases. So there aren’t necessarily many specifics (“this track is about this kind of fungus growing on this kind of tree”), it’s more a general feeling I’m channeling.
And I say “channeling” because that’s very much what I was doing. I spent time in certain environments, in a certain state of mind, and then went home and the music just came. It was hot, and that can make you feel a bit weird. And I think a sort of trippy heat is apparent on this record. A phantasmagoric humidity. Although the forests I explored were English, they could just as easily be a jungle. If I had unlimited time and resources, then I’d definitely visit a jungle or two.
A lot the inspiration seems to have come from walking in your local woods… can you describe them a little?
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the woods I go to every week, because I’d prefer to keep them a secret. If people from Preston read this then they might start going there, then it’d no longer be quiet and peaceful, and I’d have to look further afield. But I can say that some of the places which inspired – and provided sounds for – Flora were The Fairy Glen near Wigan, Beacon Fell, Brockholes Nature Reserve, and the woods around Roeburndale.
I think the most important forest for me is Great Corby Woods, between Great Corby and Wetherall, in Cumbria. I lived in Great Corby as a child for a while, and my parents would regularly take me out into the woods. That’s when I developed my interest in fungi. My dad would tell me about all the different kinds of trees and plants, and my mum would explain why it was bad to drop litter.
There was a valley in the middle that the River Eden flowed though… which you can see, if you take the train from Carlisle to Newcastle. A little old man lived at the bottom of the valley. He carved things out of wood, and once made me a moneybox, which he hand-painted. The valley seemed huge and steep, and I was terrified of it. I’d have constant nightmares about falling down it. We were once attacked by a nest of wasps, which our dog decided to dig up. I think this forest, and the time I spent in it, informed a lot of who I am today, and I’m forever grateful to my parents for that experience.
Do you still try to vanish to the woods as as possible? Can you describe the appeal?
I try to get into some form of countryside every weekend. Preferably woods, but I can’t always be picky. Although I did it a lot as a child, I think it fell by the wayside in my teenage years and twenties, as I was too busy focusing on crap that didn’t matter. But as I got into my thirties I started yearning for it again. And when I started meditating – which I do every day, as it’s very good for the mind – I think it changed the way my brain worked. I started to appreciate things with a sense of wonder again. I revisited a lot of the things that interested me when I was young – space, nature, monsters etc – and found joy in them once again.
Can you create music in your head while you’re actually out walking?
I don’t compose in my head whilst walking. I tend to try and focus on what’s around me in the moment, taking it all in, rather than thinking about music. I’m absorbing it all for later. Although I’m also often talking to my girlfriend about frogs and birds and stuff.
As you suggested, you made a lot of field recordings for Flora, didn’t you? What kind of sounds were you looking for?
Yes, there were a lot of field recordings… these were often how the tracks started. I’d get some ambience that I’d recorded, put it into a loop pedal, mess around with it so it made some kind of odd rhythm, then work on top of that. Other times, I’d layer in recordings of birds, just subtly underneath a track, to give it a bit of texture.
I basically wanted to create an environment in which these tracks lived. But the field recordings were often heavily manipulated with various effects pedals to give them an otherworldly vibe. I’m well aware that adding field recordings to synthesizer music isn’t a particularly novel thing to do, but the important thing is that I really enjoyed it, and I thought it sounded great, so that’s all I’m really concerned with.
I was interested to read that you started to imagine a “giant” forest when you were making the album… which, for me, brought all kinds of childhood images to mind. Lots of nursery rhymes, but also Where The Wild Things Are, Doctor Who and its various alien jungles, the Old Forest from Lord of the Rings… even the Fighting Fantasy book, The Forest of Doom! Is that idea of the “wild wood” one that you find especially evocative?
Oh, I loved the Fighting Fantasy books! Deathtrap Dungeon was my favourite, but I do remember The Forest Of Doom. There was a bit with a scarecrow that really creeped me out. And yes, the huge forest is something that came subconsciously… like everything tends to with me. The feeling of being overwhelmed by nature, when everything is lush and growing, the smell of the plants and flowers – it’s just all-encompassing if you go in far enough. And that perhaps translated into these massive plants and trees.
Also, one of my favourite books as a child was called Sam Spade’s Gigantic Garden. It was about a spade called Sam Spade, who used some magic water that he got from HG Well – who was a well with a face – to water his garden. The plants all grew to enormous sizes. It was completely out of control. Something of that size can be both beautiful and alien… and eventually frightening. I think the album has all of those ingredients, somehow. Again, not my intention, but that’s what I channeled, so that’s what came out. I should have thanked Sam Spade in the credits, really.
The idea of unnaturally large flora intrigued me. On the off chance, I’ll ask… when I was a kid, especially when I was tired, I used to get quite confused over the size of things… the bedroom would feel massive, and I would feel tiny… or vice versa. I’ve since discovered this is called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, and it’s quite common! Did you ever experience it yourself?
I’ve never experienced that, and am sort of jealous that you have. I wonder if there’s any way it can be induced? I’ll look into it.
How did you go about converting the woodland themes of the album into actual music? Is there a synth sound that’s especially “forest-y”?
Again, I didn’t really think too much about it. I just do it intuitively. I think there are certain synth sounds, particularly triangle waves, which can sound a bit like a flute. And flute melodies can often sound pastoral. I’m not sure why… I guess we make that association from their use in the nature documentaries we saw as children. I do like creating babbling brook-type sounds, using fast random filter cut-off. And I have a lot of elements which are out of time with one another, rather than rigidly sequenced. I guess that sounds a bit more natural.
I didn’t do that intentionally, but thinking about it, that’s probably why it appealed to me, and why it therefore ended up on the record. I also quite like having high-pitched, twinkly sounds which just sit above the rest of the sounds, and come in and out… like birds singing. If I went back and analyzed everything, I’m sure there would be a lot more. But I’m very much navigating by feel rather than with an instruction manual.
The closing track, Sky Man, is quite joyous… is this about the experience of seeing the sky again, once you leave the dense woodland behind?
Sky Man was the last track I wrote for the album, I think. It really had a feeling of emerging from something, of rising out of something. A feeling of transcendence and relief. Once that was placed at the end of the album, the whole thing suddenly made sense as a kind of narrative. Almost like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The idea of going though something – something vast, beautiful, even scary at times – then emerging from the other side into the light. With the ability to fly! I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds, but that’s what makes sense to me, so I must embrace that.
I remember around that time I was reading The Vorrh Trilogy by Brian Catling. That’s very much based on an archetypal, mythical forest. I think that perhaps inspired how the album was finalized, in some way.
The album sleeve is utterly gorgeous, and reminiscent of so much 1970s fantasy artwork… including Roger Dean’s legendary prog-rock sleeves. Who did it? Did you have any input into it?
The album art is incredible. I’ve had it for months and was so excited to share it with everyone. It was done by Nick Taylor, who has done a few previous record covers for me. I think I gave him a loose brief involving magical forests, massive plants/fungus, natural history museums, and old sci-fi books. The look of the film Fantastic Planetwas also a reference I gave him. He came back a few weeks later with this absolute gem. Nick is very good at interpreting my ideas. I’m pretty sure he used some kind of forbidden alchemy to ransmutate them into gold.
There’s more of his work on the inside sleeve too, which is another reason to buy a physical copy!
Speaking of which, Flora has been released on Colin Morrison’s wonderful Castles in Space label, who put out some gorgeous music… how did you link up with Colin?
I’m not entirely sure how Castles In Space found me. Most of the labels I’ve been released on seem to have a mutual appreciation of each other’s releases, and support each other, and that’s really nice to be a part of. They kind of feed into one another. My first release, via Joe McLaren’s Concréte Tapes, led to me being heard by other labels like Polytechnic Youth and A Year In The Country. These led to me being heard by Front & Follow. They are all listening to each other and supporting each other, so it just kind of grows from there. It’s like a little ecosystem which is great to be part of.
There are also the radio shows like Gated Canal Community, You The Night And The Music, and Soundtracking The Void, which are all linked in with that. I’m grateful to everyone who’s put out my stuff because it always leads to more people hearing me, and wanting to put out more stuff. And I’ll hopefully do more with all these labels in the future. They are all great to work with.
Colin from Castles In Space actually got me on at the Delaware Road event in Salisbury this August, which is going to be amazing. All kinds of music, art, spoken word – in a military bunker! I can’t wait for that, and I’m proud to be representing Castles In Space on their stage there.
The beautiful, vinyl edition of Flora, by Polypores, is still available from…
And Stephen can be found on Twitter or on Facebook. Thanks to Stephen for such a thoughtful and interesting chat, and for sending over some of his own personal woodland photographs. And belated gratitude goes to Sam Spade and his Gigantic Garden.