Pulselovers, Mat Handley and Cotswold Stone

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’ Reason software, 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…

https://pulselovers-cis.bandcamp.com

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 383

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.

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 381

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 Leather by 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.

Polypores, Flora and Sam Spade’s Gigantic Garden

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 Planet was 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…

https://polypores.bandcamp.com/album/flora-4

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.