Jon Brooks, Shapwick and How to Get to Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereabouts do you go walking?  

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

On the verge of the Peak District, then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I do actually have that as well.

Do you?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is, it’s a word for melody.

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

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

Where did you see it, can you remember?

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

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

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

Definitely a physical notebook, and not a phone?

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

Do you doodle as well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go on, then. If I can answer…

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

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

Does he know he’s on it?

(Laughs) I don’t think he does…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jon’s digital back catalogue is available here:

https://cafekaput.bandcamp.com/

Gilroy Mere, Oliver Cherer and Over The Tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas (published 1917)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


So where does “Gilroy Mere” come from?

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

And what’s your next project?

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

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

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

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

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 385

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 385, dated November 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…


“In The Girl I Left Behind Me, the narrator tells her story from the grave,” says Alison Cotton, discussing Muriel Spark‘s 1957 short story, the inspiration for her new album of the same title. “The story is about a girl who works in a London office, her first job after a long illness. As she leaves work one evening, she is struck by a strong conviction that she has left something important at the office, but can’t work out what it can be…”

The opening side of this beautiful 10″ vinyl release was originally commissioned and recorded for Gideon Coe‘s BBC 6 Music Show in 2018, to accompany a Christmas reading of the story itself, by actress Bronwen Price. A single, thirteen-minute suite of melancholy viola captures perfectly the downbeat, rain-soaked ambience of austerity-era London, underpinned by a fluttering murmur of dread that escalates as the narrative speeds towards its chilling conclusion. “As I was playing, I imagined myself as the main character of the story,” continues Alison. “I composed an eerie melody, following the structure of the story, and building up the suspense with my wordless singing…”

The flipside is inspired by a later Spark tale, 1966’s The House of the Famous Poet, and Alison’s ethereal vocals feature even more prominently here, amidst a wash of drone-like omnichord, and an elegant, spiralling viola recital recorded – impressively – in a single, improvised take. Set in wartime London, the story is the surreal tale of an “abstract funeral” sold to the narrator by a mysterious soldier that she meets on a delayed night-train journey from Edinburgh: “An aspect which fascinated me,” admits Alison, going on to enthuse further about her recent discovery of some of Spark’s lesser-known stories. “I’d only read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which I remember I enjoyed when I was younger,” she says. “But I bought her collection of Ghost Stories. I thought they were all so well-written and chilling… and I loved how they were mostly written from the ghost’s perspective.”

The Girl I Left Behind Me is released by Clay Pipe music on (of course) Halloween, the second of two releases in quick succession from this beautifully consistent label; the other being Vic MarsInner Roads and Outer Paths, an album influenced by the writing and photography of Herefordshire ley-line pioneer Alfred Watkins, and by Vic’s own childhood explorations of the same county’s various abandoned houses and factories. Gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths evoke an emotional connection to the British countryside… think Ralph Vaughan Williams with a Korg Monopoly. Both albums are available, on vinyl and as downloads, from claypipemusic.co.uk.

Also taking inspiration from a classic spooky text is Neil Scrivin, whose album This House Is Haunted, released under his new nom-de-plume of The Night Monitor, provides an eerie radiophonic soundtrack to Guy Lyon Playfair‘s famous late 1970s account of his investigations into the notorious “Enfield Poltergeist“. The album is strong on verisimilitude: there are knockings, white noise and tantalisingly indecipherable hints of electronic voice phenomena, amidst slabs of atmospheric music concrète that Doctor Who fans will find deliciously reminiscent of Roger Limb‘s percussive, synth-drive compositions for the show. A limited edition cassette release on the Bibliotapes label will be followed by a digital download… head to bibliotapes.co.uk, soundcloud.com/thenightmonitor, or follow @TheNightMonitor on Twitter.

Meanwhile, irrepressible composer and “sound archaeologist” Drew Mulholland has used his 20-year-old field recordings, recorded onto old-school magnetic tape at locations used in the filming of The Wicker Man, as the basis for The Wicker Tapes, a delightfully left-field sound collage. “There was still about five foot of each leg, both set into a concrete base with ‘WM 73’ carved into it”, recalls Drew of his 2002 visit to Burrowhead, in Dumfries and Galloway. A very limited release in August saw each cassette coming with a sliver of wood from the remains of this legendary prop, which also played a major role in the sound manipulations that shaped the album. “I built a Heath Robinson device that allowed the tape essentially to be destroyed by an actual piece of the Wicker Man,” he continues. “After that I set the wood alight, and – when cooled – crushed it to ash and coated the near-destroyed tape with it.”

The results are an album of dark, disquieting ambience, peppered with fleeting, folky motifs that evoke disturbing images of the film’s own climactic and merciless procession. Although the original cassette immediately sold out, the album is available for digital download from drewmulholland.bandcamp.com/track/the-wicker-tapes.

The next printed Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 587 of the Fortean Times – the Christmas edition, no less. In the meantime, Issue 586 is on the shelves now, and looks like this…


Alison Cotton, Muriel Spark and The Girl I Left Behind Me

There are joyless souls out there who will attempt to convince you that the traditional British Halloween celebration is a modern affection, imported from the United States at some indeterminate moment in the mid-1980s, somewhere between the red-carpet premieres of E.T. and The Goonies; a festival previously as alien to British children as Thanksgiving or Independence Day. “It didn’t exist when we were kids!” they chant in unison, rolling their eyes at the shelves of pumpkins and rubber spiders that cast a delightfully gothic pallor across our favourite supermarket aisles.

They’re wrong. In 1978, my friend Lisa Wheeldon and I dressed as vampires – complete with fangs from the Saltburn joke shop, and dripping blood courtesy of my Mum’s Max Factor – and knocked on random doors in the streets around my Grandmother’s bungalow in Acklam, a new-estate suburb of our native Middlesbrough. “The sky is blue, the grass is green,” we chanted in unison, “can you spare a penny for Halloween?” I have no idea who taught us the rhyme; it seemed to have been passed down as a race memory, and the inclusion in a later line of the humble “ha’penny” certainly suggested distinctly pre-decimalised roots.

Nobody reacted with bafflement or bemusement… they laughed, and pressed ten or even fifty-pence-pieces into our tiny hands. They knew the deal. In the North-East at least, this was a long-standing tradition. In 2016, I brought up the subject live on my BBC Tees radio show, and was rewarded with listeners’ memories of proto-Trick or Treating stretching back to the early 1950s. Some of the surface details have evolved; and certainly smooth, Peanuts-style pumpkins have now all but replaced the gnarled, warty faces of traditional British turnips, but the principle remains the same.

For me, at least, it was an evening of magic and danger combined; the whiff of coal fires and the sparkle of first frosts, alongside the thrill of monetary gain (those Star Wars figures in Romer Parrish’s toyshop weren’t going to buy themselves) and a genuine fear that the stories of supernatural Halloween malevolence that had permeated our classroom activities all week might actually be real. In a school assembly the previous year, Mrs Parker had spoken carelessly of “the dead rising from their graves”, a prospect that disturbed me enough for me to express my concerns to my Mum later that night, over teatime arctic roll. “If the dead were rising from their graves, your Grandad would be walking around in the garden, and he’s not,” she (not entirely) comforted me. As the evening wore on, I repeatedly cast furtive, nervous glances through the gaps in our front room curtains, seeking constant reassurances that a legion of deceased grandparents weren’t striding purposefully across my Dad’s herbacious borders, trailing a flock of assorted witches, vampires and spectral beasties in their wake.

So Halloween has always been a special time for many of us, and it’s a delight to see the ever-reliable Clay Pipe Records – and new recruit Alison Cotton – honouring the tradition. Alison’s mini-album The Girl I Left Behind Me – timed perfectly for this year’s Halloween celebrations – is an immaculate 10″ vinyl edition of two musical suites inspired by short ghost stories written – in 1957 and 1966 respectively – by Muriel Spark. The first of these, the title track, was originally recorded for BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe, and his annual “Ghost Story For Christmas” slot. The other, The House of the Famous Poet, based on a 1966 tale, is new to this release. Both pieces boast a genuine haunting beauty; mournful, spiralling viola recitals weave around spectral choirs of multi-tracked choral singing and washes of unsettling electronica to create the perfect soundtracks to two tales of austere, post-war eeriness. I asked Alison about the process of writing and recording the album…

Bob: Talk us through the two Muriel Spark stories that have inspired these recordings… first of all, The Girl I Left Behind Me?

Alison: In The Girl I Left Behind Me, the narrator tells her story from the grave. The story is about a girl who works in a London office, her first job after a long illness. As she leaves work one evening, she is struck by a strong conviction that she has left something important at the office, but can’t work out what it can be. There’s a twist in the tale as the story draws to a dramatic and unexpected conclusion…

And The House of the Famous Poet?

The House of the Famous Poet is set in 1944, in wartime London. On a delayed train journey, the narrator meets a soldier and a girl named Elise, a maid. She invites the narrator to stay at the house where she works, as the owners are away. The house turns out to be the home of a famous poet who the narrator greatly admires. The following morning the story takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality, when the soldier from the train turns up at the house with an enormous box that he says contains an “abstract funeral”, which he proceeds to sell to the narrator. Later that day, both Elise and the famous poet are killed when a bomb hits the poet’s house…

Have you always been an admirer of Muriel Spark’s work?

I’d only read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which I remember I’d enjoyed when I was younger. I’d like to re-read that, and more of her work. Gideon Coe’s producer, Henry Lopez-Real, sent me the story of The Girl I Left Behind Me when I was asked to soundtrack it for the show, and I bought her collection of Ghost Stories after recording that soundtrack. I thought they were all so well written and chilling, and I loved how they were mostly written from the ghosts’ perspectives, really focusing on those characters.

How did you end up recording these for Gideon’s 6 Music show? Did they approach you?

Yes, Gideon’s producer Henry approached me. My band, The Left Outsides, had played several sessions for shows that Henry had produced, and Gideon regularly plays us, and had played tracks from my solo album on the show, so they were both very familiar with my work. I was sent the story to read, and asked to record a fifteen-minute piece inspired by it which was then used on the show at Christmas. Alongside the story, narrated by Bronwen Price.

The idea of “A Ghost Story for Christmas” is a great BBC tradition… was it one that had some resonance with you? Had you seen some of the M.R. James TV adaptations?

It certainly was, and it was such an honour to be asked to record this. I think those M.R. James TV adaptations were a bit too early for me… or at least I’d have been too young. But I’ve seen them all in recent years and I think they’re amazing. In fact, I was in Norfolk not so long ago, and I recognised a church in a village we visited as being the one from A Warning to the Curious… it’s in Happisburgh. It even felt quite eerie on the day I was there, with only an elderly man wandering around in front of the church. And no-one else in sight. The hotel we stayed in nearby could have easily originally been the inn from the film too, going by the internal structure of the building… but I looked it up and it wasn’t!

I also really enjoyed a Nunkie Theatre reading of that story, a few years ago.

How did you go about adapting these stories into musical form? Were there any particular sounds or instruments that you felt particularly captured their feel?

I read both stories quite a few times to try to gain a better understanding of them, and I guess also to feel closer to the characters involved. I’m accustomed to singing from a character’s perspective, as that’s what I’m doing with most of the lyrics I write for The Left Outsides, in the same way that I do when I sing traditional folk songs. So, with The Girl I Left Behind Me, I tried to do this instrumentally, and I imagined myself as the main character of the story as I was playing. I composed an eerie melody for this piece, following the structure of the story and building up the suspense with my wordless singing as the story draws to its conclusion.

I chose The House Of The Famous Poet to soundtrack because an aspect of it fascinated me, and I wanted to focus on it with the feel of my piece: the strange and surreal concept of an “abstract funeral.” This “abstract funeral” is sold to the narrator by the soldier she meets on the train. The viola has a naturally mournful tone and I endeavoured to capture the mood of how I’d imagine an “abstract funeral” march would sound, with my layered vocals enhancing the melancholy, and the crescendo of cymbals adding to the solemnity of the drama. 

So you tried to follow the structures of the stories with the music, and reflect events in the narrative accordingly?

With The Girl I Left Behind Me, I did try to follow the structure of the story, particularly with the overdubs I added. I felt the story had a steady pace and it suited a structured viola melody, which I composed in advance. The overdubs mainly followed the storyline, with a very dramatic ending.

Was your musical approach quite improvisational? I’m told the wonderful viola on The House of the Famous Poet was done in one take!

Yes, it was completely improvised, and recorded in the first take. I played a drone in A minor and improvised over the top of this. When I’d finished the take, fifteen minutes later, I just didn’t think another take would have that same intense feel. It was also clear from that viola line that this piece needed to be minimal. It didn’t call for many overdubs, I just added some wordless vocals and the cymbals. I felt the starkness of the piece made it more eerie…

How did the collaboration with Clay Pipe come about? Do you go back a long way with Frances?

We were introduced a few years ago by a mutual friend, and got on really well, as we had similar interests. Frances heard The Girl I Left Behind Me on the radio and really liked it, so asked if she could release it, along with another soundtrack from me. And it made sense to choose another Muriel Spark ghost story for the B-side. I really love the label and Frances’ artwork is incredible – it’s an honour for me to have a release on Clay Pipe.

You played at the Delaware Road event in Wiltshire in August, and I really enjoyed your set! How was it for you? Any other experiences or performances that really stood out for you?

I thoroughly enjoyed the Delaware Road event. Such an exciting event in such a unique and eerie location, with lovely people in attendance and great music. It was clear how much work had gone into it and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I was really happy to be asked to play and I loved playing in that Nissen Hut! It was only the fourth solo gig I’ve done and I was happy with how my set went. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Bob! I saw so many good performances but also missed a few people I wanted to see. I think my favourites were Penny Rimbaud, Natalie Sharp, Sarah Angliss and ARC Soundtracks.

Any idea what your next musical project might be? Another solo work, or something with The Left Outsides? Or your other band, the Trimdon Grange Explosion?

I always have so much going on it’s difficult to keep track sometimes. I have a few solo shows coming up. I’ve also started recording the next solo album. We’re about three-quarters of the way through the next The Left Outsides album and I’ll be recording my parts for the next Trimdon Grange Explosion album soon, too.

Thanks to Alison for her time and thoughts… The Girl I Left Behind Me is available from Clay Pipe music, here:

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/the-girl-i-left-behind-me-1/

Vic Mars, Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alfred Watkins’ Old Straight Track

Thanks to a meticulously-kept childhood diary, I can pinpoint exactly the moment when my friend Doug Simpson and I became convinced that dark forces were leading us to a hitherto undiscovered magical realm, in a secluded corner of our small, North-Eastern home town. It was Sunday 15th April 1984, we were eleven years old, and an aimless, post-beans-on-toast bicycle ride through the rural, cobbled streets of Yarm had led to the discovery of a winding, muddy track, meandering away from the pavement opposite the doctor’s surgery. It ambled beneath a canopy of rustling trees and into a small, deserted childrens’ playpark… complete with slide, roundabout and swings, as well as the ubiqituous DIY rope swing, tied to the branch of an overhanging tree, and known universally to all on Teesside as a “tarzie”.

By this stage, I’d lived in Yarm for seven years, and Doug had spent two lengthy spells in the town, but neither us had ever previously been aware of the existence of this mysterious, secluded idyll. With imaginations fuelled by the magical childrens’ novels and supernatural TV shows that provided us with a staple diet of early 1980s weirdness, we swayed gently on the swings, and jumped to the only rational conclusion available to us: that the track had never previously been there; that it had magically materialised from some no-place, and led us through a time portal into a liminal, Arthur Macken-esque parallel Yarm that clearly couldn’t exist amidst the ordinary, everyday mundanity of our familiar home town.

Similar childhood adventures through the undiscovered “edgelands” of his home town – and their accompanying, imaginative flights of fancy – provide the inspiration for Vic Mars‘ beautiful new album Inner Roads and Outer Paths, his third recording for the exquisitely-curated Clay Pipe Music label. Vic grew up in 1970s and 1980s Hereford, then spent many years teaching in Japan before moving back to the UK. The record – as the publicity notes evocatively state – “harks back to a period in Vic’s youth spent exploring the abandoned houses and factories on the fringes of his home town; the in-between places where nature either takes back, or loses its grip… it is a record of trails, roads and holloways, that lead you out along the river, through ruined arches and over railway lines, past crumbling stately homes and back into the centre of town.”

As such, it builds on the similarly nostalgic and bucolic themes that informed Vic’s 2015 album The Land and the Garden, also released on Clay Pipe…

Like its predecessor, Inner Roads and Outer Paths is a beautiful, elegant piece of work, with gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths reinforcing a strong, emotional connection to the Herefordshire countryside. I asked Vic a little more about his childhood experiences and explorations, and the specific locations that inspired the album…

Bob: The album is such a rich encapsulation of that spirit of childhood adventure. Can you paint a picture of where exactly you grew up?

Vic: Hereford is a city that sits right on the border of England and Wales. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, and easily accessible… just a five or ten minute cycle ride from where my parents live. The River Wye runs through the city too, and on a good day it’s quite picturesque. Growing up, there were always abandoned houses, ruined barns, bunkers, woods for camping and weird local legends.

Bulmers Cider comes from Hereford, and there was a cider festival, which was a big thing… not sure how often it took place though!

My memories of being a kid in the 1970s and 80s are of towns being a little more wild and ramshackle than they are now… I grew up in a rural town as well, and it was full of overgrown wasteland and abandoned buildings. And my and my friends all played in them, without anyone ever questioning it! Was it the same for you?

Definitely. CCTV was probably still quite expensive in those days, and the lack of security signs made exploring easy. Of course, the Public Information Films sometimes put us off the more dangerous pursuits… like climbing into electric substations for frisbees! I remember being more cautious of stray dogs, farmers, white dog poo and glue sniffers than anything else.

Any memories of specific buildings or areas that were particularly special for you?

The munitions factory was the big one for us. A huge hangar, blast walls, bunkers, all sorts of stuff. And overgrown paths, so it was easy to get a bit lost in there… it covered a big area. There’s also a church nearby, and we were told they took the hands off the clock to stop the Devil visiting at midnight. Weird stuff.

And when I moved to Japan, I started exploring abandoned theme parks. Kind of carrying on the hobby.

Was part of the fun of being a child discovering new areas of your home town? I remember, aged 11, finding a new trackway into a tiny park with a slide, and I’d never seen either before. And I’d lived in the same small town for seven years at that point! It felt like magical forces were at work…

Yes… usually out of town though, like an abandoned house, a lake or a rumour of something like an old factory. Although there was a short time when I had the fear of going into woods, due to The Bells of Astercote and the Black Death.

(NB… I’d forgotten all about The Bells of Astercote, but it was essentially a childrens’ version of the BBC’s traditional Ghost Story For Christmas, broadcast on BBC1 on 23rd December 1980. Based on a 1970 novel by Penelope Lively, it sees two modern children encountering what appears to be a 600-year-old plague victim in their local woods. Archive TV enthusiast Tim Worthington writes about it here, and the whole programme is on Youtube…)

I assume you no longer live in your childhood town – is there, therefore, an element of longing to the album? Both for your childhood, and – I assume – for places that no longer exist, as they’ve been built on or knocked down?

It’s not really a longing, more a fond memory. The Muppet Show and Doctor Who on a Saturday, and that low feeling when you heard the theme tune to Last Of the Summer Wine… when you knew you had school the next day. Although I left a quite a while ago, it was the real end of an era when my parents moved out of the house where I’d grown up. Quite a weird feeling.

Hereford looked like a great place years before I was born, but it seems the council allowed some beautiful architecture to be knocked down.

Can I ask specifically about some of the places namechecked in the song titles? There’s ‘Evacuees at Arrow House’, for a start…

Arrow House was a house my Dad lived in as a child, in a small town called Kington, outside of Hereford. Hergest Ridge is just up the road, Mike Oldfield fans! They took in evacuees during the War, and my Nan kept in touch with the evacuated children for a long time afterwards. Only recently, I saw some great photos of them enjoying “country life” in Kington, and some old letters too.

(NB For those keen to explore further, the BBC”s Peoples War archive has memories from Kington evacuees here…)

You’ve got to tell me about the “Bric-A-Brac Shop” as well, as referenced in the opening track! Was it real?

It’s not one shop in particular. My grandma was an antiques dealer, and she had a stall in a creaky old shop along with other sellers, where she claimed to have witnessed the ghost of a butcher walking past her. I think that’s partly the inspiration for the track.

There’s “The Last Days of the Great House”, too… was this inspired by any particular building?

There were two or three empty stately homes… not really in ruin, but they could well have gone that way. I was reading about England’s lost houses, and how many were knocked down due to cost, or used by the army, or destroyed, sold off or burnt down. A favorite, Witley Court, was destroyed by fire, sadly. It’s a massive place in Worcestershire, the neighbouring county.

I love “The Fair Arrives” as well… the arrival of the travelling funfair was – and still is – an annual event of huge importance in my home town. Any specific memories of your own childhood experiences at this particular fair?

The fair was – and still is – a big occasion in Hereford. It happens in the centre of the city, and the roads are closed off. I can vaguely remember one of the attractions… basically a man in a monster suit, in a cage. This must have been the mid-to-late 1970s. Then, along with the Mexican or Witch’s Hat, the bumper cars, and the ghost train, there was a freakshow tent that had various mutations in jars. This was right up until the 1990s! Legend has it that someone stole the two-headed cow, and put it on the bonnet of their car.

Musically, it’s a beautiful album – and there are hints of the school music room in there, recorders and glockenspiels! Was that a deliberate attempt to evoke the sounds of music lessons?

Thank you! Yes, I find that sort of sound appealing… slightly out of sync, and wobbly. Sadly, music lessons at my school were uninteresting and lacking in any available instruments. I wanted a drum kit, but they were too expensive. When I was teaching in a Japanese junior high school, I was amazed at the amount and variety of musical kit they had, which anyone could use, any time.

The album has an epic feel, too… passages reminded me of the great pastoral British composers, of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Were they in your mind at all when you were making this?

I would say always Vaughan Williams, but equally Gustav Holst. There is a statue of Elgar next to the cathedral in Hereford, and the Three Choirs Festival is not far away. I’ve read that Vaughan Williams and Holst went on walks around the area a bit, which kind of ties in… because when I see the Herefordshire countryside, I hear those two.

I wanted to ask about Alfred Watkins as well, who I know from his book The Old Straight Track, and his writings on ley-lines. And you mention him in the album’s publicity. Is he an important figure when it comes to documenting Herefordshire’s past? When – and how – did you become of his work?

Alfred Watkins is probably not as celebrated as he should be in Herefordshire. The Old Straight Track is a great book, and one that my Dad had for years. I came across that, and another book called The Folklore of Herefordshire by Mary Leather, at the same time. There’s some crazy stuff in the folklore book about local witchcraft and omens, and the author helped Vaughan Williams collect folk songs from the area.

Are you much of a ley-line believer yourself?

Ha! I want to believe.

This is your third release on Clay Pipe, and you and label owner Frances Castle seem to work really well together – her artwork compliments your music beautifully. Do you swap notes during the creative process?

Whatever Frances creates is always amazing, and it’s exciting when she sends over the artwork for the first time. Not sure how, but she seems to be able to capture the feel of the music every time. Not just the images, but the colour palette too. I know the artwork is in very safe hands, so I’ve more often asked about the music and what needs changing!

Inner Roads and Outer Paths is released on 4th October, but the limited vinyl edition is available for pre-order now, from…

http://www.claypipemusic.co.uk/2019/09/vic-mars-inner-roads-and-outer-paths.html

Thanks to Vic for his time and memories
, and his extensive back catalogue is available here…

https://vicmars.bandcamp.com

…meanwhile, please forward any sightings of a car with a two-headed cow mounted on the bonnet to the contact e-mail address here.

Ritual & Resistance, the Delaware Road, Concretism and Imber village

We’d driven along the winding, narrow roads of Salisbury Plain for at least two miles; a convoy of civilian family cars packed with camping equipment, passing countless “Unexploded Military Debris” warning signs in troubled, late summer sunshine, all of us drawn to the cluster of grey concrete bunkers that perodically peered, surreptitiously, from behind a pockmarked horizon.

This was New Zealand Farm Camp, location for the latest extraordinary Delaware Road event, and – when not playing host to a prestigious assembly of artists sharing DNA based loosely in the electronic avant-garde – a site used by the Ministry of Defence to simulate urban combat, the clump of army boots and the rattle of live ammunition echoing around its muddy trackways and fordibbing, brutalist architecture.

“What’s the book?” asked the guard at the main gate, poking diligently through the travel bag on the back seat of my car.

“It’s Suggs’ autobiography,” I replied.

“Very nice. I’ve just started Kenneth Williams’ memoirs.”

Alison Cotton began proceedings, performing a beautifully ethereal and haunting suite to an attentive crowd in the Nissen Hut that housed the event’s main stage. Stephen ‘Polypores’ Buckley and Chris ‘Concretism’ Sharp were amongst the friendly faces I spotted in attendance, and warm greetings were exchanged at the end of the set before I followed them to Bunker B1, where Colin Morrison’s Castles in Space label – home to recent releases by both – had set up camp for the evening. Stephen performed a throbbing, mesmerising Polypores set of seamless, pulsing ambience to a bustling crowd, tightly packed into this shadowy, concrete hideaway. Including Portsmouth’s own psychedelic troubador Keith Seatman, who cheerfully introduced himself and gleefully briefed me on the history of the 19th century sea forts heavily featured in the 1972 Doctor Who adventure, The Sea Devils.

The evening became a blur of music, conversation, cider and the occasional occult ritual. I paid a visit to Frances Castle, whose Clay Pipe stall was ensconced in Bunker 3, and boasted tantalising first glimpses of the artwork for two forthcoming albums: Vic Mars‘ intriguing Edgelands-influenced project Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alison Cotton’s Halloween release The Girl I Left Behind Me, inspired by two Muriel Spark ghost stories, and originally composed for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show. I swapped genial greetings with Push and Neil from Electronic Sound magazine, dishing out freebies from a towering pile of stylish back issues in the basement of a building where, upstairs, the ever-welcoming Robin The Fog was warmly greeting interested snoopers in the midst of a Howlround soundcheck.

It was a delight to catch the professorial figure of Sarah Angliss performing live; her album Air Loom has been one of my highlights of 2019, and she makes for an extremely engaging live performer; funny and self-deprecating, but an expert in building beguiling symphonies from samples, theramin and an ancient clavicymbalum… a medieval precursor of the harpsichord, apparently; these disparate sounds all perfectly entwined around Sarah’s soaring, crystal-clear vocals. I then squashed back into the crowds of tiny B1 to catch Jez and Polly of The Twelve Hour Foundation present a magnificent. feelgood set of John Baker-inspired radiophonica; transporting a bunker filled with grinning fortysomethings back to childhoods soundtracked by the themes to long-forgotten Open University modules and John Craven’s Newsround.

Amongst their number was the effusive Alex Cargill, whose epic debut album as The Central Office of Information is set to become Castles In Space’s debut CD release. It was a delight to meet Alex, who repaid my insistence on playing his tracks on my BBC Tees show with another pint of cider from the impromptu stall outside the main hut. The evening was becoming slightly blurry…

I enjoyed Crass founder Penny Rimbaud‘s spoken word performance on the main stage, accompanied by a plaintive, mournful cello; then found myself caught in the midst of a procession to the woods, where a circle of bemused participants were anointed with oil to the lower lips and encouraged to worship “The Spirits of Place” with a spiralling chorus of animal howls. I imagined the noise my beloved border collie, Megan, would make when I returned home the following day, and threw myself into the maelstrom accordingly. The green-faced Chris Lambert – accomplished mummer and long-term resident of The Black Meadow – was a constant presence in the series of ritual events that sparked up throughout the evening; whenever, that is, he wasn’t leaning against a bunker wall and discussing the finer points of Krull with Stephen Buckley, the pair of them entirely oblivious to the extroardinary double rainbow forming outside, seemingly bestowing its radiant, benevolent blessing on the whole, strange shebang.

Howlround’s performance – in cahoots with audio-visual artist and Psyché Tropes supremo Merkaba Macabre – was typically hypnotic, and equally typically packed, the audience nestling shoulder-to-shoulder. I had to watch from the stairs, while a succcession of vintage washing powder and detergent advertisements flickered on the bare wall behind me. And then it was back to the Castles in Space hut, where Chris Sharp presented an hour-long Concretism set, a mesmeric evocation of delicious Cold War austerity, to another attentive gathering.

Back in May, Chris spoke live on my BBC Tees show to both myself and the show’s resident electronica wizard, Kev Oyston. This seems like an appropriate moment as any to transcribe it…

Tell us a little bit about your background… when did you start making music as Concretism?  

It was around 2010. If I remember, about a year before, I’d discovered Boards of Canada, and they were a massive influence on me. I’d always written music, but I got bored and despondent with it. But I remember hearing Boards of Canada, and they absolutely blew me away, and I thought… I want to make music like that. What really fascinated me was how they can evoke and create the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s kind of how it started, but Concretism – when it began – was quite different to how it is now. It was more of a drone project, and it wasn’t as Cold War-influenced. For the first few years, it was more inspired by things like Public Information Films, and a lot of 1970s documentaries. But for the last few years it’s gone in that Cold War direction, which is only a good thing!

As a kid, and then a teenager, in the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to permeate every aspect of my childhood, and the prospect of nuclear armageddon was something I thought about every single day. Was it the same for you?
 

Absolutely, yeah. I remember the Star Wars programme… that’s what I think made the 1980s such a scary time, with regards to nuclear confrontation; Reagan’s stance against the Sovet Union, with the Star Wars programme being a big part of that. And then obviously Chernobyl, in 1986… and although that wasn’t nuclear war, it was still nuclear. I used to watch the news as a kid, because I was a strange child, and I remember seeing all the Chernobyl stuff and thinking “Oh my God, that’s terrifying… what if the radiation gets over here?”

And the other thing… when I was about nine or ten, my dad took me to the cinema to see When The Wind Blows, which I’m sure is not a film you should really take a nine-year-old to see.

No! I can’t believe you saw it at the cinema!

I did, and I was so depressed and upset. And to this day, I haven’t seen it since. I’ve only seen it that once. Even as an adult, I refuse to watch When The Wind Blows. I will not watch that film. It upset me so much.

I bet your dad thought he was doing a really good thing… come on Chris, it’s by the same guy who made The Snowman!

Yeah! And it’s funny, I can watch Threads… I can watch Threads a million times. I never saw it as a kid, only as an adult. And I just think it’s quite a funny film…

Oh, come ON!

No! Because the characters in Threads are a bit two-dimensional, aren’t they? You don’t really care about the characters in Threads, whereas if you watch When The Wind Blows, you really care about this old couple.

I care about the characters in Threads so much that the last time I watched it, I got half an hour in, and the feeling of impending doom was so much I had to turn it off. I didn’t want to see Reece Dinsdale die! I like Reece Dinsdale!

We all like Reece Dinsdale, honestly! But no, I can watch Threads and it doesn’t bother me at all.

Did you have any sirens close to your house? Anything that might – for example – have been mistaken for the four-minute warning? 

I live quite close to the Thames, in the south of Essex. I live in the house I grew up in, I bought it from my dad, and I’ve lived here forever. And we still, to this day, have flood sirens down on the Thames, which are basically just repurposed World War Two air raid sirens. And every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, they test them… they give them one blast for about thirty seconds. So quite often, if I’m working at home and I have the window open, I’ll hear “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm….” and it’s not rising or falling, it just rises then drops down again. But it’s pretty scary. Luckily I know what it is, but if anyone was in the town and didn’t know that they test the flood sirens every week… they would soil themselves, I think!

Have I seen somewhere that there are no nuclear sirens in the UK any more? They’ve all been decommissioned?

I think, during the Cold War, a lot of stuff was repurposed. So they just used air raid sirens that had been left over from World War Two, and also bunkers… generally, they didn’t really build a lot of nuclear bunkers, they just used old World War Two bunkers, and reclaimed spaces. So there must be some kind of attack warning now, but it’s probably a text message! They had that thing in Hawaii didn’t they, about a year ago? I think it would be that. Or a WhatsApp message. Or a tweet.

I saw you in 2017, performing at the Delaware Road event in Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, the underground facility that would have housed the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. What did you make of the place? 

It was pretty cool. I didn’t actually get to see much of the bunker, because it took me about an hour to set my gear up, and then I did my gig and played for just over three hours, and then my mate – who is my roadie – had to catch an early flight in the morning. So as soon as I finished, I packed all my gear up, got in the car and left! But I briefly had a very quick look around the bunker, just after I soundchecked, and what I saw of it was really impressive, and really big. And creepy… I found it very creepy. There’s something very unsettling about it, even though it was never used for real. Not helped by the fact that there are mannequins and dummies all over it!

Talk us through your album, For Concrete And Country. There are some interesting references amidst the track titles… Microwave Relay was the one that really fascinated me. Can you explain that?  

It’s a reference to the Microwave Tower Network, which was codenamed “Backbone” during the Cold War. They built a lot of these big wire mesh towers, and many of them are still standing now… and some of them are concrete, too. Part of the Backbone Network was the Post Office Tower. But again, I think a lot of it was repurposed, or even used at the same time for TV and radio broadcasts. So BBC Tees might well be using mouldy old Backbone masts!

It’s more than likely…

So Microwave Relay is a reference to that Backbone Network, which would have been resilient to nuclear attack… far more so than other systems.

There’s a track called Pye Green Tower on the album too, was that part of the same network?

That was one of the towers, yeah. That one was concrete, and it’s in Staffordshire. I’ve never been to the Pye Green Tower, but it looks pretty impressive!

Given that all of this stuff traumatised us so much as a kids, why are we looking back on it with a sense of almost rose-tinted nostalgia? We’re like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen…

I think it could be the fact that nuclear war never actually happened. There’s a sort of relief, isn’t there? We can look back at these horrific things like Threads and When The Wind Blows – well not me, obviously, because I won’t watch it – with a kind of relief, as adults, that the war never happened. It would have been absolutely horrific. And it could still happen, but I think what we need to worry about more in the 21st century, going forward, is Artificial Intelligence. Which I think a lot of people are saying is a bigger threat to the future of humanity than nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t have the same cool factor, does it…?

In twenty years time, when nothing has happened, the musicians that were teenagers in 2019 can make albums about that…

Yes, there’ll be a hauntology movement about Artificial Intelligence!

From midnight onwards, Ritual and Resistance took on increasingly surreal (well, more surreal) proportions… I watched Natalie Sharp, in her Lone Taxidermist persona, perform a disturbing but captivating set, accompanied by what appeared to be two suspended human spines. And then, outside the camp’s Water Tower, I bumped into Jez and Polly of the Twelve Hour Foundation for a final time, and we whiled away the early hours by discussing the alluring qualities of their home towns; Cleethorpes and Scarborough respectively. I then capped off the evening by dancing (alongside journalist and Modern Aviation owner Will Salmon, who has some sensational moves) to a pounding DJ set by former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, who had been an affable preseence throughout the day, and who spoke passionately to a small, assembled throng of us afterwards about his love of the Delaware Road project, and his lifelong passion for underground music and electronica.

It was 3.40am before I collapsed into my spider-infested tent beneath a rustling oak tree, but not before I’d grabbed the picture below…

As a wonderful addendum to an incredible evening… on the Sunday morning, as fragile heads were being soothed by gentle conversation and coffee, it became apparent that a fleet of vintage Routemaster buses were transporting campers to the nearby abandoned village of Imber, requisitioned by the MOD in 1943 for wartime training, and uninhabited ever since. With a long journey back to the North-East ahead of me, I uncharacteristically decided to forsake its haunted pleasures, and set off in the car… but, as three double-decker buses bobbed on the horizon ahead of me, I couldn’t resist. I followed them, and spent an hour poking around Imber’s deserted buildings and (surprisingly busy) 16th century village church, joined by blog-reader Richard – who records as Caveat Auditor – and ever-genial electronica and Early Music enthusiast Rolf, who I’d last seen in June, at 3am in Shoreditch High Street, at the climax of the State 51 Conspiracy/Ghost Box/Trunk Records Midsummer Night’s Happening.

As Steve Davis had emotionally proclaimed at the end of his wee-hours DJ set, “It’s like a big family, isn’t it?” He’s right, and I look forward – as ever – to the next gleefully dysfunctional reunion.

Thanks to Delaware Road and Buried Treasure supremo Alan Gubby for all his extraordinary efforts in making Ritual and Resistance such a memorable event… and to Alison Cotton, Colin Morrison and Andy Collins for their photos.

The Art of Clay Pipe Music

It’s a hot, humid, bad-tempered Friday afternoon, and I’m drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, hopelessly lost in Leeds city centre. Quarry House car park is hemmed in by roadworks, there are queues of rush-hour traffic backed up on every sliproad, and a rumbling undercurrent of hay fever has turned my eyes into quagmires.

Thankfully, an oasis of calm is nearby. The Colours May Vary bookshop and event space is hosting an exhibition of artwork by Frances Castle, all created for releases on her beautiful, bespoke record label, Clay Pipe Music. For the last few years, Clay Pipe’s releases have frequently provided me with a respite from the hurly-burly of frenetic, 21st century life; a beautifully coherent body of work with its roots in a very firm sense of place, offering musical evocations of both gentle pastoralism and urban stillness alike. I discovered the label via Jon Brooks’ 2012 album Shapwick, a haunting musical account of an unexpected, nocturnal car journey through the Somerset countryside, and have been transfixed by Clay Pipe’s releases ever since: from Sharron Kraus’ Friends and Enemies, Lovers and Strangers – a folk interpretion of the Mabinogion myth cycle – to Gilroy Mere’s The Green Line, an ambient requiem for the bus services that once linked central London to the distant countryside; from the anonymous Tyneham House album, a wistful paen to the MOD-requisitioned Dorset village, frozen in time since 1943, to Retep Folo’s Galactic Sounds, a Farfisa-drenched evocation of its composer Peter Olof Fransson’s childhood, spent gazing longingly into the Swedish night skies and detuning his AM radio in the hope of receiving alien transmissions.

Every release arrives immaculately packaged in Frances’ own distinctive artwork, and it’s a genuinely touching sight to see them arranged together in this tasteful, white-walled exhibition space. As I arrive, Frances and her partner John are chatting genially with shop-owners Andy and Becky, dishing out chilled beers to allcomers, and faithful shop dog Stevie is wandering excitedly from visitor to visitor. It’s an idyllic scene, and Frances and I retire to a quiet corner for a chat about Clay Pipe’s history and ethos…

Bob: This is a lovely exhibition! How did the whole thing come about?

Frances: It came about because Andy, who runs the shop, was basically buying Clay Pipe records, and he asked me if I wanted to do it… they have quite a lot of exhibitions here. This was probably about a year ago, so we’ve planned ahead a bit.

Is it nice to see so much of your artwork in one place? It gives a lovely overview of the whole feel of the label, and the body of music you’ve released.

It is actually, because usually it’s all spread around… in drawers, and all the records are in boxes, and the prints are all in portfolios. And it’s such a really nice room, with tasteful furniture and white walls… it’s really good.

Can I ask a little about your background? Your grandfather Frank Sherwin was quite a renowned artist, wasn’t he?

Yeah… I wasn’t aware of it as a child, and I don’t think he was renowned then. But because he did a lot of work on railway posters, and because I think they’ve become more popular now than when he was alive, I’ve recently been trying to promote his work. I’ve set up an Instagram account. A lot of the stuff that he did for the railways is owned by the Railway Museum, and gets used on books and all types of things, but he never gets credited.

Was he alive when you were a kid?

Yeah, he died when I was a teenager. He did a lot of watercolours then, he was a very good watercolour artist, but I didn’t know anything about his commercial work. He was selling watercolours to printmakers, and they were selling them as prints, but by that time I think he’d semi-retired, really. I didn’t really know about his more commercial stuff, and his posters, until later on.

Has his style been an influence on you? I can certainly see a lineage…

When I look at my work, I can see his hand in it… which is really strange, and I don’t know whether it’s just because I grew up with him, looking at his work, or whether it’s some sort of genetic thing about the way we draw. I don’t know! But definitely… there is something.

So as a kid, did becoming an artist always feel like a calling for you?

I was encouraged, because of my grandfather. And apparently I was quite good at drawing when I was a kid. And I was absolutely useless at anything else… I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t do maths… I was useless at school, so I was pushed in that direction, yeah.

Are your parents arty at all?


My Mum is a good painter, yeah. But she’s never pursued it as a career.

So it was very much the art that came before the music? 

Pretty much actually, yeah. I always loved music, even when I was quite a small child, and I did have clarinet lessons… but I wasn’t very good! Although I could play the recorder quite well as a kid. But as soon as I found I could make music on a computer in the late 1990s, it was like… this is brilliant, I can sample and loop stuff. And that’s when I started making music myself. As a child I actually had two tape recorders, and I recorded my recorder, playing along with myself… I multi-tracked! I wish I still had that. So that interest was always there, but I don’t think the technology was.

You were telling me earlier, to my surprise, that you actually worked on graphics for computer games for a while…

Yeah, I’d started doing illustration, but it didn’t really work out. So I went back to college and studied computer graphics, 3D graphics. This would be the late 1990s. And I ended up getting a job doing 3D graphics for computer games… I worked for a company called Probe, in Edgware. I worked on the Die Hard game!

Did you make a computerised Bruce Willis?

I didn’t, actually… I was doing a bit of animation for the beginning of the game, a few fancy bits. I can’t remember what I did, actually! And then I got made redundant from that job, and worked for another company called Argonaut. And I worked on the first Harry Potter game for the Playstation!

Did you make a computerised Daniel Radcliffe?


I drew all the faces for the children! So if you zoom right into that game, those are my faces.

Did you have any interest in computer gaming yourself?

Not really. I didn’t really grow up playing them…  

So how did that lead back into the kind of illustration work that you do now?

Well, I got made redundant again. The industry had completely changed from when I started out, and by this stage the Playstation 3 was coming out. And artists were just doing tiny bits. When we worked on Harry Potter, not only did we work on the  characters, but each artist was given a level to do. So you had quite a lot of input. But as the games become more complex, you ended up doing the smaller bits, so you’d just do props, or bombs, or guns.

And as you say, did I love games? No, I didn’t really love games. And the amount of hours you were asked to work was crazy. So I thought… I’m not doing this any more. The company went under, and I had to think about what I wanted to do, and that’s when I went back to illustration. 

Clay Pipe’s music seems to have a very distinct aesthetic… can you put it into words?  

(Laughs) I always kind of wing it, I think… it’s just instinctively choosing the right music. And I don’t want it to be stagnant and keep doing the same things. But I guess… I love folk music, and I love electronic music, and Clay Pipe straddles those things, I think.

Do you try to give the artwork a consistent feel at all?  

Actually… I try hard not to, because I don’t want to repeat myself, I want to keep pushing a bit. So I’ve done more abstract stuff recently… I want to try new things.

One that that always intrigues me… as far as I know, you’ve always lived in London, and have a completely urban background. And yet your pastoral artwork, the scenes depicting the English countryside, or just so evocative. Are you a country person at heart? 

Well, my Mum and Dad live in the country now, they’ve retired. And I always visited my grandparents, who lived in the country when I was a kid. So it wasn’t like I didn’t ever go… but I love London, I just love it, and I’d find it very hard to leave, if I’m honest.

Is there a particular piece of Clay Pipe artwork that you’re especially proud of, or that you think complements the music especially well? 

There are bits that I don’t like…

Oh, which ones?


(Laughs) I’m not telling you! There are ones that I’m not so happy with, but I’m not so sure about the ones that I am really happy with, Put it that way. It’s really hard.

Come on, which album sleeves have you got on your wall at home?

(At this point, Frances looks over to her partner John for suggestions) Have we got any at home? I don’t think we have, have we? I’ve got a poster I did for a Sharron Kraus gig… that’s about it, isn’t it? (John points out a framed print of artwork from The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, an album by Frances’s musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree) Oh, we have got that one! Yes, The Hardy Tree… I forgot about that.

Is the creation of the album artwork a collaborative process with the musicians themselves?  

It really depends on the artist. The stuff that I’ve done with Jon Brooks, he’s been… not saying what he wants as such, but he’s had ideas. He’s even done a mood board for me, stuff like that. For Autres Directions, he gave me photographs that he’d taken on holiday in France, and there were a lot of road signs, and telephone signs… so that telephone (Frances points out an abstract telephone design on a nearby copy of the album) came from that. That was really helpful.

But a lot of the time… with David Rothon, he was very keen that the artwork for Nightscapes should be night-time, but it shouldn’t be spooky. And the first one that I did came out too spooky! And, actually… the finished cover works much better.

When I was a teenager, I used to get a feeling of odd reassurance, walking home through a dark, deserted town after a night out, and seeing the occasional bedroom light still on… it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only person still awake. The artwork for Nightscapes always reminds me of that feeling, it’s lovely.

I remember Jim Jupp from Ghost Box once telling me that – in a nice way – they rely on the artists they work with on to surrender a little to the Ghost Box ethos, and let Jim and Julian House be part of the creative process, too. I guess the same applies with Clay Pipe as well?

Yeah, I think so. You kind of have to become a part of my brand a little bit! And so far, everyone’s been fine about it.

We spoke a little while ago about your debut graphic novel Stagdale, which seems to have been a success for you…  

It has… and I’ve got to do some more now! The second book is something I have to get my head around for the next few months, really. That’s actually all going to be set in Nazi Germany, so it’s going to be completely different to the first book.  

Do you have the whole story mapped out?


Yes, it’s just doing it! And because it’s set in Nazi Germany, I need to do quite a lot of research, so that’s going to be time consuming as well. I have to get everything right.

Is the village of Stagdale based on anywhere in particular, or does it exist completely in your head?

It’s not based on anywhere in particular really, but it has bits of certain places! It’s a mish-mash of different places.

And what have you got lined up for future musical releases?  

The next record well be… well, it’s a toss-up between Alison Cotton’s record, which is hopefully coming out for Halloween. Alison is in the band The Left Outsides, and she plays viola. She’s had a couple of solo records out recently, but this is something she did for Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music last Christmas… they got an actress to read a ghost story by Muriel Spark, and Alison did the soundtrack to it. So we’ve taken the soundtrack, and put it on 10″ vinyl, and she’s done another track for the other side… another Muriel Spark ghost story. So we’re hoping to bring that out for Halloween.

And then Vic Mars has just done his second record for Clay Pipe, which we’re hoping to put out before Halloween, but we’ll just have to see how it goes with pressing times. The artwork for both of them is nearly finished… but not quite!

Is there a theme to Vic’s album?

The theme is kind of… where the country meets the town. Or the town meets the country!

Oooh, the Edgelands!

The Edgelands, yeah!

That’s not the album title that I’ve stumbled upon, is it?

No, he’s told me that he’ll have a title for me when I get back! So that’s another problem, we don’t have a title yet. But I’ll tell him Edgelands is a possibility!

The Art of Clay Pipe Music exhibition runs at the Colours May Vary shop in Leeds until 1st August, and a selection of otherwise unavailable Clay Pipe rarities are for sale through the shop’s website. Thanks to Frances, John, Andy, Becky and Stevie for their time and hospitality.