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