Glen Johnson, Second Language and Textile Ranch

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

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

(Photo: Josh Hight)

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

Here’s how the conversation went:

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

Glen: Yeah, that’s correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you made six recipes at the same time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolationist, actually.

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

Were you a sociable child?

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

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

Are you an only child, like me?

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

How old were you at this point?

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

Really? Did you have a little keyboard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you keep a notepad by the pad?

I do, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On ‘November Spawned A Monster’?

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

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

Isn’t she lovely?

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


All of those things.

How did you make contact with her?

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

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

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

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

Who won?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Were these cassettes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s next for Second Language?

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

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

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

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

https://textileranch.bandcamp.com/album/ombilical


And the Second Language website is here:

https://www.secondlanguagemusic.com/

Plone, Puzzlewood and Ghost Box Records

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

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

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

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

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

Mike: A couple of weeks now, I think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pause…)

Mike: Yeah…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy: Mmmm… no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can tell us what else was on the shortlist?

Mike: (Laughs) No!

Billy: Go on, Mike…

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

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

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

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

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

Billy: (Laughs) Yes! Just say yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For bonus points, a television in a wooden cabinet…

Mike: Yes, exactly – probably locked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The album has beautiful artwork by Julian House, too. 

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

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

Mike: I love the colours on it…

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

https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/puzzlewood-black-vinyl/

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

Hattie Cooke, The Sleepers and Spun Out of Control

The 1970s felt like a very “ill” decade. Those of us who were children at the time were well aware of the impact of commonplace maladies, and we all share fond memories of gazing woozily at BBC Schools programmes while attempting to shake off the unpleasant effects of mumps, measles or chickenpox. Or, indeed, incorporating unspecified abdabs into our childhood games… it was an era when simple playground pursuits like “Tag” were rebranded as “Bugs”, or even “Fleas”, the sole object being to contaminate as many of our closest friends as possible with the lethal, imaginary infection of our choosing.

Then, of course, we could wallow in the welter of TV and film favourites that took a myriad of plagues and maladies as their starting point. There was Survivors, of course, but even Hollywood blockbusters had their moments: 1978’s Coma, directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a spate of unexplained brain-deaths in a Boston Hospital; and the lesser-known Patrick – from the same year – sees a troubled Susan Penhaligon despatched to care for a comatose young man who nevertheless seems to exhibit worrying telekinetic powers.

Good grief, there was even Only When I Laugh, an illness-based sitcom, with James Bolam, Peter Bowles and Christopher Strauli seemingly stranded indefinitely in a grim hospital ward with three non-specific, long-term lurgies.

All of these memories sprang to mind when I first listened to Hattie Cooke‘s excellent new album, The Sleepers. Released by the cassette-friendly Spun Out Of Control, it forms the soundtrack to an strikingly original narrative, an approach that has become the label’s intriguing trademark. The story is that of a worldwide sleeping sickness that baffles the scientific community, and the young woman – Maude – whose son becomes affected. When he is kidnapped by a violent sect who are determined to sacrifice the snoozing victims to achieve misguided absolution, she decides, in desperation, to infiltrate the cult’s membership. But unexpectedly finds herself falling for a fellow member…

It’s an album of beautiful, cinematic electronica, and I asked Hattie about its inspirations and evolution.

Bob: Your previous work has been as a more traditional singer-songwriter, although you’ve incorporated a few synths here and there. Had it always been in your mind to make a full-length instrumental album?

Hattie: I’ve always loved soundtracks, and classical music especially. When I was about 12 or 13 I started asking for soundtracks as Christmas and birthday presents. I was really into Amelie, and the Yann Tiersen soundtrack in particular, and I pretty much played it on repeat. I think it was around that time that I starting thinking “One day I want to compose music for films…” So I guess you could say I’ve always had the inclination to do it. But realistically I had no idea what that meant in principle or how it would sound, just that I wanted to be like all of the composers I admired. That feeling has never gone away, especially as I’ve gotten more into film as I’ve grown older.

The ideas behind The Sleepers are quite specific, and it has a set narrative… did you always intend it to be a musical work, or did it ever cross your mind to write it as a novel, a short story, or even a film?

The Sleepers actually started out as something else entirely. Technically it started out as a dance record about four years ago, but I scrapped it. And then last year I came back to the files and realised that there was some good stuff that I could develop into something new. At the same time, my friend Nick [as Nicholas Langley and Dark Half] was about to release a concept album called Rebel Convoy, on Spun Out Of Control, and he inspired me to try something cinematic myself. The music kept reminding me of a post-apocalypse, dystopian movie, and so I started to imagine a film in my mind, and began to re-write the music as a soundtrack.

Initially I was thinking along the ‘nuclear apocalypse’ line but, somewhere along the way, the music began to take on a life of its own. When the album was half-written, it had a much more dream-like quality. So I spent a few days coming up with a new plot. I came up with some pretty terrible ones but eventually I landed on the idea of the The Sleepers, which was partly inspired by the Oliver Sacks book, Awakenings. It was on my bedside table at the time.

I had wanted to release a short story along with the music, but ran out of time. In my wildest dreams somebody would turn it into a film and let me write the screenplay.

The idea of a worldwide sleeping sickness is so delightfully reminiscent of those blockbuster 1970s “disaster” books and films, and I guess the obvious comparison is something like Coma. Did you have that kind of thing in mind when you started thinking about The Sleepers? Is there a secret Michael Crichton fan in us all?

Gosh, I could talk for hours about 1970s films; Marathon Man, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, Two-Lane Blacktop, All the Presidents Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Deliverance, Papillon… the list goes on and on. But when I was making the album I kept thinking about 1970s science fiction, and dystopian films like Logan’s Run, Westworld (Hello, Michael Crichton) and THX 1138.

The scene in THX 1138 where Robert Duvall is climbing up that ladder trying to escape to the outside world, as those terrifying robot men call after him, kept playing around and around in my head. That’s why I titled one of the tracks ‘Ladders’, as a private nod to that film. 

How did you approach the album – did you have the whole story planned out, and then compose music for each plot point accordingly?

Sort of, but not quite. I definitely didn’t approach it as logically, or as constrained as that. It was a bit all over the place to begin with, but once the album was half done and I knew what the plot was going to be, I began to refine the whole thing. It became clear that I had a specific sound that I was trying to capture. I was going for a dream-like calmness that also had a sense of tension about it, like something ominous or dangerous was about to happen. I have no idea if I pulled it off!

Certainly, at points I’d think, “I have too many dreamy tracks, I need to write one that’s more upbeat, with more tension and energy” and so I would sit down and write until something good came out. But mostly I just tried to put myself into the various emotional states of the characters. I’d picture something happening to them in the film, and then write the musical version of their thoughts and feelings. It’s an abstract process that’s hard for me to get my own head around.

Can you talk us through any characters that you had in mind for The Sleepers? Tell us about Maude! And the cult member she falls for…

Maude! She’s so determined to get vengeance for the death of her son. She’s heartbroken. But the pain drives her. She becomes obsessed by the need to “do something”. She thinks that if she can join the cult, and rise up the ranks, that she might be able to take it down from the inside, so to speak. And then she meets this guy at one of the cult meetings, I never gave him a name, but we can call him Bob after you…

I’m honoured…

And so Bob is part of the cult too, but unlike the other members, there’s something familiar about him, something in him that she recognises but that she can’t put her finger on. And there’s this tension between them, sexual or emotional maybe, it’s hard to say. But Maude is beating herself up, because she’s really only wanting to focus on her plan. And more to the point, she doesn’t understand why she’s falling for this sociopath who seemingly thinks it’s acceptable to steal children from their beds and sacrifice them.

Eventually they discover that they’re both fake members. and Bob has his own vendetta against the cult. So they connect over their mutual hate and desire for revenge. It’s all very odd and backwards, romantically speaking, but then again I was going through a break-up when I wrote the album, so that might have something to do with it!

As a maker of electronic music, who are your inspirations and influences? I think I picked out hints of John Carpenter and even Mark Snow’s music for The X-Files, but I’m happy to be told that I’m wrong!

It’s funny, so many people – after they hear the music – say to me that I must like John Carpenter. Truth be told, I had no idea who he was at the time. Turns out I’ve seen a ton of his films, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to sing you one of his themes. I’ve always been into classical musical, especially minimalism and chamber music. I spent most of 2017 and 2018 listening to Arvo Part, Henryk Górecki, Erik Satie, Philip Glass, John Tavener… that sort of thing. I think that feeds into what I do.

Obviously I don’t have an entire orchestra to hand, and actually I can’t even read music. I just have an old iPad with GarageBand on it, so I take my influences and impose the dodgy built-in synth sounds on them, and it comes out sounding like John Carpenter or New Order or whatever. It’s a total accident. The music I make is really just a product of my own various limitations. I’d probably be writing for a 72 piece orchestra, or a string quartet, if I could. 

How did you link up with Spun Out Of Control? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

I wrote the album specifically with them in mind. After Nick showed me a preview of Rebel Convoy, I was really keen to release a concept album too. The artwork, the sound, the concept… it was all so exciting to me. And Spun Out of Control are a very cool label. So I spent a few months working on a demo version of the album and then I contacted Gavin [Stoker, label boss] via Twitter… pretty much just asking him to take a listen and let me know if he might be interested in releasing something with me.

I suppose it’s quite a lot of work to put in without any guarantees, but I think it helped knowing that Spun Out Of Control were supportive of my first album… plus Nick at Third Kind Records said he’d release it if nobody else wanted to, ha! But Gavin has been great, very helpful and very encouraging. This was my first attempt at a concept album/soundtrack so it was a great feeling to have him on board with it. He’s a man who knows his stuff! It’s also very exciting to be the first female artist on the label.

They’re on a sensational run of form with their covers… what was your first reaction when you saw the sleeve for The Sleepers?

The artwork, by Eric Adrian Lee, is always mind-blowing. It’s genuinely half the reason that I wanted to work with Spun Out Of Control, because he does the majority of the covers for them. It’s funny though, because I gave him very different suggestions for the artwork when we initially spoke, and then he got behind on another project… so it took a few months. The anticipation was ramping up. And then when I saw what he’d come up with, it was a bit of a shock. Not a bad shock, just not at all what I was expecting. He said he found the album very relaxing and wanted to convey that.

I thought that was very funny. I guess it’s impossible to know what other people are going to think of when they hear your music. The artwork looks fantastic though, very striking and iconic, the sort of thing that belongs on a full-size film poster. I’m a little concerned that the artwork is better than the music!

The revival of the cassette is an interesting phenomenon, too. Do they hold a lot of sentimental value for you?

The fact that I’ve released two albums on cassette is sort of an accident, to be honest… it turns out that the labels who like my music are the sort of people who also like to release stuff on cassettes. I’m OK with that, although I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t desperate to release something on vinyl. I don’t even own a cassette player… I did when I was a little kid, but I only used it because it had an FM/AM radio, and I liked tuning into AM and listening to strange French music.

It took me two and a half years to listen to my first album on its physical format. I was drunk on whiskey and wine, and when we tried to play the B-side the tape went all weird and warped. We wound it back using a pencil but it happened again so we stopped trying. I still haven’t listened to The Sleepers cassette yet. I have one by my beside and I’ve very proud of it, but I’ve always found it surreal and a little uncomfortable listening back to my own music.

Has it whetted your appetite for more scores, and instrumental albums? What will the next album be?

I’ve had another solo album in the pipeline for two years, but I haven’t had the guts to record it properly. It’s wrapped up in a lot of emotions and I guess I’ve been putting off “going there”. But certainly I’d like to write more scores, and I’d love to score for a real-life film, not just one that I’ve made up in my head!

Partly I was hoping somebody would hear The Sleepers and ask me to score a film for them. But since it came out I’ve been asked by Alex White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes to collaborate with him on a new album. He’s a wonderful songwriter, so hopefully that will happen at some point in the not too distant future. It would be nice to work with somebody else. I’m kind of a hermit when it comes to my work, but I think maybe it’s time to come out of my shell a little bit.

Thanks for Hattie for a fascinating chat, and The Sleepers is available here…

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/the-sleepers

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

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.